A Meditation on Less Being More

The Snark Zone: Letters From the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

When I was young, my parents were always fixing up the houses we lived in, painting and wallpapering, building fences and decks, tearing up fugly shag carpet, and paneling rooms in knotty pine (hey, you can always paint it white!). They bought furniture at secondhand stores and refinished it; my dad built furniture from scratch. My mom knit and sewed and crocheted and did embroidery and needlepoint and macramé. We always had a garden (complete with compost), and consequently a freezer full of fruits and veggies, as well as a cold room packed with canning and jam. We held garage sales for stuff we didn’t use anymore. Most of the zillions of books I read were either from the library or the used bookstore where I traded stacks of just-finished books for new-to-me ones.

I never thought much about this at the time, but in retrospect it’s interesting. Because, well, all this stuff is the new nerdy-cool. Now, if you grow your own food, compost, refinish secondhand furniture, make crafts… you’re not just thrifty, you’re green! And while that’s awesome, I can’t help thinking: wait. What’s new about this? Why doesn’t anyone else know how to freeze blackberries (that they picked themselves) or hem a pair of pants or prep a piece of furniture for painting? It made me realize that, while all these things seemed normal in the context of time and place, I guess it wasn’t really an average childhood experience.

It has always puzzled me that one of the biggest problems on design shows seems to be people’s inability to imagine things in a configuration other than the one they are already in. This has never been an issue for me; I’m always rearranging stuff in my head (aren’t all writers? hey you! go there now!). Now I’m thinking that perhaps my facility with that—both in real and fictional worlds—can perhaps be traced back to my childhood of making things and repurposing things and deciding what to hang onto and what to trade for something new. It was an experience that has not only gifted me with the ability to do stuff myself (which is infinitely useful) but also seems to have made me a creative thinker.

Lately, I’ve had to reconfigure my (very small) apartment and in the midst of this, it occurred to me that all this rearranging, repurposing, and removing is a lot like the writing process. Although it has left me with fewer things, what’s left is more representative of me—I’ve kept what I love and/or need, and have let go of stuff I’ve kept simply because I had it for a long time. A small space is like working within the confines of a word limit; it makes you think carefully about adding anything new. Do I love this? Will it work in this space? All the time knowing that if you do find something you love (or something that just works better), adding it might mean letting go of something else. Just as sometimes you have to murder your darlings in order for the piece you’re working on to be the best it can be.

It can be hard to make do with less, but less can sometimes be more. Just as a tiny suite can be a jewel of design, while a McMansion might be spacious but have no soul, a flash piece of 500 words might leave you reeling while a 500-page novel leaves you flat. You don’t always need more words to say what you want to say. You just need to choose the right ones, and arrange them in the right way—and know when to stop.

E-mail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Bring Me Home Love

Best of the Boards
Niaz Khadem

for Bolivia

Bring me sunsets and backgammon,
café chairs and African love songs.
Where white button-downs hang
off clotheslines and thin men—
black as coffee and sweet as iced tea.

Dirt floors swept clean. Thick air
and a warm breeze. Bring me
home love. Black coffee,
sugar cane, and white tea.
Thin men play chess in the park

as we play backgammon on the balcony.
Sipping americanos and club soda
clean like lime juice—fresh squeezed.
Brazilian girls always have younger brothers
and fathers they want you to meet.

But if you’re home now then you know this.
And American girls, they are fearless.
Brazilian girls know better, but
if you’re not careful—either one
will get you killed, but I’d risk it

to be at home now. To wear
a white button-down, dancing
to love songs on a dirt floor
with a warm breeze. Sweat
dripping like condensation

from a glass of iced tea.
Bring me home love. Bring me
café chairs and floors swept
clean. Bring me sunsets, bring me
Africa, bring me home love. Bring me.


Niaz Khadem teaches high school Spanish in Paducah, Kentucky. His students think he likes poetry a little too much. Maybe they’re right.

The Nightmares of H83

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Amanda Divine

The padded walls muffled most of the screams, but Dr. Zkhedhm would have smiled even if she could’ve heard them at full volume. The preliminaries on the humans were progressing well, and she anticipated the delivery of several more subjects in the next few days.

The wiry tentacles growing from her head sensed the phone call first, but she was too busy gloating to pay attention until the phone actually rang.

“Dr. Zkhedhm speaking… Senior Vgharhm, hello. They’re going quite well, actually. We have three patients hooked up to the generator right now. I expect each to produce a full power pack by tomorrow morning. Excellent. Eight o’clock? We’ll be expecting you.” She hung up the phone and rubbed her forehead, allowing the tentacles to twist around her fingers. It was unfortunate they couldn’t sense what phone calls were going to be about. She loved lab work, but like most Sthenians, she hated the politics of bureaucracy. The Seniors could be a hard bunch to please, but if the humans produced without incident throughout the night, three power packs would be a piece of Gaergon cake.

“Dr. Z! We need you downstairs. Something’s gone wrong with H83.” The head of her intern, Hrhna, peered around the office door, tentacles at attention.

The doctor groaned and grabbed her injection case. It wasn’t often that problems with the humans couldn’t be fixed by a little shot of adrenalin. She followed the intern down the stairs, noting with some pride that Hrhna had shrunk at least two inches since she signed on with them. Sthenians began large and became smaller with age, physical control and digestive efficiency compacting them as they matured. Only the most advanced ever made it below four feet. Dr. Zkhedhm had been five foot two since her thirty-eighth year.

The psychiatric hospital consisted of two floors—sterile offices and a few padded rooms on the ground floor, with the generators, test patients, and other equipment in the basement. Five cells lined each side of a short hallway; the open doors of the seven empty cells gave the doctor a start, but she quickly patted down her tentacles, remembering that only three cells were currently occupied. She focused on the last door on the right, where H83 stood, in striped pajamas, looking out through the bars. He seemed oblivious to the shrieks and cries from the other cells.

“He was fine at last check, crouching in the corner, but then the computer recorded disruptions in his heart rate and breathing, and when I came to check he was just standing there. I don’t think he’s afraid anymore.”

“Damn it, Hrhna, that’s impossible.”

“Yes, doctor. But you can see for yourself. He’s definitely not cowering, and the power pack is not registering any incoming.”

Dr. Zkhedhm gave her injection case to Hrhna, stepped directly in front of H83, and crossed her arms. “You,” she said. “Why aren’t you trembling?”

H83 leaned his shoulder against one of the bars and tucked his other hand into the waistband of his pajama bottoms. “I’m not afraid.”

“Nonsense. You are a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and you have been on intravenous dicyclomine for the past five months.”

He scratched his elbow, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes. “Maybe I’m cured.”

“I severely doubt you could be cured with amygdalae lesioning and a daily injection of norepinephrine by Sergeant Hsffu. You should be insane with hallucinations.”

He shrugged. “I guess you know best.”

Dr. Zkhedhm stepped back, hand on chin, tapping her cheek. “I think I know what the problem is. Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“The Nightmare.”

“The what?”

“You know what I’m talking about. The fear spawn. The hate baby. You became immune to fear. Some humans do. It is rare, but it happens. So your body rejected it, expelled it in physical form. A Nightmare. Where is it now?”

“Search me…” H83 spread his arms. “I’m just the crazy guy, remember?”

“I will and I do. You will stand there, and insert your arms through the bars. Hrhna, restrain him.”

“Yes, doctor.” Hrhna strapped his wrists together, tightening the bands until he grimaced. “You’ll fear us again, soon enough,” she whispered.

H83 smiled, but made no reply.

“We must be quick,” said the doctor, punching the keypad to unlock the door. “If it is small enough it might have escaped already, but it could be hiding in the generator. Sabotage could set us back ages.”

“His terror levels have been off the charts, doctor. I’d worry that any emotional offspring would be too large to fit through the bars.”

“Sometimes the birthing process expends so much energy that much of their power is lost, and they are born small and weak. They can grow, however. They feed on fear, just like our machines do. Now watch him while I open the generator. Is the power off?”

“Well, it’s obviously not hooked up to H83, and I doubt we could do more than startle him at this point anyway.”

“You forget your place, intern.”

“Yes, doctor.” The intern’s tentacles sagged.

Dr. Zkhedhm sighed. “The Seniors are coming tomorrow,” she explained. “Full inspection, detailed reports. I promised them power packs.”

Hrhna’s tentacles fell limp against her neck. “Oh dear.”

“Yes. Here we go.” Dr. Zkhedhm lifted the lid of the generator box and peeked inside. “Oh dear, indeed.”

“That bad? What does it look like?”

“That’s not the problem. The problem is what they look like. And what they’re chewing on.” She started to put her hand into the generator box but stopped herself before a lick of flame and black smoke could reach her fingers. “Why dragons?” she asked the human.

“I’ve always liked dragons.”

The doctor shook her head, dismayed at his every reaction. She’d never been fond of dragons. Aside from their nasty flame, she had trouble understanding their emotional weaknesses, if they even had any. “Sergeant Hsffu,” she said, addressing the chameleonic bulk standing at attention against the wall, “please escort this human to Padded Block A, then report back here immediately. Hrhna and I will be containing the Nightmares.”

“Yes, doctor,” he barked, wrapping his body around H83 until pajama-like stripes replaced his stone-gray color, and the human became obscured. Then Sergeant Hsffu began lurching toward the stairs, made slightly off-balance by his cargo.

The dragons chirped inside the generator box, absorbing the sudden panic of the human. Dr. Zkhedhm’s tentacles twisted around each other, pleased. The dragons would grow rapidly, feeding on residual fear energy from the cell, as well as stray emissions from the other humans. If H83 continued hallucinating that he was in no danger, she might not be able to acquire the third power pack, but now she had dragons. Real-life Nightmares. A long-term strategy to be sure, but Nightmares in the wild had produced irrational fears and a steady stream of psychiatric cases for centuries, even before the Sthenians had come to turn that fear into power. The Sthenians were merely the first to channel that fear for commercial uses, rather than absorbing it directly.

“Their teeth look pretty sharp, doctor.”

“Haven’t you learned your history, Hrhna? They won’t bite. They come from terror and that’s all they can digest. But they can spit fire, so go get me a metal transport case and a large pair of tongs. If they stay in the generator box any longer we’ll never get them out.”

“Yes, doctor.”

While Hrhna scurried off to the storage room, Dr. Zkhedhm peeked into the generator box again. Her tentacles flinched at the growing contents, and she began to have a very bad feeling about the rest of her night.

Upstairs, the unmanned security camera monitor for Block A, Sub Room 2, showed the white mass of Sergeant Hsffu sliding away from H83, who remained curled on the floor. After several minutes of inactivity, a small red dragon emerged from H83’s shirt pocket. It hopped and fluttered, stretching its wings, until it gained enough height to perch on H83’s neck, where it lowered its head and began to feed.

Amanda Divine owns and operates a book, comic, and game store in Washington with her husband and fantastical dog. She has been published in Northwest Boulevard and Toasted Cheese and will someday write a story about her three pet ducks. E-mail: amanda[at]advunderground.com


Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Damon Shaw

“But I just don’t know where I’m from!” She was nearly crying.

George tilted his head and nodded. “That often leaves a deep psychic scar.” Should he take her hand? No, too early. “Do you have anything from your parents? A ring? A scarf?”

“No. Nothing.” Mrs. Winthrop lowered her head into her hands and sobbed. Quickly, George reached for a tissue and now he did take her hand, wincing as she clutched at him with her sweaty fingers. He had to hide his reaction as a tear splashed onto his hand.

“It’s so hard,” she hiccupped. “I feel so lost.”

“You’re very brave to say that, Mrs. Winthrop. I—”

“Call me Marilea please.”

“Well, Marilea, I’m going to help. Let me turn the light down.” George extricated his fingers and dimmed the lamp. As he turned back, he sat straighter, reaching for his customary charisma. “Place your hands on the table, Marilea. Flat please. I want you to think of your earliest memory.”

“I don’t think I—”

“Now is not the time to talk, Marilea Winthrop. Now is the time to listen.” He leaned back in his chair, looked towards the ceiling and slowly closed his eyes. He could feel the table shudder as she controlled her sobs. He blanked it out and concentrated on his own breath. In through the mouth. Out through the nose. Oh God, please let something come through today.

He deserved it. He needed it. It wasn’t like ten years ago, when the spirits had been queuing up to speak through him, when he had channeled whole families all together. That was speaking in tongues. And George had been so open. They had flowed though him. A medium.

Now he was just mediocre. The most he could summon up was a vague sense of forboding and some nameless guilt. It showed in eyes, he was sure. Desperate times. He realised he was staring at the ceiling and closed his eyes again. In through the nose; out through the mouth.

Strangely, he felt calm. It must be the way Mrs. Winthrop’s frost had melted under his charm. He still had that at least. He could feel her there, with his eyes closed, a warm lump of self-absorption, fuzzy and… mauve. Yes, Marilea was mauve. This was good. He might actually be getting somewhere. Mrs. Winthrop sniffed loudly. Of course, she couldn’t blow her nose with both hands flat on the table, but George wasn’t distracted. No, George was delirious. Something was coming!

It was blue, and it felt. It seethed with emotion: loathing, disgust, fear, and dispair. A spectrum wider than George had thought possible. It was faltering though, almost giving up. A hopeless search. Would it never find that one example—

“Here! I’m here.” George actually called aloud. Come to me. Come through me. Speak. The presence saw him, was interested, moved closer. Was it male or female? Hell, was it human? He’d never sensed anything like this before. Poor old Marilea didn’t know what was coming.

A finger of cold slid through him and he shuddered. It flipped through his mind like a stack of cards and George let it do whatever it wanted. It was like the old days. It was like flying. Take me, said George. Use me. I’m open.

But it wouldn’t speak. It had nothing to say. It searched, saw George was empty, a dessicated version of the hopes he’d had as a young man, saw that even then his juicy dreams had been as selfish as everyone else’s. It picked him over and dropped him. There was nothing to find.

“No!” He didn’t care if he shouted. “Don’t go.” You’re what I need. Speak through me. It doesn’t matter what you say. But the presence receded further still. George did what he never though possible and, without moving from his chair, he leapt. Loose in the between, he grabbed in desperation and caught between astral fingers a shred of blue. He pulled, felt a sharp and almost painful snap, and was— somewhere else.

“Initiate seeding process?”

Was it a voice? Was it written out or just in his head? George didn’t know. It required an answer, he could feel that. It was an amber pulse, slowly turning to red.

“Um, where am I?” Oh hell. He didn’t even know if he had spoken. His question rippled in the atmosphere around him, bouncing off concepts: (here, as in place?), (as in previous activity?), (I, as singular physical entity?), (am, as in—)

“Stop. Me. Physical entity. Where am I?”

“Initiate sensory replay?”

“What? Yes! Tell me what the hell’s going on before I really lose it, okay?” Calm, George. Deep breath. George really began to panic. He didn’t have a nose! Fortunately he suddenly smelled incense and how could he if… Incense?

And bells, he could hear bells. He moved to the centre of the room and knelt using limbs that seemed oddly flexible. Seated, he lifted his vision to the planet hanging in space before him.

“Stop!” The figure froze, limbs splayed, wattle drooping in concentration.

“Re-initiate sensory replay?”

“Um, that figure, is that… me?” He picked the concepts for the question and winnowed the answer from the gentle storm of replies. Yes, the figure was himself; a replay of his last what, ten minutes. Oh, and he was female. Strangely George didn’t mind. “Okay. Re-start, then. I’m ready.”

The figure, Avamede was her name, turned to the planet and saw it was good. Rich in organics, yellow-hazed and shot with lightning, it was poised, trembling, waiting for the seed.

But first the vision. Avamede raised her voice underneath a swelling song. The chants wove together around the temple ship, focussing energy to the point where the spirits would respond. Soon Avamede could feel them there, dancing round her head, lifting her up and out. The trance, as usual came with a rush of joy, a union, the chants melding as one blissful chord. Avamede turned back to the planet and opened herself to its future. This she loved more than anything; the chance to see, to be the fruit of the seed she brought and to know that it was good.

And at first it was good. Tiny molecules linked, sparked, became shockingly alive and full of the blind desire to be. The world was ready and life bloomed until the acid oceans were stained red with raw being. Avamede pushed on into the future.

Individuals evolved suddenly in a rush of spikes, jewelled cell walls, and teeth. And in a boiling of greenery and dark bodies, life surged from the seas and leapt, crawled, flew until the world sang with the intricate complexity of desire.

Then it went wrong. A comet smashed into the blooming world, filling the skies with smog and the seas with burning acid. The joyful beings were suffocated, burned, drowned in waves of scalding mud. For many cycles, only dark furred shapes moved amongst the rotting carcasses.

Avamede watched in horror. No, not these.

But it was true. The small furred beings grew sharp in the darkness. They lifted their eyes as the smoke cleared to see the moon close and full. They saw her brother the sun and knew that the universe was divided. What a hideous joke to have your whole philosophy based on a cosmic accident. Male and female. Silver and gold. Black and white.

They fought, they killed. Even when they had developed awareness, they rejected as they loved, denied as they gave, took while the planet groaned beneath them. No, this world should never live.

Grieving, Avamede turned to travel back to the warm union of souls. But wait, there was a voice, calling, begging to be one. She moved to look closer…

“Initiate seeding process? Avamede? Are you well?”

Despite enduring four billion years of tooth and claw evolution, George felt great. This Avamede took care of herself. “Yes,” he answered. “Initiate. The planet is—will be—good.” George felt the joy ring throughout the ship. Dancing broke out in the ranked eating halls, in the laboratories and soul cribs. The ship unclenched metal fists and showered a million stars into the waiting atmosphere.

“So, Avamede. Tell us. Where do we go next?”

“Go? I don’t know. How—”

“Listen, Avamede. Let your poeple speak through you.”

George listened. There. Of course. He’d heard them all along. His followers. He listened, and when he was ready, he let the people speak.

Marilea closed the door quietly behind her. It had seemed sordid at first, but that George really had something special. She had been terrified when he had screamed like that. It wasn’t really her kind of seance. But when he calmed down he had told her such stories. Her mother might have left her but somehow she felt, well, it sounded stupid but she felt loved. She didn’t feel quite so alone.

Damon Shaw is a designer of stuff. He makes and sells wooden things on a market stall, designs theatre sets and puppets for “The Little Angel” puppet theatre in London, and writes in between siestas. He has written several plays and seen them professionally performed. E-mail: dame_damon[at]hotmail.com

Birth of a Hero

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Scott Springer

Lana laughed at him when he said it. Since he was dying, it seemed inappropriate. “Who dies from cancer anymore?” she asked when the laughter faded. “What happened to you?”

“It was from when I first came here,” he replied dryly.

But she already knew that. She had been with him throughout much of his career and was his constant companion during the lawsuit. At court and with the attorneys she had been serious, but now, in the aftermath, her laughter bubbled up again and despite his weakness he had to crack a smile at her black mirth.

“So,” she managed to finally say.

She was still breathless and her red hair lay down in her eyes. Over the years he had grown accustomed to her alien hue and primal bones and now he found her beautiful when she was merry. For her part, she seemed to accept his humanness without repulsion and never squirmed uncomfortably when he touched her. He smiled thinly and she finally caught her breath enough to continue.

“So,” she said, “you’re going to be our new hero.” Her mouth smiled widely pleased and again her frothy laughter rose. “That’s so ironic.”

“Nice of you to find your humor in this; but yes, I’m the founding father of this rinky-dink little civilization. Without me you’d all still be running around mostly naked and believing in your powers.”

Her hand came to his gaunt cheek and stroked down his stubble affectionately. “But my powers are real,” she said softly. “They’re every bit as real as your technology.” And then her eyes narrowed and her voice deepened into the sultry rasp of a chronic smoker when she added, “And they don’t kill me.”

He met her eyes and showed her his sorrow. “If they’re real, then save me,” he implored.

When she met his gaze her lips straightened, the grin and humor fading further away. She became stern and hardened against the reality. But then just as quickly, her face softened and she met his sorrow with wet eyes and an open soul. Her finger came to his lips and brushed across the dryness. “But if you don’t die, you can’t become our hero.” And then, countering his objection before he could even voice it, she added with discipline, “We need a hero.”

Her words made his head heavy. His neck crumpled and his head fell back into the pillow. She adjusted the blanket around his shoulders and he confessed to her, “But I’m not heroic. I’m just the opposite. I’m scurrilous, a sham. I’m a con man.”

“Yes dear,” she replied, tenderly as always. “But you’re a very good con man. And now you’re about to become our god.”

While lying on the bed dejectedly he muttered, “I’d rather be a living coward than a dead hero. Maybe we shouldn’t have sued Interco Corp like we did. Maybe we should have just let it lie.”

“We’ve been over this. The trial is what gave us our historical record. The testimony is already on display. You came here and gave us technology and civilization and economy. You brought us up from the dark ages where my witchcraft had mattered.”

“But the real story…”

“I was just a girl when you first appeared. I didn’t actually see it but the commotion you stirred is a vivid memory still. The people said that our god had arrived. And who can blame them. The way you just materialized from the air, growing from an ether into a being before their eyes, hovering above them omnisciently before gravity finally found something to tug down to the ground. Our planet has never seen anything like it before, and if my prophecy is true, will never again.”

“But the real story…”

“But the real story is gone now. We have repainted history. You came and brought us technology…”

“You didn’t need it…”

“And you brought us civilization.”

“You were already more civilized than now.”

She looked down on him quizzically, and then understanding came into her eyes. “You’re dying, it has made you introspective. Now you regret your life.” Her voice grew sympathetic. “That’s natural. But, have no regrets. You will be remembered the way we need you to be. Not the way you were.”

“But back on Earth I was running from the law. I had had relations with a young girl, a Senator’s daughter. And there was that whole condo time-share thing where the ocean never materialized—and of course I had known all along that it never would. I was running from the law and my creditors and Interco’s quantum teleportation was new and in final testing when I picked the locks and made my escape.”

“And you came here, or at least a pretty accurate copy of you true down to the quantum state came here. And we treated you well. You have always enjoyed respect and celebrity. You have been our leader and have enjoyed the spoils.”

And then her voice grew softer and she fanned her eyes shyly when she added honestly, “I have always enjoyed being one of your spoils. You’re kind and gentle.”

Her hand rubbed his neck sweetly and he turned his eyes to stare away and inward. At last he said, “I just wanted to sue Interco to get some money. For me, it’s always been about the money. I even shucked you guys when I came, selling you all those junk bonds.”

“The bonds matured.”

“Yes, but that’s besides the point. My intentions have always been selfish.”

“They matured, and they paid 22 percent. We owe you so much.”

“But the lawsuit; it was all about the money, and I really thought we had a chance. You said it yourself, no one gets cancer anymore. The fact that I went through the quantum transformation and then the occurrence of the rare disease—they have to be connected.”

“And the ease of which you broke in—the attractive nuisance angle…”

“And Interco is vulnerable. Even today the teleportation is a crapshoot. Prescription only, cash upfront. Ironclad waivers.”

“And you didn’t sign anything.”

“Of course not.”

“Yeah, you had a good chance—but it wasn’t about the money anyway. It was about giving us our hero.”

“Right. A matter of public record.”

“You never actually lied on the stand—you just painted the picture favorably.”

“But we failed.”

“On the money, yes. The corporate lawyers were right. Correlation doesn’t prove causality. The tobacco lawyers have used that little twist of statistics for eons and I guess it still holds true in the quantum age. But we won back our history. We have recreated the origins of our new civilization, have given ourselves a respectable founding father, both heroic and god-like. It’s all a matter of record now.”

Suddenly a knife-to-the-ribs stab of pain cramped up his insides, causing him to contract inward. His body tensed, his face contorted grotesquely, he gasped out. And then just as suddenly the grip released him and he curled back out and relaxed into the mattress.

“The pain is coming more frequently now,” she said.

“How long to you think I have?” he asked quietly.

“No one knows much about this disease anymore. It has been mostly eradicated in all known living species for eons.”

“Yes. But your magic is of the ancient kind. Surely you must know something of this black growth that’s consuming me.”

She remained quiet, seemed thoughtful. At last she asked, “So, does it hurt a lot?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry, then,” she said. “But it has to be. In your death is our beginning. We need someone to be proud of, to provide us national unity.”

“Wish I could say, glad to help—but, you know.”

“You are glad to help. You are wise and benevolent. You saved us from the ancient black arts. You gave us the modern way—our buildings and roads. Mass transit. Medicine. An economy.” And then after looking down at her robes she added with a grin, “And fashion sense.”

“A fashion sense to die for,” he added ironically.

“Exactly. Look, think of it this way: you’re not dying. You’re about to become immortal.”

“So, you’ve done me a favor. Is that your angle now?”

She looked away and remained quiet. He continued, “So, like I said earlier, it wasn’t the teleportation that caused this in me, is it? Your magic is real, isn’t it?”

Now there was no laughter. While looking away her words came slowly and steadily. “Correlation,” she said, “does not prove causality.”

“Yes,” he said, “but that’s science. And we’re not talking about that.”

“Let’s just say,” she replied finally, “that things all work out for a reason—and sometimes we call that magic.”

“I feel conned,” he said at last.

Again the laughter rises. “Ironic, isn’t it?”


Scott Springer is a computer programmer living in central California and working for the state. He lives in a small town with his family and makes that daily commute into the city. In his spare time he writes a little. E-mail: scott[at]soops.com

See the Dark

Bonnets’s Pick
Mary Evans Zbegner

Sitting down on the couch was a mistake. I closed my eyes and fatigue washed over me, wiping the errands from my mind. The basket of clean laundry sat on the floor beside me, and I knew that both kids needed their soccer shirts for the next day, and Lauren would want her favorite jeans for school. But, for a minute, I waded into the darkness and let it pull me down.

I’d been up since before sunrise to say goodbye to Dwight before he left for the airport, then rushed the kids off to school on the bus at the ungodly hour of 6:50. From there, the day had pitched forward at a steady speed: teaching from nine till noon, grocery shopping on the way home, and correcting a few research paper proposals before the hustle of after-school practice pick-ups, dinner, homework checks, showers, and bedtime. I’d set out two wine glasses to enjoy a drink when Dwight got home, and a plate of pasta and meatballs was covered with plastic wrap in the fridge if he had not had time to grab dinner before the return flight.

This load of wash had been squeezed in somewhere, but I was tuckered out. Adjusting to the September schedule always required stretching and flexing. I pictured Dwight’s arrival, the kisses, the shared wine, and smiled.

The phone rang, pulling me from a quick dip into the shallows of sleep.

Edith, my mother-in-law, wasted no time. “I heard there’s been a plane crash, Mary. U.S. Air outside Pittsburgh. Isn’t Dwight coming in tonight?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s all over the news,” Edith continued. “I know he sometimes connects in Pittsburgh on his way home from Chicago. He usually flies on U.S. Air. I wanted to check to be sure it isn’t his flight.”

“No, no. It wouldn’t be,” I said, stroking my forehead as if pulling up Dwight’s travel plans to the front of my mind. “He changed his flights—to United. He wanted to be gone only for the day so he could be home for the kids.”

“You’re sure?”

Even though I kept track of everyone’s schedule, I answered with patience. “Yeah, he wanted to be home in the morning. You know how he is.”

Dwight had always been an early riser and tried to convince everyone else of the magic of mornings. He insisted the kids wake up an hour before the bus arrived to eat a good breakfast together and review everyone’s plans for the day. Even at six a.m., he bubbled with enthusiasm, joking with Lauren about her Princess Leia pigtails or teasing Jonathan about his new habit of spiking the front of his hair.

“He hates being away overnight because he never sleeps well. You know that. So he said the United flight allowed him to go early and still come home tonight.”

“Thank goodness. It’s an awful accident. It’s on every station.”

After reassuring Edith once more, I hung up and returned to the basket of clothes. She fretted about everything, a trait she had inherited from her Italian-born mother. I knew, too, that she had been living alone for ten years after losing her husband to a heart attack, so she naturally worried even more.

I turned on the television while folding the clothes, making four neat piles, one for each of us. The catastrophe burned on every network as I automatically stacked the neat geometric shapes. Eyewitnesses reported that U.S. Air #427 appeared to be making a normal approach around 7 p.m. when it suddenly veered to the left and then nosedived toward the ground from an altitude of 6,000 feet. Camera crews filmed the dark, scorched wound where the fuselage had met the earth, leaving little debris from such a huge plane. Apparently, it had hit with such force, it was reduced to mere scraps. Huge flames had ignited the nearby trees, but debris was strewn everywhere. Some of it was recognizable: seat cushions dotted the hillside, open briefcases spilled ruined files, suit jackets spread burnt sleeves, and torn clothing hung from low bushes. Sheets of metal peeled back with jagged edges, and you could see the fire was so hot the paint blistered and sputtered. The reporters spoke in serious, subdued voices. They believed there were no survivors; all 132 passengers and crew were believed dead.

My eyes went from the screen to the clothes, my mind going to the victims’ last seconds and their families receiving the news. My hands folded the shirts into smooth squares, and matched the seams of the pants so the creases would be straight. Bundled into tight balls, socks topped the clothes pyramids. No one knew the cause, but nothing was ruled out: mechanical failure, pilot error, even sabotage was mentioned. The strobe-like emergency lights and the sirens that sounded like air raid warnings awoke a small rodent of nervousness that began to gnaw at my stomach.

I checked the time: 8:50. Dwight usually called from his layover in Pittsburgh, but sometimes the connection was too tight. Even so, if his plane was not delayed, he should have landed in Scranton by now, and if the departure time had been pushed later than scheduled, he would have called then. I decided to go downstairs to the office to check his appointment book. Not wanting to admit the reason to myself, I went quickly, almost sneakily, holding my breath and keeping fear tightly coiled and in its corner.

I was glad to see the burgundy leather of Dwight’s planner on his disorderly desk. He had not taken it with him since he would be gone only the one day. I looked at the slim black ribbon holding the place of today’s date and was reminded of the white missal I had received for First Holy Communion. I opened to today’s page. Dwight’s chicken scratch was hard to read. From what I could decipher, the first line said: “Dist. Sales Managers Mtg. 9–5.” A cramped note followed this: “U.S. Air. #67 — 7:05 a.m. to Chi.”, which was crossed out, and written above it was “United #168, 6:10.” I figured that sounded right; Dwight had left around five to make it to the airport, and he had specifically told me he was flying United.

The return flight involved a connection, one leg left Chicago and connected in Pittsburgh, and the second departed from Pittsburgh and arrived in Scranton. The numbers were written carelessly, a product of Dwight’s haste. He excelled in action, not in planning, and his legendary ability to talk for hours did not transfer to note taking. I squinted and turned on the desk lamp. The extra light helped make sense of the crooked line of numbers and abbreviations: “U.S. Air #427 — 5:52 to Pitt., United #1044 — 7:47 to Scr.” The strikeover of the line above extended onto some of these numbers, so the “427” could have actually been “421”, but the name of the airline was definitely clear.

I scanned the page to see if any other changes had been made, certain Dwight had switched all the flights to United. Had I become complacent with his travel itineraries since he left home more often since he had been promoted to sales manager several years earlier? On the large calendar on the desk where Dwight sometimes wrote reminders, September 8th was blank. Rifling through the notes by the phone and scattered over the desk, I found one with the same abbreviated flight information. My eyes stopped at the name of the airline: “U.S. Air”—and the numbers: “4-2-7”—clear and distinct. I flinched and dropped it back onto the desk. Had he only changed his morning flight to United?

A hand flew to my throat as if the oxygen had been sucked from the room. I stood perfectly still, daring not to breathe or move. “U.S. Air 427” seemed to flash like a mental neon sign. I shook my head and whispered, “No!” with a short burst of pent-up air. Stupidly, I remembered ridiculous situations when I had wished saying “no” could reverse the action: the repeated “no” over a ruined chocolate cake, burnt black because I had not heard the timer ping; my “no” upon seeing that pink sweater with an unfixable slit beside the side seam because I had been overzealous with the scissors on that offending tag that had scratched the soft skin of my stomach into a red, flaming patch. But this was different. I had only opened the book and read the flight numbers; I had not done anything wrong. The minutes ticked by in prolonged seconds that clung to each distorted moment. I shook my head again to clear the dizziness and repeated the useless “No!” I was frozen to the spot, afraid to make things worse by moving.

My jagged sigh seemed to breathe a second self into existence. This presence drifted upwards and looked down from a high perch to watch me, from where it was able to not only observe, but also to analyze and evaluate me, Mary-whose-feet-were-on-the-floor. Oddly, the Floating-Mary could choose to be just a spectator or direct my body’s movements, too. Floating-Mary was in charge and not afraid. Mary-with-her-feet-on-the-floor verbalized no thoughts or feelings. I merely completed actions, directed by instinct buried deep within an animal core.

I opened my eyes wide as if a predator were lurking nearby. My chest rose with short pants while scanning the perimeter of the room. Fear, unleashing its restraints, circled me, its prey. Before it pounced, I reached out quickly and snatched the day planner, turned toward the door, and darted up the stairs where the accident re-created a war-zone facsimile on the television screen. Floating-Mary followed me, driven by a need to know what would happen next. Fear, too, sidled up the stairs silently and crouched in the shadows.

Like a prim old lady, I sat on the edge of the couch, the planner held between my palms with my thumbs crossed over the top as if it were a hymnal. Floating-Mary thought I looked as if I were in church, mesmerized by a priest’s sermon. I stared at the TV.

“Open the book and check,” Floating-Mary said.

My body did not respond, strong and resistant.

“You need to know,” Floating-Mary persisted. “See if it’s his flight.”

I bowed my head in submission. With fingers that shook, I took the slender ribbon bookmark and opened to the page. My chin resting on my chest, I closed my eyes.

“Look to be sure,” I heard, the voice seeming to come from above.

I opened my eyes and looked at the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “U.S. Air Flight 427 crashed near Pittsburgh at 7:03 p.m. All 132 passengers and crew presumed dead.”

I lowered my eyes to the page. “USAir 427.” It was the same flight. I should have reacted with unbridled emotion, but I simply did not, could not, believe that Dwight had been on that plane, the one crushed to smithereens, the one smoking on my television screen. I concentrated on not holding my breath and waited for instructions from Floating-Mary, but she had decided to observe only, not processing this information either. Fear’s tongue circled its mouth as it waited for the moment to strike. Time started to play by new rules, in slow motion, each second weighed down with dread.

Suddenly, the phone rang, shrill and panicked. Both my selves merged to function, to speak and think, as I got up to answer.

“Hey, Mary, it’s Lynn. I don’t know if you’re watching the news, but there’s been an airline accident.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“I know Dwight’s coming back tonight, so I thought I’d call— to check—”

I opened my mouth, but no words emerged.

“Mare— are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” I managed, taking breaths between each word but keeping my eyes shut tight, willing Fear to retreat.

“Is it Dwight’s flight, Mary?” Lynn had lowered her voice to a whisper, hesitating.

“Maybe,” I said, but it sounded more like a moan in a child’s nightmare when the monster rushes forward to attack.

“I’ll be right there,” Lynn said, and the line went dead.

I walked back to the couch, cradling the phone to my chest. The floor seemed to shift planes like in an earthquake, causing me to almost lose my balance before grabbing the armrest and collapsing onto the cushioned seat. While I rocked back and forth, Floating-Mary detached and rose again to watch. At some level the truth lurked, but we had decided to wait for confirmation. It seemed logical and appropriate; I could not conceive of anything else to do. I waited for my friend to arrive, to wait with me. A sense of unreality convinced me this could not be true. The minutes expanded. At the same time, fractions of hours collapsed upon themselves and disappeared into a black hole of time, made dense by uncertainty.

I put the phone down on the end table and picked up the remote, lowering the volume. The appointment book found its way into my hands, and I folded my fingers around it. A moth struck the screen door, making a noise too loud for its size. Jolted slightly, I grabbed the arm of the chair and cast my eyes toward the sound. The wings buzzed along the surface, causing the taut grid to vibrate in a steadily rising hum as the insect’s panic increased. Then, it flew off, and the loud chorus of crickets and katydids drowned out the newscaster’s voice. I heard myself sigh, but waited quietly because I felt separated into two halves, and the deeds of one did not connect with the thoughts and feelings of the other. I hung in a vacuum of reality, suspended.

Lynn let herself in and sat beside me. She turned to me and began to speak, but the look on my face must have silenced her. Opening my fingers, I showed her Dwight’s planner. As Lynn took the book, it slipped to the floor, but she quickly retrieved it and opened to September 8th, 1994. I knew she was doing exactly what I had done, checking and re-checking the date, scrutinizing the airlines and cramped numbers again and again, and comparing them to the news report. Then Lynn turned, and with silent tears, enclosed me within her arms, but I felt limp, like a lifeless doll.

Finally, Lynn spoke. “Have you tried to call the airlines?”

I shook my head dumbly. I had not thought of that. “Do you want the phone book?” I asked.

“Yeah, that would be good,” she answered. “Let’s call. Maybe he didn’t get on the plane or something.”

I nodded obediently before saying, “All right.”

I rummaged for the phone book in the closet and brought it to Lynn.

The tissue paper pages snapped as she flipped each one quickly, scanning for the number. Running her finger down the page and stopping, Lynn said, “Maybe this number will work.”

As I reached for the phone, it rang, the tone harsh and insistent. First, I stared at it in confusion, but then answered it quickly so it wouldn’t wake Jonathan and Lauren. Again, the two parts of me melded so I could function. Time wavered with illusions like a distant mirage of water in a desert.

“Hello, Mary?” a strange voice began. “This is David Levy, the vice president of sales from Searle Labs, out here in Chicago. We met last May at Pro Club in Hawaii.”

“Yes, I remember,” I said, wondering why he was calling, afraid of why he was calling. My voice faltered, like a puff of smoke dissolving into the air.

“Dwight was out here today at a sales managers’ meeting.”

“I know. He told me,” I said, my voice a whisper as if we were sharing a secret.

Another moth flew into the screen, causing it to twang and thrum. Its wings desperately fluttered as it tried to gain entrance, to get close to the light. I could imagine its furry body scurrying along, bouncing into the nylon mesh again and again, its head and antennae upright and alert, its crooked legs pricking the surface, searching for an opening.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to call you. Our travel department contacted me to tell me Dwight was on a U.S. Air flight that crashed tonight before landing in Pittsburgh.”

“I saw the accident on the news.” I started to breathe in shallow gulps. “But I’m not sure if it’s his flight. There were some changes. He told me he was flying United.”

“No, he was scheduled to board the plane,” David said in an even tone.

“But, you can’t be sure yet, can you?” I asked with the high-pitched voice of a child afraid of the dark.

“The travel agency contacted U.S. Air. Dwight’s name is on the passenger list. They believe he boarded the plane, Mary. There are no survivors. I’m so sorry.”

“No! They can’t be sure of that either.” I talked loudly, almost shouting into the phone, convinced he did not know what he was talking about. Wouldn’t the airlines call me when they knew? “You don’t know for sure. Why didn’t they call me? Maybe he didn’t get on. Maybe he got out—somehow—maybe he’s just wandering around—hurt—and they haven’t found him. He’s strong— and—”

David interrupted my runaway train of possibilities. “Is someone with you, Mary? Can I call someone for you?”

“My friend is here, and the kids are sleeping.”

“Can I speak to your friend, Mary?”

“Yes, but what am I supposed to do? What should I do? What if he doesn’t come home?” I held the receiver with two hands, hoping David Levy of Searle Laboratories would understand my need for instructions.

“Maybe you should put your friend on the line, Mary,” Dwight’s boss suggested strongly. “Please.”

I handed the phone to Lynn, who took it with a questioning look. She listened, saying, “Yes,” “Okay,” and “I understand.”

When she gave the phone back to me, David was still on the line. “We’ll be contacting you tomorrow, Mary, so we can help.”

“All right. Goodbye.”

Lynn and I looked at each other grimly. “What should I do, Lynn?”

“I don’t know,” she said as she slid closer and put her arm around my shoulder.

“It can’t be true. He’d get away somehow. He wouldn’t leave me.” I resisted the tears that formed suddenly like dew after sunset. “No! He will come home to me. He loves me. He loves the kids. He’ll be here soon. I know it,” I insisted. Floating-Mary ascended as the tears wet my face and neck. Like a guardian angel, she protected my core, but I didn’t understand that then.

“We’ll figure this out,” Lynn said with a forced confidence. “I’ll help you. I won’t leave you. We’ll figure this out together, Mary.” She grabbed my shoulder with desperate fingers and pulled me close.

I stood up, not wanting to be touched because it meant I needed to be comforted. Fists clenched at my sides, I paced the room with angry stomps, and then plopped down on the far side of the couch. I realized there was nowhere to go, nowhere to get answers, nowhere to hide. I covered my face with my hands and exhaled in a long sputter. A series of strangled, yelping noises followed as if someone were kicking me in the stomach. Fear stalked close by, coaxing my pained cries. They answered the crickets’ call. Floating-Mary simply watched.

I raised my face when I heard rushed footsteps and the bathroom door bang open. Palm clamped over my mouth, I knew it was too late. One of the kids had heard. A new fear took hold like an iron grip. I stood up, craned my neck, and saw the bathroom light spilling into the hall. Then the sounds of retching, the grunting of vomiting, reached my ears.

I wiped my eyes and cheeks while rushing to the door. Jonathan was hunched over the toilet, gasping between the spasms of throwing up. Walking toward him, I reached out to rub his T-shirted back. He must have overheard, I thought, and probably snuck down the hall to figure out what was going on, the news sickening him. Floating-Mary decided to pretend, telling me to reach inside for the needed role-play and suggesting the right words.

“Oh, honey, what happened? You’ll be all right. Just let it out,” I murmured, running my palm in soft circles, feeling his ribs beneath the taut skin. At twelve, Jonathan was stretching in height, but had not begun to fill out.

He looked up before another gag seized his thin frame. His face was ashen, dazed with sickness and terror. My eyes did not see my son, but a caricature like the horrified face in Munch’s Scream painting. The room spun into spirals of dizzying colors. Jonathan sounded as if he were heaving his stomach and lungs from his body trying to dislodge what he suspected. Desperate to help, to do something, I opened the cabinet, took out a washcloth, and ran it under cold water.

I sponged his forehead when he finished, then wiped his cheeks. He let me tend to him without complaint.

“Better?” I asked, terrified by what he might say.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I guess.” He tottered to the sink and used his hands to splash his face. Then he cupped some cool water in his palm and rinsed his mouth. He gulped at the air, like a fish straining to breathe.

“What’s going on out there?” Jonathan asked. “I heard the phone ring, and then voices. It sounded like you were crying.”

I didn’t know what to say. My brain was scrambled, and I fought with the words, busying myself by straightening the towels on the rack and cranking the window closed to shut out the insects’ clamor. Floating-Mary cued my words. “Well, there’s been an accident, and Lynn is here with me. We’re trying to figure it all out. No one has the details yet. Right now, you just need to know that everything’s okay. When I know for sure what’s going on, I’ll tell you. But everything’s going to be all right.”

Jonathan’s eyes narrowed and searched my face. I knew he could tell I’d been crying, but he apparently decided I seemed steady enough. Normally, he besieged me with questions, needing to know everything, but he appeared weak and tired. I opened my arms to hug him, and he stepped forward, ducking his head down, so I could kiss the top of his head. Dwight comforted me like that, too. My green-eyed boy took a deep, shaggy breath as if he were trying not to cry, and I held him tightly. I prayed for time to collapse and surrender this moment.

“I woke up and heard you,” he said. “At first I didn’t know what it was—it almost sounded like a hurt animal or something. I heard you saying ‘no’ and crying. I stood by the door to listen, but got so dizzy. Then, I knew I would be sick.”

“Maybe you overdid it at soccer,” I suggested. “You know you always get woozy after the first practices because you run so much and you’re not used to it.”

“Maybe,” he said, but he wasn’t convinced. “I don’t know. Something’s not right. I don’t think you’re telling me everything. Are you sure you’re okay, Mom?”

I turned away and wiped at the counter, but I knew he knew. Why else would he react so violently? The taste of blood, salty and bitter, surprised me, and I realized I’d been biting the inside of my bottom lip. Floating-Mary whispered, urged me to get him back to bed before my façade breached.

“I’m fine. Come on, I’ll tuck you in,” I said, giving his shoulder a gentle nudge. He shrugged and left the bathroom, his feet making soft, slapping sounds on the tile. Jonathan walked gingerly, like someone who had exercised too much and each step brought a fresh wince of pain.

“Want the fan? It’s kind of stuffy in here.”

“All right,” he consented as he rearranged the covers.

I set up the window fan and turned it on. Its steady hum replaced the swelling chorus outside. Straightening the sheet so its cotton surrounded his neck and chin, I gave Jonathan kisses on the cheek and forehead. I rubbed the crown of his head, feeling his closely cropped back-to-school haircut. The faint iron taste in my mouth helped me speak coherently.

“You’re okay now, Jonathan?”

“I guess. You’re sure everything’s all right?”

I lied in the dark. “Oh, it will be. We’ll figure it out.”

“Okay, good night, Mom.”

“Try to sleep, honey. Love you.”

I propped the door open a bit with Jonathan’s sneaker to allow the stale air a way to escape as the fan drew in the night’s coolness. Dwight had shown me this trick years before during that hot summer I had been pregnant and could not sleep.

Stopping a few feet down the hall at Lauren’s room, I cracked the door and listened to my daughter’s soft breathing. The effort of mothering Jonathan, protecting him, had weakened me, and I needed a moment to be sure I could walk without stumbling. Floating-Mary observed Lauren from above in a detached calm. I entered the room silently, pulling up the twisted sheet and blanket she routinely kicked off. The innocent slumber of my ten-year old slowed my animal-like panic.

When I returned to the family room, Lynn whispered, “Is he all right?”

I assured her he seemed settled down. I sat, dazed, but Floating-Mary assessed that this emergency had been handled with deft, motherly efficiency and compassion. What surprised me more was Jonathan’s somewhat compliant acceptance of my poor explanation, and I became certain he had pieced the news together but had not admitted it because saying the words would make it true.

Lynn called the airlines, taking the phone on the porch, but she received no definite answers after at least four transfers to different people. The families of the victims would receive official phone calls as soon as possible. Emergency crews were working, but the dark and the undeveloped terrain were causing problems. She was angry at the workers’ apparent ignorance and indifference. I took it as a good sign; there had to have been a mistake.

I changed the channel, hoping the drone would ease Jonathan, but no show could hold our attention. The flames and rubble seemed to have cast shadows both behind the screen and behind our eyes. My body twitched with raw nerves, like a dog who in its sleep pantomimes running, its paws swiping at the air. Soft, anguished whimpers escaped involuntarily. It seemed Lynn and I sat for hours, mostly in silence, as time operated by its new rules. At some point I got up and closed my son’s door.

A little after ten, headlights swept into the driveway. I leapt from the couch as a car door opened and slammed. My body and soul joined and reached out with hopeful anxiety, a rubber band at its limits. Footsteps skittered up the walk before I reached the door.

“Mary! I just heard and ran right over.”

“Oh, Sylvia!” I saw my friend whose husband worked with Dwight. The men had worked together for twelve years, getting close, and our young families were alike in many ways. Sylvia was thrown together in rumpled clothes, wearing the broken, lopsided glasses she wore only in the mornings before she put in her contacts. “I thought you were Dwight,” I blurted before crumpling to the floor. Fear rushed in, taking advantage of my weakness. “I thought he was finally here.”

Sylvia crouched beside me, apologizing, and pulled me up and toward the couch, with Lynn helping. They sat on either side of me. A moth had gotten inside, and its grossly distorted shadow scuttled around the walls of the room as it darted around the lamp.

“David Levy called us,” Sylvia said. “He told Paul that Dwight was on that plane. I rushed over. I didn’t call because I didn’t want to wake the kids.” The words spilled from her, punctuated sharply, as if she couldn’t decide whether to breathe or talk.

“Sylvia, what am I gonna do?” I asked between sobs.

She patted my knee. “We’ll do whatever we have to,” she said. She sat up straight. “We don’t have much choice.”

It sounded so stupid to me, this solution. Asinine, even. We could do more than what we had to, couldn’t we? For most of my forty-one years I had been breaking problems down and organizing a series of steps to reach a solution. I’d been taught if I worked hard enough, anything could be solved or at least made better. I didn’t feel powerless. There was a chance this could be corrected somehow: by the sheer force of my will, the power of my love, the intensity of my efforts. I wasn’t ready to give up my life, to submit to the shock, to shut down and be a victim in a world in which time didn’t move in scientific progression and loved ones didn’t come home. I needed to handle this to prove it could be fixed.

I got up and stood by the screen door. The flimsy white-winged moths circled the glowing bulb outside, bumping it insistently, wanting its warmth, but hurting themselves in the process. I looked past the sphere of light surrounding the porch. The katydids and crickets continued their mad love songs. Jonathan had stood vigil in this way as a toddler dressed in his footed sleeper PJs. Mystified by the night, he’d ask, “See the dark?” He had turned to me for confirmation and then continued, “Hear the buggies?”


“See the Dark” is the first chapter of Mary Evans Zbegner’s recently-completed, but as yet unpublished, memoir The Goldfinch’s Song, which recounts her grief and recovery following her husband’s death in the US Air flight 427 crash on September 8, 1994, which killed all 132 people on board. E-mail: mjlevans[at]epix.net

It Killed To Be Kind

Boots’s Pick
Krystal Columna

The cemetery outside of Memorial, Georgia has nothing against killers. It accommodates a young one, caressing him in its cool, earthy bosom just like everyone else who’s dead. The headstones, as close together as wildflowers and some almost intertwined, belong to dead citizens of Memorial and other nearby small towns. They cast death’s remains out of their little towns, keeping them close enough to visit on holidays.

The houses in this area are like toadstools after a summer rain shower. Clusters of them are sprinkled sparsely about the green expanse that dips into the earth and rises again into uneven grassy mounds. A slow river curves like a vine beside the cemetery grounds, eventually pouring into the Gulf of Mexico—an exchange that began long before killer Tony Wildes was planted among that garden of headstones by the river, and long before his birth. The river will continue its steady amble past the cemetery where Tony and many others stay rooted, unless something catastrophic happens, like the nature of Tony’s death. When he was fourteen, Tony Wildes killed three people—about a month after getting a pit bull who wagged her tail a lot. His dad was the second down, and Tony was third after he shot himself in an abandoned house.

Tony’s very last Christmas Day began as listless and empty as the one before it—the one where his mother went out for cigarettes and never returned, which was no big deal. His dad watched TV while burning a turkey and getting drunk—he prided himself as a great cook, and he was when he was sober, this aptitude earned from many years cooking in several southern restaurants. It ended when he began drawing disability checks for being too “depressed” to work.

Tony sat in the dingy recliner next to his, much smaller and laden with stiff springs. There were cigarette burns and tears in the cloth. It was the one his mother sat in, where she smoked many Pall Mall cigarettes and rocked him when he was a baby. When he was a little kid, his gloom and fear bravely showed, and she rocked him then, too. As he grew older, his emotions began to recede behind scrunched-up, bushy brows and an angry frown.

He could remember being rocked by her at age seven, and she had sung to him, over and over in her scratchy voice, that his life was precious, that he was special. The drunken, uninhibited words his father said, though, would always override her naïve pity: Son, when you get older, you’ll see you’re just a number. Another star in the sky. How many of ’em do you know by name? You’re born, which costs somebody. For you, it’s me and your ma. Then, you pay for livin’ while your livin’, then you die, ha, the big payment. The check to God. You pay all kinds of ways while you’re livin’, taxes is one. And this whippin’ I’m about to give you is another.

All the windows were raised in the single-wide trailer so that the hazy stench of burnt turkey and smoke could escape, and the outside air was pleasant, only warranting a windbreaker. Georgia’s undecided weather bothered Tony because the day before, when he was helping his dad pump air out of the Dodge Ram’s brake line, the icy gusts of wind made his breath look like fine white powder and froze his fingertips. Hawaii sounded nice, like Heaven.

Tony felt the cool breeze from outside as it billowed through the curtains that his mother had hung years before. They were pale yellow and as delicate as her hands were when she placed them on his forehead to feel for fever. He watched Ralphie getting kicked down the slide by Santa, on TV. He looked at his drunken father, who gave an amused grunt and smirked at the television. His eyes were two red, dying stars with still a small twinkle evident in these rare instances of delight. Tony watched his dad tilt a beer bottle to his mouth, his smile funneling around the tip as he gulped. Afterwards, he rested the bottle on the worn brown carpet beside the chair and stared, as if focusing past the TV—gazing far into a plane Tony couldn’t see.

Tony wanted to tell him “Merry Christmas” and maybe even offer a hug, though the sour smell of Old Milwaukee sweated through his dad’s pores and hung on his clothes like fabric softener. His dad’s glassy eyes abandoned that far-away place beyond the television for a moment, and dangerously homed in on Tony’s misty eyes.

“What the hell do you want, why are you lookin’ at me all needy? I’m cooking a turkey for Christ’s sake. We’re watching a Christmas special, like families do. Damn boy, you’re like your mama, just sitting there starin’ at me like I’m a mind-reader.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad.” Tony’s chin quivered and his eyes retreated to the TV screen, away from his dad’s glower.

“Guess that means, ‘Give me Christmas money.’ Here,” his dad lifted his rear slightly from the seat and pulled forth a warped wallet. He extended his arm across the short expanse between them, handing Tony a fifty dollar bill between two fingers, along with an order for him to quit whining, or else.

After his father dozed off, Tony turned off the oven, wondering how many other kids were like him, nothing, not important. He left the turkey inside so it would stay warm—without eating a single bite. He meandered about the woods behind the trailer; leaves crunched under his feet and a dove or a quail, he didn’t care which, delivered coos of sympathy.

He fished out a pint of whiskey from his windbreaker, filled from his dad’s jug. He squinted his eyes and swigged two scorching cheekfulls. With grateful appreciation, he pulled a bottle of Coke from his other pocket, like a trick rabbit. He took a few soothing swallows, washing his revolted tongue and fiery throat.

He thought he was alone, except for the bird. Then he reached the old rotted house that had sat neglected for years—nothing much to it anymore—and saw what looked like a reddish-colored dog dart underneath the porch, with heavy udders swaying back and forth, which had probably nursed many hungry mouths. Two bone-dry bowls lay on the ground.

He crouched on all fours so he could look under the house. A taut rope pulled to the back of the shady lair, and his eyes met those of a shivering pit bull.

“Here, puppy puppy puppy!” Tony called, half-heartedly. She tried to scoot further away. He gruffly grabbed the rope and tried to pull her to him, but she grunted and choked, sounding like a person trying to hack up mucus.

“Screw it, you don’t want help, ugly bony-ass dog,” Tony muttered and headed home.

His dad was asleep in his recliner when Tony showed up. He headed to the kitchen, and on the way did a stupid little skip for the hell of it. His dad had already hacked into the turkey, burnt on the outside. The inside was moist, and he ate the meat, so hot that steam seeped out of his mouth.

The face of the dog, the empty bowls on Christmas Day, flashed in front of his mind’s eye and unsettled his contented stomach. He couldn’t believe he cared. With quick fingers, he began peeling off the hot, burnt outside of the turkey into a large container. He broke off a drumstick, wolfed down the meat, then added the bone to the treat. He filled up a canteen with water, and lit out for the woods.

First, he poured the turkey. He emptied water into the other bowl, then got on all fours again and looked at the dog. The aroma was tickling her twitching nose, and her head was wavering. Tony hid behind a tree, and like a freed criminal, the dog charged from under the house. She ate all the turkey in three noisy bites, gulping and grunting. Then, she started lapping up the water, for ten minutes it seemed. She disappeared back under the house.


Tony lay on his twin bed, as the humdrum Christmas day tapered off into a humdrum winter night. He kept pushing thoughts of the dog away.

“What in the hell are you layin’ on that bed for? Clean up the mess in the kitchen,” his dad growled, standing in Tony’s doorway.

Tony put on the same yellow rubber gloves his mom used to wear as the water slowly flowed from the sink’s faucet. His dad would never fix it for her, beat Tony for trying to. As he scrubbed the turkey dish, the thought of the dog popped into his head, again.

“Boy, why you’s just standin’ there for, didn’t I say to clean up?” His dad roared the last two words. Tony went back to scrubbing with a trembling chin and red face.

“What’s the matter with you. Gave ya Christmas money. Whatchu swelled up about?” his dad demanded. Tony didn’t know whether to say, “I miss Mama,” though her disappearance was really no big deal, or tell him about the dog, and how she ate the burnt turkey in three mighty gulps.

“Did you ever have a dog, Dad?”

“So that’s it. Yeah, but you don’t need no dog. They’re trouble, and sneaky, too. Lick ya in the face, dance all around, then, when you’re not lookin’, piss all over your clothes. Dogs are too much like people. Get the idea of a dog out yer head.”

“I found a pit bull in the woods today,” Tony said, hoping the fact she was a pit would add “value” to her, make him want to help her.

“A pit, huh? Female?” his dad inquired with a twinkle in his eye.

“Yeah! Chained up to that old rickety house. Can I have her?” Tony’s eyes widened like the quarters his mom used to scrape up for him so he could play Gauntlet Legends.

“Does she bite?” he asked Tony in a voice of acceptance.

“Nah, she won’t even come to people. She just shakes.”

“Say, your Uncle Delmus has a good-lookin’ male pit. What color was she?”


“Really, she’s a red-nose then. That’s what Delmus’s dog is, a red-nose. We’ll see if she looks full-blooded.”

Tony finished the dishes and wiped down the counters, and wondered if the dog would follow him in the woods, walk by his side like a friend. He wondered if she’d slice his dad’s throat when she witnessed the beatings. He wondered if she was wishing he’d come back to look at her again.

At nightfall, Tony and his dad stood in front of the dilapidated house, grasping flashlights and wearing heavy jackets since the weather was finally behaving like winter. Tony looked up and saw a shooting star, dying unnoticed to all the world but him. A fleeting one among billions more that no one cared about or even acknowledged.

Tony told him that the dog stayed far under the house, and that pulling the rope choked her.

“I think she’s already pretty messed up, and starved. I’ll try to coax her out instead of pulling her,” Tony offered.

“Watch this,” his dad said with a half-smile. Holding his flashlight, he grabbed the rope one-handed and pulled with an angry force.

“Come on, you bitch” he said as he yanked her out. She made the choking sounds again and Tony cringed. He walked over to look at the skeletal pit that was at his dad’s mercy. She was wheezing and panting in the flashlight’s glare, but thumped the ground with her wagging tail harder than Tony had ever seen a dog wag.

Mr. Wildes shook his head, then spoke. “What a shame. She’s got mangled legs. Looks like the left one’s broke. But she’s got a huge head.”

“Yeah, she’ll make a good breeder,” Tony said, feeling nausea rise with his words. He wondered if she’d trust him around her puppies.

“True. That’s the only reason I’m lettin’ you keep her. You’re gone hafta carry her home,” he told Tony, who couldn’t stop smiling.

“Quit grinning like a raccoon eatin’ shit, and get the mutt. Let’s go, it’s cold.”

The three headed back to the house. Tony felt like hugging his dad and saying “thanks” for the first time in years. He’d never felt so proud to carry something. Someone.

Back home, Mr. Wildes tied the end of the rope around a thin tree.”Now, you’re gonna hafta watch out. She’s got a swivel on her neck, but she can still wrap ’round this tree and be hell to unwind,” he told his son, who shook his head yes.

Tony applied antibiotic ointment to the deep wound on her left leg, and made a splint for it. He administered left-over amoxicillin to her three times a day, just like the doctor ordered for him when he had bronchitis. By the second day, the dog trusted him. It seemed that Mr. Wildes’s heart softened for a moment, because he tried to pet Petunia, too. As quickly as fleas leap from a dead dog’s corpse, he was mean again, cussing at the dog. He spat beside her. “Worthless,” he snarled.

After three days, the swelling had gone down on the broken leg considerably, and she began half-walking on the leg on day six. After two weeks, she filled out. Tony had built her a doghouse the day after her rescue, digging the best pieces of wood from an old pile in the backyard. His dad had even helped hold pieces together as Tony hammered. A few times, he’d even tried to take over. Every day, Tony brushed her coat of scars and lumps.

When she met her health’s potential, Mr. Wildes told his son that it was time to breed her. They walked outside and looked at her. She was muscular, stocky and broad. Her head was massive. Her tail never ceased its wagging, though her legs bowed like a cartoon cowboy’s and caused a pained limp. Once again, Mr. Wildes tried petting her. This time, he was drunk. She retracted quickly and retreated to the dog house.

“Come here, mutt!” he screamed at the dog, and she started shaking. He reached his hand into the dog house and grabbed her by the snout. She violently shook her body back and forth and made a high-pitched squeal deep in her throat.

“Boy, if you don’t call the got-damn pound, I’m gonna shoot this son-of-a-bitch.” His lips turned white around the edges when they curled over his yellow teeth.

Tony felt like his body was in the air. It was like going upside down on a roller coaster. His dad’s glaring blue eyes were a stab in the gut. He envisioned Petunia shaking in the concrete gas chamber along with callused animals from horrific homes, making the choking sounds for one last time. She’d die with the stench of exhaust on her shiny orange hide he brushed and washed.

“I’ll shoot her,” Tony interjected coolly. He face didn’t redden, nor did his chin quiver.

“I told you that you can call the pound,” Mr. Wildes said with sympathy in his voice as rare as a solar eclipse. That was the calmest and softest he had ever spoken since he told Tony his granny was dead.

“I want to shoot her with your nine millimeter,” Tony said.

The drunken man shrugged, and walked back into the house. Before he did, he looked at Tony. “You just leave her alone, she ain’t never hurt nobody. She don’t like me. That pisses me off, ya know.”

Tony watched the dog for a few minutes. He didn’t figure she was much good, didn’t even bark when a stranger came into the yard, much less crunch his dad’s jugular vein. She cowered at his sight! All the bark had been beat out of her. Her fur was sparse, too, because hair didn’t grow where the scars were. And those legs. They were comically contorted, gnarled like oak roots. They’d probably been broken several times.

He peeked into the living room at his dad, who had been watching TV, but his head was slumped over in sleep. After grabbing the nine millimeter from the top of the fridge, he buttoned the holster around his belt. He found a thin rope, about two feet long, and walked outside to Petunia.

“We’re back where we met,” Tony said, standing with Petunia in front of the decrepit house in the woods. She’d followed him without a struggle. He tied her up. She was wagging her tail, and her eyes followed him as he pulled the nine millimeter from its holster. He put the gun to her head and she wagged her tail wildly, trying to lick the gun. He quickly pulled the trigger and a loud pop resounded, along with the gunshot. She dropped immediately, and her mouth moved a little, as if she were trying to bark. Just nerves, Tony had said aloud. Her tail wagged a little more, then stopped. She was sprawled out on the ground, with some blood trickling from the side of her head. That was all; it was no big deal.

“Well, she’s not suffering anymore. Don’t have to worry about arthritis in the legs, or being chained up, or being hassled by a drunk,” Tony mused, heading back to the house for a Hefty bag and a shovel. He was hungry, and thirsty. There wasn’t a soda in the house, and he decided he wanted to walk to the Jiffy Mart before digging a hole for Petunia. He needed to process things.

He walked by the living room, and told his dad he was walking to the store and would be back. His dad grunted in acknowledgement and continued to snore. Tony almost put the gun back, but he liked the weight of it on him. It was powerful, and made things permanently better. Nothing else did, not even money.

On the way to the store, he passed a lonesome bridge. This was a place you’d be sorry to be if you needed to use a phone for an emergency; there weren’t any houses for a mile either way. He needed to pee, so he walked down the steep slope to go under the bridge. He smelled smoke as he walked closer.

Under the shady bridge was a steel drum that held scorched sticks smoldering into glowing orange coals. A wrinkled white man with no teeth appeared from the shade of the bridge.

“Whatchu doin’ here?” said the old man, clutching a dented aluminum bat with raw-boned fingers. “Go away from here!”

Tony looked at him, and smiled.

The hobo shot him a contemptuous look and his bottom jaw involuntarily wobbled, as if he were still talking. “What in the hell are you grinnin’ for? Get gone!”

Tony looked at the disheveled old man with scars on his arms and a few on his face. He was toothless with ratty, shaggy gray hair, and dirty clothes. “What are you livin’ for?” Tony asked.

The old man stared at him, one eye looking at the sky. “I said, get the hell out of here!”

“I think you’re miserable. Are you miserable?” Tony asked. He figured he was, but at least he could ask him. He was never able to ask Petunia.

“What the hell do you think? I’m old, nobody will hire me or help me, and I go without a meal for days. The soup kitchen ain’t open every day. And when I do eat, I can only eat mush or soup. I have to walk everywhere I go and look at how old I am! Nobody will help me.”

“I will,” Tony said, reaching for his nine millimeter.

Tony walked up the steep hill back up the road, thinking about the old man lying under the bridge and feeling good about helping someone else again. He only hoped nobody would go under the bridge until he made it home. The body would probably stay there until it started to reek, and be discovered when someone realized it wasn’t the stench of a dead animal.

After he paid for his soda and hot dog, he asked for the clerk for quarters.

“Hey Dad,” Tony said, holding the receiver to the pay phone.

“Where are you calling from, and where’s the dog?”

“Oh, I’m at the Jiffy Mart, and I called to let you know I killed her.”

“Dammit, I didn’t want you to do that shit. I wanted to breed her. I had already told Delmus. You need your ass wore out. You better stay gone a while so I can cool down, if you know what’s good for you.”

“No, Dad. I want to come back now. We’re not going to have anymore worries when I get back.”

“What the hell are you talking about now? Did you hit the jackpot or something?”

“Sort of. You’ll see when I get home.”

Krystal is a 23-year-old mother of two, and a junior at Valdosta State University majoring in English. E-mail: krcolumna[at]valdosta.edu

Over Heaven’s Hill

Ana’s Pick
Geraldine Walsh

I waited for you by the row of aspen trees that nestle along the curve of the road that leads into town, that shadow the mice scrambling to the woodland in the fiercest heat of summer and the deadening rain in fall. I waited for you to cross over the brow of Heaven’s Hill, the high road that is a bystander to annual soapbox races and yearly toboggan rides—weather permitted.

I remember the year we raced our toboggans down the dry cold snow, cheered on by the neighbours’ Australian shepherd that jumped in and around us, between the flashes of red and blue paint, screeching children, and flailing mitten strings. I remember how, like an inept canoeist, we would struggle to maintain our potency and presence as we hit the curve of the knoll and slid the concurrent fifty feet to the finish line, praised for our outstanding courage and grazed legs, greeted with homemade lemonade and makeshift veteran’s medals wedged onto a burnt wooden stand.

I waited by the hook of road under the one great oak tree that stood amidst the aspen kings, thinking I would glimpse your tousled hair and freckled skin edging over the top of the shimmering heat of Heaven’s Hill. The summer’s day warmth pierced my skin and dried my eyes, burning in the fervour of my youth as I stared into the sun over the knotted bank and listened to the crickets sing.

I waited by the groove of the knoll belonging to the road we would follow on a Sunday drive in your father’s pick-up, on an endless route as we took left turn after left turn to end up in the same place, exactly where we wanted to be. And as I waited for you, as you promised you would come, I remembered it was here you first held my hand, twisted daisies through my hair, and told me how you would marry me—some day.

I watched the black crow that played on the telephone cables above my head, feathers tinged with pink from the hard-hitting sun, mellow beak silently opening, closing, in flirtatious motions, almost whispering, telling me to cover my fair skin and shelter my voice as it cawed and circled my shadow below.

I waited for you, until the heat subsided and the cool air spun around my ankles as the night air fell on Heaven’s Hill. I waited under the sallow-scented trees, inhaling their peppercorn fragrance as the breezy moonlit air wrapped a plume of soft coolness on my bare shoulders. I waited for you because you said you would come.

Geraldine works and lives in Dublin, Ireland, which she loves and never wants to leave. She has a BA in Engish and Greek and Roman Civilisation and is a qualified Librarian! She writes poetry, short stories and revels in flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Poetry Cemetery and is upcoming in Agenda Broadsheet No. 11. E-mail: ger.monks.walsh[at]gmail.com

Snow Fall

Michael B. Tager

I watched the snow fall.

We came home a little bit after the elementary schools got out. I know because, while we idled at the light on the corner of Patapsco and Merrimount (me glumly chain-smoking, Peter angrily staring straight ahead, knuckles white on the steering wheel), the alarm bell at Glehnndale Elementary rang and the kids starting pouring out.

I watched them, silently, while blowing smoke rings out the half-raised window. From a long distance away I watched the small children, all bundled up against the elements, run around with the intense focus that only the truly genius otherwise possess. I didn’t know where these kids were going specifically, but I thought that I had a good guess.

They were going home. Like us. Or me, anyway.

When the light turned green, Peter gently accelerated. He drove down Merrimount at an even speed, signaling well in advance of the upcoming turn. When we got to the turn, Peter slowly and evenly turned the wheel, turning us as a consequence. I used to love his evenness. Even when he was at his angriest (like now), he never acted anything other than even.

Deliberate. Calm. Rational.

“I wish you would scream at me or something,” I mumbled.

He looked at me with one of his innumerable looks. I recognized this one immediately. This one said I acknowledge that you just said something, but I either have no response or I didn’t fully hear the question. If you want more, you are going to have to follow this one up. Bitch.

Maybe I always just inferred the last part. But regardless, I didn’t repeat myself or press the issue. I just inhaled my cigarette and blew more smoke rings.

Inhale. Blow. Inhale. Blow.

While inhaling and blowing, I thought about the words. They made me think of giving Peter a blow job. Even in the middle of all this, I still wanted to. I thought about saying nothing, just unbolting myself, reaching over and unzippering Peter. Then I thought about leaning down and going down on him—just for a bit. Inhale. Blow. Inhale. Blow.

We might hate each other right now, but he’d let me. We would let that truce happen. There would be a smile afterwards and the promise of something more. Even in the middle of this.

I sat there and blew my smoke rings.

It didn’t take long before we turned onto our street. Golden Elm. The name had played a part in our living here. Some sort of ingrained, reformed ironic sense of amusement and recognition. We both came from streets like this: Pocahontas Trail. Clover Lane. Prancing Deer Ave. These disingenuous labels, marketing to our inner desire for peace. Or something. We used to wax philosophic about it when we first met—our mutual distaste for our suburban upbringings was one of our first bonds. The first thing he said that made me look at him with something other than the faux-jaded eyes of a wannabe intellectual at the oh-so-mature age of nineteen… well, I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but I remember the meaning. The mixed longing and loathing in his voice. Oh, I understood.

I can’t be bothered right now to be philosophic.

So when we found this neighborhood and this street in particular, it hit something in us. The bond then was so strong. We looked at each other and knew. We could have our cake and fling it around like monkeys if we wanted to.

We pulled into the driveway, still silent.

I got out of the car and casually dropped the cigarette to the dirty ground, idly grinding it out with the flat of my shoe.

Peter said nothing. He hates when I don’t throw my cigs away.

I was fully aware of his hate and he was fully aware of my awareness. I didn’t meet his gaze, but instead went into the house.

“I’ll pick it up later,” I called back as I walked away. I think I heard some kind of response.

I went into the bathroom and closed the door and thumbed the lock. I turned on the sink and filled my cupped hands with water. Before I brought it to my face, I let the water run through fingers and stared at myself. Tired, tired eyes stared back at me. I sighed and splashed my face. I then turned the toilet seat down and sat as I rubbed my face with the towel.

I still hadn’t heard Peter come in. I was listening very, very hard.

I stepped out of the bathroom and walked down the hallway to the kitchen. I love my kitchen. I love everything about it. Peter is the one who would work in there, preparing for the meal we would eat together most nights (Tuesdays I have yoga, Wednesdays he plays poker, and we have date night on Friday) but I’m the one who spent more time there. I would drink my coffee in the morning and read my paper for an hour before he even stirred. He would then go to work and I would still be there, just on my third cup of coffee and probably whatever book I was reading at the time.

I glanced over at the table and saw the book I had started that morning. I read the name and seconds later I had to look back to read it again. It kept on slipping away. I guess I didn’t care too much about it.

Then, after we both got back from work (him from the gallery and me from the bank), I would sit in the kitchen and listen to the radio and drink a glass of wine. Sometimes he would join me. On those occasions, I always changed the channel from jazz (which I love and he hates) to the blues (which I love just a little bit less but he likes). He would have a beer or sometimes just a soda and we would chat a little before he started dinner.

After dinner, he would go watch TV and I would slowly do the dishes. And then I would read some more and have some tea. Later, after the news, I would join him.

Sometimes we left early and made love. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we fucked in front of the TV (once, notably, on the floor on a pile of my contracts). But that just depended. That was our room and our time.

This was my kitchen and my time and it felt so empty.

“He still hasn’t come in,” I said quietly to myself.

Then I heard the car engine start. I hurried over to the window in the front of the house and watched him drive off. I called his name, softly, “Peter.” It didn’t matter that he couldn’t hear it; I didn’t think.

I watched him drive off and felt… something. A tear? A rip? Maybe a dent. I didn’t know and thus couldn’t process. So I decided not to.

I went into the (my) kitchen and put the kettle on. I sat down at the (my) table and picked up the (my) book. I started to read and thought I was even enjoying it. Then the kettle started screaming its song. I went to get it and poured it into a mug with a tea bag already in it. It smelled delicious. I went back to the table and picked up the (my) book. I had no idea what I’d read. Or what the book was.

Pointless. Something else was in order.

I took my tea and went into the (our) living room. I sat down and immediately felt wrong. I ignored the feeling and turned on the (his) tv with the (his) remote. Something came on and I immediately shut it off. No.

I threw the remote away in disgust and stalked out of the room. I went upstairs, stopping first at the office to get my cigarettes out. The office is the only room in the house I can smoke. Peter never sets a foot in there. A trade-off. I get a room fully to myself, which he doesn’t get, but if I want to smoke, it has to be in there.

“Fuck it!” I lit up as I started up the steps and immediately felt a surge of guilt. So I put it out. Instead of flouting that rule brazenly, I compromised instead, and decided to go the place where I usually went to break that rule.

I walked past our bedroom and into the storage room that looked onto the front yard and Golden Elm Way. I had my little spot there, such as it was. I closed the door tightly behind me and walked straight ahead. In front of me was a pile of haphazardly-stacked cardboard boxes containing decorations. Halloween. Easter. Christmas. Fourth of July. All that stuff, just piled in one spot. Out of the way.

I moved the boxes, each one just a little bit, and there was a narrow path to the window that was concealed behind it. And on the extra-large, deep window sill? Just an ashtray, some matches and a thin, blue blanket. On the floor in front was a small footstool. I stepped on the stool and hoisted myself up to my little spot. I took my cigarettes out of my pocket and shook one out of the crumpled pack. I then wrapped myself in my blanket, lit the cigarette, and watched out the window.

It had started to snow, I noted.

Mostly, I watched it snow. I watched the flakes drift down from the sky. First just a few, and then, after half an hour (three cigarettes), quite a few more. Not much was accumulating, but if it kept up, well, then Peter would have to shovel in the morning. I don’t do shoveling. I’d ask him when…


The tears came then. Just a few, hard and hot, leaked out of my eyes and I barked out two short, harsh sobs. Then nothing aside from some trembling.

Inhale. Blow. Inhale. Blow.

I cracked the window open as the room started to fill with smoke. A few snowflakes drifted inside, but not many. And the smoke swiftly dissipated. I smiled tightly at my tiny success, and continued to watch it snow.

I could say that I thought about a lot of things while I sat there and smoked and watched the snow fall. I could say that I thought about the words exchanged earlier. One of us had said, “I can’t believe you could do that to me.” Was it me or him? I don’t think it really matters, as the rejoinder was, “That’s what I thought two years ago.”

Angry words. Sorrowful words. I could say that I thought about that.

I could say I thought about our first date. I remember what he wore (a black T-shirt with a cartoon duck on it, jeans, and some dressy black shoes) and I remember what I ordered for dinner (duck with plum sauce). I could say that I thought about what his lips tasted like when he kissed me softly at the end of our date (cinnamon, beer, and cigarette smoke—he smoked back then, too). I could even say that I thought about how he called me twenty minutes after I dropped him off and said, “I just wanted to let you know how beautiful you looked tonight. I was too shy earlier to say it. But now you know. And since you know, I’m, um, gonna go.” I could say that I thought about how much I smiled at that.

I could say that. But mostly, I just watched it snow.

At three in the morning, Peter pulled up in his car. I was still in the window, smoking, and watching it snow.

Inhale. Blow. Inhale. Blow.

Watch the snow.

Peter didn’t go into the garage. He sat in the driveway.

I watched him a little.

He got out and stood in the falling snow. He looked handsome.

He looked up at the window and looked at me.

I looked at him.

I can’t say how long we watched each other. I don’t know. At some point he came inside.

I stayed where I was for a time, watching the snow fall.


Michael B. Tager has been an aspiring author since he first learned what the word ‘author’ meant. He is 27, hails from Baltimore, is obsessed with Orca and hasn’t really pursued his ambition to be an author. Now is as good a time as any to begin. Mike can be reached at MichaelBTager[at]yahoo.com


Peggy Newland

“Jesus Christ,” is all Roz says, throwing her cigarette in my rose garden. The way she shakes her head in that helmet, I can barely see her eyes. I know I’ve disappointed her again. You don’t want to disappoint a woman like Roz. She can get so angry, kicking over chairs, throwing plates, screaming such things as Cock sucker pig and Mother fucking asshole and You want me to skin your balls. It can be a bit disturbing. All of that in your face. I didn’t grow up that way in Pleasantdale, Utah. Which is why I probably like Roz. She’s a little bit naughty. And it’s all my fault.

“Take off your fucking clothes,” she says. But it is Sunday morning. The neighbors are out, Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow in their garden, Mr. Smith with his paper and in slippers. I tell her to keep her voice down. This is the wrong thing to do.

She tears her helmet off and hurls it into my rhododendron bush calling me a Cock fucking pig. The neighbors lift their eyebrows, Mr. Smith actually holding his chest. He has heart problems.


One Sunday, after service at Sunnyside Ward, Mother and Father sat me down.

“It’s for your own good,” Father said, his hand on my shoulder.

I nodded right along with him.

Mother kept her face toward the wall because this was rather uncomfortable. A frank discussion on perverse sexuality right after lunch.

“I know,” I said, trying to smile.

The sun hit the windows of our kitchen hard. The gingham curtains were pulled back. The Wasatch Mountains had a layer of new snow on the tips.

Father kept his hand on my shoulder.

I knew not to look up into his face. I couldn’t cry anymore. “Fresh snow,” I said, but nobody turned to see.


“You look very beautiful this morning,” I say between shit eating and break your goddamn ass. My poor rhododendron bush.

Roz smiles. “Fuck you.” She can be so enchanting.

“A lovely day for brunch and beach,” I say, looking at the clear blue sky, no clouds. “Perhaps we should bring a bit of sunscreen. Ultraviolet rays can be so damaging.”

But she’s not listening. She’s staring at my face. Her eyes are slitted. “No.” She purses her lips together.

I should kiss her but I’m not a big fan of bright red lipstick. Especially in the morning. If the color gets on my teeth, I’ll have to brush again and then there are the neighbors eyeing Roz’s motorcycle in the middle of my lawn. Roz pulls off her bra and flings it overhead.

“A beautiful day,” I add. Her mouth opens wide. I get afraid. Of all the juiciness inside her. The moist tongue sponging my teeth. The dribbles, oh, the dribbles when she’s done with me. I think, Oh Jesus, give me strength, I can do this. “A lovely day,” I say.

She has lipstick on one tooth. She smells of strong coffee and Tic Tacs.

I bite my tongue.

“Come here,” Roz demands.

I know what she’ll do with me. I just know it.


“Why?” My mother had asked me, after Father had retired for the evening.

“It’s not your fault,” I said again.

But she wouldn’t hear it. She shook her head slowly in the dimness of my bedroom. “Son…” She wore the slippers I’d bought her last year, the silky tied ones in bright red, her favorite color, the color of cherries, the color of love, the color of her lipstick.

“I love you,” I told her.

“And I, you.” But she didn’t kiss me goodnight. She only held her hand against my forehead as if looking for a fever, some sign of sickness.


“Hello, Tobey!” I cry out to the teenage neighbor boy eyeing us.

Roz turns her attention to him as I back away from her lips. Tobey is six-foot-three, a football star, and his pants drag in the dirt. He never hikes them up at all.

“Yo, that a Harley?” Tobey slinks over to us in bare feet, nodding his head back and forth. His neck cracks.

“Hell right it is!” Roz shoots her fist up in the air.

“Nice.” He eyes her with a mouth that never smiles and squares his shoulders. He runs his fingers over the chrome. Back and forth, back and forth.

Roz smiles. Her lips are wide and wet.

Tobey pulls at his crotch, cupping and uncupping.

Nice,” she says right back.

“Shoot,” I whisper. I head toward Roz, ready to kiss her. Ready to let her stick her tongue into my mouth like she likes. Ready to let her lift me up off the porch, swing me around a little. But she shoves me right out of the way.

“You want a ride, little boy?” She sticks her breasts out at Tobey.

He takes a long look. His forehead bristles.

I’m sure he’s noticing the tip of her tattoo on her large breasts, the eagle with talons rising straight up from between Big Hewie and Louie. She’s named her breasts. She loves to smash my face into them.

“Yeah,” he says, smiling finally. His braces shine in the sun, silver squares on each tooth. I know not to wonder about what all that metal tastes like.

“We have plans,” I tell Tobey.

He doesn’t even look at me.

So I walk closer to Roz and rest my hand along her shoulder, press my thumb into her thick bicep. She wants to tattoo my name, Jiggy Joe, on her skin. I told her no. I’m not Jiggy Joe. It’s just a nickname she made up for me. I’m Charles. But she thinks Charles sounds like a fag name. Which isn’t nice. But I didn’t tell her so.

“He’s my bitch,” she winks, grabbing my behind and squeezing. She watches Tobey’s face still. He has teenage chin hairs. “Hop on,” she finally says, smacking me out of the way.

“Roz, this is not a such a good plan,” I say.

But Tobey’s thumbs are already hooked around her waist.


Mother used to let me wear her stilettos on afternoons Father volunteered at Temple.

“Just for a little bit,” she’d tell me and I’d happily agree to whatever she said.

We had tea parties on the living room floor and sat on Great-Grandmother Essie’s quilt, making sure not to allow even one crumb on the interlocking wedding circles. Mother would brush my hair back from my face. Her fingers in my hair were almost as delicious as the sweetened tea and gingersnaps.

“It’s our little secret,” she said. Soon, I was wearing her silk bathrobe and putting on lipstick, Mother and I giggling as we kept the curtains closed tight and the afternoon sun out of our house on 21 Sunnyside Lane.


Roz comes back a half hour later with all that bright red lipstick gone. Tobey wipes his mouth as her Harley motorcycle rumbles, setting off all the car alarms. Tobey’s mother walks toward me with her hands on her hips. Mr. Smith is on a ladder with his binoculars. The Sparrows sit in lawn chairs with their Bible open. Everyone is frowning.

“Next party, Roz,” Tobey says.

Roz flashes him her chest. Luckily her back is turned so the neighbors don’t see those eagles.

This just doesn’t happen in this neighborhood. Especially on Sunday mornings. I guess I’ll have to make my Macadamia Double Chocolate brownies for everyone. I like to be a good neighbor.

“Get on, Jiggy Joe,” Roz says. She hands me a black helmet emblazoned with KICK ASS across the front.

I realize I can’t irritate Roz any further and I hop on. It’s against my better judgment.


Branches explode over our heads. The road rushes at my face. Rocks spin under her wheels. She’s going too fast. I’m about to die. I can’t seem to hold enough of Roz’s leather. My helmet is too large for my head. It knocks back and forth against her back. She doesn’t keep her eyes on the road. The helmet tints the world black and it reeks of sweat and blood and something feral. I have to breathe through my mouth. Which is very difficult. Because now I’m fogging up my vision. The White Mountains are one big green blur.

I close my eyes. “We’re not going to the beach, are we?”

But she can’t hear me.

“No brunch either,” I whisper to my chest.

I hope for the end. An easy death. My skin peeled from my body. Arms and legs being torn off on asphalt. Flung to the ditches covered in poison ivy and sunflowers.

Then, there’s a blast of horn. An explosion of them.

Roz and I are in a rush of dust and shredded air. It seems to be some sort of thunderstorm, a freak New Hampshire tornado. A crash is imminent, death, destruction, complete annihilation, so I scream. Right into Roz’s back as she careen/slides into a stop, Help me Jesus, don’t let me die like this, get me out of here to someplace else Jesus…

Roz screams out, “Fucking A… Holy Shit.”

“Who the hell is this?” a voice says.

I can’t see him through the dust. I think that maybe it is Jesus himself, and I’m dead, and He’s angry because I’m on a motorcycle, and I promised my dying mother that I’d never ride on a motorcycle and now here I am dead from one.

But it’s not Jesus. It’s Rocko.


There were girls. Many of them. But truly, they were my friends. We sat at lunch together at East High School and watched the parade of boys going by. The girls would whisper their secrets. Especially Beth. She was my favorite.

“I saw him with his shirt off at Liberty Park,” Beth said directly into my ear. “He has a pierced nipple.”

“No,” I said, forgetting to whisper.

“Shhh…” She pulled me closer and she smelled of baby powder and lemons. Fresh and clean like my house. “I wonder if he’s pierced his…”

“Stop.” I followed Daniel with my eyes as he loaded his lunch tray with chips and soda and pizza and three chocolate chip cookies. His shirt was untucked and hanging. When he leaned over for a brownie, there was a shadow of hair. I imagined his belly button harboring a gold hoop earring through pink skin. “Just stop.”

But she wouldn’t.

She just wouldn’t stop.


Rocko straddles a Harley. His face is like a scalpel. He is encased in ripped leather. Bald and gleaming, he’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen. I can’t say a word.

“Jiggy Joe,” Roz shouts.

I wave one small finger.

“My Mormon sexpot.”

“Shit.” Rocko’s voice is filled with charcoal, scratched and ready.

I try to take my helmet off but my fingers don’t seem to work. “Actually, it’s—” I want to say Charles, but sweat pours into my eyes. It stings so much. I can’t get my bandanna out of the back pocket of my shorts to wipe my brow. My Speedo is soaking wet underneath my Hawaiian print shorts.

Rocko’s hands come at me. He twists my neck and yanks. That helmet nearly rips the ears off of my head. There’s buzzing now. I’m a little dizzy. A bit sick to my stomach because I didn’t eat breakfast, just a glass of juice. I need water. I’m confused.

“Where are we?” I hold my ears.

But Roz is already gone, jumping on the back of some man covered in chains. That man also wears a raccoon hat.

“See this?” Rocko asks. It’s a knife. It’s serrated.

I nod.

“Twelve goddamn inches.” He slides his thumb down the length of it, drawing blood. A thick red spot right next to my Topsiders.

I hold my throat. “Oh…”

He smacks me on the back. Coughs a hot laugh against my cheek. “Just fucking with you, buddy,” he says, smiling. Even his mouth is huge. He spits right on top of that blood, mixing it to pink.

I just stare and stare at it.

“Where you from?”

“Originally, from Utah, but now I’m residing—”

“Which planet, Dude?” Another smoky cough.

“Ahh…” I say. Then, “New Hampshire now.”

“He fucking needs help, don’t he?” Roz comes up behind me and runs her hands up my thighs, nearly over my scrotum and underneath my tank top. She pulls at my belly hair. Which hurts a little bit.

Rocko nods.


The morning before my appointment at the Clinic, Mother made me a full lumberjack breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes and sausage.

“It’s too much,” I said, shaking my head.

“Eat it,” Father nodded. He pushed at my fork.

I usually ate Cheerios with banana. Drank a small glass of orange juice, fresh squeezed if there was time before school. “Okay,” I said, that plate overflowing with shining links mashed together with browned potatoes, greased and ready.

Mother poured a large glass of milk for Father and as he drank it, he closed his eyes.

The egg felt spongy in my mouth. The pancakes were leaden.

“You’ll need your energy,” Father said. He had a milk mustache that Mother wiped off with the edge of her apron.

“Don’t worry,” I told him.

He folded his chin into his chest, his bald spot shining at the top of his skull, pink as baby skin.


“Roz, baby,” Rocko says, pulling both of us into his chest. My nose presses into his underarm as he shakes us left and right, up and down. Roz screeches right into my ear, which still is buzzing from the helmet fiasco. “Whatever you need, girl. You know that.”

The world spins when I’m set down. It’s a field of trampled grass and rutted paths leading to a ramshackle house. Milling dogs and goats and chickens mix with bare-breasted women dancing in circles with their arms held high. Tents and huts and motorcycles spread wide. Dust rises. There are hoarse high yelps coming from the woods nearby. Men are staring, lighting up pinched cigarettes, and staring. At me.

Roz tears the front of my shirt open and grins at Rocko.

“I’ll set him up,” he says. “Come on, man.”

When I leave, Roz sticks her hands down the raccoon hatted man’s pants.

I follow Rocko up the stairs and into the house.


“Please,” Beth had pleaded on the phone. “Please.”

That was the third time she’d called that evening and Mother was getting a bit perturbed. Again? Mother had mouthed, but Father told her to stop as he smiled over his newspaper.

“Fine,” I said. Which was a mistake.

“It’ll be fun.”

But we both knew we were playing with fire. Going to that party on the Salt Flats.

“Just for a little bit,” I told her.

“Just until I see Daniel,” she said. “And you give him my note.”

“A disaster waiting to happen,” I said, but she’d already hung up.

Mother peered over at me, “She seems to like you,” she said.

“Of course she does, June,” Father said.

I walked upstairs to my room.


I slide leather chaps over my shorts. A fringed jacket hangs over my ripped tank top. It’s Roz’s old boyfriend’s—a crane operator named Donnie who lifted cement truck tires in his spare time. They met on the site where Roz was the flag girl. They had Harleys and Maine Coon cats in common. Sadly, she caught him with the woman who rode the dumpster truck and that was it, she tried to light him on fire with her Bic lighter. She threw it right at him. That must be why one side of this jacket is charred, the skull and crossbones burnt down, barely visible. Rocko tells me this as he throws leather clothes at me.

“It’s all my fault,” I tell Rocko.

“What?” Rocko asks.

“She was a married woman and now look at her.”

Roz presses her breasts against the window glass. The raccoon man comes up behind her and nuzzled her neck.

“Oh, Lord.”

“Take off those fucking pants, man.”

I start sliding those chaps off.

“Not those.”


He bites a piece of his fingernail off and spits it on the floor. “You know why you’re here?” he asks.

“Roz decided.”

His eyes never leave my face. I can hear the band just starting up. Someone smashes glass on the floor just outside our door. “Shit. You don’t even know.”

“This is a nice place,” I say.

“How’d you two meet?” Rocko raises his eyebrows.

“I tried to convert her.”

“To what?”

“A happier person.”

“Roz is happy, man.” He points to my zipper.

I unzip it slowly.

“You looking for a soulmate?”

He stares at my Speedos so I look down too. They’re still in place. That’s the good thing about Speedos. Why they cost a bit more than other brands.

“More or less, I suppose.” I twiddle my head around because Rocko comes close to me, then away, then does it again, finally leaning against the wall. It’s a little disconcerting.

“Wrong answer, man.” Rocko says.

I slide the leather up and buckle it tight across my crotch.

Rocko just shakes his head. “You ain’t got a chance in hell here.”

“Okay,” I say.


The wind had blown hard off the Salt Lake. There was a smell of dead brine shrimp and diesel pick up trucks. The bonfire was lit high with old tires and broken beer bottles. Kelly and Brenda, wearing miniskirts, danced around the flames. One girl had her shirt off. Her brassiere was bright white in the moonlight.

“We should go back,” I told Beth.

“Kiss me,” she said.

“No,” I told her but she pushed her hand inside my shirt. She gyrated to truck radio bass. Her tongue slipped in and out of my mouth.

“Stop,” I told her. “Cut it out.” Then I saw him—Daniel—watching her with me. He was leaning against his pick up. He was laughing. “He’s here,” I said between Beth’s tongue thrusts.

“I know,” she said. “Now push me away.” When I didn’t, she slammed my shoulders, and I toppled over into the crusted dirt.

I watched her walk over to Daniel.

But he was bringing a beer over to me.


“Hey.” Roz slams into the room, her vest off. Hewie and Louie are right there next to me. Those nipples are round as apples, the right one pierced with a turquoise ring. “Hey.” She jostles up close. I know I should touch them like she likes. Weigh them in my hands. But I don’t because her eyes are looking directly into Rocko’s. He sighs, grabs Hewie (or is it Louie?) and squeezes and releases. Squeezes and releases. His thumbs are wide over her skin.

“Oh, give it up, asshole,” Roz says, laughing. She looks me over, shaking her head. “He needs something.” She pokes my chest.

“Snap those chaps, dude,” Rocko tells me.

“Actually, I’m thinking the chaps are not quite right,” I say.

“He don’t know a thing,” Rocko says.

“Here. Watch this.” She turns to me and puckers her lips. They’re orange now and freshly applied.

This time I don’t wait. I open wide and let her roam around in there. Her tongue tastes like whiskey, smoke, salty mix of nuts and onion dip mixing with my Dentyne gum. It’s awful. I gasp for air and can’t help it. I dance my little jig of wiping my mouth and shaking my shoulders until I straighten all my thoughts out again. Feel wiped clean.

“See?” she says. “Jiggy Joe.”

“Maybe I do want a soulmate.” I reach for Roz’s hand but she slaps me in the face. Rather hard. She does that sometimes. I don’t especially like it.

“You’re not my soulmate. You’re a fucking prig.”

“Mrs. Wil—” I say. “Roz, I mean.” I hold my hands to my cheeks as she storms out.

“What the hell’s wrong with you, Jiggy Joe?” Rocko’s laughing as he lifts a leather flask up to his lips. “Here. It’ll take the edge off.”

I press the flask to my lips, trying not to think about the germs, of alcohol and saliva mixed. “My name’s actually Charles,” I say.

Rocko shrugs. “We give each other names here.”

I look straight ahead at Rocko’s black jelly eyes.

“That okay?”

I nod.

“I’m actually Walter.” He hands me a sweat-stained headband with EVIL written in red ink. “I teach at White Mountain Preschool.”

“Wow.” I pull my leather chaps all the way up. “I’d have never guessed that in a million years.”

“Yeah, well.”

“This is delightful,” I say, rubbing my chaps.

“Come on.” Rocko just pushes me out of the door. “Time for you to get on board the love train.”


Mother started to cry in the waiting room, so Father told her to go wait outside until she could calm herself. The walls were painted blue. The plastic chairs were black. There were Field and Stream, Motorcycle Racer, Gearhead, and American Cars magazines strewn across the tables. A clock ticked and a water cooler gurgled and Father cracked his neck. I didn’t dare ask to use the restroom. I was wearing my best suit and had shined my shoes right after breakfast, covering over any smudges with deep black dye.

“After this, how about Friendly’s?” Father asked in his low voice, the one he uses in Temple.

“Sounds good,” I told him.

He handed me a Field and Stream, although neither one of us are hunters.


Oh my is all I can say when we get back into the kitchen. There are naked girls everywhere. At all angles. They have sweaty shoulders and dusty knees. Roz is being passed side to side, back and forth, and her lips have changed colors, purple to pale to red to orange depending on the man she’s kissing or sitting on. She smiles over at me. The music fades in and out. I walk over to her, holding the flask. She tells me to get the hell away from her. Someone hands me a bottle of scotch and I stare at the amber liquid. I try to find my face but there’s nothing. No eyes, no mouth, no hair, nothing. I’m invisible.

“Hop on,” a woman with a large mouth says, rubbing my thigh.

“Where?” I ask and the laughter starts.

“Anywhere you want, Leatherman.”

I put the flask and scotch down.

She offers me her breasts. They look like flat platters of nipples and dimples in the florescent light. She has metallic eyelashes. Her eyes say, “I’m so very tired, so very, very tired.”

I stand there, waiting. I cross my arms. Hum a little tune and try not to look at that man sucking on Roz. “How about some pinochle?” I suggest.

“What the fuck?”


“You think you’re too good?” she asks. “Too fucking good for me?” Her eyes flare then dim.

“Oh, no.” She seems very nice. She wears a wedding band and gold earrings. Her hair is a mass of spiky gray curls. “My girlfriend is here.” But Roz is leaving. She walks around the corner with the raccoon man and she doesn’t even turn to wave goodbye. “But maybe she’s not really my girlfriend.” I can’t feel my cheeks.

“Well, you’re shit.” She walks away.


“She being a bitch?” Daniel asked.

I shrugged.

“You want one?” He pushed a beer at my hand.

“It’s cold,” I said, shaking the bottle slightly.

“Naw, man, don’t do that.” He laughed. “It’ll spray you in the face.”

The girls and I always made fun of the football team. The way they talked. How they did their slide walks around the hallways. Out here, with the clouded moon and thick smoke, it made sense.

“It’s beautiful here,” I said. Stars surrounded Elk Mountain.

“Look,” Daniel said, pointing. “Orion.”

“The sky giant,” I added. “King of the constellations.” I took a tiny sip. Horrible, but I kept on drinking. Shadowed people passed us and slammed Daniel in the shoulder. They actually nodded their head at me.

“Thought you were square and narrow,” he said.

“Thought the same of you.” I ignored Beth making her signals. Instead, I watched Daniel wiping his chin with the back of his hand.


I’m lost. I’m drunk. I’m dancing to some sort of music with Wanda, a lady wearing leopard print stockings. When I move, the leather chaps slide up and down on my skin. It feels as if someone is stroking my leg gently and it feels wonderful. My headband soaks up any sweat I have. I’m fitting in. No one is looking at me strangely anymore. I tell Wanda that I’m not interested in a threesome with her and her girlfriend nor do I want to upzip my pants for her in the backroom and I most certainly do not to tickle her crotch. I thank her for asking though. I tell her that I want to keep dancing because I’m enjoying the music. She tells me to go to hell.

I keep dancing.


Dr. Greenley explained the process in the pleasant tone of a schoolteacher. There were photographs of his wife and seven children on the wall behind him and degrees propped up against the bookshelves. His name was embossed in gold.

I looked toward the door.

“It’s locked,” the doctor said.

Father had just recently signed all the papers and left to find Mother. The door had clicked twice when it closed.

“Okay,” I said.

“So don’t worry.”

We both looked at the chair in the corner. Large and heavily made, it had wood stained a deep brown. There were footrests with straps.

“Thank you,” I said.

A large photograph of the deer leaping over a bush, another of a pick-up truck racing through the desert. Both on the wall directly behind the headrest. The armrests were flat and long, wide at the angle where my hands would rest.

“Let’s begin.”

I walked over to that chair.


The lights go out. An electric guitar squeals. A man named Rascal fries moose sausage while his lady friend, Patricia, pours shots into her g-string. Rocko throws his knife up into the air, end to end, his tunneled eyes dark and infinite. He looks so sad. He hurls that sharpness to the sky not caring if he’s cut, dismembered or bleeding. He just flings it out there with one hand while the other stuffs slab after slab of chocolate brownie into his mouth. He doesn’t chew. He just swallows.

I wave at him from the dance floor in the kitchen.

He shakes his head, no, so I go over to him.

“Here,” he says. He hands me a brownie.

I eat it whole. It’s so thick, with pieces of herb baked in and it has a farm-like aroma of hay and almonds. “Chocolate helps,” I say and he nods.

He closes his eyes even as he continues to throw the knife up. He catches it every time and it truly is amazing. When he kicks the pan toward me, I allow myself a larger chunk, filling my mouth and swallowing. Roz runs through the living room completely naked. I focus on his knife again. How can he can toss it so high?

Everything seems to sparkle.

“You’re good,” I say. The blade spins in figure eights.

Rocko opens his eyes.

“Very good.”

A double toss, a triple toss, over his head, under his leg, and it’s a magic wand as I eat another slice and another slice. I use his twelve-inch knife to cut both of us brownies and soon my head is disconnected from my body. I really don’t know how this all happened, how a head can become disconnected like this. I hear the rhythm of my veins, my blood, my heart and it is slow and melodic and very, very beautiful.


“We’ll start you out slow,” the doctor said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“This machine was first developed in Czechoslovakia to prevent draft dodgers from claiming they were homosexual to avoid military duty.” Dr. Greenley handed me the stretchable band with mercury. “Put this on, son.” His thin hand covered my own. “Costs $8,000, if you can believe that!” A drop of sweat rolled down one side of his face. It landed on the report in front of him. My name was in bold letters. Charles.

“That’s a lot of money,” I agreed.

“Just slip it on, Charles,” he said, dimming the lights.

“It’s cold,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Greenley said. “It’ll warm up.”

The control panel buzzed as it lit up bright green.


“May I have that towel?” I reminded him.

“Sure,” Dr. Greenley said, handing me a white towel.

When he turned away to flip the first of two switches on, I covered myself. My naked skin stuck to the wooden seat.


“This is heavenly.” I break apart the last brownie, offering half to Rocko. Blue sparks and rainbows are in my hands, over my legs, even between my toenails. I hold my chest because my heart is expanding, it seems, inside my ribcage.

“The secret’s in the pre-heat.” Rocko nods solemnly as he jams the knife into the slats of the floor and I lean closer to him.

“And let the pans cool in the fridge between batches,” I wink.

There’s softness in his black eyes, behind all that blood engorged white, and there’s a loosening of the iris that makes me reach up to smooth him, wipe the oils and smells of the road off of his cheeks, tell him that love will come his way one day and to please write me a letter about it.

“Use wax paper,” he says quietly.

“Or else parchment.”

“Absolutely.” His thick fingers pick chocolate out of yellowed nails and he flicks the crumbs high into the air like chocolate rain. Feet walk past and time slows when plates shatter against the floor. There’s smoke overhead, the orange of firelight outside.

“Use a steel spatula.” I twirl my finger overhead.

Rocko suddenly pulls his hair back into a ponytail. “Roz don’t want nobody. She doesn’t bake. She hates the beach. And she’s never even seen a damn sunrise.” His fingers trace circles, rectangles, hearts in the ashy dust of the floor.

I can’t move. I truly can’t move.


“Now I’ll show you some pictures,” Dr. Greenley said.

He showed me a cow, a dog, a goat. They seemed to be from a farm. A farm with rolling hills and apple trees.

“Now I want you to think of what it reminds you of.”

“The cow?”

“All of them.”

“They’re soft and nice,” I smiled at that doctor.

But then he showed me other pictures. Nasty pictures. Of cows with women and goats with boys and dogs with children and I did the best I could. I tried.

But still I failed that test.

Father was not pleased.


A mangled dog walks by, a bottle gets tossed, and a baby cries. We’re illuminated by candles and lit pipes. A flush settles between my ringing ears as I watch Rocko and some others hammer two-by-fours across four beat up picnic tables pulled into the smoky kitchen.

I get jostled from behind by a man in a red-and-black-checkered hunting cap, a feather taped to the brim. He wears a chain-metal jacket. He has a peel-off tattoo on his neck of skull-and-crossbones.

He notices me staring so he touches it. One of the bones fades off. “For effect,” he shrugs.

I smile, touching my headband.

“You look evil.” He nods pleasantly.

“Thank you,” I say, not knowing what is expected.

“I’m third,” he says. “How about you?”

I just shake my head. “Third?” I ask, not understanding.

“In line.” He pulls out a piece of paper with “3” on it, waves it into the air at Patricia who is now lining up shots of tequila and eating some moose meat rolled into toothpicked balls. She gives him the thumbs up and shouts, Get over here, Bonzo.

“I’m number one,” I say, looking at the paper Roz had given me a hour ago.

“Glad it’s not me,” he says as he heads toward those tequila shots. Patricia slides her hand up his metal sleeve. He stares over at me, smiling in his pink lipstick. Then he whispers something into her ear.

Rocko whispers into my ear, “Roz wants you to win the contest.”

“What contest?”

“This contest.”


“Yeah.” Rocko smiles. “I bet five bucks on you, Dude. Now shake your ass up there.” He points toward the stage and gives me a shove. “Do it, man.”

I get in line as the speakers thump. The crowd pounds their fists. When I look back for Rocko, he’s gone. He’s left the cabin.

“Jiggy Joe!” an announcer shouts.

Roz runs over to me with her mouth spread wide and this time I tell her no. That I don’t want it. I won’t have it. “Mrs. Williams, I just can’t.”

And up I go.


We kissed. Behind Daniel’s pick-up truck. In slow motion, we hit the ground with a force that shook the desert for miles, it seemed. One of us sighed. His lips were hard and thin. His tongue was dry and tasted of flat beer. He wore braces. He stuffed his hands down my pants.

Then a bottle smashed behind us. It was Beth. “Fucking fag,” she screamed.

The crickets churned once the trucks drove off. The Salt Lake was black, blacker than the sky. I was bleeding. The moon rose then fell behind Elk Mountain. The bonfire was an orange pit and for one moment, I thought I saw a flash of white—a bus?—flying through the desert.

They’d burned my clothes. I didn’t blame Daniel. I didn’t blame him at all. Because I thought I heard women singing lullabies.

Baby’s boat’s a silver moon

Sailing on the sea…


I’m hearing now—angelic choirs—singing Broadway tunes, Bette Midler falsetto, Rosemary Clooney, and my God, it’s heaven. Their voices send me sailing over the two-by-four planks, the burnt picnic tables of my makeshift beauty pageant stage. People are cheering for me. For me! I shake my behind. I jiggle my chains. I twist and I shout and yes, I take it all off. I take off every last stitch, pull everything down, whip it over my head, and I’m seeing my Jesus now, and he’s through the window, loose in the air. With pistons blasting, he shakes his hips to metal guitar and pounding drum solo, he’s sliding and shaking and hooting right along with everyone and his eyes are on me, nodding. He’s got attitude, this Jesus of mine, and he waves me onward, his throttle a roar.

I shake it for him. And he shakes back.


It starts up quickly, very quickly.

“You okay?” Rocko asks.

“Absolutely, ” I say, pressing my thighs together and holding on.

We take off with Rocko shouting, “Yeah, yeah, you’re driving this mothah.” We take off in our chains and leather and steel-toed boots as gravel sprays and Mrs. Williams’ Harley skids onto pavement leaving black marks. We take off almost as if we are flying right up there in the sky, over the mountains, past the pines and granite to someplace cool and smooth. No helmet, I drive this mothah over asphalt. “Yeah,” Rocko shouts, grabbing onto my leather jacket. “Yeah.”

“I know a wonderful place for brunch,” Rocko shouts in my ear.

And I let myself feel the faint pressure of his fingertips.

He smells of smoke and blacktop and I let myself lean back. Tilting over highway. Speeding toward the light. Our skin is the pale pink of coming sunrise.

“Harley” is part of a collection titled Backwoods. Peggy writes most mornings in her basement, coming occasionally up for coffee. The rest of the time, she works as a psychotherapist with angry boys and wild girls. E-mail: peggynewland[at]yahoo.com