William Taylor Jr.

In Which Jeffrey Attempts to Go See a Film

Jeffrey was walking down Larkin Street through San Francisco’s Tenderloin district towards the Civic Center Plaza. He was stopped at a red light at the corner of Geary Street and saw Jenny, a nervous, emaciated neighborhood junkie girl pacing about the doorway of the Outsider dive bar, talking to herself or someone Jefferey couldn’t see. She had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and bright vacant blue eyes. It wasn’t so long ago that Jefferey thought her beautiful, or something close to it. Today she appeared particularly haggard, as if something unpleasant she’d been managing to avoid thus far had finally caught up with her.

“Hey, babe,” she said, wobbling on her heels, “you got a dollar or two? I need a fucking burrito and cigarettes really fucking bad. I’m dying here.”

“Sure, I got ya.” Jeffrey pulled out his wallet, planning to give her a few dollars, and opened it to find only a twenty. After double and then triple checking his pockets for something smaller, he pulled the bill from his wallet and handed it to her.

Her eyes lit up. “Shit man, you fucking saved my day!” She clasped her skinny arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Her breath was hot and stank of whiskey, her body of old sick sweat.

“Not a problem,” Jefferey said, pulling away to cross the street.

“Pop by here on your way home, and we’ll get a drink, honey!” she called. Jeffrey smiled and waved his arm.

On the block between Ellis and Eddy Streets ragged tents of the homeless lined the sidewalks on either side. Empty-eyed addicts, street dealers, and the generally destitute wandered openly about the street, oblivious and impervious to the traffic. Undesirables, herded by the powers that be into the concentrated area of a handful of blocks and largely left alone, so that the rest of the city might remain tourist friendly. An impressive array of dreck was strewn about the concrete or loaded into grocery carts for sale or barter. Obscure videotapes, CDs, cassettes, and warped record albums. Tattered books and pornographic magazines. Expired food products. Piles of mismatched shoes and obsolete textbooks. Broken luggage and crates of busted cookware. Bundles and strings of useless wires and cords knotted and coiled together like piles of lifeless snakes. An open-air museum of things that nobody wanted or ever would. People were arguing with ghosts, aliens, the air. Pissing in doorways and on the hubcaps of cars. Prone and inert on the sidewalks and in the gutters.

An altercation was happening between two men outside a tent on the sidewalk in front of a Vietnamese sandwich shop. A scrawny shirtless man who bore a genuinely striking resemblance to Charles Manson was throwing what looked to be chunks of meat at another man who was holding a large piece of cardboard before him as a shield. “Get out of here!” the man with the cardboard yelled, “Get out of here or I’m going to fuck you up!”

The man with the meat chunks hesitated and then chucked another volley of three or four pieces. A skeletal woman sitting outside a tent drinking a tall can of malt liquor turned to the meat chucker and yelled, “Go! Just go! He’s gonna beat your dumb ass if you don’t!” The man’s meat ammunition appeared to be spent and he grabbed an almost empty bottle of something from the sidewalk, tucking it under his arm. He kicked over a crate of assorted broken things, flipped off the man with the cardboard shield and ran down Eddy Street yelling about how fucked someone was going to be when they saw him again.

Jeffrey stood among a small group of passersby who had paused to watch the scene. Carnage of some kind or another in the neighborhood was an ever-present fact, but some animal thing within him wouldn’t let him continue on his way if there were the possibility of violence to be witnessed. Things settled down to the usual level of minor chaos and he continued on through blocks of tents and waste.

Outside the Civic Center station the man to whom Jeffrey assigned the name Rasputin was at his usual place, pacing about, mumbling to himself, making indecipherable hand gestures. He was a cartoon version of someone who had been stranded on a desert island or neglected in a small prison cell for many years. He wore broken sandals and was adorned in tattered rags of things that once perhaps were valid pieces of clothing. Wiry, stray tufts of hair sprouted haphazardly from his otherwise bald head. He wore a long and matted gray-black beard. Rasputin spotted Jeffrey from quite a distance, as he always did, and raised his arm, palm faced open in front of him as was his custom, like an arcane greeting from some secret society. “My friend,” Rasputin shouted in Jeffrey’s direction, “my friend!” Jeffrey raised his arms in a gesture meant to convey that he regrettably had nothing to offer. Rasputin positioned himself at the entrance to the underground station and continued his two word litany as Jeffrey grew closer. “My friend! My friend!” “My friend,” Rasputin said once more when Jeffery reached the stairway.

Jeffrey again haplessly raised his arms and said, “Sorry man, I got nothing today.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” Jeffrey assented. Rasputin nodded his head resignedly and put out his fist. Jeffrey bumped it with his own and headed down the stairs into the station. He made his way to the trains and waited with the late afternoon crowd at the edge of the platform. To his left was a large angry man stuffed inside a wheelchair that was a good amount too small for his body. He had gray stringy hair that sat heavy on his shoulders and a formidable beard, stained and unkempt. He wore a gray tank top, stained as well. Despite the chilly weather he wore dark blue shorts, his oversized legs spilling out of them, white and sad, with large bandages wrapped about the knees. He wore tattered black tennis shoes, only one of which had laces. He sat there scowling in his chair like a bitter and defeated Santa.

The man talked incessantly, a barrage of insults complimented by droplets of spittle. Jeffrey assumed the insults were aimed at no one in particular, just the traitorous universe itself, until he noticed a small middle-aged Asian woman standing to the left of the man’s chair. She had bobbed gray-black hair and thick glasses with large circular lenses and wore something that resembled surgeons’ scrubs. Jeffrey realized that the man’s tirade was directed at her. She occasionally nodded slightly with solemn contrition and offered whispered apologies. Or she would just listen with her head hung low as if she were a child being chastised. Jeffrey guessed her to be the man’s caretaker. At her side was a large aluminum trolley carrying four paper bags of groceries.

“Do you know how long I had to wait at checkout before you arrived?” the man asked. The woman stood silent, looking to the ground. “Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! Do you know how embarrassing that is? Sitting there at the counter with my cart full of groceries like an idiot, with no way to pay for them! The guy at the register looked at me like I was a dog turd, It was a nightmare! Twenty minutes! I told you to be there at four, and you know I get done early sometimes! The ice cream must be half melted…the meat will be spoiled by the time we get home…unacceptable!” He looked around at the others waiting on the platform, hoping to find something in their faces that offered empathy for his incomprehensible situation. The people gazed expressionlessly at their feet and their phones. The man continued his berating, the bits of spittle flying from his mouth, the woman silently taking it. Jeffery tried to stop listening.

The train arrived and the sea of passengers exiting parted to either side of the man in the wheelchair as he careened onboard, yelling that he was handicapped and their ineptitude at departing the train in a timely manner could well prevent him from getting home at a reasonable hour. His assistant was close behind, pushing the trolley full of groceries.

Jeffrey filed on board with the rest. He passed the wheelchair man and glanced at the assistant’s face. In her eyes he imagined a momentary flickering of something he took as a plea for help, or mercy, or understanding, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared, her eyes once more dully resigned. He shuffled on and found a space two cars down.

The train was crowded and Jeffrey stood in the middle of the car pressed close against his fellow commuters. Laid out on his side across two of the seats in the center of the car was a man of no discernible age wearing a heavy trench coat. His eyes were glazed and half open. He held out his hand open-palmed in silent want when someone chanced to look his way, and mechanically lowered it again when it was obvious nothing would be offered. He was a figure from a haunted carnival ride, performing his rote movements repeatedly to the discomfort of those around him. Jeffrey stood a few feet away and from the corner of his eye he saw the man’s arm rise and fall in this manner numerous times before he dug around in his pockets to find three quarters, a dime, and two nickels. He put them in the man’s hand the next time it was raised. “Thank you,” the man said in a quiet and amiable voice.

“You’re welcome, sir,” Jeffrey replied, turning his attention to his phone.

“Hey,” the man continued, “I don’t do no drugs or nuthin. I drink, though. Just beer. I just drink me some big ‘ol beers.” The man smiled to himself, thinking about it.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Jeffrey said.

“Just some big ‘ol beers,” the man repeated, smiling. He stretched his hand out again as the train stopped at the 16th and Mission Street station and a good amount of people filed on and off, averting their gazes as they did so.

A young red-haired woman boarded the train and stood to Jeffrey’s left. With one hand she clung to the strap hanging from the ceiling of the car, in the other she cradled a cell phone. She typed into the phone with impeccable nails attached to fine, delicate fingers which danced across the tiny keyboard with remarkable grace and speed. The woman was engrossed with whatever was happening on her phone, which allowed Jeffrey to gaze upon her unabashedly. She had a pale, elfin face, perfectly adorned with a smattering of faint freckles. She laughed silently to herself and bit her bottom lip as she typed. A faint perfume drifted from her that brought to Jeffrey’s mind the color of pink.

Jeffrey imagined himself someone who possessed the power to lightly touch her shoulder, somehow, in a manner neither creepy nor threatening, and tell her she was beautiful. To strike up a conversation in a way that wasn’t awkward. People did it all the time, supposedly. He saw it in movies and on tv. It happened in books, and he’d witnessed it himself in bars, libraries and grocery stores. Yet it seemed such an impossible thing to put into execution. He could find no entrance to such a world.

He forced his eyes from the woman and back to the man stretched out on the seats, who put out his hand as he sensed Jeffrey’s gaze. Jeffrey gave him a quick smile and a nod then turned back to the red-haired girl to find her engaged in conversation with a young man of unremarkable presence wearing a backwards baseball cap and a San Francisco Giants jersey. They were talking as easily as a pair of intimate friends, though as best as Jeffrey could tell they had been strangers just moments before.

The train reached the 24th Street stop, Jeffrey’s destination. The man in the wheelchair barreled his way through the crowded car. “I need to get out first,” he shouted, “I need to get out first!” The assistant trailed with head hung low, pushing the melted ice cream and the spoiling meat in the rickety cart. The man was there, stretched out across the two seats, his eyes faraway and his hand stretched out wordlessly.

Jeffery emerged from the station out into the plaza at 24th and Mission Streets and maneuvered his way through people trying to sell him things he didn’t want, asking him for things he didn’t have to give. He sat down on a metal bench to tie his shoe. The plaza was scattered with people in broken wheelchairs, riding stolen bikes or electronic scooters, propped up with cranes or crutches. Boom boxes sat on the cement or on benches, booming.

A group of young attractive people were setting up tables and handing out pamphlets. A blonde woman who looked like any number of local newscasters from most any small town in America was doing a mic check in preparation for a proselytizing session. Christian country music was playing from the sound system as her associates passed out cookies and muffins to encourage the sinners to stick around for the Jesus talk. None assembled there had any real expectation of being saved, but from experience they knew more baked goods would be handed out at the end, so they found places to sit with their muffins and malt liquor. A Mexican woman was pushing an ice cream cart festooned with little bells in a slow circle around the plaza, giving the scene a surreal Christmas-like soundtrack.

Jeffrey headed South on Mission Street, his destination the art-house theater currently screening a newly restored version of Pandora’s Box, the silent film starring Louise Brooks. He made it a few blocks until he came upon a large police presence spread about as far as he could see. Assorted police cars and trucks were parked haphazardly in the streets, as well as a handful of ambulances, firetrucks and other official-looking vehicles.

He walked until the yellow police tape forced him to stop. He stood with the crowds of onlookers and denizens of the neighborhood who were arguing in vain with the officers in attempts to convince them to allow them return to their homes located within the taped off areas. Jeffrey asked some of the assembled people what exactly was happening. The best he understood after patching together various accounts was that a hit-and-run driver had plowed into three pedestrians, critically injuring two of them. The driver struck a man in a crosswalk at 19th and Mission, pinning him against the side of a northbound bus. The car then leaped onto the sidewalk and struck two passengers, a man and a woman, who were getting off the bus. The car continued awhile on the sidewalk at a very high rate of speed. The driver and a passenger initially fled the scene but eventually returned and were detained.

Jeffrey asked an officer how long it might be before the area were cleared and the reply was, however long it takes. Jeffrey stood there thinking how the comic book shop he had hoped to visit was in the restricted area as well. He turned around and walked back toward the station. When he got to the plaza the blonde woman was telling everyone how merciful Jesus was if you made the choice to open your heart. The amplification was turned up very high in order to drown out the boomboxes and the general cacophony. Some of those gathered about were sipping from tall cans in brown paper bags as they learned about the paradise that waited for them if they but cared to embrace it. Others were sleeping, making drug deals, wandering uselessly about, staring wide-eyed to the sky as the sun shone down upon it all like some unconscionable machine forged for the sole purpose of manufacturing loneliness. Two skater kids seated on concrete steps were shooting up between their toes, and Jeffrey started back down the stairs into the station wondering if Jenny might still be at the bar.

Hank Kirton

Cults that Kill

Tina Feeny (16) was keenly interested in ritualistic killings. She studied them like a grim scholar but regarded them as entertainment, an interesting hobby. That’s all. People in her family felt that she was clearly troubled and obsessed. Her interest in such unhealthy things made her parents nervous. They forced her to take down (and destroy) her stirring poster of naked Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Good. They thought it was pornographic in more ways than one. She loved that poster. It was sexy as hell. They let her keep her charcoal portrait of Richard Ramirez because they had no idea who he was. She told them he was a stand-up comedian. She wouldn’t be able to fool her folks forever.

They didn’t like it but they let her keep her true crime books, Cults that Kill, The Children of Jonestown, Helter Skelter, etc. because they were books and they wanted to encourage reading. They let her keep La-bas, and de Sade and The Torture Garden too. They were somewhat progressive that way.

They placed her in therapy against her will. Tina hated her therapist, a smug, self-satisfied man named Eugene Plax (52). His office was small. She noticed a poster of Sigmund Freud eating a banana. There were other things in his office too. Diplomas and whatnot. He asked her why she was interested in such morbid things.

“Why are people interested in collecting stamps?”

“Are you comparing postage stamps to ritual murder?”

“Yes. Yes I am. They’re both harmless hobbies that most people can’t understand the appeal of.”

“M-hm.”

“Ha! I knew you’d say that.”

“So, you see ritual killings as harmless?”

“Not the murders themselves. The information is the harmless part. I’m just the third party, learning stuff secondhand.”

“M-hm. And what goes on in these ritual killings that you find so interesting and worthy of study?”

“The human sacrifices, the blood play, the charisma of the leaders. The devotion of the followers. You know, the usual stuff. Symbolism. Belief systems. Violence. The pomp and circumstance. Candles. The question should be why aren’t you interested in this stuff.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You’re interested in psychological stuff. You’d think things like this would be right up your alley.”

“M-hm. And do you want to join a cult?”

“I want to start one.”

Raised eyebrows.

“You wanna be my first member, doc? I’ll tell you what to do.”

“Well,” glancing at his watch. “I’m afraid our time is up.”

“M-hm.”

She could think circles around this guy.

Judge Santiago Burdon

Do You Believe in Magic

A psychic had been considering renting the storefront next to the bar I owned at the time. She came in and asked my opinion as a business owner about foot traffic in the area, specifically whether I thought it was a good idea to rent and if she would be successful. She wasn’t sure if it would be a wise investment.

“I’m somewhat puzzled by your question,” I answered with a surprised tone in my voice. “Being a psychic, isn’t that something you should know already, having the ability to see the future?”

She just looked at me with a loathing expression, threw her hands up, and with a disgusted tone called me a smart ass and turned to walk away.

The space remained vacant for three months and was eventually rented by an extremely pleasant guy named Marvin from Boston. He opened a magic shop next door and claimed to be related to Harry Houdini. He became a regular at the bar and drank Sam Adams with a shot of Old Grandad. He was a gifted story teller, always entertaining customers with humorous tales of his career as a magician in his younger days.

Occasionally he’d do magic tricks for patrons, although almost exclusively for good-looking women.

I realized an opportunity to book his act in the bar. I asked “Mystic Marvin Master of Illusion” if by chance he’d be interested in performing once a week with payment to be negotiated.

The bar had a small stage and I let a local musician host an Open Mic on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. On Friday and Saturday nights, comedians performed, hosted by a local radio personality and city councilman. He didn’t possess much charisma and lacked audience appeal, however. Neither he nor the comedians he booked were very funny most of the time and didn’t draw much of a crowd as promised either.

Mystic Marvin was excited at the opportunity to perform his magic. We arranged his first performance for the upcoming Friday night at nine o’clock, as an opening act before the so-called comedians.

The word spread quickly around the pueblo and I did a small bit of advertising, putting posters outside the bar and passing out  flyers to everyone that entered.

My novia (girlfriend) at the time was a gorgeous young woman whom I was fortunate to be able to afford. She was a vixen in bed with a voracious sexual appetite. I found it necessary to increase my testosterone dosage to keep up with her. She was also a thief and pathological liar, minor character flaws I chose to overlook in light of her other qualities.

Marvin and Veronica seemed to get on well together, despite the language barrier. She spoke little to no English and Marvin was one of those “I know enough Spanish to get by” type of people. Which I’ve discovered usually translates into, “I don’t know shit.”

He asked if it would be possible to have Veronica act as his assistant for the magic performance. There wasn’t any reason that I could think of not to grant his request. Veronica appeared thrilled at the prospect of being onstage without having to take her clothes off. Besides, our relationship had been been on the wane as of late, and I’d been trying to come up with some way to terminate our arrangement. I was pleased she would be occupied and not always hanging around, constantly getting in my way. She was suppose to be working as a waitress at the bar but never quite caught on to exactly what the job entailed.

They took their gig very seriously, practicing twice a day and sometimes into the early morning hours at the magic shop. After five days, Veronica came to me and asked me to purchase a costume for her to wear for the performance. The sequined costume she wanted cost one hundred and twenty- five dollars.

“Are you serious? I’m not laying out that kind of cash for a costume. That should be Marvin’s expense. You tell him what I said.”

“You are so mean to me. You never want me to look nice because you’re jealous other men look at me.”

“First of all I am not the jealous type. If it were so, I would’ve kicked your ass out of here long ago. I’m well aware of your flirtatious nature. Secondly, this was Magic Marvin’s idea to have you perform as his assistant. This falls under the responsibility of the talent. Don’t make it my problem.”

Marvin walks in at the height of our heated discussion, standing behind Veronica with an apologetic look on is face. Having finished my oration, I turned to walk behind the bar when Marvin decided to add his commentary.

“I know you think there’s something going on between Veronica and me. You have a right to feel that way. I know I’ve been monopolizing a lot of her time.”

“Marvin, that’s not at all what our conversation was about. If there’s something going on between you two, well that’s something I haven’t considered and honestly don’t give a shit.”

I knew he was banging her and it honestly didn’t upset me. I’d been getting more sleep at night anyway.

“The disagreement was over her wanting me to pay for a costume for your performance,” I continued. “And I believe this is an expense you should be responsible for, not me. I find it interesting, however, you assumed our disagreement was about me being suspicious of you two.”

“She’d mentioned that you were jealous she was spending so much time with me. That’s why I thought that’s what you were arguing about. Anyway, I bought that costume for our show yesterday. She tried it on and modeled it for the customers. You were gone, went to pay some bills I was told. Strange that she would ask you for money when she knew it was already paid for…”

I look around the bar, check the kitchen, bathroom, and office, and Veronica is nowhere to be found. I call out for her but she still doesn’t appear. Then I’m told by one of the customers she’d left shortly after Marvin’s arrival.

“It’s not strange at all, Marvin. As a matter of fact, it’s her modus operandi. She’s a con artist and a pathological liar. Don’t try to make sense of it, that’s just the way she is. Are you ready for tomorrow night? There should be a good-sized crowd from what I’ve heard.”

“Yes, I’m good to go. My act will last about forty five minutes to an hour, is that okay?”

“Just fine. I’ll see you tomorrow night, then. You go on at nine, so be sure to get here around eight thirty or so to get set up.”

“You bet, Santiago. I’m going to try to find Veronica noq. She may be upset. See ya tomorrow.”

“She’s most likely at the bar in the casino. Catch you later.”

Can you believe that insensitive snake, trying to shake me down for money, knowing it was already paid for. She thinks I’m a dipshit gringo and it’s my first experience dealing with women and their underhanded ways. After all I’ve done for and tolerated from that stripper prostitute. But, her dishonesty goes with the territory.

The night of their performance, the bar was jam packed with standing room only. I was a bit upset with myself that I  hadn’t thought to charge a few bucks a head. I did up the prices on drinks, however.

Mystic Marvin and the Lovely Veronica put on an entertaining and professional show. Got more laughs than the comedians ever did, that’s for sure. They even included an audience participation segment, which received thundering applause as well.

After a few weeks, the crowd dissipated and his act became less amazing. Although he did perform one of the most mystifying magic tricks I’d ever witnessed. It was a disappearing act that ended with both him and Veronica vanishing completely. The next morning, I noticed the magic shop empty, and Veronica’s clothes had disappeared from my apartment along with some cash as well. She’d left no note goodbye.

I was actually quite elated there hadn’t been some long, drawn-out break up. As a replacement, I hired Melissa, a gorgeous and personable young woman that same afternoon.

That night at the bar, I bought a couple of rounds in tribute to my newly single status. The comedians even seemed funny to me, although I’d heard the same jokes for months.

I bumped into Marvin about eight months later, on a short vacation I took with Melissa to the beach in Guanacasta. He was sitting alone at the bar, looking unhappy, overweight, and disheveled. When he recognized me, his expression revealed both fear and surprise. I waited for him to initiate conversation, which he did with uncertain confidence.

“Hello Santiago, it’s Marvin. How ya doing? It’s been a while…”

“Doing just dandy, Marv. Man, you look like you’ve been tortured by Jehovah’s Witnesses who beat your ass with Bibles. Are you still with Veronica? You two left together, so I was told.”

“Yeah, well, that’s right. I should apologize for how I acted, after you giving me an opportunity to perform at your bar.”

“Okay, go ahead.”

“Go ahead what?

“Apologize for being a backstabbing prick.”

“I’m truly very sorry,” he whimpered.

“I really don’t fucking care.”

“She blindsided me, Santiago. I got all caught up in her web of deception and couldn’t get out.”

He just went on and on, his voice cracking as he spoke.

“I thought she loved me. I did everything for her, and she pulled the rug right out from under me. Took off with some surfer bum, but not before cleaning out my bank accounts and stealing anything of value I had. Even took my little dog, Abracadabra, too…”

I  wanted to say how sorry I was, but I wasn’t.

“Well, you know what they say.”

“No, what do they say?”

“Love is great until the magic wears off. See ya around, maybe.”

Never saw the guy again. Soon afterwards I began learning a few card tricks of my own.  Eventually, I graduated up to some elementary sleight of hand tricks as well. Though I never did develop a quality trick, always screwed it up somehow.

“Do you believe in magic. In a young girls heart…”

—Lovin’ Spoonful

Tim Frank

The Allegra Product

Jen dialled the Allegra Homeware helpline, left her mobile on the granite kitchen counter top, put it on loud speaker and opened her briefcase – unsheathing a pack of midrange Allegra cutlery. She held up the stainless-steel dinner knives close to Fiona, a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, who was minding her own business, perched in her highchair, tackling a cheese string. Her mother, Christine, was slightly less casual as she was tied up and trapped in the cupboard under the stairs, snot and tears soiling her blouse. She called out to Jen, “You can’t get away with this, my husband will be back at six.”

“That’s all I’ll need to change your lives. Now please be quiet, I’m only keeping your gag off so your squeals don’t scare Fiona, but I won’t hesitate to use it if you misbehave.”

Christine blubbered some more as an operator came on the line and in an inane sing song voice, said, “Allegra Homeware helpline, how can I help you?”

“I’d like to speak to Alan Blackburn please,” said Jen, in an equally asinine voice.

“Who?”

“You know exactly who. I’m Jen Martins – I’ve contacted him on every media platform and we go way back. Now, put me through to your boss or I’ll slice up my friend’s baby I’ve kidnapped. I think I’ll use an Allegra Gourmet steak knife, then I’ll feed her to the foxes. Ok?”

After a beat, the operator said in a sober voice, “Please hold.”

Muzak played.

Jen scooped out the existing cutlery from its drawer and carefully replaced it with Allegra custom made products – shining the odd spoon with a cloth.

“You see Fiona, isn’t that better?”

Then Jen gathered Fiona up in her arms and said, “Now shall we transform mummy and daddy’s bedroom? You lead the way.”

Fiona stroked her pudgy fingers across Jen’s face with a playful smile.

“I could just eat you up,” Jen said as they passed the cupboard under the stairs. Christine became aware of Jen and her daughter’s proximity, she did all she could to repress her need to shriek Fiona’s name.

“Listen, Jen, listen,” said Christine peeking through the slats of the cupboard door. “We’ve been friends for years and I don’t know what went wrong but just because we fell out, don’t take that out on a defenceless little child.”

“I’ll tell you what went wrong, you think you’re better than me because I’m a top Allegra sales person.”

“No, Jen it’s because you’re obsessed. It’s all you talk about, Allegra this, Allegra that – constantly – and it’s just unbearable.”

“You know what’s unbearable? Being dirt poor when all your friends are holidaying in the Algarve, driving SUVs and scoffing smoked salmon. My crime is that I tried to better myself and what do I get? Everyone turning against me. Now I have a couple of hours to metamorphose your bedroom. Trust me, when I’m done you and your husband will thank me.”

Jen locked the master bedroom door behind her and propped Fiona up against a plump pillow next to a pile of Allegra bedroom products Jen had collected from the boot of her car. She swayed to the muzak that played on loop from the phone, clicking her fingers. She swapped the blinds, exchanged the rugs and replaced the nick nacks, peppered across the chest of drawers.

“Miss Martins?” said a voice, filled with terror. Fiona had snatched the phone and was chewing on it – covering it with drool.

“Ah, Alan,” said Jen, “finally. You owe me money; I’ve been working my butt off and all I get from you and your company is false promises.”

“Miss Martins, you know that’s not true, we released you from our contract months ago because you were untrustworthy and, frankly, deranged. Please tell me you were joking about the baby?”

“Alan, you said we were a team.”

Jen felt lightheaded so she lay down on the king-size bed next to Fiona. She stared at the painting of Baron Rothschild opposite and it began to speak. “Jennifer,” it purred, “you’re the finest saleswoman in all of North East Finchley and some sections of Barnet too.”

A shriek emanated from downstairs as Christine’s husband had returned and released his wife. “There’s blood, there’s blood on the carpet,” Christine cried. “My baby!”

Christine grabbed her husband by the hand and followed the trail of blood that led to their bedroom. The couple could hear Jen talking to herself. There was no sound from the child. Christine’s husband struggled to knock the door down with his shoulder.

Jen trembled and then her body lifted off the bed as she levitated a yard in the air.

Fiona squeaked, “You’ve convinced me, I want a month’s supply of exfoliating facial wet wipes, please.”

Jen’s head lolled back and she gave a dreamy smile.

Christine’s husband knocked the door down and the couple dashed over to Fiona who was drenched in globs of blood. However, they found no cuts or bruises on her body. Then they noticed the room. Their usual decor had gone and what replaced it was horrifying. There was blood on the Allegra curtains, blood on the Allegra tasselled Persian rug, blood on the Allegra tap fittings, blood on the Allegra his and her towel set, blood on the Allegra lamp shades, and blood squirting from Jen’s wrists who had collapsed in the centre of the bed. Pools of blood had collected in the folds of the duvet where Jen happily slipped out of consciousness and into a better world. Everything would be Allegra there. She would be its shining light.

Donald Armfield

Remote Control

My kids have hijacked my remote control, and demand TV. I think I’ll read a book.

I’ve tried to get the remote control back, but they’ve made a suffocating pyramid, like a cheer squad.

The four-story child tower taunted me with a waving remote in hand.

I jumped but it was no use. They moved with cleaver children movements.

I jumped out the window swung on a telephone wire and crashed back through the window, like the Kool-Aid Man. They were not scared.

My children were dressed in football attire helmets and all. Waving their hands at me like,

BRING IT, DAD!

They tackled me from the edge of the couch I fell and banged my pancreas and cracked a rib.

All four children snickered, I decided to read a book.

The children are nestled in their beds. And somehow, they still hold the remote control hostage.

Raccoons were playing in the trash cans again. I run outside in my Scooby-Doo costume and the raccoons are not scared. The raccoons laugh at me, like a cackle of hyenas. I noticed the head piece of the costume was on backwards.

I made a fool of myself.

The remote control lied under the covers with the oldest daughter. The children were working shifts, staying up all hours of the night. To make sure I didn’t grasp the remote control from their possession.

I set up a gauntlet to the kitchen, because breakfast is a must and the children will come running. I hired Storm, Hurricane and Hulk Hogan from American Gladiators. I set them on stand-by in the kitchen.

The children were awake, I could hear them laughing at me. I yelled, “Breakfast!”

But I lied.

The kids came bolting into the kitchen like the Running of the Bulls.

And they easily bypassed my American Gladiators, I had forgotten to take them of stand-by.

The children raided the cupboards and fried the remote control with their scrambled eggs.

I just went to my bedroom and read a book.

I awoke on the couch again. This time there was a Chuck Norris infomercial on the air. They were blabbing about some new excise equipment that combines sex with muscle.

Chuck Norris was showing the audience how easy it was, with his erect penis in hand.

I went to change the channel but then remembered… the kids fried the remote control…

Or did I dream that?

 

(Originally Published in Meat Grinder-Hybrid Sequence Media)

Donna Dallas

Lonely at the Top

The Christian Louboutins, the first-class flights, the Botox, dinners at Del Frisco’s, lavish parties… I could go on and on… these are all part of a lifestyle you desire. You hate me because somehow, by the skin of my teeth, I have this. I have seen the Duomo in Milan and inhaled the air atop Machu Picchu. I drank water from a billion year old glacier off the coast of Easter Island. I hold you in my heart because you knew me when I was bone thin snorting coke with Vito in Lonni’s After Hours Bar. I was wearing fake patent pumps and Wet and Wild ninety-nine cent lipstick. I am lucky I escaped from the ghetto that sucked the youth and life from us, sucked us bone dry.

Some are dead, some numb, others living in a one room back in East New York peddling their ass for crack, smack or crank. I was spared from lice infested beds and dirty crack whores who beat the shit out of me, pummeled my face for crack. I lost some teeth back then… yes, but I have caps now, perfect whites. My body is in the gym at 5am for Pilates and yoga, but my soul stays locked with haunted memories of Atlantic Avenue. Don’t be jealous y’all. Don’t feel I have abandoned what I believed in… I watched the sunrise with you under the Far Rockaway Boardwalk where we lay flaccid from heroine highs in disbelief that the blazing sun was real, while sweat bathed our shaking bodies.

We can never be more than what we were born to be, we were the youth of a moment. We always think back to the days of smoking dust all night in the Blue Regency parked on Pitkin Avenue. Remember Sydney dying somewhere during the night of July 4th? We watched the fireworks in a hazed slow motion, following every light particle in the sky like a child glued to cartoons on a TV screen. We didn’t know he overdosed and lay dead right next to us we were so high. He was paper white with purple globes swelling from his sockets. Grey film pasted over his lips by the time we realized… Don’t marvel at my Chanel handbag, my Mercedes Benz or even my couture groceries that my live-in picks up every week from Caltone’s Italiano. I was selling twenty-five dollar coke bags at night clubs so I could get high from 3am to 3pm and sleep it off, simply to wake up and do it again. Once I snorted all the bags, I had nothing to sell and no money to cover. I had to fuck Tony and four of his boys in the back of the café. But we’re all human and make mistakes…

Every time I start my car, I turn in fear that someone will smack the window with a bat, drag me out and kick the shit out of me like they did on Eldert’s Lane. I keep telling myself most of them are dead and gone by now – gotta be. Then I run into someone that knows someone who spent time in Rikers Island with Mario and Jose and I shiver cuz they are still out there.

Matthew Licht

Sucked Into the Cult

Harry Doss was in a foul mood when he got off the flight from Houston. Fat passengers had crowded him from both sides. Infants shrieked in the rows ahead and behind. A stewardess spilled coffee in his lap. Aside from the pain and the un-businesslike stain, his cell-phone was ruined in the accident. The plane landed nearly two hours late.

He fumbled his pockets outside a phone booth in the Arrivals zone. He didn’t have enough change to make an urgent call. Harry was about to miss the most important meeting of his career.

A hooded figure swathed in sunset hues chose this moment to approach.

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry Doss saw someone shove a book in his face. He wanted to lash out, or at least be verbally abusive. But when he saw her, he was paralyzed and struck dumb. He forgot his business appointment. He forgot his struggling electronics corporation. He wanted to kneel, surrender his soul and devote himself to the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

“Have you accessed the godhead today, sir? For a small donation, the Ultimate Truth can be yours. If you would only give me a few minutes of your valuable time, I can explain…”

Oh Hell yes. Harry Doss put down the germ-laden receiver he’d intended to use as a bludgeon. Instead of telephone change, he pulled business expense cash from his pocket. Twenty, forty, sixty bucks was a small price to pay for Ultimate Truth. Each additional banknote made the woman who was proof of God’s existence to shake and jiggle in surprised delight.

Harry Doss went from harried businessman to horny Everyman, eager to cheat on his wife.

Betty-Sue Doss was a good homemaker. He’d kept his promise to forsake all others, but the godhead had given a sign that his fast must end.

Harry and the cult woman went to sit in a quiet spot. She opened the book Harry had so expensively bought to a picture of a bald-headed, prune-faced gentleman with flowing gray nose-hair.

“This is Swami Vishnaswoti.” She sighed at the name, and pulled back the hood of her orange sweatshirt.

Harry looked to see whether she was blonde or brunette, and was shocked to discover she was as bald as the dude in the picture. He pictured her nude, being shaven by other saffron-robed figures in some initiation ritual, with muted drums and a droning chant.

If there was a God, Harry wondered, why should some codger with excess nose-hair get to stare at, and probably fondle, his most glorious creation.

Harry’s previous attempts at infidelity were a history of failure. Women he met on business trips and at conventions always declined his invitations to come back to a hotel room for meaningless, wonderfully mechanical adultery. One of them, when he asked her why not, said, “Oh, come on, darling. You’re the kind who always says, ‘I can’t do this. I love my wife.'”

What followed was a kiss that made Harry Doss wonder what might’ve been for months.

This time,’ he thought, ‘it’s not going to go that way.’

He dropped his voice to interrupt the flow of Swami-blab.

“What’s your name, young lady?”

“Kryst…I mean, Davadip.”

“I’m Harry. Listen, what you’re telling me is just what I wanted—needed—to hear. Our meeting is no coincidence, it’s synchronicity. I’m in a spiritual crisis. I’m lonely, Davadip. Lonely and scared of what lies ahead. Perhaps you and Swami…”

“Vishnaswoti.”

“…can relieve a troubled soul.”

Sales meetings be damned. Hello, bankruptcy court. Goodbye, wife and kids. Harry Doss, minor-league business manager, was gonna grab him some cult cunt.

They exited the airport and got into a cab.

“Kranepool Hotel,” Harry told the turbanned, bearded taxi driver. “Step on it.”

Harry’s head buzzed with visions of nude Davadip in a hotel shower stall.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Oh my God mister, I didn’t say I was going to a hotel with you.” Davadip sounded like she was about to cry.

Harry Doss felt his spirit drain. “Oh I’m sorry. Of course not. But I swear I only want to talk to you. Tell me where we could go instead.”

“Driver, take us to the Ashkanoma Ashram. It’s at the end of Crapper Boulevard.”

But the driver refused to go to that outlandish address unless he got extra cash up front. Harry took out his wallet and was bled further. He’d have a tough time explaining these additional expenses, on top of the missed conference.

They entered a bad neighborhood. Texas Prisons looked more inviting than the Ashram. Davadip, however, sighed happily when she saw her home.

“Hurry up and get out,” the cab driver said. He threw the car into reverse and was gone.

On the dirt driveway, Harry was surrounded by hulking men in orange hooded sweatshirts. Their faces boded ill.

“Rama-lama, brothers,” Davadip said. “I’ve passed out all my tracts, gathered my donation quota, and I’ve brought a new truth-seeker to visit. Uhm, mister? I forgot your name.”

“Harry. Pleased to meet you guys, but I think I gotta go…”

He stuck out his hand for shakes that never came. Gruff voices muttered words of friendship and welcome. Strong arms embraced him, and dragged him towards the tumbledown shack made to look like some hillbilly’s idea of the Taj Mahal.

In a candle-lit darkness that reeked of incense and sweat, Harry Doss was relieved of his briefcase, then his clothes. “Hey! Knock it off!”

He stopped struggling when he saw he was being lightened and stripped by Davadip and several of her cult Sisters. Davadip looked into his eyes. “Relax,” she said. “Let go. Let it happen.”

She unzipped her sweatshirt. Harry’s mouth hung open at the sight. There was even a trickle of drool. Here body was a milky white expanse, like a glimpse of the distant Himalayas.

“Oooh look, sisters. He’s in need,” one of the cult women whispered.

“Wouldn’t he like to join with us,” said another, pushing her bosom together.

“But he’s not ready yet.”

“Aw, poor guy. Let’s give him a taste.”

Eyes can only open so wide, but Harry’s tried to break the World Record. Davadip’s squeaky voice split the air.

“Wait, sisters! I found him. That means I get to minister to him first…”

Her eyes glowed with spiritual love and bliss.

Harry Doss thought he’d died and gone to Heaven, or Nirvana, whichever was heavenlier. His brain turned itself off. He reverted to a primitive state.

“Glaah…Baaah….Phlurgle…”

Davadip eventually moved aside and let her sisters join in. What was left of Harry’s brain exploded. He saw pink visions of the Holy Ecstasy Beyond.

“That’s enough, for now,” said the senior shaven-headed Den Mother, zipping up her sweatshirt. Harry nearly broke down at the assertion.

“Bluh! Duh! Noooo!” He felt a hooded sweatshirt being pulled over his head.

“Time for you to grovel before Swami Vishnaswoti, o luckiest brother.”

“Oh it’ll blow your mind.” Davadip planted a chaste kiss on Harry’s cheek.

The men of the cult dragged him away with his orange drawstring pants around his ankles.

They dumped him on the rough floor in a dungeon rank with body odor. He heard a low hum, felt himself observed through the blackness. Someone struck a match and lit a candle, then several others. Harry saw the face of Swami Vishnaswoti.

He was even more wizened than in the photo Davadip had shown him. The Swami had grown a white mustache, Harry thought. Then he saw it wasn’t a mustache at all, but the most luxuriant nose-hair in the history of the world. The Swami’s eyes were hypnotic.

“Uh, hello,” Harry said, and instantly felt a sharp smack to the back of his head.

“Silence before the Heavenly Master.”

The Swami regarded Harry placidly. “You seem like a no-nonsense kinda guy,” he said, with a heavy New York accent.

“Uh, sure. I guess.”

“OK, I’m gonna level with you. We’re on a holy mission here, but it’s a business deal too. You start at the bottom and work your way up, through prayer and devotion to the cause. You hip?”

“Yeah. But…”

“Here’s the deal: for every hundred bucks you bring in, you get five minutes with one of the girls–your choice. I mean, it’s up to her, of course. You gotta get a sister’s consent and approval first, but you’ll find most of your new sisters to be quite receptive.”

Harry was about to say, “But I’ve got a wife and kids and a job and…”

Another thought occurred. “Business, huh? What’s in it for the girls? If this is some kind of brainwashing scam, I’m gonna call the cops.”

“Relax, hero. They’re in on the deal. For each C-note a sister brings home, she gets a personal worship-session. And for every dupe… that is, for every new devotee a girl converts, she gets to enjoy Holy Communion with the Master. And that’s me, baby.”

Harry snorted.

The Swami chuckled, his nose hair twitched.

“How ’bout a little demonstration? Been a slow day. Brother Hasham, go fetch Sister Davadip. This dude’s not official yet, but let’s say he counts.”

“Yeah, o master.”

The Swami slowly unwound himself from his lotus position. “Feel free to join in,” he said. “With the chant, I mean.”

The drone grew louder. Harry’s eyes adapted to the eerie candlelight.

A sitar twanged. Muffled drums beat. Harry Doss thought of the business conference going on without him, of his wife Betty-Sue living out her daily routine. Then Davadip entered the basement and Harry thought no more.

“O Divine Teacher, thank you for this most sublime opportunity.”

The Swami gave a curt wave. “Shake it, baby.”

Davadip began to dance. Her sweatshirt fluttered in the air as she leapt and flew all around. By the time she finally bared it all, there wasn’t much left of Harry Doss besides a pile of volcanic ash.

Dewy with sweat, Davadip approached the Swami.

Vishnaswoti leaned back against a brocade cushion and let his devotee have her way.

The chant grew louder.

“Rama-lama! Looba-gabba!”

Harry Doss joined in like a zombie.

“Rammalamma! Loobagooba!”

The show was disappointing. If Harry Doss had been in his ordinary state of mind, he would’ve thought, ‘Big deal.’ But Harry Doss wasn’t in his ordinary state of mind. He was chanting at the top of his lungs.

You might see Harry Doss—he goes by Hare Das these days—at an airport or a street corner near you. His eyes shine with missionary zeal. He is a forceful proselytizer. The first time he brought a hundred dollars back to the Ashram, Davadip told him she knew he could do better. So he’s working on bringing in a cool thousand. He knows he’ll get to Heaven one of these days. The Master told him so.

Hank Kirton

Elmer

So, at the plump, achieved age of forty-eight I decided I wanted an imaginary friend. I’d never concocted one as a child so I had to make up for lost time. I would have to invent one from scratch. I couldn’t just fetch a lovable character from my past and dust him off, dress him up, make him new. I also didn’t need an invisible playmate. That wouldn’t work anymore. It was far too late. The meager imagination of my youth had rusted to dust. It was just as well, I held no interest in running around the yard or building forts with cushions. I needed a friend who would be roughly my age—40-50, with similar interests. I would need a list of characteristics.

I didn’t want a lovable animal or fanciful creature. No friendly monsters or fairies or winged entities of any kind. I wanted a middle-aged humanoid.

And he should be a man, like me.

The first thing I came up with was the name. Mr. Elmer J. Walters. The name was based on nothing and no one but it held a vaporously familiar ring. Or not quite a ring. Maybe a chime. One note of a tiny chime nearly erased by long rain.

I gave Elmer a career, made him a press agent. He helped publicize plays and operas and symphonies. I’d always had an unhealthy attraction to show business. Elmer would satisfy that. He’d give me entrée into that footlighted headspace. I decided he should also be a former actor. He had a talent for Shakespeare and trod the boards around the globe.

Elmer was a widower. His wife Theresa died of consumption in 1918. That was another thing. Elmer lived in the Roaring Twenties. He wore a tweed three-piece suit, long coat, bowler hat and two-tone oxfords. He smoked Murad cigarettes and had syphilis. He was violent when he got drunk. Because of his Broadway connections he was able to get his hands on good Canadian whiskey. Sexually, he was a prism. He lived in New York City (as did I) and after a performance he would slip into the night and murder prostitutes with a piano-wire garrote.  As soon as the struggling ceased, Elmer would flee into the shadows. Once at home, he’d drink whiskey and cry until dawn finally broke open his moaning head. Then he would masturbate and insert sewing needles into his scrotum. He often fantasized about eating human flesh and would cut sections of epidermal skin from his thighs and consume them, pretending it was the flesh of his mother, Hattie Walters. Hattie, a bitter, abusive hysteric could be an imaginary friend in her own right.

At a blind tiger one night Elmer got into a drunken knife fight with a longshoreman named Chester Pough. Chester stabbed Elmer in his right eye, making him half-blind for the rest of his life. Elmer wore an eye patch over his tough, scarified eye socket. At the age of 48, Elmer finally succumbed to his dripping syphilis and died penniless in a boarding house in Jersey City.

Elmer is now a woeful ghost and we drink brandy and smoke cigars at night.

I finally have my imaginary friend.

Jacky T

The Gift

The worst thing about being a male eunuch is the rehearsals. Castrati must spend hours on pre-warm-ups, warm-ups, travel to and from various churches and halls. The adherence to a busy schedule and strict routine is maddening.

You are supposed to maintain the passion to be the best, a drive to succeed, push for excellence, all when you don’t have the balls for it.

To us, the gift of a wondrous pre-pubescent voice merely becomes a forgettable byproduct. Like most in the possession of a natural gift, we learn to unlearn its virtues. Most of us even forget how lovely we sound to others, as we spend our time bitching about the choirmaster’s demands. Tuneless and without gaiety, we complain to each other and bond on this alone. The one time we feel in harmony.

Ernesto Tomasini, long past his glory days of song, came to our local church once to deliver a motivational speech. From the pulpit in a now bland alto he confessed to us confused pre-teens, “I regret not having been castrated, I would have perfectly happily given up my masculinity for my art.” We didn’t know whether he was making a morbid joke or was just that deluded in his fanaticism for the castrati of old.

Your masculinity, dear Ernesto, is exactly what drives you to make such entitled statements.

Granted, as he left the stage we shot daggers at him, but no one went as far as to cut him down to size.

In contemporary times, we are a rare bunch. Some of us are still deliberately created. A fanatic father who fancied his historical predecessors (in name only) constructing the end of a lineage. Men bearing the famous eunuch names of Broschi, Moreschi or Majorano.
These contemporary men who wished to bring a classic artist into the world; a martyr class for the arts. More assured than dollars and time spent on a child at a piano who may just end up chasing girls, they proceeded with the sharpest tutelage.

No wonder most of us possessed such an acerbic wit.

The lack of proper endocrinological function in these castrated boys would lead to some physiological changes that assisted our renowned sound. The rib cage would bulge, unmarred by the hardening of bone that comes from correct androgen hormonal balance, allowing extended notes to be held. The vocal cords would remain stunted in their growth, halting the formation of an adult male. It was an imperfect science of crafting the perfect singer’s body.

Others, like myself, were erected by accident.

St. Paul, the most famous of Apostles, was initially a persecutor of Christians… before seeing the light of how fun organisational bureaucracy could be. In his direct angry letters to the Corinthians, he clearly outlines an edict for the ages, mulier taceat in ecclesia, “women should be silent in church.”

Under a roof as devoutly splendid as the Sistine Chapel’s, adhering to the big daddy Apostle Paul was a must. So up until 2017, only males were to sing in the church’s choirs to preserve piety in the performance. But who was going to nail those vocal ranges of a contralto or mezzo-soprano that women did so deftly?

By the 1600s, we were essential to the success of any opera in Italy. Without us, you wouldn’t even get a write up in the local paper. They needed a famous face, puffy and pious, glossed in makeup, staring back from the poster. An Italian opera without a boy’s bloated frame clad in women’s dress, gangly limbs flopping alongside was an omission of the finest treasure of all. Yes, we were known to possess an inhuman artistic wonder no other could compare to.

One of the other boy’s fathers, a proud Italian-Australian man said to me once. ‘You are the lucky ones! People are automatically moved when you sing!’
He, of course, was referring to ancient times when we were lauded in opera seria for our especial voice. ‘You deliver visions of heroic virtue!’ He continued, gesticulating with pinched fingers.

He didn’t mention how we were mocked openly for our odd appearance and uneducated stage presence. The latter felt the only thing I knew to be automatic.

Over time we became more of a myth to those not in the know, as the practice was becoming unfavourable in a more humane world. Like messa di voce, where a note begins very softly and subtle, rises to an orgasmic climax and then fades away into obscurity, thus was our path.

By the 1800s in Italy, though publicly we were paraded for our virtuous voices, the creation of our lucky caste was hidden from even the most erudite private eye.

The most respected musicologist of the times, Charles Burnley writes:

“I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence.”

Everyone passed the buck it seemed. They wanted the beauty without the barbarism.

He goes on to lament the fact that the castration didn’t even lead to an angelic voice most the time, ‘at least without one sufficient to compensate such loss.’ The practice made worse to him by the fact he found many cases where the boys simply sounded awful, their voice a moot point.

Thanks Uncle Charlie, I’ll stay in tune for you.

So here I drive, in 2020, (a year that rings like a sci-fi future has arrived) to an audition, myself part science experiment, partly fiction.

Today I will audition for a role in Il pomo d’oro, ‘The Golden Apple’, to compensate for the lack of one in my throat. I will try for the part of l’Elemento Del Foco, ‘the Element of Fire’, to mock the tiny ember of my own desire.

As well as my own castrati brethren, I will compete against the Jarousskys of the world, sopranists and countertenors mimicking our sacrifice. Men with their vas deferens still intact who have perfected the art of imitation of what came so unnaturally to us.

My Father’s words ring truer than ever. I can picture him as he says it. A scrapbook clipping that appears every time I utilise my talent. I watch him as a 7-year-old, as he drags on a cigarette and tries to re-order a deck of bent cards by suit. As much interested in unique metaphors as praise, he scowls at me.

‘Play the cards you’re dealt, boy.’

A tired cliche, fit for all the tired tropes I live.

I hope I get the part. I’ll sing my heart out for my Father, his drunken wrist & cruel blade.

What else am I gonna do with this gift?

Judge Santiago Burdon

Women Always Leave Me

 She was putting on her jacket getting ready to head out.

“Where did I put my goddamn keys?” she hollers from the other room.

I was sure her question was rhetorical so I didn’t answer, fearing I might receive a response marinated in anger. I just sat on the couch and continued watching TV. Next I could hear her throwing shit around the kitchen, shouting profanities, pounding on the countertop, all of this accompanied by intermittent groans of frustration.

“Have you seen my keys?” she whines, her voice resonating throughout our small apartment. “I could’ve sworn I just had them…”

Suddenly she’s standing right before me, and blocking my view of the set.

“Are you gonna answer me?” she demands. “What’s your fucking problem?”

Now it’s obvious the question was intended for me to respond.

“No love, I haven’t seen them,” I reply, adopting a sympathetic tone. “Would you like for me to help you look?”

“If it wouldn’t be too much of a chore.”

As I get up to assist in her search, she goes to turn off the TV, to ensure I won’t be distracted. As slaps the power button, we both the familiar jingle of keys as they drop from her hand onto the floor.

“I believe I’ve solved the mystery of where your keys are,” I say while laughing. “They’ve been in your hand this whole entire time. I’ve done the same thing more than once myself. It’s your mind playing tricks on you, letting you know that you’re only one step away from insanity.”

“It’s not funny,” she snaps. “So you’re saying I suffer from some type of mental deficiency?”

“No, that’s not what I meant. All I was trying to do…”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Just having one of those days when everything feels off-kilter. And no, don’t you dare ask if I’m on my period!”

“When have I ever acted in such an insensitive manner?” I ask. “You talk to me as though I’m some college frat boy. A dim-witted  shit for brains with the manners of an inbred hillbilly. What have I done, or most likely not have done, to cause you to treat me with such contempt?”

“Santi, I need to know what we’re doing!” she says. “Where we’re going? There’s no plans for our future. It’s the same routine over and over. It’s no fun anymore. Are you going to be a drug-crazed addict your entire life? Are we going to stay together? Do you love me?”

“Jesus Christ Jess, which question do you want me to not have an answer for first? Come here, sit down. Let’s talk about this and see if we can possibly come up with some answers to your questions.”

“Oh no you don’t! You’re not going to pull that shit on me! I know exactly what you’re doing, you silver tongued con-man. I’m savvy to your used car salesman pitch. I’ve witnessed you convince someone you owed money into not only feeling guilty for asking for payment, but they end up lending  you more on top.”

She had me pegged. I’d planned to sweet talk her into a state of tranquility, knowing that eventually she’d drop the subject.

“Jessica, why the hell are you still here with me if you’re so displeased by our current arrangement? You act as though it’s a deplorable lifestyle and I’m the cause for your every touch of sadness. There aren’t any bars or chains preventing you from leaving. You’re not a hostage or prisoner being kept against your will. You can’t just bushwhack me with all these questions, expecting me to have answers for the future. I’m not a fucking psychic. If you’re unhappy with me and the way things are, put your ass on the tracks, leave, take the Midnight Train back to Georgia and your ex-husband. There won’t be any hard feelings or harsh remarks whatsoever.”

“But Santi, I love you… Why can’t we live a normal life and be happy, grow old together? We could travel through Mexico, Central and South America like you promised. Your addiction is out of control and getting harder for us to afford. I’m not peddling my ass on the street anymore and I want you to get clean. Is that too much to  hope for?”

Honestly, I didn’t know how Jessica had tolerated this lifestyle for as long as she had. I would’ve laid odds she’d have been a memory long time ago already.

Women always leave me. I’ve had dogs that stayed with me longer than any woman I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. If I wasn’t so sure they’d been to blame in most instances, perhaps I’d start to consider that I might be the reason for their departure.

“The only normal I’m aware of is in Illinois,” I tell her, “and no way I’m going back there. I’m not saying our lifestyle is typical behavior, but you knew the circumstances before getting involved. I’m correct, right?”

For some unknown reason, women make it their priority to change a man after becoming romantically involved. They don’t fall in love with the man you are but with the man they want you to be. She knew what the box contained before she opened it. I’m aware that I may not be a dream gift, although I’m certainly not a consolation prize either. My baggage has always been perfectly transparent. I’ve made no excuses for my indiscretions or for relationships that have gone awry in the past. True, I may be far from perfect, and possibly a bit crazier than most would care to realize, but I am what and who I am.

“I know, Santi,” she says. “I just never thought I’d ever feel the way I do for you now. You’re so smart, you’re funny and make me laugh. You have so much potential and it hurts me to see you wasting it. Plus, you’re easy on the eyes, even good looking I’d say most of the time.”

“Saying ‘you have potential’ is just another way of saying ‘you’re not as dumb as you look.’ I don’t know what you want from me. What do you want me to do? I’m not going into another rehab program. Rehab is for quitters, and I’m no quitter!”

“How can you joke at a time like this?”

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a question for you. Why do you have all those keys? Did you buy a car? Get a job as a maintenance woman or a real estate agent or something? And where are you heading off to this early in the morning?”

“Early in the morning? It’s five in the afternoon, dumbass, and I’ve been working at Jeff’s Pub for the last five days. I told you I quit being a prostitute. I have the keys because I open and close the bar sometimes. Oh yeah, and Jeff doesn’t want you to come in when I’m working. You forgot I was working there, didn’t you? Perfect example of your apathy concerning our relationship.”

“I didn’t forget, I’m just unable to recall.”

“Ya, I’m sure. I’ve gotta go, babe. Don’t go pawning the TV for dope! I bought it so we could watch movies together. Well, so do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you love me?”

“Did you misplace your keys again? This all started because you couldn’t find your keys. Let’s not go through this again. Yes, I love you.”

She gives me a long sweet kiss goodbye and sashays out the door.

I entered a rehabilitation program two days later. Jessica came to visit on Wednesdays and Sundays, but after about a month she never returned. I stayed for ninety days and got clean. Entered a halfway house, but that’s the worst place to attempt to quit using. The main goal for most residents is to go on getting high while hiding it from the administration, so I left after a week because I wanted to stay clean.

I never heard from or saw Jessica again. Later Jeff told me she ran off with the apartment manager, Harry, Larry, Terry or whatever the fuck was his name.

Women always leave me.