W. David Hancock

Undead Fairyland

The Bad Fairies snatched Darrow’s boy. Murdock gave the order. It was a rainy Thursday. Charlie stopped at the Pump & Munch for a cruller and caffeine. He placed the travel mug on the roof of his Prius. The Bad Fairies grabbed him as he fumbled for his fob. The AMC Gremlin came out of nowhere. It was one of those enchanted Gremlins with the mana transmission and Eye of Sauron mural spray-painted on the hood—blasting Casey Kasem’s countdown from February 23, 1978.

The Bad Fairies were packing AK-Le Guins. They blew a wormhole in the cage of the propane tank exchange, releasing a level-12 Gaseous Form. Charlie disappeared in the blink of an eye. Eyewitnesses say they saw a ripple in the mist. Some felt pressure in their ears. Others lost the fillings in their teeth. Time and space were distorted. Toads fell on a woman pumping gas. A FedEx driver lost his vowels. The Prius folded in upon itself until it was the size of a brownie turd. Charlie’s travel mug raptured. His pumpkin spice latte turned to cinders, and his body was teleported to the Clearcut Forest. His spirit was too pure to pass through the anti-matter sphincter, though, and got left behind. (For three weeks, Charlie’s life force haunted the Pump & Munch parking lot, searching for a new host. His soul finally landed in a bottle of premium wiper fluid and spent the next 2 years cleaning bug splatter off the window of a 1985 Honda Civic.)

The Bad Fairies were spawned from the corpses of condemned prisoners, reanimated after execution. Murdock raised them out of pauper’s graves. He was the only one who could control the evil hoard. Murdock had the charisma and the enchanted Hammond organ. When Murdock played “Muskrat Love,” it sent the damned into a frenzy. It was Darrow who kept the clown car contained. Darrow was a button man, MI666’s number one fixer. He’s the one they called to seal up unauthorized breaches into Undead Fairyland.

Darrow built a career out of making enemies—and Murdock was his archenemy. Theirs was a tale of sorrow and betrayal that can only be sung in a lost language. The two had history and old scores to settle—although, when they were first recruited, Darrow and Murdock were just one circle jerk short of a legendary bromance. In high school, they were co-captains of the math team, and both correctly answered all 17 secret, coded questions on the SAT. They trained together in “The Dungeon,” MI666’s wet work division. (This was before Murdock found Oberon’s anklet in the lost Nazi bunker and envisioned a more diabolical manifest destiny for himself.)

Charlie’s kidnapping was the predictable next step in an escalating grudge match. Murdock had snipped off Darrow’s vestigial tail when they’d dueled inside the Recalcitrant Hedge Maze, and, in return, Darrow had killed Tabitha, Murdock’s wicked stepsister wife. Not that Tabitha didn’t deserve to die an epically painful death. She’d been experimenting on innocent gnome fetuses in the rubble that had once been MIT. There she mixed her stinky protoplasmic potions in ogre skull cauldrons, trying to regenerate her shredded wings, ravaged in the Epcot Eugenics Wars. Tabitha spent her days bathing gnomic stem cells in unfiltered moon juice and dreaming of creating a master race. Darrow felt no remorse liquidating Tabitha. She’d tortured millions of fey folk in her frantic quest for power. She’d built Death Camp Narnia and was single-handedly responsible for the pixie genocide. 

Darrow wasn’t a psychopath. He was a lab rat who’d been MacGyvered into a sophisticated death machine, programmed to shape Middle Earth as MI666 saw fit. Darrow’s amygdala was reconditioned by Dungeon headshrinkers. “Empathy,” “shame,” and “regret” were only words found in a dictionary of travel phrases for a fantasy kingdom Darrow never longed to visit. Darrow felt nothing for his victims, those magical creatures whose photographs were delivered to him in manilla envelopes that smelled of bog and sulfur.

It’s hard to believe that a monster like Darrow had a part in creating a gem like Charlie. The kid worked for Habitat for Humanity for fuck’s sake. He was a social justice lawyer and a loving husband. And he was with child—early in his first trimester—carrying the fetus of the three couples he promised to honor and obey. The critter growing inside Charlie’s womb housed the best strands of six genetic blueprints, mingled together on top of an Amazon Basics HarmonyBed. The entire cul-de-sac had thrown a block party and gathered around the maypole to watch the brewing via Nest. They held hands and sang show tunes from Hamilton VII as a Tesla angel-bot prepared the impregnation broth. No, Charlie didn’t deserve to pay for his father’s sins, but Darrow cast a long shadow, and Charlie had the misfortune to be born his father’s son. 

Murdock had no intention of ransoming Charlie. After a mock trial for crimes against the altered state, Murdock executed Charlie in the Clearcut Forest and streamed a live feed on demonic TMZ. When, months later, Charlie’s severed head arrived via messenger tortoise, duct-taped to the shell, Darrow immediately called his HR rep on his “Hello, Kitty” burner phone. He was sorry to bother her in the middle of the night with personal business, but he needed to take bereavement leave and didn’t know how to code it on his timesheet. MI666’s payroll portal was hidden on the dark and stormy web, and Darrow kept fat fingering the IP address and getting redirected to panda snuff sites.

Darrow understood that this emotional disconnect from his son’s murder was freakish, even for him. Truth be told, he tried to grieve for Charlie, but the sadness never came. Darrow missed his son, of course, but the feeling was understated. His sensation of loss was situated somewhere between watching the last episode of Cheers and having to throw out a favorite pair of slippers because they smelled like cheese. Darrow suspected that his compassion’s missing chunks were submerged deep beneath the boggy swamp that was once his soul, but he could never coax them to the surface. In the days before Charlie’s virtual celebration of life inside the Fortnite meditation chapel, Darrow practiced crying. He watched Love Story over and over and afterward stood at the mirror in his bathroom, trying to mimic the sad face of Ryan O’Neal.

And what of Jukes, Charlie’s mother? Darrow hadn’t seen her since the night they’d conceived their son—and she’d witnessed Darrow smothering a paparazzi troll with a Little Mermaid-themed shower curtain. Jukes spent much of her time off-grid, trying to avoid Darrow and his violent multiverse—but the slipstream assassin continued to monitor the activities of his old flame like an upskirt security cockroach on the floor of a Target dressing room. Still, over the years, Darrow had only gathered the courage to call Jukes once, on the anniversary of their one and only venereal conjugation. Darrow was doing gin shots and cleaning his favorite Luger when the bittersweet burn of Jenever in his throat and musky scent of gun oil on the printless tips of his fingers triggered an unanticipated wave of nostalgia. Darrow dialed his satellite phone, intending to pour his heart out to his old flame. However, when he heard the terror in Jukes’ voice, Darrow lost his nerve and hung up without reciting the erotic haiku cycle he’d composed for her.

Jukes was married to that Wood Elf, the architect with the eyepatch. Darrow called him “the Pirate.” Jukes and the Pirate lived in Switzerland now. Charlie visited them during the holidays, and Darrow had a photograph of Charlie and the Pirate skiing. He’d pulled it off the Pirate’s blog with the endlessly ponderous posts about growing his own heirloom hops and designing passive solar houses in the Alps. Darrow kept the picture in a shoebox in his storage unit—the one in Nebraska that MI666 didn’t know about—along with some childhood toys, trophies of his kills, and his dead mother’s nightgown. Darrow visited the storage unit once a year to reconnect with his past. His mother had smelled of Vicks Vapor Rub and cigarettes, and Darrow sealed her nightgown in plastic to preserve the scent. Darrow had a virologist friend working in the Dungeon’s cryogenics division. She hooked him up with an argon preservation system that didn’t cost Darrow a literal arm and a leg.

Jukes and Darrow met in Copenhagen in the summer of 1982. Jukes, a rising starlet, was there to film a cop show. Darrow was moonlighting for the Alchemical IRA. They bumped into each other at a gallery on Jægersborggade. Darrow had just planted a metaphysical car bomb in an Orange Wizard’s Hummer and needed to hide in plain sight. Jukes, who was being stalked by paparazzi trolls, hoped to get lost in a crowd.

The exhibit was an interactive installation of famous literary suicides. According to the interpretive signage hanging on the wall, the artist wanted to “implicate the viewer in melancholy.” There was a Hemingway-blowing-off-his-face-with-a-shotgun display and a diorama of Sylvia Plath with her head in the oven. Darrow and Juke’s meet-cute was in front of a hyperrealistic sculpture of Virginia Woolf, her overcoat pockets ladened with stones, and about to walk into a plexiglass river glued to the floor. Gallery patrons were encouraged to empty Woolf’s pockets to save her life, and as a result, there was a makeshift cairn of rocks piled around the feet of the sculpture with notes from visitors sticking out like, “We miss you, Virginia!” and “The Waves rules!”

The two mismatched strangers soon discovered they shared both an intense hatred of pretentious conceptual art and a gallows sense of humor. Together, Darrow and Jukes loaded stones back into Virginia Woolf’s pockets and ate sushi off the Yukio Mishima seppuku sculpture. Darrow recited pi to 200 places, and Jukes told her best abusive stepfather jokes, laughing in an unpracticed way that convinced Darrow she hadn’t been this happy in a very long time. Neither of them had an inkling that, in two decades, they’d be grieving the death of a son they were yet to make.

At first, Darrow didn’t realize who Jukes was—even though her face was plastered on most of the busses in Copenhagen, looking fierce as Detective Inspector Proust of Interpol’s Memory Crime Division. When Darrow finally made the connection, he understood that he’d seriously overachieved. For her part, Jukes knew she knew Darrow was a well-chewed wad of sugarless gum in a gutter, hardly worth bending over to rescue, but she longed for one last anonymous fling before her career spiraled out of control. 

Darrow gave Jukes a backdoor tour of the city and kept aggressive autograph hounds at bay. They broke into Tivoli Gardens after hours and played hide and seek on the carousel. Juke shared essential details about her life. Why was she called “Jukes”? Because she was conceived against the jukebox in the Shire’s third-best titty bar. Darrow couldn’t be honest about what he did for a living, so he related the experiences of “Bob,” one of his cover identities, a quirky but lovable forensic accountant from Idaho, Alaska, who was in Denmark to track down some financial discrepancies at a food additive company. Darrow was hardboiled; his alias was undercooked. 

They found a midnight showing of Sophie’s Choice. They held hands in the dark and stayed through the credits, and Jukes wept, and Darrow just sat there, not really understanding what all the fuss was about. When Jukes recovered, they walked the streets for hours. She contemplated big ideas and the future and the possibility of hope, and Darrow feigned interest as best he could. Jukes spoke about her film career and how she wanted to direct eventually. Darrow, presenting as “Bob,” his threadbare but comfy cover-identity, could almost imagine an alternate, practically human future for himself. Early in the morning, they bought coffee and pastry, sat by the canal, and watched the sunrise. Then Darrow walked Jukes back to her hotel. She invited him up to her room to make sure everything was safe and secure, and Darrow ended up spending the night.

Jukes was staying in the Hans Christian Anderson Suite. She and Darrow made tenacious, greedy love atop the Princess and the Pea canopy bed. Together they caught the midnight train to Georgia. Darrow shot the sheriff (but did not shoot the deputy), and Jukes came in through the bathroom window. Afterward, they wrapped themselves in Emperors New Clothes bathrobes, raided the Thumbelina minibar, and fell asleep in each other’s arms—one like a coiled serpent fruitlessly spooning the spiraling smoke of a smoldering funeral pyre—and the other like an economy body bag cuddling the decomposing remains of a vulnerable adult.

Darrow got up in the middle of the night to take a leak and discovered a paparazzi troll crouching behind the Ugly Duckling bidet. It was there to snap pictures of Jukes in flagrante that it could peddle to the anti-matter tabloids. The troll tried to make a run for it, but Darrow grabbed the fiend by its lichen-encrusted, forked phallus, and cursed it in High Ogre. Darrow’s fluency in the sacred tongue of its people caught the troll off guard—and the frequency of that living dead language, larded with infanticidal imagery and unholy diphthongs, made coroners across the city giggle and caused atomic clocks to skip a beat. When the troll saw Darrow’s chainsaw-wielding-Mother-Goose tramp stamp—the emblem of the Storybook Assassin’s Guild—it began to cry out for the festering gestational proboscis that had shat it into existence.

Jukes heard the commotion and wandered in on Darrow. He stood there naked except for his Snow Queen slippers, smothering the troll with the Little Mermaid-themed shower curtain. Darrow smiled at Jukes, embarrassed but oddly proud, like a little boy whose mother just caught him torturing a family pet. Jukes ran and never looked back. 

As for Darrow, he was surprised to discover that as the years passed, he couldn’t seem to get Jukes out of his mind. The recollection of their time together in Copenhagen continued to haunt him almost as much as his memory of that morning he walked in on his mother soaking in the bathtub and chatted with her about the previous night’s Partridge Family episode for hours before he realized she’d overdosed on pills and grain alcohol. Darrow tried to quench the unfamiliar pang of loneliness in his gut by catching all of Jukes’ films—at the art house down the street, in foreign cities in the rain. After a kill, Darrow surfed for clips of her on YouTube. It was a ritual cleansing for him, along with eating chicken pot pie and having sexual congress with furries in abandoned zoological gardens. Darrow liked to nap with one of Jukes’ films playing in the background. That made him feel safe and cared for, like when he watched those slow TV episodes from Norway, the train journeys into the Arctic Circle that went on and on.

A decade passed before Darrow discovered that he and Jukes had conceived a child. Darrow was enjoying a post-coital blooming onion at a sports bar in Melbourne, with a web developer in a vixen raccoon fursuit, when he looked up at the flat-screen TV and saw Jukes in the middle of a press conference. She was in Australia to direct a sequel to Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. Sitting next to Jukes was ten-year-old Charlie, who was the spitting image of his old man. Darrow went through back channels to acquire a strand of the boy’s hair and then asked one of the Dungeon dweebs to run a full heredity panel. Darrow’s paternity was indisputable.

Charlie quickly became an unanticipated complication to Darrow’s already precarious life-work balance. MI666 considered children an unacceptable liability for field agents since offspring exposed its already at-risk operatives to the additional likelihood of coercion and manipulation by their numerous mythological adversaries. If Darrow’s employers discovered that he had a son, they would immediately dispatch a crew of cleaner locusts to sanitize the situation by devouring every last trace of Charlie’s existence. To keep Charlie safe, Darrow decided long ago that he would never attempt to make contact with him—although he did once tempt fate by sending the boy an unsigned Devils Tower postcard from Wyoming while on a freelance mission to steal a stuffed Jackalope from a diorama at the Yellowstone National Park interpretive center for the Smithsonian Underground.

Child support was never an issue, as Jukes, by that time, was signing multi-million dollar movie deals. Darrow learned to be satisfied with staying informed of Charlie’s life—but uninvolved. Through his AV buddies at MI666, Darrow had access to technology that could track a single louse hiding in the pubic hair of a dead orc decomposing in a dumpster in the back of a Blockbuster in Mordor. So Darrow was content to watch his son grow from a safe distance, via hidden cameras, social media, and hacked cell phone and computer accounts. Of course, Murdock’s kidnapping and subsequent execution of Charlie changed that best-laid plan.

There was one emotion that MI666 allowed Darrow, and continued to stoke in him through hypnotic nocturnal suggestion and pharmaceutical cocktails, which was a craving for vengeance. Revenge was a prime motivator for secret agents, experienced specifically by Darrow as an intense sexual hunger with notes of heartache and an aftertaste of cold eel aspic (a flavor and texture so revolting that, under normal circumstance, you’d discreetly spit the glutenous fishy wad into your napkin after gagging on it—although I know from personal experience that when the congealed jelly of retribution is warmed with the freshly splattered rheum of a nemesis you’ve just tortured, as payback for a transgression you’ve waited thirty years to redress, the cold nauseating glue wondrously transforms into the sweetest dish you’ve ever tasted. You finish every last bite with a smile on your face.)

To honor Charlie’s memory, Darrow decided he would kill Murdock, slice off his wings, and, using a particular set of skills he’d acquired over a very long career, make a commemorative mobile out of them. Like a tomcat bringing his mistress a dead mouse, Darrow would present Jukes with his trophy, hoping that the sacred offering might mend their estrangement and trigger in his one true love fond memories of that lost Danish weekend so many blue moons ago. 

And so Darrow put his affairs in order and went hunting. Off the books. Without a handler. Without MI666 logistical support or cool gizmos provided by the Dungeon’s research and development team. For his vendetta, Darrow relied on his own wits and a few trusted assets in the field: a manic pixie dream girl hacker in Budapest who supplies blueprints of Murdock’s remote island lair; a down-on-his-luck whiskey priest in Paris selling hand-crafted ammunition dipped in the tears of baby unicorns—lethal for Bad Fairies; a retired thief with early-onset Alzheimers, indebted to the Ukrainian mob over gambling debts, and looking for one last big score but can’t remember why he broke into the vault; a lovable rogue bard who, as a day job, plays the tambourine in a Monkees cover band, and basically serves as eye candy for the team until he falls on a live grenade and dies knowing his sacrifice is for a greater cause; conjoined twins, one a white druid serial killer and the other an African-American FBI ranger profiler, whose cat-and-mouse, Iago/Othello story arc gives the otherwise hackneyed plot a quasi-Shakespearean feel; a quirky centaur call girl with a heart of gold—and a photographic memory—who forges Darrow’s travel papers; and an Italian punk chick halfling with daddy issues who grew up in a Formula 1 racing family, and who, or order to see over the steering wheel, drives the getaway car sitting on a stack of ratty D&D manuals.

Darrow spent seven years tracking down the Bad Fairy King. His quest took him to the four corners of the globe. After defeating numerous minor bosses (including Stephen Hawking Ninja, Bigfoot Mime, and Mr. Rogers’ Evil Twin), Darrow faced his son’s killer in the secret catacombs beneath the Library of Congress where Ben Franklin’s grimoires are shelved. Darrow slew Murdock thrice, just as the prophecy directed, each time using a weapon forged from a different base elemental—fire, earth, wind—waiting precisely seven Babylonian lunary cycles between the kills. Murdock knew that Darrow would be employing water for the fourth and final attempt, so he stayed away from oceans, lakes, and streams. But Darrow snuck into Murdock’s man cave and poisoned his Slush Puppy machine with a blue raspberry liquid hydrogen chaser. Murdock suffered instant brain freeze, and his head shattered into a zillion bosons. The Bad Fairy King was no more.

Darrow used an 18-inch stainless steel, Anthony Bourdain-branded, cheese wire from his mother’s hermetically-sealed cookware set to cut off Murdock’s wings. He returned to the safe house and hung his trophies in the shower stall to dry, squishing the spiders, earwigs, and ticks living symbiotically in the seemingly infinite folds of the appendages with his boot as they dropped onto the ceramic floor tile, trying to escape. After curing the wings with a blow dryer and his proprietary small-batch embalming rub, Darrow began to sketch plans for a holy diptych on the membranous canvas. He was inspired to paint scenes of Charlie’s life in the lobes of the organs. The left hemisphere would depict episodes from Charlie’s past, and the right would illuminate the future milestones that Murdock had erased, celebrations and joy that were never to be. 

As he contemplated his grand project, Darrow felt, he suspected, as Michelangelo had when staring at the bare ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For decades, the hit-man had been promising himself that he would return to the artistic practice that he’d abandoned long ago. When he was just starting out in the profession, Darrow routinely crafted with body parts harvested from his prey. He recalled the day he wandered into a Marcel Duchamp retrospective in Berlin and was later inspired to glue a mark’s ear to a telephone, his two eyeballs to a pair of binoculars, and his tongue to a giant peppermint lollipop. Over the years, Darrow had made a human hair Mona Lisa, a footstool out of actual feet, and a wide assortment of tooth jewelry. He was pleasantly surprised to find himself, at his age, called once more to the sacred creative space.

Darrow went to Michaels. He bought paints and brushes. He bought a glue gun, ink pads, and glitter jumbo shakers—and wispy pine sprays, stamp kits, and stencils, pipe cleaners, designer fur, and origami paper, assorted googly eyes with lashes, and a leather-punch, and sequins. Then he holed up in his room and binged on Bob Ross for three days straight. He huffed some Mod Podge to get his imaginative juices flowing. And then Darrow got to work.

John Maurer

Brutus-esque Brutality

Quaalude prelude to a night not worth recalling
At me for not picking it up the first fifty fucking times
I am static, moving so fast I look like nothing, and then I am
I am not in this state, in this house, in this body, in this video
I don’t like gangs, that’s why I don’t like the police
always flashing their colors at me; the red and blue
When I run a felony across a state or two
I put on a license plate frame that says BLUE LIVES MATTER

So right before they pull me over, they don’t
And that’s a poem written for its audience that hasn’t realized it
Like all these young adult novels written by far from young adults
Obsessed with incestual lust and abuse of their characters
Both the type and the type that has dialogue
It is literary pedophilia and I’m just saying that
In the hopes that will piss off the right person
And they will come to my door at 4:45 AM with a Colt 45
And they will make me a gentle legend, a better Lennon

Dave Cullern

Bruised Romance

The trodden grapes
of song
unpicked me to the core,
replaced my blood
with the misjudged
adventures of teenage abandon
and runaway crime

My precious body,
no longer precious,
made free
as it had always been
before the weight
of guilt and fear
crippled my ailing spine,
pulled black teeth
from deep cavities
to rot amongst this dirty carpet
which once cushioned my feet

My chemical dreams
take route
amongst the anchors
in my kitchen drawers,
pick away
at their chains
and leave me floating
with the wild current,
shooting for the moon

I run into fire,
touch coal with calloused skin,
bruised and worn
from the journey,
lived in,
turned out,
worked over
like tenderised meat,
reddened in defeat
but all the while
this untethered beast

Leah Mueller

Confessions of a Phone Slut

If you drop out of college before you turn 20, you might end up selling sex for a living.

At least, this was true in 1979, before the internet was a prayer inside the testicles of porn entrepreneurs. Jerking off to glossy images was a man’s sovereign right. No one wondered whether the models were oppressed while off-camera.

Magnates like Hugh Hefner tried to make his Playmates seem more human by including lists of their turn-ons and turn-offs. In painstaking balloon handwriting, young women detailed such howl-inducing faults as “Men who are dirty and loud” and “stuck-up people.” No one stopped to wonder if these descriptions fit them.

Instead, guys turned up their stereos and cranked tunes like “Imaginary Lover” as they worked themselves over. Afterwards, they drove around Chicago in their Gremlins and Pacers, looking for hot pickup action in the streets.

Chicago, before the dawn of the AIDS crisis. I worked on Howard Street on the second floor of a porn sweatshop called TRA. The acronym stood for exactly nothing. Mike, the owner, just liked the way the letters looked together.

Eventually, Mike made up an ersatz female CEO for his company, a woman called Tracey. In his irritating nasal voice, he painstakingly coached me. “You must always say, “Hello, this is Tracey, what ad are you answering? If I ever find out you’re saying something else, there will be hell to pay.”

Mike placed ads in publications ranging from Playboy to the Chicago Reader. Our boss’ daily amphetamine dosage made him dream big. TRA became so popular that he drilled holes in the wall and ran additional phone lines into the building. Employees labored at mismatched desks, scooping up receivers seconds after our phones jangled.

Our crew sold lists of swingers for $25.00, women who “liked to travel to meet sexy friends.” The process of extracting callers’ home addresses proved surprisingly easy. Men with dicks in their hands seemed eager to believe that beautiful females would travel hundreds of miles to meet strangers.

I imagined their thought process. “Oh, here’s one in Iowa City. She can jump in her car and be at my place in four hours. I’ll just give her a call, tell her I’m ready.”

Mike kept hiring new women to work the phones. He hovered over us, alternately praising and criticizing our sales tactics. Each captured address netted a $2.00 bonus. This, on top of our $3.00 hourly wage, added up to a decent weekly paycheck.

No one owned a credit card, so sales were done via COD. When the postal clerk arrived, a caller’s ardor was long spent, and he’d say, “No, I don’t want this envelope. I don’t even know who ordered it. Not me. Get it the hell out of here.” But sometimes curiosity and lust prevailed, and the stupid fucker shelled out $25.00 for a worthless list of disconnected phone numbers.

As soon as Mike left the building, the fun began. Phone protocol flew out the window. My best friend Astrid was the worst of the lot. “We have hundreds of Swedish women who like to tap-dance on your floor and braid their pussy hair into tiny dolls!” she’d say brightly. Half the time, she ended up making a sale.

My co-workers and I dug inside filing cabinets and unearthed hardcore kink. I felt both horrified and titillated as I gazed at photos of sad-looking women with mousetraps hanging from their nipples.

One night, I discovered several stacks of newsletters, all written by men with saddle shoe fetishes. Deranged souls loved to share stories about jerking off while fantasizing about pleated skirts and bobby socks. I didn’t want to imagine them washing out the shoes afterwards, but how could I not?

I’d spent my adolescence in the rural Midwest, surrounded by jocks and farmers, so I should have known how fucked up men were. I avoided jocks, preferring the company of mordant intellectuals. My boyfriend Mark was a philosophy major at Eastern Illinois University. We ran away to Chicago together, and he scored a job in a bookstore. I cycled through a series of ill-fated waitress jobs, until I finally landed the porn house gig.

My shifts lasted eight hours and often seemed interminable. Men called Tracey all night long, demanding to know how they could meet sexy friends. Phone sex for hire didn’t exist yet. The clever fellows had figured out how to get it for nothing.

A particularly terrifying man called every weekend. “I’m using a vacuum cleaner on my dick.” His voice sounded timid, almost inaudible. Perhaps the powerful machine had sucked all the air from his body. I could hear a mechanized whooshing sound in the background.

“What, is it really dirty?” one of us always guffawed.

“Yes,” he replied. “Very dirty. I’ve been so bad.”

Another fellow called nearly as often, demanding that Tracey forgo her evening’s duties and come to his home for a foursome. He played a cheesy porn tape in the background while we discussed the benefits of obtaining Tracey’s list. The two actors shrieked and moaned. Every so often, the caller turned his head away from the receiver and hollered, “Would you please be QUIET? I’m on the phone!”

The Phone Sluts all had imaginary boyfriends, guys who called and asked to speak directly to us. We employed clever monikers; false names so far removed from our real ones that no one could ever figure out who we were.

My Phone Slut name was Melissa. Over time, I acquired a coterie of male admirers. I attracted brainy guys who wanted to discuss cinema and literature. They didn’t jerk off until after our conversations had ended. It was polite of them.

Though Mike had forbidden us to meet in-person with our phone boyfriends, several of us flaunted his authority and did exactly that. The Phone Sluts played a dangerous game, but it was 1979 and we felt invincible.

One night I picked up the phone and heard a low, soothing voice. Its cadence sounded almost familiar. “I’d like to meet women who are into oral sex and light bondage.” A couple of drunk men chuckled in the background. One of them dropped a bottle on the floor and cursed.

“Only light bondage?” I replied. “What are you, a wimp?”

The caller laughed. “Nothing sexier than a sense of humor. Actually, I just made that up. My name’s Paul. Tell me something about yourself.”

A week later, he called again. “Melissa, it’s Paul on the line,” one of the Phone Sluts said, giggling.

“Oh shit, he’s a goddamn alcoholic,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to him.”

I accepted the receiver anyway. A week later, Paul became my boyfriend. Mark and I had drifted apart. We didn’t have much to say to each other anymore. The porn job had turned me from a naïve girl into a cynical, angry bitch.

My new boyfriend wore a black leather jacket and owned a Fender Stratocaster. He drank quarts of beer and played scorching blues riffs, using his toilet paper spindle as a slide. Paul wasn’t an intellectual like Mark but could be quite entertaining when he wasn’t in the middle of a blackout.

Though Paul had met me via the porn house, he exhibited an inordinate amount of jealousy towards my imaginary phone boyfriends. He insisted I quit but had nothing to offer as an alternative. If I wanted to keep my independence, I needed to hold on to my sleazy gig for as long as possible.

I worked the night shift, from 5:00 PM until long past midnight. After continued practice, I developed a brisk, business-like style, one geared to attract high bonuses. My co-workers’ phone romances blossomed and developed cartoonish dimensions. Though I felt more than a bit jealous, I had my hands full with Paul.

The phone room drew a young crowd. We either rented cheap studio apartments or shared cockroach-infested flats with roommates. One of the employees, Mary, was in her mid-forties. She lived with her cop husband, a man so addled that he often called the phone room, threatening to use his vast network of police connections to shut the place down.

Mary was the most promiscuous Phone Slut of the lot. Men liked her even more than Tracey. Her phone jangled several times every night. Breathless male voices whispered, “Is Mary there?” as if they were high school boys calling an unattainable prom queen.

Mary’s favorite paramour was a man named Buddy. He called almost every evening and promised eternal love and the contents of his bank account. Buddy owned a successful gas station in rural Alabama. He adored Mary and wanted desperately to meet her. The poor man proclaimed his ardor in a loud, fervent voice, as we all covered our mouths and tried our hardest not to laugh.

There was something poignant about Buddy’s love. Also, the routine entertained us so much that we didn’t want to hasten its ending. Mary sometimes wondered whether she should egg him on, but her only other option was to go home and listen to torrents of abuse. Who could blame her for preferring a fantasy?

One night, at the end of an especially long shift, Mary’s phone rang. Without thinking, I scooped up the receiver. “Hi, this is Tracey.” My mechanical voice seemed to emanate from the other end of the room. “What ad are you answering?’

Buddy’s thick twang assaulted my eardrums. “Please, can I speak to Miss Mary?”

I thrust the receiver in my co-worker’s direction, but she shook her head. Sensing her distress, I covered the mouthpiece with one hand. “What’s wrong?” I hissed.

Mary buried her face in her palms. “I just can’t do this anymore. He bought a plane ticket and plans to come see me in Chicago next week. I don’t have the heart to say I won’t be there to pick him up at the airport. Tell him I quit or something.”

I removed my hand from the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry, Buddy,” I said, without skipping a beat. “Mary left town. We’re not sure where she went. She hasn’t been here for three days.”

Buddy emitted a low, shuddering gasp. “Oh no. Does anybody know where she lives?”

“I’m afraid not, Buddy. It’s a complete mystery. None of us really knew her.” I gazed around the phone room and noticed that several of my co-workers had collapsed on their desks, shoulders heaving with laughter. Astrid tittered, then cupped her fingers around her mouth so she wouldn’t completely lose it.

Buddy burst into noisy tears. “Oh no,” he gasped. “That’s terrible. I loved her so much. I was going to marry her next week. How could she do something like this?”

I needed to say something to ease the guy’s pain. Reaching onto Mary’s desk, I jostled a disheveled stack of porn magazines. “Wait, I just found a note.” I rustled the pages again. “It says, “To Buddy, from Mary. Hang on, let me open it.”

Buddy emitted another sob, then fell silent. “Dear Buddy,” I continued. “I am so sorry, but I cannot be with you, or with anyone. I will always love you and treasure our conversations. With my deepest love, Mary.”

The crescendo of Buddy’s sobs increased. He cried hard for a couple of minutes, stopping occasionally to catch his breath. Finally, he said, “It’s okay. I don’t know why she did this, but I still love her.”

“We don’t know either,” I intoned. “At least she left a note.”

Buddy sniffled. “Well, thanks for your help. Let me know if you hear from her. Please.”

“I certainly will. If you don’t mind, I have to go now. I’m sorry, Buddy.” I pulled the receiver from my ear and prepared to return it to its cradle.

“Wait!” Buddy cried. “I have one more question.”

I was willing to do anything to offer succor to the pathetic, deluded man. “Sure, Buddy. Go ahead.”

“What’s YOUR name?”

My job couldn’t possibly last much longer. A few weeks later, I called my boss a pimp. He told me to get the fuck out of the building, or he’d call the cops and have me arrested. Astrid grabbed her purse and quit out of solidarity. “Mike’s got some really bad karma coming to him,” she said as we fled down the long flight of stairs towards the street.

“The sooner the better,” I agreed.

Paul and I sputtered along for two years, but his drunken escapades became increasingly violent. The two of us split up on a frigid November night, and I ran barefoot to the local YMCA. Eventually, he suffered a complete breakdown and went to live with his fundamentalist Christian parents in Wisconsin.

Mike sold his business and became a fervent anti-porn crusader. I ran into him four years later on Michigan Avenue. He spotted me from a block away and dashed in my direction. I’d scored a short-term job as a horse-drawn carriage driver. As I stood on the sidewalk, shivering in my cheap overcoat and top hat, he threw his arms around me and said, “Thank you for being honest.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked, puzzled.

“You were the one person brave enough to call that place what it was. A porn house. I hated hearing you say that, but you were right. It was a filthy, horrible, disgusting business, and I’m glad to be rid of it. Thank you.”

Several years later, Mike vanished from the face of the earth. He disappeared without even leaving an electronic paper trail. Only the building on Howard Street remains, with its long stairway leading up to the office where Phone Sluts once labored over rotary phones.

Of course, the phones and the sluts aren’t there anymore. Most porn is online. People meet on Tinder and Grindr, or they watch flickering, naked images on pockmarked computer screens. So much has been lost to convenience. The porn of the 70s possessed a certain organic innocence that can never be regained.

Maybe I’ve just gotten old and moved backwards into feeble romanticism. I hope Mary divorced her shithead husband. I hope Buddy eventually found the love he wanted so much. That’s the least any of us deserve. We’re either searching for sex and calling it love or searching for love and calling it sex. In that respect, nothing has changed at all.

Joseph Farley

Behold a Pale Rider

Death is coming
upon a white horse
or driving a Camaro
or riding on a jet ski.

Death waves
and passes by.
The sweat drips
down your brow.
A smile of relief
forms on your face.

Not me. Not me.
Not this time. 
Maybe next.
But not now.

I can go on
and party and dance
or maybe just work
another day,
come home tired,
not enough energy
to fight or argue
or even watch TV.

William Taylor Jr.

The People in the Books I’m Reading

I’m at the computer with my wine
and there’s a man outside my building calling
the name of someone he’ll never see again
as the drunk poets send me messages 
telling me how they’re sad
about their latest poems not getting 
enough likes and shares
and how they’re sad about their unrecognized genius 
and their unreviewed books
one tells me of an old lover’s suicide
as she spills wine across faded letters
another hasn’t slept for days, says she’s enslaved 
by the phases of the moon
Eddy’s muse has skipped town and Jenny’s scared 
about 30 days in rehab
Anna’s stopped drinking and found god
she tells me this time for good
Frank’s checking himself into the psych ward
and they took his dog away
Angry Face is mad because I haven’t 
read his manuscript
and the people in the books I’m reading 
are all setting things on fire and committing suicide
it’s a bad night all around and I can’t 
do much for any of it. I’m sad, too
I have my own dead lovers and unreviewed books 
and now they’re putting the guy outside
into the back of a car as I gaze into
the flashing lights and pour another wine
and when I sit down to answer one of the sad messages
I tell my poet friend not to worry too much
they’ll cancel us all eventually.

Matt Amott

Steady Rhythm

Liking music, 
depends on perspective.
Years ago there was college band
and their latest album
was going to break big.
Everyone liked them
but I just couldn’t,
nothing seemed to click.

While hanging out
at this woman’s house
she put the record on.
She explained 
the first track,
the haunting guitar
and the social
conscious lyrics
but still 
I wasn’t moved.
She pointed out
how the rythme
is just so steady.
she also added,
that it’s a good 
blow job song.

We played it again
with the lights out
while she proved
her point.

By then,
It was starting
to grow
on me.

Joe Surkiewicz

No Goddam Androids

Stenciled in black letters on the frosted glass of my office door was “Adam Murky/Investigations.” 

Scrawled on a sheet of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven taped below was a footnote, “No Goddam Androids.”

Not that it made a difference.

The door opened and wowie zowie. It’s a dame, all curves and shoulder-length blond hair, who sauntered into my seedy office. I swept the nearly completed jigsaw puzzle to the floor and settled back.

She nestled her haunches in the chair across from my desk and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “It’s my husband. I think he’s—”

“Are you human?”

“What does this look like, glycol?” she shot back, offering the damp wad.

“So you think he’s seeing another woman?”

She looked puzzled. “Not at all. He went out for a pack of cigarettes week before last and never came back.”

“Was there anything unusual in his manner?” I asked. “His mood or disposition—anything different?”

Forefinger to chin, she closed her eyes. ‘Yes, there was,” she said. “It just occurred to me. He doesn’t smoke.”

Now I had her. 

“Duh, cigarettes were banned by the Global Warming Reform Act enacted by President Thunberg more than a decade ago,” I snarled.

I stepped around the desk. “Okay, lady, you’re going to stand for an inspection. There’s no second way.”

I yanked her to her feet, ripped her bodice and grabbed her left boob. A twist to the right and it swung open like a bank safe.

Her blubbering stopped. “Press star nine to reset,” she recited in a monotone. “Press star nine to reset….”

I entered a different code, swung her boob closed and pushed her back in the chair.

Her eyes took a moment to refocus. Then she looked at me, bewildered. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Fix your bra, honey, you’re hanging out.”

She scanned my squalid office as she made the adjustments. “Is this where I pay my gas and electric?”

“If only, baby,” I said, sliding the credit card reader across the desk. “Twelve hundred smackeroos and we’ll get those triple pane windows on order. Only a down payment, of course.”

She inserted her card and tapped in a code. “When can I expect delivery?”

“It’s on the way,” I said, and stood up. “Just like you. Don’t let the door hit that shapely ass on the way out.”

She stood in the doorway, started to say something, thought better of it, and sauntered down the hall.

Fucking androids. It’s a helluva way to make a living, but someone has to do it.

Alan Catlin

Prairie Fires

She looked as
if she’d spent
her formative
years as a bare
backed rider
of pale horses
whipped to
a lathering
frenzy those
full moon
nights of demon
lovers, banshee
wails & ghost
coyote songs,
tone poems for
a restive soul 
in perpetual wet
heat, summer
storms never
far from her
gloss tainted
lips, blue
shaded eyes,
hooded, barely
contained pale
tints of prairie