J.J. Campbell

such luxuries

a parade of rain

high heels on a 
freshly tiled floor

like fingernails 
digging into 
your back

this is why you 
work the extra 

so, you’ll be able 
to afford such 

the pain is a gift

enjoy, lean in

with any luck
she’ll give you 
a discount

another punch 
on the card

three more visits 
and you’ll actually
get to use your hands

John Tustin


It’s another night where it’s too hot
But not so hot that I can comfortably 
Sleep naked
So I don’t sleep and the fan overhead
Whispers almost imperceptibly 
Whir whir whir whir whir

Tomorrow will be another morning
With either the sun like a cudgel
Coming down on my body
Or the rain an endless rasp of tears
Crying down to the oblivious earth
Or, worst of all, both alternating

Sometimes I think no one wants me
Sometimes I can’t be alone enough
Sometimes I wonder when they’ll come 
To get me
And now I can hear them trying to get
Deep inside

They’re in they’re in
I feel like they’ve gotten in

They’re going to kill me because they think
I know too much
And I want to die
Because I think I know nothing

I’m floating in the river of shit
I feel right at home

I’m falling asleep

Danny D. Ford

Waiter Poem #10

you hear all sorts
in kitchens
tall tales
of chefs
their hands first
fire! fire! fire! 
mythical sirens
wailing through the ages
passed from employee
to employee
you hear 
of elite professors
& their imaginary dogs
about train drivers
speed stripping naked
of fathers pretending 
to be homeless
about the seemingly homeless
out of breath 
& blotched red 
losing their clothes
in the name 
of Christmas 

you hear of spice girls
in hotel rooms
& second hand 
cars that come with 
dinner plate sized 
of charge
you hear 
all sorts
of weird ass shit

and sometimes
you hear something useful
about wine

Harley Claes

The Divide

I want to taste the perfume of your mouth 
until I go numb with pleasure and pain
I have become
An echo of past reckoning
The un-being of a person
Pleasured by my own undoing
By a boy with a vendetta
Against the many wombs
Who conspired against him 
and his brotherly abode
In the world of men this was an unspoken treaty
That man and woman
Lived on separate islands
Bridged between their only similarity
The sex:
That new beginning

Brian Fugett


 Tuesday. Mostly sunny. High of 92 degrees. Enough humidity to sink an aircraft carrier. A man has no business drinking coffee in this weather; it’s murder. But here I am sweltering in this dingy little truck stop, knocking back coffee number three, waiting on a hot little broad/number who calls herself Ekko. I’m pretty damn sure that’s not her real name, especially since I first met her in an internet chat-room. You know how that goes. 

Ekko is a nineteen year old, peanut butter blonde endowed with a perfect set of 34 C’s. I met her in an internet chat room three weeks ago. 

I glance at my watch and scan the joint one last time. The place is swarming with truckers, bikers, and Mexican itinerant workers. All of them full of hard looks as they feast upon heaping stacks of flapjacks and ham steaks. I can feel their eyes on me, probing me, sizing me up. I must look like a foreigner to them, sitting here decked out in my Armani suit and tie. Shit, listening to them talk in their cryptic CB lingo about Harleys and rest-stop whores makes me FEEL like a foreigner. I don’t think we even speak the same language.  Why the fuck Ekko picked this place to meet is beyond me.  

I knock back the remainder of my coffee. Meanest fucking brew I’ve ever had. The shit scours my bowels like a fiberglass enema. Gonna’ take a quart of Mylanta to douse that fire. I wave down the waitress and order a tall glass of chocolate milk with a matching donut. 

A minute later she shuffles back with the grub, and just as I take a bite, I notice the woman outside peering in the window. Shit, just to look at her: the ski-mask, the trench coat, the burgundy moon boots with feathers tacked to them; it’s the kind of exquisitely creepy fashion ensemble that announces, “Look at me! I’m psycho!” 

I watch as the strange woman scans the place, her eyes slowly drifting from one table to the next. I try to avert my gaze but it’s too late. She catches me watching her and the edges of her eyes pucker as if she is trying to place me. She taps the window and waves. A bit unsure, I point to myself and mouth “who me?”

The woman nods.

I reply with a tense wave, hoping like hell that will be the end of it.

No such fucking luck. 

The strange woman darts for the entrance, eyeing me the entire way, then shuffles inside. As she weaves her way through the maze of tables and booths, my body shudders with the nauseating realization that this is Ekko, the woman who was supposed to be here two hours ago. I take a deep breath and brace myself for the impending drama.

Ekko seats herself across from me, plucks the donut from my plate, wipes off the chocolate frosting, and slams it onto the table.

 “Damn, another breakfast murdered,” I remark. “Does this mean we’re still not on speaking terms?”

A tense silence prevails. Then very slowly, she presses a finger to her lips.

“Shhh…listen to the echo,” she whispers, tilting her head to the side as if straining to catch some distant voice. That’s her quirky little way of greeting people. She thinks it’s clever. I, on the other hand, think it’s annoying.

 “Come on Ekko, cut the bullshit charade. Okay? Just tell me what this is all about.”

She stares vacantly at the ruined donut for a moment then fishes a Marlboro from her pocket, lights it, and lets the smoke tumble from her lips. “Nathan…I have a slight problem.”

 “No shit? The whole ski mask and moon boot ensemble was my first clue. You look like a fugitive from the fucking loony bin. Why don’t you take that ridiculous mask off?

 “Can’t do that, Nathan.”

 “Why the hell not? Is it stapled to your head or something?”

“Just forget it. You wouldn’t understand.”

 “Wouldn’t understand? Come on babe, try me.”

She shifts restlessly in her seat, takes another hit from the cigarette, then leans in close as if imparting a dark, shameful secret. “I lost something when we were fooling around at that motel last Wednesday.”

“What do you mean ‘lost something?’ You promised me you weren’t a virgin.”

“NOT my VIRGINITY, you arrogant cockhead.”

 “What then?”

 “My right nostril.”

“I’m sorry, run that by me again.”

 “I lost my right nostril.”

I take a deep breath and hold it for a moment, fighting like hell not to laugh. “Is that why you’re wearing the mask?”

She nods.

Unable to contain my amusement, I reach across the table and pull the old “got your nose” trick, jamming my thumb between my fingers. “Hey look, here it is. I found it.”

 “I’m being serious,” she hisses, extinguishing her cigarette on the donut between us.

“Okay, fine. Let me see your nose.”

 “No. It’s too hideous.” She hangs her head shamefully.

 “Ekko honey, you just don’t lose a nostril like you do a set of car keys. It’s physically impossible. Maybe you need professional help.”

 “I don’t need professional help. I need YOU, Nathan. Please spend the night with me.”

 “Fuck that! You know I can’t. My wife is onto us, Ekko. She found those e-mails you sent. Her and I have been fighting for three days straight because of them. I got two kids to think about. I can’t put them through this. It’s not fair.” 

 “What are you saying?”

 “I’m saying you and I are gonna’ have to cool it for a while.”

 “Please don’t do this, Nathan. I can’t bear to be without you.”

 “I’m sorry, but I told you once things started to get ugly that it was over. It’s not fair to my family.”

 “Your family? What about me? Can’t you see I’m pining away for you? Every day we are apart I lose a little more of myself.”

Don’t know if it’s all the bad coffee or the humidity, but I start to feel dizzy and disoriented and everything suddenly seems so unreal, Ekko, the mask, the missing nostril, the burly truckers, even the ruined donut. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want this over with. “Listen Ekko, I got an eleven o’ clock appointment. I really have to go.”

I rise to leave and she snatches me by the wrist, yanks me back into my seat.

 “Don’t leave me,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. She strokes my hand for a moment, then flies into a nervous rage and begins clawing at her head and pounding on the table.

 “Shit Ekko, calm down. People are staring.”

She shakes her head and sneezes violently three times. A rope of blood and snot streams through the mask, oozes to the table.

 “Oh god. I can’t breath. I can’t catch my breath,” she mutters, fumbling through her pockets. A bottle spills from her hand, scattering tiny yellow and green pills across the table. I try to help her, but she pushes me away. Then she cuts loose with a dreadful howl and buckles to the floor, a motionless heap of trench coat, snot and blood.

A creepy stillness grips the joint. I can feel anxious eyes probing me from every direction.  I plunk a $10 bill on the table, weave my way to the door, and step out into the stifling August heat.

Dennis Geoffrey

I Water My Garden with Thanks to Witches

The dust,
And the ennui of innocence –
At some point they become insufferable.
I thought of summing it up in a boo hoo memoir 
Like, -Diary of a Swatted Fly- 
Yeah, my good news awakening gifted to other 
Ever after at a loss assholes.  
I tell ya, that Catholic soot, ain’t no amount of sin 
That can scrub it off. 
Into the confessional.  
The raspy voice, 
Issuing from the other side of the grille, 
I can still hear it clearly. 
‘And now I want you to say one Our Father, 
   one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be, 
Very s-l-o-w-l-y.’ 
And is the tempo supposed to make it any 
Fuckin’ holier, Father?
Me, any fuckin’ sorrier? 
By tomorrow my soul’ll be dripping wet with the 
Same sorta transgressions.  
And I treasure that wetness, the water right outta Jezebel’s 
Cooze, cuz it washes off the dust of your reset;
Your ‘state a grace,’ which only cakes up under my 
No wonder I gotta bad habit of scratching others. 
Let my prey thus be anointed! 
It’s easy, when ya cease to be haunted by a god so 
Breathless running down the centuries he can’t answer 
You in prayer. 
The image of matted hair crowning a rusting antique which, 
If it could speak, might sound like a cross between Dustin 
Hoffman and Russell Crowe- it don’t bother me like before. 
Cuz I left my innocence with a litany of witches, 
Left it drowning in their blood. 
Hey!  Your words, my Lord: 
   ‘Thou shalt not suffer…’ 
I love my modus of twenty-two exits. 
The sharp tip goes in, then comes out.
Out!  Out of time, out of love, out of rust and 
Dust and suffering and penance and…Flies! 
From the witches’ wounds grow the trees of 
My new Eden. 
   ‘Bless me, Father, for I have made a garden where 
neither Lord nor larvae can flourish.’ 
Already I’m bored again. 

Duncan Ros

Steak Knives

It was a nice two-story suburban home with a well-manicured lawn and a brand-new luxury Mercedes in the driveway. The kid had been eying it for a while and had finally decided to make his move. Whoever lived there, he figured, could stand to lose a dime.

A man answered the door after a bit of a long wait. He was dressed in a dark bowling shirt, gray slacks, and had on neon-green elbow-length rubber cleaning gloves. Clean-shaven, mid-thirties, with cropped blond hair and a face that was almost impossible to remember even if you stared at it for an hour.

“You’re not Billy,” he said.

“No sir. My name is Josh Munson, and I’m out here on this beautiful day going door-to-door to see if I could interest you in a brand-new set of state-of-the-art premium steak knives.”

The man stared at Munson blankly.

“I’d be happy to give you a demonstration if you have a minute.”

The man looked as if he were on the verge of slamming the door in his face, but something shifted in his expression and he warmed up. “Why don’t you come in and have something to drink?” he said. “It’s hot and I bet you’re thirsty.” Then, after a beat: “But I’m probably not going to buy whatever you’re selling.”

“I’ll take a ‘probably not’ over a ‘no’ any day,” said Munson, smiling. “And I’d love a glass of water if you could spare one.”

They went inside, which smelled strongly of bleach and Pinsol, and went to the kitchen where he took off his rubber gloves. The house was clean and plain-looking but full of expensive furniture, electronics, and china—as if everything was out of a photo from Better Homes and Gardens and placed accordingly. The only thing that wasn’t camera-ready was a black garbage bag seated next to the fridge, knotted rather loosely at the top.

“Just doing some cleaning since the wife and kids are gone,” said the man, placing his hands under the hot water of the sink and soaping them. Then he went through several cupboards before finding a water glass and filling it. “She’s always moving stuff around. I can’t keep track,” he said, laughing, and handing Munson the glass of water.

“Thanks a lot. I didn’t get your name, Mister—”

“Just call me Howard,” he said, drying his hands and shaking Munson’s. “So you really are just knocking on doors and seeing who bites?”

“That’s right.”

“I like it. Okay,” he said, getting comfortable, “let’s see what you’ve got.”

Munson pulled out the steak knives, then he went through the pitch that he’d memorized in the bathroom mirror of his motel room the day before—tempered steel, a lifetime warranty, cuts like butter, a heck of a deal. Howard watched him somewhat bemused, arms folded to the front with half a smile.

He ended his spiel with the demonstration, taking out one of the knives he was trying to sell and a small length of rope. Then he asked Howard if he had a comparable steak knife of his own. Howard looked around.

“Will this work?” he said, pulling out a butcher knife from the sink by the blade and handing it to Munson.

Munson took it by the handle, examined it, and put it on the table. “It needs to be serrated,” he said. “Has to saw through.”

“Right. Let’s see,” said Munson, pulling at a few drawers. “I don’t know where she put the steak knives. I don’t even remember if we have any. Let’s just see how good yours is since I don’t feel like tearing the kitchen apart.”

“That’s fine,” said Munson, handing Howard his steak knife and holding the length of the rope taut. “See if you can cut through my rope.” Howard held the knife rather awkwardly in his slightly shaking hand, chuckled, and sawed through the rope without a problem. 

“Wow, that’s a hell of a knife,” said Howard. He gave Munson a toothy smile that gave him the creeps. Being a good salesman, he smiled back politely.

“What do you say?” said Munson. “They’re usually three-hundred for a four-piece set, but I can do two-hundred if you have cash.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Does one-fifty sound a little better?”

“As I said, I’m not looking to buy anything. Do you need to use the bathroom or anything before you leave?”

Munson went down the hall to the bathroom, taking stock of all the nice expensive things in the house, noting that the bedrooms were probably upstairs and that there was a basement. He looked in the medicine cabinet but couldn’t find anything to take him up or bring him down. Then he threw some water on his face and neck to try and cool off before setting back out.

“Oh,” said Howard as they headed to the door. “Would you mind dropping this off at the next garbage bin you see? Mine’s full right now.” He picked up the garbage bag next to the fridge. “I’d appreciate it, bud.”

Munson was a little upset about losing the opportunity for some fast cash but just nodded a tad dejectedly, took the black garbage bag—which was a little heavy—and sauntered back to his car with a quiet “have a good one.” He threw the garbage bag in the back seat, thinking he’d find a dumpster somewhere in a block or two, and drove off. It didn’t take long for him to forget it was even back there.


When Munson came by the neighborhood later in the evening, he was happy to see that the Mercedes was gone. And of course, there was no security system to speak of. It was the only house on the block without one, which was the reason Munson had picked it out of all the others.

The window in the bathroom was unlocked—he’d made sure to leave it that way. It was just big enough for him to fit through, something he had also taken into consideration when casing the place. He hopped on the trash bin, which had been heavy and awkward to push in place below the window, and pulled himself through as quickly and quietly as he could. 

It was dark, and his eyes needed a moment to adjust. He sat and listened for a few minutes, just to be sure there was no movement in the house. When it was clear that he was the only living thing inside, he went to the front door to unlock it.

But it was already unlocked.

Munson smiled to himself. Either they had forgotten to lock their front door or they were just incredibly naive and stuck in the care-free habits of a bygone era. In any case, he was going to make the evening profitable, although the wasted effort on window acrobatics annoyed him.

A simple B&E job—five minutes in and out. Objective: get all of the valuables you can into the black garbage bag, which he took from his back pocket and unfolded, and get out the door. 

He had it done in four minutes and twenty-one seconds, which he had timed, and he felt damn proud of it. He’d managed to ransack all of the best items from everywhere except the basement, which he hadn’t had time to go down into. Maybe some other time.

He went back to the car and put the loot into the trunk of his stolen Honda. The take included a Blu-Ray player, two Chromebooks, an X-Box, and some expensive women’s jewelry from the master bedroom. It would only take twenty minutes to get from the suburbs to downtown, and another ten to find his fence and pocket the money.

The steak knife set was just something he’d come by in a discount shop—he’d swapped the hundred-dollar price tag with a ten-dollar, with the idea brewing for a bigger scam. The cashier knew he’d swapped tags, Munson could tell, but she wasn’t getting paid enough to care. The fact that the steak-knife-salesman gag worked only bolstered Munson’s already elephantine ego, and he prided his ability to come off as a hard-working stand-up citizen and to get people to trust him enough to let him into their homes.

A few blocks up the smell hit him. It was pungent enough to make him want to throw up. He’d noticed it earlier and had thought it was coming from something foul outside, or maybe some curdled cream from a spilled coffee, but now he knew its source—the black garbage bag he’d taken from Howard and forgotten about in the back seat. It had been cooking in his car, in the hundred-degree heat all day, and was like a punch to the nose.

The garbage bag was heavier than he remembered it being. He drove full-speed intending to throw it out the window—to be rid of the smell ASAP. As he pulled it up to the front, the plastic knot came undone and something fell onto his lap, causing him to panic. He didn’t notice that the traffic signal in front of him had turned from green to red, and went right through it.

An SUV in the right lane plowed into the passenger-side fender, sending shards of glass flying. Munson’s airbag shot out, as the car spun around counter-clockwise, knocking his cocked head violently into his seat. The lights and sirens followed at a prompt pace, as is common for the suburbs.


The two detectives—the only occupants of the third-floor hospital waiting room in the middle of the night—waited to see their as-of-yet unidentified suspect. The T.V. in the corner was muted with an air-fryer infomercial. The press hadn’t gotten their hands on what would be a top story.

Jenkins, younger and fresh-faced in jeans and a tailored blazer, sat in an uncomfortable hospital chair. His partner, Fitz, older and weathered from twenty years on the job, stood with his hands in the pockets of his cheap polyester slacks. His mustache was silvering and he was beginning to show his mileage, his younger athletic physique rounding into an older man’s.

“Do you think it’s him?” said Jenkins as he choked down a sip of acrid vending machine coffee from a styrofoam cup.

“Yeah, I think it’s him. I’d like to think that finding a guy with a garbage bag full of victims’ remains means it’s him.”

“But he doesn’t fit the profile. The guy we’re looking for never robs his victims.”

“The profile. Shit, Jenkins. He probably just needed some quick cash to fund his bloodlust. Maybe he was hungry and tired of eating Hot Pockets in his mom’s basement.”

Jenkins shook his head. The third floor was quiet. Just the antiseptic dull hum that hospital waiting rooms tend to have.

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to,” said Fitz. “It is what it is. I just hope that Quantico gets back to us so we can figure out who the hell he is.”

After a little over an hour, a doctor came out and greeted the detectives. He was dressed in a white lab coat, smocks, and wore thick glasses. His head was bald with long gray tufts at the edges, and his teeth were stained yellow.

“Nice to meet you, detectives,” he said, “I’m doctor William Keller.” The two detectives gave their names rather numbly, without pleasantries or any attempts at handshaking. “If you’d like to take a look at the patient—uh, your suspect, I suppose he is—you can come back with me.”

They filed into a cramped hospital room that could barely fit the three of them. The kid was bandaged up, his head in a neck-brace, and his leg was in a cast and suspended above the bed at thirty degrees. The pulse of the hospital machinery made Fitz think of a fast food kitchen at breakfast time.

“Will he wake up?” said Jenkins.

“Doubtful,” said the doctor. “Even after the sedative wears off from the surgery. There’s severe head trauma along with fractured cervical vertebrae and a broken tibia, not to mention a fair amount of internal bleeding. I don’t suspect he’ll live long. Even if he does, he’ll likely be in a state of severe mental impairment.”

“He’ll be a vegetable,” said Fitz, not a question, “and taxpayers will have to pay for it, to keep this, this thing alive.”

Jenkins looked at the kid. He didn’t look like a serial killer. He looked like a camp counselor, or at worst, a call-center employee just out of college.

“I don’t make the rules,” said the doctor.

“Yeah, sure,” said Fitz. “But the man upstairs who does, he will have something to say about this, I can assure you.” he leaned over the comatose body and whispered: “I hope you rot in hell for what you did to those people, you piece of human garbage.” Then: “I wish I could pull the plug, doc, if I wasn’t so sure you’d go and tell on me.”

“Please don’t.”

Jenkins’ cell went off and they stepped out of the room, the doctor looking over his patient the way a gardener does a bed of weeds.

“We got something,” said Jenkins in the hall, stuffing his phone back into his pocket after the quick back-and-forth that Fitz only heard half of. “Misner has a file for us, but wouldn’t tell me much over the phone. He wants us to go and meet him at the precinct.”

“Alright, let’s go,” said Fitz.

It took twenty-three minutes to get down there, which was twice as long as it would usually take, but Fitz insisted that they go through a drive-thru for breakfast sandwiches and coffee. Jenkins made a comment about the adverse health effects from the continual consumption of fast food, to which his partner said, “What are you, my wife?” Jenkins could think of many responses, each more biting than the last, but instead chose to focus on his driving. 

Misner was in the basement of the station, and its sole occupant. He was clean-cut and about the same age as Jenkins, but had an awkward and nervous disposition that made him hard to be around for an extended period of time. This was why the chief had stationed him below the ground floor, out of plain sight.

“The guy you’ve got at the hospital is Chris Higgins,” he said, handing Jenkins a stack of papers. “Did some time in Upstate New York and Virginia. Mostly B&E, some small possession with intent charges, and a juvenile record a few pages long. It’s all there.”

“Anything violent?” said Jenkins.

Misner shook his head. Fitz looked at Jenkins. Jenkins looked down at the papers and said, “It’s not our guy.”

“The hell it isn’t,” said Fitz, his voice rising. “The hell it isn’t our guy, Jenkins. Even if it isn’t our guy, we’re making this our guy.” His face was flushed red. “Jenkins, look at me. This guy had pieces—pieces—of the victims, in his car, with their stuff. Lord knows his prints are in that house, on that knife. For all intents and purposes, for the press, for the families at home trying to sleep at night, this, this is our guy.”

Jenkins and Misner looked at Fitz. They let him catch his breath, and looked at each other. The room felt all the quieter without the yelling.

Jenkins finally said, after some long minutes: “But what if this isn’t our guy? What if ours is still out there, and he does it again?”

“He won’t,” said Fitz. “Not unless he wants caught, he won’t.”


They quietly wheeled Higgins into the operating room with the instruments and bright overhead lights. The doctor and his assistant were gloved up and masked. The doctor cleared his throat and stretched his arms like an athlete before a game.

“You did really well. Really very good, and I’m pleased with you,” he said to his assistant. “I think you have potential. You’re teachable. Not everyone is like that. Teachable.”

“Thanks, Billy, that means a lot coming from someone I respect so much.”

“But just remember, I took you out of that ward, and I could just as soon put you back in. I need live specimens from here on out, like this one. This one has served a real and true purpose for us tonight. But hacked-up bodies do me little good. You need to remember some of what I’ve taught you and exercise some self-control.”

Howard felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The doctor had a way of making him feel shame. No one—not even his own father or mother—could make him feel such heavy self-disappointment. 

“I’m sorry Billy, I—”

“It’s okay, Howard. I understand that learning new habits takes time. I believe in you, that you can do it. Just remember, everything you do is a choice.” They looked down at the kid, his young incapacitated body under the white lights, the machinery whirring. “If we work together, it can be beautiful, Howard. Don’t you want it to be beautiful?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Good. You can start by handing me that scalpel.”

Judge Santiago Burdon

The Bare Necessities

I’m confused by drug testing and how they determine the results. I’ve been subjected to this invasion of my privacy on numerous occasions, always perplexed with their findings. Believe me, I’ve asked many times what the test is designed to discover. The answer is always the same. “The purpose of the test is to see if there are any drugs in your system.”

The drug test results are presented by someone with an apologetic expression, politely whispering the findings:

“I’m sorry Mr. Santiago but you failed. We found marijuana, cocaine and traces of opioids, possibly heroin or oxycodone.”

Usually this is followed by:

“Do you need help with an addiction? I can arrange an evaluation for you with a drug counselor.”

My first experience with this violation of my civil rights caught me completely off guard, and I must confess it still leaves me flummoxed to this day.

“No thanks, I don’t desire to be locked up with a bunch of head cases for three months or so. I’ve already been a passenger aboard that crazy train. Also, I don’t have the luxury to take advantage of your offer. I’m sure my parole officer will be determining my agenda for the immediate future. But let me ask you this, if I am being tested for evidence of drugs in my system, wouldn’t it be correct that if I test positive I’ve passed, not failed? Therefore I object to the results of your test under the pretense your explanation and procedures are deceptive, false and misleading. I demand my results be documented as Pass and not Failed.”

“Oooooh, Mr. Santiago you…”

“Call me Santi.”

“Are you an attorney? You’re so cute when you get all worked up, throwing words around like a Philadelphia lawyer.”



“Listen Meredith, lovely name.”

“Named after my grandmother.”

“I’m sure she is just as lovely as you.” 

“She passed away six months ago. Cancer. I miss her so much, we were like sisters.”

“I felt your pain, saw it in your face the second she was mentioned. It’s difficult to express condolences and I don’t want to come off as patronizing. Although, I have experienced  the deaths of loved ones myself and would like to offer a bit of advice that comforted me during those trying times.”

“Please go ahead.”

She sits on the sofa next to me in the reception area with only one other victim waiting for his results.

“Think of the wonderful moments you both shared together, the laughter, the silly expressions and the hugs, the kisses. She’d  want you to embrace those memories, not to mourn her passing. I believe the smile you experience every time you think of her is the best way to pay tribute to her life.”

“Who are you, Santi? Are you some kind of spiritual healer? What a comforting and sincere way to channel my emotions. Usually people begin to express their feelings and pain they’ve experienced, making the moment about them, completely invalidating my own feelings. I’m sorry, but the last thing I want to hear is someone else’s story. Is that wrong?”

“‘No one’s pain is greater than your own.’ I’m not sure who said that quote, but it’s not mine.”

“Well it’s perfectly fitting for the subject of this conversation. Listen, I want to tell you something important. There are instructions on your client sheet to inform Randall Cunningham at the State Corrections and Parole Office of the results of your test. I’m sorry, but Mike the new guy called him already. I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but you’re such a nice guy.”

“Ya I figured as much. Don’t feel badly, you’re just doing your job. This isn’t your problem anyway, it’s my doing.” 

“Hold on a minute, I’ll take care of this. I know what I can do.”

“Don’t do anything that would jeopardize your position here. Please don’t risk your job for me.”

“I’m the office manager, I’ve got it covered. Don’t worry, I can’t fire myself!” 

She disappears into the back area. A short time later, two State Troopers enter the reception area. There’s no doubt in my mind who they’re here for.

One trooper covers the reception room as the other strolls to the front desk, calling out for assistance. Meredith materializes from the back and immediately engages him in conversation. I’m unable to hear, but I know what they’re discussing and I prepared myself for the consequences, which include my parole being violated and me returning to prison to serve out the rest of my sentence. I begin to question the authenticity of her grandma story, thinking it may have just been a ploy to keep me occupied until the troopers arrived.

They finish their conversation with Meredith, who points me out to the officer. He walks directly toward me as his partner reaches for his handcuffs. Meanwhile, Meredith has a huge smile on her face, giving me a thumbs up behind their backs.

“You Santiago?” the cop inquires in a John Wayne tone.

“If you’re from Publishers Clearing House or the State Lottery Office, then I’m your man.” 

His partner finds a bit of humor in my response and chuckles.

“You’re a real comedian. Now I’ll ask you again and expect a serious answer, no smart mouth. You got it?”

“I am Santiago, officer, how may I help you?”

“Guess you dodged a bullet today. Randall thought for sure you’d drop dirty and he’d violate your parole. Send your sorry ass back to the joint.”

“Tell Randall I’m sorry to disappoint him. It’s a comfort to know that he’s pulling for me to complete my parole and make it on the outside.”

“Ya, well you keep your nose clean and don’t give us a reason to have to meet again. You got it, convict?”

I couldn’t find a reason to piss the prick off anymore than I already had, so I politely bid him and  his partner a good afternoon. Unable to resist one last comment, I tell them, “You be careful out there.”

They walk out the door, completely ignoring me as Meredith returns, laughing as she slaps my ass with her clipboard.

“We pulled one over on those troopers, didn’t we?” she giggles. I’m half expecting her to break into a cheerleading routine with all of her jumping around. 

“Meredith, I honestly have no words to express my appreciation. I am so grateful for you covering my ass like that. There’s no way I can ever repay you for your help. What did you do?”

“I told them there was a mistake. The new guy read the results incorrectly and you actually tested negative.” 

“So you mean I passed the test.”

“Okay you stubborn ass. Yes, you passed and we found no illegal drugs in your system.”

“You are an absolute angel without wings. A Goddess!”

I grab her to give her a hug and kiss on the cheek, but she pulls me in close and plants a kiss on my lips, leaving me wanting more.

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that at all!”

“You can start paying me back by taking me out to dinner tonight. That is of course if you’re not already spoken for. A guy like you probably has a girlfriend, huh?”

“As a matter of fact, I was recently given my walking papers by that supposed girlfriend. Seems my checkered past clashed with her pastel future.”

“So what then, you’re nursing a broken heart?”

“I’m not feeling that way at all. I would be delighted to have your company this evening. I’d enjoy spending time with someone other than my temporary roommate. It’s a date.”

“Wonderful, I’ve got a roommate too. She’s the drug counselor I mentioned earlier. Did you drive here?”

“No, I haven’t been certified to reinstate my license.”

“That’s okay, I can drive. I’m getting ready to close up. Do you mind waiting a half hour or so?” 

“That’ll be fine, I’ve got to wait for my buddy Johnny anyway. He’s coming to pick me up, and like all Colombians, including most Central Americans as well, he has no concept of time.”

“Great, we’re on the same page. Although I’m a little disappointed you’re not grieving over your breakup.”

“Why would that be?”

“They say the best way to get over a woman is to get under another one.”

“Actually now that you mention it, I’m feeling devastated and could use some pampering. And I’d  like a chance for us to get to know each other better before taking that step.”

“How sweet of you to say that. It was just a joke, maybe. And I already know more about you than you’re aware of. I’ll be back in  a jiff.”

What have I done to deserve this good fortune, cosmic manna? Days like this are so rare I can’t recall the last time an occurrence of this magnitude took place. The gods are smiling down on me and with such adulation. I’ve got a date with an adorable, incredibly stunning woman, who has a great sense of humor, is compassionate and kind hearted on top of it. I dodged more than a bullet today, I dodged a hand grenade due to her quick thinking. I’m still astonished by her altruistic and humanitarian manner. People don’t usually do these kind of things for guys like me. In fact, I was sure she’d set me up, Santiago getting duped like a mark at Three-card Monte, or Bonneteau as it was called in New Orleans. I had to ask myself, why was a treasure like Meredith not in a relationship, living with someone or married?

Another pebble in my mind’s shoe, making me uncomfortable, is that she knows I’m an ex-con and hasn’t asked why I was incarcerated. Most women are on the heel toe express with their backsides turned to you at just the mention of the word ‘prison’. I could be a pedophile, a rapist or a serial killer.  And here she is, willfully going on a date with a guy she has no idea who he is or any clue to his character. And what in the hell was that comment, ‘I know more about you than you’re aware of’?

I’m starting to go to my crazy place. There’s something amiss, and I’m not sure I want to find out what it might  turn out to be. 

What am I going to do now? I’ve already committed myself to an evening with her, and now that I think about it, I don’t know shit about her. She could be the fucking psychopath for all I know, and she’s setting me up for the kill. Maybe she does have a boyfriend, and they work as a team murdering unsuspecting ex-cons like me. Some type of sick vendetta, taking revenge on them for the crimes they committed.

Stop it Santiago, you’re really freaking yourself out. Come back now, don’t go there.

“Hey Meredith, I’m going to wait outside for my buddy. What about this old guy here? He fell asleep on the couch. Is he waiting for his results?” 

“No Santiago, he’s the night security guard. He’ll be fine.”

“Okay, I’ll be outside.”

It’s hotter than a Finnish sauna out there, forcing me to question my decision to leave the air-conditioned office. It’s going on five thirty already, and the sun still looks as though it has reached its zenith, stalled in the sky while doling out as much burn as possible before quitting time.

I take cover under a Palo Verde tree, which doesn’t provide much shade at all, sitting in the grass beneath it.

Moments later, I immediately recognize the stinging sensation which has suddenly begun to afflict my legs and lower back. Fucking fire ants, fire ants, attacking me without mercy!

I leap to me feet, frantically brushing myself with my hands. I pull my shirt off over my head without even unbuttoning it, screaming in pain as I attempt to shake the ants out. Looking down where I’d sat was a mound of dirt just crawling with ants, all of the little bastards on the attack. They stared up at me, daring me to come closer and make another attempt to invade their territory.

My screams finally capture the attention of the employees inside the clinic. They just stare at me jumping around from the doorway. Not one of the spectators come forward to offer their assistance. 

“Fire ants! Fire ants!” I scream.

Shortly after, the awakened security guard walks out with a bucket of water.

“Got into the ants did ya? Those lil’ buggers can do a lot of damage in a short time. Where’d they get’cha at?”

“Pretty much everywhere, but my legs, feet, and crotch is where they concentrated their assault. My back as well and a few of the first wave made it up to my neck.”

“You talk like an educated feller. You’re not from around these parts are ya?”

“Listen I’d really like to talk with you, but unless you’ve got some other purpose for that bucket of water, could you pour it over me and get these fucking ants off of me!?”

“I’ll do your back and legs, but you’ll have to take care of your crotch yourself.”

Meredith then appears, running towards me with a fire extinguisher in her hands. The security guard pours hot water down my back and my legs, bringing instant relief from the ants’ onslaught.

“Santiago, close your eyes and hold your breath!” Meredith screams as she sprays me with white chemical powder.

You probably won’t believe me when I tell you this tidbit of information, but it’s the first time I’ve ever been sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Honest to god truth. 

“Do you know if this will even work?” I manage to squeak.

“Shut up until I’m done. You don’t want to be breathing this stuff into your lungs.”

“Hey that’s enough, that shit is really cold!” I scream. “Stop, I’m freezing and I don’t feel any ants on me!”

I’m covered in white by this point, looking like Casper the Ghost. Meanwhile, the flame retardant has mixed with the water covering my body, and the heat from the sun is causing it to harden like plaster of Paris.

It is then I hear the strangest thing, making this scene more surreal than anything a movie director could ever come up with. A soundtrack gradually becomes audible, growing louder as the music draws nearer. No, I’m sorry, the song wasn’t White Christmas or Frosty the Snowman. Rather, it was the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White singing “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s off to work we go. It ain’t no trick to get rich quick. Hi Ho.”

I’d bought a tape for my daughter at the swap meet last week, a collection of songs from Disney movies. And for some reason, Johnny has become fascinated with the songs, playing it every time we’re in the car together.

Johnny comes running over in a frenzy, calling out to me. “Bigotes, Bigotes, how you catch on fire!? You okay? You need hospital?”

“No J.R., I think I’m okay right now. I got into a nest of fire ants and they attacked me.”

“I saw Mar-a-Death Heavy Metal lady with fire finisher and thought you are on fire.”

“No Mr. Rico, I only used it to kill the ants that were biting him all over his body. The chemical inside freezes and kills them.”

I begin peeling off the hardened dust in large strips and the security guard lends a hand, humming Hi Ho to himself the whole time.

Some of the other clinic staff begin to leave, saying goodbye to Meredith and giggling as they pass. 

“What the fuck is going on here?” I as Johnny. “How do you know Meredith? And what did you call her, Megadeath Heavy Metal Lady?”

“I know her because…”

“Shut up, I’m not finished. And you, Heavy Metal Lady. When did you meet Mr. Rico? Now don’t talk all at once. Megadeth, I’d rather hear your explanation first so that way I may get the truth without a bunch of embellishment.”

“We met here, at the medical center,” she informs me. “Johnny was sent here by his parole officer for testing, just like you were, and he also went to counseling with my roommate Linda. She shared some things they talked about that wouldn’t violate client/therapist privilege. He is quite the storyteller, this Mr. Rico, the name he claims you gave him.”

“Bigotes, please don’t be mad at me. I tell them stories about things that happen to us when we are together. They laughed very much and always say tell more. I don’t tell of our work, don’t worry about that.”

“Goddamnit Rico, can you be any more obvious?”

“No, that part is true,” Meredith says. “He never told us, not even when we asked, but I have a pretty good idea.” She winks but I don’t acknowledge her gesture.

“Johnny my friend,” I begin, eager to change the subject. “It’s a fire-ex-ting-uisher, but ‘fire finisher’ works just as well. Also, her name is Mare-a-dith, but I think she has taken a liking to Megadeath. Isn’t that so, Heavy Metal Lady?”

“Actually no, I don’t especially care for it. But I didn’t say anything because I know it’s difficult for him to pronounce my name, so I let it slide.”

“So how did I get mixed up in this bizarre affair?” 

“It’s more my fault then Johnny’s. I mentioned that I’d had to meet this Santiago he spoke of nearly every time we talked. He showed me a couple of pictures of you, and I thought you were somewhat good looking.”

“Well I know that’s bullshit, because I’m strikingly handsome. My mother told me!”

“All mothers tell their sons that. Did yours wear glasses? Anyway, whenever he told us a story, it always included his best friend Santiago. He spoke about you like you are some kind of god. You could never do anything wrong. You’re smart and look out for him. You’d never let anyone hurt him. Never have you belittled him or questioned his actions. You are the best friend anyone could ask for and you have a heart of gold. But you have a temper like a rattlesnake and you holler like a wolf!”

“Johnny embellishes quite a bit.”

“You shouldn’t invalidate his feelings for you. You’re friends like Helen Burns and Jane Eyre. There’s one thing he said, actually, that really touched my heart.”

“What touched your heart?”

“He said he learned from you what a friend should be.”

“Okay, this is enough, save it for my eulogy. Why did you use the Jane Eyre reference? How did you know I would understand what you mean?” 

“Bigotes,” Johnny interjects, “please say you are not mad at me for saying the things I said. She said she wanted to meet you. So when you told me you had to go to the drug center place, I told Mere… her you were coming here today. I know you will not like to have set-up date. So we do it in secret.”

“Solo bueno, carnal (All good, my friend). Solo bueno.” I tell him. “So, now that we’ve got this all out in the open, what are we doing?”

“You go home with Johnny, shower and change your clothes, then I’ll pick you up in an hour. I think we should go to the casino for dinner. They’ve got a prime rib dinner special, and then afterwards we can play some Blackjack. How does that sound?”

“Evidently you’ve planned the evening, so I wouldn’t want to disappoint you. I took you for a vegetarian, however. Guess I got that one wrong.”

“Why, are you a vegetarian Santi?”

“A vegetarian? No, my dear. Although I do eat them. This sounds like quite the night we’ve in store. You’re amazing.”

“Not really. l just read your prisoner profile on the prison website. You communicate with mostly women. You studied Victorian novels, liked Blackjack and gambling, and you even told the reason for your incarceration, which was drug trafficking.”

“Well, you certainly did your homework!”

I put out my hand to shake hers.

“Hello, my name is Santiago. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Heavy Metal Meredith. See you in an hour or so. You have my address in your paperwork.”

I lean in and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Okay, see you in an hour or so.”

I get into the car with Johnny for the short ride home. He doesn’t say a word. I think he may be feeling me out, checking my attitude before starting a conversation.

Eventually he hits ‘Play’ on the tape deck, and the music blares again:

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

“Hey Santi, so how was your day?” he sheepishly asks.

“Really, Johnny? Just more of the same. Why should you expect otherwise?”

I give him a playful punch in the arm. Of course he reacts as if it actually hurt.

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

“Santiago, do you know what is ‘strife’?”

James Diaz

I’ll Leave it at That 

What are birds
In the night 
If not air’s flat iron 
Of bone, the river’s mercy 
Sings, a darker cadence – 
Do you know
The place I mean
No trains run there
There are no birds to speak of.

At first glance the world is always terrifying 
Then beautiful, then terrifying again – 
Where do they put all of the things we’ve seen
After we go, who will speak of the snow
That fell across our life
In perfect layers of mute blue hush

It’s dark 
Here. It is morning.
It is almost as it never was.

I was happy to have seen 
What little of the world I saw.
Pain gave me more than it took.

There was never enough beauty 
For any of us.

I could say more
But the words don’t feel right. 
I’ll leave it at that.

Willie Smith

The Great Outdoors

Sue slips up to her knee in the muck.
Without admitting it,
we’ve been both, lightly drunk,
looking for a place to fuck
back here in the swamp.
Now we admit to looking for a place
to dry Sue’s pants.

We chance on a knoll
of moss and rotting leaves around
the trunks of a pine and a maple; then
she shuffles off her jeans, hangs them on
a low branch, and I’m  taking mine off,
she’s removing her blouse.
We hold each other naked and smiling.

After rolling and humping in the dirt,
coming, uncaring about anything
but sunshine and sex,
we rest, chatting; realize we followed
into the swamp and embraced
much like the first night
we wound up in bed together.

The sun budges toward dusk. Shadows
lengthen. My underpants
lost, jeans muddied, testily sobering up,
pine needles down our backs,
trudge homeward out of the swamp uphill.