David Wesley Hill

Sometimes I Almost Feel Like a Real Human Being

Courtney became best friends with Mary Beth in order to learn her secrets, but she didn’t discover the most important one. It was Sam who found that out. He crawled from his basement tunnel and began bouncing excitedly. Dirt showered everywhere like water off a wet dog.

“I know it, I know it,” he said.

“Know what?” I asked.

“What she did, Frank. What Mary Beth did.”

Even when he stands upright, Sam’s head barely brushes my knee. It is as round as a pumpkin and disproportionately large for his body. His eyes are the shape and color of egg yolks and his mouth is crammed with broad flat teeth. Sam has many talents. He can mimic any sound he hears. His sense of smell is extraordinary. Perhaps this is because his nose is so immense that the tip actually touches his chin.

“What did Mary Beth do?”

Except for the corner where Sam had dug the entrance to his tunnel, most of the basement is finished. The walls are paneled with fake wood veneer and the floor is covered with plastic tiles that imitate real brick. Against one wall are a washer and dryer and a cabinet of laundry supplies. Against the other is the old couch on which I was sprawled. I was bored. I’m always bored. Sometimes it seems like I’ve been bored for centuries. My whole entire life.

Sam didn’t answer directly. He isn’t very smart and he has trouble holding onto a line of thought.

“I was hungry, Frank. Really, really hungry. And this big old rat, he was too fast. I didn’t catch him until he was inside Mary Beth’s house.”

Sam’s tunnels lead everywhere across the neighborhood. There’s not a home he doesn’t have access to for at least a half mile in every direction.

“Well?” I asked.

“He was nice and juicy.”

“Not the rat, Sam. Mary Beth.”

“Oh, her. Well, I knew what was up right away. The stink was that strong, Frank. Even you could smell it.”

“Smell what, Sam?”

“Mary Beth. She’s pregnant.”

Courtney said, “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me. I mean, what are best friends for?”

We were sitting at the kitchen table having a breakfast of cereal and toast and orange juice. We had to be at school in half an hour. Courtney was wearing jeans and a tight knit shirt without a collar. She was chewing gum and eating at the same time. I couldn’t figure out how she managed not to swallow the gum. In many ways Courtney is as talented as Sam.

“Maybe Mary Beth doesn’t know herself,” I said.

“Get real, Frank. Of course she knows. She has to. Sam says she’s in her sixth month.”

“Almost too late for an abortion,” I said.

“Mary Beth wouldn’t have one anyway. They’re Catholic.”

“Who’s the father?”

“Brad Vogel. Has to be. They’ve been going steady since eighth grade. Mary Beth says they haven’t gone all the way.”

“Maybe she’s lying.”

“No, I don’t think so. There must be some other explanation.”

“It’s been two thousand years since the last immaculate conception.”

“Don’t remind me, Frank.”

Dad joined us in the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee from the pot warming on the counter top. Dad’s in software development. He used to be in armaments but he got out of that business. He was dressed for work in his usual gray pinstripe suit and black wingtip shoes with the built up right heel that prevents people from noticing his limp. If they do, he says he had polio when he was a kid. This is not the truth. Dad’s always been lame.

“What are you two looking so serious about?” he asked.

“My friend, Mary Beth, is pregnant,” Courtney answered.

“So what do you have in mind?”

“We don’t know yet,” Courtney answered.

“I’m thinking about it,” I said.

Brad Vogel was seventeen but seemed younger. He was into computer gaming and since there is little I can’t do with electronics it was easy to impress him with my expertise. We went to his house after school and settled down with a couple bags of chips before his computer and took turns playing death matches on-line.

“I don’t think they’ve had sex,” I told Courtney. “They were doing some heavy petting and accidentally got a little too close. I don’t believe he even knows she’s pregnant.”

“How do you suppose he’ll react to the news?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

Going down to the basement, I explained to Sam what we wanted. His grin was so wide that it almost split his head in half. Using a burner phone spoofed to identify itself as belonging to Mary Beth, I dialed the number for Sam since he has stubby claws instead of real fingers.

“Brad?” Sam said in an adolescent female voice. “Yes, it’s Mary Beth, of course, it’s me. How can you ask if something’s the matter? Yes, I’m crying. We have to talk. Now. I’m pregnant, Brad. Yes, I’m sure. Don’t be stupid. Who do you think? Half an hour. I’ll leave the porch door open.”

I clicked off the phone and Sam said: “That was fun, Frank. Real fun. I did good, didn’t I?”

Then I spoofed the phone to display Brad’s number, dialed Mary Beth, and gave the phone back to Sam. His voice was indistinguishable from the teenage boy’s.

“Hi, Mary Beth, it’s me. Well, I’m OK, but there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask. No, no, nothing like that, it’s what you haven’t told me…. Please, don’t start. I can’t bear to hear you crying. Yes, that’s better. We’ll talk. No, no one else knows. It’s just I noticed you were gaining weight. All right. I’ll be over. Leave the porch door open.”

This time Sam was so excited that he got down on all fours and started chasing rats. As small as Sam is, he was still much larger than the rodents, and soon his groin was messy with blood and fur.

The squealing got on my nerves and I went upstairs. Courtney remained behind until her favorite television program came on.

Sam wired Brad’s and Mary Beth’s rooms so we could overhear their conversations. Brad wanted to tell their parents about the pregnancy but Mary Beth didn’t. She was a big girl and she was sure that if she wore loose clothing no one would guess her condition. Brad was less certain. Neither had much idea what to do with the baby after Mary Beth gave birth.

Dad was sitting on the couch in his boxer shorts like he does every evening after work. He was finishing his third glass of the vodka he keeps in the freezer until it becomes as thick as syrup.

Brad was visiting Mary Beth. We were streaming the microphones in their rooms to our smart TV and their voices came clearly through the stereo speakers. Brad was saying:

“Of course, I love you, Mary Beth. How could you think I don’t?”

“But you want to ruin my life.”

“I’m only saying it might be better if we got help.”

“My mother will kill me. She’ll really kill me. You don’t know her.”

“Let’s think about it.” Brad didn’t sound convinced.

Dad scratched absently at the thigh of his thin leg and took a swallow of vodka. “The boy’s scared,” he observed.

“They’re both scared.”

“He needs to be able to justify keeping the pregnancy secret,” Dad went on. “Otherwise he’ll tell his parents.”

“I think you’re right,” I agreed.

So the next afternoon I met Brad after school and we went to his house and slipped a game into the console.

“You ever notice –” I began.

“Notice what, Frank?”

“Well, all the heroes, all the real heroes in the good games, I mean, there’s always something mysterious about how they’re born. Either some god was screwing around with their mother. Or else they’re foundlings. You know, left on a doorstep by their parents, who can’t keep them for one reason or another. Maybe there’s a rule about it. Like, you can’t be a true hero with an ordinary mother and father.”

Brad’s eyes became distant. They held so much innocence that I wanted to steal them from their sockets and cradle them in my palm.

“You really think so, Frank?” he asked. “There’s a rule?”

“I’d bet on it.”

Mary Beth called Brad when she felt the first contractions. The motel they’d picked out lay a couple miles down the state road beyond the town limits. Sam had wired the entire place since we couldn’t know what room they’d be given. We switched channels until we tuned in on them. It was not an easy labor but they were left alone since it was the kind of establishment where unusual noises are attributed to energetic sexual activity.

“Push,” Brad said. “One more time.”

“I’m pushing.”

The groan Mary Beth made mingled pain and effort and deep satisfaction. After this we heard the wail of a newborn. Mary Beth said, “Let me hold him.”

“Just for a little while, OK?”

“He’s so small, isn’t he, Brad? Oh, I wish we could keep him.”

“Come on, Mary Beth. You know we can’t. We’ve gone over this a thousand times. Look, I’ll get the bassinet ready.”

I stood up and said, “I’d better leave now.”

“Can I come, too?” Courtney asked.

I shrugged and pulled on a jacket. Twilight had faded to night and a chill November wind snapped sheets of rain against the pavement. A walk of ten minutes brought us to St. Luke’s Church. We waited around the corner against the overgrown hedge that framed the rectory. The shrubbery screened us from observation while allowing a good view of the front steps. Just past nine an old Civic pulled up before the church. Brad got out of the car. He didn’t notice us. He leaned inside in order to take out the cradle with his son in it.

For a moment he stared into the cradle. It was easy to guess what he was thinking. For Brad, giving up the child had mystical significance. He was ensuring the boy an extraordinary future. Like in computer games.

Brad placed the bassinet in front of the entrance under the overhang and out of the rain. Then he hurried down the steps and gunned the car away from there. I immediately went to the church and took the bassinet and brought it to Courtney in the shadow of the hedge. Together we peered at the baby.

His eyes were so blue as to seem black. He looked at us fearlessly. There was such wonder and delight in his regard that for the briefest instant I almost felt like a real human being.

“Isn’t he the cutest thing,” Courtney said. She blew a huge bubble.

“Sure is,” I replied.

I reached into the cradle and strangled him. Then I cut off his left ear and tucked it in my pocket.

I replaced the bassinet with the dead body before the church door and Courtney and I returned home.

“I want to report a crime,” Sam said in a woman’s voice. “Yes, well, I think there was a crime, but I’m not one hundred percent sure. I could be wrong. What? What does my name have to do with anything? I’m simply a good citizen, is that so hard to believe? Anyway, my point is, I was visiting a friend at the Seven Oaks Lodge, out on the state road, and I couldn’t help but hear all sorts of funny noises coming from a couple doors down. Number seventeen, I think it was. What? Oh, I don’t know, like crying and maybe like someone was being slapped around a little. I didn’t make too much of it, that’s how the Seven Oaks is. Only I started wondering if maybe I heard a child in there. Now that surely isn’t any place for a child. There’s all sorts of goings on.”

“Very good,” I told Sam. “Now this time you’re a man.” I dialed the police again. In a masculine voice he said:

“There’s been a murder. No, I didn’t see it myself. Let me tell you what happened. I was walking by St. Luke’s Church over on Montgomery, and I saw an old Honda pull up. A kid got out. He was carrying a box or something and he left it on the church steps. I didn’t think nothing of it, but there was something odd about the kid, you know how it is, and after he left, I opened the box. Only it wasn’t a box. It was a cradle. There was a dead baby in it, the son of a bitch dropped off a dead baby like a God damned bundle of used clothes. Sure, I got the license plate. Let me tell you what it was.”

Brad and Mary Beth were arrested for murder. The news made the national papers because the district attorney decided to press for the death penalty even though they were juveniles, but the charges were bargained down to manslaughter. I visited Brad while he was out on bail before sentencing.

“Mary Beth is sure I did it,” he told me. We were sitting on the edge of his bed in his room in front of the computer but the machine was off. “She hates me. She won’t talk to me.”

“Well, you did plead guilty.”

“Only because no one believed my story. They told me if I said I was innocent, and was convicted anyway, I might get the chair or a lethal injection or something. So I had to say I did it. What other choice was there?”

“I don’t know, Brad.”

“That baby was alive when I left him at the church. I swear it. Why would I kill my son? Why would anyone kill a baby? And steal his little ear?”

“Maybe someone had it in for you,” I said. “Maybe it was all a set up, Brad. They were keeping you and Mary Beth under observation. Watching you all the time, just waiting for the right opportunity to frame you both. Probably you were followed from the motel. They killed the baby as soon as you left him at the church. And after that they let the police know where you were.”

Brad looked at me like I was crazy.

“Why would anyone go to all that trouble?” he asked.

“Maybe they wanted to see you suffer for something you didn’t do.”

Brad shook his head slowly. “You’ve been playing too many computer games, Frank. The real world doesn’t work like that. I’ve learned the truth. Probably what happened is some sick bastard, some psychopath, was passing by. That’s all. It was chance. Bad luck. Nothing else.”

“If that’s what you believe, Brad,” I said, “who am I to argue?”

Mom’s a terrible cook and never gets any better. I doubt she’d get any better even if she tried for another thousand years. The frozen green beans were still cold in the middle and the turkey was dry on the outside while at the same time being underdone. Sam crawled onto the table and stuck his head into the cavity and munched happily at the raw meat. Dad carved around him. Courtney blew a bubble and said:

“Mary Beth got two years since they said she was only an accessory. Brad was sentenced to four.”

“I spoke with him last week,” I said. “I told him what happened. He thought I was making it up.”

“Never underestimate the human capacity for rationalization,” Dad observed.

“Even now Brad doubts evil exists,” I continued. “He thinks life is all just circumstance.”

“An Existentialist, is he?” Dad asked.

“He considers himself a cynic.”

Mom was chewing deliberately at the turkey. She dislikes her own cooking as much as we do. “How will you change his mind?” she asked.

“Well, first I’m going to wait four years. Until just before he’s served his sentence.”

“And then, Frank? And then?” Sam popped his head from the turkey and wiped grease from his eyes.

“I’ll send him the videos we made of him and Mary Beth.”

“And the ear, too, Frank,” Sam said. “Don’t forget the ear. That’ll really do it.”

I took the tiny scrap of flesh from my pocket and rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger. For a fleeting instant I was reminded of that fragile second when I had felt alive. It didn’t last. I was bored again.

“The ear, too,” I said.

***

Originally published in Candlelight magazine

Otto Burnwell

This Drink’s on Her

You started doing it as a joke, any time your wife made you wait in restaurants or bars. Especially bars. You hated drinking alone, nursing the one whiskey, killing time until she showed up. You never knew what to do with your hands.

To explain you were waiting for someone always came out sounding like a dodge, an excuse, since you couldn’t be sure when she’d show up from work or whatever “engagement” she had.

So you’d settled on this one joke to fend off your discomfort.

Your wife had taken a new lover, you’d say, and you were giving them time to get used to each other. You’d add a little half-smile of apology, but never laughed.

It put anyone curious or judgmental on the defensive, unsure how to respond. It bled off your anxiety as you pictured what you might look like to anyone bothering to notice you sitting by yourself, giving off that kind of first-date failure or rookie predator vibe.

The response, in free drinks, surprised you. Totally unexpected. Bartenders especially would sport you to a free one. For the wait, they’d say. You perfected the nod of humble gratitude and furrowed brow of wounded pride to mask the guilty pleasure at the cheap victory. You’d salute with the glass, saying “this drink’s on her” and they’d laugh—with you, not at you.

It worked in most places. Probably not the kind of thing you’d try in a biker bar, or red-neck dive, pissing on your own manhood.

You watched the waitstaff for any reaction when she finally did show up. Did they gossip among themselves about her? Like—did she look freshly fucked? Did she act guilty or evasive? Did she even look the type to leave a new lover for drinks and dinner with the likes of you?

She’d enjoy herself, oblivious to her unfortunate reputation. Her vivacity—if that’s a word, then it’s her—her vivacity an odd underscore to what you had the staff thinking of her.

Maybe she would have thought your insecurity funny. Maybe she would have been flattered. You can’t come clean about it now. You could beat yourself up for not appreciating what you had. But it’s a little late for that.

Now, you whip out the line for real. That first time out alone, you didn’t feel at all guilty when that free drink showed up. Some nights it would get you a second freebie when you called for the check, when the waitstaffer got all tender for the long-suffering guy with the randy wife, eating, then leaving alone.

Tonight, in the bar when you tried it, you were sitting next to an older woman. Lots of makeup and side-boob.

She wanted to know all about it, not bothering with excuses or apologies for listening in and chatting you up.

You’ve never given much thought to filling in the details. No one ever asked before. So you make it up as you go, how it ended much too soon, how she’s probably happier, probably better off, maybe you were a jerk, not appreciating what you two had and you deserved what you got. But—you admit—there are things about the whole situation you can’t stop brooding over. Guess it goes with the territory, you say.

She asks about the asshole lover. You dismiss him with a hand wave. Never more than a name to me, you say. Not that you’d been formally introduced.

What’s he look like? Better looking than you, she asks.

Never saw him, you say, and you aren’t all that keen to find out. In fact, you’d like to avoid thinking of him at all.

Not like you should go up, shake his hand and ask him his intentions, she says. You laugh and say no, probably not.

You’re a young enough guy, she says. There’s other fish in the sea.

Much wisdom, you say, and heft your glass. To wisdom. But then you add, it’s hard to go back, throwing out the net when you can’t forget that first fish.

She turns on her stool to face you, looks you over, and says, come on babe, I can fix that. Make you forget your own name.

That she can do, says the bartender, then hurries to add, not that I’ve ever needed my memory wiped.

She laughs and says, you wait, there’ll come a time, even for you, and she laughs along with the bartender. Just like to see the customers satisfied, he says back at her.

If I don’t fix you right up, she says, it won’t cost you a thing. She points to her glass and the bartender fills her up. I’m the Angel of Subtraction. I can take it all away. Whatever it is. I’m here nights and weekends.

Watch yourself, the bartender says to you, she can be addictive.

Bring him another one when we’re done, she says to the bartender as she slips off the stool, a mite unsteady. He’ll need it.

She leads you to a booth in the back, chatting as you go.

Very scientific, she says. Known fact. Resets the chemicals in your brain. I read up on it. I’m not just a pretty face, she says, and laughs. Once I get done, your brain won’t know what to do with itself.

 She gets you seated in the booth, balances her cigarette on her glass, and slips under the table.

Watch the door, she says, and let me know if she does show up.

No chance of that, you tell her, as she takes you into her mouth. But she does show up, superimposed over the lips on you right now.

What would you say? If she did walk in? Standing over you, this cloud of hair, rinsed to a bright rust between your knees? Sorry? It’s one-time thing? I’ll tell you—if you tell me why you left without a half-believable reason?

You think you are about to embarrass yourself with a soft performance. Her vivid absence distracting you from the expert attention given to your crank.

But her face begins a slow dissolve as you respond to the Angel of Subtraction under the table. It’s a long way, but a swift trip, and from a distance you can tell the orgasm train is approaching the station. The nerves in your calves and thighs wake up and the tingling vibration builds. It chugs up to your midriff, your belly flinching and flexing and then the tingle spreading to your ass, clinching closed, all attention to the mouth.

You’re concentrating and you are feeling the swell of intense pleasure rise up through your crank, the forewarning of juice to come and then it’s electric, like lights going on all over the house, your dick swelling—swelling beyond the capacity of your skin to contain it, and the vocalizing that comes unbidden, warnings of impending deluge.

The music is louder somehow. Maybe the bartender turned it up to cover the sounds you’re making. The room fades, the walls fade, the world fades, and you clinch holding onto this feeling. Teetering at the precipice, already over-balanced, you are a cartoon character windmilling your arms to keep an impossible balance at the cliff edge, and then—you explode and rise, not falling, the contractions, a biologic efficiency, jetting it all out of you.

The Angel of Subtraction doesn’t recoil. Instead, pushing down hard, she makes you feel the back of her throat, the swallowing muscles constricting the head to take it all as the convulsions go on, and the sucking goes on, and you are trapped — deliciously trapped—and your legs and belly flinch and jerk, the nerves receiving and responding to the nervous system gone mad with sweet chaotic pleasure.

And then you relax—which is not the right word, but it will have to do—so the weight of your body descends once more and you are lumpen, settling on the booth bench.

She tongues the spot that always makes your leg jump, just because she can.

She comes up from under the table, swinging her ass onto the bench beside you, running a hand through her hair and taking up the cigarette she left burning on the rim of her glass.

 So, she says blowing a jet of smoke up into the dim, shaded light over the table, can you even say the name of her new lover. You think a long minute, then say, yes. Yes, you can, as it swims up from its dark hole, back into your memory. Death, you say. Fucker’s name is death.

The bartender standing there with your fresh drink, goes ‘whoa’ and sets the glass down on the coaster. On me, buddy, he says.

Might as well bring me another while you’re at it, she says. This one’s going to be tough, and she slipped under the table again.

As you are engulfed, surprised at rising again, you hoist your glass to the vacant seat, the missing face across the table, and say, this drink’s on you.

Lorin Lee Cary

Accident  

When Jake’s head exploded it surprised me. I mean, what woman wants blood all over their living room? Not me. Look, it was an accident. I just wanted him to stop talking. I know it sounds silly. But that’s the truth, and I always tell the truth, believe me. I asked my husband to stop talking and he wouldn’t, he just kept going on and on and on. It didn’t matter what he was yammering about. It could be the weather. Something he saw on TV. What he was thinking. Why my clothing was wrong. If his left elbow had a twinge. Whatever. Anything.

Sometimes I’d wave my hands in his face, in hopes he’d stop jabbering, stop explaining, stop going on and on and on. Other times I’d stomp my foot or tell him I had a headache or was too sleep deprived. That I didn’t need to know that the actual temperature outside differed from what the TV said. Nothing had an effect. I think there was something wrong with him. Maybe his brain had a bad turn-off switch.

Perhaps he was born that way. I don’t know. Why are you staring at me? Like I told you, it was an accident. He would not be quiet when I asked him to.  I didn’t care if Atilla the Hun was born with a different name. So what? Just a constant blah, blah, blah, yak, yak, yak.

That’s when I took out the pistol. For effect. It had blanks in it. Well, it didn’t this time apparently.  But that’s not my fault, because I didn’t put real bullets in it. I don’t know who did that. I can’t imagine who did that. No, blanks can’t kill? 

You don’t believe me, do you? But it’s the truth. I know my rights. Wait a minute, what are you doing? Handcuffs? I don’t need handcuffs. Ouch. That’s too tight. You’re hurting me. Why are you pushing my head down? Oh, into the car. Where are we going? This isn’t right. Who’s Miranda? My husband’s dead and I need to call my sister. You have a phone up there, let me use it. No? This is not right. Look, it was an accident. No, I don’t know who could have put the bullets in there.

I think he did it, loaded the pistol. He probably wanted to catch me by surprise, murder me. He’d reach into the drawer, grab the pistol, and shoot me. That’s probably what he planned to do. No, that’s not crazy.

I want to call my sister. I want a lawyer. Wait. No, that’s not what I want. I want out. Let me out of here.

This isn’t fair. It was an accident, or else a setup. No, I won’t stop kicking the back of your seat. Let me go. You can’t hold me. Oh, you think you can? Well, let me tell you something if you keep talking the same thing might happen to you. No, that’s not a confession. You are so stupid. Don’t you understand? I didn’t put the bullets in the gun. I didn’t plan to kill him. I only wanted to scare him, get his attention so he would listen to me and stop talking.

Where are we going? Observation? You’re looking at me now. I can see that in the mirror. Okay, I’ll be quiet, but you’ll hear from my attorney, and he won’t be quiet. He’ll make a lot of noise. Right. I’ll shut up. I won’t say a thing. I’ll sit silent as a mouse. And I would appreciate it if you would too. I’m tired of hearing you talk so much. Goddamn man.

Joseph Farley

Midnight Meat

The advertisement was for a loft apartment in a building that had been converted from a warehouse. It was in the fashionable Fishtown section of Philadelphia, an area where prices were always rising. Nowadays Fishtown is a hip area of restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs and galleries. Young professionals want to live there. It is only a ten minute El ride from Center City. You can walk, bike or roller skate the distance if you are health conscious or want to save the environment. Forty years ago, however, Fishtown was different. It was a working class neighborhood of factories and row homes. There were warehouses, not lofts, and corner bars instead of chic eateries and fancy watering holes. I knew the history, vaguely. I was not from out of town. I had grown up in the Roxborough section on city’s northwest fringe. I guess you could say I was one of the would be hipsters who wanted to be closer to the action.

The price for the unit was reasonable. I didn’t understand why at the time, but now know why the rent was lower than most of the buildings around it. I signed the lease and moved in. All was fine for a few weeks. I had time to decorate and explore the area when not at work. Maybe I was too tired from drinking and working those first few weeks, but with time I began to notice things. At first it was strange sounds, always after midnight. It would evolve from there.

One night I was woken by what sounded like mooing. I looked around, thought it was part of a dream, and went back to sleep. A few nights later it was a persistent clucking as if I were surrounded by chickens. Again, there was nothing to be seen and a chalked it off as a dream. Then there was the oinks and shuffle of trotters. This was not every night, nor happening in any fixed pattern. I began to suspect delivery trucks for a halal butcher shop several blocks away, but, when I asked the owner, he said he didn’t take deliveries until 5 AM.

I wondered what this meant, but not too much because the nights were quiet for a while, or quiet enough for Fishtown. There was always the normal rumbling of the El and the noise of cars. Then the music started.

I was laying in bed when I heard the rumba like tune, monotonous, reminiscent of the Muzak that used to be played in elevators and shopping malls.

Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

It was low at first, but grew louder. I Iooked out of my apartment window to see if a passing car was blasting its radio. There was no car outside. I banged on the ceiling thinking it was coming from my upstairs neighbor’s apartment, then remembered she had moved out the previous weekend. The unit was empty. That left the downstairs tenant. I banged on the floor, then remembered he was visiting California. After twenty minutes or so the music stopped. I could not get back to sleep. I kept thinking about the music and where it could be coming from. I managed to fall back asleep right before my alarm went off. It was a weary and bloodshot day at work.

The next night was safe from music, but the night after that it began early, around 11 PM. 

Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

It lasted on and off for over an hour.

During my lunch hour at work I went to a drug store and bought a jar of foam earplugs. This should solve the noise problem, or so I thought. That night it was quiet at 11 PM and at midnight, but around three in the morning the music started.

Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

I took my earplugs out and out them back in again. The sound was the same whether I had the ear plugs in or not, as if the sound was in my head and not in the room. I tossed and turned, and finally shouted, “What do you want from me?” The music stopped. I was finally able to get some sleep.

Being an optimist, I thought that was it. Whatever spell I was under had been broken by confronting it. I was wrong. The next night the real trouble began. Around one in the morning the music began, lower than before, but still audible. It was as if whoever or whatever was the source of the music was trying to be at least a little considerate. I might have been able to sleep in spite of the sound if not for the animals. They came one after another floating across the room, just below the ceiling. They came out of one wall, crossed rug and bed, and disappeared into the wall above the headboard. Cattle mostly. At least this night. Though there were other animals near the end of the parade. A few pigs. Some sheep. A stray cat. They all moved in tune with the music, as if on a conveyor belt of some kind. Start start start, Stop start Stop start, etc. I hid as best I could under the sheets. I buried my head under the pillow. But every time I looked out they were there. Once I pulled the sheets down and stared directed into the eyes of a somber steer who hazed down at me, nose so close to mine that we could have nuzzled.

I went to see a doctor and obtained a prescription for sleeping pills. I slept well for a few nights, then the noise and the visions became my dreams. The same thing every night. After a month I gave up on the pills. I might be getting more rest, but I was not getting away from the problem. I was also afraid that I was be getting addicted. It was taking more pills each night to make my body sleep through the animal show, but my mind could never rest. The animals were always there, inside my head, every night whether I was awake or asleep.

I went to a psychologist. She asked me to talk about what was bothering me. When I told her she gave me a referral to a psychiatrist. I saw the psychiatrist once. He offered me more pills. I knew that would not help any more than sleeping pills. Plus, once I saw the bill I knew I could never afford to be sick in that way.

Without sleeping pills the animals occupied my apartment most nights. The music came at midnight or just after. The animals came out of the wall and danced across the ceiling. Cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and the rare household pet. They spun and pirouetted. They slid and shuffled. They tapped and twisted. All in time to the music. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA.

My hair began to fall out. Maybe I had caught the mange. Maybe it was just the lack of sleep. Maybe it was the coffee and chemical assistance I had been using to stay awake and alert through the work day. I was tired and itchy. I needed rest. I needed peace. I needed my mind back. I needed my life back. I needed my apartment back.

The dancing continued. Nearly every night. Then one night all the animals crossed over my head. The room was quiet for a minute. Then the conveyor belt reversed. For the first time the animals came out of the wall over the headboard and crossed the room towards my bureau. They were no longer whole beasts. They were pieces. Chopped. Bloodied. Decapitated. Skinned. Plucked. Dismembered. They crossed the room in bloody bits and sometimes in shrink wrapped plastic and foam packages. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. The music. The music. It could not calm the savage beasts. It could not calm the docile herd. It could not calm me or my stomach. I vomited.

I did some research online about the building where I lived. I found the name of a company, but not much else. I went to the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Central Branch, the big one at 19th and Vine Streets. I asked for information in the Business and Science Department. A librarian referred me to dusty volumes of old city records and phone books. I learned the business name was for real estate holding company. That was not what I wanted. I wanted to know what was there before. A librarian referred me to the Social Science and History Department and the Map Collection. On a fifty year old map I found my apartment building, the name of a business and the term “rendering plant”. More research in old City Directories, reverse directories, and phone books showed the history of the building. For most of its history it had been a slaughterhouse or a rendering plant processing animals into meat and other products. Skins, bones, hooves and hair all had their value. 

I wanted more information. I had the names of several companies that had been housed in my building over a century. I was sent to the Newspaper Collection. I went through indexes and scanned microfilm of newspapers that no longer existed. An article on music to keep man and beast in better spirits at a local slaughterhouse leaped out at me from 1971 edition of the Philadelphia Bulletin. It was one of those peculiar stories, a mix of business and human interest. Later I read about the history of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, how they were passed, and how the laws eventually led to the closing of many factories including rendering plants in Philadelphia. The stench and runoff from slaughterhouses and animal processing plants had become unacceptable in a closely packed urban area. Health. Disease. Death. Music. After the plants closed years of vacant buildings, poverty and unemployment characterized the neighborhood. Then rebirth. Fishtown was reborn in the new century. It was a mix of quaint old buildings and new construction. It was clean, modern, hip, desirable. Underneath, the past was still there.

I thought I understood. That night I cried out to the dead. “I’m sorry for what was done to you. I am sorry for the slaughter. The torture. The maiming. The mockery.” I heard music and a noise in the kitchen. Slowly I walked towards the noise. The refrigerator was open. Both the fridge part and the freezer. All the sausages and bacon, the hamburgers and spareribs, the steaks and eggs and scrapple from both the fridge and the freezer had been cast on the floor.

“Is that what you want?” I shouted. “Is that what will bring you peace? Is that what will bring me peace? “ I listened for a response. A low moo, a baa, a squawk? Something. “I mean it.”

It was a quiet night. I burned the meat in reverence and buried the ashes. I became a vegan. Not just a vegan. A low fat vegan. I lost a lot of weight, lowered my blood pressure and lowered my cholesterol. I became more flexible. I healed faster. I felt more calm. More at peace. But the animals did not leave. They wandered around my apartment at night gazing at me with loving eyes. It was beautiful. And creepy. When it came time to renew my lease, I chose to move. 

I found another apartment in Fishtown. I tried to stay vegan for spiritual and health reasons, but it was too damn hard. Especially at barbecues and Thanksgiving. I still ate much less meat than I used to. On most days. But that was not good enough. It could never be good enough. They came for me one night while I was still awake. Not into my new apartment. They stayed outside, floating in the air next to my living room window. Three stories up, the ghosts of the slaughterhouse, the cows, the pigs, the sheep, the hens, all took their turn looking in on me with sad disappointed eyes. 

But they did not make any noise. I had won that much for the effort. 

When I realized this, I felt like celebrating. I put on some music. A familiar piece I had found online. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. Da da da. Da da DA DA DA. And danced. I had earned it.

Joseph Farley

The Pope’s Dildo

The head that wears the papal crown was bare. So was the rest of him. After a hard day of leading the world’s one billion Catholics, Pope Porky the Second needed to relax, and best way he knew to relax was stimulation of his aging prostate gland with his favorite vibrating dildo. .His anus was greased, his sphincter relaxed and ready. Pope Porky was prepared in every way except for one thing, he couldn’t find his fucking dildo.

“Where is it?” he growled yelling at the purple socks in the drawer where he kept his toys. He tossed balls of purple silk onto his bed. “It should be here!”

Search as he might, no dildo was to be found. Pope Porky turned his eyes towards the ornately painted ceiling of his bedroom and let out a cry of primal anguish.

Monsignor Pepe De Silva came running in response to the shout, his high heels clicking on the marble floors of the corridors. He arrived at the pope’s bedchamber and banged on the large heavy doors.

“What is it my pope?” de Silva cried. “Have you fallen and you can’t get up?”

“No, Pepe,” the pope wept. “It is worse than that, much worse.”

“What is it your magnification?”

“I can’t tell you until I let you in.”

The pope unlocked the door with his a television remote. Pepe De Silva rushed in, his shoulder slipping through his strapless habit, made from the finest sackcloth. He saw the pope wrapped in a sheet.

“Closed the door,” commanded Pope Porky.

De Silva closed the door.

“What is it?”

“Come closer,” the pope gestured.

The monsignor moved towards the pope. The pope embraced him.

“Pepe, oh Pepe,” Pope Porky slobbered.

“You can tell me anything,” De Silva reassured him with a hug. “What is bothering you so much.”

“Pepe. You know my dildo?”

“The one modeled after Michelangelo’s David?”

“Not David,” Pope Porky corrected, “just his cock.”

“Yes, I know it. I helped you try it out after the Archbishop of Canterbury gave it to you.”

“Ah, yes,” Porky smiled. “How could I forget that night. How the mind weakens as we get older. That is why I thought I had just misplaced it, but I have searched everywhere. Now I fear that it was stolen.”

“Stolen? Who could have done such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” said the pope grimly. “But whomever it was, he or she is a real dastardly bastard.”

“Shall I notify security?” asked De Silva. “Or the police?”

“No,” said the pope. “This is too sensitive a crime. We need someone clever, someone subtle, someone discrete.”

“Who do you suggest?”

“Padre Brio,” said the pope, his features stern.

“Padre Brio?” Monsignor De Silva gasped. “Are you sure? He’s a loose canon, a wild man. He’s out of control.”

“He is also the best man I have,” said the pope.

“And the most dangerous,” sighed De Silva.

Padre Brio was laying on an inflatable mattress floating in a swimming pool in his retreat in Capri. He was working on his tan and enjoying semi retirement. He lifted a large cocktail with a straw to his lips and gazed at a pair of beautiful young women in bikinis splashing nearby. The young nuns were at the height of beauty and had been recruited for their unwavering devotion. Maria was a feisty lass originally from Naples. She could speak seven languages, and her black hair, ample bosom and full lips could stun a man, and many women as well. The nuns had trained her to perfection. Matilda, her rival in the water fight, was an expert in electronics. He slender frame concealed an inner strength fueled by fasting and meditation. She could go for a week without sleep, had done so many times, and she could be trusted unto death never to confess except to the pope himself. Which she had done on more than one occasion when blood was of necessity spilled. Padre Brio shifted his glance to the young seminarian, Antonio, 19, a bronze work of art, as the lad prepared to leap from the diving board into the deep end of the pool. Brio was not sure how this new addition would fit into his team, but he enjoyed the way he fit into Antonio even more than he had meshed with his previous counterpart. 

On parchment, Antonio was an agent in training, filling a role that Brio had once played when he was apprenticed at a similar age. Brio half suspected that Antonio’s role was also to spy on him for the Vatican, to make sure his faith, however liberally practiced, was within the proper range of thought. If that were the case, Padre Brioe could live with it. Brio made sure he lived in accordance with the strict rules, and privileges, afforded him by the Papal Indulgence that sat in his safe deposit box in Zurich. Such were the rewards of being the chief assassin and agent to the Vatican. Of course there were risks. Padre Brio’s firmly muscled chest bore the dark scars of entry wounds. He had been seven times, and stabbed twice more than that, but he still lived. Padre Brio was certain his survival was a miracle, a sign of God’s favor. The Pope had assigned two monasteries, one in Quebec and one in Poland, to pray for Padre Brio in twenty four hour shifts. Padre Brio could feel the power of their faith even as his own rose in his trunks.

A shapely Filipina in a white bikini strode over to the pool holding a towel and a bathrobe.

“It’s the white phone, Padre,” she said with a smile that accentuated everything erotic in her form.

Padre Brio’s eyes widened.

The white hone was a secure hotline. Only the Pope called on it. Regretabbly, it was in the trouble room and could be brought pool side. 

“Thank you, Sister Bianca,” the Padre said.

Bianca was gorgeous, but no one’s toy unless she wanted to be. She came from a family of escrima fighters, trained from childhood until she took the veil at seventeen. Bianca was deadly with a machete, knife or stick. Some of Padre Brio’s scars had come from training with her. Bianca accompanied Brio on some of his rougher jobs.

Brio paddled over to the side of the pool and climbed out. Bianca helped him towel off. Her hand brushed against his swollen member.

“Would you like me to take care of that for you Padre?”

Brio grinned. He slipped on his robe and lowered his Speedo. 

“If you wouldn’t mind,” he said, “but we should not keep the pope waiting for long.”

“Of course not,” Bianca replied sinking to her knees. “I will be quick about it.”

***

The Pope was angry at being kept waiting, but Padre Brio was in a good mood when he picked up the phone. 

“Your Holiness, to what do I owe this pleasure?”

“You owe loyalty, obedience, secrecy and success,” recited the Pope.

“Bananas taste best when they are yellow and hard,” said Brio repeating the day’s code phrase.

“But some prefer bananas that are brown and soft,” replied the pope with the other half of the code phrase.

“Who came up with today’s code phrase?” Brio asked. “Monsignor De Silva?”

Pope Porky grunted, “I picked this one.”

“And what a good phrase it is,” Brio kiss-assed.

The pope sighed, “So you did not like the code phrase. Don’t treat me as if I am an infant.”

“My apologies, your holiness,” Padre Brio said with with emotion while bowing slightly to the phone. “I did not mean to offend. How can I be of service?”

“A private and personal object of great value has gone missing.”

“What is it?”

“I dare not tell you over a telephone.”

“This is a secure line.”

“We are in Italy. There is no such thing as a secure line.””

“How will I find out what this object is?” Brio asked.

“Monsignor De Silva has sent a carrier pigeon. It should be arriving soon.”

A shotgun blast was heard. 

“What was that?” asked the pope with alarm.

“Probably my groundskeeper,” Brio said. “He fancies himself a hunter.”

“What can he hunt on a small island?”

“Birds mostly.”

“He better not kill my pigeon,” the pope growled. “It is a fancy breed.”

“He does not tell me what he kills, and I do not tell him who I kill,” Brio explained. ”It is an agreement we have.”

“He sounds like a scoundrel. Why do you keep him on?”

“He has relatives in the Calabrian mob,’ Brio said. “Those connections are sometimes useful.”

Benito Esposito entered the room. He was a short bull-face man with broad shoulders and a flat nose. A brace of birds hung from a string in his hands, including a pigeon with rare and colorful plumage.

“Boss,” he said in a deep voice. “I think this pigeon is for you.”

“Thank you Benito.”

Brio grabbed the pigeon and slipped the note from its leg.

“Your message has arrived.” Brio told the pope. 

“Good, take a look at it and tell me if you can help.”

Brio read the message and suppressed a laugh.

“Your holiness, I think I can help you, but you will need to provide me with a list, a complete list, of all who have had access to your bedchamber since you last saw the object.”

“That would only be three. Monsignor De Silva, Cardinal Scruggs and Monsignor Menida.”

“Is that all? What about security and cleaning staff? What about secret visitors?”

“I can get you the names of the guards and cleaning staff, but I do not know you mean by secret visitors, are you suggesting something untoward?”

“I suggest nothing,” Brio said. “I just ask questions. The answers suggest more questions. It is one way of getting to the facts, but there are others. I will check the security tapes.”

“The object was not used for three days before its loss was determined,” the pope said somberly. “If that helps any.”

“Every piece of information helps,” assured Brio. “I will get Matilda on it. How soon can we get the security tapes, visual, audio, whatever you have?”

“By this evening.”

“Good,” said Brio. “I hope you did not send more pigeons?”

“Of course not,” said the Pope. “They are in a compressed digital file sent to your secure computer.”

“Very well,” said Brio. “We shall see what we shall see.”

“I want this matter solved quickly.,’ ordered the pope. “No leaks, No screw ups. No scandal. The Church as has had too much scandal.”

“Of course your holiness,” Brio said oozing charm and confidence. “Have I ailed you yet?”

“No,” Pope Porky agreed. “Let us pray you do not fail me now.”

***

Matilda went over the tapes while Antonio and Maria ran background checks on all the guests on a list provided by the pope. As Brio had suspected, there had been a backstairs visitor, a disreputable ballet dancer from Budapest. Brio thought it was wise of the pope to produce this new information. Concealing it from Brio would have only delayed the investigation. 

“I doubt our good pope was taking dance lessons,” Brio told Maria. She was not pleased with the remark. 

“Remember your vows, padre” she hissed.

Touchy, Brio thought, but he should have known better. If not for Pope Porky’s dispensations, they would all be mournfully celibate, or at least trying to be, and none of them would be enjoying the cloak and dagger world, unless they were missionaries in China, Iran or Guatemala.

Antonio brought him the news he was looking for. Brio read the dossier his assistant had prepared, pulled from newspaper clippings, Interpol reports and attendance lists at inter-faith conferences. Brio double checked the facts himself, then called the Pope.

“Be careful who you dance with.”

“What do you mean?” Pope Porky asked with indignation.

“Your visitor has some unsavory connections.”

“The Mafia?’

“No,” Padre Brio said. “They are old friends. This is an older enemy who may try to play a game the Mafia plays well.”

The pope asked, “What game and what enemy?”

“The game is blackmail,” Brio said grimly, “and the enemy is the oldest enemy the Roman Catholic church has.”

The pope gasped, “The Lutherans?”

“Older than than that.”

“The Muslims?”

“Older still.”

“You can’t mean…” 

“I do,” Brio said firmly. “The Patriarch of Constantinople.”

“You mean Istanbul?” the pope corrected.

“Call it what you will. I believe your object is on its way there now.”

“Why?” the pope inquired. “What good would it be to the Patriarch?”

“It is most likely wanted for leverage in unification talks between the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic churches. What has been the major stumbling blocks to unification? Married clergy? No. Latin versus Greek for liturgy? No. The two stumbling blocks have been the refusal of the West to admit that the Latin translations on which the Western faith is founded were poor translations, the Eastern translations being more accurate from the start. The second major stumblingly block has always been who is top dog. Who bows to who? If the Patriarch can get you to bow to him, if you bend, the Patriarch will have the power, the prestige and the patronage that goes with it. After that, who knows? In another five hundred years the other christian churches may follow suit like loyal children and bow to the Patriarch. The Patriarch would control all of Christianity. And who would control the Patriarch? I think you know.”

“We can’t let that happen,” the pope said angrily. “We cannot diminish the the See of Peter.”

“We won’t let it happen,” Brio assured him. “I’m leaving for Istanbul with my team in a matter of hours, but I need an extra player.”

“Who do you you need?”

“I want sister Gerturde.”

The pope was silent.

“Sister Gertrude is retired. She is greatly troubled by her former life of service to the church. In her moral crisis, she has taken a vow of silence and transferred to a Carmelite Convent. No one gets in. No one gets out. It is high walls, small cells, days and nights of deprivation and prayer.”

“I would have thought she had enough of that when she was in that KGB prison,” Brio said thoughtfully. “It was very difficult to spring her. Cost several lives. If that is what she wanted, she should have let me know and I would have left her there. Now I need her.”

“Do not mock Sister Gertrude’s faith,” the pope scolded. “I fear her vocation is stronger than yours.”

“So is her wrist lock, but I still need her special skills.”

The pope sighed. 

“This may not be the best thing for her soul, but if it is for the good of the Church…?”

“It is essential to the survival of the Church.”

The pope conceded.

“I will see to it that she meets you in Istanbul.”

*** 

Sister Gertrude was an enormous Dutch nun, an expert in Judo and other martial arts, such as the little know drunken style and ox style. She was also an expert torturer, a talent that had greatly challenged her faith and caused her fits of despair. In between jobs she was often plunged into dark binges of prayer, denial and flagellation. But when the pope called, Sister Gertrude always came. She never failed to follow through with an assignment, no matter how much physical pain or spiritual anguish it caused her.

The pope’s mischievous dancer was performing at a theater in Istanbul. He was a bit player on stage, but a much larger player in the world of religious espionage. A triple agent, he had worked for the Russian Metropolitan, the Greek Patriarch and the Church of Scientology. He had been lucky until now, but his time was running short. 

Matilda became a maid for a day at the hotel where the dance troop was staying. It only required a uniform, a fake mustache and a lot of chutzpah. Matilda searched the Hungarian dancer’s room. She did not expect to be so fortunate as to find the dildo. She did not, but was able to bug the room with cameras and listening devices. Bianca covered her head in a scarf and watched the front door, posing as a street vendor. She followed our dancer where ever he went. She later reported seeing him meeting with a known Orthodox priest. No packages were exchanged. 

Antonio stationed himself in the hotel bar. He lured one of the other minor dancers into a tryst, drugged him and assumed his identity before the evening performance. In between acts he jabbed the suspected thief with a needle. Brio, disguised as a stage hand, helped get the package to the street and shove him into a waiting car with Maria at the wheel. Sister Gertrude was waiting in the safe house. It was safe for Padre Brio and his team, not for the intrepid dancer. The poor man nearly died when he saw Gertrude’s instruments laid out on the table waiting for him. Despite his apparent fright, he was a tough bastard. It took more than a crushed testicle and a few missing finger nails to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the dildo.

“It’s hidden in my ass,” the man confess. “It has been there the whole time.”

“Incredible.” Gertrude stammered. “You must have one deep anus.”

“It is my pride.
“Was your pride,” Brio said.

He stuck his hand into the dancer’s dark recesses and felt around. There was something there. A string? Brio pulled it. The man laughed.

Brio realized his stupidity.

“Everyone out quickly!”

Our dancer was in no condition to run, but he did not seem to care. Brio’s team barely got out of there before the dancer’s intestines exploded, taking half the house with them.

“What now boss?” Antonio asked.

“We trace his steps,” Padre Brio said. “He must have ditched the dildo somewhere in town.”

“I’ve checked his room already,” said Matilda.

“We have not checked the theater.”

The show was over. The performance had not been the best, being shy two dancers, but the audience had been indifferent and had not noticed the poor quality of the art displayed before them. The troop had returned to their hotel. The police were another matter, They seemed to be creeping around the theater in uncomfortable numbers, as if they had been tipped off that something was up. This is where the ladies proved most useful. Turkish sexism made them less suspect to the local police, and men being men everywhere, they were easily duped by their charms. Even Gertrude drew the attention of one officer. The poor soul did not live long enough to give her the tussle he had desired. It was a messy affair, but Brio had come prepared. He had his team plant pamphlets in Kurdish on the bodies so local rebels would take the blame for the casualties. The dressing rooms revealed no secrets. Nor did the prop room, but the stage was another matter. Matilda ran a series of sweeps of the area. She saw something odd in an x-ray scan. She notified Padre Brio.

“Look at that sandbag used to leverage one of the backdrops. There is a long shape inside it.”

Brio looked at the ghostly shape on Matilda’s hand held monitor.

“Could just be a bottle of booze hidden by one of the stage crew,” Brio cautioned.

”Could be,” Matilda agreed, “but we’ll never know until we look.” 

Antonio shimmied up the rope attached to the sandbag. He cut open the bag with a dagger. Sand poured onto the floor. The back drop behind the team raised slightly. Brio watched the grains fall until the dildo appeared. It was a work of exquisite craftsmanship, a gold and jeweled vibrating dildo, presently missing its batteries, a work of art suitable to please a pontiff.

Bianca, who was on watch, signaled Brio to hurry as more police had arrived, looking for officers who had not called in. Matilda had previously arranged for a diversionary explosion a quarter mile away, should it be necessary. She pushed a key on her cell phone. The small bomb detonated. The blast drew the police away from the theater long enough for Padre Brio’s team to slip off into the dark. A speed boat was waiting on the coast near Marmara. The papal dildo safe in a latex sack, was secured in Sister Gertrude’s unassailable vagina. In an hour hour the team was on an Italian fishing trawler, skirting Greek territory. A seaplane met them south of Kithira. They landed near Brindisi. Two limousines were waiting. Padre Brio, Sister Gertrude, and Bianca climbed into one vehicle. Matilda, Antonio and Maria git in the other. They were driven to a private landing strip and a jet ride to Rome. 

Pope Porky was ecstatic upon seeking his beloved dildo again. 

“Padre Brio,” he declared. “Buy some purple socks. I am making you a Monsignor.”

“As you wish your holiness,” Brio said, “but what about my team?”

“My blessings and forgiveness to you all.” 

The pope called to Monsignor De Silva, “Get the cards.”

De Silva bowed, exited the private chamber where the pope was having his audience Padre Brio and his team. De Silva returned with what appeared to be a set of business cards. He handed one to Padre Brio and each member of his team. Each read the card he or she had been given.

Padre Brio looked at the card in his hand. It read, “Get of of hell free,” and bore the papal signature.

“Go ahead,” said Pope Porky. “Enjoy yourselves. You’ve earned it.”

And we will, Padre Brio, thought. We will, until the next time that duty calls.

John Patrick Robbins

The Death of Sobriety

Frank awoke to the smell of Boozer’s putrid breath blasting him in the face as the rotund bulldog mix just glared at him from his neighboring pillow. Frank said nothing, as like a car wreck victim after the initial shock of impact. He waited for the pain to arrive—along with the rumbling that preceded his initial stomach cramping—which always surely summoned his dash to visit the porcelain God. But as the pain slowly crept in, the lard-ass little dog just stared at him as he burped, letting out an elongated fart that was followed by an enormous shit on the pillow where so many part-time loggers had once rested their heads.

The dog just stared at Frank as it slowly got up, heading out before the flavored aroma hit the room. And Frank, if not in the mood to purge, was given some high inspiration as he ran to the restroom, emptying out his stomach’s contents as the most intense pain hit him in the gut.

A drunk becomes accustomed to puking and seeing his stomach’s blended contents on full display. But as he continued to wretch, Frank noticed a sight most all true drunkards are familiar with. Blood is normal from straining, and when you turn your gut into a nightclub it just goes with the territory from time to time. But when that said blood appears like coffee grounds you know you’re in trouble.

Frank was about to release yet another onslaught when the pain hit like a freight train. It was if a damn Mack Truck had just crashed the party and parked itself upon his chest.

“Oh shit!” Frank managed to blurt out as he strained. Trying to make it to his feet as the room began to spin, he soon felt his body begin to crash to the floor as everything went dark.

Frank had no idea how long he had been out. He choked in pain as the distant sound of the heart monitor awoke him. He was beyond weak and it seemed like there wasn’t anything upon his body that didn’t hurt.

“Mr. Murphy, you need to try to relax. You have suffered a heart attack. I know this is all alarming, but you’re in the hospital and you suffered a heart attack.”

Frank struggled to remove the oxygen mask, but even that action seemed impossible as the words the nurse had just spoken resonated in his head.

The moments after would all seemingly blend together as doctors did what they did best: bitched, fussed, and racked up the bills as they attempted to put your highly intoxicated ass back together again.

Frank’s head was splitting. Apparently, on his visit to embrace the floor, he had collided with the thunder mug and busted open his skull.

Days later, Doc Miller stared at his ever-so-frustrating patient, shaking his head. “You know, I’m amazed you are alive, you prick.”

“So tell me, Doc, what’s the bad news? I mean, besides the bar here being permanently closed. I mean, really. First you don’t allow my sister to visit me, then you tell me no drinks either. You are killing me, pal.”

Miller didn’t even seem to notice his patient’s humor as he looked over his file.

“That wasn’t your sister, that was a hooker. And being your liver looks worse than an old piece of charcoal, I think your drinking days are behind you, Papa.”

Frank attempted to laugh, but the pain in his ribcage only served to drag him into yet another coughing spell.

“How did you know that wasn’t my sister?”

“Because no female in her right mind would ever mourn your ass. And you forget about that party? We both shared Amanda.”

“Yeah, I thought you looked familiar. Hey, you pay an escort enough frog skins, she’ll pretty much be anyone you want her to be there, old sawbones.”

Miller just stared at Frank; for once in his existence, unfazed by his friend’s sarcasm. He took a seat, then stared out the window.

“You know, I wouldn’t wish this fucking job on my worst enemy, dude. Every day, I have to look at people with a straight face and tell them, sorry, sir, but your train’s leaving and no matter what I do, or how much money you do or don’t have, there isn’t shit I can do about it.” 

His friend and doctor fought back the tears as he looked off into space.

“I see people all looking to me for answers when at best all I can do is throw them treatments. I hate this fucking job! And now I’m treating a friend I can do absolutely nothing for. Trying to figure out just how the hell I’m going to break all this shit to you.”

Frank for once did not have a snarky reply, but he honestly felt bad for the man he knew outside this environment.

It seemed like forever until Frank broke the awkward silence.

“So, am I, like, bad enough to get, like, one of those Make A Wish requests? Like you give these dying dwarfs, or whatever?”

His friend fought back the urge to laugh. “Sure, you heartless prick. What will it be?”

“Well, I was thinking maybe they could shut down The Magic Kingdom for me. Maybe hire Ric Flair to hang out with me, and some Russian hookers with a sack of blow. I mean, sure he looks like a piece of beef jerky, but fuck, he is still The Nature Boy, after all.”

“Wow, and you call yourself a writer. Honestly, I expected more.”

“Well, I figured, being it’s a kid’s charity, asking if they could sequester Sofia Vergara to sit on my face would be a bit much.”

“Would you settle for a Snickers bar and a hand-job instead?”

“I swear, you’re really not my type, you tubby bastard. But if I can have your stethoscope and prescription pad, you got a deal.”

They both cracked up at that one as Frank broke into yet another coughing spell.

“Look here, Bill Hicks, you gotta take it easy as possible. I’m serious. Your body has been through hell. I’m shocked you even got through this shit.”

The two friends continued to talk about all the usual shit that goes along with having a heart attack, the ‘dos and don’ts’ that Miller largely knew his kamikaze friend would pay little to no attention to.

“You know, that batshit agent of yours has been here the entire time.”

“Has he been miserable and distraught?”

“That kid’s been a total train wreck. I swear, he seems to never sleep, and lives off coffee and cigarettes alone.”

“Nice.”

Miller shook his head at his friend’s reply as he stood up, making his way towards the door.

“Hey, you want me to let him in?”

“Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been through enough hell. I can’t wait to listen to this dipshit complain about page counts and other crap I could truly give a fuck about.”

His friend didn’t even bother to reply as he headed out the door as no sooner his high-strung agent, Simon, was in the room.

“Fuck, man. How are you?”

“Well, I suffered a heart attack. Just about cracked my skull and got more tubes running out of everywhere, minus my ass. So, yeah. I’m doing great. And yourself, dumbass?”

“Fuck you, man,” Simon replied. “You know I don’t word things right. I was kind of worried about you.”

“Come here, kid,” Frank said, his arms open as his awkward agent-slash-best friend opened his arms in return, moving towards him.

Just as they were about to embrace, Frank landed a hard nut-shot as his agent—and literal punching bag—doubled over in pain.

“Fucking weirdo. Look at you. I always knew you wanted to blow me. I swear, I think you were semi-hard, you nutcase. Hey, you got a flask on you?” Frank asked his doubled-over agent. “I’m thirsty as a motherfucker in this place.” 

“You fucking asshole! Why do I even give a shit? Goddamn, that hurt.”

“Stop being a pussy. It’s not like I popped your cherry there, princess. Hey, you think this bought us some slack with the publisher?”

“Being you owe them five books and haven’t delivered one in almost three years, I think it would have been easier had you just died, you bastard.”

Frank had to crack up at that, and as Simon finally took a seat the two friends largely spoke about everything but what loomed upon the horizon. For Simon, he knew it was largely pointless. His client and friend was always one foot in the grave, so to speak. He had grown as jaded as Frank himself. But no matter the assured destination, Simon knew he would go down with the ship.

And as the hours passed, they went over everything; from reflecting on the miles behind them, to the shitstorm that lay ahead.

“Dude, I got to ask, what the hell kind of shit were you doing that you took a crap on your pillow, man?”

Frank looked at his semi-braindead agent, and marveled at how he literally existed on this plane of existence.

“Well, I tell you, kid…sometimes you just get tired of having sex with beautiful women and enjoying the best drugs, so you got to mix it up. I mean, you wouldn’t believe how far Shelia got her hand up my ass. At least, I hope that was her hand.”

Simon looked at Frank, his demented brain working overtime as Frank knew full well his agent was a full-blown pervert unlike any other.

“Yeah, man, but what about the shit on the pillow?”

“I meant to let it cool, then I was gonna stick it under the pillow for the Poo Fairy to give me some money for it, you dipshit.”

“So it wasn’t some strange sex thing?”

Frank just rolled over on his side, not even bothering to reply to his friend’s question. He knew soon enough what awaited him at home, and although he hoped Simon had the sense to have cleaned up the mess, he knew that was really placing a high hope upon someone who at best was a subpar low standard.

Frank would soon be sitting once again at his desk facing the ocean, attempting to pen his last few pages as Simon kept the wolves at bay—who by now would smell the blood as the critics circled the waters like sharks. The true game was on, with the highest stakes possible. 

Sure, Frank could slow down and try to milk what last few days or months, or even years, out of whatever he had left. But instead, he preferred to pour another drink, press the gas pedal, crank the music, and pen his truths; going down in flames with glee. Much like the heroes of his past, he knew there truly was no easy out for people like himself.

Anyone could silently fade, but the best go up in flames, casting the illusion to inspire those to live in spite of the odds.

Life is a gamble, and the house always wins…so they say.

Brian Fugett

SHHH…LISTEN TO THE EKKO

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman nods.

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

No such fucking luck. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Can’t do that, Nathan.”

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

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

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

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

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

“NOT my VIRGINITY, you arrogant cockhead.”

 “What then?”

 “My right nostril.”

“I’m sorry, run that by me again.”

 “I lost my right nostril.”

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

She nods.

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

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

“Okay, fine. Let me see your nose.”

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

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

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

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

 “What are you saying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan Ros

Steak Knives

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

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

“You’re not Billy,” he said.

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

The man stared at Munson blankly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

“Does one-fifty sound a little better?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

But it was already unlocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like it.”

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

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

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

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

“Will he wake up?” said Jenkins.

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t.”

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

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

“Alright, let’s go,” said Fitz.

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

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

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

“Anything violent?” said Jenkins.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry Billy, I—”

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

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

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

Judge Santiago Burdon

The Bare Necessities

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

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

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

Usually this is followed by:

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

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

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

“Oooooh, Mr. Santiago you…”

“Call me Santi.”

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

“Listen…”

“…Meredith.”

“Listen Meredith, lovely name.”

“Named after my grandmother.”

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

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

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

“Please go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you mean I passed the test.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would that be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, I’ll be outside.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire ants! Fire ants!” I scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know her because…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Johnny embellishes quite a bit.”

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

“What touched your heart?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, are you a vegetarian Santi?”

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

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

“Well, you certainly did your homework!”

I put out my hand to shake hers.

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

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

“Okay, see you in an hour or so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gene Goldfarb

Interview with a Dirty Writer

Q. What’s your earliest dirty experience?

A. I saw a friend’s mother taking a bath when I was six.

Q. So what exactly did you see?

A. A nice pair of boobs and lots of soap.

Q. Let’s move on. Earliest dirty movie?

A. That’s an easy one, “And God Created Woman,” with Bridget Bardot. It was all white bed sheets, golden skin, blushing, breathlessness and Bardot’s pouty face and body.

Q. Any other dirty early movies? 

A. I, a Woman, I Am Curious Yellow, Swedish Mistress, as I remember.

Q. What kind of films were they?

A. All Swedish and dirty. One sexual adventure into the next. One had a scene where a young hot blonde girl masturbates in her bedroom near an open window, while the guy who’s interested in her sits outside on his motorcycle revving the engine under her window. 

Q. What did this mean to you?

A. The decadence of western bourgeois society within a post-modern paradigm.

Q. Honestly, can you put it in simpler terms?

A. A lot of mindless heat.

Q. Is there anything in fashion, art, or politics that captures the current zeitgeist?

A. Aside from pornography? Yoga pants for women. If men could be criminally charged for ogling women wearing this item of clothing, you wouldn’t be able to stuff the jails fast enough.

Q. Seriously?

A. Please. Thong bathing suits make a statement, where YP (yoga pants) issue a suggestion. The latter’s so much sexier by leaving something more to the imagination. While dining with my family once in mid-town Manhattan, a stark naked woman marched past our window, heading uptown all business, no one appeared to notice her. It was a good five minutes before I saw a police car heading uptown, presumably after her. If she had instead worn yoga pants and had the body for it, she would have turned heads fast enough to give a community of chiropractors a field day. Okay, bad example.

Q. What about what stimulates gay men?

A. If I gave you an answer I’d only be pretending that I wasn’t guessing.

Q. Is there a drink you associate with sexual stimulation or stamina?

A. Tit milk mixed with vodka, and a stemless maraschino cherry. A real zinger.

Q. Any other stimulants?

A. Yes. There are particular perfumes, odors really, women in certain neighborhoods of Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo apply to themselves that supposedly drive men absolutely insane. I can’t vouch for it except to say no one I’ve met has ever returned alive and sane to credibly tell about it.

Q. What else can get men excited?

A. Contrary to the rhyme about men not making passes at women who wear glasses, if the woman otherwise has an ounce of attractiveness, men will be turned by this apparel into little schoolboys aching to be spanked. It makes sex dirtier by triumphing over stodgy rectitude. Instead of glasses, it can be nylon stockings with a black seam (actual or drawn) up the back, or just the right shade of lipstick applied a bit too generously. That’s it, not much. Men need just a slim streak of smoke issuing from a furrow of propriety to set them on edge.

Q. Is that it?

A. A starchy white nurse’s uniform. Men will always wonder if there’s a rhumba going on underneath. Also a good show of legs always has men, especially mathematicians, wondering where parallel lines meet somewhere in space and what that’s like.

Q. Any books that you thought were over-the-top erotic?

A. Marquis DeSade’s “Bedroom Philosophers” appealed to the animal in me. And there’s D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which took me out to the spiritual horizon in sexual relations.

Q. What about something short and sweet?

A. There was a commercial jingle in my early college days about paper panties. It went something like this, “Put ‘em on, tear ‘em off, throw ‘em away. Paper Panties!” I couldn’t get it out of my head, and kept wondering if I could ever witness this and at least collect all these torn, discarded panties.

Q. What’s this obsession with women’s panties?

A. I think if they wore boxer shorts it would disappear in a day.

Q. What about periodicals like National Geographic with native women from undeveloped lands? Did you ever thumb through it as a teenager?

A. Purely for anthropological edification.

Q. What about pin-ups?

A. My parents kept finding these magazines almost as quickly as I could hide them. I told them it was to read many of the articles they might contain, again for sociological research. I did find a way to hide at least one pinup from them in a newspaper under the fold of a book jacket. The pin-up was of a comedian’s wife appearing in a gossip column in the New York Post.

Q. That’s hard to believe. Do you even remember the book?

A. George Lefebvre’s “The Coming of the French Revolution.”

Q. Don’t you think everything you’ve told us is really inexcusable objectification of females on your part?

A. Objectification maybe so. Inexcusable? I don’t think so. I wasn’t taught to objectify females by any older role models. The cowboy heroes I watched on television when I was growing up were actually a very clean lot and would only kiss, if that, behind a large hat. The heroes of today’s movies lose no time making out even on prime time TV with lots of heavy breathing and few if any clothes on top of or under the sheets. In sum this is all natural like the tides, they come in and then go out, over and over.

Q. So, how do you define a perversion?

A. Oh, that’s a political question.