Beau Johnson

Saving the World, One Appliance at a Time

“Can you hear me now?”

I know. I know. But we only get the one go-round, right?

We’re at the place, our special place, and my work face has replaced my everyday face, lack of hair included.

“I’m only going to tell you why they call me ‘The Arm’ once, so do yourself a favor and listen up. You do that, all three of us can get to where each of us needs to go.”

I look over to Randy, offer him the megaphone. He shakes his head, pulls his pants up and over his ever-expanding gut.

“I ever once take that thing when you ask?”

I smile and look back down at the man of the hour; the man whose name was Paul. He’s wearing skinny jeans and a ratty flannel shirt, trying over and over in vain to run up the sides of the empty pool. Sliding back down, nothing changes, the man coming to rest amongst the beer cans, wine bottles, and other, less distinguishable waste.

“It was an accident, really, how I got that nickname. Me and my brother here just doing our bit the day it went down.”

I go on, my voice echoing down from above. I tell him all about Marty Barnes and how he and that particular piece of shit shared the same strain of dirt-bag; middlemen to monsters who used children like toys.

Taken by surprise, Barnes had gotten past both Randy and I that day, but Randy, his abdomen nowhere near the unstoppable expansion it would become, was up and after him before I could pull myself from the floor.

“Everything happened fast after that, Paul. I mean, really fast…”

In boxers and a beater-T, Barnes was catching his breath behind an old, rusted-out Ford down below. To my left, on the concrete, was the air conditioner I would become famous for. I picked it up, heaved away, and called out to Barnes two or three seconds after the leaking machine had left my hands. Now, I have never been the best of shots, not on the best of days, but I will admit to being somewhat lucky in life. It’s the only reason Barnes broke cover when he did, I think, and why he’d looked up at just the right moment.

“I saw his eyes too, there before I took them away. Not fun. Not how you’d think. Every last bit of bone, hair, and gray matter parceled out into something like a nine foot radius. This doesn’t even include the blood puddle his neck creates.”

My little speech done, I finally release the bowling ball I’d been promising. Lob it like the weapon of destruction I want it to become. Paul screams as it descends toward him. Continues to scream as the concrete beside him cracks, relents, and comes to hold the ball like a big black eye.

Behind me, Randy sighs. “You know you have a problem, right?”

I want to ignore him, I do, but sometimes a brother is the only friend a man can have.

“It’s only a problem if you can’t stop. I’ve read the books. Pretty sure you should read them, too.”

He eyeballs me hard, just like our father used to do. It doesn’t do half of what he thinks it does but it’s a game neither of us can quit. Not if we wanted answers.

I turn back around, drop ball after cinderblock after microwave oven. The balls I found on sale at SPORTCHEK, everything else being me adjusting to the environment I’d been given. So you know, either way.

Paul dances and rolls, shucks and jives, and still I come close to hitting him more times than not. I can’t quite hear the words pouring from his mouth, not really, but a pretty good bet would be he knew we were done with fucking about.

Last bowling ball deployed, I straighten first my holster and then my badge. Randy does the same.

Time to see if our incentive took.

Time to see if our bird was ready to sing.

Alyce Absconded


I feel fingers grasp my forearm and I am swallowed by the crowd.

Smiling faces surround me like circling sharks; neon signage and stage lights burning my retinas like sea salt. The dirty, sticky floor of confetti, glass, and trampled beer cans like jagged coral. I am drowning in a claustrophobic ocean of sweat and people, and I just want to swim back to shore for a single breath of cool air.

I scream, but I am stopped from being heard by the pounding of the bass.

Fingers grip tighter and yank at my wrist. I follow a trail of black chipped nail polish, light brown arm hair and a cascading shoulder tattoo of a male peacock to see a browned face giggling at me — crooked teeth barred with nicotine stain yellow. I have no idea who this person is but she pulls me on to the seat of a Ferris wheel and lowers the steel bar to lock across our waists.

Finally my arm is free and my forearm feels cold with the cooling patch of sweat made by a grimy, clammy hand. Before I take a moment to breathe, the Ferris wheel shifts upwards and the arm grabber looks out across the festival — a reflection of the lights below caught in the beads in her brown dreaded hair and making her look like a Christmas tree.

“Hey,” she says in a friendly tone as she turns her head to the left to face me.

“Are you okay?”

My furry brain tingles with chills of confusion and I say “P-Pardon” with a stutter.

“You look worried,” she says “Your forehead is all crinkly.”

“Oh… no… I’m fine,” I say, still having no idea who the fuck is sitting next to me.

“Good” she says, and her olive shaped green eyes squint a little as she widens her uncleaned smile and makes her fatty cheeks look like half-toasted marshmallows dropped in to a pile of dirt by the campfire, “Have you had a good day?” she asks.

She sounds so friendly and casual but I can’t remember her face at all. I blink my eyelids together hard and hope that I wake up somewhere else, somewhere not trapped with whoever this is, wherever I am, climbing higher and higher above the crowd that now looks like a mob of poisonous jellyfish bobbing around under fluorescent light.

“When was it day time?” I respond. “It feels like day time was forever ago.”

“Oh Jesus,” she says. “…You are fucked up.”

She leans in to kiss me and I pull my head back as her big, puckered, red lips come towards me like a loose vagina, flakes of chapped skin looking like fish scales on labia. I have nowhere to go but back down in to the ocean of monsters so I must kiss these scaly lips coming forth. I purse my lips together and squeeze my eyes closed. Her peeling skin tickles against mine and soon it is over. I re-open my eyes and she is still there, a loose thick dread drooping over her acne scarred forehead.

“How cool is it up here?” she says, as she peers over her feet at the crowded festival below and the vast blackness of empty fields that expand beyond it.

“How the fuck did I get up here? Why am I up here?” I shout, my heart thumping out of my chest and my brain spinning in circles. Suddenly I can think of nothing better than being on the ground. It’s as though I was never even down there. Who is this person who brought me here and why is she kissing me?

“Yesterday was nice, wasn’t it?” she asks in a half-rhetorical tone that makes no sense to me.

“Yesterday? What day was it yesterday? Why can’t I remember yesterday? It was just yesterday…”

I realise that I just said that all out loud and I turn to face this girl staring at the side of my face.

“We met yesterday,” she says. “…You were pretty scattered.”

“Oh,” I say, and I become transfixed on the pretty fairy lights below — they look like golden stars…

“Fuck. I don’t ever want to go home,” I mutter.

“No-one does, babe,” she says.

Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 2

My enemy Lester and I started out in the same place. He’d been the new boy at the zendo before I showed up. Roshi must’ve taken him on as a hard case. He wore cologne, couldn’t bring himself to cut the labels out of his zen robes. 

Curiosity is an attribute I couldn’t eliminate. It’s become a job, sort of. Upon request, for a fee that’s whatever the client thinks is fair, I snoop other people’s lives, locate and remove whatever stands between them and serenity. 

Back then, at the zendo, Lester Frills couldn’t achieve serenity. I wanted to help him, honestly. I snooped his inner and outer lives. Wasn’t hard. 

Lester had built a career in advertising on other people’s backs. Lester bit backs, chewed them, stabbed them. He got where he wanted to be by jumping on backs. To give him his due, he wrote brilliant copy, created unforgettable campaigns. His spots sold product to the tune of millions, billions. The emptiness of big numbers must’ve scared him, or the ghosts of the potential careers he’d trampled. Maybe he got hung up on coke. In any case, one day he left a note on the desk in his duplex corner office. He broke his lease on a Central Park South dream pad with terrace, walked away from a walk-in closet as big as the Waldorf Astoria. He turned up at the zendo with a cool million in cash, wrapped in rice paper crafted by a human living treasure in Kyoto, with a daisy from Central Park taped on top of the package. The daisy got him in. At least I hope it was the daisy.

The way is hard. Lester snapped. It’s possible he found his true vocation as the Pope of Black Zen, but his mincing, giggling devotees don’t call him Serene Highness. 

Paranoia isn’t zen, but it’s human. Lester Frills is a genuine enemy. He’s sent his adepts to beat the crap out of me on several occasions. Paranoia said Lester was sending the Deco dreams to turn me on to Black Zen. Intuition carries weight, more or less equal to a photon’s. Lester Frills wanted in on my dream life, or was already there. The usual dreams of garbage, ground into clean white sand blown by fragrant breezes into the Northern Lights, were replaced by streamlined decadence. Whether I wanted to be or not, I was on a case. The case was personal.

Know yourself. Know your enemy. Is your enemy your self? 

Lester and I used to go out for beers, post-meditation. He was a funny guy, great talker, good listener. He had style, paid his rounds, bought drinks for total strangers who looked like they could use a freebie. Beered-up Lester usually had a good-sized crowd around him by closing time. My thirst shifted from beer to ginger tea. I dropped the bar scene. Or the bar scene dropped me. 

Lester worked the zendo scene. He shaved his head, did the kneel for days on end, placed himself in abstract mental locations, began to phase himself out of the world and into the Big Picture. He nearly made it. But achieving oneness with nothingness requires one terrifying step. There’s no going back, and it’s better not to look down. Lester might’ve opened his eyes at the wrong moment. The universe rushed in to fill his near-empty space. The resultant Big Bang rattled windows city-wide. 

Effete but muscular Deco warriors dropped their Dunand shields and Ruhlmann spears, screamed and ran. But they ran towards imploding Lester instead of away from him.

There are material things human beings need. Particularly those who live in New York. Clothes, for instance. The winters here are rather rigid. One shop-window always caught my eye. 

There was a SoHo zendo, before real estate in the urban industrial wasteland skyrocketed. Wandering around SoHo at night was eerie, especially in front of a seamless sidewalk-to-ceiling window. Translucent fiberglass mannequins on invisible strings glowed from within, levitated and almost imperceptibly spun in shop space, as if set in motion by the breath of big city ghosts. A cloud of desire passed overhead at the sight of those perfect zen duds. I wanted to be seen wearing them, wanted people to know where I shopped. One day I waltzed in to have a look at the price tags. Disbelief bent me double like a baseball bat. I shimmered out. 

The cute Japanese shopgirl whispered farewell.


Big City Dreams, Part 1

Ian Shearer

Spilling Blood

They had been beating this guy for hours, and still they had gotten nothing.

Frank McCarthy had skipped town four days ago and nobody had any idea where he was. Nobody but this guy – Tom – Frank’s brother. Frank had been a fucking nonentity until his older brother Tom brought him in. Fucking Micks and their brothers. Frank was Tom’s soft spot. Unfortunately that also meant covering for Frank would be one of his strong points. He was ready to let these goons beat him to death, and by the look of him they were already about halfway there.

‘Tommy,’ I said. He was slumped forward, bleeding onto his own knees. His feet were bare and charred around the edges from where they had used the blowtorch on the soles earlier. ‘Tommy!’

He finally looked up and noticed me standing there for the first time.

‘Fuck,’ he muttered. He knew what it meant, my being there. He slouched forward again.

‘Untie him,’ I said. The two guys just looked at me. That goes to show what a tough bastard Tom was. Even beat to shit and outnumbered three to one, these guys didn’t want his hands free. ‘If I have to say it again, I’ll tie you to a fucking chair,’ I said.

They untied him as ordered and retreated to their posts on either side of the door.

‘You want a drink, Tommy?’

He looked up at me, held one nostril shut, and blew a clot of bloody snot at my feet.

‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ I said, handing him my flask. ‘Careful now, that’s the good stuff. You might not be used to it.’

‘Fuck you,’ he said and took a hit. He grimaced and wiped his burning lips, smearing blood across one cheek. ‘Just get it over and done with already,’ he said.

‘You know I can’t do that Tommy,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a reputation to uphold. I at least have to try my best.’

‘Won’t make any difference. You don’t get to Frank, you still lose face.’

‘Looks like you’ve already lost half of yours,’ I said. ‘Luckily for you, I’m not in the mood for any more violence tonight.’

‘You gonna fucking talk me to death?’

‘Actually I was gonna say I could go for some pussy,’ I said. ‘How ’bout you boys?’ I said, turning to the big bastards at the door. ‘How long since you had a nice piece of ass?’

They just chuckled in response. Beavis and Butthead on gear.

‘Reason I ask is, I bumped into Frank’s ex on the way down here. Ellie, isn’t it? I mean I figure she’s his ex. He sure as shit didn’t take her with him when he lammed it.’

I had his attention now. He went for another swig and I smacked the flask out of his hand.

‘I say I bumped into her, but really it was her front door. Bumped right into her pretty face when I kicked it in. She’s a real firecracker. How the fuck did a guy like Frank ever get a piece like that?’

He dove out of his chair at me, figuring to tackle me to the ground. I met his face with my foot and sent him sprawling back, falling over his chair. Then the boys were on him again, and he didn’t bother struggling.

‘I decided to bring her along,’ I said. ‘Maybe take her out for a drink after we finish here. Problem is we were in such a rush to get going, she didn’t have a chance to put any real clothes on. Must be getting cold now.’

‘You’re full of shit,’ Tom said as they tied him back into the chair. ‘They’d never let you touch a woman.’

‘Who the fuck’s gonna know? Who’s gonna say anything? These guys? I’d put a bullet in both their fuckin’ heads if I even got a whiff they might rat me out. And you know you’re not walking out of here.’

He was starting to believe it.

‘I told you I have a reputation, Tom. I always get what I want. Now you’ve got one more chance to tell me where Frank is, or I’m sending one of the boys next door for the best piece of ass he’s ever had.’

‘Fuck you,’ was all he said in response.

‘Fuck me? Really Tom? You’re gonna let this chick take herself down to the A and E to get stitched back together just because your brother can’t pay his fucking debts? You going to the grave with that kind of guilt?’

He didn’t say anything. He was weighing it up. Just a little more would tip the scales. I dug a coin out of my pocket.

‘Alright then. Call it fellas, heads or tails? Or maybe I should send them both in, eh Tommy? Let one get some head and the other get some tail?’

They called it and I flipped the coin. Heads.

‘You’re up,’ I said, and Mr. Heads left.

There was silence for a few seconds, then the screaming started. Panicked, frightened screaming, just hoping someone would hear and come to help.

That’s when Tommy finallt cracked.

‘Alright, call him off,’ he said, hanging his head low. I sent the other goon next door, and the screaming shortly stopped.

Tom gave Frank up and I put a bullet between his eyes. Eighteen hours later, over a hundred miles away, Frankie got the same.

I know what you’re thinking – did I really have the dame in the other room, or did I just pay one of my girls to scream on command?

Well shit, Tommy never found out.

Why should you?

James Hippie

Death By Misadventure

Most of his friends had sold out. Once they hit their thirties they started dropping out of the scene; women, careers, children, the whole lame adult checklist. He was one of the few that stayed the course. He was in it to win it. Rock and roll.

Some days he had his doubts. He knew most people considered him a loser. They looked down on the unemployment scams, hocking his gear for drugs, the trips to jail for petty hustles and expired warrants. It hurt to know that people thought he had wasted his potential and turned into a lowlife drug addict, some fucking wastrel that was stuck in a pathetic adolescent fantasy world. He was on the wrong side of thirty and still passing himself off as a musician, still waiting for that big break. What a joke. But when he had his shit together, high and kicking it in a room somewhere, he knew he had made the right choice. He never sold out. They were the ones that traded their youthful ideals for the safety of their parents’ path. He was living the dream. He was going down with the ship. It was all or nothing.

One night he managed to score some 80mg oxys from some guy he met in Long Beach, a so-called fan that remembered him from “back in the day” but still charged him full price for the drugs. They picked up a twelve pack and a pizza and he got a room for the night. They drank and bullshitted while they worked on the pizza, then they crushed up the pills and started doing lines. He was watching something on the History Channel when he nodded out. The guy from Long Beach relieved him of the remainder of the drugs and $17.00 from his wallet and left him there, comatose but technically still alive. Later when he barfed up the pizza, the vomit pooled in his windpipe, choking him to death.

That was how the maid found him the next day, purple and bloated, his head wedged between the bed and the nightstand. The coroner attributed it to “death by misadventure,” which was also the title of a shitty Ted Nugent song. He would have approved of the irony.

When word of his death got out, a few people that remembered him and his band left flowers and candles on the curb outside the motel. It was his best performance ever. Always leave them wanting more. Rock and roll.

Don Stoll


Joe Halladay figured he’d had enough of Ellen Flay, but this morning was the topper.

“Better not get sick on my shoes,” he said. “One thing you did it on the floor back at the station, but won’t be a darky with a mop here.”

“Fat ass keep you getting out of the way in time?” Flay said.

Halladay couldn’t believe a woman had been put in charge of catching the Leopard of Leeds. Him with thirteen years on the Leeds City Police and her on loan from York and North East Yorkshire, waltzing in to give orders like the Queen to him and other blokes. And didn’t know enough to stay in bed with her flu, make everyone at the station sick starting with Joe Halladay.

“We pretend we’re a team, Joe?” she said. “For Mr. Smythe’s benefit?”

Halladay knocked on Tommy Smythe’s door.

Flay tried the handle. The door opened.

“Wasting time,” Halladay said. “Bloke killed four women going to leave his door unlocked?”

Flay entered the flat.

“Need me to go over all the rubbish that connects Smythe to Jill Melvin?” she said. “Got your head up that fat ass so I need to pull it out for you?”

“Means you reaching up my ass I’m all right with it,” he grinned.

He followed her until she went left to the sitting room. He went right to the kitchen. That was teamwork: she could sit for a minute, Fat Ass would probably look in the fridge.

She barely had her own ass on the sofa when she hears Halladay.

“Might owe you an apology, Ellen.”

She heaved herself up. She followed the voice.

There’s Halladay, gloves on, great whacking brassiere stretched out between his hands dripping into the sink.

“Label says 42D,” he snickered. “If Smythe’s the Leopard then he’s a hardy lad, able to pack our Jill up into a tree.”

With the blood-stained bra still stretched out he made it see-saw. He raised the right cup and then the left.

“Which one you think he ate first, Ellen?” he said. “Bloody knickers in the sink too.”

“Need the loo,” Flay said.

She received a shock upon raising the lid. She slammed it down.

“Bog’s stopped up.”

“Might be evidence,” Halladay laughed. “Remains of Jill Melvin.”

She went into the hall. Door at the end opened. Pulled out her warrant card. Flashed it as she headed toward the middle-aged chap coming out, him speechless.

“Thank you to use your loo, sir” she said brushing past him. “Police business.”

Not shutting the door—too much of a hurry—she retched into the clean empty bog.

“You really police?” she heard someone say, middle-aged chap no doubt.

She retched again. A real chunder this time, felt like her whole insides coming up.

She heard him saying “Late for work, but you’ll lock up, Officer?”

Flay needed a few minutes.

She left, locking the door, and went back to Tommy Smythe’s flat. Halladay had closed the door but not locked it.

Halladay not in the kitchen, not in the sitting room. She found the bedroom. There’s Halladay with tape over his mouth, eyes huge, and next thing she sees must be Tommy Smythe, eyes getting huge when he sees Flay.

She sees Halladay’s hands behind his back and then sizes up Smythe: the Leopard for sure. Powerful build, and why else tie up a copper?

“You police too?” he says, puts a knife to Halladay’s throat.

Flay’d drawn her service weapon without thinking. She pointed it at the floor.

“Don’t want more trouble Tommy, killing a copper,” she said.

“Think this’ll make it worse on me?” he laughed. “Let me by.”

Flay stepped to her left. Smythe came forward keeping Halladay in front. On reflex, Flay raised her gun and put a bullet through his eye.

Fucking hell, that was lucky, she thought as he hit the floor.

Next she ripped the tape off of Halladay’s mouth.

“Could of missed and hit me, you cow!”  he screamed.

Flay didn’t tell him he was an ungrateful twat. She was too busy thinking how tired she was of feeling sick every morning.

Time to get rid of the sodding baby, she thought.

Joanna Koch

Mr. Bones Puzzle Candy

The hothouse arousal of the undertaker’s hand hit her like a wet brick, a slab covered in slip. She squeezed his fingers like clay digits that begged to be molded for the kiln’s curing fire. Her tips rubbed his knuckles, and the puzzle of his bones assembled in her palm. He was a slim man.

One handshake, and her husband intervened, weight crushing wonder. It was his grandmother, after all. She attested his choices in silence. He labored to justify the cheapest urn while the undertaker offered reassurance. When the thin man caught her eye as quick as a hummingbird, she turned away.

It wasn’t her husband’s age. Twelve years wasn’t that much. The shape of the marriage ground her raw. Sex dampened at odd angles, more rigor than pleasure. Where once her curves filled his sheer slope of muscle and bone, now his budding gut pushed her away. His altered diet moved his lumps to strange places. She cringed when he tasted wrong, evaded his sticky tongue and tainted breath. The musty smell of recent steak caught in the back of her throat. She saw heart attacks in the marbled meat he slapped in a pan, felt her gullet rise every time she came home to the sheen and smell of splattered grease.

She had a sweet tooth. Preferred buzz over bulk.

The sting of spun sugar, hummingbird bones full of air. The undertaker’s bones hummed to her.

The night before the service, her husband slathered her in grease, an engine of meat bloated with unspoken grief. She turned over when he was done. Stick a fork in me, a knife, a scythe, she thought, and thin fingers like lurid bones probed her to sleep.

Overtaken by the undertaker in erotic dreams, by sunken cheeks and taut forehead, saran-wrapped skin clinging to a skeletal structure ready to break free through the surface of sallow flesh, she felt his many-jointed fingers in her folds. The undertaker’s touch was specific, knowing, and inarguable. She didn’t need to be filled with fat. Segmented bones lodged and vibrated in all her pleasure points.

Grooming for the funeral like dressing for a date. Shame at her itch and impatience, awkward as a stranger through the service, endless stories of a past she didn’t share. She grew more restless and abashed each time they called her the new wife.

Too many cocktails later, she disappeared into the funeral parlor to find him. Was it so wrong to flirt? She crept past the cloakroom and imagined long fingers pulling her down between the coats, fingers that handled the dead freezing her skin with forbidden knowledge. Airy gaps between his bones left her breathless; sharp pelvis jabbed with every slam of his hips.

The rustle of coats, heavy, woolen, black. Curtains dividing dreams. Forest of fabric shifting into darkness, as if the room went on forever.

The sensation of a needle stung the back of her neck.

She clasped her nape and turned. Bones baring sunken eyes, slim fitted suit draping loose, smile quietly manic. He put his finger against her lips. His other hand circled her waist and waltzed her backwards into the deep closet.

Shapes of coats, a crowd gathered in anonymous black, rustling; heavy men hanging by their necks. Colder as she backed through the recesses, not coats but carcasses hanging and swinging. Dead men blackened with rot, rustle of vermin under coats of flesh. The points of the undertaker’s fingers inspecting her body for arousal. Waltzing, wet under her dress, back pressed against something warm, the undertaker slipping his fingers in and out and holding up his hand to show her the bare bones.

His skin was stripped, muscle and nerve eaten away. Warm carcasses swung as the room rotated. Once again he placed a bone to her lips. She smelled the sugar in it, felt the squirm of something fragrant in the rotting meat, the slab behind her back alive and moist, massaging her with maggots.

The undertaker teased her mouth with a slim digit. “You know you want it.”

She did.

She bit off the finger and crunched through the bone. Sugar stung the joints in her jaw. Sweetness hurt her back teeth. A hot tingle inflamed her cheeks. She reorganized the puzzle of his bones and ate all the candy, saving his manic grin for last. When his final tooth cracked open it heaved a cherry-flavored gasp.

She wiped the maggots from her back, flicked the ash from her dress, and grabbed her coat from the racks.

A heavy-set aunt blocked her exit. She resembled the husband if he were aged, fattened, and dressed in drag. “We’ve all been wondering where you ran off to.”

Coat half on, half off. “I needed some air.”

The matron looked her up and down. “I understand, dear. These things are so stressful.”

Not budging, she plowed through her handbag and frowned into its depths over a double chin. The oversized tote didn’t hide her excessive hips or opulent chest. She fished out a tissue, handed it to the wife, and tapped at the corner of her mouth.

“After you freshen up, come down to the tea room. I hear there’s going to be cake.”

Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 1

Dreams are not zen. Or else they’re pure zen, i.e. nothing.

Dreaming mind is zen mind. The body lies immobile, forgotten, left behind. Dreaming mind concentrates on dreams, and dreams are only dreams. The world’s a dream, including you, whoever you are.

Nights were enlivened with Art Deco New York. The dream city looked the way a big city should, in my mind.

While awake, I try not to get hung up on appearances. I also try to keep life simple, as far as living conditions, material necessities and interactions with other people are concerned, without being tooneurotic about it. The city’s packed with neurototypes. Neurosis is my business. I do removals. But I couldn’t seem to remove Art Deco New York from my own dream life.

The scene was usually a theater at night. The place is deserted. Light shines from comedy-tragedy mask sconces onto rounded velvet seats in sensually curved rows. Nothing’s happening onstage. No music, not a sound. But the theater’s alive.

On the walls, bas-relief dancers stand frozen in clingy costumes. Plume-helmeted warriors look like they’d run shrieking, hands held high, from the first noise of conflict.

Outside the theater, the city breathes, pulses, vibrates. Boogie-woogie bounces off chrome and stone, throbs life into elegant, hardworking city people as they go about their meaningful business.

A Zeiss planetarium projector in the middle of the theater takes up space—devours it. The popeyed monster exudes death-rays, dreams of conquest.

The Deco theater is a secret place. I feel I shouldn’t be there, though I’m dressed, uncharacteristically, for a night on the town. It’s like I’m pulling some REM-phase B&E job, but it makes no sense. The Deco bas-reliefs can’t be removed without ruining them. The exquisite fixtures are too bulky to boost. The predominant wood is ebony. Everything metal looks like plutonium or heavier, and glows with a potent warmth. The theater’s separate components would be meaningless. You can’t steal a whole theater.

 The place’s enhanced gravity made every movement as ponderous as a promenade through the Elephant Room in the Museum of Natural History, at a time when the Chrysler Building spoke like Ernest Hemingway. Why was I going to the theater every night? How much were tickets?

Deco arabesques tendriled into meditation. Bubbles rose through water, wind blew across glaciers and sand dunes, but were displaced by stylized dancers and heroic workmen frozen in action, their statuesque bodies sheathed in diaphanous material carved from stone or cast in bronze. Streamlined automobiles glistened with chrome as they rolled down uncrowded streets lined by skyscrapers. The aparmtents inside swung with elephantine furniture and bakelite cocktail accessories. People in plush clothes slugged their highballs. Airplanes like stars streaked overhead. Silk hankies fluttered goodbye at the streamlined airport, where searchbeams dissected the indigo sky.

Deco made a mockery of meditation. Impossible to follow a Constellation on an imaginary Denver-Chicago flight. Gangsters kicked open swinging doors with pewter intarsio inlays. Nickel-plated Tommy guns spat flame to syncopated explosions and screams of agony. Molls in ostrich plume bikinis pulled the triggers, grinned sadistically through lashings of lipstick. The airplane screeched its aerodynamic-fender wheels, sent up crushed-eggshell clouds, taxied into the lobby of a Midwestern Moderne hotel where Raymond Loewy, Walt Disney and Howard Hughes had gathered in a conspiracy to capture American imaginations.

Art Deco is the opposite of the Zen aesthetic.

Zen, like magnetism, has a flip side. The pressure of concentration, over time, can in rare instances lead to the formation of diamond mind. The same pressure can crush other minds, cause them to crack, darken.

Zen has a positive gravity that impels adepts towards what’s good, what’s clean. Or so I like to think.

The flip side is Black Zen.

Enmity’s a concept as old as humanity. Animals may kill each other, but they’re not enemies. The word itself has fallen from use. I don’t own a fork or chair, but I have an enemy. His name is Lester Frills. He calls himself the Pope of Black Zen. He calls me the zen garbageman. Or scumbag. Or motherfucker. Or, more disturbingly, biscuit-butt. Lester Frills might be the flip side of me. A psychoanalyst would have his work cut out for him, on that count. Shrinks charge $200 for a 50-minute hour. I don’t have that kind of dough. My clients pay much lower rates.

Money. Ambition. Accumulation of surplus crap. People move to the Big City for many reasons. Desire becomes disease.

I dropped out of college into the Sanitation Department. Family connections did the trick. The job-market was DOA. I took up zen because the end result of human effort, endeavor, desire, need and ambition, i.e. garbage, drove me nuts.

Nobody should stare at garbage too long. Shrinks charged $100 an hour, but at least you got 60 minutes in those days. Zen was free. My first donation to the zendo, after they finally let me come in and kneel, was a near-spherical black rock I found on a dune on a beach just east of Amagansett, a possible meteorite. The roshi smiled enigmatically, nodded, pocketed.

Zen was a good deal, basically. Let’s put it that way.

Cleared my mind, cleaned out my cluttered pad. Out with ambition, desire, craving, dissatisfaction, envy. Sour refuse slowly turned into a perfume of freedom. Removal of the unnecessary became a mission. Serenity is the only valuable commodity, and it can’t be traded, bought or sold. It can be removed, however, by insubstantial dreams.

Jeff O’Brien

Welcome, Interloper

The top floor of a hip, ultra-modern hotel in a major northwestern metropolis was one of the last places I ever expected to find myself. For one thing, the nicest hotel I’d ever stayed at before that night was a beat-to-shit Econo-Lodge in Manchester, New Hampshire. And, the top floor of this hotel was the on-site restaurant – an absurdly expensive “Mexican” joint with portions barely large enough to feed the average garden gnome. Tapas, maybe? Seeing as I’m not even culturally informed enough to know exactly what the fuck kind of restaurant I was in, it comes as no surprise that I was feeling out of place there.

I’m not gonna say Applebee’s is my restaurant of choice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find myself there once about every three months. And I’m more than content to find myself there when I do. Looking out the window of this lavish eatery and getting internally philosophical, I felt like a square peg jammed into a circle.

Now that I really think back on it, I guess it’s no surprise I was getting all introspective and deep. What else was I going to do? I’d finished my measly rations and wasn’t about to drop another ten dollars on another tiny chorizo verde taco that was way more lettuce than chorizo. While waiting for the server to bring the bill, my options for passing the time were quite limited.

While sitting there staring out the window onto the dense landscape, my mind set to wondering why so many horror stories take place in the woods. What’s really so scary about the woods? Other than the obvious bears and Bigfoot and stuff, they’re a pretty peaceful place, just really dark. I’d walk alone in the woods any night of the week before I’d venture out after dark through the countless unseen twists and turns of the big city.

The big city; now that’s a pretty fucking scary place. And so full of wonder, day or night.

Out the window to my right, beyond a gaggle of high rise buildings, the last rays of the day’s sun cast a serene, warming glow on the city below. Out the window straight ahead, hidden from the sun by the shadow of the very hotel I was in, stood a condemned, dilapidated parking garage. Beyond the guard rails of all seven levels, I saw not a single car parked. Only darkness looked back out at me.

The garage’s entrance down on the ground level was blocked off by a thick chain draped across the empty attendant booths. Dangling lopsided on the middle of the stretch of chain was a sign, too heavily marred by graffiti to get its intended message across. From nine floors up I couldn’t be sure what the graffiti meant to say either, but I knew my next stop was that garage. Might as well perpetrate a little urban exploration while I was there in the big, scary city.

It felt as if I’d been teleported to the entrance of the garage. I might’ve sworn that was exactly what had happened if the shock I’d suffered upon seeing the dollar amount of my dinner bill wasn’t still making my head shake. But I’d just gotten to my intended destination with no memory of the actual trip. Sort of like when your exit on the highway is coming up and suddenly you realize you have no memory of passing all the previous exits. There’s a name for that, but I sure as hell can’t remember what it is. I just know it’s a surefire sign that you haven’t been paying attention to the road and you’re lucky you didn’t cause a major accident.

Now that I was up close to the sign that surely at one point was intended to keep people away from the decrepit, old structure, I came to realize that the sign was likely what had drawn me there in the first place. The graffiti upon it, though sloppy and terribly clustered with no symmetry whatsoever, appeared mostly Satanic in nature. Demon faces and pentagrams and the number of the beast in dripping, bloody paint made me smile. At the bottom of the sign, painted in white, were the words “welcome, interloper.”

Staring beyond the entrance into the impossible darkness that waited for me brought about such joy that I could have laughed like a maniac. It was barely even dusk and I was about to venture into the abyss. I could only imagine the depths the darkness would reach in the hours to come.

I came to appreciate the concept of smaller food portions as I lifted my leg over the chain and heaved my awkward mass across. I barely felt even winded. Usually it was a trick just to get my fat ass into my car without having to unbutton my jeans after dinner at Applebee’s.

Of course, I was still hungry. But being in the big city means being able to find something to eat on every corner at just about any hour. Maybe there’d be a hot dog bodega or a sausage cart hidden away in this silent parking garage, known only to the few brave enough to trespass onto forbidden city property. But I digress.

At first the darkness was much like your average nighttime late winter fog, just not white. You know how sometimes you can be driving along the highway into said fog, and it always seems to stay ten to twenty feet ahead of you? Like that. While I’m usually happy about that sort of fog, I was disappointed by the thin, weak darkness. I wanted nothing more than to be sucked in and enveloped by the void. Thankfully, after about twenty or thirty more steps, the darkness thickened and began to pull me inward with its thickening tendrils.

I don’t know how long I walked on completely blind, but it wasn’t very long. Perhaps just a stretched out moment that I was elated to be lost in. When my eyes adjusted I saw a white, glowing rectangular frame off in the distance. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Whatever this light was, its mystery only added to my joy. I had no idea what it was, but that was entirely the point. It was exactly what I’d come for.

Another vertical line of white light appeared straight down the middle of the rectangle, and spread across in both directions until I was looking at a solid white doorway. A silhouetted human figure appeared within, obscuring some of the blinding light – a true kindness to my sensitive eyes.

“Come forward,” she said.

As I did so I found that not all of this dilapidated parking garage was still dormant. I had just stepped onto a fully functioning elevator. And standing next to me was a most peculiarly dressed woman. A shiny black hooded cloak concealed her body and face. Her petite frame and her soft, soothing voice were my only indications of her gender.

“Going up,” she stated, rather than asked. Made sense since we were on the bottom level.

“So, do you work here or something?” I asked.

After a pregnant pause she said, “Yes.”

After a much emptier pause, I said, “Okay.”

The awkward silence ended when we reached the seventh and top-most level. The doors of the elevator came open and I followed her out into the now impossibly dark night. The sky was empty – devoid of stars or even a hint of moon.

An unseen source, hidden somewhere under the night’s black sheath, played eerie, ethereal string music accompanied by some hypnotic, soprano vocals. I guessed the singer was female unless the song was sung by a castrato or a guy with balls and a remarkably high register.

My faceless guide approached me and stood very close. A petite hand reached out from her cloak, so pale it glowed in the dark. Despite the hand being cold to the touch and delicate to the point of brittle, it somehow offered a warming comfort.

“First time in the big city?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, wondering how beautiful the face that went with that sweet voice must be. “This one, anyways. I’ve been to a few others before.”

“How do you like this one so far?”

“It’s pretty nice. A little too crowded for my tastes. But it’s nice to see something a little different. Whatever is going on right now is a decent break from the hustle and bustle.”

“That’s why we’re here.”

“We?” I asked, looking around the impenetrable darkness. “You’re not the only one who works here?”

“Not at all,” she said. “Come.”

She led me by my hand like a child, which was a little disconcerting. But since I couldn’t see five feet in front of my face, I didn’t protest.

A pocket of light opened up in the distance, and I saw the source of the strange music. In front of a string quartet stood a lovely woman in a black dress gown and equally black hair, crooning away. Her face was heavily made up like that of a skull. The members of her band, all seated with their respective instruments: cello, voila, and two violins, were men in crude skeleton costumes, like the Kobra Kai from Karate Kid.

“This might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said. I felt like a complete dork, or perhaps just a mediocre white man, realizing that I could bear witness to such a magnificent, beautiful spectacle of the surreal, and have nothing more to say than either Beavis or Butthead would.

My inability to express my appreciation in eloquent terms would only grow worse, for not far from the diva and her string band another pocket of light opened up and I saw a five-piece death metal band thrashing away. I could make out little of what the singer was grunting but definitely heard phrases like “rectal impalement” and “vaginal maggots.” Somehow, the two highly different types of music blended perfectly, making a bizarre orchestra.

More and more musicians of all varieties appeared under spotlights. Emo guys and hippy girls with acoustic guitars. Dudes rapping into microphones. A sad guy at a grand piano singing about the city lights with a glass of bourbon on top of the piano. With each new act that suddenly had an audience with me, more and more music blended into a massive but somehow pleasant cacophony of sound and emotion.

“Pretty cool,” I said, knowing I had little more to offer than simple appreciation.

“Thought you’d like it,” my guide replied. “Let’s continue on.”

Still holding my hand, she led me back to the elevator. A moment later she brought me out onto the sixth level. Immediately upon stepping into the covered darkness dozens of circles of lights appeared. In each circle were one or several strippers dancing on poles.

“Wow,” I said, admiring the smorgasbord of titties and vag.

“I figured you’d like this floor,” my faceless guide said, softly giggling. “It gets even better.”

Beyond the strippers I saw people fucking and performing other various sexual acts in beds with end tables and lamps, like little portions of hotel rooms only where the light shined – all of which had a cameraman or woman shooting the scene while a director guided the performers with verbal cues.

“Pretty nice show,” said my hooded guide, “but there is more to see.”

Another quick ride down the elevator brought us out to the fifth level. The darkness broke by the sight of people either sitting on stools and painting on easels, or people sitting cross-legged on the ground drawing into sketch books.

“So is this garage like the haunted hall of artists and performers?” I asked.

“Something like that. Let’s keep going, shall we?”

The fourth level really struck a chord with me. There, piercing the darkness, I saw people writing into notebooks or typing away on laptops. Some were sitting at tables with a latte or a beer. The one thing they all had in common was the look of determination and purpose on their faces. Some looked pretty cocky and self-important. I can only imagine why this particular level seemed to resonate so loudly within me.

“I guess that’s what I look like when I write at the cigar bar,” I said.

“See for yourself,” said my guide. She pulled me further into the array of writers and told me to stare off into the far corner of the garage. “Look familiar?”

A new circle of light emerged and there I saw myself sitting in a comfy chair, typing into my computer and smoking a cigar.

“Oh shit,” I muttered. “Am I a ghost now? Is my soul like trapped here forever of something?”

“What makes you say that, Jeffrey?”

“The symbolism of what I’m seeing here isn’t lost on me,” I said. “If I were to write about this experience I don’t think I’d have to beat the reader over the head with the fact that this parking garage is the graveyard of artists who came to the big city to quote-unquote…make it.”

“You’re greatly overcomplicating things,” laughed my guide.

“Oh, okay. So like, I can leave and go back about my life and stuff, right?”

“Of course, but why are you in such a hurry?”

“Well, I’m here on my wedding-slash-honeymoon. My fiancé is waiting for me back at the hotel. She said something about me picking up dessert while I was out on my stroll.”

Did she? Oh yeah, she did. I’d completely forgotten that conversation along with everything else that happened between leaving the hotel restaurant and arriving at the entrance of the garage.

“You’re going to spend the rest of your life with her, right?”

“That’s the plan, yes.”

“Well then what’s the hurry, Jeff?” Finally, she pulled off her hood and looked at me with her lovely, pale and ghostly visage. “The next level is where the spirits of the culinary artists are. I know you’re still hungry. This one guy has a bomb-ass falafel cart down there. And there’s this one Italian lady who makes the best cannoli I’ve ever had. Why not a grab a couple to go?”

“That’ll work?” I asked.

“Part of you will always be here. It’s only fair you get to take something with you.”

John Knoll


He: What do you hate the most?

She: (thinking)

He: Shopping at Wal-Mart? Driving rush hour traffic? Government bureaucracy?

She: Just shut up. Will you please shut up? I hate your patriarchal prompting. Like I can’t even think of what I hate without you prompting me.

He: So that’s what you hate the most?

She: What?

He: You hate me because I’m a man.

She: I didn’t say that.

He: Then what did you mean when you said you hate my patriarchal prompting?

She: You’re so screwed up. You know that?

He: You hate patriarchy more than anything. Admit it.

She: No, I hate housecleaning more than anything. I hate housework even more than I hate you. I could easily leave you, never see you sad ass face again, but housework is always there. Wherever I go, there it is. Dirt. Dog shit on the rug. Cat piss stains on the sofa. Dirty dishes, I hate it. Housecleaning never goes away. Never will. Never. Never. Never.

He: I’m sorry you feel that way.

She: You’re what? Don’t you patronize me. You son-of-a-bitch.

He: There you go with that feminist rap again. I’m not patronizing you. I’m just disagreeing with you because housecleaning is like sex to me. It’s getting your hands in forbidden places, like cleaning shit out of the toilet bowl and secretly taking off your rubber gloves.

She: You’re sick.

He: O come on now. You know I’m a liar. And I’d appreciate it if you would quit interrupting me.

She: I’m not interrupting you.

He: Yes you are.

She: O excuse me. Please go on. It’s just that I’m so literal. I didn’t realize you were speaking metaphorically.

He: Thank-you. You see housecleaning is like sex because it has to be done and afterwards I always feel so much better; so clean, so pure. In fact, in a lot of ways housecleaning is better than sex.

She: Then why don’t you do more housecleaning if it’s so god-damned sexy?

He: Because I’m repressed.