Off With Her Head!

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn Fleming


I’m a Canadian. I’m also a small-r republican. If I could change one thing about my country, it would be to sever all Canada’s ties to the British monarchy. It irritates me every time I look at a coin and see Elizabeth Windsor’s head on it, instead of a Canadian who deserves the honor.

Yesterday morning I picked up my daily newspaper and saw the editorial* was entitled “Monarchy plays an important role”. In it, editor Peter van der Leelie said that despite most Canadians’ apathy toward the British monarchy, if given the opportunity to vote on the issue, they’d keep said monarchy as head of state. The unfortunate reality is that he may be right.

His explanation for our hypocrisy? The monarchy is a part of Canada’s history. In other words, we can’t be bothered to make the effort. Grand. That stirs up the old national pride, doesn’t it? Or, he suggests, maybe it’s because the U.S. “yearn[s] for royalty”. They do? Okay, let’s say they do. So what? It’s irrelevant. Talk about an inferiority complex.

He writes, “[R]oyalty cannot be bought on Hollywood Boulevard–it just is.” And that’s precisely the problem. “Royalty” is the archaic leftover of a class-based society. Monarchs were considered “royal” because they had more money than everyone else. Period. Not because they were more intelligent, accomplished, or did more for their country than anyone else. I have more respect for a hard-working actor than any “royal”. What does this word really mean? Nothing, that’s what. They’re just people. If they want respect, they should earn it by doing something worthwhile, just like everyone else.

It’s ironic that Canada, a country that prides itself on social justice, insists on clinging to an inherently discriminatory political system. We’re ever-insisting that we’re better than the U.S. because we have universal health care and a “cultural mosaic” society, yet we force new citizens to swear allegiance to a wealthy white woman (not to mention her heirs) who is not a Canadian citizen, who lives in a foreign country, and who inherited her status. If the monarchy were any other government-funded organization, we’d be crying about the injustice.

The sad truth is, most Canadians are apathetic about things patriotic. Mocking American patriotism is a sport here. We can rouse ourselves for a hockey game, but politics? Yawn. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment. Canada didn’t even have its own flag until 1965–ninety-eight years after we became a country! If it took that long to decide on a damn flag, well, the chances we’ll give the Windsor clan the boot in my lifetime are slim.

Nevertheless, I rage on. We Canadians deserve to honor fellow Canadians on our money. We deserve to have a Canadian as head of state. We deserve the right to elect our head of state. The idea that “during a crisis [the royals] have the right to intervene.” is offensive. Of course they wouldn’t, but that’s not the point.

Most Canadians would argue that the role of the monarchy is purely symbolic, that they have no real power, and so therefore it’s not worth worrying about. But it is. This is not about ability to govern; it’s about national pride. Symbols are powerful things, and I don’t want a rich foreigner symbolizing my country, just because she happened to be born into a certain family.

van der Leelie claims this undemocratic system protects “democratic order”, and that the British monarchy makes us “a little more civilized, a little more democratic, a little more Canadian.” Civilized? Democratic? Canadian? Huh?

Keeping the British monarch as head of state in Canada doesn’t make us more Canadian; it makes us less Canadian. This clinging-to-the-apron-strings mentality is the reason why Canadians suffer from an inferiority complex in the first place.

We need to stop worrying about looking “American” (gasp)–because, let’s be honest, that’s what’s really stopping us from breaking free–and stand up and take pride in ourselves and our country. Every day. Not just when we win a gold medal at the Olympics.

Excuse me. I think I’ll go toss some tea into the river. (Hey, it can’t hurt.)

*van der Leelie, The Rev. Peter. “Monarchy plays an important role.” Kamloops Daily News 27 Feb. 2002: A6.

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Obnoxious Canadian Theryn can be reached at beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Heaven Threw Up

Best of the Boards
Steve Herron


Eggshell white china cup
made in Thailand
spidered with threads
stained chestnut
by cinnamon-apple tea
and coffee
cradled in unlined hands
caressed by fingers
tipped with bitten nails.

And the cream plunges
to the bottom and then
mushrooms up the sides
to feather the black liquid
like cirrus clouds illuminated
by a full winter moon

Swirling like the Matisse lettering tattooed
on her wrist, heaven threw up
a misinterpreted lyric
from youthful dreams of angst
and posed personality.

The grunge grown-up
now sits Midwesternized
by the autumn sun
that shadows the nurtured cup
onto polyurethane plywood
as the steam rises
and dissipates
into the flavored air
of the Caribou Coffee Shop
as she sits gazing beyond the window.

pencil

Steve can be reached at mrherron2[at]bignet.net.

How Long Is The Night?

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Ana George


“OK, this one’s interesting,” I said. I was reading the personals section of the funky metro area newspaper, over coffee.

“What?” said Beth, looking up from her book. “Oh, you’re reading the personals again? They’re so boring and repetitive.”

“Not this time. Listen: “GWF seeks companion for longest night of the year. I want to ponder deep questions such as why that night has neither the latest sunrise nor the earliest sunset. Bring your books and your computer.

“…with the usual drop-box e-mail address.”

“Hmmm… sounds like someone right out of your neighborhood, Laurie,” said Beth. “You going to answer?”

“Um, gulp, yeah, I guess I should.” I was feeling a little stampeded by the suddenness, the reality, of the concept of actually responding to one of these ads.

“It’s not exactly my idea of a fun time,” said Beth. “I mean, I’m kind of a math phobe and all, but doing calculations all night with, what, a date? Why? Can’t she think of anything better to do?”

“I don’t know,” I mused, “It sounds kind of interesting. At least we wouldn’t have to think of a topic for small talk. I hate small talk. What should I write in my answer?”

“That’s your problem. I’m off to give my American Lit final.”

*

“Jen?” I asked, disbelieving. Entering the restaurant, looking around for a woman alone, I saw her unmistakable mane from behind: voluminous, curly, black shot through with enough silver to betoken wisdom. “I’d recognize that hair anywhere.”

“Laurie.” She turned her head. “I should have known you’d turn out to be somebody I know.” We’d been having lunch once a month or so since we’d met, when the male colleagues in our two departments had sentenced us to simultaneous terms in the Faculty Senate. Two academic spinsters in science and math departments dominated by men; it seemed a natural friendship.

The out of town blind date thing was so stereotyped as to be laughable. In a way it was nice to share the experience with someone I knew pretty well, if only for the reassurance that I’m not the only one who does this sort of thing.

“Loved your ad,” I remarked, over dessert.

“Most of them–both the ads and the respondents–are just sooo boring. I figured that mathematophobia would weed out the airheads, most of the goths, and the riotgrrrls.”

“And bring your fellow faculty members out of the, er, woodwork,” I said, narrowly avoiding the most obvious cliche.

“Besides,” said Jen, “a relationship should be based on shared interests and experiences, not just those three letter acronyms at the beginning of a personals ad.” I had to agree.

She looked into my eyes for a long moment. Many thoughts and feelings were almost expressed by the twitches of the tiny muscles around her eyes, but ultimately I learned all I needed to know from her words, and her touch. “Come to my place,” she said, pushing her hand across the table, interlocking our fingers.

“Ooo,” I said, coyly. “Interdigitating on the first date.”

She laughed. “And more, I hope.”

“The idea I have is to calculate the time of sunrise between now and morning,” she explained.

“Sounds like fun,” I said. “The extra hours we have tonight may allow for other things,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

“Depends,” she said, smiling.

*

Her place. The house was cold and dark. The bedroom was large, built onto the back of an otherwise unremarkable house. Rather than turn up the thermostat, she stoked the wood stove, and knelt in earnest attention on the hearth before it, nurturing the flame until it was self-sustaining.

In the half light I could see her bookcase against the far wall. The windows were dark, looking out onto unbroken snow in the back yard. The rye grass was beautiful, with dried seed heads silver in the winter, six feet tall.

“Wa-i-lat-pu,” I murmured.

“What?” asked Jen.

“Place of the rye grass, in some northwestern Indian language. It’s the name of an old mission in Idaho or somewhere,” I explained.

“Nice,” she said. “Wine?”

On the other side of the bed, there was, believe it or not, a whiteboard. In the bedroom. I laughed.

“Hey, I do some of my best work here. A glass of wine, a whiteboard, and thou,” she said, drawing me into her arms. She kissed me once, twice, in a way that told me that someone Jen kisses stays kissed. A thrill shuddered through my body.

*

“So there are two effects to worry about. One for each of us. The earth’s not in a circular orbit, so this time of year, when we’re closest to the sun, the sun moves across the sky a little faster. The day of closest approach to the sun is January 2nd.”

“Let’s see… the average per day is about 24 hours divided by 365 days…” I mumbled for a while, doing arithmetic. “Four minutes and change. Oh, yeah, I remember being told that the earth rotates in 23 hours and 56 minutes.”

“Relative to the stars, yes.” said Jen. “We should look up the precise number, but you’ve got the idea.”

“OK, so what we’re worried about is the fact that the sun is not a good clock, because it doesn’t lose exactly 4 minutes per day (or whatever the number is).”

“Exactly. For two reasons–the earth’s orbit is elliptical, and it’s rotating around an axis tilted relative to the orbit plane. So when the sun is far from the equator (in the south, tonight), it gets more degrees of longitude per day even if it were moving at a constant speed around the orbit.”

“Ah. Spherical trig. I can do spherical trig,” I said, going over to the whiteboard and drawing a large circle.

*

As the room warmed, we had shed layers of our winter clothing, and Jen turned on the electric fans, one blowing on the wood stove, and also the ceiling fan. It felt good, capturing the radiant heat from the stove on bare skin, and turning slowly around as I wrote cosines on the whiteboard.

I glanced over at Jen, slouched comfortably in her overstuffed chair. Her left foot was tucked under her, and a large book was perched in the crook of her knee. Her right leg was draped over the chair’s arm, with a clipboard balanced against her thigh. It made sense to keep her feet up off the chilly floor. She held a smaller book in her left hand, and by turns wrote equations, sipped wine, and managed her hair with the other hand.

“I see you work this way a lot,” I chuckled.

She considered her situation–nude, in a nest of books and papers, alone with a good friend, past midnight in the wood stove’s warm flickering glow. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” she laughed.

“Sure it does,” I said. Walking over to her, I took each book in turn, laid it face down on the carpet, and pulling her up out of the chair, took her to bed.

*

“So where were we?” asked Jen, going back to her books. “I have an equation for my part, but I’ll need a computer to solve it.” Getting up, she wandered into another room and returned with a laptop. She returned for chords, a mouse, and other accessories.

“You give me the ecliptic longitude of the sun, and I’ll convert it to the time correction. Add that to the clock time (after taking account of the fact that we don’t live in the middle of our time zone), and we should have the time of sunrise. Before sunrise. It’s always so much better to make the predictions before the fact…”

We finished the calculation about four o’clock, which left three and a half hours or so. We set the alarm to ring five minutes before our predicted sunrise time.

“If you put your head here, the sun will shine in through that window right in your eye,” said Jen, placing a pillow for me. It was nice, for once, having someone warm to snuggle with on a winter night.

As it turns out, we neglected a couple of things in our calculations: the sun is a disc, rather than a point, and the earth’s atmosphere bends the sun’s rays, allowing us to see over the horizon a bit. So the alarm went off after the sun rose on our new relationship, dazzling our eyes.

You live, and you learn. The living is more important.

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Ana George lives in the suburbs of Boston, and enjoys hiking, astronomy, reading, making music, and living alone, in addition to writing the occasional story. She works as a scientist (as you’ll notice, reading the story). Ana can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.

In The Bleak December

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Elizabeth Becka Lansky


The gas pump handle felt like dry ice, even through her gloves. Nina switched hands and noted with unease the first flakes of snow, turned pink by the setting sun.

It was Friday, December 21st, and she was on her way to a Christmas party in the Rockies. A group of old college friends were gathering at a mountain retreat, the snowy forests were breathtaking, she was beautiful in a red velveteen dress. Now if she only had something to celebrate… she left the car and headed for the dingy but warm station, digging out a credit card. A few minutes later she was on her way.

Route 78 was a two-lane, meandering path through deserted hills, deep forest on one side, hollow valley on the other, both turning white. Generations would pass before urban sprawl affected this area, Nina reflected, driving carefully; an earlier rain had turned to ice.

The scenery gradually melted to a vast darkness. There were no houses, no other roads, no lights.

The old Mustang’s heater couldn’t keep up with the plummeting temperatures. She knew the windows were tightly closed but a slight noise came from somewhere; the faint whisper of a wind leak, almost like the sound of cloth brushing against itself. She shivered, wiggled her cold toes.

The darker it got, the harder it snowed. The swirling patterns caught by the headlights made her dizzy. The tires weren’t so much moving as sliding across the icy asphalt and they lost control entirely over fifteen miles an hour. The thirty remaining miles would take forever at this rate, inching around every curve.

How had Tony found this place? He wasn’t from Montana and she had never thought of him as the outdoorsy type. But cardiology paid well and he probably needed a tax write off. At least her old roommate Paula would be there.

She thought of the note Tony had scribbled at the bottom of the invitation: Please come. You had a life before marriage and you’ll have one afterwards.

As if. Just because he had parted amicably with little flower-child Lydia did not mean he understood the slightest thing about Nina’s divorce. For one thing, hers wasn’t amicable. Not at all.

The road curved sharply around a stand of pine trees and she swerved to keep the car in her lane. Not that it mattered much—she hadn’t seen or passed another vehicle for the past fifteen miles.

The wind sound whispered in the back seat again. With a start, she realized that she had had been fighting the road for at least two hours, maybe three, and was already late to the party. She dug out her cell phone to check the time, but the glowing screen said only, “No Signal.”

Did she even want to see them? Tony—and Paula and Cheryl, for that matter—had never hidden their opinion that her husband had been overbearing, crushing her into nothing more than a housekeeper, negating her personality until there was little left of the bouncy, confident co-ed. They all thought she was better off without him.

So did she, but still… who made Tony the All-Knowing Master of the Universe?

That brushing cloth sound again. Maybe she should stop and check the windows, she thought, glancing at the rear view mirror.

There was a split second of blinding light, and she stamped on the brake just as she saw the figure. Her car slid to a tenuous stop in the middle of the road.

A beat-up Chevy had come to rest in a snowdrift, headlights facing the wrong way. Its occupant was making a hasty, sliding beeline for Nina. She tensed.

It was a girl, clearly illuminated by stranded car’s headlights—long, flyaway hair, an ankle-length coat which flapped open to reveal a bulging stomach. She could not have been more than eighteen, and was at least seven months pregnant.

Screw caution, Nina thought in the time it took to reach over and unlock the door. The kid will freeze to death out here.

“Drive!”

The girl thrust her overlarge form into the passenger seat with surprising ease, and sobbed. “We have to get out of here! Drive fast!”

“What—what? Don’t you want to—?”

“He’ll kill me! Please, lady, just drive!”

Infected with panic, Nina drove. The back tires spun, caught, propelled them forward. She checked the mirror but saw nothing except the abandoned car, headlights blazing, door hanging open.

After a slow five hundred feet the girl controlled her gasping sobs.

“What happened?”

“He was hitting me. We went off the road. He’s trying to kill me so I won’t have this baby. But I’ve got to have my baby,” she wailed.

“What’s your name?”

A sniff. “Carly.”

“I’m Nina.”

The girl turned toward her, breathing on her fists. “Thanks for picking me up. We would have froze to death out there.” She was pretty enough, with fair skin and rosebud lips that covered slightly askew teeth.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, I think I’m okay. I bumped my head on the window, but it don’t hurt much. Nothing compared to what he’s done to me before.”

“Don’t worry. I know we’re not going very fast, but there’s no way he could catch us.” Unless he got that Chevy out of the snow. “I’m not from around here,” Nina went on, trying to soothe. “Where should I take you?”

“I don’t know,” the girl said in quiet despair, nibbling at her cuticles, pausing only for furtive glances out the back window. “I haven’t got anywhere to go. My folks won’t take me back. His folks won’t speak to me. I don’t have no friends.”

“How about the hospital? Or the police station? You could file a report.”

“I’ve filed reports. It don’t do no good. Last time I spoke to a cop he came home and took a beer bottle—one of those long-neck kind, and—”

A few more details and Nina cried: “Okay! Okay, Carly, I’m very sorry. I wish I could help you, but I’m just passing through. Is there a town coming up?” She didn’t mention Tony’s house. No way was she showing up there with Carly in tow.

Carly thought for some time. “There’s Barton,” she said finally. “It should be another ten miles. It’s at route 38.”

“Okay.” And you’re going to the police station, Nina thought. Whatever they can do for you will be more than I can. She retrieved her cell phone, wishing she could talk to Tony. No Signal.

“Thanks for picking me up,” Carly said again, digging a mint out of her pocket. “It’s awfully nice of you.”

“That’s all right.”

“You’d probably be a great mother. I won’t, even though I’m going to try real hard. But you’d be good. Do you have kids?”

“No,” Nina smiled absently. The lines on the road were not visible. There were no other tire tracks, not even Carly’s, though she had to have come that way. “It’s not something I was ever interested in.”

“You weren’t?” Carly asked, her voice disproportionately incredulous. She gaped at Nina. “You don’t want to have children?”

“No, not really.” Body heat had warmed the Mustang, despite that wind-leak sound.

“I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to have a baby if they could.”

“I mean,” Nina amended, “it’s a wonderful thing, just not for—”

“It’s a sin not to have children,” Carly finished darkly.

Nina gulped. This is ridiculous, I saved this kid’s butt and she’s all but holding a hot poker to my face. “Well, I’m divorced,” she offered. “So I can’t now, very well.” She didn’t add that it was only since last month.

She waited for Carly to say that divorce was a sin, too, but the girl just stared, her face intensely suspicious. Finally, she said, “Have you ever been pregnant?”

“Carly, really, this isn’t—”

“Have you?”

“No,” Nina said. Where the hell is Barton? Her eyes flicked to the rear-view mirror, half-waiting for the Chevy’s headlights to come up behind them.

“You’re not pregnant now?”

“No,” she said, more surprised than annoyed. “Definitely not. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m very healthy,” Carly said flatly.

Nina turned the heat down, and changed the subject. “Who is this ‘he’ you refer to? Your husband?”

“He didn’t marry me. He’s just my boyfriend. He don’t want no baby either.” She fell silent, turning now and then to look out the rear window.

Nina watched a flash of color in the snow ahead, a piece of blue. A mailbox, with two bedraggled balloons and a hand-lettered sign reading “Nina, turn here.” Tony’s house.

No. She felt sorry for Carly, but she was not taking responsibility for the girl one minute more than was strictly necessary. Carly needed a battered women’s shelter and years of counseling, neither of which Nina could provide. Besides, she gave Nina the creeps.

Why? Because, if not for an accident of birth, she could be you? You could be the one with an eighth-grade education, fleeing an abusive ex-boyfriend, with nowhere to go? Is that why you’re in such a hurry to get rid of her?

Whatever.

They passed the mailbox. If Carly noticed it, she said nothing.

Another hour passed, in near-silence. Nina began to regret her decision to spend the entire evening driving through a frozen wasteland with a mad ex-boyfriend possibly in pursuit. The road was endless.

“Turn here,” Carly finally said, pointing to a narrow road which branched to the north.

“Is that the way to Barton?”

“Yes.”

Nina turned, and drove for another hour, watching the gas gauge slide. If only the sun would come up, she found herself thinking, at least I could see where I am. I might be nowhere, but at least I could see.

“There he is!” Carly burst out, grabbing the wheel and giving it a hard jerk. Before Nina could scream the car slid in a sickening descent over the shoulder and down the steep hillside. Nina’s head hit the steering wheel.

She had no way to know how long she’d been unconscious. Chilled through to the bone, she was alive only because the car was still running, heater blasting away, fighting the cold air from the open passenger door. She started to move, slowly.

The driver’s side of the car pointed uphill, so she slid out the passenger door, plunging her frozen feet into snow up to her calves. Damn women’s shoes.

There was a small circle of visibility around the car where the snow reflected the glow of the headlights. The Mustang didn’t seem damaged, but nothing short of a wrecker was going to move it. The snow at her feet was a mass of shoeprints, boots big enough for a man, moving frantically in all directions.

“Carly?” she called. Her voice disappeared into the forest.

Had he caught up with them? How? They had changed roads… was it just another car and Carly panicked? Did it stop? Did it take Carly, and leave her?

She opened the trunk, pulled on sweatpants, socks, and boots. The night was near-silent around her, only the soft roar of the wind through the pine trees and the occasional call of a night animal. She turned the car off, doused the lights, retrieved her purse and useless cell phone and turned straight into someone standing behind her in the night.

“Carly!”

“He’s here,” the girl whispered. “I lost him in the woods. Let’s go. Careful touching me, I’m bleeding.”

“Go where?” Nina demanded, even as they began the ascent to the road.

“Shhhh. Anywhere. We have to keep moving.”

“Carly—”

With surprising strength the girl pulled Nina along, helping her until they stood on the slick asphalt. Starlight bouncing off the snow gave the road a vague shape, but it was still too dark to see tire tracks, skid marks, any sign that another car had been there, or was still there. They began to walk.

“Why are we going back to 78?” Nina whispered.

“We’ll never make to Barton. It’s uphill all the way.”

Nina didn’t argue. She had no strength for anything except putting one foot in front of the other. Their only option was to keep moving, keep from freezing. The road was just as slick on foot as it was in a car. They walked for hours.

“We’re not going to make it,” Carly said once.

“Yes we will. When the sun comes up, we can see if there are any houses around. It will be all right, Carly.”

Hours later they reached 78 and kept walking without comment.

Nina knew dawn was coming when she could see her feet against the snow. And Carly’s large boots.

She looked at the girl clinging to her arm. And looked again.

“Carly—”

The girl kept walking.

“Carly,” Nina insisted and stopped, shivering. She was staring at the girl’s midriff.

Somehow, Carly wasn’t pregnant any more. Under the coat, her belly was as flat as Nina’s.

Carly looked. Her anguished screams rocketed through the forest, face awash in fresh tears. She clasped her hands to her stomach and keened. “My baby—”

“What happened?”

“He took my baby!”

Nina was no doctor, but she was pretty damn sure that no one could walk all night, with no signs of distress, immediately after a miscarriage. Unless that person had never been pregnant in the first place.

She shivered even more violently. Who the hell was Carly? Who was this girl who was now wiping her face, calming down, saying, “But I have to have a baby.”

“Carly—”

“I’ll have to take yours.” There was an open pocketknife in her tiny, gloved hand.

Nina stumbled backwards, nearly slipping on the icy road. “I’m not pregnant!”

“That’s what you said, but that was just to throw me off. I know it. No one wants me to have a baby. My folks said I can’t. The doctor said I can’t. But I will.”

This is what it comes to, Nina thought. I’ve been running away from shadows all night, and it was right next to me.

There was a distant rumble and a car rounded the corner; the headlights blinded Carly. Nina slipped and fell. A figure approached, a silhouette in boots and a hat.

“Now, Carly,” he said. “What’s going on this time? And put that knife away.”

The trooper helped Nina up and offered her a place in his car, next to the heater. But that was too close to Carly, caged in the back seat. She’d rather freeze.

“She said— her boyfriend—”

“Carly hasn’t ever had a boyfriend, ma’am. It’s just her imagination. You sure you ain’t hurt?”

Another car drove up, a sudden traffic jam in the desolation. But this one wasn’t a trooper. It was Tony, and she was damn glad to see him.

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Elizabeth Becka Lansky is a struggling suspense novelist. She works for a small Florida police department but remembers the deep cold of northern winters, as well as her life as a trace evidence scientist at the Cleveland, Ohio, Coroner’s Office. She writes a column, “Forensic Science for the Mystery Writer” on Suite101.com. She can be reached at lisabecka[at]hotmail.com.

Snow, The Seven, And The Moon

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Janet Mullany


Hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow, she leans into the mirror to apply lipstick as red as blood. She twitches her tight black leather miniskirt into place and goes back out into the bar with the confident stride of a woman who knows her territory. The air is loud with the clack of a game of pool and the high lonesome wail of a steel guitar from the jukebox. She slides onto her stool at the bar, and taps a cigarette out of its case. She senses the men hovering behind her, hears the scrape of a match, the snap of a lighter. Holding back her hair with one hand, she steadies the stranger’s hand with the other as he moves to her side. A slight buzz from his fingers to hers, pale against his darker skin.

“Buy you a drink, honey?” He has a slow, twangy voice, the sort of voice that suggests rumpled sheets, woodsmoke, a golden burn of hard liquor.

She indicates her half-full bottle of beer, and shrugs. “I’m still working on this one, cowboy. I don’t take on more than I can handle.”

He leans forward. His eyes are as blue as a robin’s egg, his hair almost as dark as hers. “Never? You’ve never taken a risk? Gone for the wild side?”

“That’s not what I said.” She smiles and blows smoke at him.

He watches her as she drains the bottle of beer and slips off the stool. “You’re going?”

“Yeah. I’m expected. I’ve got seven of them waiting for me at home. It’s the longest night of the year, remember? We have a busy night ahead.”

“Seven? Seven what?”

“Seven guys.” She gestures with a hand at hip level. “Sorta short, but real loving.”

“You’re kidding.” He looks confused. “You’ve got seven kids?”

She laughs, calls out good night to the bartender, and leaves. She can feel him watching her, all the way across the uneven wood floor until she pushes open the door and takes a lungful of the night air that burns her throat and makes her gasp. Must be ten below at least. The stars blaze in the black velvet of the sky and the moon is like a white blind eye.

*

“That, my friend,” says the bartender, “Is Dr. Morgan Cantrell, otherwise known as the Wolf Lady. Quite a gal.” He pops open a bottle of beer and slides it down the counter. Gary catches it, fumbling, still unnerved by the woman’s self-possession, the touch of her fingers on his, and the scent of her long black hair as it brushed against his arm.

“Wolf Lady?”

“Yep. That’s what they call her. Runs a refuge for wild animals, wolves mainly. The ranchers didn’t like her too much at first, but she’s okay. They say she was a hotshot at some college back east, got burned out, came here and bought the old Frazer place a few years back.”

“And she comes in here every Friday?”

The bartender laughs. “More like every full moon. She comes into town, buys up some supplies, gets her mail, drops by for a hamburger and beer, and leaves every guy in here with his tongue hanging out. She always leaves on her own, her choice.”

Gary stares at the beads of moisture that gather on his bottle and repeats her name to himself. Morgan Cantrell. It has the rhythm and pull of a melody, the beat of a bird’s wings in flight.

“Well, well. You’re in luck, son.” The bartender tosses a bundle of envelopes towards him. “The doctor left her mail behind. Protect and serve, right?”

*

The guys are waiting for her. She hears them burst into song as she pulls into the driveway, and as she picks her way through the snow in her high heels, throws her head back and replies. Inside the house she kicks off the high heels, discards the skirt and pulls on a pair of jeans. As she pushes her feet into insulated boots, she checks the computer. She has mail, three of the messages from Mark. She curls her lip and deletes them without reading them. She knows what he says, what he says every time, the master of honeyed words and deception. Forgive me, things will be different, I’ve changed, I still love you. We can work it out. When she thinks of him, the sites of her injuries, the scars and healed fractures, ache and itch. She shuts down the computer, pulls on gloves and a hat and goes out into the moonlight. Her first stop is the barn, where she opens the door a crack. The two hawks and owl in residence shuffle on their perches. In the shed, the raccoon with her leg in a splint chitters a greeting, while the smaller birds sleep soundly, heads under wings.

Boo is the first to arrive to her call, followed by Hiram and Randy. “Hey, Boo,” she says. “How’s the leg?” He grins at her, tongue lolling, and rolls onto his back; she notes that he’s submissive, but keeping his distance. She had worried that he had bonded to her too strongly after she’d found him as a pup with a badly fractured leg, starving and dehydrated, but still ferocious enough to make her grateful for the leather gauntlets she wore. He was her first, and she had cried when she locked the door against him and forced him to go back to his own kind.

Boo stands, stretches, and muscles the other two out of the way, teeth bared. He’s not yet alpha male, but he’s young and strong and working his way up. Here comes Iris, teats heavy, out for a night on the town away from the responsibilities of motherhood, followed by Isadora. Boris and Gus must be babysitting tonight. The wolves prance and frolic around her. She lets Boo approach her and duck his head so she can scratch the creamy ruff of fur at his neck for a moment, before he pulls away, breath steaming in the night air.

She isn’t clear about what happens next. There’s a patch of ice on the snow, her foot shoots out from under her, and she feels herself fall. Mark, she tries to say, please don’t, honey.

He has her face pressed against the mirror, against the splintering glass. Tell me, he says. Who is it? Don’t lie to me. Don’t ever lie to me, bitch.

I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me. Please.

There’s an explosion of bright light, shards of pain dart into her skull, then darkness.

*

Gary squints at the map and eases the squad car up the snow-packed road. He hopes it’s not too early to call, and also that she will not greet visitors with a shotgun. He finds it hard to reconcile the image of the recluse of the backwoods with the siren he met last night in the bar. He glances again at her mail; even so near the holidays, there’s very little personal there, mainly letters from universities and wildlife research groups. He approaches her house, not much more than a two-room cabin, with a thin wisp of smoke rising from the stovepipe. As he gets out of the car the cold air snatches his breath away. He bangs on the door. There’s no reply. Maybe she’s out tending to her animals. “Anyone home?” he calls.

He follows a trail of footsteps, lightly dusted with a sprinkling of snow, to a small barn, and opens the door. Three huge, fierce birds glare at him and lift their wings. One utters a small, piercing shriek. He backs out, and looks around. The footsteps lead into an open meadow, and he sees a mass of darkness against the white, and, dear God, is that blood? As his eyes become accustomed to the dazzle of sun on snow, he makes out the shapes, five of them, rangy, muscular and watchful. At first he thinks they are dogs, then sees the pale eyes and powerful jaws. The wolves surround a spill of black hair and pale blue fabric. He recognizes the down jacket she’d worn last night. He holds his breath. No one moves.

As he runs for the car, he recalls all the stories he’s heard about wolves. There has never been an accurate record of an attack on a human; it’s all myth. Ranchers he’s met have told him how the wolves don’t hesitate to attack calves; naturalists claim the wolf staple is rodents. They are cold-blooded killers; they look after each other’s young and are loyal to their families.

After he’s called for an ambulance he turns back to the meadow, gun in hand, and releases the safety catch. To his surprise the wolves are still there, staring at him. It occurs to him that he need only fire the gun in the air to make them run, but his anger grows. The ranchers are right; they are not to be trusted; they are vermin, pure and simple.

As he raises his gun, one of them, a large, mostly black male with a ruff of pale fur, rises to his feet and shakes off the snow that has settled on its back. Gary hesitates. He looks into the animal’s pale eyes and hears it make a surprisingly dog-like whine. The other wolves stir, but stay where they are. He sees now that the woman’s face is unmarked, except for the blood matting her hair and staining the snow, and that her head rests on the flank of one of the wolves. The standing wolf creeps forward, saliva on its jaws, and leaving a trail of urine in the snow. Its tail is tucked between its legs as it whines again, and shudders with fear.

Gary takes a cautious step forward. The wolf pants and cringes. Now Gary’s close enough to see that the woman’s breath mingles with the wolves’, that they are clustered together with her for warmth and protection. “You did good,” he says. He slowly lowers himself to a squat, aware of how he towers over the terrified animal. “Real good. It’s okay.” He watches Morgan’s chest move with her breaths, and the small puffs of vapor that rise from her lips. Her skin is even paler than he remembered, colorless except for a purple web of old scars at her forehead and neck. The wolf backs away from him, noses at Morgan’s face, and lies down next to her again. Gary sees two shadows become whole at the treeline; a pair of wolves stands there, watching. The rest of the family, he guesses.

When the ambulance arrives, the wolves jump up, shake themselves and run to join the two watchers. All seven of them disappear into the forest.

*

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t remember things. Do I know you?”

Even with her head swathed in bandages and wearing a hospital gown she still takes his breath away.

“We met in Jake’s saloon,” he says. “You left your mail there.”

“Oh. Yes.” Her lashes rest on her cheeks for a moment. Then she opens her eyes. “I didn’t recognize you in uniform. You found me, didn’t you?”

“Me and some others. How’re you feeling?”

“Not bad.” She takes the bundle of mail from him. “Terrible. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Gary Johnson.” They shake hands formally and smile at each other. “Look, I don’t want to tire you. I just wanted to see how you were doing. I took a look at your bulletin board in the kitchen, where you’ve got the feeding schedule written out, and I gave your hawks a mouse…” he winced, remembering the plastic bag in the freezer full of matted, shrivelled gray corpses. “And I called your emergency person, and he’s taken over.”

“Thank you,” she says. She fumbles through her mail, finds a large envelope and tears it open. She picks out a large glossy photograph of the wolves in daylight, grouped in a meadow spotted with wildflowers. “They looked after me, didn’t they? The nurses said I stank of dog when they brought me in. They stayed all night.”

“Yeah. It was…” He shrugged. He still didn’t believe it himself. He certainly doesn’t know the words to express the wonder of that moment when he realized what the pack had done, how they had kept a vigil through that long, bitter night.

“I took these last summer.” She looks through the photographs, and hands them to him one by one. “Here’s Boo.” It’s the big one who approached him. She tells him the others’ names, silly endearing names that other women might give to kittens.

“You want me to go tell them you’re okay?”

“Sure. Go along about moonrise. Howl and wait for them to show.” She looks at him and smiles. “You do know how to howl, don’t you?”

“I’ll find my wild side,” he says, and takes her hand.

pencil

Originally from England, Janet Mullany now lives outside Washington, DC, with her family, a rabbit and a cat. Her non-writing work includes a diverse career as archaeologist, classical music radio announcer and arts administrator. She is currently at work on a historical romance and a mainstream fiction novel. Janet can be reached at janetmly[at]erols.com.

Prey

Poetry
Janice C. Beavers


Crippled
like a wounded baby raccoon;
half blind
sniffing its own
scent of death.

Remember the window?
The one you looked into and
tried to brush
off the fingerprints
smeared with guilt.

Shrinking…
Arranging myself in scuffed
up jeans of past fondling
only to wake up in a maid’s
room with a dumb waiter.

Taste of raindrops
falling upon the memory
of mirrors that send
nightmares through
my veins.

Pumpkins
filled with empty meat.
My room with blackboards that
janitors fail to clean,
floors go unswept.

Kiss me.
I need the fire at home again
to make me quiver with white
excitement; a summer’s night
ready to be touched.

A thought.
A captive mind engulfed in
rhythmic banality. No spontaneous art,
just joked filled water pipes
of a coward’s applause.

pencil

Janice C. Beavers is a high school English teacher of 16 years. She is currently taking the year off to devote to her writing career. She’s in the process of writing a novel as well as a collection of poetry. She can be reached at fever2c[at]aol.com.

You

Poetry
Sean Patrick Murphy


You
inhale the night
all stars
and celestial ether

You
exhale
the stellar remains
and rearrange
every fixture
in the firmament

You are
exist
as skin
on skin
and redeem my flesh
with a whisper

You dig
inside me
to find
a carnal answer
a singular prophecy
in the entrails’ riddle

Beyond the smoke
of the city
the boredom
of the suburbs
the sad and quiet
country
you breathe

Lips together
Yours and mine
I feel you are my compass
always true

The fragrance
of your company
stays with me
in the long hours
we are apart

It is not possible
that you are the dream
for you live
vibrant and awake
during all my hours

You are the goddess
who allows my fingers
to swim along your flesh
unburdened by
clothes or time

In the sanctuary
of your mind
you grant amnesty
to my tortured soul

You shimmer
in sunlight
among the garden
of all there is

Speak to me
in the car
on the train
in the air
your words
surround me
like the rind
of a fruit

You are
everything
to be revealed
or concealed
and shape me
with gentle ministration

You
beneath me
above me
and by my side
know that
in any atmosphere
on any shore
or on an unforgiving
rock
you hold
my redemption
like a ribbon
tied around
your wrist

pencil

Sean Patrick Murphy is a 1988 graduate of Bennington College. He is a consulting editor at Current History magazine, and the assistant online editor for the Foreign Policy Association. He has had two poems published by Concrete Wolf. He can be reached at lojano[at]attbi.com.

East Town, Grand Rapids

Poetry
By Steve Herron


The crimson bricks of the East Town streets
glisten in the still summer air
washed fresh of the day’s humidity
by a late afternoon shower

a white dreadlocked pedestrian
steps over puddles collected in the depressions
near crumbling granite curbs
created by time and idling Arcadia Ale delivery trucks

they line up, an eclectic group
of Caucasian rastas wrapped up in Jamaican-colored pride,
neo-hippies in print skirts and hemp pants,
walking billboard college clones,
and those holding on to some fading time,
like school kids waiting to board a bus
at the corner of Wealthy and Lake Drive

the line snakes from the entrance
of the aging cinnamon bricked Intersection bar
with smoke-colored windows wall papered
with flyers advertising
Domestic Problems, Mustard Plug,
and 19 Wheels wsg Liz Larhin (from Detroit)

it ends down the block
where the smell of Yesterdog’s mingles
with fresh Brazilian coffee
as the faint murmur of voices
of young poets and wanna-be philosophers
carries across the street
as they engage in conversations
attempting to be as deep and lasting
as the cold of Lake Superior
and as illumines as a full-mooned night sky
unfettered by city lights

Kerouac would not be jealous

daddy’s BMW slows to a stop;
inside four fresh faced prepped beauties
from East Grand Rapids or Ada
giggle and encourage the brave brunette
to ask him, “who’s playing?”

“Karmic” floats in a sweet clove cloud
of Djarum Black smoke that hangs
and then slowly dissipates
into the graying evening air

they drive off laughing
and he joins the disheveled line
catching the hint of jasmine
(much better than patchouli oil)
from the Stevie Nicks goes punk
looking girl whose raven hair matches
the Vietnam combat boots
and contrasts nicely with the flowing
ghostly laced dress

the black cast iron street lamp,
designed to look like it’s been around since the early 1930s
(or maybe it has),
casts a glow that highlights the
psychedelic rainbow swirling
in a nearby puddle

he smiles at the thought
that soon he will join the ghost,
the twirling print flowers and paisley
and the bearded hemp hippies
in a Phish-style float on the dance floor
that may look, to the billboards drinking
their lackluster amber American lagers,
like a Fantasia dance of mop handles.

pencil

Steve lives in the north metro area of Detroit, Michigan and finds that his insomnia provides him with time to write. He can be reached at mrherron2[at]bignet.net.

Still Life with Shaky Oranges

Fiction
By Simon Owen


“This is probably breaching patient-doctor’s receptionist ethics.” She laughed, shook her head. “You dork.”

“It’s what I’m good at,” Stephen smiled, then left without another word.

They met in the city and drank coffee. The conversation was smooth but sparse; Liz busied herself with her hair to cover her shyness, and a hint of boredom. Stephen stared. He was an artist, so he said. But he had never drawn a thing. So he said.

Eight o’clock came, and they walked close together to the room, brushing past people, slamming into others, making shy apologies.

Liz was not amused.

I am always amazed that places like this actually exist, thought Stephen, as they ascended the stair, and paid their two dollars each to gain admission.

They sat, Stephen smoked, Liz coughed. They ordered drinks. Straight Jameson and an orange juice.

The lights went out, and Stephen enquired as to whether his date was enjoying the evening.

“Sure,” an indifferent voice answered.

They eyed the stage with anticipation on one hand and restlessness on the other. There was a shabby table and chair, and one glass. The crowd grew, became restless and drunk.

Stephen brushed Liz’s hand and whispered, “it’s time,” coughed and pocketed his cigarettes. Liz quickly rose to go with him, thinking escape was approaching. She was wrong.

“No, sit down,” said Stephen, and he disappeared from view. He’s probably just gone for a piss, and trying to be artistic about it, thought Liz.

When she lifted her head from spitting an ice cube back into her glass, Stephen was looking straight at her. From the stage.

He had taken the seat behind the old table and was producing things from his pockets. First a small bottle, which he placed on the tabletop beside the glass. Then a candle, he held his lighter to the bottom, melted some wax, and stuck it down beside the bottle.

The glass was half full with liquid when he pulled five orange balls from a pocket, and proceeded to toss them into the front row of the audience who caught them incredulously. He kept one for himself.

“Welcome,” Stephen addressed the crowd, then took a sip from the glass, coughed a bit, and held the ball aloft. He started to shake it back and forth with little movements of his wrist, and it made a noise similar to that of maracas. With a glance and raised eyebrows to the front row, the audience joined in, and the sound of five rustling instruments filled the room in rhythmic waves. Others tapped feet and clapped. The atmosphere was thickening toward something, and Liz looked excited.

Through the beat, Stephen lit a cigarette and produced some pages from his jacket pocket, unfurled and flattened them against the table, and smoked, letting the anticipation of the crowd escalate.

He drew the cigarette to the butt and then husked out through the smoke, “it’s still life,” and crushed the filter on the table.

Murmurs and laughs from the crowd, and the beat went on.

He lifted the top page, and, foot following the orange rhythm, began to speak.

—With smashed leg I lay on a floor of thistle pains for thirteen days, I was hunted by Kafka’s kids, but I was no fox, I could not run, was no mouse could sleep, was no librarian could read, was no needle could relieve.

—Was no… and nodded to the bottle and glass, people laughed, and Stephen chuckled deeply.

—Was no man could stand, was no towtruck, got wheeled in, out,

—Was no man could stand, and piss,

—Was no man.

—Was no.

—Woman.

And more laughter and innuendo filled the air.

Stephen looked toward Liz, through five bobbing heads and shaking wrists, through the rhythm of it all, to the woman who pain had brought to him;

—Was no woman could — he paused, —relieve me…

More laughter, raucous.

Stephen chuckled again,

—could relieve me — of —

Shouts and whoops from the crowd,

—My pain.

And then, silence. Except for the shaky oranges.

—Except,

And he lifted his eyes to meet Liz’s,

And she had gone.

Eager listeners leaned forward.

—Except, he drew out the word, hissing at its end,

—You, dear, he said, and nodded to the bottle, and was applauded with shouts and claps and shaky oranges.

pencil

Simon Owen was born in the Republic of Ireland and emigrated to Australia in 1997. He is currently studying for a Bachelor of Architecture and working as a draftsman and musician to support addiction to writing. He has a rather large stainless steel rod embedded in his left leg and likes the number thirteen, Mexican food and the incredibly coincidental. His intercontinental nickname is Slime. He is currently working on a novel entitled “The Last Years of Francis Flood”. Simon can be reached at Barflychinaski[at]hotmail.com.

Pissing Off Jimmy Santiago Baca

Creative Nonfiction
By Tony Gallucci


This story must begin with the e-mail. Champ Hood died of cancer the week before. He’d told no one until he was almost gone. His friends carted him to a house on a hill and the gentle guitarist slipped into music and we mourned.

Brad Buchholz is a writer for the Austin American-Statesman–a fine one–and in his piece for the week he spoke of Champ and what he’d left behind, gifts to all of us, the many who’d sat at his feet and closed our eyes and been taken elsewhere. I have no pictures of those past days, before we were digital, when we were all poor, and didn’t matter, I didn’t like pictures anyway.

I wrote Brad an e-mail. I didn’t know this man, had never seen him that I knew of, but knew that sometimes, if you read, you can make pictures of words, can dream up scenarios of how things might have been through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes like that, if you can read, you know who someone is. Brad’s picture, so close to my own, was in my head when I wrote him to say thanks.

*

When I was a child, clients too poor to pay my father would show up at our door to deliver chickens, bags of tomatoes or onions, a rusted frame of a .38 pistola. My family job was to answer the door when these folks came over, to graciously accept their offer, to close the door gently as they returned to lives in the fields or on the streets, and deliver the pay to the kitchen, or the freezer out back, or my dad’s desk drawer.

One time a man, I might have called him a ghost crab for his skittering away (but he was a man–I could see that), he placed a rumpled grocery bag in my hands and was gone. I could tell you of the need to see if it was something perishable and that’s why I opened it, but that would be fiction and this isn’t. Its squareness against the corners of my hands felt of a book or a stack of papers and I quickly unwrapped it, curious.

I was scanning ragged black pages of taped pictures when my father found me in the living room. I showed him the pictures I’d already memorized–a big lake, two ladies standing beside it, a baby out of focus, a horse cart filled with palm leaves and a young man, a boy perhaps, under a straw hat that hid his eyes. My father’s eyelids closed slowly, tightly, he took a deep breath, got up and walked out of the room, out the front door, to our blue 1961 Ford Falcon, and drove away. I finished looking at the book of pictures, weddings, fishing in a river, something in a yard, a woman with her hand in front of her face.

*

Six inches of cold-front rain and its offspring, flash floods, the third week of November kept me from getting to much of the annual Texas Book Festival. Every year the weekend offers the chance to sit in the Texas Senate and the House of Reps and listen to people with great spirits or great words or both read from their works. I imagined the poetry and stories washing down the front porch river until late the 17th when I was able to escape and make the two-plus hour trip to Austin.

That nine of my student writers were scheduled to read Sunday in the Poetry Tent was incentive enough to arrive early, even with John Heymann promising he’d cover for me if I was unable to get out. The kids weren’t the only incentive however: Lance Armstrong was to speak in the morning and for the afternoon, at a time I hoped I’d be free of poetry constraints, Jimmy Santiago Baca was to speak in the Senate Chamber. I wanted a good seat.

I hope I don’t cross the line into new age pigwash when I say Baca speaks to me without scrambling the lines between the past of the heart and the brain of the present. He can be broken Apache shaman, he can be oppressed and leave the guilt to the system and not the individual, he can follow you with his eyes and know who you are. All without your ever being unaware of where you are.

*

My eyes are going. I am old. Maybe that’s not all. Using a camera has become a crutch for me. When I want to see something, to remember it, I use a camera. There are times I want to walk right up to someone, to look closely at them, in the flesh, but just can’t. So I film, and later I watch. And then I see who they are. See who it is I can no longer focus on.

But I have this sensitivity to privacy. It’s acute. It was I, seeking old friends and the comfort of the drum, attending the Austin Pow Wow two weeks before, who told the TV cameraman not to film in sacred moments. Even the volunteers seemed to be ignorant of where they have come from. And of where they must go.

I remember grandfather not wanting pictures taken–only two remain of him, one young, a hunter with a big cat, the other older, perhaps truly old, in an Easter white shirt and khakis, by the house at 1101 12th Street. Remember stepping in front of a camera in Montana when the ravens were clucking at the drum at a Brush Dance. And once, getting back a roll of ruined film–of a friend I’d never see again.

*

Lance was re-scheduled to the afternoon allowing me the chance to relax and trade time with poets: Tammy Gomez, Thom the World Poet, Susan Bright, Michael Guinn, Anthony Douglas, the bright street poets of the moment, before my student writers read.

The kids were on, confident, practiced, proud. They spoke of love without mentioning the L word, they talked of buildings falling in their lives, they jammed on personal space. A reporter for the Statesman stopped by, caught scraps of their words and put them in the paper. I patted their backs, urged them to see other poets, listened to Susan and Clebo read, and snuck away in the November humidity, nametag fluttering in the breeze, carrybag full of books straining to hold me back.

At the towering double wooden doors of the Senate a lady with a volunteer tag stepped in front of me. She glanced at my tag and said to me, “Are you the poet?” with some glee in her voice. Stunned that someone recognized me by name I said, “Why, yes! I just finished with my group out front.”

She took my arm and led me inside the chamber, mostly-filled with anxious listeners. She was charming, pointed out the dais “There’s where the readings will be,” swung to show me paintings of Texas revolutionary battles, and whispered the departure of the previous reader. I said, “I’ll just wait,” not wanting to draw attention as I sought a good seat with a close view.

We watched the reader gather her books and slip out the back door. There was a tug. The volunteer had me by the shirt and was pulling me up the aisle toward the front. I suddenly realized she must have thought I was Jimmy Santiago Baca. Maybe she didn’t get a good look at my nametag? Maybe she doesn’t read? Maybe she doesn’t know his name? Maybe I just look enough “Official with a Nametag”/Indio/Mestizo/Mexican that she outright guessed? Maybe I was a victim of–gulp–literary racial profiling?

“Oh ma’am, I’m sorry, I’m not that poet, I’m not scheduled to read in here.” She was a mess, apologizing all over me and the carpet; my own attempts little more graceful.

I settled into a Senate chair, aware the crowd was staring at me. I wanted to fold myself up like a bad photo and tuck it into some side pocket of my wallet.

Then Baca strode in, missing the poor volunteer completely, and sat to the right of the podium. I was relieved to see a resemblance between us. Eight officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety lined the wall behind him.

A man walked to the podium and, after scanning the room, waiting for quiet, began, “I’m Brad Buchholz from the Austin American Statesman…”

What a stroke. I write a note–Buchholz is here. Mentally that translates, “Make sure to shake his hand and thank him again for his words about Champ…” I prop my camera on a book to get the right angle. Test it. Lean back ready.

Baca steps up and smiles. He takes a moment to thank everyone for the great hospitality he’s been shown. For an ex-con, five years for passing drugs, he seems comfortable in a room of state troopers, in a room of drug law history. And he reads.

Baca even does his “Cry.” Few expected to hear and we’re, every one, mesmerized. Brad’s eyes are closed, he’s rocked back in that big Senate chair. Baca closes his book. The applause!

Twice Baca says “just one more” only to take a trail leading away from some question, feeling that need to read more. Baca enjoys this moment.

He talks about watching folks when he was a kid. Following them with his eyes. He knows they were afraid of him, how he dressed, how he looked, and he says to them/us, “I was just studying you,” chuckles and, as he is saying this, looks my way. By “my way” I mean he looked straight at me.

He stops, there is a beat of silence, just a beat, and perhaps no one notices. Except me. I notice. It’s the camera.

*

I’ve always been troubled by dreams. Not nightmares really, not monsters, or murder, though certainly I’ve had those as well. Been troubled by the dreams I can’t remember, and troubled by what the ones I do remember mean about me. How is it possible that people tell their dreams to psychologists without already knowing what they mean?

Want to know? Okay, it starts as four big black bulls chasing me. I open a door there’s a bull. I roll out of bed there’s a bull. There’s a bull on my plate looking at me. I can’t eat because I can’t get my fork to the food without having to battle a bull. Cowboys can’t rope them, they shatter the red capes of the matadors there to save me, can’t outrun them in a hemi Dodge Charger.

Puberty sneaks up on me, and suddenly it’s seven bulls, buffalo, big and black, bison, and I have only grass to protect me, to run through, to circle in. One bull is faster than all the others. It’s always on my heels. I wake up sweating from the hot breath of that beast up my shirt, down my pants.

My grandfather asks me if I’ve been telling lies. Well, of course I have. Smoking hooch, sneaking across borders to boystown, poaching deer, sneaking into my father’s office to look through that book of old pictures, trying to decipher it. Only lies make sense of any of that to parents trying too hard to be the American Dream family.

“Truth,” my grandfather said, “is always the fastest, and it always catches you.” I said, “But grandpa…” “Or maybe someone is trying to come back and take from you what you’ve taken from them,” he says.

I think one bull was trying to figure out why my dad wasn’t coming home very often anymore. Only person I know disliked pictures more than my grandfather was my father.

*

Baca finished his line of thought, and then says he wants to tell us something. I know what it is. It’s about cameras. It is about theft. Losing the right to own your own face.

Then he waves it off and says “later” and, so not to spoil his setup, reads about studying us to learn who anyone is.

He steps aside, takes a drink of water, then launches into the tirade I knew was coming, the one about not filming him without permission. My assumption about public events in public places, my assumptions from years pretending as the journalist, now withered in front of hundreds of people.

Baca is careful to not look at me during the rant, but few people don’t know where the camera is. I reach up and turn it off. He finishes.

I take my own beat–and a breath–before I stand. I already have my hand out as an offering when I reach the desk. He takes it, but there is an edge in his hand and in his eyes. I say only “I’ll erase the tape.” “That’s okay,” he says, “don’t erase it, just ask permission first from now on, okay.” I try to make other small talk, to tell him I was mistaken for him at the beginning, that I’ve stolen him twice today, but his edge sharpens and I move on, ashamed to have run a stone across his day, to have dulled his enjoyment of the hospitality and our joy in his moment and his language, to even have spoiled a proud moment for the volunteer who mistook me for him.

I sit down.

Someone who actually recognizes me for who I am comes up to rave about his reading, another to commiserate, but I am dulled myself. Turning to pack the camera I remember Brad Buchholz and look to see if I can catch him to thank him before they’re gone, though I know he must have watched and listened to the whole exchange, and wonder if I want him to associate me, the writer, with me, the guy who ruined a sweet afternoon of poetry in a cathedral of language. They are nearly to the door and I sink back into the chair not wanting to stir the boiling kettle anymore.

I arrive home late Sunday night, do nothing except erase the tape, and sleep.

Monday morning there is an e-mail waiting for me from Brad Buchholz. “Thank you so much for writing about Champ…” it said, “I hope we shake hands someday.”

pencil

Six writers from TG’s student group, The Locker Room Writers & Thinkers Workshop, were featured in the Poetry Tent at the Texas Book Festival in November 2001. He is the publisher of the online journal The Black Widow & The Brown Recluse, an outlet for aspiring student writers, competed at the 1998 National Poetry Slam, and is associate editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review. Tony can be reached at hurricanetg[at]hotmail.com.