Ben Newell

oui jan 84 cover

Skyjacking Sleaze with Sci-Fi Chaser:
Charles Bukowski’s “Fly the Friendly Skies”

There’s no stroke mag like an 80s stroke mag. Long live big hair and bountiful bush. Also, this was a time when such publications featured fiction on a regular basis.

Throughout the decadent decade Charles Bukowski contributed a number of short stories to Oui. One of these, “Fly the Friendly Skies,” appeared in the January 1984 issue before fading into obscurity. Virtually forgotten until its reemergence thirty-one years later in The Bell Tolls for No One (City Lights 2015)—a collection of stories edited by notable Bukowski scholar David Stephen Calonne—“Fly” is a noteworthy piece in that it exemplifies the author’s Romantic tendencies, particularly his melding of stark realism with the fantastical.

This lurid skyjacking thriller features a trio of terrorists intent on diverting an L.A.-bound flight to Havana, Cuba. The plane is well on its way, boring through “almost clear skies” when Dak makes the first move, ensnaring a stewardess with “wrapping twine” and forcing her into the cockpit. This leaves Kikid and Nurmo in the cabin where the entire narrative unfolds.

Kikid is particularly sadistic as he attacks a mouthy male passenger with a can opener: “He gouged the pointed end into one of the young man’s eyes and twisted. The scream of pain almost shook the aircraft. The young man held both of his hands to his head where the eye had been . . .” As if this weren’t enough, the terrorist adds insult to injury (literally) by stepping on the eye, effectively “crushing it like a snail.”

Being a story in a hardcore mag, it’s only a matter of time before the assaults turn sexual. Kikid continues his reign of terror, forcing a stewardess to fellate him: “Tightening the twine just a bit about the girl’s throat, Kikid reached down and unzipped his fly. He pulled his penis out. It hung there, limp and ugly.” In typical “Roughie” porn fashion, Kikid degrades the woman as she gobbles his knob: “I love you, you cunt! Oh, get it, get it ALL! Swallow it, you bitch, get it all!” After having her ingest his wad, the lowlife compliments her oral skills.

Then the story shifts in a big way, veering abruptly into sci-fi territory with the arrival of a flying saucer. And it isn’t long before an alien materializes in the airplane’s cabin: “. . . before them appeared a creature quite globular, almost all head with eyes as bright as 500-watt electric bulbs.” The extraterrestrial makes short work of the villains, zapping both terrorists with a death ray: “. . . a beam shot out from one of the Thing’s 500-watt eyes.” Relieved passengers interpret this as divine intervention. One woman actually believes that the alien is God: “I had no idea you’d look like this!”

But there is no God in Bukowski’s universe, no God and no valorous hero showing up to save those in peril. In fact, the alien turns out to be just as cruel as Kikid when it uses mind control on the stewardess, commanding her to suck its “pole-like antenna” of a prick. No match for the space creature’s superior intellect, the poor flight attendant acquiesces and gives her second hummer of the flight: “She lifted the whole apparatus upwards, then stuck the end of it into her mouth. Her ears quivered and the saliva ran down her jaws.”

This over-the-top tale concludes with several loose ends. What happened to Dak, his captive stewardess, and the flight crew? More importantly, what will become of the flight as a whole? Clearly, these folks are not in good hands. The space invader eliminated two of the three terrorists, but it has definitely not come in peace.

 

A.S. Coomer

Scales & Fur

The window was cracked; spirals dancing like a spider’s web singing. That’s when I knew. I reached for the door, found it standing open a hair’s breadth. The darkness radiating from inside was heavy, hot, the rank breath from something waiting, something awful just biding its time.

With the toes of my scuffed boots I pushed the door in. It swung on creaking hinges and met something that impeded its progress about halfway open. I squinted into the darkness.

“Can’t see shit,” I said.

I swear I could almost feel the room breath, a sucking in of anticipation, an electricity bordering on painful.

I put one foot in front of the other with careful hesitancy but it still felt every bit the mistake it was.

“Hello,” I called.

I could hear the trembles in my voice and gritted my teeth.

“Anybody home?”

I knew there was but there was no answer.

Four steps inside the door, I stopped, held myself erect, muscles singing in rigidity, waiting for my eyes to adjust. A slithering gripped the room. I felt like the walls were twisting, gripping a little closer in the space around me.

I debated the merits of calling out that I wasn’t the police, that I was with the Homeless Youth Outreach Program but saw junkie teenage sneers and snickers and bit my tongue.

I could make out the dim shapes of things around me: a couch against the wall furthest away, a coffee table near it, a television sitting directly on the floor to my left. There was a gaping, rectangular hole to my right signifying a door to another room.

“Hey,” I called.

I made my voice as sharp and as cutting as I could, hoping to startle whoever (or whatever) into making a noise and revealing themselves.

Nothing.

I walked over to the couch and, with shaking hands and tingling fingers, reached down to pat the cushions to make sure nothing was lying in wait there.

God did I wish I had a flashlight or a cellphone or a lighter but the only flashlight I owned sat in the junk drawer of my little place in Ferndale, the city was too broke to supply cellphones and I quit smoking three years ago.

The cushions were stale, dusty coated and my fingers came away somewhat sticky but not in a wet way. I wiped them on my pants and made my way to the door, where a darker darkness yawned out.

That’s when I remembered the door. It hadn’t opened all the way.

Stupid. Stupid to forget something as glaringly obvious, right?

I spun on my heels and that’s when it happened. Happened as quick as they say it happens. Everything changed.

Blinding light, flashes and stars and noise, erupted from all around me. The room tightened its grip to a choking. I saw nothing save the light.

“Welcome,” it said.

I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t see. My ears felt plugged with barbed cotton. Panic sunk in like a searing knife.

I flung my arms wildly, connected with nothing, but kept swinging.

“Help,” I tried to scream. “God, help me.”

No sound escaped my lips.

My head began to spin and the light flickered like fading afternoon sunlight on rippling water.

I’m going to pass out, I realized.

I did but I caught a fleeting glance of the room before the lights went out. The walls were scaled, red and coiling. The floor was not carpeted. It was fur-covered. I saw it growing in lurid detail as I fell.

***

Time is a strange thing. It comes in leaps and bounds. It sticks with clumpy, sap-like tenacity, refusing to budge. It does what it does.

I don’t know how long I was out. When I woke the first thing I realized was that I couldn’t see. All was dark again. The next thing I realized was that I was bound, completely engulfed in fur. Little bristles of hair lined my body as snug as any coat I’d ever worn.

My breath was hot and close against my face bringing sweat to my pores and tears to my eyes. I could breath though.

“Wha–”

Motion enwrapped me. The fur moved all around me. I had to close my eyes as the hair poked and stabbed in its coiling. Whatever it was, it moved from right to left, slowly unfurling itself.

I kept my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see. My body shook and I couldn’t stop it.

Why? Why did I have to choose this house? Of all the abandoned, derelict houses on the block–shit, in Detroit, for that matter–I had to go and choosethisone.

I steeled myself as best I could and slapped my eyes open.

Darkness.

I blinked and blinked and blinked but everything remained dark. I kept my eyes open and waited.

Slowly, painfully slowly, time as globbed sap, my eyes adjusted and I saw that I was in the same room. I was on the floor. I could make out the couch against the wall, the coffee table near it and the television to my left.

Move, I told myself. Get up. Move.

I jerked my hands into fists, feeling the hairy carpet under my arms. I wiggled my toes inside my boots and found them working too. I sucked in my gut and threw myself forward, the first sit-up I’d done since elementary school.

“Ok,” I said, huffing for breath. “Ok.”

I looked around. The front door, the one I’d come in through, was nowhere to be seen.

Must be shut, I thought. Shit.

I looked for its outline behind me but could see nothing. I got to my feet, stopping with my hands on my knees as the room swayed with my light-headedness, then made my way to where the front door of the house should’ve been.

It wasn’t there.

Nothing but a wall. I ran my sweating hands along it, searching for doortrim, a knob, the eery pane of glass I saw from the outside, a crack, something. My hands found nothing. Just the smooth but somehow lumpy-in-exact-patterns wall.

Red scales flashed in my mind.

I jerked my hands away and nearly tripped over my feet stepping backwards.

Window. There must be a window. You can leave through a window.

I forced myself to step back to the wall and place my hands back on it. I traced the largest loops my arms would allow, praying with each inch that my fingers found glass. I didn’t care if I lost a hunk of my finger in the process. I just wanted out.

I followed the wall towards the corner, taking half-steps as my hands searched. I was nearly to the corner, which I could just make out in the murk, when a sharp bark of pain leapt up from my right shin. I stumbled over something and hit the ground, barely stopping my face from smashing into the weird, furry carpet with my right arm.

I kicked my feet wildly and they struck something. It felt insubstantial, flimsy even. I sat still, waiting for my chest to quit heaving and squinting into the darkness at whatever it was that I’d kicked.

The television.

I saw the outline of it finally and laughed a little. It was a nervous thing, that laughter. It wasn’t forced but I could hear the tremble in it and knew it wouldn’t take much more to push me over the breaking point.

“Just the television,” I said, pulling myself up to all-fours. I crawled over to the television and ran my fingers along the top. It was smooth and cold.

There must cable cords in the thing, I thought. If there’s no goddamn window in this fucked up house, I’ll just pull the damn wall out where the cable comes in.

I moved to the backside of the tv, still on my hands and knees, and started feeling up the wall. My hands found nothing but the oddly lumpy surface.

“The fuck?”

I turned back to the tv and moved my fumbling hands along the backside of it. It was completely smooth. Not a port or cord to be found.

Time, bounding back to motion, reared its head. The television flashed into life. Light flooded the room on the other side of the tv. The couch and coffee table blossomed into view. I saw the wall behind to, indeed, be red and lined with scales. The carpet was unlike any carpet I had ever seen in my life. It was a dingy, off-white fur that shimmered and bristled in places like a cat’s arching back.

I felt paralyzed. I was behind the tv. I felt no cord, not even a power cord, but the television was on and beaming. I forced myself to crawl around and see what it was showing.

The brightness was nearly too much. My eyes narrowed into slits and it took a few moments to adjust to the light.

“What the–”

The screen was a negative image of the house from the outside. The night sky was alive with a matte light and the house was lined in shadows and darkness. It looked ghostly, pale but shimmering.

My mouth hung open and I felt my breath quickening.

I watched as the shape of a portly man came into the lower left-hand side of the screen. He lifted one leg over the rickety fence, struggled for balance awkwardly, then swung the other leg up and over. The man readjusted his pants, picked a wedgie from his ass, then started up the overgrown yard towards the looming house.

“Oh god,” I whispered.

I watched the man pause before mounting the steps to the porch.

The television screen began a slow but steady zooming in at this point. The portly man looked around the porch, walked to both sides searching for a window but finding none, returned to the door and hesitated.

The screen was a closeup of the back of the man’s head now, standing at exactly the same level as the man.

“Oh jesus.”

The man reached for the knob but stopped short. His shoulders hunched and I watched as a shiver ran up the length of his spine. The man felt somebody behind him. The man swung around and I stared in open-mouthed horror at my own wide-eyed, sweating face in negative on the television screen.

I flung myself away from the television. I scrambled backwards and bashed against the coffee table.

“What?” I sputtered. “What is happening?”

I struggled against the coffee table but it backed against the couch and moved no further.

My eyes on the television screen scanned right and left but saw nothing. Did not see whatever it was that was filming me directly in front of me like the eyes of some invisible monster. I watched as I turned around and noticed the cracked window on the door. I watched as I noticed that the door was open. I watched as I opened the door with my foot.

Don’t go in, my mind screamed.

But I was already inside.

“What is happening?”

I felt the ground under me move. It jostled me, just a little at first, then with a power that cowered me. It lifted me up and sat me on the couch. I did not resist. I curled myself in closer, brought my knees to my chest.

The television was just light now. I was nowhere to be seen. The house wasn’t in view either. The screen vibrated with a light that danced like a candle in a gentle breeze.

It was captivating. I couldn’t look away even though it felt like the room was circling me, closing in.

I’m not sure when I noticed it, it must’ve been happening for a while, growing in intensity, slowly, until it was damn near deafening: a hissing, like a gigantic teakettle stuck at just the moment before it howls. A shaking like the kettle’s top bubbling on scalding water, everywhere and, for the moment, unseen.

It gave me the distraction to pull my eyes from the television set.

I sucked in breath and found no exclamation profound enough to utter. The room was teeming with movement. Hundreds, thousands probably, of strands of the wall, red and scaly, were slithering, coiling, just a few feet away. The room was wrapping itself around me with a strength of such finality there was nothing to do but let go.

***

I could’ve been anything. That’s what I like to believe. I say it, well I guess I don’t say anything anymore, I have no real voice, in disgust and regret. I could’ve been safe somewhere in an airconditioned, cubicled office, crunching numbers for a chain of dry cleaners. I could’ve been working the door at one of the scuzzy clubs in Greektown. Shit, I could’ve spent a lifetime passing out Gatorade to the Pistons.

But no, I had to be the do-gooder. I had to be the guy who thought he could make a difference. Shit. I like to think a lot about the Homeless Youth Outreach Program now. Was it even really a thing? When they came flyering up Wayne State, I thought they were about the greatest thing I could imagine. College educated helpers swooping down from their rising place in the social stratum to help the kids on the streets, the kids sleeping behind the tagged dumpsters downtown, the kids sleeping in the hundreds of empty shells of businesses and factories, the kids sleeping in the thousands of derelict, abandoned houses sprawled for miles and miles. I wonder how many houses sat silently laughing like this one, waiting, biding its time, hungry.

The turnover rate was astounding. They had to tell me. I took it with a grain of salt. I was young, eager, knew I wouldn’t burn out because I was going to make it happen. I was going to be a constant for these kids in a world of inconsistency.

Shit.

This house. That’s all there is now. Me, the coffee table, the couch, the fur, the walls and the television. Red scales and fur and light. There is no time, time in globs or time as a whip. I am the bug in amber. I am in a place, seconds like centuries with teeth, without end.

I thought there’d be heaven or, a remote possibility, hell but there’s nothing. I’m not sure if it’s the house, taking whatever essence, call it core or soul or being, and holding it over my head, trapping me here, or if there just isn’t anything else. My thoughts twist around these ideas like the “walls” of this place, shifting in a circle never ending, grinding to what seems like a stop only to shift, as if for comfort, then to pick up right where it left off. Round and round and round it goes.

It doesn’t speak to me. It doesn’t even really acknowledge that I’m here. It keeps me, forgotten, unattended, neglected, like a nest egg, some dragon’s fortune that it has no use for but won’t give up.

I know it’s terrible but I hope somebody from the Blight Commision makes their way here. I wonder if maybe, just maybe, it’ll trade me out for someone new, someone alive. There’s nobody else here but me so it’s not hoarding.

I just sit and watch the television hoping for flickers of life and a shot of somebody that isn’t me coming up the overgrown yard to the door with the spider-webbed window.

Gwil James Thomas

Parting Ways on Pizza Night

We argued,
made love
and then
argued again,
before you said
that maybe
I should go
and play
with the traffic
for a while
and walked away,
as you called
the pizzeria
and when
the delivery man
finally arrived –
you opened
the box
to reveal a
ham and
pineapple pizza
and like ham
and pineapple pizza,
I knew then
that only a fool
would truly
think that we’d
work well
together.

James Burr

And From the Heads of Babes

Dr. Emanuel Kokoschka had long since been denounced as a crackpot and a quack but the controversy surrounding reports of his latest research was quite unlike anything I’d ever seen in all my years of scientific journalism. He welcomed me at the iron shutters of his latest clinic (in reality an industrial unit on the outskirts of Tipton) and ushered me into his office. We walked past lines of iron shelving that ran the length of the warehouse, cardboard boxes containing babies and toddlers of various ages, some of them crying, some babbling incoherently.

His office was bare apart from a plastic garden chair, an aluminum desk, a large throne-like chair of leather and polished gold, and a tatty Sunday Sport calendar from 1992, perhaps leftover from his “clinic’s” previous occupants. He bid me sit on the plastic chair as he eased himself into his throne.

“Ah, yes,” he said, “My work into the development of human consciousness has been most enlightening, raising questions about the most fundamental aspects of the nature of human awareness.”

He sat back in his throne, clearly relishing this opportunity to explain his work in detail. “For you see, awareness is simply the ability to attend selectively among a range of perceived stimuli and then combine and hold these attended items in a short-term memory store. By placing babies in sensory deprivation tanks directly from birth, I found that prodding them with pointy sticks elicited a reaction that clearly demonstrated an awareness that pointy sticks were bad and so something to be avoided.”

I stopped scribbling in my notebook, shocked.

“So awareness can therefore be found in solitary animals and is not an aspect of social intelligence. I had proven that non-conscious babies may be aware of their surroundings. However, awareness of inner body states is surely unique to conscious beasts.”

He sat forward and leaned on his desk. “So I attempted to determine how this awareness of the inner body state would be affected by manipulating the outer environment. One group I kept in their sensory deprivation tanks, another group were subjected to overwhelming external stimuli – constant flashing lights, Skrillex at 120 decibels and the like – while another had their subjective awareness distorted through round the clock administration of LSD. Four years later and the results are overwhelmingly conclusive. Idiots. Absolute idiots, the lot of them!”

He beamed at me, obviously proud of what he considered his ground-breaking research. “But then, there is the question of the nature of language in human consciousness. Freud argued that for an idea to become conscious it needs to be attached to language and language learning involves learning associations between objects and words. I tested this hypothesis by placing the little tykes in a controlled environment and then showing them objects before repeating random words. So I would show them a banana and say, “Dongle,” or give them a doll and say, “Binoculars,” for example.”

The door swung open and a young boy of around four years of age, a bloody bandage wrapped around his head and only an old bin liner around his loins, scampered in and rushed to Kokoschka. He looked up imploringly as he tugged at Kokoschka’s stained, white coat. “Kipper jam shot fizz tea!”

“Yes, yes. Be quiet now.” He paused. “They are annoying, aren’t they?” Kokoschka patted the child on the head. “And while they did indeed show a certain level of consciousness, I was faced with the issue of human language acquisition itself. In a social milieu a child wants to communicate social information and tries to talk because it is so useful in the social environment. It is this drive that elevated humans, who are indeed fully conscious, from apes, who demonstrate only awareness. So by placing these children together in a room, I observed how being with the other children affected their development of language.”

I sat in stunned silence but Kokoschka, now fully enthused in being able to describe his research to someone else continued. “And absolute gibberish it was; complete cacophony. But still, that brings me to the latest stage of my research, which is undoubtedly the most exciting.”

I was so stunned by his catalogue of atrocities that I could barely croak out a response.

“For you see, it is probable that consciousness is crucially dependent upon neural circuits located in dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex – the upper-outer lobes of the front of the dominant, language-containing, hemisphere – for this is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. So my current research involves opening up their little noggins and applying powerful electrical current to the various parts of their exposed brains.”

The frightened child continued to tug at his coat. “Fob win nostril courgette,” it whined before starting to wail.

“So…” I gasped. “What… what have you discovered?”

“Well, very strong findings! Very strong! Groundbreaking! They don’t like it. They don’t like it all. Do you, poppet?”

The child continued to cry, as rain started to pelt against the corrugated iron roof.

Judson Michael Agla

I Awoke With My Face in the Dirt

I awoke with my face in the dirt, aching beneath a pile of dead fish, tin cans and candy wrappers.

I struggled up into sitting position and wiped the grunge off my face. It was cold by the shore that night, and the fog covered everything in sight. I could just barely make out some dead hedges in the hazy darkness behind me, but I could only see about ten meters or so down the misty beach. The waves came in black, glistening like oil in the moonlight.

The moon was a shy one that night, only occasionally peeking out from behind the clouds. Illuminated by this meagre light, I espied a murder of crows feasting on what appeared to be a pile of dead fish near the water’s edge.

I had no recollection of how I had gotten there, where I had come from, or even who I was.

Standing up, I decided to check myself over for identification, finding nothing in the pockets of my ripped, soiled shorts. My only other article of clothing was a running shoe about two sizes too large, and, judging from the pain in my foot, there was evidently something else inside it.

Kicking off the shoe and shaking it out, I was surprised to see two gold coins fall out onto the ground before me. They appeared to be quite old and worn with no discernible markings.

Still covered in fish guts and assorted other beach debris, half naked and freezing with no recollection of anything, I attempted to assess my situation. My only assets being a pair of torn shorts, an ill-fitting shoe, and a couple of strange gold coins, I concluded that I should probably get on the move.

I was sore as hell as I made my way down the shore, stumbling off to god knew where.

Passing the crows from before, I made a grisly discovery – what they were feasting on was not dead fish at all, but rather the remains of something human, judging by its bones. I quickly lurched on by, relieved that at least it hadn’t been me.

It was then I caught a glimpse of something in the distance, a shrouded figure I thought, but at this point I couldn’t trust anything, least of all my senses. The one thing I was sure of was that I’d prefer not to meet the same fate as my unlucky friend I’d passed along the way.

Eventually I came upon the cloaked man. There he stood beside his boat, a single long oar laid across its gunnel. I couldn’t see his face beneath his dark hood.

As I approached, he stretched out a long, skeletal hand as if to receive something. I assumed he didn’t want my shoe or my shorts, and so I gave him the coins instead, watching as they melted into the night.

I don’t recall much after that.

Tom Leins

Murderers I Have Known

The first time I see Lucius Lamont he is wearing a nylon stalking mask and a pair of greasy jeans. There is a snail-trail of fresh semen down his right leg. At best, he looks like Tailgunner centrefold material on a particularly bad month. At worst, he looks like the kind of guy who advertises his services at the back of the magazine, and ends up handcuffing you to a radiator and stealing your wallet. Hell, what do I know? I only buy it for the fucking articles…

My claw hammer craters his nylon-sheathed skull as he opens the door, and I bundle him into the dingy hallway, away from the prying eyes of the other sheltered accommodation shit-bags. The sagging floorboards feel as soft as shit beneath my boots. I kick him down the dank passage and he moans like a fat hooker, curling into a foetal ball on the exposed wood.

I don’t see the switchblade until it is wedged between my ribs, turning my sweaty t-shirt the colour of cheap lipstick. He laughs, but through the mangled bone and fabric it sounds like someone wanking into a verruca sock. Me? I don’t have too much to fucking laugh about…

***

Four days earlier.

The sky above the Dirty Lemon was the colour of diseased lungs. Fat clouds swirled above the pub, and the bronchial sky erupted as I pushed through the double-doors – bullets of rain thudding into the wheelchair ramp behind me.

Remy Cornish was sat adjacent to the cigarette machine, perched awkwardly on his mid-range mobility scooter. He chose the meeting place – the only pub in Paignton with a ramp – but it was no hardship on my part – I was coming here anyway…

I ordered a pint of Kronenbourg from Spacey Tracey and sat down opposite Remy. A thick, pissy stench hung in the air above him, and even the pub’s cigarette fug couldn’t mask it. Presumably showering has been a problem since Franco Moretti took his fucking kneecaps…

He made half-hearted speech-marks in the air with his sausage-like fingers as he told me that his “niece” Claudette was missing. Wanted me to find her. He passed me a photograph. It was a typical small-town glamour shot: badly lit and barely legal. She was a toothy brunette with small, uneven breasts. She didn’t so much have blowjob lips as gob-job gums. I felt my cock twitch, took Remy’s money and finished my pint. In that order.

***

I didn’t find Remy’s “niece” – the harbour master did. Wedged behind a dumpster that was overflowing with fish guts. The Herald Express nicknamed the killer ‘The Cartographer’, because he carefully wrapped each one of his victims’ bodies in old maps. Claudette was the fourth victim. She even looked pretty in the autopsy photo. No tattoos. No piercings. No life in her dead eyes. She had been wrapped in a map of Paignton; her spine was very slightly curved – just like Hyde Road.

I tried to give Remy his money back, but he decided to renegotiate our contract instead. Find the motherfucker responsible and deliver him to his portakabin up at Paignton Yards. His bloodshot eyes were so red-raw that they look like flesh-wounds. I nodded and slipped the money back into my jacket pocket. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

***

The lead landed right in my lap, just like a cracked-out lap-dancer…

I met David Cummings outside Foxy Booze. He was wearing a denim jacket with a sheepskin collar. He had the word ‘Mum’ tattooed across his throat. It looked new. And infected.

He chuckled when he saw me.

“I heard you died.”

“You look disappointed.”

He laughed even louder.

He smoked two high-tar cigarettes in quick succession as he spilled the beans. Said he was in the cop-shop being processed for affray – he had been caught on CCTV beating a man with the metal bar from a dumbbell – when he heard the story.

While he was in the holding tank a guy named Lucius Lamont was cut loose due to a lack of evidence. The desk sergeants – Benson and Hedges – had been drinking brandy, and blabbed to Cummings that the skinny prick re-lacing his shoes in the police station lobby was the fucking Cartographer.

***

When I rip off his nylon mask, I see that Lucius has grey hair shaved to stubble and a few pubic-looking beard hairs along his crooked jaw. He is skinny like a stray dog, and it is hard to believe that a man so frail could be responsible for those strangled, mangled bodies.

He glares at me through his left eye – his crumpled right eye socket is already matted with dark, drying blood. He grins nastily, as I probe the knife-wound in my gut.

“You’re so full of doubt I can fucking smell it,” he lisps.

I shrug. The only thing I can smell is the wet stink of shit and blood.

“Is there another girl in the house?”

He shrugs.

“If you move I will kill you, you know that, don’t you?”

He shrugs again.

“I’m not afraid. Death is something that happens to other people.”

I trudge out of the room, checking the rest of the house as quickly as possible. Inside the third room I try is a teenage girl. She has been handcuffed to the rusty iron headboard. A stack of mouldy looking ordinance survey maps have been stacked neatly on the bedside table beside her.

She screams silently when she sees me, eyes pleading. Her left eye-socket has been broken and a single bloody tear slides down her badly bruised cheek.

I place my blood-soaked hammer on the floor and hold my hands up, trying to make myself look as unthreatening as possible.

I rip the parcel tape off her mouth, and remove the stained Y-fronts that have been wedged inside her mouth.

“Wh-wh-who are you?”

I consider answering, but grunt instead. Then I turn sharply and stomp back towards the lounge.

Lamont has replaced the nylon mask, but removed his filthy jeans. He is slumped against the wall, trying to masturbate with bloody fingers.

I weigh the gore-streaked hammer in my left hand, holding my pulsing guts in with my right. I swap hands and the hammer feels blood-slick against my palm.

I raise it high above my head, hoping that I don’t kill him – mainly because Remy will want his fucking money back…

He looks up at me expectantly, but doesn’t bother to stop playing with himself.

Crunch.

Fuck it.

Death is something that happens to other people…

Chris Cook

Proper Kicks

I’m lying down, watching my prick wilting, fingerwalking my hand down to scratch at my pubes. She’s on her back, legs pulled up, facing the headboard. Eyes at half-mast, but she always looks like that, a bored teenager in an adult’s body. Clicking away on her phone, me still breathing hard. The only sounds in the world.

She puts her phone down and wrestles herself up on her elbows. Her eyes find the ashtray on the bedside table, and she groans and leans forward to grab it. While she’s sparking a good-sized roach, I swing my feet over the side towards the other table where my shit is. There’s maybe sixty milligrams of Percocet ground up on a torn magazine cover, and five more tens still to go. She passes the joint and blows a cloud of smoke that surrounds my head. I take in a lungful and hold while I break out two lines with an old credit card.

It’s a proper kick, what an old friend from school called a Perc shotty—take a hit of weed and do a bump. I’m lightheaded from holding my breath, and now the pill hits my brain along with the bud. I fall back into her lap, smashed and grinning like a spastic. She smacks my forehead and gives herself a kick.

“Silly little boy.”

Her eyes always tear up when she snorts shit. I first noticed it watching her do a bump with black eyeliner on. For some reason it got me all hot and bothered. Maybe next time I’ll give her the makeup and put a choke chain on her. God knows she’d get into it.

I love watching her smoke. One eye closed like a wink, sucking it down so slow and rolling it around in her mouth, digesting it, drooling it out. The same way she sucks cock. My eyes wander to the tattoo on the meat of her thigh, an Oriental dragon crawling up towards her prize. I’m sure she doesn’t know shit about Oriental mystical whoosits. Silly bitch. I love her.

Christ, I could live in this lap. It’s something you see a lot in the city—scrawnyass man with a fat girl. It’s that cushion, that tender loving care you can only feel when you’re pressed up against all that warm flesh, and when you fuck you can watch her whole body ripple, see that small patch of zits bounce around on her funhouse ass. I think it’s some misplaced maternal shit. Gimme something to squeeze up against on a cold day. A good solid ride.

“We should get a bounce house.”

She coughs and sticks the joint between my lips. “What?”

“Yeeeaaaaah,” I say, stretching the word out with my smoke. “One a those big inflatable bitches that kids jump around in.”

She lights two cigarettes and gives me one and I drag deep, arching my back to open my lungs.

“Why a bounce house?”

“Think about it.” I draw a picture in the air. “Fuckin’ in one a those things.” I giggle. I’ve always hated the sound of my laughter, too high pitched like a kid’s. And I can never control a laugh.

“Shit,” she says, “we could get one an’ charge people to fuck in it.”

“You’re a genius, babe. I’m picturing it now—evening with the sun going down, us stepping out into the twilight, fishbowling and fucking in a bounce house. Then we put up a sign on the sidewalk, Open For Business. Ten bucks a throw, two-for-one Fridays and Saturdays. Group discounts. Maybe even make enough to hire some poor kid to clean up the spunk in between customers.”

“You’re a motherfuckin visionary,” she says.

“What can I say?”

“Shit.” She slaps my shoulder. “I saw one a those, on that street by the Big Y.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, some kid’s party I guess.”

“Is it still there?”

Her eyes go distant for a moment, computing. When she’s stoned like this, you can look in her eyes and see the machinery at work.

“I think I saw it this morning. So yeah, could be.”

I’m picturing it now.

I take the magazine and divvy up the lines. She might be the host, but it’s my shit and I’m doing the cutting. The powder burns my sinuses and I snort it back and run a finger under my nostril. A blob of mucus comes away thick with medicine, and before I can move she’s got her mouth on my digit, milking up every grain. Later, I think I’ll put some on my dick.

When she’s got her line up and away towards her brain, I slide off the bed and find my clothes.

“What’s up,” she says. I’m pulling my boxers on and grabbing a stained undershirt.

“Get your clothes on, babe.”

Her eyes are so pretty, squinty and red but bright, too. There’s still some real, untarnished beauty in there. Like, I wanna fuck her eyes.

“We goin’ somewhere?”

“Let’s go get us a bounce house.”

 

David Estringel

Gin & Tonic on a Sunday Afternoon

Bitter on the lips,
spirits of juniper berries
bless and honey tongues
with bite and fire.
Sugared words
that have long abandoned us
take wing in ambrosial flight
from our dark corners—
winter suns—
thawing the frost
that hardens our hearts
and tender fingertips.
Chestnut hair falls before your eyes
as you read, biting your lip—
the smell of you,
tearing like a machete
through bands of cigarette smoke
that haunt the air between us.
You go to the kitchen to make us another drink.
Suckin’ gin from ice cubes,
I sit,
worshiping you, silently,
in reverie
for letting me miss you,
again.
But that’s the story of you and I—
hard to swallow
save these fleeting moments—
like bubbles
at the back of the throat
that make us smile.
Looking out the window,
clouds drifting across pale azure,
I wonder where the hell I’ve been all this time,
as crickets join the fun—
even if just for a while.

Jason Lachlan Christopher

Those Are People Who Died

1988. I’m six. My first funeral. Never met Mike or his parents. Mom is crying and hugging other relatives I’ve never come across. They talk of things from previous decades, remembrances of a time before I existed. I go up to the casket. Overheard the “napping against the tree” story from Mike’s dad. Still looks like he is napping. This is the first dead body I have ever seen.

Mike was mom’s cousin. Was in his early-30s. Been out fishing with friends all day, drinking beers on the boat while they tried to catch walleyes. Sun went down. Mike and friends went back to shore. Friends hitched the boat to their truck and said goodnight to Mike. He climbed in his truck and drove home. Country road twisted and turned back in on itself. Mike, still boozy, going too fast, went off road. Front right end of his truck struck a tree. Mike wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He burst through the windshield, bounced along the ground and slammed into a different tree. Old man that came upon the accident later said it looked Mike had sat down with his back to the tree and taken a nap.

Mike still has the brown bushy hair and moustache that he has in pictures next to the casket. Pictures from before he died. He wears the kind of glasses friends and I will later in life refer to as “Jeffrey Dahmer glasses.” He’s smiling in all his pictures. Friends hug him. Parents lean on him and give him kisses on his cheeks. Redheaded woman named Roxanne poses next to Mike, her right hand on his chest, her head on his shoulder. Someone told me they were dating. I don’t see Roxanne at the funeral.

***

Grant Medical Center. 1989. I am seven-years old. In a waiting room on a floor high in the building, reading a book called Eating Ice Cream with a Werewolf. Uncle John is sitting next to me, watching a baseball game. Keeping me company while my mom, dad and aunt Cathy go back to my grandfather’s room. Grandpa Jack has cancer. Will be years before I learn that he developed cancer only a year or so after I was born 1981. A period of remission happened, so no one ever told me he was ill.

Aunt Cathy comes out. Takes me by the hand and leads me down the unusually dark hospital hall. It is April. It is spring. Sun blasts through the windows at the end of the hall. Lights above us are turned off. I smell urine, medicinal creams, bleached fabrics and an odor I will later come to think of as the “stink of death.” Smells like rot, like a body being eaten from the inside out. In my older years I consider it the smell of fear.

The stink is making me sad. Cathy leads me into my grandfather’s room. Mom and dad are there. Uncle Pat and his wife are sitting in the corner. Didn’t even know they came. Cathy’s sons, Brian and Andy, are standing next to the large hospital window. Both older than me. Andy graduated high school last year. Came up from Miami University to see grandpa. I think Andy is cool.

Grandma sits at the end of the bed, watching her husband.

Stand in front of my parents. Mom puts her hands around my shoulders. Grandpa talks to Pat about something when he notices me.

“Jay!” He pats his hospital bed. Mom helps me up and I sit next to him. Tubes all over him – coming out of his arms, from under his gown, one hooked to his nose. Rubs my back, asks me how I’m doing. I talk as a little kid would talk, still unaware of how heavy the whole situation is. Grandpa laughs at my stories, wants to know how school is going, asks me why anyone would ever want to eat ice cream with a werewolf.

He points to the state office tower. Columbus spreads out below the window. I follow the aim of his finger.

“See that? I helped build that.” He was a pipefitter, a loyal union man, took pride in his work. Navy guy in the 40s. Drove one of the Higgins boats during the invasion of Normandy in WWII. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan? He went through that.

Talk a little bit longer before mom says it’s time to get me some lunch. Hug grandpa Jack. He kisses me on the cheek. I leave not knowing this will be the last time we speak.

Weeks later. Lunch. Mom, aunt Cathy, grandma, me. Eat hospital food in the hospital cafeteria. Grandma is crying. Grandpa is unresponsive, on life support. Mom says he looks like he’s sleeping. Time to let him go. Pneumonia has settled in. His cancerous body, too weak to fight anymore, breaks down and allows pneumonia to win the war.

“I can’t lose Jack,” my grandma whispers.

At the funeral, I think he is smiling. Lay my hand on his. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kantner, comes to the funeral home to pay her respects. Mom bawls when she sees her, hugs my teacher tightly. I sit on Kantner’s lap later and she rubs my arm, tells me things will be okay.

As they bury grandpa, a bagpiper in a kilt plays “Amazing Grace.”

***

Someone banging on our apartment door. 1994. It is summer. I am twelve going on thirteen. Mom opens the door. A neighbor girl, Ashley, is screaming and crying.

“Jeremy! Jeremy!”

She points to the backyard. Mom and me step outside. Her older brother Jeremy has fashioned a crude noose and is hanging from one of the hook-steps embedded in the telephone pole. His body thrashes. The hands are pulling at the rope around his neck.

“Oh, Jesus! Oh shit! Jason, call 911!”

I run inside, grab the cordless phone, call for a squad. As I’m on the phone, I step back out on the front porch. Mom tries to climb the fence separating the apartment’s backyard from the glass factory behind us. Jeremy’s arms are looser, his body only twitching. One arm gets too weak and falls away from his neck. Mom balances herself on top of the fence and is about to climb the hook-steps when the rope breaks and Jeremy falls roughly fifteen onto the factory parking lot.

Mom jumps down. Woman on the end of the phone says paramedics are on their way, that I can hang up. Run to the fence. Other kids from other apartments have come outside, are spilling over and through the broken fence. Shimmy through an opening. Mom has pulled the noose off his neck and tossed it aside. She gives him mouth-to-mouth and pumps his chest with her hands. Ashley is weeping. There is clear snot rolling out of both of her nostrils.

Mom keeps giving him CPR until the squad arrives. They go to work on him. Mom corrals us kids away from the scene, moves us back to the other side of the fence. Fire truck arrives, and they try to help the boy. Seems like days but is only maybe five minutes when one of the paramedics calmly says, “Call it.” They mean call the time of death. Saw that in some movies. While the others load Jeremy onto a stretcher, two paramedics jump the fence to talk to everyone. Mom tells her story. I tell mine. Ashley says parents are at work. She says Jeremy talked about killing himself every day. They thank my mom for trying to help. Ashley goes with them to the hospital.

Jeremy was only fourteen. Mom and me don’t talk much for the rest of the day. Jeremy’s parents never come around to ask mom what happened. I recommend going over to their place and talking to them. Mom says they probably don’t want to talk.

***

My second grandfather is dead. Dad is sitting next to me in the funeral home sobbing, stifling moans of sadness. It is only maybe the second or third time I’ve ever seen him cry. Once was when we went to see the movie Sling Blade. Billy Bob Thornton’s character has a moment where he berates his abusive, bigoted, now-disabled father. Dad cried at that scene.

It is 1999. I am seventeen, almost eighteen. It is June. Ralph Sharon is dead. He was 84. He was a mean sonnavabitch, meaner than my dad ever has been. He was more physical, more willing to fight, somehow even crueler with his words. He talked of burning his neighbor’s house down in the 70s, when a black lesbian couple moved in. He tolerated them, sometimes even stood in the driveway and talked to them. I think he didn’t burn the house down simply because he didn’t want to go to prison. Had there been no risk, believe he would’ve happily torched the place. Lifelong attitude wasn’t far removed from David Duke, presidential candidate and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But he’s dead now, and I feel nothing. Don’t care. Mom kept me away from dad’s side of the family for a reason. Room is filled with sniffles and weeping and hugs and reminisces of the other grandfather I had. The one I barely had any relationship with. I have to be a pallbearer today. I think about dropping the casket on purpose and claiming it was an accident. Nah, too risky. Don’t wanna deal with drama. Just want to get this day over with.

Dad grabs my hand, squeezes tightly. Don’t know if this is legit or part of a show. Hold it for as long as I can stand and break away, venturing toward the casket. Ralph is inside. He is frowning. He looks miserable. The funeral people couldn’t even work their magic to make his dumbass face look faux-pleasant. He is angry, even in death.

We bury him. I go home, play Mario Kart 64 with my friends.

***

January 2004. I am 22. Terrible snowstorm moved in. Have to go to work. I despise snow. I despise winter. Driving is a treacherous, time-consuming. Back end of my car sways if I go just a smidge over 25 mph. Going to take forever to get from Canal Winchester to Pickerington, to my job at the movie theater. Call one of my managers, Zack, tell him I might be late. He says to be careful and take my time.

Crawl down High Street, heading toward Route 33. As I get closer to the freeway, I see a couple cars parked alongside the road. Fucking wonderful. What is going on?

A van is blocking our lane, preventing us from crossing 33. Passenger side is facing us. It is smashed in. Notice another car parked on the opposite side of High Street. Its front end is crumpled, and black smoke is pouring out of the hood. Two teenage girls and a man who looks like their father are standing upwind from the smoke. Man is holding a shirt or a towel against his mouth. A woman, who doesn’t look like she was involved in the accident, is talking to him. Teen girls are crying. One has squatted down, is plugging her ears, body heaving. Man removes the shirt or towel and talks to the woman. His mouth is a bloody void.

I pull up behind one of the parked cars and head toward the van. An older man, probably in his sixties, is pacing alongside it. He looks frenzied. Winter wind is blowing his thinning hair all over the place. His pupils are enlarged. A different woman is trying to keep pace with him, rubbing his back and trying to calm him.

“Oh, god! She’s dead! She’s dead! What—what am I gonna—” Guttural howls erupt from deep inside him.

A guy close to my age comes around from the other side of the van. He is on his cell phone. Moves the mouthpiece away, nods at me.

“Hey,” he says.

“You need any help, man,” I ask.

The guy shakes his head. “We got help coming.”

“What happened?”

“That car—” he points to the car with the man and teen girls, “came off Bowen Road way too fast and broadsided this dude.” He thumbs in the direction of the frazzled old man.

I see the old woman in the van.

I didn’t see her walking up. She was too quiet. Man with his girls and his blood. Older man hollering in terror. They got my attention. Old woman is sitting in the passenger seat. Window is gone. She is wearing her seatbelt. Head leans against the door, like she’s napping. The right side of her face is covered in blood. Never seen so much blood in person. My stomach drops. I’m lightheaded. Could pass out right now, vomit, shit myself.

“You can go on, man,” the guy on the phone says. “Thanks for stopping. A bunch of motherfuckers just kept driving by before these two women stopped.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I’ll get out of the, uh, way. Hope everything is okay.”

Everything isn’t okay, you fucking moron. Woman is dead. What a jackass thing to say, Jason.

Get to work. I’m in the projection booth today. Eight hours in a gray cinderblock hallway with no windows. Can’t stop thinking about the old woman. Call mom, tell her what happened. When I get off work, she tells me the local news had a brief story on the accident. The old woman did die or was dead on the scene. News doesn’t specify, nor do they give any names. Just that the woman was 67-years old. Guy with the teen girls did blow through a red light on Bowen Road, couldn’t stop because he was going too fast on the snow and ice.

I despise snow. I despise winter.

***

July 4th, 2011. I am twenty-nine. Driving home from shit-ass job. After midnight. Pull up to my friend’s place. As I walk, my phone rings. Mom.

“Grandma is gone,” she says.

Broken hip sent her to a nursing home. Miserable. Lonely. Unhappy. Still missed Jack. Quit eating. Nurses tried to get her to down some kind of food. Woman was stubborn. My belief is she willed herself to die. Was 84. Knew her body was almost done. Didn’t see any reason to stick around at a party she didn’t enjoy.

Leave my friend’s. Meet mom at the nursing home. We’re the first ones there. Grandma is under a blanket. Looks like she is just asleep. Nurse explains she checked on grandma at 11:30. Things were normal. Half-hour later, she’s dead.

Nurse leaves us alone with her. Grandma’s dentures aren’t in. Jaw hangs open. I try to push it shut, give her some dignity. Jaw drops back open. Uncle Pat shows up. Wife he had when grandpa died at Grant is no longer around. Divorced years ago. Cousins I haven’t seen in years show up, too. Aunt Cathy and uncle John come. All discuss what happens from here. Mom, Cathy and Pat talk with the funeral people who show up. They will transport her to the home in Pickerington.

July 7th. Service, then burial. I am a pallbearer. Tighten my grip to make sure I don’t lose grandma. Watch her casket lowered into the ground. She was the last grandparent I had. Dad’s mom died before I was born. This was the only grandmother I ever knew. She is in the ground next to Jack.

***

I am 35. June 2016. Mount Carmel East. Uncle John is hooked up to a breathing machine. Still wide-awake. Still struggling to breath. Arthritis has limited his mobility. Two strokes have limited everything else. Body winding down. Aunt Cathy sits next to him. Mom and I stand beside him. Keep crying quietly, keep wiping my eyes.

This was bound to happen. All knew John’s time was limited. Last few years have been hard on the man. Maintained his cheerfulness, though. Never felt sorry for self or lashed out at anyone. John is smart. John knows the deal.

He was the main father figure I had growing up. Don’t know if he knows this. He can’t talk because of the machine. I can’t talk because I will fall to pieces. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is on TV. Watch the scene with Kong and Naomi Watts playing on the frozen pond. Scene made me cry when I saw it at the theater years ago. Stomping on my heart now.

Nurses and doctors come in. Time to clean and change John. Cathy, mom and I got to leave. John takes ahold of my hand, squeezes tightly. We lock eyes for a moment and I kiss him on top of his bald head. His other arm wraps around me as tightly as possible. Does the same thing to mom.

Cathy gets the call in the middle of the night. He passed quietly in his sleep. He is cremated. The box is heavier than expected. John was a smaller man.

***

Mom is 70. Older than her father when he died. In good health. In good spirits. I worry about her passing. But maybe I get to have her around for a long time. Cathy is nearing 71. Had a mastectomy years ago. Still smokes, especially because she misses John. Talks about being lonely. Tries to remain happy.

Dad might be dead. Don’t know. Google his obit from time to time. Nothing comes up. Don’t know what I’d do with this information. Satisfaction? Sense of closure? Dunno. Need to stop doing it. Best to continue life as though he’s already gone.

Doesn’t feel like I’m a few weeks from turning 37. Presumed life would be a bore at this point. Thought I’d be nothing more than a husk of a man, with a dead-end job, a loveless marriage and kids that annoy me. Don’t feel old, despite most of my classmates being born when I was in high school. I’ve remained unshackled. Free to bend myself anyway I wanted.

I think of Mike, though. And grandpa Jack. And Jeremy. And grandpa Ralph. And the old woman. And grandma. And uncle John. Their lives stretched before them once, just as mine does. Just as yours does. I saw them in their twilight, sometimes after the light had completely left them. Someday, someone will see me in my twilight. Hope it’s not soon. Hope there aren’t many regrets. Hope I look like I’m only sleeping.

John Patrick Robbins

This Wasn’t Paris

She screamed, as always, fed up with my vices, and that I simply didn’t indulge her rage once only fueled her more.

“You son of a bitch! Do you not feel anything?” she asked.

She was full of shit and mock concern she usually added for good measure.

“Yes, I feel all sorts of things,” I replied as I lit my cigarette from the candle that had been placed upon the table (I’m guessing) to set the mood, but honestly, I didn’t think they had a scented candle called ‘tantrum throwing bitch’ on the market.

“Yeah? What do you feel besides the need for another drink?”

“Sweetheart, there is so little you truly seem to know about me. Now have a drink with me and relax.”

“All you ever want to do is drink or fuck, you lazy bastard!”

“Well… what better thing to do is there than drink or fuck? You have something against orgasms, I take it?”

“You don’t really want me, it’s strictly for the sex, you jerk.”

“Well, I enjoy having sex with you. By the way, your ass looks marvelous in that dress, my dear, any chance I can see you out of it?” I said as I kicked back the last of my whiskey.

“You’re a pig. You don’t need a real woman, you just need a whore.”

“Are they not real women too, sweetheart?” I asked, laughing as I reached for the decanter to pour myself another drink.

She looked at me in disgust. “You’re a drunk!”

“Yes,” I replied. “And your point?”

“It’s all one big joke with you. Nothing is serious, you’ll never want to clean your act up. Settle down, give me a kid!”

“Well, I would have a while back, sugar, but they all run so fast I just can’t seem to catch one for you.”

“Fuck you ! You ignorant son of a bitch!” she said, as I let her go into yet another hissy fit.

I flicked my ashes into a wine glass on the table.

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Most, I believe most, call it smoking my dear.”

“That’s a good wine glass. What if I had wanted a drink of wine?”

“My dear, do you not know me that well? Wine is for painters and women or old gay men pretending to be straight. I drink whiskey. That is it.”

“Yeah, and whatever else happens to be around.”

“Yes indeed, I do.”

She sat at the table, looking to me more as some sort of bad child than her equal.

“Why the hell do I stay with you”?

“Good question, sweetheart,” I said as I began to stand. “You know I have many feelings; in fact, right now I’m going to have to run because of one.”

“Yeah? What feeling is that?” she said in mock interest.

“Well, I’m feeling like I have to piss. Excuse me.”

She said nothing as I left the room.
When I returned she was gone.

So I guess, to my question of seeing her out of that dress?
Well, it was a no.

She was gone, and I simply drank till the night bled into the day.

Some people truly need to find a sense of humor.

She yearned for the love of romance novels, not the reality of its existence.

And she yearned for the romance of Paris.

As the candle slowly died I watched the sun creep through the small kitchen window.

Outside the whores yelled at passing cars, and the city breathed life once again.

One thing for sure.

This truly wasn’t Paris.