Joe Surkiewicz

Almost Heaven

“I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Solved a life problem.”

“That makes me so happy. Fill me in.”

“That would be more along the lines of a confession.”

“All ears on this end.”

“It involved a man.”

“This has a familiar ring.”

“Not for long. This was not a regular man or the kind of man you would associate with me. This was a man who was part of a substrata.”

“A problem man.”

“To put it mildly.”

“Was he from West Virginia?”

“I refuse to characterize people on their origin. But, yes, since you ask.”

“You’re so close to Almost Heaven in your part of Appalachia. Easy guess.”

“I like West Virginians. Some very attractive, smart, educated folks.”

“But not all. Substrata.”

“You could say sub-substrata. I refuse to use the H-word, but it gives the flavor.”

“Inbred. Crude. Illiterate. What we used to call a hillbilly.”

“An offensive word. But you’re on the right track.”

“Did you meet this particular man during your official duties at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources?”

“Yes and no. I never met him. I saw him. A lot.”


“Thirtyish. Long stringy hair and a ZZ Top beard. Over two hundred pounds. Bib overalls. No shirt. Muck boots.”

“He’d follow you?”

“He’d show up a couple times a week, in town, on the job.”

“Did he do anything?”

“Watched me.”

“You ignored him?”

“At first. Then I thought, this is absurd. Confront him. Ask him what he’s doing. So I did.”


“He walked away. It irritated me, so I took his goddamn picture with my phone. I made some discrete enquiries and finally found out who he was.”

“Do I need to know his name?”

“You don’t. The guy was, not sure the right word, ominous. Creepy. I got convinced that his big lurking presence, licking his lips, his hairy shoulders and bare arms, that he had nothing on under those filthy overalls.”

“You’d see him in the woods?”

“He’d just appear. Never said anything. Never stopped looking.”

“Just a wild guess, but did this guy have a record?”

“Sex crimes going back to juvenile. Peeping. Indecent exposure. Public masturbation.”

“Find out anything else?”

“Not much. Seasonal worker, brush hogging, lumberjacking, worked in this part of the state a lot. But I didn’t report the stalking.”

“Why not?”

“It’s hard enough being one of only three women rangers in western Maryland. Gotta protect the image. And I’d rather take care of my own problem.”

“You’re armed, right?”

“Nine millimeter Beretta. That’s why he never did anything but watch. But I had a feeling, a conviction really, it was only a matter of time.”

“So you got proactive?”

“Ever see a bear trap?”


“Big steel cage eight feet long, three feet in diameter, solid steel on top and bottom, wire mesh on the sides, bars on each end like a jail cell. A bear smells the bait, goes in, gate closes, bear trapped.”


“Bears are wary, it takes a while. But it’s awesome when it happens. Six hundred pounds, pissed off, throwing itself against the bars.”

“You check the traps periodically?”

“It’s one of the wonders of the job. Where else can you work outdoors, beautiful mountains, and see things real close-up, like a wild bear in a trap—something almost no one else will ever see?”

“This guy, this perv, he’d follow you while you’re checking the traps?”

“It’s an ongoing program—trapping problem bears that break into cabins and tear up trash cans and chicken coops. We trap and relocate them, in the spring especially. They’re hungry and mean. I knew he’d show up at a site.”

“Lemme guess. You lured him into a bear trap and released him where he won’t bother you anymore.”

“Thought about it. But how do you get a guy who grew up in the woods into a bear trap?”

“What if you’re the bait?”

“Thought about that, too. Show a little ankle, he clambers in after me, I put a bullet into him. But think about it. Firing a nine millimeter handgun in a steel box? Too loud. Too messy. A lot of explaining to do after.”

“You’re past the point of ignoring the guy.”

“It got worse. He showed up at my cabin, standing on the other side of the road across from my driveway. That takes me past mildly annoyed straight into pissed. I jumped out of the car and poof, he’s gone. I heard a four-wheeler start up back in the woods.”

“I’m gonna guess that was the last straw.”

“I can’t live like that, looking over my shoulder all day all night. Time to solve the problem. And without repercussions.”

“Next time you see him in the woods, put a bullet in him.”

“Easier said than done. I’d do it if he attacked me, of course. But that has its risks. He’s big. He could take me by surprise. Rape me, murder me. I can’t wait for that and I don’t want to get into a homicide, even if it’s self-defense.”

“Okay, what?”

“It went down like this. I’m checking a trap and we got one. Big brute, snarling, shaking the trap. It’s almost dancing across the forest floor, the bear is so pissed and hungry. I head to the truck to report it, get assistance, and there he is. Next to a big oak, staring at me. He shrugs the shoulder straps off and his overalls drop. Guess what? No underwear.”

“I’d a shot him.”

“Fun fact. The safest place when you release a bear is on top of the trap. Bear shoots straight out and keeps going, usually after the first thing it sees.”

“In this case?”

“A naked redneck with a four-inch pecker hopping through the woods, his overalls down around his ankles.”

“Problem solved?”

“Problem solved.”

Vapor Vespers: Sex

Vapor Vespers Return with Double-Sided Single of Audacious Sonics and Spoken Word, You Changed and Sex

New York Multi-Instrumentalist Sal Cataldi (aka Spaghetti Eastern Music) Continues Partnership with Alaskan Playwright Mark Muro on More Triptastic Slams of Storytelling and Genre-Skipping Sounds

New York/Anchorage, August 18, 2021 –  It’s a sonic funhouse that draws upon everything from Fripp & Eno ambient and Krautrock to Miles Davis acid-funk-jazz and baroque classicalism. These varied sounds are conjured as soundtracks to spoken word ruminations that are part Eric Bogosian hyper-monologue, Bukowski poetry slam and, occasionally, politically incorrect Rudy Ray Moore party record bawdy. 

This is the world of Vapor Vespers, the edge- and button-pushing transcontinental collaboration between acclaimed NYC & Hudson Valley-based multi-instrumentalist Sal Cataldi (aka Spaghetti Eastern Music) and Alaskan playwright, actor and slam poet Mark Muro.   Drawing inspiration from music-powered spoken word icons like John Cooper ClarkeThe Last Poets and Lord Buckley, Vapor Vespers unwrapped their saucy stew with One Act Sonix, their critically buzzed-about 2020 debut album on Bad Egg Records. 

Now the duo is returning with a double-sided single that ups the ante on the cool grooves, guitar riffage and narrative absurdity, You Changed and Sex.  The two tracks, available today on streaming services including Spotify and Bandcamp, are a sneak preview to their sophomore album, slated for winter 2021.

You Changed is high-energy funk-jazz of the Ornette Coleman Prime Time/harmolodic variety. Its galloping funky beat, snappy clavinet accents and dueling snaky lead guitars propel Muro’s caffeinated rant about an actress friend who’s now too cool for school and their friendship. “You used to be nice, you used to be normal, you used to be my friend, then you suddenly changed… You started wearing vinyl pants and blowing kisses to strangers… You called me a sad sirloin burger…You wanted to be interesting, so you rented a wolf, had your elbows pierced, bought a stuffed owl and went to the opera dressed as a mermaid!”

On Sex, Cataldi’s soundtrack is a slow-creep electro modal blues reminiscent of latter-day Jeff Beck, one on which Muro sleepily riffs couplets that illuminate what sex is.  “Sex is a big basket of shiny red apples and a good sharp knife… Sex is a time bomb under your seat and a dog sleeping at your feet… Sex made a monkey out of Darwin and a man outta King Kong… It’s how I got here and how I wanna go.”   

For more visit, and Vapor Vespers’ Spotify page.

Casey Renee Kiser

B U R N 

I fell in love with a con man
He conned me outta some smiles 
and a few flighty years
a storyteller never allows a single smile
to go to waste
He tried to steal my spine
cause he didn’t have his own
I thought I heard him roar once
Turns out,
it was just the television
He’s got fire in his birth chart –
a flirty, flaunting Leo is a good time
But this particular would-be king
is fueled by some quite
passion – that tiny
 jawbreaker heart 
on fire
destroys everything in its path
like a bowling ball knocking down the girls
blazing down the alley
with a passive aggressive ball drop

And a cowardly lion is no match
for me
I was born year of the dragon
My soul came prepared
but thanks for the story, man
I am grateful for every lie, every smirk,
every knife in my back, 
every spine-stealing intention that I easily
I will use it all wisely
The Devil can only hold the power 
we give away

He gonna learn now 
about that four-letter word 
that he loves so much
And I wonder, then
will he take the time out
to look through his inner 
child’s eyes
at the wonder of the

Judge Santiago Burdon

Who Doesn’t Like Strawberries

“What do you mean I don’t have any future left,” I asked her. “I’ve used it up? How is that even possible?”

I had no clue as to what she was even talking about. It was a challenge just to listen to her rant with the monster hangover I was nursing. Now I had to make sense of what the Hell she meant by her statement. Please just shoot me my dear and put me out of your misery.

“You’ve spent it,” she said. “You’re overdrawn. Similar to a cat using all nine lives, only it’s your destiny I’m referring to. It’s been wasted, squandered, and mismanaged. Kismet has given up, thrown in the towel. Get it smart guy?”

She motions, pointing to her head while making the goofy face of an idiot.

“Besides, your checkered past clashes with my pastel-colored future, so this relationship or whatever it is, has reached its end.”

“So help me to understand what you’re saying. The fate of my future was that I would run out of destiny. I am without any tomorrows because I’ve used them up in my yesterdays? Fate is determined at birth. My destiny however is determined by my actions. Have you joined the Church of Scientology again? Is this your Thetan talking? You’re sounding a lot like my mother, only she’d mix in some Jesus shit and top it off with some mystic witchy stuff.”

Why is it when relationships end, it always deteriorates into name calling with intention to cause emotional scars? I would much rather walk away knowing the time we spent together was a wonderful ride that just ran out of road. All this screaming and assigning blame is just vindictive, but we can’t help falling into it time and time again.

“And there it is, Mr. Negative putting down a religion he knows nothing about.”

“Hey I’ve done my research and have developed an opinion based on deductive reasoning,” I argued. “Did you know L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction author before establishing the Church of Scientology? Gives you an idea of how he came up with the doctrine for the religion. You sincerely believe you are an extraterrestrial being? You want to know what really bothers me, is who goes around calling themself L. Ron Hubbard? I find it extremely pretentious using an initial for your first name. Why? Doesn’t he like the name the ‘L’ represents? Are we supposed to guess the name? Does he think it adds an air of mystery about him? It’s like E.E. Cummings or T.S. Eliot, what the fuck is that all about. And why is it that if I’m not in favor of or dislike something, it means I’m being negative? You didn’t like The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down, which is one of my favorite films, and I didn’t give you any shit about it. You don’t like strawberries, do I accuse you of being a negative person because of your dislike of strawberries? No, I never said anything. Now that I think about it, it should’ve been a clue to your own negative demeanor. Who doesn’t like strawberries?”

“How the hell did we get to talking about this shit? I’ll admit Santiago, you do have a talent for twisting a conversation into some obscure subject. But I can’t do this anymore. You should have seen this coming.” 

“How could I have seen it coming? I can’t determine my future if there isn’t any. Let’s not do this. If you are no longer enamored with me please just say so and leave it at that. There’s no need for this destructive rhetoric, it’s not a healthy or worthwhile practice. Also, this isn’t my first breakup, so I’m sort of an expert. I’ve become immune to the derogatory dialogue and insults.”

“I’m more than sure of that. You’re a professional when it comes to this. Of course you’ve built up an immunity after all the relationships you’ve sabotaged.” 

There’s no winner in these types of frays. I’m truly sorry she has built up such loathing for me. However I’m completely without any clue as to what the hell happened here. It seemed to me we were enjoying each other’s company just yesterday. Maybe she’s on her… no, I’m not going to say it. Really? Y’all want me to mention that possibility during this argument? I’m at times a bit dense when dealing with women, but I have learned there’s never a right time to ask the wrong question or to answer truthfully when asked your opinion, especially concerning her appearance. All women want you to lie, it’s one of the many unwritten laws of relationship survival. And all of you want to see me persecuted. You heartless bastards. You’ll have to wait for your sick entertainment at my expense in some other story.

“I’m still without a clue as to your sudden decision to break up with me. I do want you to know I cherish you. You are the complete package and the man that wins your heart is truly fortunate.”

“Stop with the sweet talk. I’ve practiced this dissertation for quite awhile. My mind is made up.” 

‘Well that’s disheartening to hear. How long have you been practicing?”

“I’m sorry Santiago, I don’t mean to act like such a bitch. I feel so… I don’t know… I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I’m more disappointed than hurt. I need to know the reason. Let’s not make this any more unpleasant than it already has become. I think it’s better we don’t continue with spilling any more bad blood.”

“I’ve got one question I would appreciate you answering honestly,” she said. “I found your passport in your blazer when I took it to the dry cleaners and I looked inside. You have been everywhere in Central and South America as well as Mexico numerous times in the past three years. Then I found a second passport from Canada with a different name, your picture and the same destinations. What’s up with you? What kind of work do you do? You disappear for days with no communication then appear back without an explanation. You always speak Spanish when you’re on the phone. And that friend of yours, that Donny Rico guy, there’s something seriously wrong with him. He is definitely mentally ill, no joke. Have you ever looked into his eyes? They are so empty without a spark of life in them. He’s definitely an alcoholic and a drug addict as well. What do you see in him?” 

“It’s Johnny, not Donny.” 

“What? You lied about his name?” 

“No, you misinterpreted his name. Johnny is my friend, my only friend and would never hurt anyone I was associated with. I never made condescending comments about your psycho bitch friends. Talk about basket cases, they’re the most judgmental, self-righteous, backstabbing, delusional and evil women I’ve ever encountered. Johnny has always been polite and respectful to you, isn’t that true?”

She nods her head yes.

“And your friends treat me like a leper. What am I doing? I’m beginning to get defensive.”

“So what’s up with you? What do you do for work? Are you going to tell me or not?”

“Why is it of any concern to you now? Since we are no longer together, I don’t feel I owe you any explanation. And I’m feeling a bit violated that you invaded my privacy.”

“Why is it such a big secret? What, are you a spy? A secret agent like James Bond? Santiago please, just because I’m pretty doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”

She opens a drawer in the desk then hands me the two passports.

“Do you want to know what I think?”

“No, not at all. I’m not interested. In fact I should begin packing up and find a place to stay.”

“You don’t have to leave immediately, tomorrow morning will be fine. I’m not going to kick you out until you’ve found a place.”

She sits down next to me on the sofa and grabs my hands.

“I asked my cousin Rodney. He’s an officer with Border Patrol, and he said most likely someone with that type of background with multiple passports is probably a drug dealer or someone smuggling contraband of some kind.”

“You asked who, what about me? Are you fucking insane? Your cousin is a federal officer? You didn’t! You can’t be serious.”

“He’s not like a real cop or anything like that, he’s Border Patrol.”

“Well, tell all the guys doing time for drug busts that Border Patrol aren’t real cops.”

“I didn’t mention your name or give him any information that would implicate you. Listen, I know you’re a drug dealer. Not the kind that sells to people out in the streets. No, you’re one of those movie type characters dealing in the big stuff. There’s a name for them but I can’t think of it right now.”

“What, you mean like narco traficante?”

What the fuck is wrong with me? I leave my passports in my jacket for her to find, and now I identify myself as a drug trafficker. Damn I’m a real tough nut to crack, and to top it off, I’m in a relationship with a woman who has a federal police officer in the family. 

“Yes! Yes, that’s it, narcotics guy. Well, are you? Tell me, I promise not to tell anyone. Please. It’s hard to believe because I’ve rarely seen you do drugs and you never seem to have much money. Tell me!”

“Well that’s just goddamn great! You’re a real piece of work. If I was a drug dealer, you would be in deep shit right now. Believe me, you’d be on someone’s hit list. What the fuck were you thinking? I’m packing up and leaving now. My work never mattered for the eight months we’ve been together, why has it become such an issue now?”

“Why are you so upset? If you aren’t a trafficker, there should be nothing to worry about. This is the reason I’ve decided to end our relationship. You are a mystery, I still don’t know who you are after being together for over a year, not eight months, genius. Sometimes I watch you while you’re sleeping and it seems you  never relax, your body is always jerking and twitching. I wonder if you’re chasing after butterflies or being chased by some monster, in your dream. When your son Nigel visited at Christmas, he told the story of how all of your children were afraid to wake you from sleeping because you would abruptly jump up with your fists clenched in an aggressive posture. So they would use a broom handle and poke you from a safe distance then run out of the room. Everyone thought it was hilarious and laughed, except me. I thought it was sad thinking about what would cause someone to react that way. I asked Nigel later that night and he told me about your childhood with your father and your time in prison. Santiago, the reason for me ending our relationship is that I’m falling in love with you. Why I said you have no future is that you seem to live only for the day, for the hour, for the right now. You don’t ever talk or make plans for the future or for our future. I feel lost, need some security in my life. Who knows what could happen with the life you lead. You’re here one moment and then you vanish in a flash. You could be killed, busted, or decide to just never come back, leaving me all alone. How has anyone ever been able to risk a relationship with you? Oh, that’s right, they’ve all given up. Don’t you want a mellow life, a safe place, a home with someone who will be there for you, to take care of you, someone to love you?”

“And where could I find such a person? Besides, maybe I’m not sure if that type of life is what I want at this time. I did the marriage thing, the house, the eight to five job, the family. I failed miserably at all of it. I’m grateful that my children were able to survive the fiasco, coming through it mostly unscathed. I’m not in favor of doing it all over again. The good side of having made a mistake is that you know when you’re doing it for the second time.”

“Tell me what it is you are searching for in life. What do you want?”

“What do I want? I want a woman with the faint taste of cocaine on her lips. A kiss that takes my breath away. A cool summer breeze in her touch. Her hair with the smell of a far off rain, skin smooth like a river stone. Her laughter, the sound of church bells at midnight, ocean waves splashing in her eyes, a hint of confession in her lies, her breath with the aroma of oven-baked bread and can throw a mean punch.”

“Get out! Now go, you son of a bitch!”

Those were the last words I heard her speak. I packed my things and left as requested, then called up Johnny Rico.

“Thanks for picking me up, Johnny. I knew things wouldn’t work out with her. It’s all for the best. She’s got a cousin or an uncle who’s Border Patrol. Then she tells him about my passports and my travels for the last few years to Mexico and Colombia. And to end it all, she called me a son of a bitch. Can you believe that shit?”

“No way? I know your mother was a very nice lady. Maybe you should want me to get rid of her for you? Make the problem go away.”

“What the hell is wrong with you, Rico? Have you been watching movies again, Scarface or Blow? No, I don’t want you to do anything to her. You got it?”

“Yo entiendo. But I never like that womens. She always stares at me real strange. She kinda freaked me out. I’m happy you’re not with her anymore.” 

“Where did you get this car?” I asked him. “Why aren’t you driving the van we used for the run?”

“Well, somewhere I lose the keys, and the rental guy can’t come till tomorrow with new keys. So I borrow this ride from the hotel parking garage.”

“You stole this car?”

“No, I borrow it to pick you up!”

“Oh Rico! What am I going to do with you?”

“Why? What you wanna do?”

Daniel S. Irwin

Writer’s Block

Yeah, well, nothing comin’ to mind
With a major case of writer’s block.
So I scratched out my obituary,
In case they might need it sometime.
Hard tellin’ what non-descript crap
They’d put down on their own.
When Mama died, the funeral man
Said a good paragraph in the paper
Cost three dollars, a one liner was free.
Sister said, “We’ll take the free one.”
Moron!  Mama not worth three bucks
To put a decent spiel of a send off?
Got mine done, all nice and colorful.
Then added some crazy shit for a laugh.
I got no 100% DNA match with Godzilla,
Ain’t never partied in Lennon’s tomb,
And I am no longer wanted in France.
Whoa, better check on that last one.
Then I up and lost the thing somewhere,
Maybe at the laundromat or some bar.
Anyway, somebody found it and, hey,
It made the top spot on the obit page
Of the local weekly chronical.  Ring.
“Hello?  No I ain’t dead you sick bastard.
And you still owe me that twenty bucks.”

HSTQ: Summer 2021

horror, adj. inspiring or creating loathing, aversion, etc.

sleaze, adj. contemptibly low, mean, or disreputable

trash, n. literary or artistic material of poor or inferior quality

Welcome to HSTQ: Summer 2021, the curated collection from Horror, Sleaze and Trash!

Featuring poetry by Damian Rucci, Jon Bennett, John Tustin, Paul Tanner, Daniel S. Irwin, Mather Schneider, J.J. Campbell, Tohm Bakelas, Willie Smith, Kristin Garth, David J. Thompson, Danny D. Ford, Michael Lee Johnson, Aimee Nicole, Wolfgang Carstens, Jason Melvin, Mela Blust, James Diaz, and John Yohe.

Get your FREE ebook here!

J.J. Campbell

a lucrative business

i had a dream
i started a lucrative
business writing
suicide notes for
those who could
never find the
right words
everything was 
going great until
my shrink asked 
me if i was simply 
avoiding writing
my own note
the dream started
to fade from there
and i asked myself
what ever happened
to the dreams about
the beautiful women
i woke up laughing
that fucking shrink
doesn’t know i wrote
my note years ago
just waiting for it 
to get published

Timothy Arliss OBrien

I Fucked God and I’d Do It Again

1. You Called Me Beautiful First.

We always flirted, and you said God had picked this friendship, me, for you.

If that’s not seduction, I don’t know what else it would be you did to me.

It’s insane how much we flirted in Bible college,

And I should have sucked your cock instead of Shane’s.

You always talked about showing me God’s love, but I wanted yours.

I dreamed for months of your love squirting hot wet into my mouth, and laying with you in the secret sweat that could’ve cost us everything.

But now your dumbass has a wife and nasty little crotch goblin.

And I’m sure Shane is still somewhere lying to himself, and luring in more secret sexual conquests to fulfill his need while trying not to blow his cover as a filthy religious heterosexual zealot.

Things could have been different if we had just quit pretending and stopped lying to god and ourselves.

Thanks for nothing.

2. Dust in the Hull of a Ship.

Dusty left a violence in my heart I can’t scrub.

There’s no way to mop away his soot and pretend that friendship didn’t fuck me up.

The “Belief Lovers” cling to their holy books in their boats and spit onto those below them,

And being better than others is such an isolating lowly place I don’t understand how they mistake heaven for the hell they live in inside their hearts.

I am holy, and beautiful, created in God’s image,

Even when I’m tripping acid slurping on dick after dick and shoving my cock in some cum thirsty twinks for hours.

God is now dead and if we need miracles we have to be our own saints. 

3. Fuck God

I killed god and I’d do it again.

I fucked his lifeless body and swallowed all his cum.

I sit on his throne and masturbate on all his children.

I’ve burned all his books and given myself tattoos with all the ashes.

I am heaven now and when you die you enter my orgasm.

Don’t try to save me because at this point you should worry more about your own salvation.

You’re a hypocrite, no one will love your homophobic little black heart, and you will never know god.

Be cursed for all eternity and when you are cold in the dirt I’ll have a little orgy and give myself a golden shower on your grave.


Willie Smith

Some Zero Game

Sat on a bench on the edge of a lawn,
nursing lemonade with gin, 
toying with memory’s engine.
Why is yes minus es. Memory of
an echo echoes in the memory. 
Swallows desolate the colonnade.
A distant couple’s berating passes out of hearing.
Little boys in the shadows 
spit machineguns.
A bat slices the air, 
reverberating in the ear. 
Stars not yet there 
in the purple poise. The gears, 
the worms, the shifts, the buttons 
down the suit disappear. This early fall 
early evening suits itself, leaves 
blowing across the lawn 
like leaves 
blowing across the lawn,
the soul the sole remains.