Joseph Hirsch

The Pizzaman’s Tip

Mark drove to Charing Cross for the fifth time today. Or maybe the fourth, some of these deliveries blurred together after a while. He patted the thermal bag on the passenger seat, feeling the warmth of the three pizzas through the nylon fabric, and used his other hand to steer.

His little Toyota compact stood out in this neighborhood, where the cars and houses were huge. SUVs with extended cabs and gas-hungry Humvees took up space in the massive gravel driveways fronting the McMansions. The houses had gargantuan cathedral ceilings with lunette windows over their entryways through which he could see bauble-filled chandeliers.

He steered and glanced at the bronze house numbers pegged to the dressed stone mailboxes fronting the McMansions. 

His phone rang, the cell rumbling from beneath the thermal bag where he’d accidentally left it. He reached with his right hand, and spotting the delivery address, steered into the driveway with his left. 

He parked behind a gunmetal grey Mercedes Jeep and hit the “Talk” button on the phone. “Pizza Man, extraordinaire.” 

“Markie.” 

Breni. Breni with the brown hair and black eyes, Breni who he’d known since high-school. Who, for some reason, was his girlfriend. It was a common complaint that girls who deserved better sometimes got stuck with losers, or even sought them out. Thankfully he was her loser.

“What can I do for you, madame?”

“Can you stop at Quik Stop on the way home?”

“Diet Pepsi and a National Enquirer?” He kept the phone cupped between ear and shoulder to free his hands to get the pizza bag.

“Don’t say it,” she said. 

“I didn’t.”

“It was in your voice.” 

He sighed. Everyone had their thing, their escape. He liked edible weed and computer games; she followed the trials of men who killed their wives. They came together for sex, having that much in common, which was enough. On top of which there was some overlap in the music they liked, but that was icing on the cake.

“I’ll pick it up,” he said, and slid the thermal bag’s silk-lined sling over his shoulder.

“Thanks baye.”

“You’re welcome.” He demonstrated skill in finding an unorthodox, hands-free way to turn his cellphone off by scrunching his ear against his shoulder, then slowly leaned down and dropped it onto his car seat.

After that he grabbed the two liter of Pepsi with his right hand, closed the car door with his hip, and walked up the flagstone path to the housefront.

Glazed leaded panes of bullseye glass were sashed in rectangular windows to the left and right of the oaken door. The windows were red and cast off a deep ruby light that reminded him of stained glass in a church. Not that he’d been in a while. 

He grabbed the brass knocker sitting in the snarling maw of the bronze lion, knocked twice. Then he stood back and waited, listening to the serene sounds of an afternoon in the leafy suburbs. Crickets chirped from their hiding in the rosebushes while an air-conditioner steadily droned, dueling with the whine of an automatic pool cleaner making underwater circuits from deep end to shallow.

The front door of the house opened inward, waking him from the dream. A woman stood there. “Oh, the pizza!” She beamed, her catlike eyes not so much widening as stretching so that the porcelain-white skin of her cheekbones drew taut as a drumhead. She was pretty, with an elongated neck and a grace to her motions that made him think of a ballet dancer. “Come in!”

He stopped on the door’s threshold, the traction treads of his nonstick shoe caught in limbo, half on the rattan Welcome mat of the porch, half on the parqueted hardwood in the entryway. 

She looked back at him, half-turned, arching an eyebrow. “Can you put it on the table in the dining room?” She pointed to an unseen table, her voice echoing through the cavernous foyer.

We can’t come in. He wanted to say it but couldn’t. Something about being a stickler for policy, here and now, embarrassed the hell out of him. It’s not like she was going to rob him. Her house cost more than he’d earn in a lifetime at Pizza Shack, and he was a foot taller than her and a good fifty pounds heavier. If anything, she should have been reticent to let a sweaty-shaggy nerd like him into her house.

“I don’t bite,” she said, stifling the vicarious embarrassment she felt for him.

Maybe…? 

Nah.

He stifled the stupid, cliched porno plot every pizzaman spun in his mind (or for the other employees, if he could convincingly lie), and stepped into the house. 

The door closed behind him without his so much as brushing it with his hip. He tried to turn, felt the cold barrels pressed flush against his occipital lobe. “She might not bite.” A man’s voice, deep but quavering, tough but cornered. “But I shoot.” 

Mark stood there, holding the two liter of pop in one hand, the beads of cold condensation making the skin of his palm throb, the strap of the thermal bag slung over his shoulder beginning to ache. So far he had managed not to piss his pants, but he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold out.

“Forget the dining room. Let’s go into the living room,” the voice with the gun to his head said.

Mark obeyed. The steel of the over-under barrels chilled his scalp where they pushed, probing so that the skin on the back of his skull started to burn and his hairs bristled, stinging as if pulled in a tussle.

***

The dude wore a tanktop that showed off arms rippling with wiry muscle that visibly writhed beneath the tattoos of dragons and Vikings shagreening him like scaled armor. The faded India ink of the tats against the pale skin on his arms contrasted with his complexion, a pissy yellow tinge that infected even the sclera of his eyes. He guided Mark into the living room and told him to get on the couch, then passed off guard duties to his girlfriend (if that’s what she was) while he went to do something else. 

She stood across from Mark, a revolver with a checked grip in her right hand. She held the gun casually, the crosshairs and barrel vaguely trained in his direction. On the floor in front of the leather couch where Mark sat, a middle aged woman with blond hair streaked with grey strands lay with her arms bound behind her and her mouth duct taped.

The woman moaned gently, struggled on the Persian rug until she had wedged herself beneath the glass coffee table piled high with hardcover books filled with famous artworks.

A razor-thin plasma screen TV hung lodged in the far wall above a fireplace made of dressed river stones. On the mantlepiece were family photos, a girl and her mother (the woman on the ground) in matching straw hats and sun dresses at some fair, their cheeks painted with bright sunflowers. In another picture both woman and child were on the deck of a sailboat where a man in a white Polo shirt and wraparound Oakley sunglasses held them close to his paunch. The fat cushioning his body only half-hid the hard contours of a former athlete’s body, his biceps those of a sculler, his calves like grapefruits. 

“Alright,” the dude in the tanktop said, coming back into the living room. He apparently trusted his girl to cover Mark with the revolver, for his shotgun was nowhere to be seen. Instead of the shottie, he held a device in his hands that looked like a Walkman cocooned in duct tape, with threads of shoestring dangling that gave it the look of a toy meant to keep a housecat busy. 

Maybe it was a tattoo gun

Mark didn’t have any more time to study it, as the guy was sliding the threaded loop of shoestring around his neck, settling the makeshift necklace as carefully as if it were a diamond pendant given to a lover.

The man stood back to study his handiwork, then stared at Mark. “You recognize me?” His eyes were ariot with fear and violence, the wings of his nostrils red from a recent sniffing. He cocked his head to the side. He expected an answer, and soon.

The woman moaned from the ground again. The guy broke eye contact with Mark to shoot her a dirty look, as if she could see it with her face down.

Mark looked up, confused, not sure how to stare the guy in the eyes without it coming off as insolent, even though he’d been told to do it.

“No,” Mark said, lying. He’d seen the dude on one of those Most Wanted programs they played before the block of Court TV that sustained Breni’s psychosexual bloodlust. This guy was no clean-cut ladies’ man with the deceptive pedigree of a Ted Bundy, nor the smug cocksure swagger of wife-killer Scott Peterson. He was Ro Bosman, aka Robot. A meth dealer whose twenty year sentence became a date with Old Sparky after he’d killed two guards with a homemade bomb while being transferred from fed pen to a secure hospital to undergo emergency dialysis. 

Robot nodded, seeming to accept Mark’s answer. He scratched his scalp, showing a tweaker’s diligence in using his fingernails to abrade a spot on his bullet-shaped head. Then he pointed at Mark’s little necklace. “Don’t touch that thing. You try to take it off, you’re going to get a drywall nail shot through your throat with more PSI’s behind it than an industrial pressure washer. It’ll probably bust through your chin and skewer your tongue to the roof of your mouth.”

The girl laughed. Mark’s heart did things in his chest.

“Relax,” Robot said, as if it were that easy. “Jostle it a little and you’re fine. I’m just saying don’t try to take it off.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I’m getting to that.” Robot winced, as if ignoring an order broadcast to him by one of the many voices in his head. “You’re in a network of one now.” He pointed to the wings of the house beyond the living room. “I got the webcam working on the computer over there. You got a little spy cam on your necklace that links up to my computer remotely.” He grinned, showing a mouthful of teeth uneven and jagged as rock candy. “I got two years’ experience working in the fed pen’s call center, and I’m hella PC-literate for a con who ain’t even got his GED.” He cheesed ear-to-ear. “So make sure to smile for me when you’re out there, because you’ll be on camera the whole time.”

Maybe he saw doubt in Mark’s eyes (though there was nothing but fear), for he cocked his head again and the point of his hawklike nose seemingly became even sharper as he stared. “I know what you’re thinking. I’m just bullshitting to make sure you stay on your p’s and q’s out there.”

Out where?

“Test me,” Robot said, and tapped his temple with a finger. “Test me like those two pigs did.”

Mark didn’t move, make a noise.

“Are we clear thus far?” Robot leaned down, lowering his head patiently, almost politely, inclining his ear to Mark as if trying to accommodate a shy kid who didn’t want to speak out loud in class.

“Yes,” Mark said.

“Good.” 

Robot walked around the couch where Mark sat, past the woman still moaning face-down on the floor. He returned shortly with the pizzas, held out the nylon sling of the thermal bag as if dispatching Mark on a delivery. “Do you know where Alliance Bank is?”

Mark thought, but Robot spoke, breaking Mark’s concentration. “You should know this. It’s on Cheswick, near the Publix.”  

“Kroger,” Mark said, not so much correcting him as adjusting directions under breath.

“Right,” Robot said. “You’re going to go in there, say you have an order for Ty Banks.”

“Ty Banks,” Mark said, nodding.

“Mmm!” A moan pressed against the duct tape secured to the mouth of the woman on the ground, and the girl who’d answered the door walked over to her prone form. “Shut up, you fat cow of a cunt!” Mark had barely understood the words, the string of insults latticed together so tightly as it came out of the girl’s mouth. She wiped her saliva-flecked lips with the back of her wrist. “You knew what we were doing!” The girl leaned down to the woman, lifted the revolver above her head and then brought it down with a meaty clonk that made Mark wince. 

“Alright, Katie,” Robot said.

“Some of this is your fault!” Katie shouted. Her words must have been directed not at Robot, but at the woman on the ground, for there was another thud (along with a stomach churning crunch). What had been a moan tapered into a soft unintelligible whimper, carried on whatever air escaped the woman’s nose. 

Katie stood back up, exhaling as if a great burden had lifted from her shoulders. Robot watched Mark with those mesmeric blue eyes, eyes that had held Mark as rapt as the shotgun had, if not moreso. “Mr. Banks is going to take you into his office. He’s going to take the pizzas from you and fill your bag with something. You are to bring that bag back to me.”

“Bring it right back here.” Katie pointed the snub nose of her revolver at the blood-soaked living room floor.

“If you do that,” Robot said, “I’ll take the nail bomb from around your neck. And you’ll live.” He pointed toward the Persian carpet where the woman whimpered and bled, no longer shimmying or struggling with her duct tape bonds. “She’ll live, too. Probably,” he added, and shot Katie the stink eye. He tried to take a deep breath but got interrupted by a shuddering that convulsed him. “You understand?”

Mark nodded, thought of Breni, the warmth of their bed, the glow of the TV, of his computer, those raspberry gummi edibles waiting for him on the end table, his space rock playlist.

Make it home, his brain said, survive.

“Okay,” Robot said, and smiled. “Go deliver those pizzas.”

Mark stood up from the couch, slowly, holding out his arm for the thermal bag. Katie turned from her sneering sentry over the whimpering lady at her feet, trained her revolver on him, less casually now than when she covered him before.

Robot handed Mark the bag, reached into his pocket, and came up with a flip phone. “Take this, too.” 

Mark accepted the prepaid Flintstone phone in hand. 

“I call and you don’t answer it…” Robot dug in the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts, rummaged around and emerged holding a lint-covered RC monster truck controller. “Your medulla oblongata’s a shish kebob, and it’s closed curtains for that silly bitch crying on the floor.” He licked his lips, his tongue coming out deftly like a lizard’s trying to suck up a fly. “Best believe that’s gospel.”

Mark swallowed, didn’t speak. Then he turned toward the door with the pizzas held in his arms. He felt the old dread familiar warmth blooming in his pants, the wetness radiating out from his crotch and spilling down the front of his blue Dockers. Just like when he’d been a kid and woke up in the night during sleepovers, mortified, to discover a warm puddle shaped like a lost continent soaking through the nonrubber mattress. He shuffled forward, hot nettles prickling his skin as the pee finally trickled along his leg, getting caught in the hairs of his shin where it stung and its grot scent became obvious.

He felt like crying, but held back, bit his lip, refusing to add tears to the shame he already felt. 

“Don’t worry,” the voice at his back said. “It happens to a lot of people when they get a gun pointed at them.”

Katie giggled, her birdlike titter almost cheerful, except that it tapered to a dumb, stoner-ish guffaw, and then died in a sere cackle. The hair rose on the back of Mark’s neck, and the thought flashed through his brain, blinking unbidden and quickly as a camera’s flashbulb: Drop the bag, go rushing for them. Charge them both. Make them shoot you.

But he didn’t turn around and charge them. Instead he sucked it up, drawing in a deep breath that ended in a long sigh before he opened the door and headed out into the hot day once again. Time to deliver the three double pepperoni, parmesan-dusted flatbread crusts with extra cheese to Alliance Bank on Cheswick. 

He closed the door behind him as he left.  

Only as he reached his car did he realized he’d forgotten the two liter.

***

The bank anchored the corner of an office park disguised as an English village. Mark never had reason to come here before, but always looked over whenever his deliveries took him past it. The half-Tudor buildings with their pitched brown roofs and faux wattle and daub fronts always made him feel like a knight in a fantasy riding his steed past a quaint hamlet where peaceful elves dwelled.

He pulled into a parking space out front, beneath a linden tree, its heart-shaped leaves dappled with sunlight. Why the hell did today have to be a beautiful day?

His cellphone rang from the passenger seat but he didn’t even glance down. The only cellphone that mattered now was the flip phone in his pocket.

He got out of the car, happy at least to discover the stain had dried on his pants, though it gave off an ammoniac reek and his thighs stung from the acidity. If he didn’t hop in the shower soon, he’d get a rash. 

Mark slipped the pizza bag’s sling over his collarbone, got out of the car, closed the door.

He tried whistling, pursed his lips to force a couple bars of random music out just to work off the nerves. But his mouth lacked the spit, and his teeth were chattering. He bit down, walked forward, taking the rustic wooden footbridge over a lilypad-crowded pond that carried him into Alliance.

The lobby was cool, the floor a honey-colored stone that made it feel more like a grotto than a bank. A burgundy crush velvet rope linked between golden stanchions, describing a path for customers to take on their way up to one of three windows. It was a hell of a lot different than his bank, which had grey loop carpet floors and was awash in harsh fluorescent light coming from fixtures in the popcorn ceiling. 

Only one person stood in line, a slim middle-aged woman in a checked pencil skirt and sleeveless pebble grey blouse that showed off tanned, athletic shoulders. The line at his bank was usually a wending snake, consisting mostly of day laborers in Carhart jackets and muddy boots, people on SSI who wore sweatpants and flipflops to cash their checks.

“May I help you?” The voice belonged to a frosty teller with cat-eyed tortoise shell glasses and a snubby nose, eyes fixed in a contemptuous squint as if she could smell him all the way from behind the counter. 

“Order for Ty Banks.” He smiled and lifted the bag.

“Pizza?” The nose scrunched and the eyes squinted harder, her face, quizzical at rest, now somewhere between confused and offended. “One moment.”

He watched her walk around the counter, lift a heavy hinged blonde wood divider that let her come out into the lobby. Her box heels clicked hard on the stone floor, producing a snappy echo that traveled loud and hard through the otherwise-silent chamber. She veered off to the right, to a room with a door made of black lacquered wood and walls made of glass and steel supports, like a display case for a postmodern art piece.

Mark could see the man through the glass curtain, seated behind a walnut desk. The man hunched forward so that the sunlight streaming through the slits of the Venetian blinds over the window behind him hit his bald spot and gave it the look of a golden halo.

The woman stood before the man’s desk, looking apologetic as she spoke and gestured toward Mark out in the lobby. Ty Banks nodded, pointed a Monte Blanc pen toward his door. She nodded once, turned, opened the door to the office, searched out Mark’s eyes and stared at him. 

“Mr. Banks will see you.”

“Thank you.” Mark lowered his head, a deferent little bow, but in doing so his chin almost touched the little box dangling from the necklace. His heart started as if he’d awakened from a summer idyl on a picnic blanket to find a deadly spider crawling on his sternum. It took everything in him not to freak out and slap the thing away.

Mark walked forward, carrying the pizza into the man’s office. 

Mr. Banks looked up from the desk where he sat twirling his expensive pen. He was a little doughier than the already pampered athlete gone to seed who’d stood on the sailboat with his wife and daughter, but it was the guy from the mantlepiece photo.

The little girl in the photo… Mark hadn’t seen her at the house. Maybe she was out of town. Or still at school, and would be home soon. He had to hurry.

“Close the door,” Mr. Banks said. 

Mark did.

“Sit down.” Mr. Banks pointed to the seat opposite him.

Mark sat, a head taller than when usually seated in a chair due to this one being overstuffed with horsehair that groaned beneath the chocolate-toned leather. The pizzas remained in the bag, on his lap, warm now instead of hot.

“I’m sorry you got mixed up in this.” Mr. Banks shook his head, less as if expressing regret than as if he had Parkinson’s and was in the middle of a fit. Maybe he was cracking. Mark would have sympathized with him, except he was the one with the bomb around his throat.

“S’ okay,” Mark said, barely able to force himself to mutter that much. 

“I’m taking what’s left of the two million for myself, though. You can go back and tell that little meth-cooking skinhead I said that.”

Mark shook his head. The details of this deal, or double-cross, or whatever the hell it was, were still foggy to him.

Mr. Banks lifted an alligator-skinned suitcase from beneath his desk. He undid the bronze hasps, flipped open the top and displayed the contents to Mark. “I’m the one who put it through a hard wash already. If they’d spent the money, it would have gotten traced.” 

Mark stared inside at the creamy stacked hundred dollar bills, still bound in their Federal Reserve wrappers, a compact and condensed green and white dream in a box. “Besides,” Mr. Banks said, flipping the lid closed and securing the hasps with a loud snap. “A skinhead covered in tattoos is not going to be able to get through customs with more than ten g’s undeclared. What’s he going to tell them?” He smirked. “That his investments panned out?”

 He stood, said, “It was my fault for getting involved with that little white trash slut in the first place.” He finally stopped shaking his head nervously, adjusted the Windsor knot of his blue worsted tie. “It was just bad luck and bad timing that her boy Houdinied his way out of the cuffs again when he did, came home and found out we were together. We were getting ready to celebrate with daquiris on the lido deck.” 

Mark’s grandparents were cruise-happy Sunbelt types, so he knew what a lido deck was. 

“But now I’m riding off into the sunset on my own.” Mr. Banks walked around the desk, the suitcase dangling in his right hand, trailing a whiff of something that smelled of expensive aftershave, maybe saddle leather.  

“Wait.” Mark spun around in the chair, watched the man move toward the door.

“I’m leaving.” 

Mr. Banks had said it as if he were just done with work for the day, rather than leaving his office with a briefcase filled with money, as if he weren’t leaving his wife, throwing her to the proverbial wolves. Leaving Mark at the mercy of the nail pointed straight for his throat, ready to pop from the little charm around his neck with enough force to pierce a two-by-four.

“Your wife,” Mark tried.

Mr. Banks paused, hand on the doorknob. He shrugged. “She’s got to make the bed she slept in.” He pulled the door open. “You want to see the photos? I could give them to you. You could upload them online. ‘Revenge porn,’ I think the kids call it. Not that I’m racist, but that he’s black means I’ve been suffering the cuckold jokes now here for a while.”

“But-”

Mark got no more out. The cellphone rang in his pocket, a tinny, tacky song that sounded like an eight-bit videogame. He wanted to stand up, follow the man and the money out, but if he didn’t answer the phone—the nail.

“Hello?”

“Does he have the money?” Robot’s breath came in shallow, ragged gulps. He sounded as if he’d just gone for a run, or maybe gotten into a fight with Katie. 

“He’s got it,” Mark said. He didn’t add that Mr. Banks was walking out of here with the dough, striding across the lobby, greeting his tellers with a charismatic smile and a small wave that worked on them like a spell.

“Good. Bring it back here. Now. Then—”

A gun clapped from within the phone, an echoless crack that made Mark flinch, caused the pendant dangling around his neck to wave back and forth, wiggle. The box holding the nail groaned, releasing a slow, hissing sound, like the sizzle of a firecracker’s wick before it reached the gunpowder-packed part. “Shit.” He didn’t recognize the voice as his own, nor had he planned to say anything. The words just spilled out. His hands grew clammy and his heart thrummed. 

A blast roared from the phone, this one louder, much easier to hear than the last one even though Mark no longer had the phone next to his ear.

“We needed a hostage, you dumb bitch!”

Katie said something indistinct, her protest punctuated with another three claps, short and staccato, ending whatever argument there was, leaving only silence. 

Then a last pop, somewhat anticlimactic, rang out from the phone. 

It shamed him, but relief passed through Mark in waves.

He looked down at his necklace. 

He stood, slowly, holding the pizza in his hands, and walked out into the lobby. 

The woman with the cat eye glasses seemed to have forgotten he was in Mr. Banks’ office even though she’d led him there. She broke off her conversation with another teller, a thin-featured woman with honey-colored hair in a tight bun and an explosion of sandy freckles on her face.

“Yes?”

“I need you to call the police,” he said, as calmly as he could. “There’s a bomb around my neck.”

Her look of slight annoyance morphed into something else, not quite surprise, more like the snarl of a lioness cornered in a den where she slept with her cubs and the hunter had intruded. “You’ll never get away with it, you little loser.”

The loser part hurt so much that he missed the implication of the whole sentence in which the insult had been embedded. But it was sinking in. And then it sank, all the way.

“Oh shit,” he said. Then, “No, it’s not mine.”

“He’s got a bomb!” Her voice rang out through the lobby.

Instinctively, Mark lifted the pizzas out of the thermal bag, gripping the cardboard already greasy from where the cheese had soaked through in spots. “I’m just a pizzaman.” And a damn good one, too. For he could feel the residual warmth coming from the pepperoni, parmesan-dusted flatbreads with extra cheese. 

Still warm. His only screwup was leaving the two liter at the Banks’ Residence. He deserved a tip. 

Then the sibilant hiss coming from the locket around his neck whined, replaced finally with a groan that ended in a plosive pop.

Kristin Garth

gargoyles 

in dreams i will follow you to rooms which 
cannot be true. knock doors with holes as small 
as me where you appraise every inch 
you see, timorous, in a half lit hall. 
a freshly shaven babydoll closes eyes, 
pulls up her dress, ritual you request 
before turning the lock.  tiptoe by
your flock of gargoyles asleep abreast,
the broken ones you loved the best, unleashed,
still animals at your behest, with teeth 
for any who fail your tests. make a feast 
of me upon egress if i’m not bequeathed 
the night to serve the master, as is right.
only good girls get to stay the night. 

Rob Plath

demon on the wall 

i remember as a boy 
my father taking the receiver 
off the hook
& resting it on its back 
on top 
of the phone 
so nobody could call in 
“don’t put that back 
or i’ll break yr fingers,” 
he’d growl 
i’d just stare at the way 
the ear & mouthpiece 
jutted up in the air 
like a pair of horns 
a demon on the wall 
silencing the outside world 
as we busily burned 
w/ in our little inferno

Bill Suboski

Gyges Ring

His name does not matter. His mother named him Stephen George Bailey. She called him Stephen when he was young, after his father, who had died when he was one year old. As he grew, and they grew apart, she began calling him George, and in the few very good times Georgie.

Possession was just something that he did. He had been doing it before he could remember, maybe before he could talk. He could not say. But all through his childhood he took dogs and cats and played with them. It was glorious to run as a dog. Inside a bird, he could soar and climb. He could swoop through the air and dive at the earth and glide and land on a branch with tiny bird claws.

He saw what the bird saw, felt what it felt; he was the bird. But he did not have to think about the motor movements. He moved as he would as a human, and the bird body responded. It was as if he inhabited the bird, inheriting its experience and skill in flight, without having to think. He controlled the bird. He was the bird. 

As he got older he realized that possession required line of sight. The bird he possessed had to be in view of his body. When he possessed another, his own body would lay limp, eyes closed. As long as the bird remained in a line of possible sight he had possession. But if it flew out of sight, too far away, or behind a building, or some such, he would drop out, his awareness returning to his own body and the bird would fly away.

He was nine when he finally dull-wittedly realized that possession was not a skill shared by all. He had always been behind in school. Every report card came with the comment, “Needs improvement”. He had just assumed everyone could possess. There was no trigger moment of insight. It just came slowly to him one day that he alone had this ability.

Around that same time there was a quarrel at a birthday party. He wasn’t really friends with the other children. He didn’t really have any friends. He had been invited as part of a group sweep, a proud parent’s presumption that every child in the school class must be a friend. He was not a friend. He didn’t really care. But the cake was good and they served lasagna. He took the gift that his mother had bought for him to bring. 

In the afternoon, as the party wound down, several of the kids splashed about in a wading pool in the backyard. George lay on a lounger. The sun felt good. The food and cake made him a bit tired. His mother was careful with his diet and he was unaccustomed to sugars and carbohydrates.

A bigger boy had been bullying some of the other children in the wading pool. He was splashing them and he used a bucket to dump water on one boys head. The smaller boy looked at the bigger bully and left the pool. The other children followed – they were friends of the smaller boy. The bully found himself alone in the pool. 

He had a moment of frustration before he found a new game. He filled the bucket with cold water and took a few steps to where George lay on the lounger. He suppressed a giggle as he approached and dumped the bucket on George.

George reacted with shock. The water wasn’t very cold but it was unexpected. His arms snapped inward, and his knees bent, and for a moment he sat upright. If it had been part of a game he had been playing it might have been fun. But he opened his eyes to see the bigger boy laughing, standing over him.

Across the yard the family dog, a black Labrador, had been sleeping in the sun. Bongo was an older dog and very good with kids. Earlier they had been tormenting him as kids will do. Bongo had stood it all with good grace and things had settled down. Bongo loved his family and they loved him and he was even popular with the neighbors.

The bigger bully stood laughing over George. His fat belly shook like a bowlful of jelly. Although only nine, the bully had flabby b-cup-sized pectorals. His round face was chubby with blubber. He had eaten two servings of lasagna and three pieces of cake. His laugh was unpleasant and mocking, a combination of a donkey’s bray and a girlish giggle. He had no friends. 

After reacting, George had laid back again and closed his eyes. He lay motionless. The bully was frustrated. They weren’t supposed to do that. He hated being ignored. He would show this little twerp. No one noticed when Bongo stood on all fours and began walking across the yard.

The bully was still laughing but it was dying off. This wasn’t any fun if the other kids wouldn’t play. Why wouldn’t they be his friends? His laugh had evolved to sound almost as suppressed sobs. He was biting his lip, frustrated again, thinking about getting another bucket of water when Bongo bit his right hand. 

The older dog had the element of surprise and was far stronger than the young bully. He pulled the boy off his feet, and then Bongo was on him. The boys hand was red with blood as he started screaming. The other children started crying and screaming and moving away, as George lay on the lounger.

The bully was blubbering, helpless under the dog. Bongo bit his face, a nasty wound that would leave a lifetime scar. The father of the birthday boy was running across the yard, shouting, “Bongo! Bongo, stop!” The dog’s nose was an inch above the little bully’s face, and Bongo was growling. Then Bongo tore out his throat, and the bully bled to death long before the ambulance arrived.

At fifteen George was still friendless. He didn’t care. He sat apart on the bleachers. He was tall and thin and pasty white. He had a light dappling of acne on his face and an owlish look from the thick black glasses that his mother had hoped would improve his school grades. He had not a single friend. In a few weeks he would turn sixteen. His mother would take him to Aces diner, as every year, and he would eat pancakes and sausage, same as always.

It was cheerleader tryout. Many of the other groups were friends and boyfriends of the girls down on the track. Some were family, mothers and brothers. There were small and large groups, some cheering, some wolf whistling, but only one person sat entirely alone. 

Others knew to avoid George. It was an unstated understanding. Nobody liked him. He was bad news. Creepy. People were happy to stay away. George didn’t care at all. He almost lay on the bleachers, the only lone person there, far from any others. The sun was warm and he had a half smile on his face.

Second from the end in the line of tryouts was Heather Langley. She had just turned fifteen. She had straight long blonde hair and blue eyes. She was athletic and tanned and the sun reflected like a nimbus in her hair as she tossed her head about. She was an A grade student, on the swim team and in the chess and debating clubs. 

She wanted to be a cheerleader, but really didn’t care much. She was mostly at the tryout to support her friends. She wanted them to achieve something that for her was far too easy. And so she waved her bright pom poms, and whooped cheers, and led her circle in enthusiasm. The other girls smiled, same old Heather, a natural leader caring for those under her. Up on the bleachers George’s eyes had closed and his bony body gone limp.

Much later that night Heather woke in the hospital ward and somehow slipped from the restraints on the gurney. She threw a chair repeatedly against the window, until it smashed out. A nurse responding to the noise entered the room just in time to see Heather jump through the window, hospital gown fluttering in the night. She fell nine stories from the psychiatric ward onto the roof of the emergency department and died on impact.

She had been committed after her striptease at the tryout. She had quickly undressed and run naked around the field. She had done somersaults and cartwheels, and when the stunned crowd had recovered enough to try to restrain her, she had resisted and evaded and begged someone to fuck her. And then, whatever it was had passed, and she had been confused. She remembered all that had happened, she said she couldn’t stop herself, and she collapsed in racking tears.

When George was seventeen his mother had started talking to him about college. This was unrealistic. His grades were poor and he had never shown any interest in school. But she was motivated by desperation. Hers was a survival instinct, a need to distance herself from whatever her son had become, to try to recover…something.

All such talk ended after the day she attacked him. She had been trying again to engage him in future plans. At first he had ignored her. Then he told her to shut up. She heard the desperation in her own voice: “George, please…”

“Leave me alone, you stupid cow, I’m going to take a nap.”

He closed his eyes. His lip curled in a slight sneer and she had had enough. She fell on him, pounding him with fists. She punched him. She did not know how to punch but she punched him. He did not resist or fight back. He lay limply. She did not feel in control of herself, but it felt good. It felt good to strike him. And then she stopped.

After that, all he need do is allude to her beating and she was paralyzed with guilt. She had beaten her own son, attacking him while he slept. He had not resisted. She had beaten him and liked it.

At twenty-two, George was a boutique hit-man. His identity was unknown to all. Jobs were arranged remotely, using a series of Internet servers, newspaper ads and offshore accounts, that kept him cocooned in anonymity. His going rate for a job was half a million dollars, although that quickly climbed based on complications. He had been considering raising his rate. He and his mother each occupied the penthouse apartment of a thirteen story apartment called the “Overlook”. They lived separate lives, although he had a key to her apartment. 

The reverse was not true. He admitted her only on invitation, and she had no desire for his company. He paid her expenses and gave her a generous allowance and they lived separate lives. Instead, he spent much of his time with high-priced call girls. Food and dry goods were delivered as needed. George rarely left the apartment. There was no need. He ate the finest foods, slept in sumptuous splendor, and enjoyed immense creature comfort.

The girls were more affordable since he had offered yearly rates. In the meantime, they walked about naked, serving his whims. They didn’t need names. He liked telling them what to do, and demanding that they perform menial tasks for his entertainment. He liked seeing the little dog collars padlocked about their necks, each with a little nameplate, “Property of George”. He called them by number, currently “five” and “seven”. “Six” had quit prematurely. They didn’t like him, and he didn’t really like them, but they were nice decorations.

When he grew bored, he would venture onto the balcony and look down onto the plaza. The Overlook was on the edge of the business district and his balcony faced a busy open area. At first he had gone to the quarry, but he disliked the risk. Now, a condition of the hit was that the subject somehow be lured to the plaza. From there it was easy.

Once George had them, he had them. He could take his time, play with them. The plaza was at the corner of two busy main roads. Many heavy trucks passed through making deliveries. A tram ran down one of the roads. There was always ample opportunity for a tragic traffic death. But a hit didn’t always mean death. Sometimes disgrace or confession was all that was sought, a signed itinerary of criminal activities or simply humiliating conduct. George had stripped a federal prosecutor naked and had him crawl around on the plaza, barking like a dog, until the authorities took him away.

One time, the request had been to remove a senior official in the Catholic Church. Three had described a scene in a Denzel Washington movie about demonic possession. George had purchased the movie and decided that the scene was perfect. He had tormented the man for an hour, pretending to be a demon hopping from person to person. Mission accomplished. The man retired the following week.

The plaza was his playground. He stared down from his Overlook and his balcony was his throne where he sat dictating and determining the fate of any little ants who crawled and crossed the land below. Sometimes he toyed with people, simply for his own fun. But harming others was too easy. Sometimes he would confound expectations, causing a business man to empty his wallet into a homeless persons trembling hands. The plaza was his playground, and when paid, his killing field.

Six had challenged him. She was a petite blonde who had never adjusted to the job. Physically she reminded him of Heather Langley, the suicide who never had time for him. But Heather had been tall and six was not. He liked women silent and submissive, talking only when spoken to but six had challenged and even defied him. She thought her college degree mattered. He had mistakenly slightly confided in her. She had talked about Plato and something called the Republic and a ring of invisibility that would make a “man like a God among men”. It sounded good to George, but her face darkened as she described it. 

Had he been more introspective he might have realized that six had lied during the brief interview, for some reason to secure the position. But introspection was not George’s forte and for her own reasons six had played him. He had had no choice but to send her away, and of course she wouldn’t be coming back. No matter; he was pleased with the current furniture.

One day when he was playing he jumped into a middle-aged man. George had no sinister intent, that time. He was bored. He would make the fellow dance a jig or maybe skip across the plaza, and then move on. But the moment he inhabited the man he was shoved back out again. He tried again and this time he couldn’t even get in. This was new. This had not happened before.

On impulse George stood and looked over the balcony. Usually he used a railing mounted camera that could zoom and swivel to find his targets. This allowed him to play his game even inside when it rained. Line of sight worked even through a camera. But this experience had been so shocking that he stood and looked down, only to see the man looking back up at him.

The distance was too great but George knew that they had made eye contact. He felt a wave of hatred and rage rise from the man, so powerful it staggered him. This was followed by bleak and black despair and for a moment his foot rose, as he started to climb over the railing to fall to his death. The man in the plaza was not a little dot to be stopped moving, not a life to be traded for twenty thousand pounds, he was something else, something more. For the first time in his life George felt real fear. 

He wanted to confide in another, to seek counsel, but there was no one. His mother? She despised him. He did not consider one of the women in his life. They did not matter, they were not people. It was around this time that he finally realized that when furniture left his employ, he could save a great deal of money with an alternate retirement. A lawyer? He could afford the best – but weren’t they required to report crimes? Did he even commit crimes? 

On his twenty-third birthday his mother had a catered meal, pancakes and sausage. Ace’s had closed last year, first for renovations and then forever. He had not seen his mother in some time. He rarely left his apartment and she rarely stayed in hers. She had been generally good to him throughout his life, and mistreating her was a boundary he was not yet willing to cross.

He knocked at five oh three pm. She answered immediately and admitted him. She was cool and distant but not unfriendly. He was the same. Neither attempted small talk. He sat and she served the meal from the oven where she had kept it warm. He missed Ace’s. But he ate heartily while she picked at her food. He had intended to eat and leave, but once seated, the combination of familiar and new made him pause.

She cleared the dishes, poured herself another coffee, offered him one which he declined, then sat back down. They looked at each other, seemingly strangers, and neither found recognition in each other’s eyes. She looked down at her coffee and quietly said, “Georgie, Georgie, Georgie…”

He looked questioningly at her.

“Yes, mother?”

“You were given a gift, Georgie…a rare and special gift, given to few. And look what you have done with it.” 

She paused. She straightened up, looked up and made eye contact. She had a determined expression he had not seen before.

“It’s my fault. I failed you, George. I needed to guide you, teach you, and I failed you. I’m very sorry about that. I let you down.” She paused again. “I don’t know the nature of your gift, George. I can guess, and I would be close, but I don’t know the details. I should have talked to you, but you were so young, Steve had just died, and…time just got away from me. I was busy working, and I hurt so much, Georgie, and I let you down, and I am so sorry.” 

He was about to speak but she gestured him quiet.

“You’ve killed people, Georgie.”

“Mother, people die every day.”

“All the more reason not to kill more.”

She looked off into space and spoke again.

“The firstborn of every female in my family is given a gift. You didn’t know, did you? You didn’t know that I have a gift, did you? You never suspected. And my gift is the gift of certainty and doubt, and when your father died, I doubted that I was strong enough, I accidentally used my gift on myself, and it has taken me a long time to recover.”

She fixed him with eye contact.

“You have killed people. I birthed you. We have killed people. Our gifts…are for the good of all. They are a privilege, Georgie, a privilege. I am certain you need to be stopped. I completely doubt you will be able to use your gift again. You don’t have a gift. Everything you ever thought you did was delusion. People have died around you, just plain bad luck.”

He felt it within himself, something breaking, as something disappeared from him. Was it a levee bursting, and waters of power rushing away, or instead a steel plate, hammered and bolted over the bleak hole from whence his gift came? It did not matter, he felt it slipping away, vanishing in a few seconds.

“Mother, no!”

But it was already gone.

“Happy Birthday, Georgie, welcome to the rest of your life.”

Joe Surkiewicz

Let’s Play Doctor

“Okay, I’ll be the patient.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Why do you—?”

“I misspoke. What are your symptoms?”

“Sorry, doctor. I have this burning sensation.”

“I’ll need more information.”

“I was going to tell you. It’s like a flickering flame surrounded by gauze.”

“Gauze?”

“Achy gauze.”

“A flickering flame surrounded by achy gauze. A big flame? Like the pasta burner on one of those expensive gas stoves?”

“More like a Bic lighter.”

“A half-teaspoon of bicarbonate—”

“Lower than that.”

“Here?”

“Lower.”

“Hmm. This will require a physical examination.”

“Okay.”

“Call my office and make an appointment.”

“I was hoping for something a little sooner.”

“If there’s a cancellation, I could squeeze—”

“Actually, this is feeling more urgent.”

“It’s not the sort of thing you want to go to the emergency room for. I could do a preliminary examination now. Remove your clothing.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

“Here’s something right off the bat. Your breasts are really small.”

“I know.”

“At what age did you begin to develop?”

“Twelve.”

“And at what age did you reach full development?”

“Twelve.”

“Any sensitivity issues?”

“The right one is slightly more erotic.”

“May I?”

“Please.”

“I concur. The right nipple—”

“Perks right up.”

“Moving on, I’ll need you to lay back and spread your legs.”

“Okay.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm?”

“There’s another hole back there.”

“Back where?”

“You can’t see it. If this was a regular examination room, I’d have the equipment to show you.”

“Is it serious?”

“It’s going to require probing.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Not with the proper precautions.”

“First, do no harm.”

“What?”

“It’s the Hippocratic Oath.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“I’ll just take this glob of Vaseline—”

“No rubber glove?”

“Four years of college, four years of medical school, three years of residency and you’re giving me advice?”

“Sorry.”

“Here goes.”

“Ah.”

“Feels normal. Your left nipple perked up, by the way.”

“Will your examination include any other openings down there?”

“Yes. But I don’t want to remove this probe just yet.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

“Hmm. Two sets of lips.”

“I had no idea.”

“Yes, many women are astonishingly ill-informed.”

“Everything look okay?”

“So far so good. You’re opening up quite nicely.”

“That flame’s getting bigger.”

“This may require direct stimulation.”

“I tried that already.”

“And?”

“Worked for a while, but it came back.”

“This may be more serious than I thought.”

“Is there any hope?”

“Possibly. But when you come in for your appointment I’ll need to probe some more with the appropriate equipment.”

“Is that a probe in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

“I could improvise.”

“I must warn you, doctor. I thrash around a lot.”

“Then you must be restrained. Sorry.”

“Drat.”

“Rope would be best. Is that a four-poster in the bedroom?”

“No, but we could pretend.”

“What fun would that be?”

Daniel S. Irwin

Cool Sunglasses

Walking by the bus stop,
Spotted this dude sittin’ there
With these ultracool sunglasses.
Gotsta be a freak or a head.
I thrust one of my chapbooks
Into his hands. And tell him
That my book is full of vulgarities
But he wouldn’t go blind reading it.
He just said, “Smart ass!” And 
Struck me with his white cane.
Thank God he didn’t sic
That dog on me.

S. E. Lopez

How to Heal

Is there a right way?
Is there any way?
To heal from something that
haunts you every day?

I didn’t start grinding my teeth
until after it happened

Because that night
he didn’t just take my body,
he held my thoughts at gunpoint
He mentally overpowered me

I’m still his

Maybe it’s the Luke and Laura syndrome
He raped me, but my body liked it
He raped me, but I still crave it

And this is the truth
The horrible, awful truth
It’s another type of limbo
Another type of hell

If he only knew, what would he say?
Maybe he’d say, but you liked it
It was the best night of my life
And it was yours, too
Don’t deny it —
You wanted to be overpowered
You wanted to be taken
Don’t act all innocent

Maybe… maybe he’d confess:
I drugged you
But he wouldn’t blame
how wet I got on that

Maybe my body was just
trying to protect itself
That’s why I was so into it
Or maybe I was betrayed
by a sense of fight or flight
An urgency

I couldn’t fight,
so I flew into ecstasy
Naked and vulnerable
in his bed

He knew what he was doing
I have no idea
what happened that night
I can only go by what he said

I was never attracted to him
But my body said otherwise

You have to know,
I’m not happy about any of this

I’m broken
I feel broken
My body isn’t mine anymore
It’s his

It’ll always be his
because I can’t get over it
I can’t stop thinking about it

Do you know how awful that is?
I cry about it
I get wet again thinking about it
I want it again
I want him
I hate it

I shouldn’t be feeling this way,
but I do

It’s suicidal
And that will always be the difference
between me and you

Noel Negele

Work and Living in the UK

The shifts are 
twelve hour shifts
and a worker’s biggest daily struggle is,
as often is the case with repetitive jobs,
boredom.
There is also exhaustion,
you are, after all
working for the better part of a day,
but you can fight exhaustion 
with a good meal and some courage.
Boredom is a different beast.
It requires you to dig deep.
It requires some philosophy.
You have to be okay with who 
you are to deal 
with it.

Sometimes the boredom
will become so grand 
you’ll fake a bathroom visit 
just so you steal away ten minutes 
of not being a cog 
in a machine you can’t know where it begins 
and where it ends—
the warehouse is so big.

And you’ll sprinkle some piss
and then wash your hands 
and then your face 
and then look at yourself in the mirror
and think:
“I didn’t know you to
be so lazy”.

It’s the repetition 
you see.
It will get anyone.
Anyone with a soul,
no matter how desperate.
I don’t care if you’re 
a single father with three daughters
and one of them is 
not all up there in her head,
and you have to make target everyday,
you’ll still visit those bathrooms
more than your bladder needs you to—
those bathrooms are always full.

And then there’s the demeaning moment of
waiting to clock out, finally.
All of you in a line, trying to respect
the social distancing rule
but doing a terrible job at trying,
some not even trying at all,
and some just staring at that last minute 
in the clock, ticking slowly towards
the end of our shifts.

And then, finally, a breath away from leaving,
you have to go through security 
because apparently, people steal,
it’s a warehouse after all
a monkey can do it.
Don’t expect to find the 
elite of Bucharest here.

And then, zoom out from work
and you have daily life
because you have to live too,
at least just a little.
And so the days
pass slithering from your life 
in bad and cold and wet weather—
obnoxious snow every other day,
in the kitchen over the stove
cooking or doing laundry 
shopping necessities,
taking up books again and weed
and getting an Amazon prime account 
because you have to have things
to look forward to.
Otherwise life just sucks.

You have to have some things.
Just some aggressive fucking 
and alcohol and a movie 
and a Macdonald’s meal every week
is not enough.

“We should fire some weapons”,
you tell her
panting still and sweaty on the bed,
“There’s a firing range close by 
we should check it out one of these days.”
Or maybe go to Scotland for the weekend.
Ride some horses. Learn new poets.
We could go skydiving, she says.
No, fuck that. I wouldn’t do it
if they paid me.

And then her hand 
is reaching for your dick
again and soon her lips follow
and you’re thinking about things
to look forward to,
and that you need more of them.

That this is like a silent but very loud
scream of fear.
To need more and more things to look forward
to. Like a fear of death.
A middle age crisis
on your late twenties.

You’re thinking 
you’ll never blow your nose
in public,
you are that self conscious.

You’re thinking that 
you’ve wished for your own death 
with a whole hearted honesty 
but how does one decisively 
jump in a pool of nothingness
without second guessing 
how to slip into an irreversible
and forever-going and amnesiac 
abyss
without looking back.

You’re thinking that it’s nightmarish 
to get stuck in a public bathroom 
and reaching for toilet paper
after a hopeless shit you couldn’t avoid
and not finding any.
What else would one do
but scream for help?

You’re thinking there’s
a broken spring in your bed
and it’s fucking with your back.
That it’s snowing outside
and that inside it’s nice and warm
and that she is nice and warm on you.
That lust is like rabies when it gets a hold of you,
and that there is a lot of mindless violence
out there and ruthless competition 
and that you have to be really careful
if you want to make it 
if you want the house and the car and the garage 
and the dog and your peace of mind—
none of it easy
you have to be weary of people 
most of them don’t want you in peace 
most people are polar bears feasting 
on guts and blood 
and that the modern poem has become 
more like the writer 
talking to himself 
rather than the writer 
that writes a letter with heart and dream and mind 
and puts it in an almost empty whiskey bottle
and then sets it on the waves and watches it go.

You are hot she says
touching your thigh with her lips,
meaning your temperature 
thank you, you say,
I work out and she laughs 
and says hotboxing a car
is called submarine in Bulgaria
and you laugh 
because you’re high and she plucks 
hair from your chest 
and she has an ear fetish 
and you don’t work tomorrow.

***

Previously published at The Beatnik Cowboy

Saira Viola

Coco Cola Eyes (Mise-en-scène)

Cinema-curled hair
Snake hips melodising the night’s starry mouth 
lizard platforms jive talking with leopard  silk pumps 
Moonflower shine-slap-rapping on white chiffon thighs 
He drank bourbon with a shot of milk 
had a Harvey Keitel lip swivel
Bull dog wrinkles –
liked African  panthers and Swedish porn in that order 
The hot shagging  rhythm of boom bap highs 
Quadraphonic-fever rush-infectious curves 
A flick knife ride on a funk  guitar 
She drank a dirty martini flaunting an 
open-bosom sparkle-shag bikini 
She had  coco cola eyes 
Hot  black fizz that mesmerised 
That same year  Barings bank collapsed  
after ‘rogue trader,’ Nick Leeson blew £ 1.4 billion playing 
high-stakes speculative games on the Tokyo Stock Exchange 
Riots broke out in London 
after the death of 26 year old Wayne Douglas 
And the shimmering horror of Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb 
was played out in real time 
Oklahoma city April 19th  1995 – the same day a zit popped kid 
folded the four corners of a fifty dollar bill and fell into a dirty secret 
He remembered watching her move like 
TALKING CANDY 
Wanted to touch lick taste feel 
The same year the Unabomber Manifesto
was published in The New York Times 
Disjointed moments a portrait of chaos 
His hotel had a Gideon bible MTV and cable sex flicks 
Caught sight of  a new world in those eyes 
Want is sharper than the thorn of a rose 
Tangled in a luckless mist  
He approached her 
Like a high wire tight rope walker 
Cherry ripe lips  
on the edge of one kiss 
Vicious  heart stomp 
High voltage lust 
Her voice cold as salamander skin 
Venom notes of rejection 
The same year 1995 – 
when a spider ate a fly.

John D Robinson

What’s So Fucking Funny

‘Look at the state of you! shameful!’
she said
I could see she was hurt
and about to cry
‘Don’t come near me or give me
any of your bullshit! I’ve had enough’
she told me
A few hours later we made love
and lay silently together
‘I love you’ I said
‘I know you do’ she said
and then I began laughing softly
‘What’s so fucking funny?’
she asked
‘Not much’ I said
‘You tell me, you love me,
and then laugh, how the fuck
am I supposed to feel
about that?’
she said
‘But you just said that
you know that I love you’
I said
‘I do, but why laugh about it?’
she said
‘I’d cry otherwise’
I said
‘Why?’ she asked
‘Because I lack any
Fucking imagination’
I said
She said nothing and
just nodded her head.