Some Kind of Tough Guy

Fiction
Mark Joseph Kiewlak


When I was eight years old I was split in two. It was no big deal. There was a weak, wimpy side of me that I called Betty and a monstrous, destructive side that I called Tough Guy. I couldn’t be both at once. But I was always one or the other.

One day when I was fifteen I was bending over on the sidewalk, stopping to smell some flowers, when two of my classmates came along. I was Betty at the time and they didn’t like Betty. Maybe they felt like they had a Betty inside of them and they didn’t like that either. Their names were Larry and Mike.

Mike started pushing me and I told him not to. He was making me angry. Sure enough the Tough Guy soon appeared. I could hear Betty screaming for him to take it easy, but he didn’t listen. Mike ended up in the hospital. Larry wasn’t so lucky.

I was locked up after that. I spent a lot of years in a lot of different hospitals. I was sure I’d never see home again.

Trying to describe Betty to others, trying to show them that side of me, always reminded me of those flowers that day. I think they were lilacs. They were soft and purple and seemed to have been created just so someone could enjoy them. Just so I could enjoy them. That’s how I felt about Betty. Betty was there to be enjoyed. The funny thing is—and I know it makes no sense—I hated Betty a lot more than I hated Tough Guy. Tough Guy was a force of nature. There was no right or wrong. No guilt. It was Betty who made my soul ache.

I would spend my time drawing on the walls. They gave me crayons and I tried to draw things that Betty would enjoy. But then Tough Guy would come along and scribble all over everything. He’d take the black crayon and ruin everything. But it was Betty I hated. If Betty hadn’t created such beauty there’d be nothing for Tough Guy to destroy.

Over time I began losing my ability to dream. In my dreams I was always Betty. I was barefoot and soft and walking along cliffs, but I never fell. Betty was transcendent.

When I was thirty-two I was released and allowed to go back home. No one was there. My family had moved and no one told me where. I didn’t mind it much, really. They had ignored me even before I was locked away. I stood out in the yard and I imagined what my life would be like without Tough Guy. It would be continuous beauty. It would be gentle and fluid. It would be peace.

I vowed that Tough Guy would never show his face again. I made this promise to myself and to the swaying tree branches and the green grass and whomever else was listening. A thunderstorm began immediately afterward.

I’d always been afraid to talk about Tough Guy because I was pretty sure that it was the talking about him and the thinking about him that made him show up in the first place. Some of the doctors who had visited me suggested that I should talk about Tough Guy because it would make me feel better. They thought it was just a made-up personality that I called on when things got too tough for me alone. They didn’t understand that the transformation was real. That Tough Guy was real. And Betty was too.

Not much happened to me for a while after that. I lived in my parents’ house and no one bothered me. I was Betty all the time. I was happy. But every time a thunderstorm came along I got really scared. I was practically paralyzed. Yet I was always drawn outside into the heart of it. I’d come back soaking wet and numb and have to stay in bed for a few days. I began locking the doors so this wouldn’t happen. But then when the storm came I’d simply unlock them and go outside and repeat the whole thing all over again.

I had started painting. It reminded me of drawing on the walls and I enjoyed it. It was all Betty. Tough Guy never came along and ruined any of it. One day a woman came to the door selling magazines. She spotted my paintings and asked to buy one. The next thing I knew I was selling every one of them and making a lot of money. It was all Betty though. I began to wonder what would happen if Tough Guy ever showed his face again. I had promised myself I wouldn’t think about him.

I was at a gallery one night and there was a show about my paintings. I was some sort of idiot savant. It sounded like a bad thing so I couldn’t understand why they smiled when they said it. There was a lot of talk about Betty and about Tough Guy that night. People didn’t know their names but they were talking about them just the same. People were giving Tough Guy all the credit. A dark side, they called it. They said that there was an undercurrent of darkness in all the beauty Betty created. This was horrible to think about and I knew it couldn’t be true. Besides, they didn’t even think Tough Guy and Betty were real.

I went home and I was still upset. Betty was perfect. There was no darkness there. My agent called to ask if I was okay.

“Do you think there’s an undercurrent of darkness in my work?” I said.

“I don’t judge ’em,” she said. “I just sell ’em.”

I was quiet.

“Are you all right?” she said.

“I’m fine. You didn’t happen to catch the weather forecast, did you?”

The next I knew, she was in my bed. I wondered what Betty thought about all this. I’d never been with a woman, but my agent said it would be okay. She was more than my agent after that.

I couldn’t face the idea of hurting anyone so I created a dungeon in my mind and I locked Tough Guy inside it. Ignoring him hadn’t worked. This was the next best thing.

My agent moved in with me. She watched me work. There hadn’t been any thunderstorms for a long time.

One day Betty wanted a Popsicle and we went down to the drugstore to get one. A couple of guys were robbing the place. My agent was with me and she grabbed hold of my arm. I stepped in front of her. I tried to back us out the door but they had already seen us. They ordered us to come inside and they tied us up along with the cashier. The police were outside shouting things. These other guys were shouting back. They reminded me of Larry and Mike. My agent was crying.

I tried to think of what Betty would do. Paint a picture. Smell a flower. What good was that? I needed Tough Guy. Outside it got dark. It started to rain. I waited to hear the sound.

The Larry and Mike look-a-likes were cursing at the police and making fun of us. They started kicking me. I was getting angry. My agent was gagged and crying really hard now. One of them put a gun to her head. From outside I heard the thunder.

My whole head was like an explosion. Betty was gone and I was in the dungeon. It smelled bad and I was pulling on the shackles, trying to break Tough Guy loose. But I couldn’t. He’d been in the prison so long he’d gotten used to it. He didn’t want to leave. He felt safe there.

The guy pointing the gun at my agent switched it to the cashier and pulled the trigger. Something splattered all over me.

In the dungeon I could see the chains pulling loose from the wall. The wall itself was buckling. There was a huge crack of thunder and then Tough Guy was there. He was eight feet tall. He was made all of muscle. He squeezed the gunman’s hand and crushed it. The other gunman turned toward him and fired. Tough Guy laughed. The bullets felt like nothing. Like butterflies. Like moonbeams. Tough Guy grabbed the other gunman by the front of his shirt and threw him right through the front window. He landed on the hood of a police car. The gunman with the broken hand jumped on Tough Guy’s back. He started pounding on Tough Guy’s head. Tough Guy laughed. He spun around and around and the gunman lost his grip. He was on his knees before Tough Guy. Tough Guy raised his hands. They were as big as catcher’s mitts. If he brought them together the gunman’s head would be squished to nothing.

Suddenly Betty was there. It made no sense. I could be one or the other. But not both at the same time.

“Don’t do this,” Betty said.

If he’d wanted to, Tough Guy could’ve swatted her away like an insect. But he was gentle. He raised her in his massive arms and held her to him. He leapt into the air, crashing through the roof of the drugstore and flying miles into the sky, disappearing from sight.

I woke up in the hospital. My agent was there. She said I was very brave. She said I’d taken three bullets. I didn’t understand. But soon I was released and we were walking together down the sidewalk. I stopped to smell some flowers. My agent looked at me.

“What kind are they?” she said.

“Lilacs,” I said. “I think.”

She bent over to smell them with me.

“They were Betty’s favorite,” I said.

pencil

“I’ve been an author for fifteen years now, mainly short stories and poetry. Recently my work has appeared in Wild Violet, The Bitter Oleander, Black Petals, and Once Upon a Time. I’ve also written for DC Comics (FLASH 80-PAGE GIANT #2). Lately, I’ve been studying Bradbury to try to work some of his poetry into my soul. Other favorites include Robert B. Parker, Anne Rice, Frank Miller (though I hate the way he’s writing Batman now) and J.M. DeMatteis.” E-mail: DippedinForever[at]aol.com.

Wait

Flash
Grant Hettrick


Cole laced his polished shoe, rose from the motel bed. The pungent odor of cheap detergent and fresh sex wafted from the sheets.

“Wait.” Her sultry plea, like a purring kitten.

“I don’t have time, Inez.”

“You weren’t worried about time a few minutes ago, baby.”

“I’ve got things to do.”

“Things like your wife?” Inez held the stained white bedspread across her naked body.

“Things like my job. You know, my job, the place where I make money. I know you understand money.”

Inez pulled the bedspread over her shoulders and turned her back.

Cole’s insides tightened. Anger? Maybe, though he knew it never lasted. Frustration? Absolutely, but more than that.

“The room’s paid for another hour,” he said, “so you don’t have to rush out.”

The bathroom sink dripped, slow and steady.

“Wait.” The plea more urgent, the barest whiff of desperation and Cole was surprised by the ripple of relief that loosened his gut.

“What now?”

“Davey’s medicine has almost run out.”

“Davey’s your son, not mine.”

“Fine, go. Go home to your wife.”

Cole sighed as he slipped on his jacket. “I can’t bail you out every time. Get a job, apply for welfare, go after your dead-beat ex; it’s his kid.”

Silence. Then the rustling of the bedspread, like a snake across the brush, as Inez shifted and reached for her discarded clothes.

“Does every single time have to end with me giving you money?” he asked. Her quiet unsettled him.

Inez thrust a tube of lipstick into a silver glitter purse. Cole imagined the heat of her anger caused his brow to sweat. His stomach dropped a few inches, lurched like a creaky elevator. How long could she stay mad? Cole didn’t know for certain. The last time lasted thirteen days before he’d apologized. He’d lost six pounds, never slept for more than two hours a night.

“Inez?”

A canyon of silence divided them.

“Wait,” Cole whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Inez turned and the bedspread slipped from her shoulders, bunched across her slim waist. The crevice between her pert, perfect breasts glistened with sweat. Cocoa eyes locked his, a mesmerizing, unblinking stare, like a jungle cat.

Cole reached into his wallet and placed five twenty-dollar bills on the dresser. Her eyes followed his hand as each bill settled on the scratched wood. When the final twenty topped the pile, she looked at him, bit her lower lip, glanced back at dresser. Cole counted another hundred.

Inez smiled, closed her eyes, and lay back on the bed. “I love you, baby.”

The elevator settled. He admired the taut flesh of her stomach; the salty taste, from when he traced it with his tongue, burned white-hot in his skull. “I love you, too,” he said and reminded himself to stop at an ATM.
pencil

For the past few years, Grant Hettrick has been writing short stories specializing in literary fiction. A recent example of his efforts can be found in the literary magazine Peeks & Valleys. He currently lives in New York City with his wife, Debra, and two children, Nate and Maddy. E-mail: ghettrick[at]si.rr.com.

Frozen

Flash
Krishan Coupland


I watch you skate.

I could watch you skate for hours, for days, because you’re so beautiful. It’s like seeing you fly, you do it so effortlessly. And you’re smiling—tiny white teeth—I haven’t seen you smile for a long time.

The other children on the rink don’t have half the grace and poise and easy momentum you do. They’re clumsy and worthless—but you… you’re perfect, and you don’t even know it. Whenever I tell you how good you are you smile and giggle and shrug. But you are; you’re perfect.

My child, my beautiful child, you’re better than all the others.

You complete another flawless circuit. I watch you step off the ice and hobble forward, the blades of your skates click-clacking on the concrete. You’re smiling still as you seek me out, waiting in the stands.

I reach toward you—because for a second I’ve allowed myself to believe that you’re real and whole and there again—I reach for you.

But my fingers meet only static charged glass—and it’s the cameraman, the me from seven years ago, who holds you and takes you home and casually wastes away the seconds and hours and weeks he has left with you.
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Krishan Coupland is a student living in Southampton. Currently he is studying for a career in medicine—or something else. He hasn’t really decided yet. He has written for most of his life as a hobby. E-mail: coupk[at]hotmail.co.uk.

Two Poems

Poetry
Lynn Strongin


Smoke-Jumpers

They Scrape the Snow, Grazing
moose in Yellowstone            a difficult kind of feeding.
The Blessing of the animals.

While smoke-jumpers
put out fires with cones of water

but only to an extent:            it’s ecologically more sound to let some fire burn.
The rage that ate up my spine burned out

Left levelled, ash-scarred plains.
Never Never land.
I went back to find windbreaker, skis, poles
but they had been burned when the room
like Yellowstone was levelled of all trails of disease:
the scars shone like pits in polished gem-stone.

 

Failed Nerve strikes like a fuse blown in a city, a whole power station:

i.
The long pressure of the gem in earth creates nerve-pain:
One can lose daring in art, nature.

I think of my window-sitting:

A small child post-polio I was wiry, strong:
lace-making

In the bay window which got a New England slant of sun falling on lace-wheels
turning the cartwheels I could no longer perform
translating it into it a shade less snow, more ecru: bone. Like silver
tarnishing.

ii.
Strata of sadness            like layers of water lapping over steps
characterized our early lives:
the war, divorce, polio:

knobs of the spine
beads of a rosary.

Then the layers resembled mica
the silver ambitions, cruelties, battles of adolescence:
when we mistook for love flirtation.

Postured like a child of 9
I stooped behind a stump

Boo!
I twisted one skinny leg around the other
as if for the last time

holding back weeping
promising to be honest as the day is long.
But it exceeds understand:
the forked prey awas caught over & over again:

A half-year in state hospital at age 12 had given me a skewed idea of family:
I saw it as spiraled metal or wood.

I read this in my father’s sadness, our mother’s moods.
Any remants of bliss
possibility of childhood happiness

blew, shredded ethereal garments
in the Puritan wind of a merciful God had there been one:

our circle of lamplight was an embroidery hope
of sadness.

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“I have poems in roughly 50 journals (Italy, England, Canada, the States.) Work in thirty anthologies, and nine published books of poems. I worked for Denise Levertov in the sixties, studied informally under Robert Duncan. My anthology The Sorrow Psalms:A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy will be published by the University of Iowa Press, April 2006. Work on-line in: Hotel Amerika, Storie, New Works Review (featured poet, winter 2005), C / Oasis, Terrain, Tryst, Avatar, Chiaroscuro.” E-mail: yosunt[at]shaw.ca.

Three Poems

Poetry
Donna Mae Brown


East From Seattle

I drove late into the night, and now
awakened by necessity, lie
in a warm bed in a cold room, catching
images of yesterday, like snowflakes
on my tongue:

warm-throated lowing
of the six p.m. ferry, barking
of gulls, silent swell
of the snow-clad volcano looming
like a chess master over the board,

then the long, long rise and fall
of Snoqualmie, the deep sigh,
then dry country, the last trees
falling back like front runners
in a timeless marathon,

the long lesson of the scablands
where the quick and the sly joust
for a purse of death delayed
and stars ping in the sky: sharp,
staccato, grace notes from a piccolo,

bergs and bungalows rooted
to the sandy soil, undulating chains
of headlights on the long hills
and I among them, a pair of points
adrift on a ribbon of was-is-will be

soon, the quick crawl over
the long lip of Spokane, swallowed
into the quiescent caldera
limned with lights, of which one
is shining for me.

 

Maple Seeds

If NASA sent a rocket to another galaxy
full of things to represent the earth
and asked me to contribute, I would send
a maple seed, double wing
with the stem attached,
one without blemish culled
from the millions in my own back yard.

Imagine the fun the Others would have
dropping it again and again, watching it
pick its whimsical way to the ground,
each flight unique but obedient
to laws of physics.

Perhaps a little root finger
would venture forth, probing
the alien soil, and what if there
is water! Perhaps
it would lift itself up on an infant stem
quivering until the leaves burst forth
reaching toward light from
the nearest star.

Life is nothing if not adaptable,
and perhaps on that far-away planet
the seed would grow into a tree,
lavishing the landscape
some distant year with
tiny propellers to delight
extra-terrestrial children.

And if it doesn’t,
let them wonder.
Let them wonder.

 

Tide Pool

Bracing myself on a barnacled rock,
the toes of my boots nudging the verge,

I peer into their universe, stir with a stick
the icy water, as inch-long rock fish

dart for cover. With the tip of the stick
I upend a rock crab, its claws clicking

soundlessly, a pebble-sized warrior that
lives under a stone, pocketed in sand and

primed to joust. A purple star drapes
a bulge—mussel or clam—serene stillness

belying the struggle, patient straining
as its predatory stomach probes and

prods, seeking entry. Gently, I pry it loose
from its lunch. Wafting my hand across

a green anemone, tacky barbs clutching
at the contours of my skin, its best weapon

useless, I smile, an indifferent deity,
messing with their little minds.

pencil

Donna Mae Brown writes from the dry side of the mountains in Washington State, the steppe region known as the Columbia Basin. She is a high school counselor whose poems and articles appear regularly in magazines and literary journals. She welcomes visitors to her web page at donnamaebrown.com. E-mail: dmmbrown[at]gmail.com.