Joseph Farley


Andrew was lost. His GPS was not working right and the paper map, well it was too big to unravel while driving. The road was narrow and winding. The sun had gone down faster than he’d expected, lost behind tree-covered mountains, their leaves burning autumnal orange and red. It was dark now and getting darker. Andrew switched on the car’s high beams. He was far from the big city. There were no street lamps, and the space between lighted buildings was counted in miles. There might be a small cluster of buildings, a dilapidated barn and a few house, with a name such as The Village of Potluck. Lone houses were perched on the side of mountains, looking as if they were about to collapse onto the road or slide into the valley below. The road was supposedly two lanes, but any vehicle approaching in the opposite direction posed a challenge.

So much for short cuts,” Andrew thought, promising himself that he would stick to major roads in the future.

He looked for a place to pull over, but could find no spot that was not rock or guardrail or a plunge into a creek bed. He could have pulled into one of the dirt and gravel roads that led directly to one the cliff dwelling homes, but the numerous “No Trespassing” signs made him uncomfortable doing so. Andrew did not know what gun toting madman might rush out a house to take a potshot at his Porche.

The car was not as valuable as it looked, being second hand. Still, it had cost him enough and he did not want it to suffer any more damage than this mountain road had already caused. He already felt the gears were not shifting as smoothly as before the car had started to climb and plummet this endless series of hills.

Andrew had gone to Hagerstown, Maryland for the weekend to visit his old college roommate, Chester Kunitz for a barbecue. He had begged off many previous invitations, but had finally accepted, making the long drive to Hagerstown from Fort Washington.. He had not seen Chester since their days together at the University of Pennsylvania. The excursion had proven a lot of fun. It was much better seeing Chester and his wife in person rather than simply exchanging messages on Facebook. Everything would have gone fine if Andrew had not mentioned that he was heading to Albany after the barbecue for a week long trade conference on industrial adhesives. A neighbor of Chester’s, a Silas or Cyrus something, big man with albino white hair and pink lips, had overheard the remark. This Silas had suggested a wonderful shortcut. He had written down directions for Andrew, said it would save him an hour at least. Andrew had thanked him. He had been the foolish to trust that man. Now Andrew believed this Silas had a cruel sense of humor. If he ever saw that man, Silas, again, Andrew would clock him good.

Even with his high beams, Andrew could not see more than ten feet ahead. The road twisted too much, and trees blocked his view of oncoming cars. Branches kept scraping his roof and windshield. All he could do was drive slow and watch for lights coming through the trees, or dancing on the road. His red Porche was built for speed, but the wooded mountain terrain had neutralized his gas pedal.

Andrew was looking for a place to pull over and study his map. When he saw lights from a small town, he felt relieved. If he could find out where he was, maybe he could figure out how to get back on one of the numbered highways that crisscrossed the state. As he approached town, he looked for a sign with a name of the place. He could not find one. He did find a history marker for a cabin that had been burned down during the French and Indian War, a family of settlers was killed. That sort of thing might be interesting to some folks, but Andrew was not in the mood for trivia. No. He wanted to get his bearings, and get back on track for Albany.

It was not much of a town. Just a few houses and small business crowded around a spot where two unnamed road intersected. Andrew saw a gas station with two pumps. A sign reading Rickert’s Service Station was lit, so were the lights in the office. Andrew pulled in. A bell rang as the Porche’s tires rolled over a hose stretched across the driveway. Andrew checked the gas gauge. He could use some gas, but directions were what he really needed.

A rectangular metal sign swinging on a chain said full service. Andrew pulled his car up next to a pump. He shut off the engine and waited. No one came out of the office. Andrew honked the car horn. Still no one came out. He leaned forward over the steering wheel, trying to get a better glimpse through the glass at the office. He did not see anyone in there. He hoped the station was not closed, that the lights had not been left on by accident. Maybe, the attendant was just in the men’s room. He honked again, hoping this would make the attendant speed his business. His eyes were focused on the door and window of the office. He waited. There was no motion.

He gave up and started the engine. Just then, Andrew noticed a thin man in blue jeans, and a checkered cloth jacket standing nearby. The man was staring at his car. The man was thin, and dirty looking, with short hair on his head and sparse whiskers on his chin..

Andrew rolled down his car window.

Excuse me?” he asked. “Do you work here?”

The man pointed at himself and shook his head. He started to come closer to the car.

Is this place open?” Andrew asked..

The pumps are on,” the man said. “But the owner’s not around.”

Then how can I get some gas?”

The man’s lips formed a thin grin.

I’ll pump the gas for you. How much do you want?”

I thought you said you didn’t work here?”

I don’t work here. I’m just covering for the owner while he’s on a hunting trip.”

Oh, okay.”

Andrew handed the man two twenty dollar bills.

The man asked, “Do you want the whole forty’s worth?”

Yeah,” Andrew said. “Super.”

Okay,” said the man in the checkered jacket. He walked with the twenty in his hand over to the office. He opened the door and went inside. A few seconds later he emerged and started walking back towards the car.

Andrew popped the release for the gas tank. The man unscrewed the cap, and place it on the roof of the car. He took the pump nozzle from its hook and stuck it in the tank. The pump began to ring up gallons and dollars.

What’s this town called?”

The man looked up from his work, and saw Andrew leaning out the window.

Bumblefuck,” he said. “That’s what they should call it. They call the part of Pennsylvania between the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh ‘Bumblefuck’. The locals don’t call it that. They just call it home. It’s the city folk who call it Bumblefuck when they find themselves stuck there. They call it Bumblefuck because its backwards and boring and stupid enough to drive you up a wall. The kind of place that make a city person just go bonkers.”

You just called it Bumblefuck, so I guess you’re not from around this way?”

No,” said the man eyeing Andrew. “Like you, I’m not from around here. Not originally. I prefer the big cities, a place where it is hard to stand out if you look or act a bit peculiar. A place where you can find people in the streets or in 24 hour diners at any time day or night. I should never have come here. The place just gets under my skin.”

I hear you,” Andrew nodded. “But can you tell me the name of this town?”

The locals call it Hetzburg. There used to be a sign, but it was knocked down by fuel truck five or six years ago, and wasn’t fit for use anymore. No one in town wanted to cough up the money for a new sign, so there’s been no sign since the. Hetzburg is one of those places most people blink and pass through in the mountains northwest of Harrisburg. Not many people pass through unless they are on their way to see the Nittany Lions play or visit one of the smaller colleges hidden away up here and have programmed their GPS to find a slow and scenic route.”

The road had not seemed very scenic to Andrew.

Do you know how to get to Route 220, or 219 or 522 from here?”

The man shook his head.

I have not been here that long, and I don’t have a car, so I am not familiar with the names of all the roads, but if I were to ride with you I think I could tell you when to turn and when to go straight.”

Andrew did not like the fellows eyes. His whole expression was odd. Andrew did not like the thought of having the man in his car.

Thanks for the offer, but I can’t put you out like that,” Andrew said. “You would have to get a ride back.”

Suit yourself.”

Andrew checked his watch. It looked like he was going to have to change his plans. He would not be able to drive on these back roads all night. It could be the death of him. He asked, “Is there a motel around here?”

The man shook his head.

How about a place to eat?”

There’s what passes for a restaurant, but just barely. I’ll never go back there to eat. The service is terrible. If you drive by you will see it looks empty. The sign may say open, but if you go in there you”ll wait forever for that waitress to show up. She is mighty slow.

Andrew grinned, “Slow can be good. How old is she?”

Maybe thirty five, forty, something in that range.”

Much of a looker?”

The man turned his head cockeyed and twisted from side to side..

She don’t look too bad. Red head.”

The man’s eyes suddenly widened.

You must be some kind of player asking all these questions about that waitress, one smooth operator.”

Andrew chuckled, because it was true.

Oh? “ said the man, chuckling as well. “You’re like that. You are a player. I could tell from your eyes. I didn’t want to say, but I knew. You are one of those guys who is always on the prowl. Same here.”

The man made his finger into a gun.

Bang! Chalk up another one.”

The man drew a hash mark in the air with a finger.

Andrew smiled broadly.

The man pointed at Andrew’s face.

You smile. Is that how it is? Heh-heh. I know the feeling”

He leaned towards Andrew and flashed a row of dirty teeth.

We’re birds of a feather. Bet you together we could knock them ladies dead.”

Andrew kept smiling, but only to be polite. The comparison of himself with this Bumbefuck oddball sickened him.

What else is there in this town besides a crummy restaurant and a gas station?” Andrew asked.

There used to be a bar just outside of town, but it burned down last week. A real tragedy because it is over twenty five miles to the next bar. Other than that, there is an animal feed store that also sells some people food, but they’re closed for repairs. There’s a hunting and fishing supply store stocked full of shotguns and semiautomatics, but that’s not open at this time of night. There’s maybe a dozen houses in the town proper, at most, and there’s the church.”

The man gestured to a shape that could be dimly seen in the lights from the service station. It was a white clapboard church with a worn and weary look.

Andrew said, gesturing to the church, “I guess that’s the main attraction.”

There are no attractions in Hetzburg,” the man said. There’s nothing for a man in a hurry to see.” He shook his head. “Nope. No one pays attention to anything or anyone here unless they are from Hetzburg or related to someone in Hetzburg. That does not add up to a lot of folks looking this way. That’s one of the nice things about this town. No one from outside gives a damn what goes on here.” The man grinned, “That’s one of the few things I like about this town. No prying eyes.”

The man finished pumping the gas. He pulled the nozzle out of the tank, and screw the cap back in. He closed the tank cover, and carried the nozzle back to its perch on the pump. The man stood there with his back towards Andrew. He continued talking, but now in a lower voice.

Across the street from the restaurant, a taxidermist has a shop. The window is full of dead things, stuffed yet lively. There a turkey vulture and a raccoon and a rabbit that will never see Easter. I’ve been inside, just once. Didn’t need to go back twice. There were plenty of dead moose and deer heads mounted on the wall, big bucks, five points or more, a small black bear and one snarling cougar that probably came from out of state. Plenty of glass eyes staring at you when you talk to the old man who runs the place. I think his name was Cullen. All those eyes watching might have made someone else feel uncomfortable, but not me. It reminded me of nightclubs back east in Philly or up in New York, dark places filled with glazed eyes.” The man sighed. “All those dead eyes. I miss them.”

The man grew quiet for a time, then started up again, turning towards Andrew.

You see there’s not much around here. No reason for me to stick around. No reason for you to stick around. Just fill your tank and move on. Bob Rickert used to run the station, offered me a job when I arrived in town. Then hunting season started, and he was gone. Hunting is big out here.” He laughed. “It was really big this year. When hunting season rolled around it emptied out the town. There’s nothing like blood sports to get the ticker going and fill you with a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

The man closed his eyes and shook his head. “Yeah. It’s been a good season so far, but now that everyone is out in the woods, it feels lonesome being around here. I don’t like that feeling. Yeah, this town is dead. I think I’m about ready to move on. No more Bumblefuck for me. I’ve had enough.”

Andrew agreed, “Maybe you should move on.”

The man half raised his eyelids. Andrew could feel the man staring at him.

You think so?” the man smiled. “Too bad I don’t have a car.”

The man started to laugh.

Andrew did not like that laugh. He reached over to close the window, but he was not fast enough.

It was a week before the county sheriff received enough pestering calls from worried relatives to drive out to Hetzburg. It took another month for the state police to find all the bodies. Newspaper headlines raged about the “Hetzburg Massacre.” There were no suspects, and no trail to follow.

Some of the victims were found in shallow graves in the woods behind the service station. Some were found laying in their homes or businesses. Others were found in the church basement. Most had been shot at close range. There were 28 victims in all, the entire population of Hetzburg, plus one unknown salesman without wallet or I.D., who was passing through Bumblefuck and did not have sense to step on the gas.  

Matthew Licht


Heroin clears the mind, but clogs the colon.

Laxatives are still legal, but the pharmaceutical industry keeps the good stuff under reserve, for addicts who can pay.

The Beverly Hills drugstore looked like the motherlode. Socialites floated in and out of the place on dream-clouds of lost weight and shrink-wrapped designer clothes.

Please dispense the true cleanser this time, Mister Pharmacist. I’m hurting bad. Honest.

But there was no dignified gent in a starched labcoat behind the prescriptions counter. Instead, a young woman.

“May I help you, sir?”

Her tone suggested she knew what I needed. Her thick glasses were X-ray Spex that saw through junkie-vampire mendacity.

Junkies, like dogs who defecate anywhere, have no dignity. “Laxatives, please, Miss. The extra-strength kind. Make that extra-extra-strength.”

She briefly searched the shelves behind her and drew out a little white cardboard coffin. She tapped the package with a fingertip.

“Federal law requires us to sell protective clothing in conjunction with this product, sir. Do you have a prescription?”

“Look, skip it. Give me a gross of the regular crap. And uh, while you’re at it, do you carry Extra-Small condoms?”

She had Extra-Small condoms. They’re the same as regular ones, just like Extra-Large. She exposed this advertising scam aimed at humiliation freaks and megalomaniacs with the ruler she kept by the register.

“You don’t need prophylactics,” she said. “You’re an addict who has a place to live and a well-paid profession. Let me guess: you like jazz.”

“I like to mind my own business.”

She lowered her chin. “All right, has it been two weeks since your last bowel movement, sir? If so, we can dispense with the prescription, for humanitarian reasons. Long periods without release make a person edgy, and rude.”

She slid the packet across the counter. A medicinal name was spelled out in bold block letters and Braille dots. There were no eye-catching colorful swirls, bikini girls or slogans.

“Shit like a bird!”

“Dump like a truck!”

She rested her elbows on the counter. A button on her labcoat popped. She hunched to smash her breasts together. I was so far gone, I lunged for the caca-tablets.

“Look mister, I want to help you. Even though you can still afford your drugs and don’t have health problems that are exacerbated by opiate misuse, you’re headed for trouble. Even worse than constipation.”

“What could be worse?”

“Legal shit, for starters. It’s a slippery slope, and pills are just more dope. Let nature resume its proper course. Give up heroin to achieve release.”

“Sounds romantic. But I’m in love with heroin. I tried to live without Her. It doesn’t work. I couldn’t work. I’d have been an unemployed wreck, if I kept it up.”

She took back the slim package. “Let me show you something different, sir. See those refrigerator cabinets by the far wall? That’s the security cameras’ blind spot. Meet me there. This isn’t for public entertainment.”

In the drugstore’s cold dark zone, she squatted and pretended to show me where the cream sodas were. There was nothing under her labcoat but skin.

She said she knocked off at 7 p.m.

For the rest of the afternoon, I had something to think about besides how long till the next shot.

Heroin’s a jealous wife. My wrist shook when I checked my watch to see whether there was time to drive home, park, make sure my agent or some studio bigwig hadn’t left phone messages, unpack the works stashed in the First Aid kit in the bathroom, hang my jacket on the hook the decorator installed, roll up my sleeve, tie off with the condom-colored surgical tube, insert the sterilized Ever-Sharp syringe into the ulcer-hole in the crook of my elbow which is why I never roll up my long-sleeve Hawaiian shirts in public, not even on Santa Ana days, and feel what keeps me, thousands like me and millions less fortunate than me hooked full-time. The agony of stool retention dematerialized like peace-pipe smoke from a Ghost Dance ceremony in the desert beyond the Hollywood Hills.

Can’t even puke anymore.

Reverse the ritual, disinfect the wound that never heals, put the drug-toys away, ooze out to the car and drive back to the pharmacy.

Eyelids roll down like flesh-colored window-shades in a depressing motel to soften a pornographic sunset. One of the wonderful things about skag is that it leaves you lucid, fully aware and concentrated on what matters most in a drug-induced life where everything makes sense.

OK, you’re stoned out of your mind.

She was already in the parking lot, in her car, reading a book: a hardback, not some drugstore bestseller. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, a book I was supposed to have read before I dropped out of college. I skipped through to the chapter that’s supposed to be about coke.

Junk later cleared that peculiar passage’s message.

The zombie approached, rapped on her window. She stuck the novel in the glove compartment, opened up and taught a refresher course in car dates as the drugstore’s parking lot emptied.

 “Let’s move it to my car,” I said, when it was dark. “There’s more room, and tinted windows in back.”

“Women feel more comfortable in their own space, mister. How long has it been since you were with a woman?”

“You saying I’ve lost the touch?”

“Let me show you.”

The demonstration was like being slowly crushed by a python of pussy. “Gonna burn away everything you’ve got,” she whispered. “You won’t want anything but what I give you. Squeeze inside me twice to let me know you understand and agree.”

There was no other way to express thoughts that weren’t even mine.

The bliss that you don’t exist. Then even the bliss disappears and you fade out.

She didn’t tell me where she lived. She made me come back to the drugstore to pick her up after work, and she was always late.

No dope lectures. Instead, the silent treatment, as wet, warm and dark as being born again, only this time it was a conscious crawl down the twelve steps that led from car dates to a night at her place, no matter how far that was from the First Aid kit at home.

Her place was Step Five or Six.

She taught me I hadn’t learned anything from years of drug-assisted service to The Motion Picture Industry.

She lent me her copy of The Magic Mountain when she was done with it. Fifth time around, she said, and the story only gets better.

The guy in the book winds up at a swank TB resort even though he isn’t sick, and falls in love with a woman who’s dying. She shows him her X-ray, and outlines her heart with her finger. Then she points out her shadowy lungs, which are full of some pulpy crud that wants to kill her.

At that point, I hadn’t enjoyed a shot in days. She made me retain body fluids at critical moments, while she gushed from a bottomless reservoir.

The lady in the novel dies real gory.

This literary Liebestod packed visceral whallop. I dropped the book, slammed the bathroom door and sat down without even a sideways glance at the First Aid Kit.

The pile was a magic mountain, and it was real. The creation was a product of love, or at least of going through the physical motions. But the emotion was there. Love flowed through my veins and intestines in the form of light. An astral body that used to be me levitated up, up and away.

Never felt that way about a finished script or the subsequent box office smash, or flop.

An enlightened human being picked her up at the drugstore at sunset. Beams of invisible warm love streamed from my eyes, mouth and ass. She looked into my eyeholes. A junkie no longer, or not that kind of junkie. But I wasn’t free, never was, never wanted to be. She put a hand over my mouth when I started to say I love you.

“You’ve still got a lot to lose,” she said.

Otto Burnwell

Tarzan’s Torments

She had Gordo playing Tarzan every time his mother called her over to “babysit.” Gordo was too old for a babysitter, but just old enough for an ankle monitor. Part of his parole, and it kept him out of juvey. Gordo was impressionable, what his mother called “young for his age.” She wanted someone older in the house to keep him out of trouble.

Tarzan’s Torments is what the babysitter called it, with Gordo as Tarzan, and her playing a lion or an alligator or a python or a cannibal warrior or antelope priestess or whatever. She always mixed it up.

But it meant Tarzan would be naked, tied to a chair or chained to the ottoman, dangling from mom’s chin-up bar wedged in the closet doorframe, or stretched out on the ironing board. Sometimes Tarzan had to be the sacrifice to a ravenous animal, or the main course for an after-battle feast. Tarzan had to fetch his own ropes and chains from the garage while she stripped off her clothes and left them piled in the bathroom.

The cannibal warrior would use one of dad’s best paint brushes to baste Tarzan with canola oil, pinching and squeezing Tarzan’s delectables, telling the gathering of imaginary diners how she planned to prepare his tastiest parts for the hungry crowd. She made him hold an apple in his teeth and greased up all kinds of cucumbers or carrots for sticking into Tarzan to see if the rump roast was ready to serve. Despite all the butter, Tarzan hated that part, and was glad when she got around to nibbling his jungle delicacies.

On nights she was the wild animal, she went straight for the nuts and sausage, which could get scary the way the lion and the alligator took his balls in her mouth, whipping her head back and forth, pretending to tear them off. Of course it was pretend. She didn’t want to be explaining how Tarzan’s bloody balls ended up detached from Tarzan and rolling on the floor.

The python was different. She would lock her legs around Tarzan’s head, her crotch mashed into Tarzan’s face. She would swivel and twist trying to crush the life out of Tarzan, which she nearly managed to do every time. Tarzan yodeled and huffed great hot breaths, inhaling her smell that reminded Gordo of tuna fish left too long on the picnic table. Tarzan’s struggles to breathe seemed to drive the python into a lashing frenzy. Once the pretend life had been totally squeezed out of Tarzan, she would slither down the length of him, stopping to taste-test him with flicks of her serpentish tongue. She’d rear up, arched to strike, then lunge, gulping him like a snake working its prey down her gullet pretending to devour him entirely, boner first.

Sometimes she’d let Tarzan buy his freedom from the cannibal warrior if he would submit to the antelope priestess who demanded Tarzan pay a tribute. Tarzan, being naked except for the ankle monitor, didn’t have anything to give the antelope priestess, so she settled for milking him for any gold or jewels he might be carrying in his scrotal sack. Sticking her finger into his rectum as far as she could reach, worming around for any hidden gold coins, made it easy for Tarzan to come up with lots of tribute.

When the babysitter finished playing Tarzan, she’d retreat to the bathroom to do her homework—she said—running the shower the whole time.

Playing Tarzan never got old. She was full of ideas. The last time they played Tarzan, the cannibal warrior drizzled Tarzan’s ass with honey, making his butt cheeks stick together. After licking up all the honey, she went to snag a shot of dad’s whiskey kept in the broom closet, leaving Tarzan spread-eagled on the dining room table. Mom came home early and that was the end of Tarzan’s Torments.

Gordo missed playing Tarzan. It took his mind off the ankle monitor.

Ben Fitts

Nostalgia Box



There’s a difference. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Need to hear it again?


I’m glad to have been able to clear that up for you. It’s important that you understand the difference moving forward. I don’t want you hearing AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA- WWWWWWWWWWHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!?!?! and thinking that you’re hearing the love of a lifetime when really all you’re hearing is plain old dirty sex.

There’s nothing wrong with plain old dirty sex, but don’t go getting it confused for the love of a lifetime. I know I have and it just leaves you feeling empty inside, like an avocado with all the yummy green gook scraped out and spread over buttered toast and leaving you nothing but the crinkly skin that contained everything you once were.

I was laying in someone else’s bed while the bed’s owner was in the shower, washing off the evidence of what we had created. You were also there. Not that we were in bed together. It’s that you were me because we’ve all been there. Just at different times and at different places and with different girls and boys and people who care not for such labels in different showers, washing different fluids down different drains with water culled from different reservoirs. But we’ve all been where I was, so everyone was me just as I was everyone else.

Sex makes us all the same like that, and AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA- WWWWWWWWWWHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!?!?! is the sound that makes equals of us all. The girl in the shower and I had been going “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWW-HHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!?!?!” all afternoon, but I was young and dumb and had mistaken it for “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!” on at least two occassions that very day. I was looking for AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! just about everywhere back then, and every now and then convincing myself that I had found it.

Rolling over into the warmth of where she just lay, I ran my eyes over the spines on the bookshelf by her bed. I shouted warm hellos to my old friends Dylan Thomas and Joyce Carol Oates and John Steinbeck. I gave friendly nods to my hazy acquaintances Virginia Wolfe and James Baldwin, but I didn’t bother introducing myself to strangers like Camus. They’d be time enough to meet them later. And for your information, Camus and I are fast friends nowadays.

Seeing all those friends and strangers packed so tightly that they’re overflowing on her narrow shelves makes me want to know everything about her. At the time, I thought that we might be drifting towards falling in AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH- HHHHHHHHH!!!!! together. You know the feeling.

I slid off the bed, scooped my boxers off her carpet and slid them on. I don’t know why, because even if she returned just then she had already seen all there is to see down there. I guess that there’s a whole level of intimacy and vulnerability to let someone see that part of you in its typical mode that simply doesn’t come with showing it to someone when it’s in high-performance mode, and that wasn’t a bridge we had really crossed yet.

With my cotton-blend chainmail covering the only part of me I still felt the need to cover, I began to investigate. The first thing that caught my private eye was a milk crate full of vinyl records nestled beneath her bed, and I bent over to flip through them.

Leading the pack was London Calling, Paul still smashing his Fender bass over forty years later. Once again I was thirteen and alone in my first bedroom, with “Clampdown” and “Brand New Cadillac” blaring through my speakers and upsetting the downstairs neighbors. I flipped through to In Utero and then I was I’m sixteen and with friends and the four of us are in smoking our first joint in someone’s mom’s basement, airing the smoke out through a dwarfish window and masking our giggles in “Pennyroyal Tea”.

The next record was The Money Store and I was eighteen and unpacking boxes in my first dorm room, introducing myself to the freshman hall with “Hustle Bones” and making eyes with a slender girl who walked by my intentionally ajar door. I browsed through her collection a moment longer, passing some other favorites before pushing the milk crate back under her bed.

It was haunting how many of my cherished memories she owned, etched into those grooves. While I was never someone who believed much in signs, it sure felt like one. I know that you’ve got those songs or albums that are inextricably linked to a cherished or despised memory, so don’t even pretend not to understand what I’m talking about.


I fumbled around under her bed until my fingers grasped a worn shoebox, and I yanked it out into the light of day cast by a dull yellow lamp. Something about the Converse shoebox told me that it no longer contained Converse, as it had the energy of a special shoebox that contained special things. Things that were even more special than a beloved pair of Chuck Taylors.

My guess was that it was a nostalgia box, filled with trinkets and knickknacks and doodads and thingamajigs that were of no value other than whatever memory-based connection they bore to her. I had a nostalgia box myself, filled with birthday cards and ticket stubs and paper programs and gaudy two-dollar purchases. I lifted the shoebox up to my face and opened it. Then I dropped it onto the floor.

The box was filled with hearts.

Some of the hearts were withered and decaying, dry and blackened. Those hearts looked as if they hadn’t pumped a drop of blood in years. Others were fresher and still had traces of color and moisture left in their tissue, and some were so fresh that they were a ruddy, glossy red and still leaked wet blood onto the shoebox.

One of the hearts was even still beating a little, the atriums gently breathing in and out. I reached into the box pulled out the beating heart, the oozing blood slicking my palm. As I lifted it up, I thought I heard a faint sound escape from the organ. I lifted the heart to my ear.


The heart beat twice more, then died in my hand and become as still as all the others. I felt a prickly sensation in my chest as I imagined my pectoral being sliced open and my own heart harvested and added to the ghoulish collection.

“What the hell are you doing?” I heard from behind me.

Still clutching the bloody heart, I turned to see the girl in the shower. Only now she had returned from the shower. So let me rephrase that: still clutching the bloody heart, I turned to see the girl recently returned from the shower. She had a white towel wrapped her from her thighs to the upper half of her breast, and she was dripping like a baptized infant.

“What the hell am I doing?” I retorted. “You’re the one with a shoebox full of old bloody hearts. What are you, some kind of serial killer?”

“No,” she said softly.

“Well, you’re not cutting my heart out in my sleep and adding it to your trophy box,” I said rising to my feet and ignoring her answer. “‘Cause guess what, I’m not as dumb as the other people you’ve fucked and I’m not letting you do that to me.”

“Those are my hearts, you dumb asshole,” she said.

“Wait, what?” I mumbled, the heart slipping out of my slackening fingers and plopping onto the floor with a wet squish.

“Those hearts are mine,” she reiterated. “They came from my chest.”

“What?” I repeated, looking at the shoebox full in varying stages of decay. “That’s impossible.”

“Wanna bet?” she said.

She dropped the towel to the carpet. Unsheathed, she stepped towards me and gestured to a spot a little above her bare left boob. Scars and stitches and slender band-aids wove an intricate pattern on her flesh in the space she revealed, over where her heart should be. I couldn’t help but wonder how I didn’t notice all of that during all the AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!?!?! Maybe it wasn’t AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! after all.

“They keep dying,” she explained. “Right in my chest, my hearts keep dying. They get one whiff of what they think is AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! and swell up bigger and stronger and bloodier than they ever were before. But the moment my hearts start to realize that they were wrong again, they begin to beat more and more faintly and shrivel away into nothing more than a useless, empty husk.”

“I still have some questions,” I admitted.

“I can feel it when they begin to fade and die. And when I feel that, I have to get rid of them,” she continued, seeming to guess my general line of questioning. “They’re gross and awful and toxic when they get like that, and I can’t have them inside of me anymore. I tear them out of me as soon as I can. It hurts each time, but you get used to it after a while.”

“But do you have like a million hearts?” I asked surveying the box. “Do you also have seven lungs and an extra clitoris?”

“No, but that last one would be nice,” she answered. “I only have one heart, or at least only heart at a time. But every time I tear a dead or dying heart out of me, another fresh one grows back in its place soon after, only for it to eventually die too and for the process to start all over again.”

“But why do you keep them all in that shoebox?”

“They’re a part of me, and they always will be,” she said, shrugging her naked shoulders. “I may have ripped them out of my body, I don’t think I could get rid of them entirely even if I wanted to. If I tried to throw them out they would just return, probably in a somehow worse condition than they already are.”

“Have you actually tried to throw them out?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But I don’t need to have tried to know that that’s what would happen.”

We fell into a stiff, heavy silence that pressed down on my chest like an incubus. I broke it just to feel light again.

“That thing you talked about before, when you said that before your hearts start to die they get bigger and bigger and stronger and full of more blood than they were before,” I said. “It seemed like that part was a good thing. Is your heart like that now?”

“No, you can relax,” she said conversationally. “You didn’t make my current heart swell up and you don’t have to worry about making it eventually wither and die either. This is just AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!?!?! You know that.”

“Oh, ok,” I mumbled.

I felt a tightness in my chest as my heart began to contract, and to beat just a little bit fainter.

Smoking Herb & Other Stories, By John D Robinson

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John D. Robinson returns with ‘Smoking Herb & Other Stories’, his first collection of short fiction from Analog Submission Press.

A5 saddle stitched chapbook. Lovingly handmade, hand stamped, and hand numbered. 3 stories over 20 pages. Limited to 25 copies. Printed on an old Canon laser printer we found abandoned at a dump site.

Out April 10th. Pre-orders welcomed. £4.00 + shipping.


David Sprehe

Dog’s Day

Sunday. God’s day. Misty, gorgeous, redheaded, freckle speckled Misty, naked and on her knees, spread out a large stained blanket on the living room floor. Jesus, her German Shepard, watched, tongue out, thick bushy tail thumping the green carpet. Misty hadn’t bathed since Friday and her crotch put off a killer reek. Jesus whined. A shudder ran up his spine and down his front paws. He gave a muffled, frustrated woof.

Misty giggled, and wagged her jiggly ass.

Peeking over her shoulder, she saw Jesus’s pink cock rocket poking from its sheath. She crawled over, and gave the tip a lick. Precum spurted in her mouth. She tongued his wet nose, tasting dog snot, then crab crawled back, bitch giving a teaser. Jesus leaned into the smell. She laid out on the blanket, propping pillows under her ass. She spread her legs.

“Come, Jesus,” she said.

Eager Jesus shot over. Breath caught in Misty’s throat as Jesus painted her slit with his slobber, his long, wide tongue rolling along with master artistry.

“Good boy, Jesus, oh fuck, good boy Jesus, lick mommy, oh good, good boy,” she said squeezing her droopy titties and thinking of suckling pups, thinking of love and Holiest Sweet God in a woman’s best buddy. Jesus’s tongue tickled her butthole. She squeaked.

Her toes started in to curl. Her stomach reddened, prickling along her folds. She put her hands under Jesus’s snout and lifted his head.

“Mount,” she said.

Jesus stepped over her legs, his penis unsheathed and quivering like plucked guitar string. Drops of stanky, goopy pre-seminal drippage wetted her bushy crotch. She wrapped her legs around his rump and guided his pulsing cock with her hands. His heat entered her, fever-like heat spreading up through her guts. Jesus collapsed on top of her. His dog dick knotted, swelling. Spooge flowed, filling her cunt.

“I’m your bitch, Jesus. Breed,” she said. Jesus’s wiener stretched her pussy, like a white-hot sun expanding inside her, until, moaning, they tied off, woman and canine locked in a cock-poon clutch. Tingles ran over Misty. She wiggled, and farted. Warmth of gushing seminal fluid, dog nestled between her sagging tits. Jesus licked her face. She played with her clit, swollen hot dog dong inside, her finger motions, and stroking her lover’s fur, digging her nails back along her lover’s skin. Her chin dripped with Jesus’s spit. Her ass tensed, rhythmic pelvis motion, rubbing her belly against his. She held his head and licked his mouth, licked his teeth, his gums, dancing tongues, sucking spit and dog breath, her body beaded in sweat. Heaven is a place on earth.

Misty’s fuck hole filled, Jesus’s dick shrank. Jesus backed up, and began lapping the overflow. Misty smiled, rubbing Jesus’s head, her bladder releasing on a residual twitch, urine dribbling onto the pillows. Jesus loved her piss.

“Perfect angels,” she said propped on her elbow and playing with her nipple. Jesus knitted his eyebrows and looked up at her.

“Our puppies would be angels.”

Leah Mueller

The Proposition

If your uncle yammers for hours about alcoholism, and how it fucked up the entire family, you don’t expect him to take you to a dive bar afterward.

Crazy Scorpio guy. Henry was obsessive and had the goods on everybody. The previous evening, he’d driven me around my grandmother Mildred’s neighborhood, pointing out the hidden skeletons behind every door. Mildred lived in the wealthy North Bay section of Racine, Wisconsin. She played bridge with Johnson Wax executives and voted a straight Republican ticket.

Henry pulled up in front of the most expensive house on the block and idled for a full minute. “Real can of worms in this place,” he said, without elaborating.

Mildred seemed happy to go to the bar with us, though she usually drank at home. She’d nursed her second husband through senility until the bitter end and was having a great time without him. I didn’t blame her. Henry Sr., a racist, sleazy dentist, had a bad temper and a poor sense of humor. All of us were better off with him gone.

At 29, I was always glad to visit a bar, even one in Racine. Henry had talked non-stop since I arrived at Mildred’s house two nights beforehand. I’d paid her an impromptu visit, just so I could flee Chicago for the weekend. As soon as I saw Henry, I regretted my decision, but now it was too late.

Aunt Donna had left Henry for another man, so he’d gone home to live with his mother. My uncle’s old bedroom featured zebra skin rugs and African spears. Mildred’s twisted idea of  boy’s room décor. She’d picked up these items during transcontinental excursions, when her son was still young and impressionable.

Henry married Donna, his high school sweetheart, a couple of days after graduation. The two of them looked like two mid-1960s caricatures of young adults. Henry sported a stylish crew cut and Donna wore tight capris. They adored each other.

This arrangement sufficed for many years, until the couple’s inevitable midlife crisis. Donna went nuts, drinking and crying and screaming and fucking other men. She had a breakdown and spent a few weeks in a mental hospital.

Henry had already devoted several hours to the task of warning me about the destruction alcohol wreaked upon families. A bar would be a nice change of pace. I climbed in the back of Mildred’s Lincoln Continental and stared out the window.

My uncle fidgeted in the passenger seat. “You sure you want to go?” A weaselly attempt to walk back the invitation and avoid responsibility. Typical Henry behavior.

Mildred smirked. “Of course, or we wouldn’t be here.” She turned the key, and her engine roared to life.

We headed straight downtown and pulled up in front of a dive. Multicolored neon lights shone on the hood of my grandmother’s Lincoln. Mildred killed the engine and climbed from her vehicle, slamming the door. “I’m ready for a drink.”

“Don’t worry, I’m buying.” Henry sidled up to the bar and waved his hands until the bartender came over. The poor man looked ancient. Most likely the owner, but jobs were scarce in Racine.

“Um, O’Doul’s for me,” Henry said. “Mother?”

“I will have a Manhattan,” Mildred said, in the imperious tone she reserved for drink orders.

The bartender glanced at me, and I deliberated. “You got Point on tap? I’ll take one, please.”

The delicious local brew sold in Madison’s college bars for two bucks a pitcher during happy hour. I didn’t share Mildred’s love of hard liquor, preferring to drink for quantity.

On the other hand, my grandmother could really put it away. She tossed back her Manhattan and signaled for another. The aged bartender picked up a bottle and a glass and began his arduous task of pouring and mixing.

Mildred’s eyes traveled down the bar and came to rest upon a middle-aged man. He sat at the far end, nursing a can of Old Style. Handsome but tired-looking, the fellow appeared to be in his late 50’s. At least 20 years younger than Mildred, who planned to celebrate her 80th birthday in April.

My grandmother already had a new boyfriend named Clay—a millionaire who took her dancing every Friday. Mildred had made no promises of fidelity. She leaned over the bar and squeezed my arm. “He’s cute,” she said in a stage whisper. “Don’t you think so?”

“I guess.” I gazed down at my glass. Henry had revealed that Mildred was almost broke. She’d burned through two million dollars and was down to her last $100,000. It still seemed like a lot of money to me. My college fund had gone into my grandparents’ expensive liquor glasses, a few dollars at a time.

College was bullshit anyway. I took a gulp of beer and stared straight ahead. Harry sat on my left and nursed his can of O’Doul’s. He appeared to be deep in thought. It was a welcome switch from his usual mindless chatter.

Suddenly, Mildred draped her body across the bar’s Formica surface and gestured towards the man. “Hey, handsome,” she slurred.

Looking startled, the man raised his head and slowly rotated in her direction. Mildred flashed him a lascivious grin. “What are your feelings about oral sex?”

My grandmother’s voice was so loud that the bartender almost dropped her Manhattan. Undeterred, Mildred continued to lounge on the counter like an octopus, her long limbs scattered willy-nilly amongst the ashtrays and empty glasses.

The man’s eyes grew huge, and his mouth fell open. After a moment, he composed himself. “It depends.”

Henry burst into laughter. He set down his beer can and covered his mouth with his hands, but the guffaws escaped through his fingers anyway. Rivulets of beer streamed from his nose.

I gaped at Mildred, horrified. The concept of her as a sexual being had never occurred to me. Like a couple in a 1960s sitcom, she and Henry Sr. had shared separate beds for years. I’d often helped my grandmother clean the conjugal bedroom. She’d tried, in vain, to teach me how to construct hospital corners with her crisp, imported sheets.

Mildred shrugged. “I need to visit the ladies’ room. Be right back.” She rose to her feet and staggered towards the rear of the bar.

I leaned towards Henry. “I’m afraid she came on a bit too strong.”

Henry emitted a final snort, then shook his head. “She prefers the direct approach.”

I swiveled on my barstool and turned my back on Mildred’s would-be paramour. Most likely, he didn’t relish the sight of our dysfunctional family—three generations of social misfits, all lined up and staring at him like vultures. The poor guy was entitled to some privacy.

After a moment, Mildred wandered back into the room. She sank into her seat, then rotated in a clockwise direction, hoping to attract the man’s attention again. Feeling apprehensive, I allowed my eyes to travel slowly towards his end of the bar. I didn’t want him to think Mildred’s seduction was a family affair—some sort of unholy foursome, too ghastly to imagine.

His seat was empty. An abandoned can of Old Style remained on the counter, beside a half-drained glass. The man had tucked a couple of dollars underneath an ashtray and wandered off into the winter’s night.

My grandmother sighed. “I guess he got cold feet.” She raised a hand and signaled the bartender. “Another Manhattan, please.”

The bartender scuttled towards the sink for another glass. His face assumed an implacable expression. The man had undoubtedly seen some weird shit during his years behind the bar. “A bit stronger this time,” Mildred snapped. “The last one was weak.”

“I think you scared that poor fellow,” I said.

“Who? The guy at the end of the bar? He wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.” Mildred accepted her drink from the bartender and took a hearty gulp. “That’s all right. I’ll find someone who will.”

I didn’t doubt it. Mildred always got what she wanted, one way or another. In an hour or so, we’d return to her palatial home. The Lincoln would idle on my grandmother’s pink driveway for a few seconds. Then Mildred would guide her vehicle into the garage and retire to her pink bedroom.

The woman loved pink, and she finally had it all to herself—as soon as Henry Jr. moved into his new apartment. Friday was only a few days away. Clay would come over with a dozen roses and his usual invitation for a steak dinner and ballroom dancing. Meanwhile, in the dark of her bedroom, Mildred might conjure up an image of her fantasy lover. If she even cared or managed to remember.

Matthew Licht

Take It Off and Say Goodbye

Derek’s girlfriend Yvonne was a stripper. She danced two nights a week at Joe Rae’s, on 6th Avenue and 24th Street. Joe Rae took one look and gave her Fridays and Saturdays. She also danced out in Queens, and at another place in Jersey City. She kept her tits and ass busy.

Derek and I worked together, but we weren’t bankers or lawyers or doctors. We were editors at a weekly sex newspaper.

Derek was of medium height, skinny, dressed in black. He wore near-opaque sunglasses, even at night. There used to be a million guys like him in New York. I always thought Yvonne should’ve been involved with someone more interesting. Like me, for instance.

Yvonne’s hair was like neatly stacked marine rope. She was from Illinois, and had a bit of a heroin problem. She’d nod off at odd times and there was a slight, constant trickle from her upturned nose, but it didn’t seem like anything to go into rehab about.

As the sex newspaper’s Art Director, my job was to look at pussy all day. That wasn’t enough, so I went to Joe Rae’s topless bar nearly every night. There’s a big difference between pictures and the real thing, even if all you get to do is look. Though it wasn’t strictly legal, Joe Rae’s girls would pull aside their G-strings for a dollar. If they’d seen you around, or if they liked your face, they’d work finger-magic. Some nights, a low-tide tang clung to my beard like fog.

Pussy’s nice to look at. I guess I like looking at it more than dealing with it. But it wasn’t just pussy that kept me coming back to Joe Rae’s. I really loved his place.

Joe Rae was an old hippie, even older than me. He stuffed the jukebox with Cream, Hendrix and the Stones. Some of the dancers complained there was no disco or Latin. Joe gave them quarters and bills to feed the glowing slot, and strippers became adolescent girls in a department store who’ve been told they can have all the makeup they want for free.

Drinks at Joe Rae’s cost the same as at normal dives. The girls never asked, but you could buy them a drink and they’d sit with you to while they drank.

The decor at Joe Rae’s hadn’t changed since it’d been an Italian social club. The red flocked wallpaper was sticky to the touch, and hung with amateurish oils of Palermo and Naples. There was also a picture of a young man who was killed in Korea.

That hand-tinted photograph bothered me sometimes: a guy in uniform, with a toothy smile and sad eyes, all geared up to kill commies overseas. They killed him instead. Born in New York, 1930, died at Inchon, 1952, Corporal Joseph DeRamo might’ve been tickled from beyond the grave that his shrine was in a topless bar. It always seemed kind of strange that Ma and Pa DeRamo hadn’t taken their boy’s picture with them when they closed up shop. Maybe they left abruptly, for the place where you can’t bring anything along. I asked Joe Rae, but he didn’t know his place’s history. The rolling metal shutters had been down a long time when he bought it.

Bikers sold crank at the Teddy Bare. Boob-job skells hustled ginger ale champagne at the Pla-Z-Boy. It cost ten bucks just to get past the threadbare velvet rope at Limoncello’s. Joe Rae’s had no such drawbacks. I never got diarrhea from the free-buffet meatballs. The men’s room wasn’t a gay pick-up scene, not that there’s anything wrong with it. Even the bouncers acted friendly.

Not all Joe Rae’s women were as beautiful as Yvonne, but some of them were real dancers, and it was nice to be there just to watch them move. A Canadian amazon who could touch the back of her head with the soles of her feet stayed in town long enough to get me obsessed. I handed over ten-dollar bills until one night she was gone.

There were junkie girls, and ladies who looked like they’d carve you up with a  razor for whatever was in your pocket.

Joe Rae gave big women a chance. Baby Blue looked like she was carved from a block of cellulite, but she was a crowd-pleaser. She shimmied hard for her finale. Cottage cheese crammed into flesh-colored pantyhose vibrated and shook while the sweat sprayed. She was powdered with stardust, but I never asked how she got home, or where that home might be.

Yvonne told Joe Rae she didn’t want to strip any more. She’d decided she wanted to get into the music business.

The founder and publisher of the sex newspaper heard of Yvonne’s career dreams through her boyfriend, Derek. Our boss had a soft spot for his employees’ girlfriends, especially the ones who may or may not have blown him for a hundred bucks in the stairwell at one of the XXX-mas parties he threw every year, attendance mandatory. The big man said Yvonne must have a farewell party at Joe Rae’s, and that he would sponsor the event.

The editorial offices of the sex newspaper were on 14th Street. They occupied a high floor with sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. The walls were covered with obscene graffiti left by contributing cartoonists and illustrators.

My office was next to Derek’s. We spoke to each other through open doors, but not that often. Since he had a year or two of college English under his belt, he turned our illiterate employer’s ramblings into sentences and paragraphs. He drew from readers’ deliria and edited stories from outside writers on an Army Surplus electric typewriter. Derek had created the publication’s voice.

The paper’s scumbag look was my baby. I dropped out of Art School. The black-and-white pictures came from inexhaustible battleship-gray file cabinets.

Our boss ran the operation with his own money. He was the one who went to prison when The Man said he must, which was often.

A few women worked at the sex weekly. Miss Gloria was the boss’ long-suffering personal assistant. A slightly addled Jewish lady handled accounting and advertising. Long tall Cindy did the cut-and-paste layouts. She was from Florida.

The entire staff was practically ordered to attend Miss Yvonne’s Farewell to the Stripper Life party.

The affair started at nine. Everyone went home to change into festive attire. In my case, a basement dump in Brooklyn and the last shirt left with a collar, which had grown tight.

The underground scene was represented by a grizzled poet and a director of nudie art films. Vinnie the Bouncer stood at the door and told the businessmen and college guys, “Sorry, we got a private party tonight. Joe Rae’ll buy you a beer next time.”

What went on at Yvonne’s goodbye party was the same as what went on any other night, except the drinks were free. Felt like in a dream I had, a nightmare, I guess, in which New York City was Hell. The only things different were that the subway was free and there was no Statue of Liberty in the burning harbor.

At midnight, Yvonne would do her last show. Then, like a princess in a fairy tale, she’d disappear and keep her clothes on forever after.

We ripped into the greasy spread, catered by the boss’ favorite deli. Free liquor made things jollier. Cindy the Paste-up Girl, who’d held onto her Florida accent, talked about how she used to hit Plato’s Cave every weekend, before Town Hall shut the place down.

She seemed wistful, as though the swinger scene had been some glorious chapter in human history.

There were so many women like her in town, loose and slightly nuts. They can’t all own art galleries or run ad agencies. New York was a Hell for dashed female aspirations.

Yvonne emerged from the toilet. The other girls onstage applauded and lingered briefly to fondle her. Hendrix played “Little Wing” from the jukebox.

Hendrix was dead. So many evenings I’d sat there thinking that this was what it was all about, in the end. Joy and rage and thinking things could be different boiled down to thighs spread for a dollar.

Yvonne went all the way. Her G-string flew. Decency laws exploded. She backed up against the mirror wall streaked with femme-grease, spread her legs and sank down slow.

Goodbye to being young. Goodbye to whatever it was that everyone thought was supposed to happen. Goodbye to the idea that dropping out could lead somewhere good. Goodbye to topless bars.

The music biz, in Yvonne’s case, turned out to be selling used records at Bleecker Billy’s.

There was a positive side to her career change, though. She met a skaggy guitar player and dumped Derek. At least I thought it was positive.

Yvonne’s last move on that final night was a backwards bend-over. I didn’t want to see her go. I couldn’t have her. She wouldn’t be mine. I asked, once.

Turned out I couldn’t have Joe Rae’s, either. The laws changed, and the place went through a brief bikini-dance phase, but not many guys will tip girls in bathing suits on the off-chance that a nipple will pop out. There’s hornier stuff on television.

Joe Rae, unlike Yvonne, had no last hurrah. He didn’t sell his business, he closed it. Or maybe he tried to sell the place. I heard he moved to Mexico.

The green awning out front said Joe Rae’s Topless. Then for a while it said Joe Rae’s STopless, with the S hand-painted on, not even stenciled. The wind tore the awning, and it flapped like a flag. It still said STopless, but it wasn’t true.

Matthew Licht

A Pipe Dream

The sound of waves and roller coaster screams came in through the bathroom window in Niv’s motel room: my favorite place in the world. I’d hose down my wetsuit and shake the Pacific chill in the shower, hang out in the steam to watch the sun go down and the fog roll in.

Niv lived at the Tramonto Motel with his Iranian girlfriend. Her family ran a Persian restaurant up in San Francisco. They disapproved of their daughter’s lifestyle choices, but they sent money. Her brother rolled back and forth between the States and Tehran. He always had opium. The restaurant connection was a perfect cover. He shipped the dope in bottles of pomegranate syrup. He came down to Santa Cruz often, to visit his sister and get stoned with her and her friends.

His name rhymed with Ay-rab, so that’s what I called him. He’d get hot, and sputter that Iranians weren’t arabs, like anyone cared. I can’t remember his sister’s name, or if it rhymed with anything.

Ay-rab was nice to look at. He and his sister worked on their tans in minimal Euro-style beachwear while Niv and I caught waves. Back at the motel, she’d cook Iranian dinners and we’d blow opium. The motel was built to look like an ocean liner, with portholes for windows and fake smokestacks on the roof. The room smelled of poppy resin, and pomegranate syrup cooking down.

Big Dan dropped by with his sister Kath. She was new in town, fresh from a divorce or a less formal break-up with some black guy over in Stockton.

Kath was wearing one of her brother’s sweatshirts, about four sizes too big. Her shorts made her thighs bulge when they didn’t have to. Flowery flipflops showed off her blackened soles and toenails. When she pulled down the hood it looked like someone had gone over her hair with bacon rinds. Smelled that way, too.

Motel room rhymes with womb and tomb. Kath squatted down to hit the pipe, and didn’t even ask what was in it. An intimate whiff of herself blended in with opium smoke and Iran grub. I stared, and got lost in a stoned dream of her soaping up in the shower not far away.

Big Dan shot an ugly look. He was close to seven feet tall, weighed over two hundred pounds. He was the human hydraulic lift at a garage on the outskirts of town. He reamed out corroded pistons with his bare hands, or his hard cock. Lay off my sister, the look said. She’s in a bad place right now. 

Opium bugs crawled around like a family of cockroaches under my skin, which felt like a wetsuit. Dreams rolled in like waves and mist from the ocean.

Niv changed records. His olive-skinned lady brought in dinner and we ate it on the floor.

Ay-rab seemed really interested in what Big Dan had to say about slant-six engine blocks. He opened his caramel-colored eyes wide, and wagged his head slightly off the beat from the speakers.

Kath rose shakily to go to the bathroom. She came back with a flush fanfare and dropped down again, slightly closer than she’d been before. I handed her the pipe. She showed a chipped front tooth when she smiled.

Niv’s woman took her shirt off. Those two were real make-out artists.

Big Dan was explaining what ring job meant. Ay-rab scratched, nodded, blinked and mouthed oh wow. He packed more opium into the pipe with a little knife.

“You’ve got good hair,” I told Kath. “But you don’t treat it right. Look at you: no body, bounce or sheen.”

She shrugged, scratched her crotch. She had sorrows to forget, pain to medicate. She put Zippo to pipe-hole and sucked in deep.

Looked like a movie flickering on a distant screen when I reached out to flick a limp strand.  Kath said quit it, like we were back in fourth grade. So I flicked her again.

Then I must’ve nodded out. I was in a sideshow: The Man in the Chicken-Wire Cage Full of Snakes. My job was to sit there barely even breathing while cottonmouths, copperheads, fat rattlers and cobras crept and crawled. Suckers in Sunday clothes paid a quarter for a look and a shiver. A Gaboon viper flicked his forked tongue, sensed a carotid artery neaby and lunged. But if I panicked, all the other snakes would sink their fangs in.

Kath’s breath pulled me out of the snake-pit. “What is this stuff, anyway? Got me all sleepy.”

The only light was a beam from under the utility kitchen door and the stereo’s green glow. Niv and his motel wife humped away to the drone music under a mound of sleeping bags, blankets and clothes on the motel bed. The heap rose and fell in the gloom. The springs creaked in tune with their breaths and moans.

Ay-rab and Big Dan were off in Dreamland, fascinated by the live love show.

“Kath, let’s face it: your hair’s a mess. You’re a mess. Let’s hit the shower and see what we can do. Come on.”

She tripped over her brother’s legs. We bumped the bed. I locked the bathroom door. The dim bathroom light seemed surgical after the motel room’s gloom. I unscrewed one of the lightbulbs over the mirror at the sink. Kath held her arms up like a kid so I could pull the dirty sweatshirt over her head. Her tits flopped and bounced. Cool air from the open window stiffened her nipples.

A black mamba went for my jugular vein.

Kath’s shorts hit the floor. No panties. Female funk filled the air. I stripped like getting naked was no big deal, turned the knob, checked the temperature, pulled her into the stall.

Niv’s woman had barrels of hair-care products stockpiled in there. I moved Kath around like a doll, kept her nose and mouth out of the spray so she wouldn’t drown. I became the hairdresser who’d make her look like the girl in the shampoo ad of her dreams.

Green gunk oozed from one of the bottles. I massaged it into her scalp. Gray foam formed, like roadside slush-monsters seen from bus windows back East. Rinse and repeat, apply conditioner and let it steam. Steam was fine, but smoke was better. I pulled Kath from the shower, sat her on the sink. “Don’t move,” I said.

A needle skated uselessly on black vinyl. Niv and his woman were still screwing like dogs. Ay-rab was sucking Big Dan’s big dick. He was good at it. I almost stayed to watch, but grabbed the pipe and a lighter instead.

Kath had slumped forward on the sink.

She sucked the smoke hungrily.

“It’s working,” she whispered. “It’s like I can feel my hair coming alive.”

Like snakes. Medusa. Men turn to rock.

There was a chrome blowdryer on the shelf, and a pair of scissors.

A yellow butterfly tattoo on Kath’s left shoulder showed in the clouded mirror. I hit the pipe and began to snip.

Kath took another big hit and pulled me into her face to shotgun the smoke. She had teeth missing. She squirmed, bucked her hips, moaned she needed love, bad.

But I had a haircut to finish. My ears filled with invisible music. My hands flew.

The mirror cleared, and showed the unholy mess I’d made of Kath’s head.

Her cement-boned brother Big Dan was in the next room. Outside, mist rolled in off the Pacific. Waves roared in darkness. Sharks glided just below their surface.

Better re-fog the mirror. Steam billowed from the shower like a dream of incense-breathing dragons.

Kath, limp with romance, glamour and opium, let herself be dragged back into the stall.

“Let’s get the stray hairs off you, or you’ll be itchy all over.”

New boys in the Marine Corps had better haircuts. Nothing left but the Final Solution, which in this case wasn’t placenta-based conditioner.

Niv’s woman kept a quiver of razors in the shower. Shampoo can be used as shave cream. Kath was too stoned to maintain erect posture. She sunk to a showerstall squat and did what came naturally.

A surf bum no longer, I became some kind of monk whose saffron robes flapped in sunlight and a stiff breeze that blew from snow-mountains in the background.

Kath was a monastic novice who still lived in the sensory world that was maya, illusion, vanity. She had to learn, pray, meditate. But first she had to get her monk look down. I shaved Kath’s head to serve God’s will.

Then I shaved my own, and took my left eyebrow off too.

Kath kept on doing what she did best. The drain was clogged with hair. Dirty water and human fluids rose, overflowed. Then the motel’s hot water ran out.

Nude bald stoners shivered in a shower stall in Santa Cruz. We couldn’t stay in there forever. We had to face what passes for reality, in this world.

When I unlocked the door, Niv’s lady rushed in as though she was about to explode. She squealed when she saw the horror.

Niv was sprawled on the bed.  Big Dan was nailing Ay-rab to the floor. He got a load of Kath.

“Whu’d you do to my sister, motherfucker? I’m gonna take you apart.”

“Shut up, you big homo.”

He stared, open-mouthed. He shut up.

Big Dan later beat up Ay-rab for turning him gay.

Kath liked her new hairdo, for a little while. We went to a wig shop just off the boardwalk and got a magenta Louise Brooks model from the bargain bin. She liked the wig.

Niv still lives in the ship-shaped motel, but he never invited us back.