The Opiate: Summer 2021, Vol. 26

Page 1

The Opiate Summer 2021, Vol. 26


The Opiate

Your literary dose.

© The Opiate 2021 Cover art: Photo taken in March of 2020, Rue Huysmans This magazine, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission. Contact theopiatemagazine@gmail.com for queries.


“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seeds of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” -Charles Dickens

3.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Editor-in-Chief Genna Rivieccio

Editor-at-Large Malik Crumpler

Editorial Advisor Anton Bonnici

Contributing Writers: Fiction: Cara Hoffman, “Childhood” 10 L. A. Ricketts III, “Man, Father, King” 15 Max DeVoe Talley, “It’s All Speculation” 22 Salvatore Difalco, “La Gilda di Pinocchio” 29 Marco Etheridge, “Luna of Pigwell Unearths Quantrill’s Bones” 38 Debrah Miszak, “Let the Air In” 45

Poetry: Steve Denehan, “Mm-Hmm” & “Vending Machine” 54-56 Donna Dallas, “Things I Know For Sure,” “I Bit the Hand,” “Mr. & Mrs. Jones” & “Poor Thing” 57-61

4.


Zeke Greenwald, “Bubonic Colonic” 62-63 Ron Kolm, “Me and Patti Smith” 64 Hedy Habra, “Or How A Lover’s Skin Shivers Like Moonlight Over Water” 65 Victor Marrero, “Miraculous Reprieve” & “Treading In Place” 66-69 Thomas Wells, “The Hinterland” 70

Matthew Peluso, “Garbage Man” 71 David Estringel, “Burn” 72 Cynthia Andrews, “Ribbon in the Sky” 73 Mitchell Solomon, “Lost Marbles i” & “Lost Marbles ii” 74-75 Snata Basu, “The Dance” 76

Criticism: Genna Rivieccio, “See No Monsters? Impossible: Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch As It Pertains to the Witch Hunt of Britney Spears” 78

5.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Editor’s Note

What is it about summer that makes one feel as though the walls are closing in? Usually when you’re not a person with a budget for a Caribbean getaway (as “middle-class” of an aspiration as that might sound like). For the rich, as usual, every season is hunky-dory. But for the rest of us plebes, the rage-inducing heat of the months from June to August (nowadays, even through the end of October) heightens an overall “rat in cage” feeling that being on Earth already so effortlessly furnishes. Even though we’ve presently been “let out” of our cages. For now. But despite the touting of being “out of the woods,” there lingers an uneasy feeling at hand. Like it could all be snatched away again—privileges, that is. Since the world at large (save for the U.S.) has been given a sobering in lesson in just what a luxury freedom is over the past year, the fragility of our already rather limited sense of liberty in this realm has caused lingering PTSD for many who still half-expect for the other shoe to drop on this whole ”corona is over” declaration. And yet, even if it is, we’ve all been warned the next pandemic is just around the corner. Particularly since capitalists aren’t going to change their business practices significantly enough to make a difference in a way that would cease encroaching upon the environment. And so long as Mother Nature keeps being fucked with, she’s going to fuck us right back. But instead of an orgasm, what we’ll get is more tantamount to a dry anal hemorrhage. For those who might be ”shocked” when another pandemic inevitably occurs ”so soon,” perhaps they ought to ask themselves why they expected a different outcome after changing absolutely nothing (try as corporations might to declare ”eco-friendly” practices at every possible opportunity) about their behavior. And certainly not their interactions with the natural world. ”The city,” for as unnatural as it might be, is a microcosm of the carnality that exists in nature. For, as Camus once said, ”Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” While also patently being the most savage of all. During the pandemic, many were ”hurt” to see their cities emptied out and drained of life. In contrast, I felt a kind of liberation unlike any that had ever been experienced. Any that ever could be experienced without such an extraordinary circumstance at play. It was a rare and perhaps singular moment to enjoy Paris without any of the usual teeming hordes. And that’s not just a sentiment directed at the unceasing barrage of tourists that the town attracts, but the residents and their own freshly popped out army of children (Paris, for as glamorized as it is, remains a place decidedly pro-child/pro-family... which doesn’t exactly scream, ”Revolutionary!” to be quite frank). Everywhere, all the time. Pouring out of every landmark’s orifice, from the Luxembourg Garden to the Sacré-Cœur. A person can nary maneuver without smacking into a snot-faced rat (do forgive if the spirit of Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch took over just then). This, alas, does not make Paris the romantic cliché so many would like it to be, including Lily C (you know what that letter stands for) in the oh so loathesome Emily in Paris. And so, I do like to recall the silver lining that few, if anyone, saw as such when the lockdown hit: the blissful desolation that ensued. Particularly in the once bustling City of Light, characterized by the swarms overflowing out of the cafés, the droves congregating by the river. Where were they now? Stuck inside. Relegated to a new kind of Sisyphean nightmare (for them anyway; for introverts and misanthropes, it was a goddamn boon). Unless one was lucky enough to have a press pass that gained them access outside of their ”jurisdiction” (a.k.a. the arrondissement they dwelled in), the inside of four walls was about all anybody saw. I was not such a lucky one (who would’ve thought journalists would ever be deemed ”lucky”?), and so, like many, took comfort in the grocery store runs that now served as a ”major outing.” I recall a day in late March of 2020, taking a rare opportunity to leave the apartment for this

6.


very purpose, my accursed attestation de déplacement all filled out and ready to be presented should I be hassled by any cochons. Deeming the act of leaving the house ”traveling” felt a bit ridiculous, but then, these were ridiculous times. Even more ridiculous than when a particular U.S. president was on trial for getting a blow job (among other sexual services). But no matter, I was off to the races, so to speak. Ready to drink in the sunshine (also something of a rarity in Paris) and hopefully soak up some Vitamin D, even if that still wouldn’t change my particular shade of paleness. I found myself taking a route I would not normally have opted for if I wasn’t trying to drag the foray out for as long as possible. It was so pleasant, too. You know, without those multitudes to taint every bloody street corner, clucking away about fuck-all. And as I was enjoying this once unheard of anomaly, I suddenly became jarred by the thought of how eager everyone would soon be to go back to ”the way it used to be.” As we begin to do just that at the outset of this summer, it remains to be seen what the detriment of reintroduced tourism on steroids will be. There’s obviously a reason why some European cities, including Amsterdam and Prague, have decided that going back to ”normal” (in terms of hosting the huddled masses so readily) would be untenable. Especially after growing used to the peaceful way of life that lockdown measures provided. The U.S., as of this writing, hasn't even bothered to open its borders up to other countries yet (quelle surprise). Even though it was never Europeans in the U.S. who were so flagrantly uncivilized (which is why a movie based entirely on American uncouthness [and homo/transphobia, for that matter] called Eurotrip could be made). But for those who have perhaps foolishly opened their ”hearts” to U.S. citizens in the hope of making back some of the cash lost during the 2020 tourism season, they may soon find out it was definitely not worth it—Americans so capable of showing their ass and all. So willing to remind people outside of the U.S. why stereotypes are real. But for the average human (of which there are so many), the tradeoff of ”being among their own” is worth it. Worth the sacrifice of peace and tranquility, the gloriousness of solitude and silence. What’s more, beauty—-more specifically, architectural beauty—it is said, means nothing if humans aren’t around to appreciate it. To appraise it and bask in its glory. Which raises something of the ”If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” philosophy. The answer being: yes, it fucking does. Nonetheless, the narcissism of humans has been so overt in the wake of COVID that it borders on the satirical. Alas, it’s all real, with people genuinely believing that life on Earth isn’t perfectly capable of and fine with going on sans the virus of humanity (cue the hashtag: nature is healing). We would all do well to remember that as we continue to attempt ”moving forward,” even if that’s somewhat impossible without actually altering the capitalistic patterns that have been so ingrained within us all, the ones that none of us can avoid being guilty of. For writers, this is an especially difficult ask—that is to say, not significantly contributing to the decimation of the environment. For even though we may not be a generally ”rich” people (the ones guiltiest of all of benefitting from a system responsible for wasting resources unnecessarily), we do partake of a profession (even if often unpaid) that still prides itself largely on being tangible. On the tactility of the page. Culled from, you guessed it, les arbres. Because many non-Midwestern readers are still snobbish about the notion of reading from a screen. And these snobs are not wrong. Nothing can imitate the feeling (and the smell, for that matter) of a real, live book or magazine in one’s hands. So what are we, as writers and readers, supposed to do with that? Even for as much good as art and literature is supposed to invoke, they, too, constitute a depletion (even in non-tangible form, if we’re using NFTs as a benchmark for ”the future”) of environmental resources that lead to increased high-

7.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 risk interaction with the animal kingdom. This isn’t only a result of the antibiotics pumped into agricultural animals for human consumption (again, vegetarianism could save the planet), but also increased urbanization as human beings infiltrate the delicate ecosystems of environmental habitats without a second thought. And for what, really? To have more space for the trappings of capitalism? As more people hopefully awaken to the reality that another infectious outbreak due to animalto-human transmission is unavoidable, it should be a given that governments and pharmaceutical companies remain a joined force in matters pertaining to developing preparedness plans for the inevitable fallout (American government, in particular, ought to take a page from Europe in offering more secure soft infrastructures for catastrophes such as these). In the same way, perhaps writers and publishers ought to work together as well to do their part to create as little waste as possible. I’d like to say The Opiate moved to a print-on-demand structure for noble reasons as opposed to broke ass ones, but that's not true. Nonetheless, I’m glad it could coincide with a time when it’s never been a greater sign of douchebaggery to be a human drain on the planet. It’s a small gesture, but it’s something. Perhaps if more publishers moved to this model, we could all signal a stamping out of the Big Five and their monopoly, so reliant on the old school method of mass printing... and sustaining that method. To what end? Profit, of course. And therein lies the gravest error of all that people make with their art. Continuing to fall into the trap of wanting to ”monetize” it. If art is pure, however, so, too should our future society be. Which might actually allow artists to flourish without everything being so goddamn focused on ”making money” and ”supporting yourself.” And yes, I’d like to say we’ll all do our best to change, but I don’t know that we will. It’s in our nature to pass the buck to the next generation to handle these things. But there might come a time when there will literally be no generation left to pass the responsibility on to. Is that simply Mother Nature at work, or the ”human condition”? In any event, it would only prove the artist’s greatest fear: that even art is not immortal. Not without subsequent descendants to consume it. In this instance, the answer to that aforementioned question about the tree would be an emphatic no. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, Genna Rivieccio July 11, 2021

8.


FICTION 9.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Childhood Cara Hoffman

I

t was my childhood dream to become either an alcoholic, or a very old man. After thinking it over it became obvious that the latter, though it would be more difficult to achieve in the short-term, would afford me more respect. I dressed in brown corduroy pants and oxford shirts, tweed sports jackets and loafers. I kept a pack of Players navy-cut cigarettes in my breast pocket and read Ibsen. I went out regularly by myself to cafes and to plays put on at the college, for which I only had to pay a child’s admission price. I bought a pair of leather slippers and a smoking jacket. Every evening I would sit in front of the television, watching 60 Minutes, and drinking ice water mixed with vanilla from a scotch glass. It was a quiet life. I was thin and long limbed and easily mistaken for a boy. I am certain that some days, while waiting for the bus, if the light was right or if my back was turned, people thought I was indeed a little old man. I began wearing a tweed cap. I had six or seven ties given to me by my father, and had purchased another four from the Salvation Army. I had more and better-quality neckties than any girl my age. I was also able to find a pock-

10.

et watch at Goodwill for fifty cents. Once my wardrobe was established, I began to listen to swing music. And it was then I realized that I had been a music critic before my retirement. I missed my apartment in the city, and my desk in the newsroom where I had sat composing my columns, cigarette smoke catching in the orange light that came through the metal blinds. I missed my rapport with the musicians and my free tickets to their performances. I missed the other writers and I especially missed Diego Rivera and his wife, whom I’d met briefly when Diego was painting a mural at Rockefeller Center. I began to wish I’d never agreed to move in with my daughter and her husband, the psychologist. I did not like the countryside and couldn’t stand my daughter’s taste in decorating, which struck me as somehow both bucolic and pretentious. But mostly I hated that my daughter referred to me as “’toots,” and insisted I attend dance lessons every day except weekends. The lessons were humiliating. My class was composed of a group of scrawny girls with missing teeth who dressed in pink tights and white leotards. Often I was singled out in class and placed at a small bar in the middle of the room, so these children could observe


Childhood - Cara Hoffman my technique. Which was, I’ll admit, precise. But it was also uninspired. When my daughter picked me up from dance lessons she would say, “How was class, toots?” “I need to find some peers,” I would tell her, thinking of Rivera and Kahlo, and my friend Man Ray. “This can’t go on. I raised you better than this.” She said, “I found a chain for your pocket watch.” I took to reading all day, listening to swing music on my son-inlaw’s stereo with a pair of gray plastic headphones. My son-in-law, the psychologist, oddly referred to me as “Beauty,” but then, they say that only the disturbed make good psychologists. He would come home in the evening and say, “How’s my little Beauty?” And I would peer at him from over the paper and rattle the ice in my glass. I couldn’t imagine how my daughter had married such a man. They were both a disappointment. Finally I told my daughter flat out I could no longer attend Madame Helena’s School of Dance. “She was trained in the Soviet Union,” my daughter said, hoping to appeal to the party politics of the era in which I once wrote. “I don’t care,” I told her. “It’s humiliating. I can’t wear that ridiculous costume anymore.” “But look what you wear every day, toots. You look so cute in your leotards. You look so free like a little girl should.” I shook my head; the very idea. “Listen,” I said. “I appreciate you paying for the lessons. I realize you and your husband are only trying to make my stay here less boring. But this isn’t the way. I used to take in a lot of ball games at the Polo Grounds, maybe there’s some athletic program going on over at the senior center.” “You’re staying in dance,” she said gravely. “You’ve been in dance since you were a baby. We’re not

throwing away nine years of study.” “I wouldn’t exactly call it study. Maybe I could pick up some freelance work for the local paper,” I told her, and she began to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can no longer cram my tired old feet into those leather and wooden torture shoes.” I rattled the ice in my vanilla water nonchalantly, to show her who was the parent. I produced an excellent smoker’s cough, then took a handkerchief from the pocket of my dressing gown and wiped my forehead. “I’m just too tired,” I said. When my son-in-law came home, he said, “Hey, Beauty Rose, Mom said you’re quitting dance.” “Who?” I asked him, not even bothering to set the paper down. “What’s going to happen to Daddy’s little ballerina?” he asked. I cleared my throat and ignored him. I remained silent instead of giving him the comeuppance he deserved for speaking to me that way. And because he did provide me with bus fair and spending money. But his remark convinced me that he was sexist. As a member of the Socialist Labor Party, I believed there should be a continual exchange of mutual, temporary and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this sexist authoritarian had warped my not-so-bright daughter’s understanding of the world. I couldn’t believe she was foolish enough to anchor her identity to a man who would use the phrase “Daddy’s little ballerina.” They dropped the topic of dance and I went about my daily activities, reading and taking in plays, watching the news and drinking my vanilla water. I resigned myself to living with them. I tried out different caps. I thought my only annoyance now would be my daughter’s habit of cutting my sandwiches into little hearts. This I tolerated because I had

never liked crust. With dance lessons safely in my past I had more time to read and to practice what I felt to be one of life’s great joys, jumping rope. A man my age needed a certain amount of cardiovascular exercise, and since I’d been a featherweight boxer in college, I had gotten used to jumping rope as part of my training. Every afternoon, I would jump rope for an hour or so in my daughter’s driveway. I found that singing helped pass the time while jumping so I sang some of those great American traditional songs, like “Engine Engine Number Nine” and “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat.” We used to sing those songs around the office to determine who got stuck with the dull assignments. No one wanted to be O-U-T. This practice gave me a great deal of pleasure, except when it was interrupted by my daughter bringing one of her heart-shaped sandwiches down the driveway and setting it off to the side with a glass of ice tea. She usually said something insipid like, “You look so cute, toots,” or “All that jumping must be getting you hungry, tootsie pie.” I also had a great deal of time to observe the interactions between my daughter and her husband. It seemed that my daughter spent her days vacuuming, doing laundry, cooking, watering plants and rearranging furniture. Her husband would come home every evening and fall asleep on the couch, after an exhausting day of siphoning off the dysfunction of others in the community. When he awoke, he would recount this dysfunction through a series of vagaries and platitudes that appeared to represent professionalism. He was like an employee of a uranium mine, coming home after digging and making his family radioactive. In reality his demeanor expressed an ego that had long gone unchecked, a martyr complex, a chauvinism, poorly developed intellectualism and misanthropy so thinly veiled I was certain he had chosen his career to

11.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 exact some sense of power over his own neurosis and emptiness. Every day, when he came home and they kissed in the doorway, it was Cinderella meets the The Emperor’s New Clothes. Cinderella whistling while she wove a mantle of false confidence for him through her own ambitionless materialism. “Hey Beauty Rose,” my son-in-law would say to me. “Who is Daddy’s little girl?” I would stare blankly at him and he would laugh and shake his head. “You’re always going to be Daddy’s little girl no matter how big you get, you know that, don’t you?” Sometimes he would stand by my daughter as she worked in the kitchen, with his arms folded across his chest and say things like, “That’s not the way you make vegetable stock, is it?” Or, pointing to something just below his fingertip, “You better wipe that up.” Then he would sit at the table and drum his fingers in different arhythmic patterns while she worked. The finger drumming sometimes led to whistling, so that all of the work being done, or in my case the reading being done, moved to a kind of counter-musical human noise, a nagging of taps and shrills that seemed meant somehow to suck all internal attention, all thought or personal contemplative pleasure, towards the rattling that radiated out from his position at the table. As a person whose musical sensibility was finely tuned, I found this nearly unbearable. My son-in-law’s need for attention put everyone around him in a constant state of interruption. My daughter did nothing about this, though I observed her annoyance. Finally, one evening I looked up from my book and asked him to stop this practice. He laughed and beamed into my face with great condescending affection, “What? Don’t you like Daddy’s whistling?” My request seemed to bring out a great need for him to continue this behavior whenever he was home. As if it were a game we

12.

now had. Being asked to stop amused him a great deal. If you turned and tried to engage him in a productive manner, to dissuade his fidgeting he would lecture you on his favorite topic: child abuse. He would detail graphic accounts of child abuse going on nearby, but by whom he couldn’t disclose. These impassioned speeches to us were a great complement to the noise in terms of intrusiveness. If you began to tell him about your day, his eyes would glaze over. He liked to lecture with a melancholic nostalgia about himself. As if he were, in fact, some poltergeist of a man that had once had enough self-possession to just be quiet. My own daughter was not much better, but to her credit, I believe she had been driven insane through constant interruption and disrespect. Whenever she looked as if she were about to say something about his behavior, he would tell her she was beautiful. This had a terrifically pacifying effect on her. Almost as if she had been drugged. It seemed to me she had been much brighter as a child. The only minor consolation was that, despite what they thought, they had no children of their own. Eventually the fact that I had nowhere else to go began to wear on me. I gave up attempting to read or ponder anything of significance when they were around for fear of interruption, and the negative feelings associated with it. I could achieve nothing now that I had moved in with them, I could feel my mind and heart beginning to atrophy and my independence and self-esteem suffered terribly. They were poor conversationalists, with little understanding of politics, and no genuine appreciation for beauty. I could not show them the writing that I or my friends had done, nor play them the recordings of the music I loved. I feared that doing such things would result either in my son-inlaw bastardizing the work through

a musical mimicry, or my daughter buying me a nightshirt with a picture of Cab Calloway on it. My financial dependence on them made me feel like some kind of scab. I hadn’t felt so low since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when all those little girls were burned to death because the owner of the factory barred the doors shut. I longed to be put in a nursing home. “A nursing home?” my daughter asked incredulously. “You’re eleven years old,” she laughed and tugged at the brim of my cap. Each day I would consult my pocket watch to make sure it was after twelve p.m. before I began to drink. As a newspaper man, and former featherweight boxer, I was familiar with intoxication. Not sloppy intoxication, but the kind required to get through the type of situation I currently found myself in. A tight-lipped kind of intoxication that makes dealing with bores and anti-intellectuals either tolerable or amusing. The kind that draws you out into the big picture, so far out that you can take comfort in the idea of the sun exploding, and then everything seems so temporary and insignificant. I would wake up, spend several hours reading, practice my rope jumping regimen, listen to the BBC World Service on the radio, then pour myself two shots of Grand Marnier from a large bottle I had found in the pantry. Later in the day I might have another. I also took up napping. Meanwhile, my daughter appeared to have finally snapped. She spent more and more time in front of the mirror applying various treatments to her face. Curling her eyelashes, sucking in her cheeks and repeating certain phrases to her reflection. She tried out different expressions. One in which she would raise an eyebrow and turn her head slightly to the left, while still meeting her own gaze, was particularly disturbing. For a while this


Childhood - Cara Hoffman benefitted me, as she left me alone. She stopped making my sandwiches and doing my laundry. It seemed that when she was speaking to me, she was trying out different voice modulations, laughs and body postures that were meant for some invisible person. She was unable to look at me without her strange new

of gravity intended to suggest worldweariness, she would parrot Gloria Steinem while dressed in a sheer silk blouse purchased with her husband’s credit card. Steinem as coquetry. I thought briefly that it might be some kind of performance art, and that my daughter was actually a genius. But

yammering when he arrived home. My daughter now responded to being called beautiful by acting as though she had been slapped. The loathing she had adopted for my son-in-law seemed completely out of proportion to anything he had actually done. And it was amazing, and also hilarious to

“The finger drumming sometimes led to whistling, so that all of the work being done, or in my case the reading being done, moved to a kind of counter-musical human noise, a nagging of taps and shrills...“ rehearsed face. Or the distracted look of calculating what that face’s effect would be on the invisible person. Between her husband’s noise and her posturing to the unseen, the house felt very crowded. She began to read culturaltheory books, which I took as a positive sign, until I realized that they were being used as props, and also scripts. The language in the books was used in the same way the glance in the mirror was. Only in this case, I was the mirror. In an affected voice, slightly lower than her own and with a tone

that was parental blindness, a hope that I hadn’t failed completely. I suggested she read some Emma Goldman and she gave me a practiced smirk, as if she knew who that was. While I couldn’t fault her for realizing that women had it bad, I had no idea how she meant to make her life, or any woman’s life, better by this new behavior. I went back to reading the paper and drinking my Grand Marnier on the rocks. I had begun to time it so that I would be just intoxicated enough to tolerate my son-in-law’s

watch, particularly after a few drinks. It was as if they were reading from a script of a Soviet propaganda play meant to instruct on the corrosive, soul-crushing and intellect-warping evils of capitalist society. It wasn’t long before my son-in-law stopped talking to me altogether, I guess it was because I had raised his wife, and admittedly done such a poor job. But the finger tapping continued and was now coupled with an aggressive and sarcastic grimace in my direction. My daughter was not home often and no longer cooked

13.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 meals for us. My son-in-law would eat on the way home from work. I would make myself spaghetti with butter and drink vanilla water or whatever wine was in the house. I still took in plays. I did my own laundry, my own shopping. I watched 60 Minutes, I read. I jumped rope. And I remembered the days when I was a writer, the orange light slanting through the metal blinds in the newsroom, singing “Engine Engine Number Nine” with the other staffers and going out to listen to jazz. I remembered how strong the women were, and how genuine the men. I remembered those little girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. And how we all cried down at the pub after work, the day they burned to death.

14.


Man, Father, King L. A. Ricketts III

D

avid Venol turned down the private road that led to the family’s country house near Monticello, New York. Of all the properties the family owned, he was least fond of this one. During his childhood, this place was where he spent most of his time out of the city; learning how to hunt or fish or start a fire. Everything his father thought a man should know how to do. Ironic that it would be here, of all places, where David would tell his patriarch that he planned to walk away from it all. David paused his sedan at the entrance. Reaching out the window, he punched in the code. The blackened steel and bronze gate creaked open across its track. It got stuck for a fraction of a second in the same place that it had for forty years. He smirked at the familiarity. In the distance, he could see the estate manager waiting to greet him at the end of the gravel driveway to the right of the magnificent main entrance. Grand as it was, David tried to remember if he’d ever entered through

that door. The morning air permeated the car through the open window, smelling of dew-soaked pine and grass. It filled his nostrils and he was immediately reminded of his childhood. David used to hate that smell, it meant that he was up too early. In the present, it simply brought to mind a simpler time. A time without worries or cares. A time unrecognizable to the current one. David was fully part of the machine now. The multinational conglomerate that was Venol International. It’s not that he had anything against the company itself. It was more that, as the oldest child, he was forcefully indoctrinated to its way of life. David was the most submerged in the family business and, thus, bore the weight of the greatest expectations. He appreciated his position within the company and made no illusions about his privilege. Still, there was always a pull to live his own life. He had a tiny flat in L’Estaque, outside of Marseille, that he thought about often. Its walls were mostly bare, their sole purpose being to hold the litter of windows.

15.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 He’d concealed it under a blind Trust in a friend’s name. He did this with anything that he wanted to keep to himself: buried it under a mountain of paperwork. There was a desk nestled against the east wall of the small apartment where he would write in the mornings with his coffee from the café across the street. A little drawing board lived against the south wall, where he would sketch after lunch. A high table with a shelf behind it on the west served as his bar when he would entertain his friends before they ventured out into the night. The remaining two rooms held a bathroom with a finicky toilet and a small bedroom that could barely fit a bed. He’d learned that, originally, the whole floor was for one occupant; his bedroom used to be the walk-in closet. Admittedly, it was a simple place, not much to brag about. But he felt more at home there than anywhere else in the world. He’d been saving for years, waiting to tell his father he was going to retire from the business. He had enough to live in that simple place, leading his simple life, for at least ten years according to his calculations. After that... well, he was sure he’d figure it out. David jumped at the invitation from his father. This rare time alone would provide the perfect opportunity to tender his resignation which was typed and signed in his pocket. François, the estate manager and one of his father’s executive assistants, opened his door. “Welcome, Master Venol. How was the drive?” David had long given up the fight to get him to call him by his first name. François, was steeped in tradition and integrity; David was often left feeling confused and slightly uneducated after attempting to debate François on how to address him. “I’m well, François. Thank you,” David said, shaking his hand.

16.

His grip was as firm now as it had been when David was a kid. The man had to be in his sixties, at least, but stood straight as an arrow. “How are you holding up with the old man around more now?” François repressed a smile, his mostly bald head slightly glistening from whatever conditioner he used. “I saw that. You’re getting old François,” David poked fun, retrieving his bag of clothes from the trunk. “You should retire, you know.” “And miss the chance to one day see your misguided son talk sideways about you? Never, sir.” Point for François. “Shall I take that for you? Your father is waiting in the solarium.” David glanced at his watch disappointed; he was twenty minutes ahead of the scheduled time, but that did not matter. If his father arrived ahead of him, David would be treated as though he were late, no matter the scheduled time. And David hated appearing late. “François–” “Your guns have been cleaned and are in the drawing room, sir.” “Thank you.” Samuel Venol sat in the solarium with his newspaper and his cup. It was a scene all too familiar to David. The morning sunlight falling eloquently on his paper, the aroma of fresh kopi luwak coffee filling the room. His father was an imposing man. Husky in his appearance, but never fat. When he moved his face, the various lines it created were pronounced and deep. When he would frown, the chasm that appeared down the middle of his forehead met the varying lines that appeared around his eyebrows, resting proudly above his deep, dark eyes. A face fit for a scolding father. He looked up from his paper and regarded David. “Right on time,” he said. David couldn’t tell if he was being facetious or not. He looked for his

infamous frown but there was no hint of it on his face. Instead, the deep lines surrounding his mouth protruded, registering a slight smile. There was a small but noticeable gap between his front upper teeth that he never bothered to fix, and yet he never let a single hair on his head be out of place. Not even when the white hairs started invading the dark brown. Although, at this point, it was clear who was winning the war as his beard was completely white at present. “Coffee?” He asked, nodding to the tray. David poured himself a cup. Then, grabbing the sugar lump dish and his cup, sat at the table opposite his father. Samuel turned back to his paper. David looked out at the room. It was a beautiful setting in the mornings. With glass on the ceiling and glass on three out of the four sides of the room, it was the perfect halfway point between indoor and outdoor. The sun rising behind him bathed the space in its warmth, contrasting the briskness of the outside. They could see and hear the birds fluttering about, doing whatever it is that birds do. The trees swayed back and forth gently in every breeze. It was more peaceful than he had remembered. After they’d finished their coffee, the pair made their way to the rear of the house where some of the estate’s staff were milling around two four-wheel ATVs that they had prepared for father and son. A rifle lay across the seat of each leg holster with a Walther PPK hung over the handlebars. David slung the rifle over his shoulder and strapped the thigh holster on his right leg, careful to ensure the rifle strap didn’t wrinkle the letter of resignation in his jacket pocket. Mary, looking on from the kitchen, had already packed them some breakfast and lunch in the rear storage compartment of each ATV. He opened the cargo box and felt around under his carefully placed


Man, Father, King - L. A. Ricketts III Tupperware; his fingers touched the bottle of whiskey. He looked up at Mary, who was walking back towards the house. She glanced over her shoulder as she turned the corner and winked at David. He always did love Mary. George, the groundskeeper, made his way around the building with a pair of five-gallon plastic containers filled with gasoline. He secured them tightly on the rear rack next to the cargo box. David, out of habit, checked it anyway when he went to attach his father’s. Oddly enough, François oversaw all of this. Naturally, all orders of the house fell under his purview, but this particular matter didn’t merit his direct attention. “Enjoy your day, sir,” George said when he’d finished and shook Mr. Venol’s hand. George’s back was slightly hunched over, which didn’t help his already odd mannerisms. He held onto Samuel’s hand longer than average until François cleared his throat. George then scurried off to wherever it was that he hid when he wasn’t working. David was always weirded out by George. He used to call him “the young prince” and stand entirely too close for David’s liking, but his father always ignored him and kept him on for as long as he could remember. “Let’s have breakfast by the lake,” David’s father said as he mounted his ATV. “You remember the way, right?” “I do,” David responded and started his four-wheeler. He looked to his father for an indication of which one of them he wanted to go first. The path was too narrow to ride side by side. Samuel just nodded at his son. David stomped down on the gear, throwing it into first and speeding off through the half-acre of land bordered on all sides by trees. Near the northern end of the eastern side, David took a right between the two trees he’d remembered from his youth and started out down the path through the

woods, his father not too far behind him. Twenty minutes later, they sat at the lake enjoying their breakfast. When David was a kid, they had made a sitting arrangement out of a tree broken by a storm. His father had smoothed out the stump first, then cut the trunk in two. David and his brother made a fire pit out of stone between the stump and the water’s edge. Then arranged the two logs on either side of the fire, the pit becoming the centerpiece of their outdoor seating design. David made a small fire in case they wanted to warm their coffees, but the thermos had done its job. In truth, he half-made it for the coffee and halfmade it to preempt any wilderness field tests given by his father. Despite David made his best efforts to ignore his father; he could shoot, fish, build a fire and generally survive in the woods. He just didn’t like being told to do it. He looked at the old man across the fire sitting on the uncomfortable log like it was his favorite plush armchair. David’s resentment towards him had been built up for years. But now, sitting here in the quiet of the morning, perhaps it was more what he represented than the man himself. He felt guilty for what he was about to do. He knew it would disappoint his father. “You know I hated my father,” the senior Venol said, his voice cutting through the countless indistinguishable sounds of the forest. “Really?” This was surprising to David, as he always spoke highly of him. “He was a phenomenal man, but not a nice person; didn’t do small talk.” “Well I would have never guessed...given your renown as a social butterfly,” David commented sarcastically. His dad laughed. Bellowed, rather. It was the first time David had

heard him laugh like that for years. He smiled. “Yes, he was a real piece of work,” the old man said, still recovering from his amusement. “Ah, how tragic. I hated him right up until the day he died.” David assumed this last statement was from a sixteenth century Shakespearean play or the like. His father had a knack for seamlessly weaving the past into the present, but David dare not ask and risk ruining the calm morning with a history lecture. He glanced at his father, who was suddenly solemn. He didn’t know if it was reminiscing or regretting, but David didn’t want to interrupt the memory that was obviously playing behind his eyes. Instead, David sipped his coffee, watching the water lap up against the embankment. “Do you ever miss him?” David said breaking the silence. “I didn’t use to. But lately... daily.” There seemed to be something else there. Something left unsaid. “I wish I could have had time to figure out how to talk to him. My guess is it would have helped me figure out how to talk with you better.” “We have a good relationship, Dad,” David said almost instinctively, trying to alleviate whatever remorse he was feeling. “You’ve been a great Dad and I know you want what you think is best for all of us. I’ve never doubted that. I’ve only slightly disagreed on what’s best.” His father seemed to accept this platitude from his son. It was taken with a faint nod. David didn’t quite see why it was being brought up now, however. “When your father had his accident...” David started to probe. “It wasn’t an accident.” The old man quietly corrected. “What? What do you mean? Grandpa was on the boat and—” Samuel put up a hand to quiet him. David obliged the gesture,

17.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 waiting for an explanation, but none came. It was like his father had gotten stuck in his head. “What is it?” David pushed. His voice seemed to get his father out of whatever mental loop he’d been held in. “You know, successions are always the weakest period of any

“My father used to tell me a story about his father inheriting some land and a small building in the sixties from an aunt who married rich. She was a clever woman from what I’ve heard. Anyway, my grandfather took this meaningless plot and started farming on it. Of course, he didn’t have anything, so to him it was a

foundation for mechanic shop and finds the soil contaminated...turns out there’s a bit of oil. Not a lot, but a taste. Just enough to invest.” He told this story with excitement in his voice like he was telling it for the first time. It was almost as if he was jealous. Envious of the prospect of starting from scratch,

“At least hundreds of years ago we knew who the kings were. Now they’re hidden in the shadows; buried under shell companies, trusts, offshore accounts...political offices.“ empire or kingdom. By far the most likely time to see it all fall apart.” The statement in itself seemed to ring true to David, but he had no idea what exactly it had to do with their conversation. His father had an elaborate way of changing the subject sometimes. “Alexander’s failure to name a clear successor resulted in the collapse of the Romans.” “Okay?” David was sure to acknowledge he was listening, but still lost.

18.

grand domain.” His father smiled again, convinced that he’d lost David completely but confident he would soon catch up. “A few years later, the state wanted an interstate cut right across it to the nearby city and suddenly this land was more valuable. He sold the passage rights to the state and used that money to start developing. Gas stations, markets, apartments, et cetera. One thing always being the collateral for funding the next. One day, he’s digging a

having only one move to make and no safety net. He grinned at no one in particular. “I know this story, Dad.” David said, trying to refocus the discourse. “Yes, but here’s the part you don’t know. Your great-uncle-in-law had an estranged brother. One that everyone thought died in the war. There had been a search, but at the time, hundreds of thousands of body parts were scattered all over Europe.


Man, Father, King - L. A. Ricketts III And this man, having nothing to come back to, didn’t. Upon finding out about the death of his brother, though, he decided to return. He came straight to my grandfather demanding the inheritance that was rightfully his. Which would have been fine enough except he didn’t want money, he wanted the actual land my grandfather had built his own little empire on from dirt.” He sighed thinking of it. Something about this part of the story poked at Samuel. “He probably could have won a court case,” Samuel continued, “but grandad didn’t know anything about the law or the courts. So instead, he invited the old vet to take a ride with him in his new blue Chevy pickup truck. Then he drove it off a bridge, killing them both...leaving my father with an inheritance that, given some time and skill, he could make something of. Eventually he did. And when your grandfather’s cancer returned, as mine has, the two of us took a boat ride. “Jesus Dad. Are you okay?” David moved to his father’s side and gripped his shoulder. The implications of the story were lost on David through the rush of emotions. David didn’t know what to process first: the murder-suicide of his great grandfather or his father’s impending doom. He felt heavy suddenly. Saddled with an unorthodox burst of dread. “No, no, none of that. I’m fine,” he assured as he tapped his son’s hand in appreciation. “Is this why you called me out here—to tell me this?” “No son, I bought you out here so you can shoot me and make it look like an accident.” David’s father said blankly. David pulled the words from his head and ran them back through his ears again. The words he understood. Nevertheless, he couldn’t comprehend their meaning. He

searched his father’s face for a hint of a jest. He saw none. “Wh—I’m sorry?” “Succession, son. Always the worst time.” A daunting thought finally struck home with David as a massive cloud darkened his world several shades: he was serious. “I wish we would’ve talked more, son.” “W-we have time now. We can talk, let’s take a trip somewhere.” “No, I don’t mean to talk like this. This isn’t talking, this is…an extended goodbye. This is making peace. No, I wish we talked more normally. Just as father and son…as men.” There was a sincere introspection behind his dark eyes. It was a genuine thought. “I feel I could have learned a lot from you. And despite my incessant badgering, I had more experiences I wish I’d shared.” “Dad, there’s no—” David didn’t even know where to start, “W-what are we even talking about here?” Samuel’s weathered face held a familiar look. David did not immediately place it. Likely, because it wasn’t fitting in this situation. He finally recognized it. It was…disappointing. David was experiencing the full range of emotion now as his anger started to rise in response to his father’s displeasure at him resisting this task. “Why not do it yourself ?” David practically yelled exasperated, “Why do you need me?” “Because when you kill me, I know you’ll be ready to rule,” Samuel stated plainly. “There are no kings anymore, Dad,” David said pointedly. Samuel shook his head. “I raised you to be smarter than that,” Samuel said again, wearing a face of disapproval. “It’s worse now than it ever was. At least hundreds of years ago we knew who the kings were. Now they’re hidden in the shadows; buried under shell

companies, trusts, offshore accounts... political offices.” David tried to slow time slightly with deep breaths. He tried to review the situation as a gag, but his father was not one for elaborate practical jokes. “Take away all of your preconceived notions of morality and laws that you’re filtering my words through. Take away guilt and the idea of a conscience. Weigh what I am saying dispassionately.” David tried. The idea of morality was embedded in him from youth by the very man that was asking him to throw it away. “You taught me—” “I taught you a guideline. How to operate in a civilized society. But laws and morality, these things don’t really apply to kings.” David felt alone in the forest in a way he had never before. He was tempted to get on his ATV and ride off, but he was sure he’d never be able to leave. He felt like the forest went on forever at this moment. “It doesn’t make sense.” “Logic exists only at the mercy of our comprehension.” “Did you kill Grandpa?” David asked, finally putting the pieces together from the story that seemed like a lifetime ago. “Yes.” Samuel’s gaze was level and clear. “He didn’t want to wither away in some hospital room; his wife and children taking turns changing his diaper while the cancer ate away at everything that made him...him. Your grandfather was a lion. Lion’s don’t die in hospice care. And you are gravely mistaken if you think I’m going to let my family’s last memory of me be a pathetic, fragile, dried-up leaf of a man; drowning in an ocean of tears while some Judas picks apart my family’s wealth!” His voice roared through the forest as his eyes raged. Cancer was not going to beat him, there was not a speck of

19.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 doubt in his piercing gaze. “Word gets around about my sickness, loyalties will erode. They will vacate my seat due to being impaired. Hamilton will wrest away control and, by the time you inherit my seat in six months, you’ll just be a nuisance. Someone drawing a salary that they will soon look to phase out.” David had never sat in on the board meetings, but he knew Hamilton. He was more sleaze than man. If anyone would take advantage of the situation it would be him. “What I am asking you for is mercy, son. An act of love,” Samuel pleaded. “What happens if I refuse?” His father sighed slightly as if David was inconveniencing him by making him explain his asinine request. “Well, I’ll go on a hunting trip with your younger brother.” “So get him then! You think he’ll do this?” David shrieked. “I don’t know. I know he’d likely never forgive you for this.” Samuel stated the obvious. Accident or not, it was David’s brother’s personality to assign blame and then hold a grudge. “I am even more certain, however, that if he takes over, everything will crumble in the next few years.” He allowed the accuracy of that statement to sink in. David didn’t bother to refute it. “At which point all those people at the house we just left are out of a job. Your mother and sister and you would be…” He shrugged. Unable to find a word, he instead declared, “Just like everyone else. You think they’d survive that?” The old man stared at his son intensely. David knew the answer as well as his father did. Unlike David, the rest of the family embraced their good fortune. They were generous with others to a fault and were never in danger of being called frugal. David’s mother, the saint, was the linchpin in several foundations whose sole purpose was raising money from

20.

wealthy families like their own and redistributing it among Third World countries. David, for his part, liked to think that he didn’t need the money like the rest of his family. The letter of resignation felt like lead in his pocket. David did not fool himself into believing that his choice to live simply was synonymous with the need to live simply; in order to survive. His last name always gave him a safety net. There was this growing feeling that had started deep in the pit of his stomach and had now spread to the bottom of his chest. He felt aged and heavy. Empty and full at the same time. “What was it like?” David asked. His father raised a brow. “To be like everyone else.” Samuel inhaled deeply and exhaled looking down, searching the furthest reaches of his memory. “I don’t really remember, son,” he replied truthfully. An honest answer from an honest man. David could see him pausing mid-thought. As if trying to dredge up some lost recollection. He surrendered all of the sudden and shook his head subtly. “Don’t remember.” A subsequent silence engulfed them, made up of all the things that they never said to each other and perhaps never would now. The old man’s face was a picture of equity. “Is there a woman?” his father inquired, breaking the silence with an odd question. “What?” “In Marseille? Is there a woman?” “How do—” David’s father met his surprised gaze with an expression of comical disappointment this time. He looked almost insulted that his son didn’t think he knew everything happening in his realm. “A couple of years before I met your mother, there was a woman.

Raquel.” Ignoring David’s shock, Samuel continued, “Hair deep red like blood spilt on the ground.” He gestured to the dirt beneath their feet. “Light eyes and freckles. Such a pretty shell for such a dangerous creature. But damn, she could make you feel... alive.” Samuel grinned to himself, shaking his head, and added, “We were meant to go to South America and bounce around for a few months. Then maybe Greece after that. We’d saved a little cash and she wasn’t much for luxury.” The old man was no longer looking at David. He was gazing into the small fire. The red shades flickering in his eyes. It popped and hissed as it danced for him. Samuel lost himself in the story; the memory. Samuel once had the ridiculous notion to leave it all behind, much as he knew his son did. He’d never tell David how much he considered it. How close he came. Finally, Samuel was back in the present and met David’s eyes with the stern look that his son was familiar with. “After your grandfather died, I had a choice. I could protect what my father and his father worked and died for...or I could chase a theory of happiness that I had no real long-term evidence to support. There was no chance at keeping both. Raquel was a wild woman. It would be like trying to keep a mountain lion in the pantry.” “You left her?” Samuel was unmoved by David’s incredulity. For him, it was a decision long forgotten. “She went to South America...I went to work.” “Did you see her when she got back?” “No...I’m not even sure she came back.” David looked upon his father differently than he had prior to this excursion. How many men lay within the man sitting before him, he wondered. How many untold stories would die with him?


Man, Father, King - L. A. Ricketts III Samuel smiled widely. “Some time later, I found your mom and we were able to be happy... But the point, son, is that there was no guarantee I would find someone as special as your mother when I left Raquel. I left, because it was what was required.” David regarded the selfassurance of his father. He felt he’d never acquired that particular confidence. “I acknowledge that you think that you could be happy...you know, as an artist in France. It’s likely you would be. Unfortunately, that was not the hand you were dealt.” David stood up and walked to the water. The sun was now in full blaze above them. His father rose as well and stood by him, looking out at the lake. “There is a discomfort in becoming the leader.” Samuel’s voice was low and soothing. But more so, it was apologetic. “A deep loneliness that no one can quite understand. That no one should understand. That hollow, dark, void that you’ve felt growing inside your chest from the moment I told you I was not long for this world…it will only continue to grow. It will expand and be evermore vast and disconcerting, but for good reason. That’s where you will keep the pressure and responsibility of your family, the people who depend on you—your children, and your grandchildren. In that abyss, that you’ll never shake, you’ll hold all your fears for them. All your pain. And what’s more, you’ll keep theirs as well.” Samuel’s voice seemed to be vibrating the marrow in David’s bones. “When you watch your son fail and cry and then blame you. When you receive the pain and hurt they will cause; you won’t lash out at them. No, you’ll store it right there and carry it along with you; knowing every decision you make affects so many lives. Your stress will feed that abyss; that sickening darkness. And I’m sure one day you’ll think you don’t want to

do this…you’ll think: I just want to be happy. I just want to be responsible for myself…but you won’t let go of the abyss and you know why?” Samuel turned to his son, who continued to look out at the water. David didn’t move. Even the air he breathed was heavy now. “You won’t let go of that abyss because you know that you carry the dark void so that everyone else doesn’t have to. You’re the sin eater. You can’t be happy because happiness for you, means unhappiness for everyone you love. The day you are happy, is the day everyone gets little abysses of their own. They will all have to walk around with dark holes in them. Though you have the strength to pull them all, you know that they do not. Thus, your happiness will be polluted by the knowledge that you’ve made everyone else unhappy; the knowledge that by giving them their own balls of despair, you’ve broken them. The only way to protect them is to keep all the desolation, all the darkness, all the heavy, hollow and deep despair in the only place that you can be sure it will truly do no harm...right here.” Samuel placed his hand on his son’s chest. David could feel the emptiness growing inside of him and imagined that it was finally abating for his father. A sort of transference. It was excruciating, but David, like his father, was built to withstand it. “I’ve been dying since that day on the boat. Let me die with dignity. Let me rest in peace knowing I protected my family.” Samuel kissed David on the cheek. “Take care of the family, show me some kindness and put me out of my misery. “ Samuel handed him the gun, “I love you, son.” He said and turned away walking a few steps upstream. David thought of his small flat in Marseille. It was such a nice place, he mused. while coming to grips with the fact that he would likely never see it again. There would be no late nights

and no sleeping in. No ramblings he would write down and hope to publish one day. No sketches to frame and hang on his bare walls. Andja wouldn’t wait for him and, even if she did, the man he now had to become would be unrecognizable to the one she’d known. He took the thoughts and aspirations of that life and fed it to the growing abyss inside of him. His father was right. David could handle it, but no one else could. It was strange; David spent most of his life resenting this man. To realize, much too late, that he loved him more than he ever hoped to articulate. What’s more, he was destined to soon become him. The crown, now on his head, fit awkwardly and heavily. “I love you, son.” Samuel repeated without turning around. “I love you, Dad.” The birds fluttered out of the trees, startled by the gunshot. Tears stung David’s eyes as he fell to his knees. He wept for the great man. He wept for the piece of himself that he would bury along with his father. He wept for the part of the man that he’d never known and wept even more still for the part that he did. At last, he rose from his knees. David looked down at the man, the father, the king. Reaching into his pocket, he removed the envelope, and tossed the resignation letter into the fire.

21.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

It’s All Speculation Max DeVoe Talley

L

ouise Nyles waited in an empty Condé Nast office. Strange, no receptionist outside, just Louise’s name on a sign taped to a door. Inside, a meeting table with six leather swivel chairs, and framed magazine covers displayed across the walls. Though the Art Attack interview was slated to focus on her painting career, inevitably she would be asked about Philip. Alive or dead, her husband remained a looming storm cloud. The bastard picked the right moment to die— that was for sure. December of 1989. At the tail end of the New York art speculation boom which made his fame and fortune. Their fortune. Now, in mid-February of 1990, the world felt different in downtown Manhattan. The art obituaries had been written. The failure of Warhol’s final paintings to sell, a panicked retreat by Japanese buyers who had broken all records in purchase prices for Van Gogh and Picasso, an auctioneer at Sotheby’s reduced to tears in January after no offers came, even at the opening bid. It became personal two weeks ago when Louise’s SoHo gallery, Dorn-Saxby, informed her in writing they

22.

would cease representation as of April 1st. She being the April Fool. The incestuous art world didn’t know yet, so no reason to broach the subject today. Louise would kill for good press right now. Being married to a legendary eighties artist had initially been a boon, but soon became an albatross. Louise could actually draw, paint and even sculpt, while Philip stuck household objects to his canvases’ thick impasto of random paint splashes. Pieces from Philip’s Fork series and Ashtray series sold for $60,000 to $80,000 each, while her work peaked at under ten grand. Louise had grown used to being treated like an add-on, a plus one in the fizz of gallery openings/wine parties that she trundled through on a weekly basis. She suspected niceties directed toward her, were in fact attempts to get closer to Philip’s iridescent glow of success and art scene notoriety. Most people “in the know” were aware they’d been separated for two years. He lived in their renovated West Village brownstone, while she shuttled between a tiny apartment paid for by his monthly allowance and the Harlem painting studio she rented herself.


It’s All Speculation - Max DeVoe Talley Upon hearing of his fatal heart seizures, Louise felt a sense of guilty relief. Philip had been warned repeatedly after previous heart attacks and bypass surgery. She hoped to benefit as the surviving Nyles. A towering redwood tree felled to reveal vibrant life at the carpet of the forest. No, the damn art market collapsed. A fickle market at best, fueled on hype, hokum, cultist belief and unfounded speculation. The door clicked open. “Hello?” A woman in her mid-thirties tapped in on heels, wearing a jacket and skirt. She shook a boyish bob of dark brown hair away from her eyes. “I’m Emily Duran, and it’s an honor, Ms. Nyles.” They shook hands. “Louise is fine.” She knew the type. The downtown gallery scene was replete with young ladies between twenty-two and thirty-five dressed in black. Graduates from liberal arts colleges like Bard, Vassar and Bennington. They swam about on the blurry periphery as assistants or event photographers, determined to be part of that world. At some point, they discovered they were not and would never become professional artists. The talent or opportunities they hoped for eluded them. By then, they’d witnessed the darker side, had endured relationships with married gallery owners or temperamental painters. They usually went skulking back home to Philadelphia, Chicago or Cleveland, never to be seen again. “Have some water.” Emily filled two glasses from an Evian bottle. She sat across the table from Louise and set her microcassette recorder between them. “Before we start,” Emily said, “my condolences. Your husband. Philip Nyles was an artist, a legend.” Her mouth trembled. “Though I never interviewed him, I knew him casually, from various events.” “Thanks.” Louise scrutinized Emily. Hangers-on frothed and trailed in Philip’s wake at gallery openings. Those may I get you a drink, I love your new

work, let me refill your wine glass, want to smoke a joint, where’s the after-party? people. Emily looked fragile for a moment, but smoothed her wrinkled jacket and sat up straight to switch on the recorder. “You’ve been showing at Dorn-Saxby Gallery for ten years. Will this relationship continue into the nineties?” Louise danced around the truth. “I am currently represented by Dorn-Saxby, and it is 1990.” She smiled. “However, with the upheavals, I think it’s important to also branch out to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Fe—which is the fourth largest art market in America now.” Emily cocked her head. “Upheavals? You mean the Wall Street Journal article on the speculation boom ending and the art market crashing?” She gazed up, in between taking notes. “That’s right,” Louise said. “I also sense the death of Warhol in 1987, Basquiat in ‘88, as well as Keith Haring’s recent passing have wielded a cumulative effect. Art buyers get skittish. Who are the new champions? Do they gamble on untested artists or just wait and see?” “So you think we’re in waitand-see mode?” “As an optimist, I’ll say yes.” Louise didn’t believe herself at all. Whatever was or had been in Manhattan was now over—dead and buried. Emily paused the recorder. “I didn’t want this assignment.” She fiddled with her silk scarf. “I’ve followed your career, thought you deserved more...” Her words trailed off. “Also, since I knew your husband professionally, I told my editor I wasn’t detached enough to be a good interviewer. But he insisted I could get to the bottom of the mysteries.” “Mysteries?” Louise had dated Philip in her mid-thirties, then married him at thirty-nine. But by age forty-five, he no longer wanted to sleep with her. “We have a deeper, more

important love,” he’d said in their 11th Street brownstone. “We’re creative partners, bonded through our work.” “So less-important physical love is reserved for assistants and groupies?” “I am not in love with anyone else,” he’d insisted, almost pouting. Deflecting. “Except yourself.” She frowned and soon made the second floor den her bedroom. After that, when they ventured out together to parties or openings, Louise developed a radar for Philip’s affairs. She couldn’t read it in him. Philip acted flirtatious toward man and woman alike, telling boisterous jokes and relaying stories about famous artists that always ended by shining a flattering light upon himself. No, Louise gauged it in the women. Charmed, blushing, touching his arm or hand, laughing a bit too hard at well-worn anecdotes. Some undoubtedly loved him, while others saw that numinous glow, wanted to be rescued from their squalid East Village studio apartment, minimum wage, bottom-dweller-on-the-art-pyramid lives. To be recognized, gossiped about and desired, instead of treated like the anonymous, bow-tied wine servers in starched white shirts consigned to the outskirts of every event. May I refill your glass? Would you like the red or the white? Smile. Louise came back into focus. “Please, continue.” “Art in America praised your genius, saying that after thirty years of painting, you retained your primitive style and infantile technique.” Emily paused. “Were you flattered?” “Not really.” Louise connected the dots. Emily had shadowed Philip at parties, running errands, proffering drinks. Maybe three years ago, then Emily disappeared from his orbit. Philip’s affairs lasted a year at most. Consistent in his attraction to women between thirty and forty, even as he aged toward seventy just before his death.

23.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 Louise was forty-nine now, and every morning she stared in horror at fifty rushing relentlessly at her in the bathroom mirror. Maybe this Emily still retained bitterness after being dumped. Louise never forgave the young boy who rejected her to play with another little girl in a Long Island sandbox decades ago. “As artists, was there competition between you and your husband?” Emily asked.

stared directly at Emily. “My husband became entangled with various younger women. Even after heart problems and warnings from his cardiologist, he drank nightly, chainsmoked Camels and snorted coke. He got distracted from creating new art. From what I know, he spent valuable time buying off girlfriends, paying for their...operations and fighting fraud charges with lawyers. That forced him to raise cash. Sometimes using

off-topic. This interview is about you. What do you see for your future art?” “Different light and more space in my work, less clutter. The Southwest is calling.” Emily rubbed her forehead while wincing. “Are you alright?” “Just a migraine.” Emily swallowed Advil with water. “Last question. I apologize if it’s sensitive. There are allegations your husband

“Whatever was or had been in Manhattan was now over—dead and buried.” Louise laughed, drank Evian, coughed and continued laughing until Emily appeared uncomfortable. “Philip was worldfamous. His galleries had waiting lists of buyers wanting a future creation, sight unseen.” Louise paused. “While I have a small coterie of buyers who are from New York or nearby. My art is valued lower. I’d rather compete with myself. It’s less frustrating and humbling.” “There was talk, perhaps unfounded, that his Tea Cup attachment series was created by a warehouse of minimum wage workers, and—” “—those prints he signed, now attributed to other artists,” Louise finished. “Yes, it seems every dentist in Florida bought one.” She

24.

dubious methods.” Emily’s face reddened as she stared downward. “You believe no one else shared your husband’s vices?” “Ha!” Louise thumped her hand down on the table. “I’ve been in rehab and at detox centers. I wish half the gallery world would check in, too. My point was, while many of us lived lives fueled by alcohol, drugs and promiscuity, we weren’t doing so after a quadruple bypass operation.” “I...I wouldn’t know those details,” Emily stuttered. “A girl in every port. In Berlin art circles, Germans nicknamed Philip—” “Enough.” Emily stopped the tape again. “I apologize.” She wiped her brow with a handkerchief. “I got

might not have died from an overdose of heart medications, but in fact committed suicide, or that someone else may have been involved.” “Pure speculation,” Louise said. “Philip took twelve pills a day for his heart issues. We lived separately for the past two years, but I know his short-term memory had weakened since he turned sixty. He could have easily forgotten a morning dosage and doubled it. I begged him to hire a live-in nurse after bypass surgery. He never listened to me.” She rolled her chair backward. “We’re done, right? I need some air.” Louise had revealed too much. She clawed at the recorder, extricating the cassette. “Hey, wait!” “Use your notes, or memory. You’re a pro.”


It’s All Speculation - Max DeVoe Talley Outside, the sky hung gray, wind gusting litter into the air. Louise shielded her eyes with sunglasses from the soot and whatever else Manhattan’s harsh elements might throw against her. She tied her graying hair back and wrapped a The Cat in the Hat scarf around herself, then merged into the hurried pace of pedestrians. After walking ten blocks down Broadway, Louise could see the purple banner with gold lettering flapping in the breeze outside DornSaxby Gallery. A grumbling tour bus idled by the curb. “See the famous SoHo art scene before it goes extinct,” she imagined a guide announcing. Frederick Dorn sat on the edge of a desk just inside, flirting with the latest young blonde receptionist, Britta or Gitte. “Freddie, I was in the area. Came to pick up a few pieces.” “Hey Louise.” Dorn stood and hugged her. “Glad you dropped by. We’re holding a demonstration today.” They moved into the main exhibition room, where her work had hung many times in the past. No longer. The entire floor lay covered by tarps and a giant piece of canvas was affixed to the center of them. A Slavic-looking man with hair in a tight bun wore strange plastic clothing, gloves and booties. He immersed himself to the neck in a bathtub of paint. “What is this?” Louise turned toward the gallery owner. “The future.” Dorn smiled. “That’s Abzorba,” he whispered. “Performance artist and human paintbrush.” New York pedestrians and a Japanese tour group from the waiting bus formed a circle around the man, gasping and taking photographs. Abzorba rose out of the tub, his face grim and determined before lying down on the eight by ten strip of canvas. He began to roll about, straight across, then diagonally— paint splashing and spreading

everywhere. The audience broke into applause. The artist raised his paintsplattered chin, basking in their approval. “And that will sell?” Louise asked quietly. They moved toward Dorn’s rear office. “In time it will,” he said. “Installation art, performance art. That’s the future.” He studied her critically. “I wish you could adapt.” Dorn opened the back room which once served as her spare painting studio. Now, several television monitors sat on carpeted pedestals playing videos of a woman’s stomach operation from different angles. “Bianca Mendoza’s gallbladder series is astonishing,” he said. “Incredibly cutting edge art. A surgeon visiting from Brazil yesterday offered us $50,000.” Louise sensed herself shrinking away, a speck of dust, soon to be a subatomic particle. Dorn pointed to a mediumsized canvas with thick variations of the color brown rising above its surface. “You know Miklos from Budapest, right?” Louise nodded to mask her ignorance. “Instead of paint, he uses a variety of animal dung. Stunning.” Dorn sighed. “Miklos is considered the foremost excremental artist in all of Eastern Europe.” Louise felt dizzy. “I don’t know...” “Weezie, I love your work, but two-dimensional abstracts aren’t selling right now. Buyers in 1990 want your heart, your soul, your bodily fluids!” Dorn and Louise bundled four smaller paintings together. “Uh, someone called for you.” “A buyer?” “ No.” Dorn hesitated. “He wanted your mobile number. I didn’t give it.” “Thanks, Frederick.”

*** With the canvases propped under her arm, Louise hiked toward the uptown subway stop north of Houston Street. Dark clouds hung low around downtown towers and parapets, while passersby looked gray and gaunt. Pigeons showing discolored plumage clucked and flapped about trash bins. Metal gates creaked in alleyways between buildings where gargoyles leered from cornice moldings above. Positively medieval. Louise read movie ads pasted to the plywood walls surrounding construction sites: Jacob’s Ladder, Pretty Woman, The Godfather: Part III, a giant airbrushed image of Madonna plastered on the side of a building. She heard rap and rock and reggae and Puerto Rican music she couldn’t summon a name for. En route, her mobile phone rang inside her purse. She removed the walkie talkie-sized object and answered. “Darling, it’s Sergio,” the man said. “I’ve solved all your problems.” “What?” “I’ve found a buyer for your pieces,” he said. “Twenty thousand to add to the existing twenty you tucked away. Now you’ve got enough for a deposit on that delightful condo in Santa Fe.” “Really?” She dodged around two surly males reeking of booze. Louise felt confident her phone could serve as a brick to ward off any human wreckage. “Somebody wants two of my paintings?” A long interstice of silence followed where Louise thought they may have become disconnected. “Love,” Sergio finally said. “After the market crash? I can’t ask or get ten grand for one of your pieces anymore...” “Okay, so it’s $20,000 for three?” Silence. “Not four?” Her voice cracked.

25.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 “Four pieces,” he said in a solemn tone. “But before you scream, you won't have to split the money with Dorn-Saxby. Just subtract my twenty percent and the rest is yours.” “Twenty percent? You were getting fifteen percent through December.” “Sweetheart, take a Valium. God knows I’ve swallowed them daily since the crash. I sent the statement regarding managerial fee adjustments...to your Harlem studio address.” “Oh, I forgot.” Louise never checked her mailbox in that lobby. Too dangerous to linger. Drug addicts often lay sprawled in the vestibule. She raced upstairs to her third-floor studio to avoid making contact with a single living soul. “Please send future mailings to my apartment.” “Yes, definitely, Louise. But what about the offer?” “For which? The green paintings, my stomach bile series?” “No, the blue ones.” “Oh, the bacteria series.” Louise shook her fist to repel a cab edging toward her on the crosswalk. “It’s terrible, awful. Such an insulting offer.” “So you’re not interested?” “Damn it, you know I am,” she said. “Have them sign a bank check to me by Monday. I leave for New Mexico end of next week.” As Louise rode the subway uptown, she thought of Nestor Garcia. A real estate agent, and professional flirt. As Nestor showed her houses and condos around Santa Fe, their flirtation became serious. Her one week reconnaissance mission stretched longer as they began an affair. Idiotic. He was thirty-nine, not a painter, musician, or a creative soul, but he certainly became an art enthusiast upon hearing of her husband’s death. Even in the Southwest, Philip Nyles’ name commanded recognition, and the whispery respect that a large bank

26.

account earns one. Louise hadn’t explained about Philip’s previous wives and four children, all vying for the inheritance. At present, his will was being contested in court, with only the competing lawyers earning money. Not enough to go around. Philip had wasted countless thousands on medical bills, lawyer fees, his absurd collection of objets d’art from across the globe. Eventually Nestor would realize. Then Louise would know if their foolish fling was just that or perhaps her last chance for a serious relationship. Her mother had warned, “Never be single after fifty, especially in a crowded, manic city like New York.” At the 125th Street stop, Louise carried the paintings toward her nearby studio. Creeping gentrification had not yet reached this neighborhood. Vacant lots sprouted weeds and garbage, condemned brick buildings showed boarded-up windows, rusted signs hung outside long-closed stores and watchful people lingered on stoops. The blat-blat-blat of youths dribbling basketballs sounded from a nearby playground. Louise hustled up the stairs to be startled by Laroy on her landing. “Yo, Ms. Nyles,” he said. “I knocked. Thought you might be in the zone.” “Laroy, I’ve known you for two years. It’s Louise,” she said, gasping for breath. They had met when she moved in. He was fascinated by a middle-aged, white woman renting a painting studio in Harlem. Laroy loved to study her canvases when she had finished, though admitted, “The colors are sweet but I don’t understand that abstract shit at all.” “Nobody understands abstract art,” she’d said. “You just feel it or enjoy it on a non-logical level.” Louise hired him for odd jobs: painting, fixing windows, even bringing occasional

bottles from the liquor store he worked part-time at. A wise decision. No one in the building hassled her with Laroy as a protective spirit. “How are things at Uptown Liquor?” she asked, since he lingered on the landing without clear direction. “Place gets robbed every week. It’s crazy.” “Wow. Aren’t you scared of getting shot?” “No. Most of the homeboys remember me.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the basketball courts. “I just give them the cash. They leave me alone.” His face sank into a frown as he scratched his head. “Listen, two men been asking for you, yesterday and this morning. White dudes in suits. Like cops.” “I told you about my husband’s death.” She set the paintings down. “Probably lawyers, or their assistants.” She rubbed her face. “Maybe the landlord. I’m behind on rent.” “Uh, the landlord looks like me.” “That’s Myron, our apartment manager. He collects our rents for the company downtown.” “If you say so. But those dudes seemed eager to find you.” Laroy wandered toward the stairwell. “Give me a shout if you’ve got any new projects.” “Will do.” She locked and bolted the studio’s door behind her. When shadows grew long outside her window—the ancient fear of night and being lonely and widowed amid the thrumming pulse of Manhattan rising vampiric until dawn creeping into her consciousness—someone pounded on the door. Louise pulled the boombox’s plug from the wall socket and sat huddled in the corner, silent. Laroy always drummed three taps up high, his code. This was a conventional knock-knock.


It’s All Speculation - Max DeVoe Talley “Mrs. Nyles?” Solid pounding again, then footsteps descending on the hard, iron staircase. Never answer your door to the unknown in New York.

“See you soon, Louise. Got to run.” He disconnected. Louise took her Pan Am flight from La Guardia to Albuquerque Sunport. During landing, she stared out at the low buildings, the spread

Louise tried Nestor again, at his office number. A receptionist at Plaza Real Estate answered. “He’s out of the office today,” she said. “I can take a message.” “Well, I’d hoped to speak to

“Miklos is considered the foremost excremental artist in all of Eastern Europe... I love your work, but two-dimensional abstracts aren’t selling right now. Buyers in 1990 want your heart, your soul, your bodily fluids!” *** On Wednesday, Louise called Nestor in Santa Fe. “Hey, I’m flying out Friday. Hope to put down a deposit on that place I loved, and...I want to see you too.” “Louise,” Nestor said. “I’m busy now, a client is closing on a house. Let me write down your flight and arrival time. I’ll pick you up.” “I’m landing in Albuquerque, not Santa Fe.” “No problem. Less than an hour drive.” She told him the details.

of desert and snow-capped Sandia Mountains rising up. Maybe people were right, the light really was different in New Mexico. Softer, more artistic. Beyond the gates, eager family members waited on arriving passengers, but no Nestor. Perhaps she’d landed early. Louise walked just outside the terminal, basking in the sunshine. Fifty degrees felt warm and comfortable for February. She called Nestor on her mobile phone. No answer. She winced but wouldn’t let it spoil the start of her new life; she’d escaped.

him.” “I understand,” the receptionist replied. “Nestor’s up in Taos skiing with his wife. Could I get your name?” “No, I have to, uh, go.” Louise clicked her phone off. In the distance she saw a handsome Latino man approaching her and smiling. “Mrs. Louise Nyles?” he asked as he drew nearer. “Yes...?” “Detective Sanchez of the Albuquerque Police. May we speak?” The beaming man led her into a room behind the baggage carousels,

27.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 where lost luggage got stored. Several molested-looking suitcases lingered on a large wheeled cart. “What’s this about?” “I’m afraid I need to request your return to New York City.” “Seriously? Why?” “Full autopsy results came in for your deceased husband. Philip Nyles’ death was no accident. Someone deliberately gave him too much heart medication.” “What? How does this involve me?” “You are one of two people sought for questioning.” “So it’s all speculation?” Sanchez didn’t reply. “And if I refuse?” The detective’s smile flatlined. “You are not under arrest, but are required to return for questioning. The dinner’s quite good on the flight. Southwestern chicken, I believe.” “You said two people.” She thought for a moment. “Not Emily Duran...the writer who works for Art Attack Magazine?” Her ears felt clogged with wax, the detective’s words a blur. “That name came up.” Agent Sanchez frowned. “But she’s unemployed.” Louise watched daylight swooping through the automatic doors leading out to cabs and shuttles, studied the oversized Georgia O’Keeffe prints hanging along the cream walls. “It’s all speculation,” she repeated, but Sanchez wasn’t listening. He crooked an arm into Louise’s elbow and led her reluctantly toward the gates and flights, while she recalled her mother’s recent words. “There are two types of people, Louise. Those who leave Manhattan to never ever return, and those who try and try to get away but keep getting dragged back. You probably don’t want to hear which type I think you are.”

28.

“You’re right, I don’t, Mom.”


La Gilda di Pinocchio Salvatore Difalco

M

onday morning started poorly. Charlie Squillaci had popped a Clonazepam the evening before to ensure a solid night of rest but slept through his alarm—a twin-bell tinny wind-up his Nonna Tommasina had favored for decades—and awoke an hour later than planned, so groggy and out of sorts it took him another hour to get his shit together. His appointment with Wei Chong’s people at 1000 Wharfside Lane just outside of Toronto had been booked for ten o’clock that morning. It was already seven. Barring a slowdown at the border or heavy traffic, it would take two hours to drive there. He hadn’t even made coffee yet and needed to don his costume—at minimum, a twenty-minute job. Though reeking of mothballs and sweat, he’d found a beige linen suit at Goodwill and paid too much for a pair of vintage tortoiseshell glasses at the Pawn Kings so thick-lensed they must have belonged to a legally blind person. Moreover, that lunkhead, Pino Totti, tasked the day before to deliver a sample mannequin for Charlie to present at the scheduled meeting—ideally one of the high-end handcrafted numbers that sold for upwards of

ten grand a pop retail—had instead dropped off an adultsized wooden Pinocchio marionette, jointed and strung like its smaller, workaday cousins, that had been salvaged from a postmodern art installation formerly under the auspices of a bankrupt Manhattan art gallery. “Is this some kind of joke?” Charlie had said upon seeing the hulking Pino at the door with the puppet cradled obscenely in his arms. “From la Gilda di Pinocchio,” Pino had said. “But it’s not a mannequin,” Charlie had explained to him. “They wanted to see a mannequin. I repeat, a fucking mannequin.” Charlie thought, If I go inside, open the drawer of the console table and take out my .380, I will shoot this cretin between the eyes and this episode of my life will mercifully be over. Instead, he told Pino he couldn’t show up to this meeting with a grotesque Pinocchio marionette. We’re supposed to be a serious mannequin outfit, he told Pino, not a Disney act. But Pino, lacking any executive authority, correctly pointed out that it had not been his decision to send the Pinocchio and that he personally found the large marionette

29.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 loathsome, comparing it to a capybara, the largest rodent in the world. They creep me out, he admitted, like giant fucking rats. Pino refused to take the Pinocchio back and forbade Charlie, as per the bosses’ directive, to even think about going to the Mannequin House to discuss it with them; Charlie threw it in his trunk to assure him. Now he faced the prospect of meeting Wei Chong’s people with a giant Pinocchio in tow. The clock was ticking. Charlie needed caffeine to function at this time of day, no matter the urgency. He loaded his moka and set it on the burner. Now was the moment to concentrate on the task at hand. He decided against a firearm—crossing the border with one was moronic. He strapped his Cold Steel Counter TAC II fixed blade to his left calf muscle, and tucked an Urban Edge push dagger with a 2.5inch blade and a Kray-Ex handle into a leather sheath he’d stitched to the back of his work belt. That is to say, the embossed black leather belt he wore on jobs—which he’d never notched to keep track of his successes. The coffee came up and he drank a cup black by the hoary kitchen window, wincing with every sip but resolved to be as sharp as possible for what lay ahead. He’d hope for the best and be prepared for the worst, knowing whatever happened was natural, if not predetermined. He didn’t believe in predetermination, but he believed in fate. As the caffeine coursed through Charlie’s veins like an electrical charge, excitement mounted in his breast. He’d drive to 1000 Wharfside Lane, in his disguise, and instead of hauling the hideous Pinocchio marionette into the meeting and spouting a shitload of nonsense—and thus, he felt, instigate an abrupt end to his current life cycle—instead, he’d apologize for the missing mannequin, waylaid in transport, possibly due

30.

to the inclement weather, although details thus far were scant and he waited as they spoke for word from his bosses, blah blah. He’d provide his interlocutors with several images he’d sourced and printed from the online catalogue of an impressive northern Italian sculptor known as Willy Verginer—who carved haunting lifesize statues from blocks of wood—as samples of the quality of work created by the artisans and craftspeople of la Gilda di Pinocchio. The linen suit—originally white but discolored from hanging in an armoire for years, as the suspenderwearing manager of Goodwill explained—which Charlie had only eyeballed for size, turned out to be too large, and made him look thinner and shabbier than intended. And he could barely see out of the thick-lensed tortoiseshell glasses—and could not see how ludicrous he looked in the mirror. Charlie had discovered on his atypical journey through life that the most ridiculous fabrications and falsifications often pass for the truth, simply because, as most people know, truth is often stranger than fiction. Were he to approach a meeting involving Chinese wise guys, mannequins and Neapolitan artisans straitjacketed to a conventional mindset, wearing a business suit and sporting sleek spectacles, he might be called out as a fraud. But as he had adopted the persona of an Italian intermediary— perhaps with artistic inclinations but eccentric in any case—who’d likely be drawn to an unconventional lifestyle and this singular line of work, he thought that the more scatterbrained and eccentric the portrayal, the better...within reason of course. You could easily breach the limits of even the most extreme characterization if you lost sight of the final goal; you had to remind yourself, no matter how deeply in character you were and no matter how well you thought it was going, that such a disguise

and the cunning subterfuge it would facilitate was an instrument and not a theatrical performance or a thing in itself—though some might draw analogies with the processes of the two vocations, if not the objectives. Perhaps the key in both cases was emotional truth and consistency of the details, and enough details to create a compelling larger impression, that is, a larger illusion of reality, where this pseudo-being, Giulio Messina, could flourish with all his quirks and pseudo-verities. Charlie put on a pair of old tan moccasins that he he’d unearthed from a moldy basement box—along with a pair of excellent dark blue cowboy boots he could not recall buying. Indeed, judging from the boots’ unblemished black soles and heels, he must have never worn them outside and doubted he’d even tried them on. He wondered if they were of any value to sentimentalists or collectors, then checked himself and made a mental note to toss them next time he emptied the trash in the event he was ever tempted or found it necessary to wear them. Stiff and dry, the moccasins pinched his toes, so he slipped them off and kneaded them until they softened. Then he put them back on. Better, but he worried about the snow. Salt and slush would ruin the suede. Damn, he was late. He wrapped a red scarf around his throat, flew out the door and almost slipped a disk scrambling down the icy porch steps in the moccasins. He had no time now, but he’d have to salt them later or he’d feel guilt in the event the letter carrier, delivering a bounty of Christmas cards and parcels, took a header on those steps. He started the engine and put it in gear before properly warming it up. The Buick struggled down the snowswept street; the windows fogged up and Charlie almost drove through a stop sign, hitting the brakes at the last second and skidding halfway through


La Gilda di Pinocchio - Salvatore Difalco the intersection before finally coming to a sliding stop. Fortunately, no one was around, and he proceeded through the intersection with his heart in his throat and his muscles fluttering, gripping the steering wheel like it threatened to fly away. He drove to the Peace Bridge

Wharfside Lane in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb—bank-sized edifice of light-yellow brick—at 10:30 and sat in his car listening to the rest of Wes Montgomery’s melodic “Satin Doll,” a song he’d always enjoyed when sung by Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, though Montgomery’s lack

climbed out of the car into the cold air carrying a manila envelope with the Willy Verginer images. At the last moment, despite vowing not to do it and perhaps against his better judgment, Charlie opened the trunk, grabbed the Pinocchio, and decided to try it on Wei Chong’s

“He pulled the Pinocchio marionette out of the trunk—so big and unwieldy he could’ve been unloading a dead man. And it smelled funny, not woody as one would suspect, or of paint and glue; Pinocchio smelled like garlic of all things. Fucking garlic.” exit and joined the late-morning traffic, dense but moving, the roads fully plowed and salted. He checked the dashboard clock: 8:10. At this rate he’d be a few minutes late. He wasn’t worried about that. He was worried about the Wei Chong crowd taking him seriously. Walking into the meeting without the promised sample mannequin would put him at a disadvantage, despite the Willy Verginer photos, and there was no way he wanted to spring Pinocchio on them. He pulled up to 1000

of lyrics didn’t lessen its swinging beauty. Cigarette holder, which wigs me over my shoulder, he digs me—Charlie recalled with a smile, though he couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics. A few cars sat in the lot adjacent to the building. He decided to park the Buick on the street in the event things went south. More unpleasant things existed than getting blocked in a parking lot while fleeing for your life, but not many. He put on his tortoiseshell glasses, smoothed the lapels of his wrinkled linen suit and

people, more as a stunt than a real demonstration of product—a show of good humor and trust. He stood gnawing on his knuckle and debating the plan’s merits and hazards. Bad idea, bad idea. If it blew up in his face, he was finished. He pulled the Pinocchio marionette out of the trunk—so big and unwieldy he could’ve been unloading a dead man. And it smelled funny, not woody as one would suspect, or of paint and glue; Pinocchio smelled like garlic of all things. Fucking garlic.

31.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 Someone had rubbed garlic over its vapid face and clothes—silly red lederhosen, Prussian blue bow tie, and Tyrolean hat, like some kind of freak Austrian yodeler or malformed beer meister. The thing must have weighed thirty or forty kilos, loose-jointed and clattering like a sack of bocce balls as Charlie wove his way across the street, peering over the dense lenses of his tortoiseshell glasses. He paused to get a better grip on the bucking puppet, then limped up the path to the building entrance to a single steel-mesh glass door—the only signage being the numeral one thousand in black steel above it—with an intercom mounted to its immediate right and two redflashing security cameras pointing down from its transom. Pinocchio grew uncooperative as Charlie tried to hit the buzzer, knocking its head against the intercom and thrashing its limbs in what seemed like a deliberate and devious effort to stop Charlie from entering. It was as though the puppet had been warned not to go in there. Finally Charlie dropped it to the pavement and pressed the buzzer. A moment later, a man responded over the speaker. “What?” “Hi, there. Buongiorno—” “Speak up!” “I am, er, representing la Gilda di Pinocchio of Naples. I have a meeting scheduled.” A long silence ensued. Charlie wondered if he’d not spoken loudly or clearly enough, or if the intercom had malfunctioned. He footed the stupid puppet’s nose. The temptation to press the buzzer again proved overpowering. “What?” said the voice again over the speaker, unable to mask its annoyance. “I am Giulio Messina, I am here about mannequins from Italy.” “You’re late.” “It couldn’t be helped. There was a mix-up.” “The fuck is that thing?”

32.

Charlie lifted Pinocchio by the shoulders and held the struggling puppet up before him in what amounted to a full nelson. “That your boyfriend?” the voice said. “It’s Pinocchio. A promotional item.” Another long silence followed. Charlie rocked from foot to foot, his thoughts racing. Pinocchio had fallen still and also seemed to be waiting. Charlie checked his watch: almost eleven. Man, he had messed up. Man, his ass was toast. Get this over with, he thought. Get this over with quick. People liked playing games. People liked fucking with other people. The heavy tortoiseshell glasses were killing his beak. Why do people wear these stupid things? Lighter, sleeker models existed. Then again, perhaps that’s why whoever owned them before pawned them: they were asshole glasses. He was about to head back to the car when the lock clicked. He pulled the knob and the door opened. Dragging Pinocchio by the arms, he entered a cavernous, spartan foyer with a strip of red vinyl flooring leading from the entranceway to a large steel desk positioned against the opposing wall. Behind the desk sat a thick-necked man dressed in a maroon uniform with gold trim reading a newspaper. Charlie walked down the red vinyl strip with his moist moccasins, lugging the fractious Pinocchio. He was increasingly tempted to kick the fucking thing’s head off or tear it limb from limb, but he held his shit together and kept in character. He saw no sign of mannequins or any business dealings whatsoever, for that matter. The walls were uniformly painted a urine-toned yellow, with several doors leading to what he assumed were offices and restrooms; there was also a skylight on the ceiling that beamed warm rays within and winked without to the universe. It had obviously been a bank in a previous incarnation. How

many times had it been held up? Had anyone ever been killed there during a robbery? Bank robbery had never been Charlie’s thing. In general, he found theft, like adultery, repugnant. While he’d purchased and received stolen goods over the years, he’d never stolen himself. And he’d never consorted with married women. And while this did not make him a good man, a moral man, he lived by a code. He opened his nostrils. It smelled of nothing in there, not even ventilated air, which often has its own peculiar aroma. No, the place was a blank. He continued to the desk and, as he drew nearer, the security guard or whatever he was came into sharper relief. He wasn’t Asian—at least Charlie didn’t think so, though the man had straight black hair—odd off the bat; and he resembled someone he knew or had known. He drew closer; then, five or six yards away from the desk, Charlie stopped in his tracks and let Pinocchio fall with a thump to the floor. The fucking guy looked like Frank Castalucci, a wise guy from Little Falls who Charlie had stabbed to death a decade ago. How was this possible? Charlie stared at him. “The fuck is your problem?” the guard asked. “Uh, what do you mean?” It was uncanny. It was also impossible. “Come here for fuck’s sake. I’m not gonna get up and walk there.” Charlie grabbed Pinocchio and continued to the desk, which held two flickering monitors and a keyboard. To the guard’s right sat an oldfashioned black telephone, and next to it stood a black porcelain figurine of an Italian carabiniere that might have been a paperweight, though at present seemed independent of function save to ornament an aesthetic void, or to memorialize an Italian vacation. The guard shook his newspaper.


La Gilda di Pinocchio - Salvatore Difalco “Get this,” he said, spreading the paper and reading from it. “Police say a man has survived after being swept over the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Officers reported seeing the man climb a retaining wall jump into the Niagara River and get swept up over the Horseshoe Falls. The man was then found sitting on rocks at the water’s edge, below an observation platform for the Journey Behind the Falls attraction. Police describe the man as a person in crisis.” The guard shook the newspaper again and leaned forward. “Can you imagine this guy? What he felt like at that moment? What a fucking loser he must have felt like? I am such a fuck up I didn’t even get that right, people! I am a ridiculous loser! How do you go over the Falls and survive? I ask you.” Charlie didn’t know what to say. He’d heard mention of the incident on the news, but that was last Tuesday. It had happened before; it would happen again. “Well?” the guard said. “He must’ve been depressed,” Charlie said, spooked by the guard’s resemblance to Frank. He even had a scar on his neck. “How do you think he feels now? Not happier. Hahaha. Not happier. Fact is, he can’t escape this life. It happens. He tried, man. He tried. But sometimes you can’t do it, no matter how hard you try, feel me?” Charlie nodded. “Sometimes, having reached the end of your tether, the water calls you and you take the plunge, hoping for peace at last from the raging internal war, relief from the external pressure, relief from the pain of being alive, and you hear the roar, you feel it thundering inside your bones, and you think—falling freely, free of weight, free of your self, the self you hate, and the life you could not bear—you think you

have at last crossed over to that place that was so powerfully drawing you from the start, and you wait for the frothing and gurgling to subside and for all the other radiant souls to step forth from…but I digress. You, sir, look awfully familiar to me. Have we met?” “Uh, no,” Charlie said, averting his dark gaze. “I don’t think so. Look, I had a meeting scheduled with Wei Chong’s people.” “Whose people?” “Wei Chong.” “You mean Ming, that crook. Wait till I see him. He owes me fifty bucks for the Super Bowl. He picked the losers ‘cause he’s a loser. But he hasn’t paid me yet, and the next time I see him I’m gonna tase his ass and shake it out of his pockets.” “So he’s not around? I mean, his people.” “His people? Buddy—what did you say your name was?” “Giulio. Giulio Messina. I’m with— ” “The Pinocchio outfit, yeah yeah. Intriguing. Well, I don’t know what people you’re talking about. Anyway, you were s’posed to be here for ten.” “There was a mix-up about the mannequins. They accidentally gave me this promotional Pinocchio, which any idiot can see isn’t really a mannequin, instead of one of the higher-end models we represent.” The security guard scratched his head. “Mannequins? No one said nothing about no mannequins. I mean, they’ve been talking behind doors, you know, on the down-low, but I heard nothing about mannequins. But the Pinocchio thing, I think it’s got legs.” He paused with a straight face, then smiled. “I mean it’s really got legs hahaha.” Charlie glanced at the puppet’s beige-stockinged stick legs and the patent black shoes on its feet and could not help but feel foolhardy.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t mean to break balls, but may I talk to someone in charge? I didn’t—I didn’t come here to shoot the shit with a security guard.” “What makes you think I’m just a security guard?” “That uniform, for one thing. And you’re sitting there reading the paper like you had nothing better to do until I showed up. And you answered the buzzer. If you’re not a security guard or a receptionist, what are you—the CEO of this, er, whatever this is?” “Listen, Giulio, you’re having a rough go of it. I can tell by the clothes, you know—by the way, groovy specs—and that little barn waft I caught when you came in—” The black telephone rang with a European rattle and the security guard snatched up the receiver and brought it to his ear. “Yeah,” he said. “He’s right here.” He looked at Charlie and listened for a long spell, nodding. “No,” he said finally. “No, no. Not that. It’s—what, no—it’s Pinocchio. That’s right. Pinocchio.” He listened for another moment and said, “Okay.” Then he hung up and clasped his hands together but said nothing. “Well, who was that?” Charlie asked. “Not important. Tell me, what’s your name again?” “Er, Giulio Messina.” “Right, Giulio. By the way, do I detect a northern drift in your vowels? Upstate New York?” “Spent time there, yes.” “You can’t mask it. Well, Giulio, there’s been a little mix-up. Not an imbroglio exactly. That’s too strong. You must be Italian, I can tell. I’m Filipino, but I have Italian blood on my mother’s side—Pugliese from what they say. Been to Italy but never Puglia. People say I look more Italian than Filipino. I swing both ways, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I

33.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 think someone talked to your boy in Naples and they misunderstood him. They thought he was trying to broaden distribution for his CBD products. He’s the CEO of Arlecchino, correct? What’s his name—” “Manfredo—but I was sent here to discuss the distribution of mannequins crafted in Italy, very nice ones, I can show you pictures.” “You brought pictures?”

his finger on one of the photos and gaping. “I know this work! I saw it at an exhibition in Venice a few years back with the little lady on our second honeymoon. It’s the work of the Italian artist Willy Verginer. My God. You represent Willy Verginer?” His hand reached for the telephone. Caught off guard, Charlie stammered, “Er, yes, it’s the work of Willy Verginer, how did you—and

seized one of the photos: a girl carved from wood with flower-petal eyes and arms outstretched. He stared at it, moving it to and from his face then almost touched it to his nose. Charlie squeezed Pinocchio’s shoulders so hard that the stuffing came free. “Willy Verginer, all right,” the guard said. “No mistaking it. He’s what you call sui generis. So you have his work

“At one point, he was certain he heard movement in the trunk. Ridiculous. Then he thought he heard muffled sobbing. But he would not entertain the idea that Pinocchio had somehow become animate.” “Yes, I did.” “Well, why didn’t you say so? A picture’s worth a thousand words as they say.” Charlie opened the manila envelope, shook out the photos and fanned them over the desk before the security guard, who lowered his head and regarded them for a minute, then sat up straight in his chair. “Shit,” he said, dropping

34.

well, no, we don’t exactly represent him, ah well, yes, some of his work we do, um, as it pertains to mannequins, we do—let me be clear. I just thought, as an example of—an example of how the Italians are doing this thing, in the mannequin field. I mean, with Wei Chong and his people—Ming and his people.” The security guard’s hand withdrew from the telephone and

in stock?” “Uh, yes,” Charlie halfheartedly confirmed, his mouth dry as sand. “It’s in storage at the moment. I’ll, um, talk to Manfredo about it—” “Giulio,” the guard said, raising his hand, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “We aren’t interested in art, Giulio. Do you see any art here? Willy Verginer creates art. We don’t touch it. Not with a ten-foot pole.


La Gilda di Pinocchio - Salvatore Difalco We wouldn’t have a clue dealing art. We’d be like blind children grasping for crayons. What do we know from crayons? And who decides? Who decides what is and what isn’t a masterpiece and how much that masterpiece is worth? Well, it’s arbitrary, man. It’s bullshit. So we’d be forever at the mercy of the art mafia, and there is such a thing, Giulio-man, in the awful clothes, there is such a thing. But no, mannequins are not our bread. Commodities, yes, commodities of whatever species, edible, inedible, electronic and so on are the way we roll. Not mannequins, we’re not a mannequin enterprise, do you see any mannequins here? Not one. But we deal in commodities, and CBD has real potential. Am I making myself clear, Giulio? We don’t need your stinking mannequins hahaha. We need the CBD. Arlecchino— good brand name, very strong—does Manfredo have a marketing degree?” “I don’t know,” Charlie said, deflated to hear that his cousin had found a profitable and fulfilling niche. “But what about Pinocchio, you said— ” “I said nothing. I just wanted to see it up close, and wanted to see if you’d actually drag it in here. And you did. You deserve a hand for that. I mean, applause. It’s ugly, guy, and I suspect it has no other value except perhaps as a novelty for children’s parties—although it might freak them out—or maybe some kinky sexual scene. By the way, Willy Verginer didn’t assemble that, did he?” “You know he didn’t. What about the meeting?” “Have Manfredo call Ming direct and talk some real business, never mind this mannequin shit.” “What’s your name?” “You wanna ask me out on a date or something?” “Just tell me who you are.” The security guard smiled and folded up his newspaper. “You know,” he

said, “a lot of people who jump over the Falls aren’t even depressed or suicidal. It’s the rushing water. Draws them in. It’s magnetic. They say Marilyn Monroe, when she was filming that movie Niagara, had to be held back a few times from the stone abutment and railing at Table Rock. You’ve been there, huh?” Charlie nodded. “Sure you have. I may have even seen you there.” “I don’t think so.” The guard tilted his head sideways and said, “So I suggest you gather up Pinocchio, maybe put him on your shoulders and piggyback him out of here—what the hell, was it a marionette for Andre the Giant? I hear he was bizarre.” “They used it in one of those postmodern art installations, you know.” “No, I don’t know. Postmodern haha. Useless if you ask me, and at least make it easy on the eyes. Look at the stupid face on that thing. Had a dentist with a face like that. Guy was all thumbs. So as I was saying, gather buddy up and beat it. Talk to Manfredo and maybe we’ll see you again.” Charlie hesitated before roughly grabbing the marionette and dragging it down the red vinyl strip to the front door. He didn’t look back but heard the telephone on the desk beep as he exited. Lightheaded, he removed the tortoiseshell glasses and continued across the street to his car. Pinocchio’s left shoe fell off and he doubled back to retrieve it. He stuffed Pinocchio into the trunk, determined to incinerate it later in an oil drum. He let the car warm up before putting it in drive. He had trouble organizing his thoughts. They kept slipping away like little blobs of mercury, none of them cohering. He put the car in gear and watched the world seemingly split in half as he drove through it. Everything slid by, all the bisected

scenery, the halved trees and houses. So strange and peaceful in a way. You could lose yourself in its beauty. He knew, or his body knew, to head to the highway, and he found the exit soon enough, but he had no consciousness of actually operating the Buick, which seemed to drive itself. At one point, he was certain he heard movement in the trunk. Ridiculous. Then he thought he heard muffled sobbing. But he would not entertain the idea that Pinocchio had somehow become animate. Scenery flashed by, but it didn’t move him, he had no sense of the world rushing past, its structures and envelopes, its significance. Not everything means something. Things happen. Nothing’s new. Things repeat, events and ideas, even people. A man spoke. Charlie answered mechanically, the words not his own. You don’t look well, sir. I don’t feel well, sir. Anything to declare? Only that I don’t feel well, sir. No mention of a puppet. No search either. It is what it is. You’re more likely to find meaning through immediate context. Live in the moment you’re in, not in the murky past or nebulous future. People suffer like other people, weep like other people, die like other people. A siren stirred him. Where was he? In Buffalo? Indeed, cruising along South Park Avenue. He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw police lights flashing. He drove on, confident the officer had no reason to pull him over. But the police car sped up and flanked him and the officer gestured for him to pull over. Charlie waved in acquiescence and eased the Buick to the curb, in front of a variety store with several teenagers in neon parkas exiting its doors. They bent their knees to get a better look at Charlie. “Hey, who’s that?” cried one of them. “Beats me,” said another. “Looks like a serial killer,” joked another.

35.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 Nah, not that old-timer...” Charlie tried his best to ignore them. The officer took his time. Maybe he was running Charlie’s license plate, not that he had anything to worry about, his record was clean. Not even a parking ticket. And he hadn’t been speeding down South Park, where the lights weren’t synchronized. The youths

police cruiser, tugging his holster and palming his walkie-talkie. He adjusted his cap and stepped toward the Buick. Then he stopped, turned around and returned to the cruiser. Charlie grew impatient, but as he had nowhere to be at that moment, he shut his eyes and reclined. He stretched out his limbs. He breathed. A tap at his window made

“Not even virgin eggnog, officer. On my mother’s eyes.” “Driver’s license and registration, please.” “Is that necessary? I’m fine. Bit tired, you know. The eyes tire on the freeway.” “Driver’s license and registration, sir. I’m not going to ask again.”

“...he had no sense of the world rushing past, its structures and envelopes, its significance. Not everything means something. Things happen. Nothing’s new. Things repeat, events and ideas, even people.” continued gawking and pointing. Then a man in work clothes and a Russian hat passed with a burlap-wrapped Christmas tree over his shoulder. The youths followed him, crying taunts. Charlie would’ve enjoyed watching the man stop and throttle a few of them. Ha. They would’ve probably overwhelmed him and kicked him to a pulp in the street. The man kept walking, ignoring the youths, and they relented at the next corner, where two teenage girls in white parkas and pink lipstick squealed upon seeing them. The officer finally exited the

36.

him jerk his head around. The officer stood there in sharp silhouette, his face completely shadowed. Charlie rolled down his window, squinting at the light slabbing over the officer’s broad shoulder. “Sir,” said the officer in a voice lowered to affect gravitas, “you were driving erratically down that stretch of road. Have you been drinking?” “What, me? No, no. I just lost track of my thoughts. Haven’t had a drop in days.” “Not even a little holiday cheer, sir?”

Charlie still couldn’t make out the officer’s face. The teenagers had returned with renewed interest in the goings-on of the man in the Buick. “Told youse he was a serial killer.” “Shut up, you’re nuts.” “He looks stinko.” “Nah, he’s stoned. He’s been smoking weed all day. Look at his eyes hahaha.” “Hahaha.” Charlie handed his driver’s license and car registration to the officer, who seized the documents with


La Gilda di Pinocchio - Salvatore Difalco a hand gloved in blue latex. After briefly inspecting the documents, the officer said, “Please exit your car, sir. Slowly. Don’t make any sudden movements.” Concern contorted Charlie’s face and his hands tightened on the steering wheel. Something was up. This was not a random occurrence. Everything in his bones told him so. His hands shook and he had trouble unlatching his seatbelt. He rubbed his hands together to still them. Sweat poured off his brow. He could hear the taunting teenagers, and yet he could do nothing and say nothing to rebuke them. He pulled at the belt with futility, glancing out at the silhouetted officer, standing there with his hand at his holster. “Hurry it up in there!” he barked, turning his wide shoulders. Charlie freed himself of the seatbelt at last. He stumbled as he exited the car, pitching forward to the wet, salted asphalt; and with his hands caught in the twisted folds of his suit, he failed to break the fall and landed with his full weight face-first, forehead and nose grating salt and grit, chin shredding down to the white bone. He didn’t black out, though he wanted to just shut his eyes and fall asleep and wake up several weeks later in a warm, clean bed. He knew he had ruined his face. He could feel it. He turned his head toward his car and blood and filth and skin dripped off his cheek. His nose bled profusely and his chin burned as the cold air touched its tattered tissues and exposed bone. He heard the teenagers’ cries—rising like cheers at a sporting event—and when he glanced under the Buick he saw their boots dancing on the pavement. He didn’t want to move. He feared that moving would unleash the world of pain he wasn’t feeling yet. But he could also sense the dark presence of the police officer, looming over him, hand at his holster, and he started shaking: first his hands, then his limbs, then his entire body shook and

he thought that surely he was dying. He heard the walkie-talkie crackle and the officer chattering urgently. Charlie stopped shaking and felt his sinuses filling with blood and blood thickening in his mouth. He turned to his other shoulder to better look at the officer communicating on the walkie-talkie with his back to the west and the sun descending behind him, and he couldn’t make out any details save for his thickness and bulk— the sure weight and cold reality of his presence there. Charlie raised his head and opened his bloodied mouth, but nothing came. No questions, explanations, words, memories. His mind was blank. He could not think. He heard the teenagers as if from a great distance. He regarded the officer’s black boots as objects from a terrible dream, and yet he felt no fear. He felt the resigned shock of a prey animal in the teeth of the predator. He felt no fear; he felt no fear, that is, until the officer bent to one knee and, with a gloved hand, touched Charlie’s shoulder. Not a kind touch. Not a gentle touch. It could have been the hand of Satan. He recoiled from it. “Hey, Squid,” the officer said. “Got yourself jammed up good this time, huh? Time for a Hail Mary, Squid. Time for a Hail Mary.” And it took a moment for it to dawn on Charlie that the officer had called him by his nickname—Squid— the name that people in the life called him, the name that only people who knew him had the temerity to call him. He began shaking violently again, only this time he felt afraid and could not explain why; he could not pinpoint why until the officer bent closer to him and showed himself. When Charlie saw the smiling and nodding face of Frank Castalucci, he shut his eyes and refused to open them.

37.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Luna of Pigwell Unearths Quantrill’s Bones Marco Etheridge

H

ere in Pigwell, the passage of time is measured out by the number of eighteen-wheelers that drive past our farm. That’s how I mark another day of my house arrest. Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not on meth, not pregnant and I didn’t kill anyone. Our farm isn’t even in Pigwell proper. Not that it matters, because there’s nothing proper about Pigwell. The whole town is nothing but a bar, a diner and a farm implement store. Burnett Acres is what my great-great-grandaddy chose to call this place, and that’s my name as well. I was born Molly Burnett; not short for anything, just Molly. When I changed my name to Luna Burnett, you’d have thought it was the end days the way my people carried on. My folks don’t do well with change. You might think passing semis make a lousy calendar, but then you might be wrong. I can tell the season depending on what the trucks are hauling. Sometimes it’s cattle and calves, but there are turkey trucks too. The stench in their wake is so strong it’ll burn your throat. Mostly it’s truckloads of squealing hogs rolling past our farm like clockwork. This place is named Pigwell for a

38.

reason. reason. Truckers use our little ribbon of road to dodge the weigh station out on the state highway. The cost of permits adds up, and money is tight in this part of Missouri. If a truck is maybe a few pigs over the weight limit, the driver will sneak up our way and on out past Chestnut Grove. Nothing ever happens in Pigwell, at least nothing that anyone cares enough about to remember. I know as much of the local history as the old ladies down at the county historical society; probably more. I read a lot of books, a habit my folks claim isn’t healthy. They say it’s been the source of all my troubles, but I’m pretty sure that Pigwell is the trouble, not the reading. Books have kept me as sane as I am, which probably isn’t saying much. You can learn a lot by reading. For example, did you know that one of the first battles of the Civil War took place not twenty-five miles from here? It’s true; the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, fought in 1861. They called it a Confederate victory, but mostly it was just a blood bath on both sides. The reason I mention Wilson’s Creek is that William Quantrill fought there. That was before he formed


Luna of Pigwell Unearths Quantrill’s Bones - Marco Etheridge a band of cutthroats who became Quantrill’s Raiders. Maybe you’ve heard of them. A year later, that gang of ruffians rode right through Chestnut Grove. Five of them made the mistake of raiding the Stoneking farm. Jebidiah Stoneking shot all five with a Sharpe’s rifle. I figured that would be something people around here might care about, but no one does. The old Stoneking farm is still there, outside of town. One bachelor son lives on the place. His name is William. I never thought sifting through local history would lead to becoming friends with William, or that having him as my friend would change my life. *** My first memories are of sitting right here on this very porch, being rocked in my mama’s lap. It was the same view then as it is now: a long green slope running down to the farm gate, a line of white oaks climbing the hill to the right. As kids, we watched fireflies from this porch, my brother and sister and me. My siblings are gone now. I’m the only one left on this land. My name is William Stoneking. My folks were standing right here, tears running down my mama’s face, when the sheriff drove up to arrest me. That was eight years ago now. My mother’s old wooden rocker is long gone, replaced by the metal chair I’m sitting in. The porch floorboards have gone warped and are in need of paint. I’ll get to it as soon as I can. I was alone on this same porch the morning I first saw Miss Luna. She pulled up at my gate in her pa’s old truck. I guess she was too scared to walk up to the house, but not scared enough to leave. I can’t fault her for being afraid, her just a high-school kid and me an ex-con living alone in a ramshackle

farmhouse. It had been so long since I’d spoken to anyone, I suppose the novelty of the thing appealed to me. Loneliness might be a better name for it. Whichever of the two it was, that was the day Miss Luna came into my life. As I walked down the line of oak trees to open the gate, I didn’t know just how fast our time together would go by. Those giant oaks are more than two centuries old. They were runty saplings when the Stonekings first settled this parcel of land. Those old trees have grown huge, but I’m the only one of the family left. The rest of my people, they’re dead or long gone. The dead ones, nine generations worth, are mostly buried in the family plot up top of the hill. Walk up under the sagging branches of the white oaks, climb the hill and you’ll find the old iron fence that surrounds our graveyard. They aren’t all there, of course. Families scatter, even those with roots as deep as ours. Jeremiah is buried over in Belgium. Jason Stoneking is buried in Normandy. The World Wars killed them; one apiece. Joshua Stoneking, our patriarch, he’s up in the family plot. It was him that homesteaded this section of land damn near two hundred years ago. Jebidiah was his son, the first one to spend his whole life on this land. Jeb would be my great-grandfather five times over. Each one of those generations had a boy-child who got yoked with a biblical name, all of them starting with the same letter. We had a Jacob, a Jethro, even a Jericho. My father got lucky with the name James and then pulled the plug on that business. He called me William and it stuck. I was never Billy, nor Will. I may sound like an old man telling this, but I am not yet forty. Leave a family on a piece of land long enough and there’s a history that grows into the people and into the ground both. That history

tends to get weighty, like an old tree stump you can’t dig up. Faced with that weight, people react one of two ways: they take it on, or they run. My folks took it on. My brother and sister, soon as they could, they ran. I don’t blame them. This part of Missouri don’t offer much to a young person. I’m the oldest son of my generation, so I was meant to stay. Circumstances being what they were, it turned out different. I’m back now, but there’s no one else left. Of all the graves up on the hill, I tend to Jebidiah’s the most. You might think I’d favor my mother’s grave, but she and Dad are buried in the town cemetery down to Chestnut Grove. The county frowns on the family plots anymore and I wasn’t here to see to my parents’ funerals. I was a guest of the state up in the Potosi Correctional Center at the time. Fact is, I’m a killer, just like Jebidiah Stoneking. Unlike Jeb, I am not a hero, quiet or otherwise. *** I was telling you about the cracked strip of asphalt that runs in front of our place. That little two-lane road is the only way out of Pigwell. I’ve ridden that road all my short life. Many a dark morning I stood at the end of our drive, a little girl waiting on a scary school bus. The bus rides didn’t get any better over the years. Neither did the fear. That rattling old bus wasn’t the only thing to be scared of. Early on, I began to see just how scared all the adults were, and all of them pretending not to be. Scared about money, scared about losing their farms, and all the time lying about how they weren’t scared of nothing. My parents didn’t lie to be mean. They were desperate, that’s all. Desperation is a pretty normal thing around here. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re just a little girl. It was in elementary school that labels started getting attached

39.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 to my name. The teachers wrote things in my report card like “bright” or “exceptional.” My classmates had other names for me that weren’t as nice. You can probably conjure up a few of them. By the time I got to high school, things were about as bad as they could get, or so I thought. Try being a girl in Pigwell who doesn’t follow the unwritten rules and you will see what it’s like. I’m not talking about the school rules or the rules at home. As far as that went, I was a straight arrow. Or I was until I met William Stoneking. But that came later. Girls around here worry about their hair, their clothes and cute boys. The boys live for beer, football, stock car racing and what’s under the girls’ clothes. I don’t give a damn about any of that stuff and that makes for a problem. Folks take notice when you don’t like what they like. Then I changed my name to Luna. I might as well have become a Satanist It’s funny that a little thing like changing your name would matter so much, but the fact is that it did. Folks started seeing me in a different way, a way they liked even less than before. I guess I started seeing myself differently, too, but I liked what I saw. It was about then I realized how pointless it was to be scared all the time. Fear still crept up on me, but I was seeing it now. That became a sort of starting place for me, if that makes any sense. By the time I was a senior, I’d read through most of the decent books in the school library. It was the same down at the historical society. The old biddies who guarded the place whispered to each other behind my back, but they let me read what I wanted. I’ve no doubt the good ladies went home and clucked about me to their husbands, all the while working up a Jell-O mold or tuna hot dish. That weird girl was here again, the one that

40.

dresses all in black and calls herself Luna. Her poor mother, I can’t imagine what that woman is going through with such a child. I was poking through old newspaper clippings when I stumbled onto an interview about the Stoneking family. In the interview, one of the Stonekings brothers, Zackery, claimed that his father, Jeb, killed five of Quantrill’s raiders. Modern Pigwell is as boring as dirt, so I decided to find out more about the Stoneking history. I had to persuade my father to loan me the old truck, but he finally gave in. I might have walked, but it’s every bit of ten miles from our place up to the old Stoneking farm. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know that trouble follows gossip and gossip follows trouble. I suppose I should have known what was going to happen. Looking back on it, I guess I just stopped caring. It’s true that William spent time in prison for killing a man. It wasn’t murder, only manslaughter. The dead man was kin to one of the big families in the county. Lots of folks believed the killing was a case of self-defense, but the judge didn’t. He knew who elected him. So, William went to prison over at Potosi. Both his folks died while he was doing his time. Some people said it was a family curse, a Confederate revenge on the Stoneking name. Folks around here will say most anything once they get their tongues unlimbered. Tongues got limber real quick over William and me. I was a seventeen-year-old girl and the local weirdo. He was almost forty and an ex-convict. I’m sure you can imagine the kind of talk that got started. Truth is, he never so much as laid a hand on me, not even to shake mine when I first met him. No matter what folks said afterward, William Stoneking acted like a gentleman. He was also my one and only true friend.

*** The Civil War got going early here in Missouri, well before the official secessions. The bushwhackers and jayhawkers were at each other’s throats over the slavery question and things got bloody long before the war was actually declared. My ancestor Jebidiah was a good Lutheran, and as staunch an anti-slavery man as there was in these parts. Jeb had no patience with outsiders and even less for the pro-slavery folks. He was a man who helped his neighbors, attended his church and worked his land. All he asked from the Lord or anyone else was to be left alone to tend his farm. The Lord did not see fit to grant his request. Trouble built on more trouble until the official war broke out. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was fought not forty miles south of here. William Quantrill fought on the rebel side. After Wilson’s Creek, he formed a band of irregulars. Quantrill’s Raiders killed almost two hundred men and boys in the Lawrence Massacre. But that was later on, and not part of Jeb’s story. By 1862, the Yankees had driven most of the Confederates out of Missouri, but the guerrilla fighting was still hot. Quantrill and his band were at the heart of it and times stayed bloody. One fine June morning, five of Quantrill’s men decided to cross our land. Jebidiah was a God-fearing man, but he did not wholly trust in the bible for protection. He had a Sharps rifle, a breechloader, which was a powerful weapon in those days. Jeb and the older boys were tending to the fields way down in the bottom land. Five riders came out of the trees, all of them heavily armed and heading for our farmhouse. Jeb sent the boys running for the house while he dashed into a cornfield with his carbine. That


Luna of Pigwell Unearths Quantrill’s Bones - Marco Etheridge time of year, those corn stalks would’ve been belly high on a grown man. Those five raiders were riding in a line. Jeb rose up from between the cornrows and shot the last man in line. That .54 caliber ball took him right off his horse. While those bushwhackers were busy wheeling their horses about, Jeb shot the lead rider square in the

back and clawing at the dirt. Jeb asked the Lord’s forgiveness, then put one more ball in that man’s chest. That’s how we came to have two graveyards here on the farm. There’s the family plot up on the hill, and five unmarked graves in the bottomland woods across the creek.

rearview mirror as I idled up the drive. I liked what I saw. That first time, I never went inside of the house. We sat on the front porch in a couple of squeaky metal chairs, the old-fashioned kind that rock like springs. What I remember most was just talking. William called me Miss Luna, as if it was the most natural

“Books have kept me as sane as I am, which probably isn’t saying much.” chest. Back down into the corn he goes to reload. The other three must have been brave men, but they were foolish. They chose to ride Jeb down rather than run. Jeb shot the third man before they got their horses fully turned. The fourth man took a ball to the shoulder and toppled backwards off his horse. The last rider came at Jeb, blasting away with a Colt pistol, but he missed his shots. As that man’s horse plunged past, Jeb stood up, swung around and shot him square in the back. Jebidiah Stoneking walked out of the corn to where that wounded raider lay. The poor bastard was screaming in pain, half his shoulder shot away, scrabbling around on his

*** The first time I drove up to the Stoneking place, I almost lost my nerve. The gate was locked, and that old farmhouse sat up the hill like it was brooding. I had just decided to turn around and skedaddle when I saw William walking down the hill. It’s a funny thing, but William accepted what I said without asking a bunch of questions. I was nervous as a cat, but I managed to act decently. I told him how I’d come across his family at the historical society. William didn’t act surprised or ask me about my parents. He just unlocked the gate and said I should drive on up. I watched his reflection dancing around in the

name in the world. He didn’t talk down to me the way most adults do, and he listened. He listened like he wanted to understand what I was saying, not like he was just waiting to talk again. He was like no one I had ever met. When I left that day, both of us standing down by his gate, I asked William if I might visit again. He said that would be fine as he was there most all of the time. That was how it started. Later on, when he invited me inside the old house, I saw it was half falling apart. William spent his days working on it. He had fixed up the front room first. That was where he slept. The walls around his old cot were lined with bookshelves. It was like being in a library, except way better.

41.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 Folks will discount the words

of a teenage girl, but the time I spent with William Stoneking was the best of my short life. We never did anything but talk, either on the porch or in that magical front room. I told William about my life in Pigwell, as much as there was to tell. Mostly I talked about wanting to get out of there, to anywhere else. He talked about growing up on the family farm. I asked him about being in prison. He spoke about it as casually as if he were talking about going down to the store in town. That’s just how he was. Eventually, he told me about the five unmarked graves in the woods beyond the creek. Once we exhausted the horrors of high school and prison, we moved on to talking about books. William told me how he learned to travel the world from his prison cell. That was how he stayed sane those seven long years. He flew far beyond those prison walls, winging away on the pages of a book. *** Miss Luna asked me about my prison time, her not knowing any better. It was seven years I served up at Potosi. I’d like to tell you I was innocent, but that’s not the truth. I was as guilty as any man, and not remorseful over the killing. Ray Mooney was his name, the son of one of the richest men in the county. It didn’t much matter in the eyes of the law that the bastard had raped a young girl. No charges were ever brought against him, her being black and his daddy being rich. That girl’s father, he was a good friend of mine. Still is, I suppose, though we don’t talk anymore. The thing that cost me seven years was done in a few short minutes. I was driving our old flatbed truck, hauling a load of feed back from town. A fancy pickup sails past, almost putting me into the ditch. That rig skids to a halt sideways across the road. Ray Mooney and two of his no-good

42.

pals pile out of the truck. I step out of the flatbed, tell them to go on and leave me be. Ray is yelling how I can’t do shit to him, how the law is on his side. Then he reaches one hand behind his back. I oblige him by shooting him twice in the chest. I don’t even remember grabbing my pistol, but there it was in my hand. Ray is sprawled out on his back, dead before he hit the ground. Things got real quiet after that. I kept my pistol pointed at those other two while I climbed back into the flatbed. Then I punched the gas and they jumped for the ditch. I didn’t know what else to do but drive on back to the farm. A few hours later, the sheriff arrested me in front of my old folks. I know it’s not much of a heroic tale, but that’s the long and short of it. The trial went about as you’d expect. The judge knew who it was got him elected to the bench. Still, it could have been worse. Ray Mooney’s pals managed to hide his pistol before the sheriff got to the scene, but that story didn’t hold water. The idea of a missing pistol turning up made the prosecutor nervous, so the old boy dropped the charges from second-degree murder down to manslaughter. There were no witnesses to vouch for me, so I took the guilty plea for the lesser charge. I don’t think many folks doubted that the son-ofa-bitch deserved killing, but since the state usually reserves that right for themselves, I was the one sent off to prison. I was lucky up at Potosi. I had killed a man and the dead man was a rapist. That bought me a little breathing room with the hard cases. It didn’t hurt that the Mooneys were a rich family with a bad reputation. Still, prison time is hard time, and slow to pass. Prison walls teach tough lessons. I learned that there are three ways out of a prison, besides doing

your time. An inmate can escape, which happens now and then. But escapees generally get caught or killed. There’s dying, self-inflicted or not, which is a sure way out. Then there are a very few prisoners who learn to make the walls irrelevant. I met this pair of lifers in Potosi. Seth and Morris were their names; one white, the other black, both hard as coffin nails. They were an odd combination inside the walls. Neither of them had a prayer of getting out and they both knew it. The rest of the population gave them respect or a wide berth. It was Morris that first shoved a book in my hand. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know why they bothered themselves about me, but I’ll always be grateful that they did. There is a world of time in prison and reading helps that time move. Seth and Morris steered me at first, pointing out this or that book, and always with the fewest words possible. It wasn’t long before I was plowing through the prison library like it was soft Missouri bottom land. The more I read, the more those walls disappeared. When the authorities finally released me, I was sent to a halfway house down in Springfield. I made myself into a model parolee. After four months of washing dishes and toeing the line, I was allowed to go back to the farm. My parents were dead, and the farmhouse was empty and starting to fall down. My brother had leased out our tillable land and was banking the rents. My share of the lease money and a rent-free house got me just enough to scrape by. I was most of a year out of prison before Miss Luna showed up at my gate. I spent my days fixing up the old house and my evenings reading. Aside from the mandatory visits to the parole officer, I was as much a hermit as a man can be. Talking to Miss Luna was the first real conversation I’d had in a long damn time.


Luna of Pigwell Unearths Quantrill’s Bones - Marco Etheridge Pigwell is a speck of a town southeast of Chestnut Grove. It’s a mystery that Miss Luna survived it as long as she did. She was born Molly Burnett, but by the time I met her, she had changed that to Luna. She fancied herself a goth girl, not knowing she was two decades too late. A girl dressed all in black raises eyebrows in any small Missouri farm town. Luna’s real trouble came from being too damn smart and asking too many questions. It was her pestering questions that brought her out to my place, which just led to more trouble. Up on the shelves of the historical society is an interview with my many-times-removed great uncle, Zackery Stoneking. Zackery was the youngest son of Jebidiah Stoneking and had no love of farming. He set out West and became a horse soldier in the Indian Wars. In 1928, Zackery Stoneking was an old man come back home from a life of soldiering. He gave an interview to the local newspaper. In the interview he tells the story of Jeb killing those five men, something the family had kept secret for many years. Nine decades later Miss Luna was poking around in the historical society and she found that interview. So it was I saw her at my gate, sitting in her father’s old pickup. I walked down the sloping drive, all the while watching her watching me. After our good mornings, Luna told me who she was and what she’d read about my family. I had the whole day and more curiosity than was good for me, so I unlocked the gate and told her to drive on in. By the time I walked back up, she was standing next to the truck. We spent that first morning sitting out on the porch. There’s a couple of old metal spring chairs out there, the ones that squeak under a body when you rock. Miss Luna talked a blue streak, but unlike most people, she also listened. She talked about growing up

in Pigwell. When she asked me about being in prison, I told her. It should have felt strange, suddenly having a pretty teenager on my porch, but fact is, it was downright pleasant. The morning sun was heading to noon when she figured she should be getting back. I walked beside her rig back down to the gate. She asked if she could come for another visit. I reckoned as how I was on the farm most of the time, she’d be welcome. It wasn’t a week later Miss Luna turned up again. I gave her a tour of the house. She didn’t seem to mind the mess of it. I remember her face when she saw the front room where I keep my sleeping cot and the bookshelves filled by generations of Stonekings. It was the books that stopped her in her tracks. She got this far-away look in her eyes, running a hand across the spines of those old tomes. Her visits lasted the better part of that spring. Of course, I should have seen the trouble coming. The truth of it is I was lonely, and Miss Luna was my only friend in the world. She kept showing up at the farm and we sat on the porch and talked. Luna talked about leaving Pigwell, called it breaking out, like she needed to escape a prison. When we got tired of talking about farm towns and family history, we talked about the magic that lived inside of books. Something about Luna opened me up like no one I’ve ever known. Words flowed out of me like water spilling out of a spring in the desert. It turned out to be painful and even dangerous, but I wouldn’t wish to change a thing. She touched my heart. That’s the long and short of it. I told her about Seth and Morris back in Potosi, how those two hard cases taught me to ride the words in a book like I was sailing over solid walls on a flying carpet. Miss Luna always borrowed a book or two when she left, burning through them before

her next visit to the farm. *** My visits to the Stoneking farm landed me in trouble. I got William in trouble as well and that’s something I’ll always regret. I’d been out to William’s farm maybe ten times. Eyes are sharp around here, especially old lady eyes. Somebody saw me driving up to the farm and recognized my dad’s old truck. That was all it took. The gossip chain runs short and loud around here. Someone told my father and that was the end of it. He took away the truck keys and locked me in the house. Then he called the sheriff, who paid a visit to William. The sheriff told William that he was in danger of violating his parole, associating with an underage girl like me. I finished out my last school year living like a prisoner. My dad drove me to school and my mom was there at the end of the day to pick me up. Those gossipy old biddies were taking bets on me turning up pregnant, but they were disappointed. Immaculate conception doesn’t happen in the real world. Like I said, William never so much as laid a hand on me, even if maybe I wanted him to. *** Gossip comes easy in a small town, and trouble follows gossip. Someone recognized Luna’s pickup coming up my drive. Tongues got loose right quick, and it wasn’t long before Luna’s father got word that his daughter was visiting my place. My next visitor was the county sheriff. Despite our past history, the sheriff was a decent enough man, but decent or not, he was all business. He asked me if I had taken leave of my senses. An ex-convict, almost forty years old, letting a teenage girl hang around the farm. He said I was close

43.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 to violating my parole and asked me if I really wanted to go back to prison. It didn’t matter to the sheriff that I never laid a finger on Miss Luna, not so much as a handshake. He just shook his head and told me how it was going to be. That was the last I saw of Luna Burnett. Her absence almost broke me, like a nail driven into my heart. *** I measure the passage of time by the number of eighteen-wheelers that rumble past our farm. It’s autumn now, the last season I will ever spend in Pigwell. I mark the days until I turn eighteen. The small-town lawyer I talked to called it the age of majority. That’s the day my house arrest comes to an end, the day that Luna Burnett will pack a bag and vanish. I don’t know where I’m going, and I don’t care. I’ve already lived in the scariest place on Earth. Once I’m gone, I will write William Stoneking a letter. I’ll write that wherever I am there is a place for him as well, a place to sit and talk. I will tell him that I’m never going back to Pigwell, but that he can come to me. Maybe he will. I hope so anyway. I’ll understand if he doesn’t, even though I miss him something terrible. He showed me that it’s possible to fly over prison walls. For that precious gift, I will always be grateful. *** There was a hard frost last night, hard enough to turn the grass a glistening silver. The oak trees are throwing off the last of their fall colors. It’s cold sitting out here on the porch. The coffee mug is warm in my hands. There is a letter sticking out of my coat pocket, which I will re-read once my hands warm up a bit. After the sheriff’s visit, I heard that Miss Luna’s folks locked her up on their farm. They drove her to school,

44.

and one of them was waiting on her when school let out. When she didn’t turn up pregnant, the talk finally died down. Summer passed without me hearing a word, so I guess she was learning what it’s like to be a prisoner. My only friend made her escape in the end. Luna Burnett turned eighteen years old in October. That was the last day anyone in Pigwell ever laid eyes on her. Her letter arrived yesterday, postmarked from Austin, Texas. I expect the whole county will know about it by tomorrow, but I don’t give a damn about those gossips down at the post office. Miss Luna is far away, too far for them to hurt her. As for me, there are very few benefits to being a convicted killer but being left alone is one of them. I don’t need to pull the letter from my pocket. Her words are already etched in my memory. My friend writes that there is always a place for me with her. Luna says that she’s never coming back, and I can’t blame her for that. I can come to her, wherever she ends up, and she hopes that I will. She understands if I cannot come, but she wants me to know that she misses me. The morning sun creeps up onto the porch, warming my feet. My eyes see the faded paint on the empty metal chair next to mine. What words will I use to reply to my friend? It will be the first letter I have written since prison. What will the pen scratch across the page? My beautiful Luna, you have broken free from the walls that held you. You have taken the first hard steps. There is so much that you deserve, and you shall have it. I believe that, and I believe in you. Love, beauty, magic; all of these things are possible for you, and my wish for you is that you find them all in abundance. My place is here, on this land. I am bound here by blood and bone, by time and history. I am an old man waiting to be an old man. My bones are sunk into this soil as deeply as the dead bones mouldering down past the creek. I cannot leave, no more than you

can return. Keep going, Miss Luna. Be happy, keep going, and don’t look back. I will write the letter tonight. Tomorrow, I will drive the old truck down to Springfield. Better to mail the letter away from prying eyes. I can check in with my parole officer while I’m in town. There is a little diner there where no one knows me, where I can eat in peace; a place where I have no history.


Let the Air In Debrah Miszak

J

ulia looked at the blood on the toilet paper and squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to clear her head. The hell of the past week was over. As she washed her hands, she looked at herself in the mirror. The bags under her eyes and the greasiness of her hair were proof she’d been off the deep end for the past week. That was when she’d been in the Starbucks bathroom across the street from where she’d bought those cheap pregnancy tests and the middle-aged cashier refused to look her in the eye as he rang them up. Allie told her she shouldn’t have been so stingy with her money and that every college girl knows to splurge on the digital ones, but those were pricey and Julia made minimum wage. She splashed water on her face and called Chris to tell him the good news that they were in the clear. It went straight to voicemail, like it did when she called to tell him two tests had been positive. She knew he’d feel bad when he returned her call and that he would need cheering up. Maybe he would rearrange his plans and she could go visit him that weekend, she thought. For the time being, she was drained anyway, and didn’t feel much like talking to anyone. She walked from

the communal bathroom to her dorm room and flopped herself onto the futon under Allie’s lofted bed. She stared at the blank TV and thought about watching something, but didn’t want to deal with the noise. She picked up a book she was reading for her required Arts and Humanities class; the words meant nothing to her. She climbed into her bed and put a sleep mask on because the vertical blinds in the room were awful at blocking out light. She forced herself to sleep. She’d only been out for a few minutes when Allie came in, arguing with her boyfriend on speakerphone while she juggled an iced latte, her keys and random loose books that didn’t fit into her fashionable (even if impractically small) backpack. “Aaron—no—you listen to me! No—stop interrupting me! You’re coming up this weekend because you said you would,” Allie said in a voice that was half-whine and half-yell. “You know what? I don’t even want to talk to you.” She hung up on him and looked at Julia, who was groggy and sitting up in bed, as though nothing had happened. “So...” she said. “When’s the baby shower?” Julia rolled her eyes. “There won’t be one,” she

45.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 responded wryly. “You were right about those tests.” “You’ll get used to it,” Allie said. “I just know how to handle these things because Aaron always forgets to pull out in time.” Julia had to handle what she was going to reply with delicately. She and Allie had been friends since seventh grade, and every boyfriend Allie had was an underachiever who Allie fought with incessantly. It was nothing like her and Chris, she thought. “Speaking of Aaron,” she said gently. “What was all that about?” “Oh, well he was trying to bail on coming up this weekend because he has a new junk car he’s ‘fixing up,’ but I think he’s really trying to hang out with Lacey because I saw on Snapchat that she’s single now. So, we got into it and I asked him what an unemployed high school dropout could have going on that is more important than coming up to see his girlfriend,” Allie said with a sigh. “Allie, why are you with somebody who you think is going to cheat on you anytime an opportunity might arise?” Julia was exhausted from hearing Allie’s paranoia increase each week. “Because the sex is great,” Allie said with a laugh. Julia’s eyes widened. “I’m kidding. It’s the same reason you and Chris are together. We’re in love.” Julia grimaced at her and Chris’ relationship being compared to the trainwreck of Allie and Aaron. “I get that,” Julia said. “But I’m not worried about Chris cheating on me and we don’t fight like that. I just worry about whether this is a healthy situation for you, that’s all.” “Is it better that you act like you’re settled and just bottle up your problems?” Julia looked down at her comforter and sighed. “You have to learn to pick and choose your battles.” “For that to work you have to

46.

at least pick some, right?” “I do.” Allie put her blonde hair in a ponytail and looked at Julia with concern. “For somebody with such good news, you’re in a shitty mood,” she said. “What did Chris say when you told him? He should take you on a date for all that.” “I haven’t had a chance to talk to him,” Julia said. “He had an exam or something today.” That was a lie, she knew he didn’t, but she didn’t want to be too vulnerable with Allie. “Well, how are you feeling aside from that? Do you feel like going out?” “Not really, I think I am going to make an appointment at the health center anyway because I’ve been having weird cramps. I thought maybe it had to do with being pregnant, but I’m not pregnant.” “Ehh, you’re probably just being a baby,” Allie said with a slight smile. They often joked she didn’t believe in going to the doctor unless someone was on the brink of death. Hours passed. Allie and Aaron fought on the phone three more times, and Julia pretended to do homework on her laptop, but she couldn’t focus. Wasn’t Chris also worried about her possibly being pregnant? Shouldn’t he anxiously be calling her back? Couldn’t he at least text her? She stared at her phone screen. She hated to do this. She called him again. “Hey,” Chris said breathlessly. “Hey, am I interrupting anything?” “No, it’s fine. I’m just walking back from the cafeteria. What’s up?” “Well, I’m not pregnant!” “Oh, cool. I told you that you probably weren’t.” “Weren’t you worried by the positive tests?” “Not really, I mean, you have an IUD. That’s better than the pill.” “I know, but—”

“You just have to worry less. You always freak out about stuff like this. It’s not good for you.” “Well, I don’t think it’s wrong to worry when my period was late and I had two positive pregnancy tests. I mean, if my period wasn’t late or the tests were clearly negative that would be one thing. Maybe then it would be irrational to flip out about this, but I had a reason to be worked up. Weren’t you worried?” “Yeah, of course.” “I called you earlier and it went right to voicemail and you never called me back or anything. I really needed you.” “I’m really sorry, Julia. You know, I’m just really busy and to be honest, I didn’t have time to worry about something I knew was going to be fine. I’m not trying to make excuses. It was unacceptable for me not to get back to you quickly, but I just want you to understand where I’m coming from. I’m overwhelmed. Between my classes and this internship, I have a lot on my plate. Besides, if you were pregnant, we’d just split the five hundred dollars for an abortion and it would be no big deal.” “No big deal?” “Yeah. Don’t cry. Everything’s okay now. You’re okay. We’re okay.” “I know you’re so busy. I know. I do. Could you come tomorrow though? I really need you and I have this doctor’s appointment to figure out why my cramps are so bad, so I can’t come to you, but I want to see you. I miss you so much.” “Yeah, I can come up tomorrow around four. I miss you too. I have to let you go though, the guys are drinking in the suite and I don’t want them to overhear us talking.” “Thank you so much. I love you.” “Love you too. Bye.” Click. The next day didn’t come as quickly as Julia wanted it to, but she


Let the Air In - Debrah Miszak remained grateful when it did. She hadn’t seen Chris in two weeks and after everything that had happened, they needed to have a good time. She didn’t let loose very often, and this weekend she was going to have fun. She just had to get through this doctor’s appointment. She hated going to the women’s health clinic. She’d only been there once before to get her IUD at the beginning of the year. Her anxiety had gotten the best of her because she was convinced the president and Congress were going to restrict access to the pill, so she wanted a form of birth control that didn’t need refills. Everything in the office possessed the same shades of pastel pink and white. Maybe this was appealing to girls in the 1970s, she rationalized. She went to the checkin desk to present her school ID and her insurance card, and tried not to look at the other students waiting to be called back to see a doctor. The receptionist was in her late forties and had bleached blonde hair in a bun and skin that was no stranger to a tanning booth. Women like this always scared Julia because she was never so put together. “Name?” “Julia Martin.” “Date of birth?” “October 5, 1999.” The receptionist found her appointment in the system and input her insurance information. She looked up at Julia once more. “Just to confirm...cramps and a late period are the symptoms that brought you in?” “Yes, but I don’t think they’re related. I already know I’m not pregnant.” “That’s okay. I just need to make note of all the symptoms you’re experiencing for the doctor.” “Okay, thank you. Yeah, that’s it.”

“Okay. You can have a seat. Somebody should call you back in a few minutes.” Julia sunk into a pink pleather chair and scrolled on social media until her name was called. She was grateful it wasn’t the same physician she’d had last time. Instead, a lady with curly gray hair and thin, round glasses smiled gently at her and led her to a room. “You’re in today because of bad cramps and a late period?” the doctor said as she took Julia’s vitals. “Yes. I normally wouldn’t see a doctor for cramps but these are way worse than I’m used to and I feel like something’s up.” “Are you on your period right now?” “Yes, it started yesterday.” “Okay, thank you. Do you usually have abnormal periods?” “Not when I was on the pill, but since I switched to the IUD in December, yes.” “Okay. Can you lie down on your back for me?” Julia shuffled awkwardly to adjust her position on the paper that crinkled underneath her. “Now I’m going to press down in a few places. Tell me if it hurts.” The doctor’s hands went to Julia’s lower abdomen and pressed down carefully. Immediately, Julia winced in pain. The doctor calmly assessed, “We’re going to need to do an ultrasound to check for cysts. These are usually no big deal.” A nurse came a few moments later to lead Julia to the ultrasound room, where a technician with brown hair like Julia’s looked at her with concentration. She sat on the table and was directed to lay down again. “This is going to be cold,” the technician said as she put the gel on Julia’s stomach. Then, she began snapping photos. Julia tried

to look at the monitor to make sense of what she was seeing, but she did not understand. She watched as the images were sent to the doctor, who would then interpret them. She made her way back to the first room. She fiddled with her thumbs uncomfortably for a few moments, and when it became clear the doctor would be late coming back to see her, she pulled out her phone and anxiously tried to play a game. It didn’t take long for her to put it away because she couldn’t focus. Her mind was racing as she tried to play back the ultrasound in her mind to see if the technician’s face gave away anything. She knew she shouldn’t speculate since she was not a medical professional, but she couldn’t help herself. Oh God, she thought, what if there was a fetus? What if I am pregnant? The doctor came back in after Julia had worried herself into intense nausea. She smiled softly at Julia. “So, I have an idea of what is causing you so much discomfort.” “Am I pregnant?” Julia blurted. “No, no, you’re not pregnant,” the doctor said, looking down at her shoes. “There are a couple things I need to talk to you about.” She pulled out printed copies of the ultrasound photos where there were circles around different items. “To start, at least some of your cramps are because your body is rejecting the IUD because it is not placed properly. This is because you have what is called a bicornuate uterus, or a heart-shaped uterus. Do you see this septum here that divides your uterus into two chambers?” “Yeah, and I can see the IUD is tilted.” “Exactly, so you’re going to get that removed after your period ends because it’s not helping at all.”

47.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 “You mean all the sex I’ve had with my boyfriend from December to now has been unprotected? How am I not pregnant? Did I have a miscarriage and write it off as a period?” “You’re right that you were not protected. That leads to the next diagnosis I need to give you. Do you see these cysts on your ovaries?” “Yes.”

to carry to term.” “I’m only nineteen,” Julia said. “There’s no changing this?” “I’m afraid not,” the doctor said. “There is still a chance— absolutely—that you might be able to have kids. It just might be a more challenging experience. Lots of people with these conditions do carry babies to term. I just want to prepare you now

Julia walked out of the office. The February air was cold and dry, and she could tell her nose and cheeks were red. She felt like vomiting. She sat down at a bench by the bus stop across the street. Ring. It was Chris. He must be pulling into town soon—it was already four. She smiled in spite of herself.

“It turns out I probably can’t have kids because my uterus is heart-shaped—” ”Hey, like Courtney Love! ’HeartShaped Box’ is about her uterus, I think...” “You have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. That’s also causing your cramps and it’s causing the abnormalities in your period.” “Okay,” Julia said with some confusion in her voice. The doctor looked down at her shoes again. “Julia, another issue with PCOS is infertility. It’s going to be difficult for you to conceive. Your bicornuate uterus makes it even more unlikely that you’ll conceive, and if you do, there is a chance you won’t be able

48.

for all possible outcomes. This printout has information on where you can find resources.” The well-meaning doctor handed a paper with links on it to Julia, who wondered why this wasn’t just an email. What was she going to tell her mom? What would she tell Chris? “Well, thank you for all your help today,” Julia said to the doctor. “Of course dear, and don’t forget to make an appointment to get that IUD removed.”

At least he somehow managed to call when it counted. “Hey, you have no idea how much I needed to talk to you!” “I can’t come today. I’m really sorry. I feel terrible about it. I forgot that I have a concert to go to with Devin and he paid for the tickets.” Julia looked up at the gray, cloudy sky. It was going to snow later that day. “Can you please just come,” she pleaded. “I had my doctor’s


Let the Air In - Debrah Miszak appointment a little bit ago. It turns out I probably can’t have kids because my uterus is heart-shaped—” “Hey, like Courtney Love! ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is about her uterus, I think,” Chris tried to joke to get her to calm down. Julia was not receptive. “Oh, can you just be serious for a minute,” she said. “This isn’t a joke. I have a weird uterus and I have cysts on my ovaries, and everything is kind of a nightmare right now. I have to deal with this, you’re trying to go to a concert instead of visiting, and I don’t know what to do.” “Look on the bright side,” he said. “We’ve been together for four years. You’ve never wanted kids. Now you don’t have to worry about it. This is a good thing.” “This is a good thing? I was fifteen when we started dating. Of course I didn’t want kids. I was a kid. I feel like I’m a kid now. It’s different to choose that you don’t want kids than it is to be told that you can’t have them. Can you at least see where I’m coming from?” “Of course, and I’m really sorry you’re going through this alone right now.” “You can fix that. Please just come up and be with me. Or, I can even come to you.” “Julia, I already have plans with Devin. I’m sorry I forgot, but I can’t just bail on him. I just made these friends.” “You made plans with me though. Can’t you explain what’s going on to Devin. I’m sure he’d understand. Just pay him back for the ticket or something.” “I’m sorry.” “So, that means you aren’t coming?” “I can’t.” “Alright, I’m done. Bye.” Click. Julia cried from anger. She’d wasted four years of her life on Chris.

She loved him. She loved him now even though she didn’t understand him. She couldn’t take him anymore, though. The bus came, and she took it back to her dorm. She rolled her eyes when she heard the sound of flirtatious giggling through the door. She did a courtesy knock before she unlocked it and found Allie and Aaron wrapped up in a blanket on the futon. Lipstick marks were all over Aaron’s face. “It’s not even five yet and you guys are already canoodling?” Julia attempted to sound lighthearted. “Well, you know, it’s one of the perks of not taking any Friday classes,” Allie said. “Shouldn’t you be using that perk too and doing some canoodling of your own with Chris today anyway?” “We broke up.” Aaron and Allie looked at each other, wide-eyed. Aaron cleared his throat. “I’m just gonna go use the bathroom.” Angry, reluctant tears seeped out of Julia’s eyes and she wiped them away quickly. Allie hugged her. “Do you want to talk about it?” “No.” Allie grinned. “Welcome to being able to play the field,” she said. “You’re going to have a great time.” She snatched Julia’s phone from her pocket. “What are you doing?” she asked. “We’re making you a Tinder profile.” “No, no, no! I’ve had a long day and I’m not the rebound type.” Allie rolled her eyes. “How do you know what type you are if you’ve only dated one person,” she said. “Besides, you don’t have to meet up with anyone. This is just to have some fun and get some validation.” Julia relented and they flipped through her photos to pick the best

ones. Aaron returned and ignored them while he watched videos of NASCAR on his phone. “What do I put in my bio?” Julia wondered. “Single and ready to mingle,” Allie joked. “No, just put something cute like a song lyric or something. It doesn’t have to be like your resumé, dork.” “Okay, cool,” Julia said. “Cool. Cool. I’m done, then.” “Start swiping, dude,” Allie said. “Aaron and I will be back around eight. We’re going to grab some dinner and walk around downtown, okay?” “Yeah, that’s fine. I’m going to crawl into bed for a nap anyway.” Julie woke up to the door opening and Allie and Aaron laughing. She yawned and sat up in bed. Allie whispered into Aaron’s ear and he spoke up with discomfort. “Uh, Julia, I brought some vodka if you wanted to drink with us. Allie—I mean—I wanted to make sure you know it wouldn’t be thirdwheeling.” Julia knew she was being pitied and she wasn’t much of a drinker, but she was willing to take her friend up on her charity this time because she needed to stop thinking. Every time she looked at a guy on this ridiculous app, she thought about Chris and how he was so nice and funny, especially at the beginning when they would stay up talking all night and make playlists for each other and everything felt as lifechanging and electric as touching a power line. She sat next to Allie on the futon and they started playing drinking games. Within an hour, Julia was drunk and cheery. To be fair, this wasn’t saying much, because she had never been more than buzzed. “Oh my God,” she said, “Allie, this guy lives down the hall from us and we matched.”

49.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 “Is that the guy who looks like Timotheé Chalamet?” “Yes!” “Holy shit,” she said, words slurring. “You should go knock on his door and say hi.” “No, that’s weird! That’s stalker-ish.” “Fine,” Allie sighed. “If he messages you though, I say go for it.” Julia went back to swiping contentedly until she wondered what Chris was doing. She pulled up his contact information. “What are you doing?” Allie demanded as she grabbed her phone. “I want Chris. I don’t want these guys. I want to make up with Chris.” “Look, I know I don’t have much to add here, but as a guy, don’t make up with Chris,” Aaron said as he shuddered at the taste of the alcohol. “It’s like with me and Allie. If Allie came back to me when we have our off periods my ego would be out of control. You’ve got to let him come to you.” “What if he doesn’t?” Allie put her arm around Julia’s shoulders. “Then it’s for the best. He’s probably out hitting on girls at that concert right now anyways.” Julia thought about it and it stewed in her head for a while. She needed to get some air. She grabbed a water bottle to fill up at the drinking fountain in the hall. She walked out still swiping on her phone. Bump. Julia’s water bottle and phone fell out of her hands and she stumbled as she grabbed the shoulder of the figure in front of her to steady herself. “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry! I’ve been drinking and I needed water and—” He turned around and smiled with amusement, and he reached down to pick up the things Julia had dropped. “And now you’re explaining

50.

too much,” he said. “It’s no problem. I’m Alex.” Julia’s eyes looked like saucers. “Oh my God. You’re Alex from Tinder. I am so sorry. This is so embarrassing. I’m Julia. I live down the hall.” “I know, we’ve seen each other around,” he laughed. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but I thought you had a boyfriend or some guy that you’re with.” Julia rubbed her temples, trying to sober up quickly. “Well, I did. It’s a long story, but now I don’t.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, it’s okay,” she laughed, surprising herself. “It was time to end it.” “And you’re looking for a rebound?” “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I was just messing around with that. I didn’t mean to offend you or anything, especially if you’re looking for something more serious, I’m just not in a position for anything serious right now—” “Calm down, I can’t keep up,” he said. “Not everything has to be serious. I just think you’re cute.” “Well, that’s bold of you to say the first time we’re talking.” “Is that a problem?” “No, it’s good.” “Do you want to go downstairs to the cafeteria before it closes and grab a cup of coffee?” “We’re cutting it close. It closes in a half hour and I don’t want to hold up the workers.” “We could take it back to my room.” Julia thought for a moment. She was sober enough to be aware, but she didn’t really know this guy. “Is your roommate going to be there?” “He went home this weekend. We don’t have to go to my room if you don’t want to. It’s just that the other areas are mostly people studying right

now and it’s cold out. I get that it might feel sketchy to you, though.” “No, it’s fine. Let’s grab some coffee and maybe we can just talk or something?” “That’s perfect.” They grabbed their coffee quickly as the students working there watched anxiously to see if they were going to sit at a table and make them stay past closing. Julia could sense the relief when they grabbed their to-go cups. They walked back up the stairs to Alex’s dorm. “How are you doing, as far as sobering up goes?” Alex inquired as they entered his room. He didn’t have a couch, so they sat on his bed. Julia began to loosen up. “I don’t want anyone to throw up in my room.” Julia laughed. “I’m still buzzed, but I’m getting there. The coffee should help. I shouldn’t have had so much anyway, but I was trying to drink my sorrows away.” Alex smiled and nodded. “I’ve been there. I meant to ask before, what’s your major?” Julia gulped her coffee. “English,” she said. “Or, if you ask my mom, Poverty.” “Oh, drinking your sorrows away, being an English major—I bet you love Hemingway.” “Hemingway,” she said with mock offense. “No way! I haven’t been able to stomach Hemingway since I had to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school. If I have to hear about the “Christ figures” in that book one more time, I’m going to pull a Hemingway and shoot myself in the head.” “See, I feel like people who react that violently to The Old Man and the Sea just haven’t read the right Hemingway story yet.” “Oh God, I bet you’re one of those guys who really identifies with Holden Caulfield, too.” “Hey, Salinger is good!” “Okay, that was a cheap shot, and you can’t tell anyone this because


Let the Air In - Debrah Miszak I don’t want to lose my feminist credibility, but I actually loved The Catcher in the Rye. After I read it, I watched every documentary on Salinger I could find.” “See, I was going to accuse you of being one of those girls that identifies too much with Esther Greenwood, but I decided not to because I actually like The Bell Jar.” “I was always trying to get Chris—my ex-boyfriend—to read The Bell Jar,” Julia said with annoyance. “He said it was too much like listening to a Lana Del Rey song. Anyway, I take it you’re an English major too, then?” “No, actually. Biochemistry.” Julia smiled at him a bit quizzically. “Well, you’re very wellrounded then. You definitely get an A for effort from me when it comes to English.” They looked at each other nervously, both smiling. Julia leaned forward and kissed him quickly. He looked shocked. “I’m sorry if that was too forward, I just thought—” This time, he kissed her. The next morning, Julia woke up noticeably disheveled. Removing her head from Alex’s chest, she proceeded to put her clothes back on discreetly. She could not believe what she’d done, but she wasn’t ashamed. She felt somewhat liberated. If she was so infertile and barren, she thought she might as well get some control over her sexuality. Alex woke up as she was trying to comb her hair with her fingers to minimize the obviousness of what she’d done when she walked through the hall to her own dorm. He smiled groggily. “Hey,” he said. “Hey.” “Did you have a good night?” “Yeah. Did you?” “Definitely better than playing video games by myself, yeah.” They both smiled and looked

down. It was difficult to make eye contact. “Well...I’ll see you around?” “Yeah, for sure. I’ll call you or something,” he offered. “Okay, sounds good.” “Alright, bye.” “Bye.” Julia closed his door gently behind her and walked to her own. When she opened it, Allie yanked her into the room. “Where the hell were you? I was terrified! You didn’t answer your phone. I thought you were dead or kidnapped or something!” “Not enough to call the cops, though?” “Well, you had your location on Snapchat, so I knew you were somewhere in the building.” “So you rehearsed all this to make me feel guilty?” “Yes!” Julia and Allie both laughed. Aaron snored from Allie’s bed, still out cold from the night before. “So, where were you?” “I slept with Alex.” “What?!” Aaron stirred from the volume of Allie’s voice. “Yeah. We ran into each other in the hallway, and one thing led to another, and I had nothing to lose. So, I went for it.” “How was it? How big w—?” “Allie! No! We aren’t talking about that. Also, Aaron is right there!” Allie waved her hand. “He’s asleep. Just tell me!” “Nope.” “Fine. So how are you feeling about it?” “I don’t know. I mean, it was fun. I really liked him. But, it also wasn’t like with Chris. I mean, there was a learning curve for both of us.” “Well, yeah, I mean you’d only slept with the same person for forever. It was going to be different.” “Yeah, I guess…I think it

was a good difference, if that makes sense?” “It does. So what happens next?” “I have no idea.” *** Two days later Julia woke up in Alex’s bed, she had her IUD removed. It was almost as painful as it was when she’d had it put in. They prescribed her birth control pills. She had questioned if she even needed to take them considering how unlikely pregnancy was for her, but she was told they would help with the PCOS symptoms. She still hadn’t called home to tell her mom about it. She’d actually decided to just not tell her. It would be easier on her mom to think that Julia was choosing to never have children than to know it was something medical. Julia’s mom was the type of person who would think of every possible mistake she could’ve made in parenting Julia and would blame herself for the condition. It was easier this way. Still, Julia was keeping it all to herself and trying to cope with what felt like a loss of agency. She didn’t want to tell Allie, who she knew would pity her even more. Then there was Alex, but they were still so new, and everything was light and cotton candyish still. There was no reason to weigh things down by talking about her reproductive health. In fact, it might even scare him away, and she was enjoying seeing someone regularly, even if it wasn’t serious. With Chris it had been long distance for two years, and she was happy to be less lonely. The last few days of February passed with a flurry of mid-term exams, and the first week of March was spring break. Julia spent the entire week doing homework and texting Alex...avoiding the possibility of seeing Chris around. Her mom

51.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 had to work, and Allie was busy with Aaron and his friends, who she didn’t want to hang out with. Besides, Alex kept sending her different short stories by Hemingway, and she wasn’t swayed by any of them, but it was fun to tease him about his poor taste. By the time classes were back in session, she and Alex were already making plans to stay in touch for the summer. It wasn’t anything serious, Julia reassured herself. They hadn’t put any labels on anything. She didn’t feel the pressure to commit the way she did with Chris. She figured they had just been a case of High School Sweetheart Syndrome brought on by everyone around them pushing them to stay together. A relationship without that pressure was much more enjoyable, she’d decided. She got out of Alex’s bed one Saturday morning and went to her backpack to grab her birth control pills. It was the placebo week. She looked curiously at the punched-out spots and saw that she was already on day four. Her period should’ve started. The last time she was on the pill, her period was regular. It must be a symptom of PCOS. She brushed it off unlike the month before and relished the fact that she didn’t have anything to fear. Another week passed. Now Julia was getting nervous. She wasn’t telling anyone—not Alex or Allie—there was no need to get people riled up about this. This time when she went into the CVS, she threw down the money for the digital tests. She walked into the Starbucks bathroom, splashed water on her face and used two. Each test read in digital letters, “Positive.” Her hands shook as she held them. This was impossible. She didn’t know what to do. She used the alley exit and walked down, avoiding the damp puddles that had collected earlier in the day when it rained. She had to cross the street where the Catholic parish stood. She wasn’t religious, but she grew up Catholic.

52.

She’d been through Catholic schools for years, but she was narrowly able to avoid Confirmation by transferring to public middle school, where she’d met Chris and Allie. The weekday evening Mass was ending, and students she considered religious zealots streamed out the door, crossing themselves with holy water as they did. She didn’t feel like heading back to Allie and Alex and the possibility of having to talk to them about why she was upset. A short statue of the Virgin Mary stood in the flowers and shrubberies surrounding the entrance to the church. Julia approached it cautiously, trying not to make eye contact with the stragglers talking to the young priest on their way out. The statue was like one her greatgrandmother had, but somehow more austere. Mary wore the same serene expression and she trampled the serpent underneath her bare feet. She looked at the statue and tried to perform faith even if she didn’t have it. She tried to imagine Mary as a girl who was pregnant and afraid, and who had a choice about what to do about it. Julia didn’t believe in that story, though. Instead, she looked at the statue’s eyes and saw her own mother’s unattainable perfection and judgment. She looked at the flowers and the sky, and waited for a sign about what to do. When none came, she looked around self-consciously to make sure no one had seen her in this vulnerable moment. She was alone, though, and she breathed in through her nostrils. It was becoming springtime. Things were coming to life all around her. The trees were budding their leaves, ducks were quacking by the river and floating in pairs and the smell of rain on pavement was inescapable. She did love the spring. She called Planned Parenthood and set up the abortion, with the Virgin Mary still in sight. There was no need to get Alex involved. There was no need to treat this like a miracle or

like a curse. It was simply a thing that had happened, and maybe it would happen again one day. She didn’t feel guilty. The abortion would happen the following Monday. She would dip into her savings. It was no big deal, like Chris had said before. Ring. It was Alex. She felt slightly numb as she answered. “Hey Julia, I think I found the story for you!” “Yeah?” “You’ll like this one. It’s called Hills Like White Elephants.” “I’ll read it and let you know tonight, okay?” “Sounds good! I’ll talk to you later!” She read it and cried, but she did love it.


POETRY 53.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Mm-Hmm Steve Denehan It’s been nearly two hours now he is still talking I am still listening after the first hour I switched hands the phone, heavier and heavier I’ll have to switch again soon there has never been anyone to talk so much and say so little the words pour from him travelling down the wire hitting my ear like wingless birds he runs through his greatest hits growing up in Dublin all of his jobs money troubles what a guy he was what a guy he is he talks I listen it’s how it’s always been he tells me that he visited a psychic how she knew things really knew things how he had been a sceptic but no more the psychic had told him that there had been deaths in his family and there had she had told him that these dead relatives asked her to tell him that he was a great guy just a really great guy he was reassured validated all that kind of thing it had cost him €50 he cannot wait to go again for the first time in the two-hour call I say more than “mm-hmm” I tell him that it was a scam a rigged game ask him if the letter “B” means anything to him he tells me of his great aunt, Betty I tell him that she is dead

54.


he is silent I enjoy it, the silence, rare as it is eventually he asks how I could know that (he is 61-years-old, his great aunt would have been over 100) I tell him that she is proud of him that he is a great guy just a really great guy I ask him if the colour blue means anything to him turns out that Great Aunt Betty had blue eyes more silence on the phone line then, tentatively "Maybe you are psychic too..." maybe I am maybe the next time the phone rings I will know not to answer it

55.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Vending Machine Steve Denehan It’s been one of those days so, I decide to end it with something from the vending machine wrappers and packets primary colours so many, all good I settle on a Mars Bar put the coins in the slot press E4 the metal coil rotates the bar is pushed forward only to fall and rest against the glass I should have expected that Jesus I shake the machine, nope then, lightning strikes I put the last of my coins in the slot press D4 the metal coil rotates a packet of Maltesers is pushed forward I think I might be a genius I hold my breath the Maltesers fall and land on the Mars Bar I wait for gravity to take hold it does not the Maltesers sit on the wedged Mars Bar I think, Well, that’s disappointing then, in the vending machine glass I see my reflection

56.


Things I Know For Sure Donna Dallas I will pay those taxes until my death within this global warmth the world chills faster there lives an eternity in a kiss when this dies out so will we There are thirteen days left until my birthday and every one of them will be lived with panic-stricken fear of catching “it” and/or my husband catching “it” and/or losing my job and/or losing this home and/or not catching “it” and losing everything anyway the thing I know for sure: fourteen days from now I will still cling to these same fears

57.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

I Bit the Hand Donna Dallas The hand that fed clothed held smothered the same hand that posed itself as comfort fostered my birth I chewed into the knuckles they crunched and popped ripped the hand off shook it with rage came back later to lick down to bone My savagery straight from the womb or nurtured so off the spectrum I was bled to believe I squeezed out tainted at eight I put a plastic bag over my head to die the hand did not remove it at twelve I refused to cease screams they fell dead under a muffled palm the haunted sounds echoed backward deep into my throat bounced from rib to spine caused a cataclysm Later the hand settled around my esophagus the same hand that dangled candy slid me pills questions were asked where should we place her what should we administer fingers poked my eyes pinched my lips to purple I went dark for years Came back a savant spoke in tongues could not be decoded sharpened teeth loose cannon not good around strangers searched for the hand

58.


Later fattened with grief from gorging on its tendons I placed its dried up remains in a jar on clear days ponder as the bone-dust sparkles in the sunlight

59.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Mr. and Mrs. Jones Donna Dallas When signatures are scrawled on every page marking every year……every death and every dollar When checks are cut and we amicably shake hands our eyes glimpse the waves under each other’s souls Here’s a page we didn’t write into the script…. the mark of …..end….. We sit mad with fear in the hopes we did the right thing although we were doing the right thing yet it wasn’t quite right not exact but what is exact and perfect and so magnificent that we couldn’t get to? Nothing will ever compare to your solid and strong body that held me in the dead of night while I cried of a fear that I only now understand as regret Back then those nights wasted thinking it will always be

60.


Poor Thing Donna Dallas Should I save the matchbook covers from the restaurants we’ve eaten in? Should I put them in a jar above the sink in the kitchen? Should I wait for that jar to fill and then begin to fill another, another and another? I’ll still sleep alone in a one-bedroom apartment upstairs from Marco’s Beauty Salon. I’ll still sleep alone no matter how many times we go out to dinner. If I’d have dated your very best friend instead, I’d be married after one jar only.

61.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Bubonic Colonic Zeke Greenwald Blood gets transfused into my veins From a bag which from the ceiling hangs; Some pipettes from the bottom run Like legs with someone else’s blood. So the maroon cephalopod Floats from the pole it’s fastened on; Staved by a hook, it makes a squid, Who slowly bleeds out drip by drip; I lay below the drying fish Of plastic bag with blood in it. What is blood, but such basic stuff, But blood’s exactly what I’ve lost. It’s said to be black, and yet it glows; My face is pale; the blood is cold; On the envelope there’s a fine Condensation now like deathly rime. Between it’s last and current owner, It lived in a refrigerator. The liquid void with reddish tinge Empties into my empty veins, For the cuttlefish of all my guts Would just as soon be too dried up. The blood belonged to someone else, Which now I’m using for myself; And so I drain of all its blood Some other helpless animal. Like in times of war and poverty A man is seen desperately To follow a cart hauling deceased, But still fully dressed soldiery, Trying hard to pluck away some boots, Which dead men can’t but he could use; I could just die from something like Exposed feet on a cold, cold night; And yet there’s something villainous When poaching becomes necessitous. I would have given up, it’s just Getting help hurts so much less. So man’s always engaged in heist, Ignoble and Treasure Island-like; Spermaceti and ambergris;

62.


Fantastic corpse-culled ivory; All giants heaving their last breath; Proverbial father, stolen bread; O! Life’s most fabled jewels and scents; Fabled crimes, preventable deaths!

63.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Me and Patti Smith Ron Kolm For a brief while many years ago Patti Smith and I worked in the Strand Bookstore at the same time. I did get the chance to see her perform with Lenny Kaye playing guitar on a rooftop high above Grand Street, but our main interaction happened when she strode up to me in the store and thrust the Caedmon recording of James Joyce reading into my hands. “Someone told me I looked like him and gave me this–that’s bullshit! I heard you like him, so it’s yours!” I still have that record in my collection.

64.


Or How A Lover’s Skin Shivers Like Moonlight Over Water Hedy Habra

A pantoum, after Insomnio by Remedios Varo

Let’s dream of the full moon through transparent roofs Deafened walls watch you sleepwalking with eyes wide-open Embrace this wake as sand awakened by dew at dawn Follow the flame’s glow as hours glide over prayer beads Deafened walls watch you sleepwalking with eyes wide-open A lost mobilis in mobili rocked by the tide’s ebb and flow Follow the flame’s glow as hours glide over prayer beads Let’s store worries in a drawer and throw the key away A lost mobilis in mobili rocked by the tide’s ebb and flow Shake every speck of stardust from your hair and thoughts Let’s store worries in a drawer and throw the key away Be happy you’ve just crossed one task out of a long list Shake every speck of stardust from your hair and thoughts Don’t acknowledge yourself as an avatar of a higher self Be happy you’ve just crossed one task out of a long list Let’s invert it all, climb the slightest beam of light Don’t acknowledge yourself as an avatar of a higher self Draw your strength from a phoenix riding a tsunami Let’s invert it all, climb the slightest beam of light See how a lover’s skin shivers like moonlight over water

65.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Miraculous Reprieve Victor Marrero 1 Solitaries undaunted by the odds, irrevocably confined by guilt. We want remission after all, still hoping to catch a break by miraculous reprieve. Captivity hardens our will to resist. Ordained by mixed signals, a scramble of codes bears clashing designs and no special order. Somewhere in time, at a station stop between alien worlds, a point central to the point was lost, as if sense wandered off course while crossing the border and disappeared. At the end of the line, there is little recourse beyond prayer and appeal to mercy. Only the rude awakening beckons: This is it. All there is. No return trip home boards ahead. 2 Captives strive to flee out of captivity as lust from lust. Fugitives from what we compose but cannot escape sap our strength, entrap inside like skin, compressing within what we must do without. Yet something like instinct impels a break from binds that restrain deliverance. And that pull of fiber and verve tugs at us, begging pathos to lend a hand, as if seeking first aid in a mission of rescue and consummation. Still, the world’s loose ends snarl good intentions, thwart release. A contrary harshness runs amok outside. Wildly indulging this tension, chords of self-destruction stress the divide to the point of impasse, a tug-of-war to the death. The standstill petrifies, as if to say: There is no clean escape, but dare a break if you can.

66.


3 In the shuffle to finish the big monuments, the key is lost. An immensity remains undone. Its truth irritates because there is no neat escape from the affront the world’s rough surfaces present. Moments rationed drop by drop, time does not suffice to set straight with a single sweep of a second hand everything wrong that needs to be set right. Eternity in flesh and blood gone awry, stick figure captives must strike a paltry compromise to claim the breath to be free.

67.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Treading In Place Victor Marrero 1 Life at the extremities crafts shrewd means to cope. As the world of irony teaches, when all else fails, there is always the failed way to live it out again. But in the end, relief by the last resort encounters another stopgap. One more stall, like wheels stuck spinning in muck, prolongs the standstill, as if treading in place were the order of the day. 2 At the dry well, empty pails rise. A deep source withdraws its flow. Life and work curtailed, every bucket full of nothing mocks fulfillment. Each syllable of void hosts dissatisfaction, wants an explanation. In a drought of reason, the lame excuse drains the last drop. Many distractions claim stakes. So much accommodation takes hold. So much disaffection grates. So much left for redemption laid to chance. At the dry well, nothing satisfies. 3 Old, old hurts occupy the inmost solitude we occupy. Every membrane of our isolation aches when nerve ends burn on inside like tepid filaments, breaching the heart’s fiber to the core. Each cooling ember stokes the ashes as the last ignominy approaches. Ancient scribes who once bore witness to our full-throated deeds no longer take note. Yet our fading songs, once of pastures and pleasures and pleasantries

68.


fit to be recalled, still reverberate inside, coiled as surf sounds haunting the nautilus shell, our fading memories’ echo chamber. 4 The time that we were vanished from sight in front of our eyes. The time we are now disappears as our images blur on the face of the earth spinning in place like a top, slower toward the center and nearer today to the point ahead where we come to full stop. Ashen flakes like skin debris loosened from body surfaces by our forced rotations drop off beyond control, beyond comprehension to start the countdown. Our daily life then clocks out by the small digits of night. Existence ticked off by the second hand lapses to naught. Nominals diminish, slated for recycling bins. Casualties of lost battles embitter the wake as sorrow scatters rose petals down a one-way road.

69.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

The Hinterland Thomas Wells Democracy devolves into tyranny, Plato cautioned. Flooded by the frigid torrent of factionalism, will we certify his prediction? Blinded by the prevarication of public discourse. Numbed by the inundation of disinformation. Crippled by the conspiracy of doubt. The real deep state festers in our cortex, a place where the charlatans of fallacy invade, a dwelling where terrorists of mind take control. But the terrain before us is vast. The dense forest and effulgent meadows ahead are unmapped, musky, fructuous forest floor perfumes the breeze, The scarlet skyline of the dewy untrodden beckons us. Abundant life is our rehearsal. Can we honestly say we know for what? Yet, such rapture is eloquent in our dreams. Such reverie will arrest the parsing of our quintessence. Our distortions are lifted when we are united in communitarian struggle.

70.


Garbage Man Matthew Peluso My garbage guys wore orange jumpsuits Overlaid by clashing heavy coats and hats Of different, whatever-the-fuck colors in winter (Personal appearance being a total irrelevancy) In a job where practicality and functionality Rule over trendy HR quasi-psychobabble About wellness apps and augmented reality Dirty gloves with the fingertips removed The better to grab hold of the bins For their carry-lift-empty-replace routine All done quickly while run-walking Back and forth to keep up with the Creeping, jerking, always slightly moving truck As its purposeful and powerful hydraulics Slam, crush, tear and destroy the deposited detritus One man, though, always with a smile, was a treat His pleasure in the pure physicality of his job The undiminishing speed and strength of his Repetitious movements, house on to next house His patient acceptance of the weather and elements Whether freezing, raining, snowing or gusting Even when stifling, high-summer heat cooked The garbage into a melting wafting stench bomb All still better than being locked in a small cell With artificial light and a flatulating cellmate Did his obvious and admirable work ethic and demeanor Arise only after his incarceration? Maybe. I would never ask him such a question. If so, chalk one up to the usually-dubious concept Of correctional rehabilitation. Then again, maybe, if he could have worked this Or any other job before his freedom was removed For some relatively minor infraction (Or he wouldn’t be allowed out for sanitation duty) He would have done it just as well

71.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Burn David Estringel Life is slow here in a border town where lazy palms scantly twitch in dead breezes— dry and pollen-choked. Everywhere. Nowhere. Cattle, brown against my hand and an expanse of cloudless blue, meander aimlessly, chewing cud that never quite hits the spot. Their eyes, like minds— blank— close to things made new by the blessing of the sun, cast downward upon cracks and clods of gray clay underfoot, where a fire burns beneath the ground. Life is slow here in a border town, where—in kind— like a shadow I wait for a shift, the balm of a breeze to kiss the delicate yellow from the retama and pave my road. Everywhere. Nowhere. Noon rages overhead (Devil’s at the crossroads) as flames whip and lick the sky, beckoning just beyond the watery promise of the horizon. So, I close my eyes here in this border town— everywhere, nowhere— seeing white and the blood that courses through my veins, dig my toes into the ground, and slowly burn.

72.


Ribbon in the Sky Cynthia Andrews I have decided not to dance on your grave as I had told you I would so many years ago, and I won’t waste my time spitting in your eye at your picture either (though I think sometimes it may be worth the effort, if only to let off some steam). You’ve been dead a year and I only found out last week. How dare you die without dropping me a line before going into that great unknown! I guess you still don’t miss a beat where I am concerned, do you? What do you expect me to do cry like a baby or something? How about a chorus of “Ribbon in the Sky?” Can you ever forgive me for all those harsh words I had for you over the phone that day? How do you expect me to go on without your telephone number? Do you really think I’ll remember your face or your touch in another year or two? I won’t dance on your grave as I told you I would so many years ago, and that’s the best I could do.

73.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

Lost Marbles i Mitchell Solomon A near-empty masher Crinkled malt liquor can Skips down twisted North Beach streets Aimlessly rattles Through broken glass And beat needles And rocks, searching For a place to come To rest until the winds force Another move Shooters and hypodermics Loiter on borrowed stoops Searching their minds for substance To dilute their blood And an acceptable vein To transform litter Into an urn, unmarked grave For a community’s hoping Years turned ash by three AM Prophets resisting an urge To sermon with the blow, A congregation of zealots Crusading, skipping to the beat Of society’s kicking foot

74.


Lost Marbles ii Mitchell Solomon Sir, you can't sleep here. For a marble On a blanket at rest, a doormat Is no comforter. When billions of us were dropped On this cloth, did you know we would pull Centerward? Puddle at the lowest Point? Jostle each other Just to be higher Than our neighbor? Oh bat kol, tell me why If god's image is man, the human Natural state is apathy? Or did Father simply not care?

75.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

The Dance Snata Basu My biggest dream is to not be lonely, among other things, of course. Such a big portion of me struggles to reason the outcome, the past and future all seem a blind torch, where am I now? a giant theatre. Now begins the lovely show. Oh so lovely, the dance of recovery, nauseating, and awfully slow So compelling is the rhythm and the music, sick and revolting, so incredibly alone. I must dance, here and now, The blood will dry by air and mouth Every spin a carman of ordeals, Mute and eyeless, soulfully cold. My biggest dream? to breathe and float, To not be invisible when I’m visibly lost, So trifling are my fights and obstructions, Awake when I’m asleep at home. The biggest dream—must be youthful and decadent, I just wish to dream for once. Alone, alone, inanimate and childless Spinning eternally in this trance-like dance.

76.


CRITICISM

77.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26

See No Monsters? Impossible: Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch As It Pertains to the Witch Hunt of Britney Spears Genna Rivieccio

B

urn the witch, burn the witch! That’s what society has cried in different iterations ever since the time of witchhunting was more literal (namely, the 1600s). In Rivka Galchen’s second novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch, she brings to life the true story of Katharina Kepler, mother of famed astronomer Johannes Kepler. But this is not the story of a man. It is the lurid tale of a woman, and the powerful force of rumor that can lead to her downfall. Something that “the legendary Miss Britney Spears” knows all about. As a modern incarnation of the “witch”—a female pop star comfortable with flaunting her sexuality—it didn’t take long for the masses and the media to start tearing Spears apart, most notably in 2002, after her breakup with Justin Timberlake was speculated to be a result of her infidelity. Rumors that Timberlake did nothing to quell, but rather, only spurred them on. Particularly with the release of the second single, “Cry Me A River,” from his debut solo album (called, oh so originally, Justified). Not only are the lyrics already incriminating, but the video, too, served as a giant Scarlet A

78.

for Spears, bequeathed with a lookalike to portray her in the Francis Lawrence-directed narrative. And, if the dead ringer of a blonde in the flat cap Spears was known for wearing circa ‘02 wasn’t a strong enough indication of who the girl is meant to be based on, Timberlake is also sure to wield the symbol of a fairy figurine that he uses to keep a door propped open for the woman he plans to record himself “canoodling” with in Spears’ bedroom. Spears, as any fan knows, is a major enthusiast of fairies (no gay man allusion intended). Another characteristic that surely would have gotten her accused of being a witch in the 1600s. For any affinity for “occultist” or “pagan” entities did not sit well with patriarchal society at that juncture. Not to say it does now. As for Katharina, her own “oddnesses” are played up after she’s charged with being a witch by Ursula Reinbold— whom Katharina refers to as the “Werewolf ”—a hirsute woman married to the Leonberg’s “third-rate glazier.” Her motives for doing so seem little other than out of spite and, later, a desire to milk Katharina’s estate of any potential


See No Monsters? Impossible... - Genna Rivieccio earnings she might get for her “trouble.” Said trouble being that she was “poisoned” by one of Katharina’s herbal concoctions. Part diary, of sorts, part epistolary novel, the majority of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch

governor’s office… The inspectors… wrote down in their ledgers every spoon and mouse as best as I could tell.” The recounting sounds like an antiquated version of what Spears has endured in the present, having no access to her own “holdings”—

I was treated, against the destructive power of rumor, against how again and again you saw people ready to see monsters, not ready to stand by, not ready to see somebody through.” This was also the case for Britney at the height of the calumny

“In many senses, Katharina being imprisoned while her own assets and property are being used to pay for that imprisonment mirrors Spears’ path. The very fruits of her success in life used to bog her down further into the legal quagmire. ” finds Katharina addressing her neighbor and “guardian” in legal matters, Simon Satler. Here, too, the correlation to Britney is made by the fact that Simon becomes her “conservator,” if you will. Granted, he’s not even remotely as filled with such malice and greed as Spears’ own, her father: Jamie. At one point, Katharina writes (or, more specifically, Simon writes for her), “…you will remember I was no longer allowed to collect earnings from my land, all my holdings were under the control of the ducal

everything under the control of the state and/or her conservator. And the only reason Jamie might ever “go off” on someone as Simon does for their handling of Katharina’s affairs and personal effects would be if it in some way affected his own stake in the assets. And yes, it is upon seeing these vultures in Katharina’s house that Simon apparently castigates the inspectors, for as Katharina describes it to him, “You have always been reserved, and I have respected that, and for that reason all the more I was gratified to hear you rage against how

surrounding her in 2007. When it was so much easier for everyone to fan the flames of calling her “out of control” and “crazy,” a portrayal firmly established by the tabloids and further emphasized by late night talk show hosts and their cackling audiences. No one was there to step in and say, “Uh no, she’s actually been pushed to her brink by the paparazzi, has unacknowledged postpartum depression and is also likely just experiencing extreme burnout. She has every right to act this upset.” Alas,

79.


The Opiate, Summer Vol. 26 those were different times, with a greater fondness for witch-burning than the present…or so we would like to believe. Britney Spears’ lengthy silence regarding the true extent of the abuse she’s suffered may come as a shock to some (particularly men who say things like, “Well why didn’t she report it before?”), but for women who are wellaware of the sense of shame and stonethrowing that comes with speaking the truth, it’s not surprising at all. This, too, is why Spears, while testifying during her June 23rd court hearing, brought up Paris Hilton’s unfathomable tale of woe during the heiress’ time at a disciplinary boarding school. Saying even she didn’t believe it, which is why she was left to wonder why anyone would believe her either. To boot, Spears has found the entire ordeal of her conservatorship “traumatiz[ing]” and “demoralizing,” another source for fostering her fear of speaking out. Katharina knows something about being embarrassed as well, stating, “I had once nearly drowned in a lake, because I’d been too embarrassed to call out or wave my arms. By chance some perch fishermen passed by, and they saved me.” The “perch fisherman” in Britney’s scenario is, undoubtedly, the #FreeBritney movement. Though they have only been able to take the liberation of Spears so far, the awareness they’ve raised has been a key factor in galvanizing others with more clout (both in status and financial prowess) to help the imprisoned chanteuse. Because make no mistake, Britney needs all the aid she can get, for it’s difficult to beat the leeches and the legal system off with a stick. Katharina’s son, Christoph, who could easily pass for the Sean Preston role, remarks, “They have so much energy, Ursula’s people. It’s like going up against a thunderstorm. I have work to do, I have other obligations, whereas they—this is their work. They’re the

80.

guild of rumormongers. The society of theft-by-accusation. People are stupid, sure, they’re ignorant, yes, they’re greedy, okay—but these people are fine with basically murdering her if it suits them.” The same could be said of Britney, whose spirit, therefore physical person, has been slowly killed over the course of these thirteen years by the coterie of lawyers, doctors and other assorted handlers who are getting paid from her coffer to “deal with” her despite the fact that she wants to be dealt with in no way whatsoever. Only to check out of this fame life and flee to Hawaii permanently. As things escalate in terms of the increased rumormongering that lends sudden “credence” to the accusation against Katharina, Simon begins to recoil more and more from the idea of being “responsible” for her (and yes, we all wish Jamie would do the same). After Simon finally does back away completely from his “guardianship” role over Katharina, she begins writing to her daughter, Greta, from the prison she’s been exiled to, telling her of the goonish guards, “I’m always polite to them, Greta. You’re right that we have to see the good in people, at least in people who have power over us and who will be angry if we see them in another way.” One imagines this is what Spears had to tell herself over the period that followed her 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold in January of 2008. In many senses, Katharina being imprisoned while her own assets and property are being used to pay for that imprisonment mirrors Spears’ path. The very fruits of her success in life used to bog her down further into the legal quagmire. So it is that Katharina recounts, “The situation recalled to me that in one view, these two were my employees. ‘Please unchain me,’ I asked quietly. I showed them the sores on my ankle. They ignored me. [I tried] again with, ‘The doors are locked. I can’t run.’ Lorenz

gave a grouchy laugh. ‘We’re trying to keep our job, not lose it.’ ‘I would pay you,’ I said. I promised them a hundred thalers. ‘Show it to us,’ Hogg said. ‘You haven’t got it.’ ‘I would get it to you,’ I said. They were silent a moment. I had them thinking. Then Lorenz said: ‘…I’ve no faith in women’s words. And I’ve learned that through a great deal of experience in the matter.’” Indeed, even to this day, men do not have faith in women’s words. Nor do some women who suffer the brainwashing consequences of internalized misogyny. Like the many females who still hesitate to believe that Spears isn’t in her conservatorship for “good reason.” If that’s true, and she really is too “insane” to manage her affairs, then why the hell didn’t Donald Trump get a conservator long before his “presidency”? Oh right, because, time and time again, it’s accented to women that they cannot and should not be in charge of their own lives. Especially if they have a “setback” like Britney’s. Yet if a man engaged in the same erratic behavior (again, Trump), he would be tolerated and laughed off as nothing more than a foolhardy buffoon. And that’s how you get insurrections. Because male madness is never deemed a problem. And women’s madness is only called that as a means to contain an overly “expressive” female. As one of Katharina’s other sons, Hans, reads the testimony meant to defend his mother at her trial, Simon sums up the entire debacle surrounding her imprisonment as follows: “Fools, braggarts and purse-grabbers had caused his mother’s misery. Corruption, laziness and malice.” Amen to that in Britney’s situation as well. For she’s been made into a giant teat from which everyone in her orbit can suckle from if they know how to play the system right. No wonder Katharina reacts to this unbridled human cruelty and insensitivity by not reacting at all.


See No Monsters? Impossible... - Genna Rivieccio Thus, her response to being deemed too stoic a.k.a. not “contrite” enough for her actions (having committed no wrongdoing) is: “…I have cried so much in my life that there are no tears left in me. That was my testimony.” At Spears’ own June 23rd testimony, she told the judge instead, “I cry every day.” And, what’s more, “I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed.” Katharina will soon feel the same by the time Ursula Reinbold’s false and vicious statement about her spreads through the town like a California wildfire. It is precisely these sorts of rumors about Britney being “loca”—the modern-day version of being a witch—that have continued to allow the public to cast doubt on whether she has a “right” to be free. After all, shouldn’t any woman with power who gets “out of hand” be questioned mercilessly regarding the state of her mental health? In any event, word of Katharina’s own so-called craziness gets to Simon back in Leonberg. By this time, Katharina is now living in Heumaden with her daughter. Before making the trek to visit her, Simon admits, “…I had heard rumors that Katharina was in a fury, that she was often seen wandering country lanes, shouting curses at magpies, at goats… I had heard reports that she scared children at the well with her dark mutterings, that she went about in velvet cloaks and lace headdresses, and that hound dogs whimpered and ran off when she came near. I didn’t want to put faith in such stories.” But like most people who can’t resist a juicy bit of gossip oft repeated enough (especially in the tabloids and TMZ-esque websites of the 00s), Simon can’t help but believe this is the woman he’ll find when he seeks her out again. It isn’t. But it also isn’t quite the same spirited strega he once knew either. While Katharina is eventually

“exonerated” after years spent in prison (the real Katharina was held captive for fourteen years, almost the same period of time as Britney), her release is no victory. Yet Simon tries to call her “absolution” a “happy end,” to which Katharina replies, “I wouldn’t call it a happy end… To have nothing to give my children, to be unwanted in my own town.” These were the consequences of her “freedom,” in the end: running out of money and resources, and still being viewed as a bad omen in her beloved town to the point of being totally ostracized from it. Expecting her to chastise him for idly standing by when the public’s lust for her blood worsened, the way so many stood by when Britney’s tribulations magnified, he’s touched when Katharina tells him, “I’m fond of you, Simon… I can see that you want me to be angry with you, but I can’t do it… You’ve been a friend to me. In the ways that were available to you. You’re not on a trial. I won’t convince you that you’re not a witch, or that you are one.” Like the many other pop stars who have known for a while that something wasn’t right with Britney, yet didn’t step in until the floodgates opened, Simon feels guilty (he could also be compared to Sam Lutfi in that way). Wonders if he could have made at least a small difference in mitigating her suffering and persecution were he not so afraid for himself, and his own reputation. The exculpation from Katharina doesn’t ultimately allay that guilt. After leaving her again, he ruminates, “I walked home with the feeling that I had been acquitted. Or that was the feeling at first. As the miles passed, I began to wonder if maybe it was simply that Katharina couldn’t be bothered to convict me. That she was too morally exhausted. If I was tired, she must have been all

the more tired. She didn’t seem like the same woman I had known before. Her apparent peace could as well be a sign of terrible defeat as a sign of the grace of God.” If and when Britney Spears is ever released from her own witch trial of a conservatorship, no one should be surprised if she’s given a similar appraisal by those who once knew her as she used to be. For a woman doesn’t come out of a gristmill like this with much of her “pluck” still intact. Even if the consolation of liberty is meant to be the prize for “putting up with the rain” in order to get the “rainbow.” The same rainbow that legitimately crazy men get to enjoy without so much as an arched eyebrow. No witch hunts or conservatorships required.


82.