Judge Santiago Burdon

Do The Time Standing On My Head

The best part about hearing a police siren when you are in jail is that you know they aren’t after you. Of course, then you must deal with the fact that you are already incarcerated.

Los Robles prison near Punteranes, Costa Rica. I’ve resided in gray bar hotels in a few states back in the U.S. and enjoyed the hospitality of jails and prisons in more countries than I’d care to admit. Taking all into consideration, this place was better than most foreign prisons. And much better than San Sebastian, near San Jose.

So fucking hot here, though. My body melts into the plastic-covered, three-inch mattress beneath me. Sweat pools in the indentations left by my arms, legs, head and ass.

The chant, “Offi agua Offi” (water, Officer), is constant and relentless. The guards turn on the water in the cells twice a day without warning, blasting it from a pipe in the wall with force. Each time it flows, there’s a mad dash to collect belongings from the floor, and we all scurry for plastic jugs and empty bottles to fill. The spewing spigot also serves as our shower. And I have been caught more than once, all soaped up when the water was shut off. Then I am forced to use my drinking water to rinse. The others laugh and comment with words devoid of encouragement. They call me Carapicha, Naco, and Gringo Tonto.

I’m sharing the confines of this luxurious twelve-by-twelve cell with five other guests. Three Ticos, one Nicaraguan (or Nicas, as the Costa Ricans refer to them with contempt), and a Honduran who is biggest man I’ve ever met. I call him Lenny, after Steinbeck’s character from “Of Mice and Men”.

Screaming and hollering suddenly fills the place, echoing loudly from the ceilings and the walls. A fight has started, just another exhibition for your daily entertainment. This time, from what I can see, it appears to be some M13 Salvadoran boys mixing it up with Los Negroes de Limon. There’s only two guards on duty for eighty to one hundred inmates, and they don’t seem to be in any hurry to end the violence.

It’s nearing lunchtime and I’m fucking hungry. I’d traded my breakfast for an opportunity to pull outside work detail. Now lunch will be delayed, or most likely never served, due to the disturbance. So, while I have still yet to murder anyone in here, this has now become a distinct possibility in my future.

In contrast to how us men are treated by the carceral system, Costa Rica has very strict laws concerning the treatment of women. You can book an all expenses paid vacation to one of their seven luxurious prisons just by hollering at a woman in public. If you publicly humiliate her by calling her a whore, slut, or bitch, or any derogatory expression, you get added time. Now strike or hit a Tica, you just got yourself a mandatory ninety days.

In my case, Veronica had gotten upset that I was displaying (what she felt to be) more affection to the other woman involved in our threesome. In the middle of our fucking, she attempted to stab me with a knife, which I luckily deflected without much harm. After I’d wrestled away her weapon, she continued with a screaming tirade and blows to my head and chest. Kimberly finally assisted in subduing her. I was enraged but thwarted my anger from reacting with physical retaliation.

Kimberly quickly gets dressed and makes a rapid exit, holding her shoes in one hand and $75 in the other.

“Nos vamos mi amor,” she says on her way out.

“Amor! You are her amor!” Vanessa screamed. “How many other times have you fucked her? You carapicha! I saw how you were fucking her. You didn’t want anything to do with me!”

There’s just no defense I was able present, true or embellished, that would have aided in my exoneration in that moment.

Meanwhile, the cut on my arm is bleeding worse than I thought, and I’d begun to bleed from where she’d beaten me in the head as well. She comes at me again with her fists, but I stave her off with my right arm, knocking her back in defense.

“You hit me. Tu me golpeas! Quieres una guerra (You want a war?) Okay, mi amor!”

I wanted no part of a war or battle or even a mild skirmish with her. I knew any confrontation would be one I was unable to win.

“Mi corazon. Listen, please, I’m sorry if you…”

I attempt to explain. Instead I hear her voice in the kitchen.

“Hello, give me the police!” she cries into the phone. “Hurry, my husband is beating me and won’t let me leave the house!”

She returns with the most evil grin I’ve ever observed and displays her middle finger as a victory salute. Within fifteen minutes, the Costa Rica Fuerza Publica arrive like hounds searching for a fox. I am in the bathroom attending my wounds when they encounter me. Without questions or explanation they take me into custody, placing me in “esposas”, the Spanish word for handcuffs, which ironically translates to “wives” in English.

Understand, I am a guest in this garden of wonderment they call a country, which I have learned to identify as actually a disguise for it’s true identity, a jungle of indifference. I have no legal rights, and I am not allowed a hearing with a judge while she swears out her “denuncia” complaint. Her explanation is only version that is ever presented.

I am first shipped off to the hospital, which is actually a circus of disaster manned by clowns posing as doctors. I wait for triage while bleeding out what I imagine is my entire body’s blood supply, still in esposas. I’m without explanation for this phenomenon, but it is a common practice in every country in Central and South America I’ve ever visited or lived in, that the residents have no sense of urgency or any ability to address a situation with immediacy. There’s words in Spanish pertaining to exigency, “apurate” or “rapido”, but they’re seldom expressed and rarely heard. After an hour and a half, a doctor finally tends to my wounds.

I receive four stiches in my arm and seven in my head. Total of eleven, a number that’s only advantageous in craps or blackjack. It supposedly represents a spiritual visitor.

My shirt, back, and face are drenched in blood by this point, but no attempt is made to clean away the crimson plasma that has oozed from my lacerations. I am herded off in a police paddy wagon for a four-hour excursion to my new home here in Los Robles.

Day three has come and gone without my mandatory hearing. The prosecuting attorney asks if I would like a representative from the United States Embassy. I answer, “For what purpose?”

When I was arrested once before, for shooting an invader in my own home with a crossbow, I waited four whole days for my embassy liaison to arrive.

“Hope you can afford a good attorney…”

That was the extent of my assistance from the U.S. Embassy here. That stuff you see in movies, where the embassy liaison shakes every tree and searches under every rock for a resolution to your incarceration, is just total bullshit. After all, it is only in a movie.

The prison rumble diminishes as 40 to 50 police in riot gear enter the fray with shields, helmets, and fucking gas. I make a dash for my towel, which I douse with water and tie tightly over my head and face. Lenny notices my defensive measure to lessen the impact of the gas and does the same. I lay back as I hear cell doors being slammed and the screams of those being beaten by the officers with their clubs and batons.

“I wonder what we would have had for lunch?” I muse aloud to Lenny.

He doesn’t miss a beat in responding. “Dry chicken, overcooked rice, and stale bread with warm Kool-Aid.”

“Sounds delicious!” I say.

“I know, yo se,” Lenny agrees.

We both burst into a laughing jag as the chaos continues around us.

Earl Javorsky

TulipsDeluxe

It looked like a flower, but its petals felt like skin and were warm to the touch. Kevin Peterson stood in the corner of his father’s bedroom and, with his thumb and index finger, gently stroked the downy green stalk. The flower had a strange shape that he couldn’t quite identify, something like a pair of lips oriented vertically, slightly parted, as if breathing, or ready to speak. The lips were pink and pouty, the outer petals more delicate and pale.

Congratulations on your purchase of TulipsDeluxe™ Model VI (v3N031206)! This genetically enhanced botanical creation is guaranteed to provide beauty and pleasure. Pheromones and other personal aspects of your loved one are represented in this unique creation by means of state-of-the-art gene-splicing techniques. Proper feeding and care of your TD-6 must be scrupulously maintained. Please refer to the next section.

Wayne Peterson, CEO of QNET Enterprises, enters his bedroom and locks the door behind him. He pours a glass of scotch and downs it in a single swallow, but his hands still tremble slightly, his forehead is damp, and beads of perspiration have gathered on his upper lip. He stands by his flower, bending to admire the slender neck, the beauty of the pistil with its voluptuous, fleshy stigma. The tank is itself a work of art, sturdy plex with a polished maple veneer, filled with porous urethane beads and a constantly circulating nutrient flow. Wayne vacillates for a moment—should he stand, or sit on the edge of the bed? He chooses to stand. As he unbuckles his belt, the flower begins to stir, the slightly parted lips widening now, thickening as if engorged. Wayne drops his trousers and shorts. The flower rises and undulates like a cobra and then strikes home, suddenly large enough to accommodate all of him, his shaft buried as the plant begins to ripple in a steady peristaltic motion.

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! It is imperative that all instructions are followed without deviation!

The next day, after school, Kevin returned to his father’s bedroom to look at the plant. It drew him to it in a way he couldn’t understand, as though it were calling him, and he had been thinking about it since he woke that morning. He had seen this kind of flower before; his friend Eric’s father had one in his office at their home. Kevin and Eric had wondered what it was, since Eric’s dad didn’t care much about plants. That flower didn’t have any effect on Kevin at all. Eric’s mother had also died—though not in an accident like Kevin’s mom—and the flower showed up about two months later. It was Eric who noticed the interesting serrated shape of the leaves and decided that they might be worth smoking. The boys were thirteen now and had been blasting reefer for almost a year.

Kevin pinched a single leaf and stuffed it into the little pipe he kept stashed in a flashlight that he had rigged to work on one battery. He sat down in his dad’s chair and fired up the pipe. He sucked in as the leaf ignited. The smoke was smooth and tasted sweet and familiar. He swayed slightly to the left, then overcorrected to the right until he was leaning at an uncomfortable angle in the chair, staring at the flower. He thought of sitting back up, or leaning on the armrest, but he couldn’t connect to the action. It wasn’t important now, anyway, because he couldn’t see. A blackness enveloped him, deeper than blindness could ever be, his head roaring with sounds he couldn’t decipher, and his penis felt like it was ready to burst through his pants; it was taking over all other sensation, it was all there was and all that mattered. Now the blackness had brilliant points of violet, like dark stars in an alien universe, and the points began to arrange themselves into a form. Kevin recognized the contour of the flower, and he understood its shape. He tried to bring his hand to his zipper, but couldn’t bring the command forth with sufficient strength, and now the roaring in his ears began to differentiate into a moaning sound—his own voice, he realized, though he was powerless to stop it—and a woman speaking. First he could only make out his name, “Kevin . . .” and then, “No, Kevin, Oh, no, no . . .” It was his mother’s voice, and he saw her now, sitting on the polished wood edge of the planter.

“Sit up, for God’s sake.”

“I can’t.”

“Fine, don’t then.” She was naked, her breasts hanging powerfully, her lips bigger than he remembered, and her hair cut short like when he was little. “Do you want to help me?”

No, he didn’t want to help her, she was dead, killed in a car wreck that his father had miraculously walked away from, and Kevin had finally accepted that she was gone, but he couldn’t shake his head, and he couldn’t deny his mother, and his voice said, “Sure, how?” And she told him. When she was through, the blackness returned, and Kevin felt fingers deftly unbuttoning his pants, pulling down the zipper, reaching through his shorts; he felt an exquisite softness and warmth, his back arched as he thrust forward and exploded in a wet streaming rush, and then he collapsed into the comfort of his father’s leather chair.

WARNING! Feed only with AminoTD™ nutrient solution. Do not place tank near open aquarium or terrarium. Do not leave solid foods within vicinity of your TD-6. This finely tuned creation is extremely sensitive to non-prescribed organics. Your warranty will be void if feeding instructions are violated.

Kevin spent the next weeks following his mother’s instructions. Every day when he got home from school he fed the plant. When the nutrient solution was gone, he raided the refrigerator. The flower would appear to be normal in size, but each day he had to scoop more of the plastic beads out of the tank, and each day when he placed food on the smooth wood ledge of the tank the flower would rear up and inflate alarmingly and then swoop down upon its meal. Baloney, butter, ice cream, steak: these were his instructions, instructions given to him each afternoon as he sat paralyzed in his father’s chair. And then he would be rewarded for being such a good boy. On the eighth day he was told to be a hunter.

“A hunter? What does that mean?”

“You know what it means. Get me something alive.”

“That’s gross, Mom.” Calling her Mom was even grosser, but she seemed to require it. Of course, he was not about to deny her. He spent his allowance, then stole money from his dad, and bought mice, then rats, then a fat guinea pig at the pet store. A damaged pigeon, the neighbor’s yapping terrier, and, finally, a cat with four kittens that had been offered for free (to a good home) in front of the corner market.

On Friday, at the end of a bad week at the office, Wayne Peterson storms into his bedroom, locks the door, and pulls the cork from a bottle of Remy Martin. He drinks from the bottle as he undresses, then sits on the side of his bed, facing the plant, and says,

“Honey! I’m home!”

The plant begins its slinky dance—it seems bigger than usual, but Wayne doesn’t care—and snakes up and toward Wayne, suddenly enlarging and towering over him. When it strikes, it engulfs him like a boa constrictor swallowing a rabbit; by the time he screams he is already inside and suffocating.

Kevin’s father had been missing for two days. Kevin hadn’t visited his dad’s bedroom during that time; his mom had told him his work was done after he had brought her the cat family, which was just as well because he was sure he couldn’t bring another living thing into that room. Nor were curiosity, desire, or loneliness enough to overcome the revulsion he felt. But on the third day he heard his name being called from the bedroom: “Kevin . . . Kevin dear . . .” This after a morning of thumping and clattering noises emanating from beyond the closed door, which now opened even before Kevin touched the knob.

Inside, standing at the end of the bed, was his mother, far from the nutrient tank. She was wearing his father’s striped terry cloth bathrobe, and though her hands looked right coming out of the sleeves, when Kevin looked down to where feet should be all he saw were two undifferentiated root-like masses.

“Mom!”

“I’m leaving now.” She pointed back to the tank. “I left you a little sister.”

Kevin looked at the tank. The plastic beads had been replaced, and there, small and frail, was a new green shoot and a flower.

He stared hungrily at the serrated leaves on his sister’s slender stalk.

Matthew Licht

A Hard Case (Part 2)

Doris Frawley was my kind of case. In one of my client’s home photos she was being measured for a new brassiere:

DD2 girl-tape-hst

Frawley wrung his gnarled hands. She’d left him with barely a dime, he said. He still had to make payments on the car she’d driven off in, still had to pay the rent, and take care of his elderly mother. I scribbled down where his wife went shopping, who her friends were, etc.

“Did she have a job?”

“Part-time stuff—waitressing, usually. She made good tips.”

“How much did she take? Is it possible she has a bank account you don’t know about?”

He shook his head. “She has no head for finance. And less than a thousand, I’d say. But it’s all I had.”

“When did she leave?”

“Two days ago. I kept thinking she’d be back.” His eyes welled up.

“This doesn’t look good,” I said, and spelled it out for him. His runaway wife had a car and plenty of gas money. Frawley had waited over 48 hours before he took action. She could be almost anywhere in the USA.

I told him to go home, and I’d do what I could.

“Leave the pictures of your wife.”

From my second-floor office window, I watched him walk away, eyes on the pavement, shoulders hunched, hands in his empty pockets. I felt bad for the guy.

As soon as he was out of sight, I spread the pictures of Doris Frawley across my desk and did what I could.

Wayne F. Burke

Pistol

He woke fully dressed, lying on his bed, arms outstretched like a man crucified. A window shade beside the bed rose on a breeze, crinkled and flapped like a big tongue tasting the air. He winced at the sound. The daylight hurt his eyes; he swung his thin legs off the bed and sat up. Whoa! The room turned: a clockwise motion then back again, as if adjusting itself. He shut his eyes, bracing himself with hands on the mattress.

The door of the room flew open.

“Louis!!”

His mother, wearing a terrycloth bathrobe, red, like a campfire. “WHERE IS THE CAR?” she shouted.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, rubbing his forehead, “in the drive.”

“It is NOT in the drive!”

He listened to his mother’s feet beat across the floor like drums.

Louie stared at a crack in the linoleum. The car? He heard footsteps approaching like an army on the march…

Louie teetered to his feet. His father and mother stood in the doorway. His father wore a white t-shirt; his face blue with stubble, nose red, and a vein in the middle of his forehead swollen like a night-crawler…“What you do with the car?’ he screamed. “YOU CRACK IT UP? ANSWER ME!”

Louie blinked. Shrugged his shoulders.

The fucking car.

Louie’s father stepped across the floor; he threw a punch: a Rocky Marciano right-hook.

Louie ducked and the room ducked with him up and down. He ran to the door and out, past his mother, who rabbit-punched him in the ear as he ran past.

“GODDAMN DRUNK!” his father screamed.

The cool morning air burnt Louie’s throat. He sucked air for breath. “Oh my Christ,” he said…He walked along the sidewalk and over a truck-long bridge, spanning a river in the trough of cement retaining walls. The river giggled. It thought he was funny, Louie told himself.

The smell of grease and fried chicken assailed his big nose. Three cars in the lot of KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN across the street. A seagull flew over the roof of the joint; a french fry like fangs in its mouth…In the park beside the river trees stood, bare, branches raised like arms in some kind of beseeching action. When did the trees lose their leaves, Louie wondered. He gazed at cars in Goldman’s Super-Duper Market parking lot. Traffic noise revved like an engine inside his head. FIND THE CAR, he told himself. The goddamn car. A cat-sized crow stood in the sidewalk, looking pissed-off and as if daring Louie to pass. He kicked at the bird, wondering if the thing would attack him. The crow flew off, croaking “ut oh! Ut oh!”

Louie’s mouth felt dry, like a desert. Should have grabbed a quart of milk from the frig before he booked, he thought. He searched his pockets for his money. SHIT! where did his money go? He must have been robbed! Or did he lose it? He leaned against a telephone pole and watched cars pass. Too bad he did not have a cigarette, he thought. Or a joint. The pole smelled like tar and resin.

A vague memory, distant, like the First World War, came into his mind. A booth in CHICK’S Lounge and two girls sitting across from him. A blonde and a red-head. The blonde had big knockers. The red-head pretty and with a silver nose ring. He recalled the feel of the redhead’s lips, the smell of shampoo in her hair…She was married, he remembered her saying. Married! And had kids…Three or four or…The memory faded…

A truck ground a couple pounds worth of gears. The truck driver had a mountain-man beard and a tortured-looking face, angry eyes in his melon-sized head. The eyes looked down onto Louie, who flinched. The red-head’s husband, he told himself. Holy shit! Drops of sweat sprouted on his scalp and rolled down his back like rain. It could not be, he thought. Or, could it?

He walked away hurriedly, looked back once before stopping on the corner. Run like a bastard, he told himself—if the guy came for him. Could he run like a bastard, he wondered? His feet felt as if someone had pounded nails into his soles.

An old lady driving past in a Cadillac gave him a fish-eyed look. Louie wondered what her problem was: lose her false teeth?

Behind the Caddy a pick-up truck: the guy driving pointed his index finger like a gun out the window. Louie cringed. Chooch Rondini–who tended bar at CHICK’s—stuck his peanut-shaped head out the truck window: “PISTOL!” he shouted.

Louie hated the name. John the bartender at the American Legion tagged him with it and it had stuck. He did not want to be “Pistol,” but he was…Maybe the car is at the Legion, he told himself; he crossed the street as a guy with a sun-burnt face and pointy van Dyke beard walked out of AL’S Hardware carrying a pitchfork. Louie moved aside quickly: for some reason he could not explain, the guy gave him, Louie, the creeps.

Church bells tolled Bong Bong Bong Bong BONG BONG

“Jesus!” Louie said, cupping his ears.

Birds like ashes fluttered around the steeple of the church. Sky above smoky gray.

A whale-sized fire truck rolled out of the fire station and wallowed in the street, lights flashing red and yellow, siren wailing like a signal for the end of the world.

“Bastard!” Louie shouted.

The truck took its sweet time going to douse the flames.

Louie read the marquee above the movie theater entrance: LOST IN SPACE A Romantical Comedy Out of This World Starring Tipsy Hedron and Nipsy Russell.

He nearly walked into a bow-legged man wearing a homburg and carrying a big fish. The fishes mouth flapped open and closed, as if it were trying to speak. The distant siren of the fire truck wailed.

The black eyes of a red brick tenement building across the street stared down at Louie who became self-conscious under the scrutiny. He studied the cracks in the cement sidewalk; got a whiff of the odor of burning meat and glanced into the window of the Miss Brighton Diner. An old crone gnawed a chunk of bloody meat that looked, to Louie, like a baby’s arm. He shivered and looked away; noticed a big basket of bread loaves in the window of SCHWARTZ Sporting Goods Store; wondered since when did Schwartzie start selling bread? A sign on the door of PETE’S Market read BUY FISH…Fuck fish, Louie thought. He wanted something to drink, like a Pepsi, or a can of Budweiser.

He heard the puth puth puth of a car engine and then the squeal of brakes. He glanced at his brother’s black Volkswagen Beetle, nose to the curbside. His brother jumped from the car. He wore gray sweat pants and sweat shirt. A red bandanna tied around his head. “Where is Dad’s car?” he shouted. Louie backed away, trying to escape the aroma of bad breath as his brother’s eagle-eyes bore into his. “Hey, why don’t you go run some laps or something?” Louie said. His brother’s fist felt like a blunt end of a stick hitting his, Louie’s, face. Louie sat on the cold sidewalk and watched his brother walk away.

The car made farting noises as it sped off. Louie touched his lip, swollen like a rubber inner tube. He stood and walked to the curbside. Watched cars pass. Threw a hand up at a Chevy Explorer Wagon in the lane opposite. The driver of the Chevy nodded. Louie stepped into the street, over a dead fish, silver with glossy pink and turquoise sheen, lying in the gutter. A car passed in front of him like a hot breeze. Louie wiped sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve.

The Chevy idled at curbside, the driver’s head level with the car’s dashboard; silky hair capped the head like an overturned bowl.

“Mouse!” Louie called, approaching. “What are you doing, Mouse?”

Mouse shrugged. “Nothin’,” he said like a complaint.

Louie dodged a tractor trailer rig loaded with cars.

“What happened to your lip?” Mouse asked, staring.

“My brother punched me.”

“Is that right?” Mouse looked amused.

“Can you help me, Mouse?” Louie pleaded.

“With what?”

“Help me look for my father’s car? I lost it.”

Mouse’s big square teeth gleamed in his kid-sized face. “What do you mean, ‘lost it’?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean? I can’t find it!”

“No shit,” Mouse said.

“No shit.”

Mouse glanced at a passing car. “Sixty-seven Mustang,” he said.

“Help me look, will you?” Louie begged.

“The silver ElDorado,” Mouse said.

Yeah.”

Mouse went into deep into thought as he watched cars. Louie waited. The mountain side rose like a vast brown wall behind the church. Something half-way up the church steeple caught his eye: a golden cherubim, swaddled in cloths, and clinging to the spire of the steeple. The cherubim waved a chubby hand in Louie’s direction.

“Hop in,” Mouse said, decisively.

Louie sat. Mouse fiddled with the radio, tuning-in The Righteous Brothers, who sang, “you lost that loving feeling.”

Mouse stared ahead over the dashboard as the car moved down the street.

“Whoa oh oh oh,” Mouse sang, “whoa oh oh oh.”

Louie looked at the parked cars.

Did he really just see an angel wave to him, Louie wondered. An angel on the church steeple…Waving??

“Hey!” said Mouse, looking in the rear view mirror, “I think your father’s car just went by!”

Louie swiveled his head to the Chevy’s rear window.

“I’m pretty sure,” Mouse said. “Some girl driving.”

“A red-head?” Louie asked.

Arturo Desimone

The Conversation of Angels

I was unstoppable in my truck. My heart was a cylinder and turbine engine; petrol and caffeine and amphetamines ran through my blood. I would have liked to run over funny people. I wanted to. I had run over dogs and cats and crates. My truck trampled them like a bull trampling over a slow Spaniard in the running of the bulls. Not that I would last in the running of the bulls. I’m too fat.

I remembered my father and one of the fights I had with him. I ducked from his punch and his fist broke through the door.

Boy would I like to run him over.

I sped my truck across an old industrial landscape in the Ukrainian countryside, this stretch now reduced to a goddamned wasteland. The factories ate up all nature here like a centipede eats up the inside of a toadstool. Miles and miles of black dust and ghostly abandoned factories with little cracked dust-darkened windows.

I had a hole drilled through the partition of my truck into the cargo compartment. When I was parked or stuck in traffic I could look through the hole and see the whores or whores-to-be that I often smuggled. Sometimes I would masturbate. Often they were nice-looking with torpedo-tits and thick lips. Hungarian harlots, Rumanian whores, and of course, my favorite, the Russian ladies of the White Night. (I call them Ladies of the White Night because of the White Night in St. Petersburg during the summer. Isn’t that clever?)

But today I wasn’t transporting tarts, instead just a bunch of stinking Rumanian immigrants. I tried not to think of the chore of emptying the bucket and hosing off the cargo-hold. I looked through the hole and saw thick-browed Rumanians, one of them an older man with a fuzzy broom-like mustache and an accordion hanging from his neck. There was a gypsy woman who made me think of soothsayers—not because she looked like gypsies in the old movies, she just looked like a middle-aged brown woman, sweating and scared shitless like every other immigrant I ever hauled. There was also a gypsy boy, with amber eyes. He spat in the bucket. I don’t know why but he got my attention. I could easily imagine the little bastard with a switchblade in his hand. Something dangerous slithered like a garden snake under his young surface. While staring at him I felt a sensation pass through my testicles, like a little shooting star.

I rolled a shag with one hand, while with my other hand I dipped a key into a baggie of speed on my right knee and snorted the speed off the key while I drove with my left knee. An hour after crossing borders I met the Croats with their vans on the side of the road by a meadow at night. The whispering wind blew through and in some places parted the tall grass, making the field resemble a roiling nocturnal sea.

Bok,” I said.

Bok,” one of the Croats answered.

I unloaded the trash and indicated to the Croats where I had hid the pack of Russian acid papers. They looked like stamps; they depicted a cartoon man on a bicycle flying through space. I prefer smuggling psychedelics, which are only attractive to smelly, lazy, pathetic hippies (we get a lot of those in Amsterdam)—if I smuggled the good stuff, the speed and Russian coke, I might be tempted to dip into it myself, which would mean lousy business prospects.

One of the Croats, Fran, a bald ape (whom I called Ape-face) ripped the old Rumanian’s accordion from his stubby little hands and smote it onto the ground. Ape-face stamped on the accordion with his steel-toed work-booted foot, making a foot-sized hole in it. I chuckled. The Rumanian folded his hands without raising his head. The Croats herded the immigrants into their vans, paid me, shook my hand—which I then wiped off on my jeans—and it was done.

A few nights later I was in Amsterdam and my mother, Renske Kiegote, was taking me to bible study. I didn’t want to go to church on my off-day. I wanted to stay home and read Stephen King. He should win the Nobel Prize, or be president of America, because he’s a genius, a great man. I remember this movie called “Trucks”—I don’t know if he wrote it or if it was based on one of his books—about trucks that have a mind of their own and terrorize a town of American rednecks. A masterpiece. Or I could eat chips while watching Renegade on TV and roll a joint of Dutch Passion, and my mother could join me. But no, I have to go to that stinking congregation with the moaning retards and the wheelchair-vegetables and the old ladies. Who the hell ever heard of Dutch people being religious?

I have three words for my mother: absolutely fucking insane. She was a messianic Jew for a year, even though she didn’t have a single drop of Jewish blood in the family. She was a Jehovah’s Witness too for some time, always talking about how Satan is the ruler of the world (I think Stephen King should be the ruler of the world) and how the Roman Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon. (I know the Whore of Babylon, this Thai whore I poked in Amsterdam. “You ouch me,” she said. For forty euros I damn well better ouch you, you saucy kutwijf.)

She was even New Age for a while, Feng-Shui’ing everything she could get her hands on, doing yoga with these damn crystals and making me hold them to feel their energy—all I could really do was look at them and imagine they were cocaine-hydrochloride crystal. Talking about angels; hugging me and telling me I was a caterpillar who would one day metamorphose into a beautiful butterfly—and the stink of that incense.

I wore a tie with little carrots on it and walked with my mother along the canal. I hadn’t slept for forty hours but that was OK because the speed was keeping me up. With her permed, puffed-up red-dyed hair and her long, thin pasty white body and long dress she resembled a toadstool—for some reason I imagined a centipede eating her from the inside. I decided to walk because I had just sniffed so I had a walking kick and besides my mother claimed her bone problems made it difficult to climb into my truck. I observed the patterns of the cobblestone and enjoyed tracing them with my eyes—I liked doing that after sniffing—as my mother yakked away about God. We took a tram at De Pijp. The tram wriggled like a great steel millipede along the rails on the cobblestone streets. We got off the tram, walked into a side street, wormed through crowds of young stoned tourists smelling of diverse breeds of marijuana, and got into the church. The retards, the vegetables, and the old ladies were there as usual. My mother took out her white-jacketed bible from her handbag and we shared it the way schoolchildren do when one of them has forgotten his textbook.

“Today we are going to discuss the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” the discussion-leader said. His eyes were bloodshot. “Two angels came to Sodom in the evening; and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed himself with his face to the earth and said: My Lords, turn aside, I pray you, to your servant’s house and spend the night….”

Basically the angels wanted to spend the night in the street, but Lot convinced them to stay at his house for a game of dominoes or whatnot. “But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house, and they called to Lot: Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may have intercourse with them.”

I imagined these rapacious homosexuals dressed in S&M gear, and one of them carrying a stereo playing the techno music and popping designer drugs. “I want to have intercourse with them”—that’s a good one. Don’t waste any time.

“Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said: I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two virgin daughters, let me bring them to you, and do to them as you please….”

This business was finally getting interesting.

“….only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof. But they said: ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door.”

The preacher went on about how the angels struck the Sodomites with blindness and told Lot to flee from the city because the angels were going to destroy it. Lot and his family ran away from the city; it went up in a mushroom cloud under a rain of fire from the sky, and I imagined the angels in an invisible jet like Wonder-Woman’s napalming the city flat. Lot’s wife looked back at the city and turned into a pillar of salt. Then Lot and his daughters found shelter in a cave, Lot got drunk and impregnated them. The end.

Preacher-man looked up from his bible at the spectators.

“Sodomy is an abomination! A gross sin, worthy of death!” he screamed. The retards and old whores nodded their heads; the veggies moved whatever they could to show how excited they were.

“Today’s sodomites will be cast into the Lake of Fire on Judgment Day!”

My mother nodded. The amphetamines, shag, and coffee were affecting my stomach, and I abruptly farted. At this the discussion-leader had a puzzled expression on his bearded face and looked about with shifty blue eyes.

“That concludes our Bible study tonight,” he said nervously, perhaps sensing my intestinal emanations violating his sacred space. “Thank you all for coming.”

I walked out of there with my brain turned upside-down in my head, like a tortoise fallen on its back and squirming to get back on its legs. All I could think about was homosexuals. Gays. Roman Catholic priests are gay. That discussion leader is probably gay. Pim Fortuyn is gay. Everybody’s fuckin gay these days.

My mother and I took the tram back to her neighborhood. Sitting in the tram, stuck in this metal caterpillar, made me think of prison. Every prison is a goddamn Sodom City. If some good-looking angelic males went there, they’d have a conga-line of fruits lining up for a piece of ass.

We got to Mama’s house. I rolled a shag on the kitchen table while talking to her.

“Mama, ever since my father died you’ve been obsessing with this religion crap. It’s starting to scare me.”

“Why do you always say “my father”? Why don’t you say “Papa”?”

“He never deserved to be called that. The man was a pig.”

“He was an angel!” my mother yelled. “He was an angel on earth. He smuggled immigrants from the Soviet Union into Western Europe. He saved people from Godless communists!”

“He was a bitter old drunk.”

“At least he wasn’t a drug addict like you! Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, I can tell when you’re high, and can see your pupils dilated. I know! I don’t know how you could make all that money, how you could afford a Harvey Johnson motorcycle—”

“Harley Davidson,” I corrected her, as I finished rolling the cigarette.

“I know you’re doing something wicked to make all that money.”

I support you with it, so stop complaining. Without me, you would be on welfare. support you, not Papa,” I spat out the last word with vicious bitterness.

“He was an angel—and you used to be like him in so many ways, when you were young….” her voice quieted down and she stared blankly at the table, lost in her nostalgic state, like a seer gazing into a fire. “You, Donald, you are a fallen angel….”

I walked out of her apartment and down the narrow, steep staircase with the shag still burning between my fingers, occasionally taking a drag. I felt enormous stress, memories of my father, the conversation with my mother, not having slept for days, worries about my health, my hatred for my father, the white noise of the bible sermon, all these were scorpions stinging me from the inside. My father, he used to tell me, “You’re not my son! You’re The Devil’s son!”

My heart was beating fast.

I threw the shag into the canal and suddenly I saw the canal turn red. It was blood. I felt sick. I saw penises wriggling like caterpillars on the sidewalk. I began to run. People in the street were staring at me. I wondered if they saw the blood. I saw a young Moroccan with the sides of his head shaved, his hair cropped on top and long in the back. I tried to talk to him.

“What color is the canal?” I asked him. He ignored me and kept on walking.

I looked at the canal and it was no longer red.

I walked home, anxiety under my frigid necklace. Once I got to my apartment I watched TV for a few hours—the blur of images, leaving their tracks on my brain like the tail-lights of a speeding motorcycle leaves a trail of light in the eye—and finally managed to fall asleep.

Some days later I got a call from Mama.

“Don, I’m calling you to announce that I am no longer a Christian.”

“What? That’s great! I’m so glad to hear that you finally—”

“I’m a Muslim now, I’ve become a Shiite Muslim. I go to the mosque and the Imam and the other Muslims are so understanding. We sing suras.”

Imam. I got yer Imam right here, lady.

“I read the qur’an,” she said. “Did you know that before the coming of Mohammed—peace be upon him—” she added with motor-warm relish, “his coming was prophesied by soothsayers. Soothsayers obtained this knowledge from demons who had overheard it by spying on the conversations of angels. Islam has been so misunderstood by the West, you know.”

While I was on the phone, I cut myself a line of speed with my other hand and started sniffing through a rolled-up 10-euro bill. I needed this now. In my coke-mirror I saw reflected a sparkling shooting star, a comet of Sodom-incineration, I looked up at the skylight over my head but the stars were not visible.

“But it is really a wonderful religion,” she went on. “Did you know—”

I hung up.

The Turks are muslim. They stand on street corners, smoking and spitting, singing suras or whatever and trying to get into Dutch people’s nightclubs. John Walker’s muslim, Middle East is muslim, Indonesia is muslim, my mother is muslim. Everybody’s fuckin muslim these days.

A week had passed since my mother called me. I was driving a human cargo of Turkish illegal immigrants from the Croatian coast into Germany when I began to see spots, little squiggles in my field of vision like the dangling hair that comes on the screen of an old cartoon. I was seeing small, black creatures darting around: horseflies or something like that. It went on for five minutes. I felt I couldn’t drive like this.

I parked in the back of a gas-station, closed my eyes for a moment or two and looked through the hole in the headboard. Some young men sat on the floor, staring at the metal walls with their beetle-black eyes. The older men were praying. There were some women as well who wore headscarves. One of them had bright blue eyes—which I thought was rare among Turks—and full lips. The other one had high cheekbones, and teeth that were dun like a flock of sheep. The two women spoke to each other in Turkish. I took a hit of speed. I had been up for thirty hours.Then it occurred to me that the women were not speaking Turkish but rather some angelic language.

“He is a fallen angel. He is a demon,” I heard them say.

“God will give him one last chance. God will entrust him with His angel.”

I rushed out of the cab and walked around the truck, my steps scraping against the gravel, opened the storage compartment and climbed in. The smell was that of a circus elephant stable. I walked up to the two angelic girls, shoe-soles scraping against the pebbles and making the metal floor clang.

“Are you angels?” I asked them. I imagined haloes pin-tucked under their larval cocoon headscarves.

They stared at me. They somehow reminded me of the female martyrs depicted in statues I had seen in German cathedrals. I looked in the blue eyes, irises with a hue I had never seen on Dutch or Germanic people, they were of such a beautiful color that one would try to guard them with sunglasses lest some cruel thief try to steal them and sell them. Her eye-color conveyed some kind of tranquility, the way the melting, sunset clouds must have looked before they rained manna over the desert in the verses the Bible Study lector recited described, serene, no cokehead hurry or impatience, no childish struggle or hysteria or resistance, like clouds as they accept the fading sunlight and pollution which adorn them with psychedelic tie-dye streaks of color. I saw heaven in their eyes,and I cried, because I knew that what I saw was so far away from me: for I was in hell, driving on the winding freeways of the bottomless pit and the highways of Babylon.

They said nothing and I left the storage compartment and went back to the steering wheel.

“What should I do?” I thought.

It is not time yet,” I heard them say, and I started the engine, which roared to mechanical life.

A few nights after smuggling the Turks and the two veiled women who I believed were angels, I called my mother.

“Mama, something is happening to me.”

“What is happening to you, Donald?”

“I’m like Alice in fucking wonderland here. I’m hearing beings speak to me.”

She paused as if to reflect serenely, like some patient bhuddist. Then she said,

“Mohammed, Peace be Upon Him, heard the voice of the angel Jibril.”

“But I’m not Mohammed,” I blurted, my voice breaking, almost crying. I felt ashamed that she could hear my anxiety.

“Are you lost, Don?” She sounded empathic, but there was something odd about her empathy, it was like a mechanical wind-up animal.

Yes, I am lost, godverdomme.”

“Let God be your barometer in the black forest you have blindly wandered into. Let His Word steer you towards fulfilling his mandate. He put you in my womb to perform a mission for him.”

In the past I would have been annoyed at her chatter about God or Allah, but now I thought that perhaps Mama was communicating to me on some more profound wavelength or level of consciousness she had attained while meditating and singing suras from the Koran. My heart and jugular veins raced and my palm sweated against the telephone’s plastic. I nodded, thinking perhaps she was speaking to me from some mystical plane of wisdom and insight, some windy afterlife field where she’d stroll amongst the flowers and singing nightingales.

This last sentence of hers echoed in my brain. I decided I must perform my mission.

I had my car parked on the side of an East European highway by a ghost-town of abandoned factories while some men who worked with the Croats filled up the haul with a new bunch of migrant aspiring prostitutes. When they finished loading the truck one of the men gave me the thumbs up sign and I drove off.

There was a storm brewing. The gray clouds rumbled like the stomach of Leviathan from the litanies of the reverend at Mama’s former church.

I drove past the wasteland, the black dust like gunpowder residue of countless forgotten wars. After a few hours of driving, I parked my truck on the roadside and looked through the headboard hole. There were mostly women, but there was a boy of about fifteen among them—he had dirty blond curls and blue eyes. When I looked at him I felt something in my testicles but didn’t know why. He reminded me of the gypsy boy I had smuggled some weeks before. All I knew was that this boy was an angel, and that Fran and the other Croats wanted me to drop the boy off near the Rumanian border from where they would take him to a Western European city, probably Berlin, and Berlin was Sodom, the Berliners were Sodomites and they wanted to rape this angel just like the Sodomites the preacher spoke of.

I knew that this was the test: if I protected this angel I would no longer be a demon but an angel, or at least a man like Lot, chosen by God.

I turned up the metal music on my radio, blazing guitars and thundering drums. (I knew Stephen King had listened to such music while penning his magnum opus, about trucks with a will of their own, a work written in blood.) I saw Fran’s men signaling me on the side of the road.

I stomped on the gas, sped past them with all my might. I had a sensation that with being propelled so fast in my truck my eyes turned into sparkling flames like meteors hurled through the atmosphere, blazing with energy of Sodom-incineration: this was the final stage of my becoming a warrior of the light. The corroded shell of my past was cast into the dark sea of the bottomless pit to sink forever. Gunshots went off.

Lightning began to strike—fire from the sky. I couldn’t see the Croats in my rear-view mirror anymore. I saw some hitchhikers standing by the road. I rammed the breaks, making the tires squeal like swine to the slaughter, and pulled over. It was a young couple, both of them carrying backpacks. Adam and Eve cast out of Eden.

“Which way is the Holy Land?” I asked them.

“What?” Their faces were scared, sweaty and wide-eyed.

“The Holy Land! Jerusalem!” I said.

They looked at each other and then they pointed southeast.

I turned my truck around and sped southeast, the opposite direction of where I had come from. I was going well past two hundred and fifty kilometers per hour. I saw one of Fran’s men standing outside of a van. I didn’t stop. For a moment a fear scurried through me, an electric wave of anxiety in my solar plexus as I knew I would likely end up in a foreign prison, a walled-in city of corrupted men who grunted and leered hyena-like in the filthy night, their neurons numb from white powder and tainted with the wine of forced love –my Sodom, my Gomorrah.

Soon I was driving by a mountain range. Lightning struck again over the hills and for a second all I could see was white light. I saw a barricade of police cars blocking my way. I realized these were corrupt cops in cahoots with the smugglers. Fran must have contacted them to stop me. But they were operating on short notice and therefore were only a few. Their sirens blinked blue and red.

I hated cops.

I imagined my truck as a doom machine with huge gnashing metal teeth in front, breathing fire and red burning eyes emanating smoke.

A bullet shot through my window but it didn’t touch me. I hit the gas with all my strength and sped on, smashing through the patrol cars, a fat policeman frantically waving a sign reading “Uwaga!” as he tried to get out of the way, like a slow Spaniard in the running of the bulls.

 

Jesse James Kennedy

Enough

“Cock-sucking, mother-fucking, low-life, PIECE OF SHIT SCUMBAGS!!!”

When the last echoes finish bouncing off the restroom walls, the only sound is that of my own breath. The rhythm of my heart seems slightly off and way too fast. Is this what a heart attack feels like?

I close my eyes and picture a blank white piece of paper. In the middle of the paper, big black numbers appear and disappear, first one, then two and so on up to twenty then back down to one. This usually calms me and slows my heart rate.

Of course, the meth has me so jacked as to pretty much rule out a normal heart rate.

But my rage does recede, and I decide I am not having a heart arrack. I open my eyes to see the stall door in front of me. I make the mistake of inhaling deeply through my nose. The stench of urine rapes my nostrils and penetrates my lungs.

I sneer at this minor degradation, the cherry on top of my shit-sundae of a life. This, this is the only place I can hide from their laughs and jokes and smirks. The smirks are the worst. That’s their way of saying I’m too stupid to know they think I’m a joke, just a fucking idiot, right? Laugh at the joke right to his face! Isn’t that it? You fucking shit balls! You low-life monkey-fuckers!

Blank piece of paper, one, two, three…

When I open my eyes this time, the gun is in my hand. Normally it fits nicely in the shoulder holster under my left arm, completely unnoticeable beneath my blazer. Suicide-silver .38 Smith & Wesson.

A lot of people will tell you bigger is better, so why not use a .45 or even .50 caliber? See, a large caliber will just punch a hole right through a body, which might sound good, but if you don’t hit a major organ, they still have a good chance of surviving. But a smaller caliber, like a .22, will ricochet of bone. So, if you can get it bouncing around inside the ribcage, that tiny bullet starts chewing holes right through lungs, heart, kidney etc.

The only reason I settled on a caliber as big as a .38 was so I could pierce their skulls. I want to pierce their skulls and splatter what little grey matter they have all over these fucking walls!

Blank paper, one, two, three…

I open my eyes, lay the .38 the metal toilet paper dispenser, pull out the vial of meth and tap out a generous bump. When I try to chop the stuff with the dull edge of my driver’s license, a big beautiful crystal shoots off to the side, ricochets off the stall wall and is lost forever somewhere in the pattern of the tile floor.

I lay my license down flat on top of the pile and crush it, then lower my head and suck it all up into my nostrils. There is a temporary rush, and for a moment, I feel contentment.

A moment later the rage returns.

Blank paper, one, two, three…

I put the .38 back in its holster, stand up and push the grimy stall door open. I walk over to the mirror and stare at the hideous face staring back at me. My sunken eyes and jutting cheekbones give me a preview of what my decaying corpse will soon look like. The tiny sore forming at the corner of my mouth, that is where the decomposition will start.

My gaze slides down my reflection to the tie around my neck. Fucking white collar noose. A leash, really, just to make sure you always remember your place. I grab the knot and yank it back and forth, sawing it into the back of my neck until it’s loose enough to pull over the top of my head. I toss it backwards over the stall door and hear a satisfying splash as it lands in the toilet behind me. Dress-code violation will never be an issue for me ever again.

I break eye contact with my corpse’s reflection and exit this stinking piss hole for the last time.

Making my way down the hallway to the classroom, a hard sniff breaks a crystal loose from somewhere inside my nasal cavity. I relish the bitterness as it slides down my throat, giving me an unexpected rush of euphoria just as the morning bell rings.

That fucking bell. One-part angry banshee, one-part nails on chalkboard, and one-part jack hammer to my brain. It drills through my ears and deep into my skull. It screams at me from inside my own head until I’m certain my brains will liquify and come squirting out my ears with the force of a firehose.

Then it stops.

I twist the door handle and enter the classroom. The students go silent the way they always do. I know the little fucks were talking about me. They may look like twelve-year-old cherubs, but every last one of them is a soul-sucking, black-hearted little gargoyle. Trust me, I know this.

I walk to the front of my desk, sit on its edge and survey the little rodents before me. I see Tina Bailey look over at Tommy Sullivan. They trade sly glances complete with barely suppressed smiles. ‘Thumbtack’ Tommy Sullivan. Where is it this time you little prick? On the floor by my chair where I’ll step on it? Stuck in the eraser where it will scratch up the chalkboard?

Or is it on my seat again? That’s it, isn’t it you little fuck? I sit down, it sinks into my bony ass, and all you little ass nuggets get to laugh at me again, right? Well not this time. Not this time and never again!

I get up, walk back over to the door, and turn the lock. There is a finality to the sound of the deadbolt slamming home.

Every step back to the front of the class feels lighter. It’s almost over.

The only thing left is my final and finest hour. A rare moment of satisfaction to cap off my shitty life.

Slipping my hand into my jacket pocket, I wrap my fingers around the gun’s grip in a way that almost feels sexual.

I do not think of a blank piece of paper.

I do not count to twenty this time.

Matthew Licht

A Hard Case (Part 1)

My secretary fired me.

Detective stories usually begin: We’d been dry-humping on the couch in my office when my secretary said she wanted to be nude, all nude. But here we go instead: “You haven’t paid me in weeks. You haven’t had a new case in months. The cases you’ve got are stone cold dead. You’re the worst detective in world. You couldn’t detect stink in a garbage dump.”

She slammed the door so hard it broke the etched glass panel the last sign painter in town had recently enlivened with my agency’s logo.

The phone rang when I was about to call it a day. My secretary was gone. I answered.

“Sloane Investigations, Ned Sloane speaking.”

“You the D-d-divorce D-d-detective?”

Wanda, my former secretary, had placed an ad in the local paper. She’d gone to art school for a bit, and claimed her linked-D logo illustrated the concept that we specialize in divorce cases. Other investigators won’t touch them any more. “Sir, you either have a stammer or you’re a poor reader. I’m the Double-D Divorce Detective. I only handle cases where the unfaithful party is stacked. You got a case for me?”

“Oh boy, do I ever. My Doris—that is, she used to be my Doris—has big’uns. That’s how come we wound up together in the first place. Couldn’t keep my mitts offa her.”

Whoever was on the other end of the line was about to cry. A lost pair of big tits is tragic. I thought about my ex-secretary, Wanda. Private eyes are obliged to grope their girls Friday, but I’d never gotten grabby with her. Not much to grab. Just like my ex-wife. Meanwhile, the new client sobbed, sniffled and gasped.

“Pull yourself together, sir. So, you think your wife’s been unfaithful.”

“She might’ve been, but the thing is, she’s run away, with all our money. I mean, all my money!”

“Now that’s serious, Mister…”

“Frawley. Odom Frawley. Any chance you’d work this job pro bono? That means for free, doesn’t it?”

“Mr. Frawley, if you look at the ad’s fine print, it states that I work pro boner. Show me a snapshot of your wife, preferably nude. If she’s hot, I’ll take the case. For a hundred bucks a day, plus expenses.”

“That sounds awful cheap.”

“Hey whatever you say bud.”

Frawley said he had several of pictures of his wife with no clothes on.

Here’s one of them:

tits_peignoir DD-hst

A Hard Case (Part 2)

Nick Romeo

The Lifelines

The lines on the monitors flattened, while a single tone emitted from the machine drowning out the silence in the room.

“I’m afraid we did all that we could here.” The surgeon lowers his head to match the discouragement in his voice, “I wish we could have saved her.”

“I will notify her family.”

“Thank you, Nurse Venugopal.”

After the team finished pulling the last tube and wire from the patient’s body, a thick layer of fog formed at their feet. As the surgeon, nurse, and staff looked around trying to assess the cause, the doors burst open. A tall man enters the room wearing a bright blue lab coat and a giant plastic mask in the form of a black and white cat head. He is accompanied by a woman wearing a red lab coat, an enormous papier-mâché dragon head, and dragon wings extending from her shoulders to the floor.

The man with the cat head speaks: “Hello doctors, nurses, and humanoids. I am DJ Cat-a-List, and this is my associate, Dragon Bones. We are here to help.”

Dragon Bones steps forward, holds up a double-ended fire stick, and launches a column of fire from her mouth, igniting both sides. She spins it rapidly in front of her. A group of men and women dressed in navy blue scrubs wearing plastic animal masks representing various species, which can be found in the backyards of southwestern Pennsylvania, rushes into the room. They surround the operating room personnel.

“We will be handling this from here,” DJ Cat-a-List shouts as he presses a button on his key fob. Two speakers descend from the ceiling and stop when they are centered about the patient’s ears. A mirror ball, strobe lights, and colored lasers forming geometric shapes on the walls also drop out of the ceiling.

“This is ridiculous, ” the lead surgeon announces. “I’m calling security.” He jumps to the cabinet in the corner and picks up the telephone receiver. “What? No dial tone?” He slams the phone down. “Mrs. Venugopal, can you make the call? I left my cell phone in the locker.”

She checks her phone, “It doesn’t look like I have service.” She repeatedly taps and presses on the screen. “It’s not working.”

One by one, the staff confirm that their phones are also inoperable, as a table rises from the floor in front of DJ Cat-a-List. A row of music-mixing equipment covers the table.

“Does anyone realize there is a dead body in this room?” the surgeon pleads. “We have to notify the family. What are you doing? This is insane. Stop it! Stop this right now.”

Dragon Bones pushes the surgeon down into a chair. “Sit. It’s not like we can possibly do any worse than you.” She turns around to address the flock of people with animal masks and hospital uniforms. “Places, everyone.”

The animal people crawl to various spots in the room. Some take up positions on top of the cabinets, others stand on the available tables and chairs. They begin to sway in harmony to the low rhythmic bass sounds now emanating from the speakers. DJ Cat-a-List has one side of the earphones pressed to one of his cat ears as he bobs his head to the beat. The music gets louder.

Dragon Bones jumps onto the gurney, standing directly over the deceased patient. She points to the surgery staff who are now huddled in a corner with the surgeon, shifting uneasily in his chair. “Raise your hands in the aiiiiiiiiir! SWAY to DJ Cat-aaaaaa-Liiiiiiiiiiiist!”

The staff obey the orders of Dragon Bones, even taking it a step further by moving their bodies to the music, all except the surgeon, who now has his arms tightly folded across his chest.

“Stop listening to this crazy lady.”

“Let’s just get through this. Maybe one of us can sneak away when they aren’t looking and call for help,” Nurse Venugopal whispers, grabbing the surgeon’s arms and trying to raise them in the air as instructed.

“That’s right yinz. This is a celebration… a celebration of LIFE,” DragonBones shouts.

With that cue, the music gets even louder, pumping melodic piano synth sequences at a pace double the speed of a human heartbeat. She points to the swaying mass of staff.

“That’s right, I wanna see you MOVE.”

She swings her fire sticks around her head and behind her back while dancing in place over the lifeless body. The cadaver moves each time Dragon Bones energetically lifts and lowers her feet on the table.

The music continues to get louder. The basslines rattle the cabinet doors, pulsing along the fog-covered floor. The lasers flicker and bounce with the beat.

The surgeon remains dead still, hands cupped over his ears.

“C’mon doctor, have some fun,” Nurse Venugopal shouts as she tries to reposition the surgeon’s hands. “Just do what they say so we can escape!”

“This is terrible. I will see everyone arrested for this!”

Dragon Bones jumps off the gurney and rushes toward the surgeon, twirling her fire stick. The masked animal dancers continue their moves with the upmost choreographed precision. Dragon Bones stands within a foot on the surgeon’s lap and bends down so that her dragon eyes are level with his own.

“You don’t want to dance? Well, what do you want to do? This is life. Now savor it.”

She flails her arms and legs even faster, spinning the fire stick, carving paths through the dark, foggy room. Plumes of smoke trail from the speed of her movements. The staff circle around Dragon Bones, sharing the moment and dancing along with her. The surgeon squirms in an effort to keep his distance from them.

“I have never seen anything this horrible in my life. This is disgusting!”

Dragon Bones stops dancing and signals the staff to stop as well. She again turns to face the surgeon.

She points her fire stick at him. “This is not ‘ridiculous.’ This is not ‘disgusting.’ THIS IS LIFE!”

She positions the fire stick in front of her mouth and spews an enormous plume of flame, brightening the room with an intense orange glow. The staff and surgeon shield their faces from its burning light.

When their eyes clear, they find the room is empty. No colorful people wearing animal masks, no party lights, no speakers or DJ equipment. Even the fog has disappeared.

“Nurse Venugopal, what is going on here?” the surgeon says, finally getting out of his chair. “Is everyone alright?”

They nod and confirm that they are fine. “Surgeon, are you okay?”

“Yes, Nurse Venugopal, I am… Nurse Venugopal… our patient.”

The surgeon rushes over to the body on the gurney. The staff huddle behind him and the nurse.

“Look. Nurse,” the surgeon says, pointing to the patient’s leg. “It’s moving…”

The patient sits up, blinks a few times, yawns and looks around the room, “Where am I?”

A member of the medical staff screams.

“I can’t believe it…” the surgeon mutters.

“We’re so happy to see you recover, but please don’t move too much or too quickly,” Nurse Venugopal interjects. “You were in pretty bad shape for a moment there. We thought you were…”

“Really? Well… I’m thirsty…”

“I think you should stay for a few tests,” the surgeon says “Don’t you agree, nurse?”

The surgeon’s eyes are still bulging out of his head, but he is trying to keep calm. Maybe the vibrations shook apart the remaining tumors, he thinks. Maybe they somehow defibrillated her heart.

Nurse Venugopal says, “Why don’t we give her a minute?” She places her hand on the patient’s shoulder, “Let me get you some water.”

One of the staff members nods and walks toward the door, but before he reaches the threshold, the door bursts open. A man and woman march into the room wearing full surgical gear with their faces covered. The man speaks first.

“Hello friends, we’ll take it from here.”

He had a shaky, high-pitched voice. The woman waved, and her eyes squinted in a congenial expression.

“And who are you?” the surgeon demands to know.

“Ah yes, we were just assigned to the case. I am Doctor Katnik, and this is my assistant Nurse Bonecki. Here are our documents.” He unfolds a batch of papers and hands them to the surgeon.

The surgeon flips through a few pages. “Well, this looks okay, I guess. I wonder why haven’t I heard of this before? I have never seen a change in staff in this particular situation.”

Nurse Venugopal looks at the papers as well.

The high-pitched doctor says, “No problem. It happens all the time.” He waves his hand and the female assistant steps to the side. A group of orderlies walk through the door, surround the patient, kick out the wheel locks on the operating gurney, and begin moving her out the door.

“Hey!” the surgeon shouts.

The high-pitched doctor turns around along with his masked assistant. “Yes?”

Meanwhile, the staff continues to wheel the patient out the door.

“Miss, you really shouldn’t smoke,” the surgeon says the high-pitched doctor’s assistant. “No offense, but I detect a really strong smoky odor. I try to tell all my fellow heath care professionals.”

“No offense taken,” she says, sniffing her uniform. “I stopped as of a few minutes ago. I promise.”

“Sorry,” the high-pitched doctor continues. “We have to go. Her mother, brother, and sister will be so happy to see her.”

And with that, he turns and follows the rest of the group out the door.

“Well, Nurse Venugopal,” the surgeon says, waving goodbye to the exiting group. “He certainly had a strange voice, didn’t he!”

Matthew Licht

Vodka Deodorant

The woman in the fake leather suit looked exhausted. She had anemia or a timid form of albinism, accentuated by heavy makeup around her pale eyes. She stared at the supermarket cash register’s conveyor belt as it rolled. 

The girl who rang up my generic tomatoes, no-logo UHT milk, bargain-brand yogurt and sawdust-vaseline breakfast biscuits held grimly to a punk look. 

The guy who rang up the skinny pale woman’s purchases attempted a pick-up line. He plucked his eyebrows. Gym muscles bulged under his supermarket smock.

Maybe she didn’t understand Italian.

He didn’t have time to try again, in another language. Her shopping list would’ve fit on a defunct communist country’s postage stamp. Vodka and deodorant slid by, registered, clunked into the stainless steel merchandise holding pen. She refused the offer of a shopping bag for an additional six Euro-cents. She put the vibrator-shaped deodorant applicator in her pocket, grabbed the bottle by the neck.

She didn’t smash me with it when I asked to walk her home. Maybe she didn’t understand German. Don’t know why I thought she might. 

I didn’t offer to carry her bargain-brand bottle. She’d have thought I planned to steal it. 

On the way out of the supermarket’s glare, we walked past lost-looking old folks taking advantage of free unnatural warmth. 

Heat was included with the rent in New York, as was hot water. Felt like warmth and personal hygiene were free.

The generic neighborhood was identifiable only by streets named for pre-European Union countries. Maybe she caught the irony of winding up on Soviet Union Street. Maybe irony was a luxury concept she didn’t understand. Spike heels hobbled her wiggle along the crumbling sidewalk. 

Vodka was a problem in the former USSR. Dictators launched USA-style prohibition, restrictive rationing, scorched-earth surtaxes. Soviet drunks turned home-brewed beer into instant vodka with a dash of mosquito repellent. They slathered shoe polish on rye bread and left it on the radiator for delirious LSD-like trips. I asked her if she mixed generic deodorant and no-logo vodka for a narcotic effect.

Vodka was to drink, she said. Deodorant was for stink. I asked if she was a prostitute. She nodded and said I was one too, as if I didn’t know.

“Look, I’ve got some food in my backpack,” I said. “Let me make you dinner. Nothing fancy. No-Logo spaghetti, but it tastes pretty good.”

She wasn’t sure she had a spaghetti pot. She’d rented a room in an apartment from people she barely knew, but hadn’t inspected the kitchen cabinets. She didn’t say no.

Cheap euro-architecture guarantees maximum winter cold. Construction speculators were mobbed up with gas-heater factories, and the natural gas and oil industries. Her place was warm. Her former-Soviet Union flat-mates stole heat from somewhere.

She took off her jacket, released an alcoholic reek as faint as a capped bottle of evil perfume waved slowly under the nose.

Her armpit-hair was the color of straw. She sat on a rickety chair to watch. No chopping block. No spaghetti pot. No can-opener, but that was no problem because generic tomato-pulp cans have futuristic pop-top tabs these days. Dull little knife couldn’t peel an apple. Luckily, bargain brand tuna cans are packed with enough low-grade olive oil to lubricate a sauce. She pulled a loose no-logo cigarette from her purse, bumped me aside to light up at the stovetop. That was as close as she ever got to cooking.

Someone else was in the apartment. This phantom presences manifested different tobacco smells, muffled burps, sighs, wheezes. TV drone oozed through the thin walls. Human breezes moved scorch-marked curtains. Behind them, dirty windows faced a cement courtyard crowded with junked motor-scooter parts, corroded metal garbage bins. A cat prowled across the scene, evicted or escaped from some similar desolation. An invisible dead cat looked smug under a fogged plastic sheet.

“Where you from?”

She had to think. Wasn’t used to direct questions. More accustomed to evasive action when direct questions were asked. Where you from what’re you doing here where’s your entry visa and residence permit? But immigration cops don’t offer free spaghetti. She was from an unpronounceable war-torn town in Kosovo. She politely repeated her name, but I couldn’t imitate the sounds. She didn’t ask who I was or where I was from or what I was doing. She thought she knew what I wanted. In other words, same as everyone. But she was wrong. Unless the shower worked. 

And money’s been a problem since the dirty magazine biz tanked. 

Being dirty is no longer a viable commercial asset. 

She frisked my knapsack, found the bargain chocolate, had dessert before the starch course. She was missing molars. Ashtrays of premature death breezed through her pale lips.

Dinner was payment enough for what she had to offer. We hit the shower first. Practically had to demonstrate the proper use of bargain brand soap and dental floss. We toweled off in the low-consumption neon-bulb mist.

“Get the deodorant you bought. Bring the vodka too.” 

She went.

Hot water accentuates alcoholic buzz. Maybe I took a swig of deodorant after she slathered her armpits. The stuff foamed like shampoo, tasted about the same. I remembered the cheapo razors among my recent supermarket purchases. I still shaved, occasionally. So I left her under a stream of hot water and tromped to the kitchen. 

Bumped into another woman in the dark hallway. She smelled like she was from Bukovina, or Bucharest, Burkina Faso, Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Bophuthatswana. Human flotsam status cuts through and across geo-political boundaries. She walked around without light due to inflated electric bills, or else she was so stoned that low-watt neon hurt her eyes. She flinched when she lurched into a stranger. 

I returned to the bathroom.

She was staring at the medicine cabinet over the sink. Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I alive? Clouded mirrors don’t reflect answers to such easy questions. The tile floor was slippery. The cold outside the bathroom window wanted in, and was making headway. She came back into the shower unquestioningly. I shaved with deodorant foam. She shaved her legs to fully exploit the free razor. 

Mouldy towels, unmade stale bed. The window in her room had a rolling metal shutter, stuck in the down position for complete blackout. She kept up her zombie act until I spoke. Can’t remember what I said. Normal phrases from everyday human intercourse in a language not her own. 

Humping drunks who mutter words she didn’t understand must’ve been an overly familiar unpleasant situation. 

She didn’t go berserk in the usual manner. She unleashed an inbred reverse-pheromone bio-weapon. I went limp and rolled away.

She lit a cigarette butt stashed between the lumpy mattress and the floor. Lime-green no-logo lighter, the kind sold by roving Africans, flash-lit a room filled with empty bottles. She held fire like Lady Liberty, scrounge-searched for a phallic deodorant applicator that still had some of the whitish liquid inside, rolled it under her arms. Vodka bottles and deodorant bottles hugged the walls in disorderly rows,  stood crowded in the corners, lay scattered on the dirty floor and ugly furniture. Two bottles a day keeps the undertaker away.

But not forever.

Who undertakes the removal of deceased illegal immigrants? Unaccounted corpses, stuffed in weighted logo-stamped supermarket bags, dumped in the river. Garbage-dump fires, distorted reflections of pyres by the Ganges, illuminate unattended non-ritual funerals. Only the river complains, to deaf imaginary ears. Dogs and contaminated carp get fat on the heels of dead dictators.

I zipped back into the mildewed bathroom, pulled on my damp clothes fast. Money was missing from my pants, but the thieving gypsy woman in the hall had left the documents and house keys. No use stealing keys unless they lead to quick burglary or auto theft. The address printed on my expired driver’s license is half a world away.

James Babbs

The Dirigible

I saw the dirigible at around one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon under partly cloudy skies with a light wind blowing just enough to ripple the high grasses growing at the edges of the road. I was traveling south on the country road I drove on nearly every single day. The same road I always followed for several miles before connecting to the state route where traffic grew heavier and there were lots of big trucks hauling freight from one location to another.

The dirigible hung in the air against the bluish gray color of the sky slowly making its way north. I kept watching the front of the dirigible bouncing up and down as if it were attached to a string and being pulled along by an invisible hand.

I pulled the car over to the side of the road and fumbled with my phone wanting to get a picture of the dirigible. It was difficult trying to see the dirigible on the tiny screen but when I, finally, had the phone situated in what I thought was the proper angle I pushed the camera icon a couple of times. In one of the photos the dirigible was there but it was flattened against the clouds reminding me more of a flying saucer than anything else.

As I started to drive away I tried to find a radio station that might have some kind of report on why the dirigible was there in the first place and where it was going. I tried two or three different channels but couldn’t find anything.

***

When I got home Beth was standing in the kitchen drinking a glass of water.

“Hey” I said. “How was your day?”

Beth turned and looked at me thrusting her tongue between her teeth until the end of it protruded from her mouth. She made a groaning sound and I knew enough not to ask her any more about it.

“Did you see the dirigible today?” I said. “Or hear anything about it?”

“The what?” Beth said.

“Dirigible. It’s like a blimp. Or it is a blimp. I think. I’m not sure if there’s a difference or not.”

Beth tilted her head to one side and closed her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about she said.”

I reached for my phone in the front pocket of my shirt. “I have a picture of it” I said. I opened the photo gallery and scrolled through the images. There were several pictures of Beth and me together in some far away place. They were pictures from a long time ago.

“It’s not on here, now” I said. “I wonder what happened to it.” I started looking through the images for a second time.

“Are you going to mow the yard today?” Beth asked as she walked out of the kitchen and into the hallway.

I was still looking down at my phone. “Uh, I don’t know I said. No, I don’t think so.” But she was already gone.

***

“Any chicken left?” I asked entering the kitchen.

Beth was warming something up in the microwave. She was holding the fork waving it back and forth in the air. “Bottom shelf,” she said, pointing toward the fridge.

I poured myself a glass of tea and set it on the table. “So I was looking on the internet,” I said. “I found out blimps are the same as dirigibles.”

“Well that’s good,” Beth said. She opened the microwave door, looked inside, before closing it and starting it up again. “So I talked to Steph earlier. She wants to know if we’re coming up next weekend.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why does your sister always want us to come up?”

“I don’t know,” Beth said. “Maybe she likes seeing her family.”

“Well, why doesn’t she ever come down here and see us?” I pulled the chicken out of the fridge and set it on the counter. I took a plate from the cupboard and put some chicken on it.

“So what do you want me to tell her?” Beth asked. She took the bowl from the microwave and stirred the contents with her fork.

“Oh I guess,” I said. “That way I can spend all weekend listening to Josh tell me how great of a job he’s got.” I put what was left of the chicken back in the fridge. Beth carried her bowl over to the table and sat down. I put my plate of chicken in the microwave and punched in some time. I watched the chicken rotating inside the microwave. When the timer went off I pulled out the chicken and took it to the table. Beth sat across from me, pushing food into her mouth without looking up.

“So,” I said. “I found out blimps are more or less just big balloons. They don’t have a rigid structure like some airships.”

“What the hell would a blimp be doing around here?” Beth let her fork fall against the bowl.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t see any writing on it.”

“Maybe it was one of those birthday balloons or one of those shiny balloons you get, sometimes, when you’re in the hospital.” Beth picked up her fork and started eating again.

“It was bigger than that,” I said. “It wasn’t a goddamn balloon. It was a real dirigible.”

Beth leaned back in her chair. I saw her glaring at me. “Why do you use that word? Why don’t you just say blimp like everybody else?”

“Hell,” I said. “Sorry. I didn’t know it bothered you so much.” I bit into my chicken and it wasn’t even warm.

***

In the dream I was standing near the edge of the corn field watching the dirigible passing slowly above my head. The sun was shining bright down on the corn and I felt the heat on my face rolling up from the plants. The dirigible was close enough to the ground for me to see the faces of the people in the cabin windows. I waved and some of them waved back.

Then the dirigible started tilting forward. The front end of the dirigible was pointing toward the ground. The dirigible was falling. I reached up and touched it with my hands and it felt like warm smooth skin. I heard the people screaming. I pushed against the dirigible trying to make it go as high as I could. The dirigible was coming down on top of me.

“Hey,” It was Beth’s voice. “Hey! Shit…”

She was shaking me awake. I came up out of the dream gasping for air. “Shit,” she said again. “What’s wrong with you? I told you I have to get up early in the morning.”

“I was dreaming,” I mumbled. I started to mention something about the dirigible but decided against it. “Sorry,” I told her instead.

***

When I woke up the house was strangely quiet and I felt cold. I looked at the clock and groaned. But I laid there for another minute or two before pulling myself out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom.

When I got to the kitchen I saw the coffee Beth had left in the pot. It was sitting on the counter so I poured myself a cup and stuck it in the microwave. I sat at the table drinking it while looking out the window. I kept looking at the sky. I didn’t see much of anything out there but a few stray clouds.

When it was time for me to go to work I found the car had a flat tire. I said fuck it and went back into the house. I emptied the rest of the coffee into my cup then called my boss and told him I wasn’t coming in today. I checked the pictures on my phone again and this time I found the dirigible. I sent it to Beth with the message—Hey. I found the pic. Check it out. Then I headed back outside to change the flat tire.

I tossed my empty beer bottle in the trash just as Beth came into the kitchen. “I didn’t go to work today,” I said before she had a chance to say anything.

“Oh,” she said. “So, what? You been drinking all day, then?”

I pulled another beer from the fridge. “I haven’t drank that much.” Beth walked past me and stuck something in the fridge before pushing the door shut and holding her hand against it for a moment.

“I was going to mow the yard,” I told her. “But after the rope broke when I went to start the mower, and I spent like two hours trying to fix, it I finally said fuck it and decided to start drinking instead.”

“Well good for you,” Beth said. She waited like she wanted to say something else, then started out of the room. “I’m going to change my clothes.”

“Hey,” I said and she stopped. “What did you think of the picture I sent you?”

Beth turned in the doorway and looked at me. “What picture are you talking about?”

“The dirigible,” I said. “I found it and sent it to you.”

“Oh, that again.” She started down the hallway.

“So what did you think?”

“I didn’t get any picture,” she said from out in the hallway.

I got up and followed her down to the bedroom. “What do you mean? Let me see your phone.”

“I just looked at it a few minutes ago,” Beth said. “Before I came into the house. There wasn’t any picture.”

“You’re lying,” I said. “Let me see your phone.”

She glared at me and shook her head ever so slightly. “Why the hell would I lie about it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “You lied about David.”

I saw the anger boil up into her face. “I never lied,” she said. “There was never anything between me and David. Now, we’re not even friends, thanks to you.”

“Let me see your goddamn phone,” I said. When I lunged toward her she stepped aside and I fell against the bed.

“You’re drunk,” she said.

“I’m not drunk!” I yelled back her.

Beth ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. I jumped up from the floor and ran over there. I pushed all my weight hard against the door and found it was locked. There wasn’t a sound from the other side.

“Where’s your phone,” I said. Beth didn’t answer. I punched the door a couple of times before I started kicking it. I heard the wood cracking but the door held.

I hit it one last time before stumbling back across the room. I fell onto the bed with my feet hanging over the edge. I listened to the sound of my own breathing. I felt like I was floating somewhere far above all of this but, now, I was starting to descend.

I heard water running from the other side of the door. I glanced toward the bathroom. I looked at the door for a long time but it always looked the same.