Joseph Musso, 5/18/2015

Current Occupation: Unemployed, and looking for work as a freelance writer and editor.
Former Occupation: Mailman (17 years), ceramic tile installer (12 years). In between those 2 jobs, I had 13 different part-time jobs in 12 month's time. The most jobs I had at one time was 5.
Contact Information: Joseph Musso is the author of the novel-in-stories, I Was Never Cool, which is also the name of his blog. He lives in NJ.

 

 

#

GARBAGE MEN

I was on the back of a garbage truck. The kid next to me had a bad night. He was doubled over and barely hanging on. In the beginning of the morning run he was trying real hard, but after a few streets he was done. So I was doing double duty at the stops without the driver knowing. He just thought we were slow and kept yelling back, “Git your asses moving back there else we’ll NEVER git done! You wanna be out here all day?” I kept hefting garbage cans up and over and pulling the lever to crush it all up. The kid was barely hanging on. At one point as we rounded a corner at 40 miles an hour one of his hands slipped off and he nearly went flying into a ditch. I yelled over, “Man lie down in the bucket until we stop again. Then get off and walk home or something.” He could barely nod and held his belly with one hand. Finally we stopped in a rich cul-de-sac, all big houses, nice lawns. The garbage was laid out for us in a circle. It might’ve been the morning after Christmas, there was so much. The big beast of a truck squealed, snorted, and shunted to a stop. The door swung open and the driver jumped out, storming back toward us, ready to lay into us good. He saw the kid puking up his guts and helped him inside the cab. From that point on I manned the back myself. When there was a lot at a stop the driver would jump out and help me. He’d grit his teeth every time the load was especially heavy, and yell out, “Sweet Marie I’m an old man now!” Every time it was, “Sweet Marie I’m an old man now!” Sometimes he’d add a “Good Lord up above why do You punish me so!” So the whole thing went, “Good Lord up above why do You punish me so! Sweet Marie I’m an old man now!” As the morning went on more and more was added to his routine. I began to look forward to every new refrain. Eventually it was lunch time and at a counter we chewed burgers and sipped coffees. He said, “You’re not a bad worker. What were you doing before this?”

“Everything. Anything.”

“Uh huh.” He bit a chunk out of the burger.

“My girlfriend got on a Greyhound the other day,” I told him.

“Everybody winds up in a place they didn’t think they’d be.”

“I was wondering about things too much. With her, I mean.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah you know, stupid shit. Things like what I could have done different, like maybe I am an asshole like she says.”

“Are you?”

“I don’t know. Probably. A little, anyway.”

“Then what happened?”

“Then I figured it out, sort of anyway. Whatever I did and however I did it, she still woulda left. I don’t even care that much. I just hate to fail at things. It’s been happening too much lately.”

He paid the check, smiled at the waitress and we left. We hit the road again, but this time I was dreaming about Mad Max and the end of the world. A few modifications to this rig and we’d be ready to kick ass. Wouldn’t take much to outfit this beast with enough mayhem machinery to wreak some serious havoc and start controlling things. He’d be the rig-master up front, the driver. Me, I’m the killer, over-aggressive, under-sentimental, new-age killer, the hit-man of the new cosmos, manning the back with a deadly heart and an even deadlier aim. That’s right motherfucker, I’m talking about the road warrior from hell all dolled up in a garbage truck with a mouth ready to devour whole cities in one big nasty swallow. Bring it on! I finished up the day by dragging my ass back into the truck cab. The kid had scrunched himself up in the middle, still green around the gills. He’d come around a little, and for the first time all day there were words mixed in with the moans. The driver and I laughed. “Well what the hell happened to you anyway?”

The kid tried to rub his eyes but didn’t have the strength. Then, he opened his mouth and said it was all much harder than he thought it’d be, life, work, women, whatever. The drink was the drink. But it was everything he was suffering from that was doing him in. The driver said it was better to suffer than be incapable of suffering, and shifted the big rig and we were gone.

 

Jim Ross, 5/11/2015

Current Occupation: um
Former Occupation: postal carrier, census taker, library assistant, teacher, researcher
Contact Information: A newly retired public health researcher, Jim Ross is trying to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain by talking with strangers on pilgrimages, growing fat tomatoes, and writing creatively.  As a researcher, his initial focus was police and prisons.   After several years, he made a break, and worked in public health research for the rest of his career.   Professionally, he published 70+ research papers plus book chapters and has several pieces included in anthologies.   He has always written non-fiction and occasional poetry.  However, his audience consisted of family and close friends.   He starting to write with the intention of publishing a few years ago as he saw retirement rearing its head over the horizon.  
He’s especially happy about stories published about the month the Beltway snipers worked out at the Silver Spring YMCA (TheAtlantic.com; and Friends Journal), a story about caring for his mother during her final years, when she believed her dead father and sister regularly came to visit, which complicated meal planning (Pif Magazine), a meditation on The Meaning of Endings (Friends Journal), and a piece on Stolperstine, which are personal Holocaust memorials (Lunch Ticket).  
He’s also recently published poetry, stories or photographs in The Sun, Up the Staircase, South85, RPD Society, Cahoodaloodaling, Dirty Chai, Drunken Odyssey, Lunch Ticket, and Story Shelter’s anthology “Here I Am.”   Forthcoming: In the Fray, Apeiron Review, Cargo Lit, and Cactus Heart.
Jim and his wife split their time between Maryland and West Virginia. They looking forward passionately to becoming grandparents of twins this July.

 

#

THE SUBSTITUTE

 

A beggar covered in chalk dust

peddler of dittos, erasers and pushpins

pilgrim without destination

baby sitter without snack privileges

mercenary without weapons

honored by the off-tune chant  

“sub-sti-tute, sub-sti-tute, sub-sti-tute”:

 

I had the status of a head louse

the thriftless ambition of a raven

and taught everything from turkey casserole

to the math of five card stud.

The black girls tied my long white-man

hair in corn rows and called me Mr. Shoes

because my red shoes made me fly.

 

The MIA teacher left instructions:

assign from the required list

only one word to each

student for each to create only one

sentence for use in only one

card to send the White House.

Lots cast, Antonio drew “smother.”

 

I expected a cautionary tale

about how to keep the baby warm while

avoiding tragic over-diligence

but hoped for Maya Angelou’s recipe for

smothered chicken.

 

Surprising only me, Antonio wrote:

“My oh my

why

do they smother

our cry?”

 

Often I’ve wondered:

Did the White House write back?  

Did Antonio keep asking questions?   

Did someone hear him?  

Or did they just shut him up?

#

MY SUMMER IN HARLEM

 

A whet-necked, white-faced Census taker

in still-charred Harlem, where all the jobs were,

and they paid us by the unit and head, not the hour,

I sang “Fatherless Child” like Richie Havens, as if,

singing on a hot summer’s day would blend me in,

so out of place, I belonged there.

 

Running fit, I tore up seven flights, knocked hard

and on hearing “what choo want?” shouted through

the spy-hole of the grey security door

“I wanna take your Census,” to wit,

the tiny, tinny voice of its elder single female occupant,

residing in a one bedroom, with small kitchen and bath

who with the elevator out rarely climbed up or down

or any direction for that matter came at me,

“I ain’t got much left, but what I got you can have.”   

 

We quickly dispensed with business to focus

on her gift of home-brewed ginger tea and toasty sardines.

“And here’s the two bucks for your time,” I said, plunking

down $2 of the $3.10 I just earned, thank you kindly.   

As I rushed off to the door next door my new friend

with sardine ginger lips grabbed my wrist

with gentle fingers meant to sew: “Time on your

hands creeps like chicken pox where you can’t scratch.

The days, they go slow but the years, they fly by.”

 

#

NOONTIME WALK TO THE SUN

 

When the air bit like a Nittany apple

Grey geese flew kamikaze runs to beat us back

And hardly yellow pansies replaced defenseless mums;

When Halloween cobwebs nearly cleared your mind

You’d long devoured its chocolate gobstoppers

But you flashed photographic memories, still.   

 

We walked as far as lunchtime legs allowed

In the time till time expired.

 

Before resuming the humdrum day

we’d pause for momentary magic standing

In the sun’s collected rays reflected

Off the window glass of our menagerie

In that sacred space our feet, blind

With laughter, shared a light lunch with the sun.

Lisa De Niscia, 5/4/2015

Current Occupation: Adult Literacy Coordinator
Former Occupation: Adjunct English Instructor
Contact Information: Lisa De Niscia lives in San Pedro, California, and she is the founder of Whitepoint Press

#

Hard Line

 

Aminah Merrick reminded herself to breathe, reminded herself that breathing controls the mind, and she remembered Iyengar's words, "To win the battle, a general surveys the terrain and the enemy and plans counter-measures. In a similar way the Yogi plans the conquest of the Self." She remembered this as she moved slowly through the sun salutation and gently tried to push thoughts away, but she couldn't push away the decision she needed to make as soon as she was done. She promised herself only three repetitions; the first salutation would be very slow no matter how difficult that slow speed was for her, and then she'd speed up for the second rep, and the third would be done quickly like an aerobic exercise. But diplomacy hadn't worked.

Neither had non-lethal aid. No matter how many times they wanted her to try those tactics, she knew those strategies would be useless in this particular situation. The dispute would persist like the boundary dispute she and her husband had with their neighbor fifteen years ago. Their neighbor's fence was on their property by two inches. Her husband went ballistic over those two inches while Aminah didn't care.

"Give her the two inches," Aminah said.

"They're ours," Richard said.

"They don't matter," Aminah said.

"What did they teach you in law school?" Richard said.

"I should've joined a commune in Santa Cruz instead of going to law school."

"Then we wouldn't have met."

"If we were meant to meet, we would have met no matter where I was."

But this dispute was in a country thousands of miles away, Aminah thought to herself, and she kept thinking: let's be honest, it's a country being invaded by another country whose leader is a jackass. It's an invasion, but no one wants to say it. It's volatile and breathe, don't forget to breathe. Europe should take care of this one. We shouldn't be involved. This isn't a suburban backyard, but the cease-fire didn't work, and another repetition wouldn't hurt, right?  More economic sanctions? More intelligence? Drones. Maybe drones are the way to go. Lethal assistance that's less lethal. Maybe? There's going to be a civil war. Breathe. Let it happen? Leave it alone? Breathe.

It took just fifteen minutes for three men to tear down their neighbor's fence, and it took Aminah by surprise. Aminah stormed outside when she heard the Spanish, and she glanced at the truck in her driveway, a dilapidated truck with Clean up and Hauling Jesus Loves You scrawled on the side. She asked her husband what the hell he was doing though she knew exactly what was going on. The three men speaking Spanish stopped speaking.

"We didn't talk about this," Aminah said.

"There's nothing to talk about," Richard said.

"Did you talk to her?" Aminah pointed to their neighbor's house.

"Don't have to."

"What you want us to do?" one of the men said to Richard.

"Keep going," Richard said waving his hand at the fence then said to Aminah, "We'll build a wall entirely on our side."

Aminah opened her eyes when she heard a knock on the door.

"Yes?" she said.

"Are you ready for the meeting, Madam President?"

"Yes," Aminah said as she lay in corpse pose and told herself to breath, told herself to keep her mind still. Then again maybe one more repetition wouldn't hurt.

 

 

 

J. T. Townley, 4/27/2015

Current Occupation:  professor of writing
Former Occupation:  bartender, French teacher, paint striper, street sweeper, landscaper
Contact Information:  J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.  To learn more, visit jttownley.com

 

#

Professor Nobody

 

It’s Tuesday p.m., and I’m elbow-deep in a paper jam when there’s this knocking, soft but steady, across the hall.  My office is cattycorner from the copy room, but I figure whoever it is can’t be here to see me.  How could they be?  I’m brand-new, though not freshly minted, and it’s the first week of the semester, which they refer to around here as a quarter.  Why the emphasis on coinage, I’ll never know, unless it’s simply meant to underscore the prestige and expense of a Santa Maria education.  

After doing the adjunct shuffle for what seems like eons, cobbling together classes at State and Valley and any other campus in a fifty-mile radius, I’ve now found my place, for the time being anyway, carved out my niche, at least for the year my contract lasts, a full-time job with benefits at a private college I never could have attended, more for the cost of tuition than the rigor of admissions standards.

Of course, I’m moonlighting at State.  And I’m still known as an adjunct.

No matter how much I ignore it, that knocking seems to grow firmer and louder.  I focus on clearing Area D3, twisting knobs and pulling levers, ink smeared all over my hands, a little finding its way to the striped V-neck collar of my favorite red sweater vest.  And then I hear it:  a coed’s soft voice, calling, “Professor Nauer?”  When nobody responds, meaning me, she starts back in with her banging.  

I can’t help but wonder who could be so clueless or desperate, only to remember the department secretary, Jocelyn or Jessalyn, posted my office hours, which apparently are underway this very minute, on my office door.  Unlike the shared cubicles or semi-converted broom closets at Valley and State and everywhere else I’ve taught during my academic vagabondage, it’s actually an office—even if, in a previous life, it was a dorm room.  It’s also actually mine, at least for the short term, since I don’t have to share it with other part-timers who’d just as soon slit my throat with the special cutlass they carry in their book bags as look at me, since we’d all be vying for the illusory prospect of a full-time, benefits-carrying position.  No, this space is mine, all mine.  As long as I’m employed here, at any rate, or until a new tenure-track professor is hired.

When the coed calls my name again, curiosity gets the best of me.  I drop to one knee, plant my right hand on the matted shag carpet, and lean towards the door.  I hitch up my khakis, but they sag from my hips.  A slender brunette in a short, ruffled skirt and form-fitting halter top stands in the corridor, a backpack between her sandaled feet.   

“Professor Nauer?” she says.  “Are you in there?”

Early autumn sunlight glints from her jewelry.  Looks like another rich kid, which, around here, is par for the course.  At least she wears her money well.

Though I know I shouldn’t, especially given the scandal a few years back at Valley, I can’t help fixating for a moment on her derrière, which from this angle looks like a perfectly shaped heart.   

I’ve already ogled her for ten or fifteen seconds when someone blusters through the door behind me and hollers, “Holy Toldeo!  Full moon’s out, and it’s the middle of the day!”

I feel the blood rush to my face.

Jim Jimson, the Lawrence “Larry” Page Professor of Critical Theory, peers down at me, his eyes a pair of slits.  

“Thing’s on the fritz,” I mumble.  Then I hitch up my pants and drop to both knees in front of the open copier service door.

“You’re a dumbass lardass,” says Jimson, “and I will crush you like a filthy cockroach.”

I gaze up at him, tongue-tied.

“Earth to Adjunct?  Did you hear me?  It was working fine when I used it ten minutes ago.”

“It’s just a paper jam,” I say.

“Well, clear it and move on.  You’re wasting my time.”

I pretend to locate the problem, shut the copier door, and hoist myself up.  Then I pretend to collate my incomplete set of photocopies, pretending everything’s in perfect order.  You have to put on a good face around these academic prima donnas, who, like Jesus, a comparison that may be appropriate given the Catholic context, believe they’re the only path to salvation.  But it’s all for naught, since Jimson’s rifling through a dusty issue of Postmodern Theory that must be years out of date.

Before I stumble out the door, Jimson glares at me over his reading glasses and says, “Just a moment.”  

I stop and pivot back towards him.  He stares past, or through, me.

“Log out when you’re finished using the copier, lummox.”

“I’m sorry?”  

Jimson forces a thin, squinting smile.  “And find some pants that fit,” he says.  

I nod, then scurry across the hall to my office.  The slender brunette has already disappeared.

 

It seems like whole epochs of time pass before I meet her two days later.  She sits in on my Introduction to Literature course, though from everything I can tell, she’s not on the roster.  Towards the end of class, I assign their term paper, answer a few questions I’ve already addressed, then let them go.  As I gather my notes and textbook, stuffing them into my old leather satchel, someone approaches the desk and says, “I’m really enjoying your class.”

“Great.”  I don’t look up.

“And I like your teaching style a lot.”

“Glad to hear it.”  I fasten the buckles on my bag and sling it over my shoulder.  Then I finally see her.  Afternoon sunlight pouring through the stained glass that’s so ubiquitous in this place backlights her so, for a moment, she appears to be wearing a halo.  Her beauty knocks the breath out of me.  After staring at her like a deaf-mute for longer than would be comfortable for even the deafest and mutest, I finally say, “Can we walk?  I have to be somewhere in an hour.”  

We stroll across campus.  I let her make her plea to enroll in my class, and I ask questions at appropriate moments, pretending to weigh her argument carefully.  As she babbles, I steal glances at her long fingers and study the surprisingly elegant star tattooed just behind her right ankle.  I haven’t felt this dumbstruck since the first time I saw Angie stepping barefoot across a sunlit campus lawn almost twenty years ago.

I tune back in just as we enter Saint Jude’s Hall, where the English Department is housed.  She rattles on about her troubled academic history and desperate family situation.  

“I’m a transfer student, and—”

“Where from?”

“Valley College.”

“Really?  I used to teach there.”

“No kidding?  What a small world.”    

Apparently, she needs this class to complete her core requirements before she can take courses in her major, which, I’m not exactly shocked to learn, is business.  She doesn’t love literature, she tells me, she’s not even sure she likes it, but she’s a hard worker, and she’ll do almost anything for an A.  She knows the class is technically full, but is there any possibility I might be able to find space for her?  

As we climb the stairs to the third floor, I try to ask some inane question, just to keep her talking, but I’m winded, actually sweating and gasping for breath, so I wait until we make it to my office.  I fumble for my keys and eventually manage to get the door unlocked.  I’m about to invite her in when I realize that’s a bad idea.  

We take a few steps down the hall, where we stop in front of a glassed-in bookcase displaying recent faculty publications.  Front row center is Jim Jimson’s latest tome.  

“There are other sections,” I say once I’ve caught my breath.  “Why mine?”

“Because it fits my schedule.”  Her smile is radiant.  “Plus,” she says, affecting her best bashful eye flutter, “you’re cute.”

I study the carpet like there’ll be a quiz on it later.  I just hope no one overheard her comment.  It’s an obvious ploy to curry favor, but coming from her I want to believe it.  On a good day, most people would describe me as stodgy.  I’m forty pounds overweight, all of which I gained when Angie left.  

“Well,” I say, “I’m sure we can find a seat for you.”

“Really?”  She cocks her head to one side.  “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Miss—?”

“White.  Tiffany.  Everyone calls me Tiff.”

“Okay—Miss White?  Bring the paperwork on Tuesday, and I’ll give you my John Hancock.”

“Great,” she says, then wheels around.  She’s already bounding down the stairs when she hollers, “Thanks, Professor!”

I nod, check my broken watch, and hold my breath.  I need to get back to the City, since my class at State starts in a couple of hours.  It’s been the way of things for my entire career.  The codgers and curmudgeons and administrators who don’t know any better, along with the smug and self-satisfied and tenured who do, call us “freeway flyers.”  Not only is it insensitive, it’s also inaccurate.  I, for one, always take the train.  Anyway, before accepting this position, I’d finish class at State, then shoot over to Valley, or vice versa.  Rather than quit both jobs when I landed the one at Santa Maria, I took a partial leave-of-absence from State.  Academia is a tough racket, especially without a “terminal degree,” which sounds like an illness but is actually the mana that opens the golden gates of tenure.  So I’m playing it safe.  

When Tiffany’s out of sight, I exhale, then count silently to thirty, despite the odd looks various professors, administrators, and secretaries give me as they navigate the corridor.  Maybe I’m actually counting aloud?  When I’m finished, I blunder down the steps, slipping more than once on the slick marble, then dash through the lobby and out the door.  As best I can, I sprint for the station.

*

I hit the Santa Maria student union for a jelly donut and cup of coffee this a.m. before heading over to Saint Jude’s.  I climb the stairs up to my office, huffing and panting.  My vision still hasn’t cleared from the exertion by the time I make it to my door, and I almost run smack into Professor Jim Jimson.  He has a red felt pen in one hand, and he appears to be emending my posted office hours.

“What are you doing?” I say before I know what I’m saying.  “I mean, is there something I can do for you?”

“Lardass dumbass,” he says, capping his pen.  “Just the filthy cockroach I was looking for.”

“Excuse me?” I say.  I wonder if I’ve begun hearing voices.

Jimson can’t restrain the smile overtaking his head.  “Know how much I’ll make this year?”

I blink a couple of times.

Jimson leans against the wall, fiddling with his pen.  I glance at the paper sign on my door, but I don’t notice any red ink.

“Come on, Mr. Narr.”

“Nauer.  But, please, call me Dennis.”

“Whatever.  Now don’t be a candy-ass.  Take a guess.”

There’s nothing to do but play along.  “I don’t know.  Seventy-five?  Eighty thousand?”

He clucks his tongue at me.  “Not even close.”  Jimson can’t hide his smirk; he probably doesn’t even try.  “One-hundred sixty-seven thousand dollars,” he says.  “Check my math, but that’s almost four times what you make.”  

I fish my keys out of my pocket and lean towards the lock.  “Why are you telling me this, Jimson?”  Irritation, like alcohol, can dampen a person’s inhibitions.  “Is there a point?”

He flexes his jaw.  His eyes narrow to a squint.  “You have a PhD, right?  Figure it out.”  

“I’m ABD, actually.”  That’s academic shorthand for “All But Dissertation.”  Though I started strong, I never finished my study of tramps, hobos, and vagabonds in American literature.

“Typical,” he says.

Then, all swagger, he disappears down the corridor.  

*

It doesn’t take long to realize Tiffany White isn’t quite the student she claims to be.  Her attendance, for example, is erratic at best.  For the first couple of weeks of the semester, she comes to every class, even if she’s a few minutes late most days.  As time passes, she seems more harried, less prepared and put together.  I make the mistake of calling on her two or three times, trying to draw her into the discussion so I won’t have to give her a goose egg for participation, but she has nothing to offer but incoherent mumbling or awkward silence.  I try to focus on how beautiful she is and ignore the under-the-breath insults a few of her peers mutter.

Then the absences begin.  At first, she misses every other class; soon, though, I’m lucky to see her once every two weeks.  I miss her so much I begin grinding my molars in the night, and tearing out small chunks of hair, which isn’t a good idea, since it’s already thin enough.  Other than dock her, though, there’s nothing I can really do.  

As she’s leaving class one day, I say, “It’s good to see you’re back, Tiffany.”

She gives me a meek smile.  “I’m really sorry, Professor.  But life gets in the way sometimes, y’know?”

I nod, holding in a sigh.  I can smell booze on her breath.   

By midterm, I’m convinced she’s going to drop.  If she’s not overwhelmed by the rigor and work load of Santa Maria classes, she must have an unforgiving work schedule or serious family issues.  Before the scandal, I taught enough Valley students to understand the difficulties most of them face.

Then, with about a month left of term, she comes to see me during office hours.  I’m trying to finish grading this monstrous pile of exams before I leave for the day, since a mound of essays from my class at State awaits me at home.  No such luck.  A knock outside, then my door opens before I can do much more than look up, trying to get my eyes to focus.  I figure it’s probably Jimson dropping by again to lord it over me.

“Professor Nauer?”

Her eyes are bloodshot, and even that thick eye makeup can’t disguise the luggage she’s carrying.  She smells like booze and cigarettes, masked by a thin layer of sweet, floral perfume.  

“Tiffany?”

“Is this a bad time?”

“Don’t be silly,” I say, clearing blue books off the chair.

“You look busy.  I should’ve made an appointment.”

“Have a seat.”

Tiffany closes the door behind her, then takes the chair I offer, tugging lazily at the hem of her lavender miniskirt.  It’s clearly a habit, but it draws my gaze to her bronzed, sculpted thighs.  I linger there longer than I intend to, tracing their lines up into the lovely shadows.  When our eyes meet, Tiffany’s smiling.  She fiddles with her long hair, which looks auburn in this light, pulling it out of a pony tail, draping it over her shoulders.

“You haven’t been to class in a while,” I say.  “We’ve missed you.”  That’s the royal we, of course.  Tiffany doesn’t seem to connect with many, or any, of her classmates.    

She reaches into her overlarge purse for something, then seems to think better of it and places the bag on the edge of my desk.

“I was hoping we could discuss my term paper?”

“Okay?”

She takes off the tight jacket she’s wearing, only to reveal an even tighter halter top.  I try, though not hard enough, to avoid staring at her breasts.

“You sound a little surprised, Professor Nauer.”

“It’s just that,” I say, “I figured you needed me to sign a withdrawal form.”

“You’re kicking me out?”

“Wait, no, of course not.  If you’d like to stay, you’re more than welcome.”  The last thing I want is for her to drop.  “But it’s not going to be easy to pass since you’ve missed so much.”  I point at the heap of blue books.  “Both exams, for example.”

Tiffany slides forward in her chair and gazes over at me.  She’s hauntingly attractive.  Without warning, she touches my left leg and asks, “Isn’t there anything I can do?”

I sit bolt upright.  I’ve been subjected to enough long-winded, mandatory trainings to know how vulnerable I am right now.  I should ask Tiffany to leave, then report what just occurred.  Only couldn’t she just as easily claim I touched her?  The office door is closed; it would be my word against hers.  The best thing I can imagine happening is I’ll be fired—which, in the adjunct world, simply means my one-year contract won’t be renewed.  Given my history, I don’t even want to consider what the worst might be.  At any rate, I feel a hot bulge in my pants, so I can’t even stand to open the door without making a complete ass of myself.

“I could help you with that, y’know.”

“I’m sorry?” I say.  My grin couldn’t be more sheepish.

“Don’t be embarrassed.  With your stiffy.”

Without thinking, I say, “You’re ravishing, Tiffany.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re—really hot.”

My response seems to please her.  She places her hand back on my thigh.  This time, I don’t move away.  

“Just tell me what you want,” she says.  

“What do you mean?”

“Anything, Professor.  But I need help, too.”

“That’s hard to imagine, Tiffany.  A girl like you.”

“Will you help me, Professor?  Please?”

I know this conversation has gone beyond the limits of any reasonable person’s sense of decency.  Memories of the scandal even flash through my mind, the accusations and headlines and TV news coverage, the three days I spent in jail with Jamaal and Roscoe.  But she’s just such an angel, which, I conclude, is one of the perks of teaching at a Catholic university.  I can’t help myself.  And after all I’ve suffered as an academic gypsy, the last-minute course assignments and shitty schedules, the terrible pay and scorn of students and faculty, don’t I deserve her?

“I’ll do whatever I can,” I hear myself say.  “Anything.”

She leans forward, cupping her breasts, and says, “Will you touch me here?”

“Yes.”

Tiffany slides a hand slowly up her thigh.  “And how about here?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Good,” she says.  Then she reaches forward and unbuckles my belt.  She struggles a little, given my gut.  “But first let me make you feel good.”

She stands, then slips two fingers between her pouty lips.  She sucks and slurps on them so noisily, I suspect students in their dorms and colleagues in their classrooms and the university president himself in his office on the far side of the quad can hear her.  

“Do you like that?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you want some more?”

“You know it.”

Tiffany smirks and holds her breath for a moment, then she giggles to herself.  It breaks the spell.  I know I’ve missed the punch line, and, though it’s nothing new, this time it terrifies me.  She reaches into her purse again.  There’s a click.  When she pulls her hand out, she’s holding a small device I can’t immediately identify.   She presses a button.  I feel the blood drain from my face as she replays our conversation word-for-word.  My hands and feet feel frozen, and some invisible ghoul begins hacking at my temples with an ice pick.

“So what I really want,” she says, “is an A for the term.  No exams, no term paper.  And I won’t be coming to class again.”

“I’m not—”

“When the quarter’s over and I see my grade, I’ll give you the tape.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Tiffany just cocks her head and offers a vacant smile.  

*

After picking at, but not eating, Chinese takeout, frustrated because the kung pao chicken smells delicious but somehow I don’t have an appetite, I guzzle a glass of ginger ale, then pick up the phone and dial Angie’s number.  She moved back to L.A. after the scandal and divorce to be closer to her family.  She answers on the second ring.

“Okay,” she says, “what happened?”

Cacophony of honking horns and shouted curses in the background.  Angie must be stuck in traffic.

“Everything’s fine.  I just needed to hear your voice.”

“Come on, Denny.  Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“I’m in a pickle, Angie.”

“What else is new?”  

Static crackles through the receiver.  She must put her hand over the mouthpiece so I won’t hear her screaming at the driver in front of her.  It doesn’t work.

“Don’t tell me,” she says.  “You shtup another student?”

“That’s not fair, Angie.  If you recall, there was an investigation.  They found that nothing improper transpired.”

“That doesn’t mean you weren’t shtupping her, Denny.”

“I barely even knew the girl!”

Angie snickers.  I can see her wagging her head now, exhaust-heavy wind blowing through her amber tresses in the dying toxic twilight.  “Let’s not go through all this again.  Why are you calling me?”

I explain the situation in as flattering a light as I can manage.

“What’d I tell you?  You men are all the same.  You never learn.”

“Is that why you go for women now?”

“Not ‘women,’ Denny.  Just Kate.  We’re soul mates.  Haven’t we already gone over all this?”

“She join the family business yet?”

Angie snickers again.  “This is California.  Real estate’s where it’s at.  You ever want to get out of that academic racket, let me know.  I’ll help you get set up.”

“So?” I say.  “What should I do?”  

“Listen, schlemiel.  Give the little trollop an A.  Get the tape back.  Get on with your life.”  

Through the receiver, tires screeching.  The crash, pop, and tinkle of fenders colliding, headlights bursting, glass shattering.  

“Are you okay?”

“Some schmuck fishtailed into a light pole,” she says.  “I’m fine.”  A pause fills with a chorus of L.A. traffic.  “Anyway, now’s the time to worry about yourself, Denny.”  

*

One afternoon, I’ve just begun a lesson for my composition class at State when a student I’ve never seen before slips in and leans against the back wall.  He probably wants to add my class, though it’s too late in the semester.  Happens all the time.  Unlike Santa Maria students, who have a gaggle of advisors holding their hands every step of the way, kids here can get lost pretty easily—though they’re all expert navigators compared to those wandering, often misguided Valley students.  I consider doing him a favor and interrupting class to tell him he shouldn’t waste his time.  Only these students are easily distracted; I am, too, considering how many times I’ve taught this syllabus.  So I let him stay, assuming he’ll clue in eventually.  

It’s a mistake.  The guy stands there the entire time, arms folded across his chest.  Looks like a surfer out of water, with that flat-billed cap and gaudy t-shirt, sagging skinny jeans and flip-flops.  Plus, he’s come totally unprepared:  no notebook or paper or pen.  But at least he’s not carrying a bag, so unless he has a firearm tucked away in those droopy drawers, he’s not a shooter.  Still, his surly look is disconcerting.

After suffering for half an hour, I dismiss class early, forgetting to make the homework assignment.  But the surfer guy doesn’t leave with the rest of the students, and he appears to be guarding the only exit.  From this more or less safe distance, I say, “Did you need something?”

He grins.

I buckle and unbuckle my satchel.  

“Because I’m in a bit of a rush.”

“I can see that, bro.”

He ambles towards me.  Sweat trickles down my back.  

“You Nauer?” he asks, approaching the desk.

“That’s right.  And you are?”

His lip twitches for a moment, then he laughs.  He’s got to be six-four, broad of shoulder and thick of chest.  

“I’m the guy who’s here to school your stupid ass.”   

He tries to stare me down, but I busy myself with my bag.  Then I say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.  And as I said, I’m in a bit of a rush.”  I make for the door.  

“Name’s Bobby.”  He lopes after me.  “Tiff ever mention me?”

I trip over the leg of a desk, staggering to keep my balance.

“She’s a manipulative little bitch,” he says, then laughs as if he’s just given her highest compliments.  “Guess it figures.”

I shuffle to the doorway, peek out into the hall, then close the door.

“How’d you find me here?”

“I asked around at Valley.”

“You’re a student?”

“Now and then.”

I have trouble imagining what he might study, besides surf breaks and gravity bongs.

“You used to teach there, right?  Till you got fired, is what I heard.  J’accuse and all that shit, man.  Anyway, they told me you mainly work here.”

“I don’t mainly work anywhere.”

Bobby puzzles for a moment at my venom.  Then he says, “I heard the tape, bro.  Now your ass is in a sling.”

“Did she send you?”

“Why would she?”  He seems genuinely confused, which is probably a familiar state.  Then, apparently recalling why he’s here, he says, “Keep your fucking molester hands off her, understand?”

They sound like lines from a movie, almost.  Next I expect him to slam me up against the wall.  For whatever reason, though, he doesn’t.

“It’s a simple message.  Hands off.  Got it, motherfucker?”

“I understand.”

“Good.”

Bobby shoulders me out of the way and pulls the door open.  He’s already strutting down the hall when I say, “Wait, does she know you heard the tape?”

He spins back towards me, grinning.  “Hell no, bro.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“What can I do?” he says, popping his right fist against his left palm.  

*

The end of the quarter comes quickly, and I’m on the train to Santa Maria, trying to finish grading a stack of term papers before final exams.  I have trouble focusing, though, distracted by this predicament with Tiffany and Bobby, who has to be her boyfriend.  What, I wonder, could she possibly find attractive about that surfer mimbo?  Besides his ripped body and insatiable libido, not to mention his endless, free-flowing supply of mind-altering substances?  Suburban sprawl blurs past the window as we lurch down the peninsula.  I’ve just turned back to a plodding analysis of love motifs in The Great Gatsby when who should slip, wraith-like, into the seat beside me but Tiffany White.  

“Professor,” she says, breathless, “we need to talk.”

“Tiffany?  I didn’t know you rode this train?”

“I live in Baley City.”

I gaze at her in profile.  She’s really caked on the makeup today, so it takes me a moment to realize her right eye is swollen and ringed in purple and black.  Her lower lip is angry-looking, too.  Her hair sways as the train shudders into the next station, revealing a deep gash behind her left ear.  

“My God.”  I have no idea why I say that.  “What happened to you?”

“My boyfriend Bobby.  He found the tape.”

“I know.”  I explain how.  “He did this to you?”

“It doesn’t matter, Professor.  The point is what he’s going to do to you.”

“That’s not the point at all,” I say.  My voice sounds high and strained, as if I manage a bank and wear my tie too tight.

“Look, Professor.  I told him we’re having a thing.”

“You what?”

“I told him we’re fucking.”

“Why would you do that?”

Tiffany studies the plastic headrest of the seat in front of her.

“Maybe I wanted to make him jealous.”  She’s not really talking to me.  “Seems like I catch him with a different blonde bitch every other weekend.”

I don’t know what to think.  Maybe Tiffany’s a compulsive liar and complete sociopath?  “Was this before or after he paid me that little visit?”

“I’m not sure.  After, I think.”

Then the train staggers to a halt and the conductor announces Terrence Station.  All at once, and for no logical reason whatsoever, I say, “We’ve got to get off this train.”  I crumple the term papers together and stuff them in my bag, then grab Tiffany’s arm and lead her through the car to the exit.  Only we’re not quick enough, because the doors have already closed by the time we reach them.

“Too late,” says Tiffany.

As the train pulls away, the conductor says, “Our next station stop will be Santa Maria.  Santa Maria’s next.”

Rather than sit back down, we stand by the doors.  Tiffany fiddles with her purse strap, while I stare out the window.  At some point, I realize I’m gripping her arm as if clinging on for dear life.  She doesn’t complain, as if she can’t even feel it, but I let go anyway.

As we pull into Santa Maria station, there’s no sign of Bobby.  The train stops, the doors open, and we step out onto the platform.  A small crowd of students and a couple of other professor types exit the train here, too.  I lead Tiffany to the automated ticket kiosk for cover.  She glances at me like I’m losing it, or perhaps it’s already lost, but I have this gut feeling Bobby’s lying in wait for us, or me.  

Yet all the other passengers clear the platform, and, miraculously, there’s no sign of him.

“Come on,” I say.  “He’s not here.”

We step out of the kiosk.  I lead Tiffany swiftly towards campus.  I keep checking left and right, glancing over my shoulder.  

When we’re safely across the parking lot and on the edge of the palm grove, I make a wobbling one-eighty and survey the scene.  As far as I can tell, it’s business-as-usual, meaning there’s no one around.  I take a deep breath and try to control the adrenaline surging through me like electricity.  I’m about to tell Tiffany everything’s going to be okay when someone says, “Hey, babe.  Did you miss me?”  

Bobby emerges from behind the trunk of a palm.  He’s sporting a chocolate brown sweatshirt with the hood pulled up.

Tiffany says, “You can’t say you didn’t have this coming to you, Professor.”

“Why would you say that?” I ask.

“That’s how it goes.  You get what you deserve.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Shut up, bitch!”

I’m not sure which one of us Bobby’s talking to.

Then he snatches Tiffany by the arm and slings her to the ground.

Words spill from my mouth like sand:  “You can’t treat her like that, Bobby.”

He chuckles.

I glance over at Tiffany, only she’s not there anymore.  I feel a little frantic as I scan up and down Palm Drive, only to see her scampering away across the parking lot and ducking behind a giant pickup.

“That shit was her fault, bro.  Always is.”

“I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”

“You’re not too quick for some big-time college professor.”

“I’m just an adjunct,” I say.  “A nobody.”

Bobby gives me a hard shove in the chest, and I lurch backwards into a palm tree.  I know what’s coming, and I think I’m ready for it, but the crack of his fist against my cheekbone knocks me to the ground and sends a shockwave of pain down my spine.  He picks me up and leans me against the tree.  Then he lands three quick, hard punches to my abdomen, and I double over with pain.  At which point he gives me an uppercut to the mouth, then pops me in the side of the head, which sends me sprawling into the grass again.  

I lift a hand in defense and say, “I wouldn’t have touched her.”  Blood from one or both of my lips tastes like dirty copper.

Bobby snickers, massaging the knuckles of his right hand.  “You’re kind of a dumbfuck, aren’t you?”

Pain sears through me as I wrench myself up onto an elbow.  I wonder if a broken rib has begun to puncture my lung.  

“Get up, bro.”  Bobby clears his throat and spits into the grass.  “We’re just getting started.”

I backhand blood from my mouth.  “I’ve learned my lesson, Bobby.  I won’t say anything to anyone.”

He grabs two fistfuls of sweater vest and hoists me up again.

“You haven’t learned shit, bro,” he says, then lands a quick jab to my gut.  

I grunt and gasp and try not to vomit.

“First, let’s get your story straight.  You took the shortcut from the station to campus.  Three Mexicans smoking bud jumped you.  They kicked the shit out of you and took your wallet.”

Bobby takes my wallet and hurls it deep into the palm grove.  But not before pocketing the cash.

“Got it?”

“I understand.”

“Then repeat it back to me.”

I tell him his Mexican story, which is now my Mexican story.  I wonder if there are even any Mexicans in Santa Maria.

“Good.”  He clamps his jaw and squints at me, then takes a quick glance around.  “It’s like Tiff said,” he says.  “You kinda asked for this.”

Then the real beating begins.  The pain’s worse than any I’ve ever experienced, including when my appendix burst.  It’s worse than all the scorn and mockery and disdain I’ve suffered as an adjunct for the past ten years.  It’s even worse than when Angie left me.  Bobby may not know much, but he knows how to inflict pain.  

Soon, though, I’m surprised to feel myself surrendering to it, even embracing it.  And it’s no longer Bobby doing the beating, either.  Instead, it’s this scary, sexy woman in skin-tight, studded leather standing over me.  I wouldn’t mistake Tiffany’s face, even behind all that eyeliner and mascara.  She’s strapped a studded collar around my neck and keeps yanking on my leash, calling me “Naughty Boy.”  Soon she begins flogging me relentlessly with a bullwhip.  Over and over, she smacks me with that whip, screaming something I can’t quite understand.  

 

I must black out at some point, because I awaken to the drone of traffic.  How long was I under?  I squint at my watch, but it’s still broken.  Then I prop myself up against a tree and assess the damage.  My clothes are ripped and splattered with blood, my body aches all over, and my lips and cheeks feel so swollen they’re about to burst.  My left eye won’t even open.

Someone out in the street honks, then honks again.  I look up, and with my good eye I can just make out a giant Ford pickup idling near the curb.

“Hey, bro, you okay?  Can we call anyone for you?”

I wave to the concerned citizen before realizing it’s Bobby.  Is he just leaving?  Or has he come back to make sure I’m not dead?

Then Tiffany leans across him and hangs out the window.  “You’ll get the tape when I get my A.”  Sunlight streams through her hair as she flashes me that angelic smile.  “Thanks again, Professor!”

Then Bobby shoots me the finger and guns it out into traffic.

 

 

 

Philip Bowne, 4/20/2015

Current Occupation: Pizza chef
Former Occupation: Barman, waiter, gardener, shop assistant.
Contact Information: Philip Bowne is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. In the UK, his short fiction has been published by The Lampeter Review, Carnival, Compass, Sein und Werden, and Birkbeck University's Writers' Hub. His short story ‘Cows Can’t Jump’ was selected as one of ten winners of the Stroud Short Stories competition. In the US, his short story 'Forget-Me-Not' won the Bartleby Snopes Story of the Month competition, and he has short fiction forthcoming in Gravel, BlazeVOX and The Atticus Review. Philip also has work forthcoming in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, which will be his first work to be published in Canada. He has worked as a travel writer for Endsleigh, including month long InterRail blog detailing his experiences travelling around Europe. The Guardian published an article of his based on InterRail in November 2014.

 

#

Five-Hundred Degrees

Problem was, Lily was a distraction for all of us.

    The day she joined our team it was just me, Carl and Tom. We were at Goodwood Festival of Speed, shifting three thousand pizzas a day in our five by five, eating through enough gas to burn our own hole in the ozone layer. Our oven cleared three cylinders a day.  

    We always had to scrub the walls on the outside of the marquee, so the place looked good for the customers. But inside, everything was dirty. The floor was dusted with grains of polenta, and streaks of tomato sauce had hardened along the walls and fridges. They looked like bright red scars. The centre pole was blackened from the heat of the oven, and the roof canopy smoke-stained brown. Halfway through the Friday, Lily walked in. She must have been called up from an agency or the big boss hired her, because none of us had heard anything about a newbie.

    Lily strolled into our marquee in a tank top and some little denim shorts that had rips running across the top of her legs, into her groin. Her nails were little red shells, and her lips were painted to match. She didn't need all that make-up.

    Carl took his head away from the oven to look. He was too old to be in a job like ours – he should have been in an office, with a wife and a three piece suite. He lost all his money in some aerial photography business he started up. He still had all his cameras, and often bought them to work. He couldn't bring himself to sell them off.

    “Wow,” he said, clapping the metal spade on the oven. Carl's face and forearms were black from ash and smoke. “Can I help you?”

    “I'm Lily,” she said. “The new girl.”

    Carl scooped a cooked pizza from the front of the oven onto his shovel and tossed it down into one of the boxes. Tomato sauce splattered up the white wall. I was the bitch-boy, slicing the pizzas and shouting out the order numbers. I'm always the bitch boy, cutting and calling.

    “First I've heard of it,” Carl said. “Not that I'm complaining.”

    She smiled.

    “Dirty job this,” he continued. “Maybe you'll like it.” He shuffled the pizzas around in the oven a bit more. “You can start making up the pizzas, so I can teach you the basics.”

    I picked a t-shirt, trousers and apron from the clean laundry and handed it to her.

    “There's toilets for you to change out back,” I said. “Look out for the grasshoppers.”

    She thanked me, smiled again, and went to change. There were grasshoppers everywhere at that gig. They hissed in the ragweed like rattlesnakes.

    “You don't wanna get in with the bitch-boy,” Carl shouted as she went, shuffling half-cooked pizzas around the clay oven.

    Tom winked at me from the front counter. “She's the one.” He slammed the cash drawer shut. Tom only got away with taking the piss because he was the son of the big boss. Even Carl went light on him. I ignored him, and handed out order 45 and 47; 46 had wandered off for a piss and probably forgotten about ordering pizza.

    “What the fuck you do that for?” Carl said to me once Lily was out of sight. “First girl we get working here and you wanna dress her up in our pyjamas?” Carl tugged at his loose-fitting chef trousers.

    Lily came back wearing our uniform. She looked like a child in her parents clothes. I preferred her like that. There wasn't so much skin on show. The oversized navy t-shirt concealed her slim figure, blue-and-white stripy trousers swamped her legs. She knotted the matching apron in a close sash around her waist, and wrapped her hair into a plait.

 

#

 

That weekend, Carl started using his camera more often. He said he needed to take photos for the website. I didn't believe him. I don't think we even had a website. But I didn't say anything – it wasn't worth the hassle. Carl pulled out his SLR during a quiet phase and started taking photos of the food, then the marquee, and then Lily.

    “Get those big blue eyes of yours against the flames of the oven,” he said to her. The camera dangled from the strap around his neck. The lens was like a telescope.

    “I don't like having my picture taken,” she said. “I'm not comfortable.”

    “It won't take a second,” Carl said. “And I'll delete it if you don't like it. Would look good to have you there in front of the oven, holding the spade or something.”

    “I don't know,” she said. Her blue t-shirt was yellowed with grains of polenta.

    Carl placed his hands on her shoulders and guided her in front of the oven. She didn't resist. Carl handed her the spade and she held it in two hands. When she was ready, he moved in close to her, held the camera up to his eye and twisted the lens as he clicked the shutter.

    He stepped back, examining the result on the screen of the camera. Lily moved close to him to see. There was a small black streak of ash on her cheek, just below her eye.

    “It's perfect,” Carl said.

    “I'm covered in dirt.”

    “We should do a proper shoot sometime,” he said. “Could build you up a portfolio.”

    “I don't think I'm the type for modelling,” she said. “I'm not pretty enough.”

    Any idiot would say she's the prettiest girl they'd ever seen.

 

#

 

We were all guilty of checking her out. I caught Tom doing it and got angry at him in my head for thinking he could look at her like that, when I was just as bad. Carl was different. Carl wouldn't hold back making comments about her body, making excuses to touch her, and photographing her at every opportunity.

    She complained of feeling faint at one of the festivals we worked, and Carl made her go and sit in the shade with a bottle of water. Later on we saw her with a folding fan decorated with purple butterflies. She looked pale. Sitting up on a stack of boxes in the corner of the marquee, she was fanning herself in the heat. After an hour or so she had stopped fanning herself, but still hadn't come back to work. She was sitting in the corner with Carl's camera, cleaning the lens with a cloth. Orders started coming in and we ended up with a queue of at least twenty.

    Tom shouted at Lily, saying she could play with her fan all she wanted when we'd made our money, and to put it down and jump in and help us out. Carl interrupted him saying he gave her the fan and told her to rest and only come back to work when she was ready.

    Tom shut up after that.

 

#

 

A couple weeks after that we were at another quiet festival in the midlands – some game fair – and Carl called Lily to the oven.

    “Think it'd be good for you to learn how to use the spade,” he said. He never let me or Tom touch the spade. He said we'd fuck it up and it was his job.

    Lily walked over to him, taking the long wooden spade in two hands. She set the bottom of the handle on the floor, with the metal sheet resting near to her face. The spade was nearly as tall as her.

    “What do I do?” she said.

    Carl smiled. Moving in behind Lily, he gripped her hands to guide the spade. He lay the metal sheet flat on one of the making boards, before thrusting the paddle beneath an uncooked pizza, deliberately grinding his crotch into her arse. Once the pizza was on the spade, he swivelled her around, taking his time. Hands still wrapped around Lily's, Carl shoved the spade into the oven, tilted the paddle, and let the pizza rest on the hot stone.

    He let go of the spade, and flicked the gas onto its highest setting. The oven flashed as the flames doubled, roaring like thunder.

    “Keep it spinning once the base is settled. It should be ready in a couple minutes.” Carl walked out the back of the marquee, rolled up two cigarettes for himself and crouched down, smoking out his boner.

 

#

 

Carl chased after Lily all summer.

    “Which of these boys do you prefer then, Lils?” Carl asked, pumping the spade from hip to shoulder like a lacrosse stick.

    Me and Tom carried on with our jobs, pretending we weren't listening. Tom was rolling out dough, spreading sauce, adding cheese and toppings. I was cutting and calling.

    Lily said nothing. She was folding up pizza boxes and clapping them shut.

    “No need to be shy about it.” Carl walked over to her and stroked her blonde hair with his blackened fingers. I wanted to grip him up by the throat and cook his head in the oven.

    Lily swatted his hand away, flicking her hair clean of his touch.

    “Come on, who'd it be?” he said. “Who would you take home to meet mummy and daddy?” Carl was coming closer to her. I needed to say something, tell him to back off or do something stupid so he'd pick on me instead. But I wanted to know, too.

    “Who's it gonna be?” Carl was at least a foot taller than Lily, and he loomed over her like a parent scolding a child. She looked up at him with her black-rimmed bug eyes, pulling the collar of her t-shirt over her nose and mouth, hiding.

    “Leave me alone,” she said.    

    “I will when I get my answer.”

    One of the plastic trays on top of the oven was blocking the chute, and the bottom part had melted away. The pizza boxes that the tray rested on were about to catch alight; flames tickled around the cardboard lip of the boxes. I waited a moment, watching them turn to fire in the breeze.

    “Carl,” I yelled, when I couldn't wait any longer. “Boxes are on fire.” I pointed up to the top of the oven.

    “Damn it,” he said, crushing the flames with his spade.

 

#

 

On most jobs Carl only spoke to Lily. Sometimes he'd shout at me if there was a backlog and there wasn't any boxes for him to put the pizzas into. But often it was Lily that did the shovelling. Carl made Lily work the oven much more. Sometimes just ten minutes while he went to smoke, sometimes longer. Often he would take the opportunity to grab his camera and take photos of her working. He must have had hundreds of pictures of Lily.

    Every time he made Lily work the oven she would run out after a short while, saying the smoke was getting in her eyes and she couldn't do it anymore. She would run off to the tents behind the marquee and come back ten, fifteen minutes later. I wondered what took her so long.

    One day, Carl didn't let her.

    “I'm sick of you running off all the fucking time,” he said. “It's just smoke.”

    “It's hurting me,” she said, covering her face with her t-shirt, the way she did. “I can't see anything.”

    Carl grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her back in front of the oven.

    “I'm having a cigarette. You stay on that oven 'til I tell you you're done.”

    She didn't fight it. Carl wasn't the boss; the big boss never worked. Carl was just the oldest, biggest guy, and assumed the role for himself. Lily stayed there, and tied her hair into a pony tail. As she pulled her hair up and away from her face I noticed how pale her neck was compared to her jaw and cheeks. She carried on shovelling  pizzas around the oven. Her hands were clumsy with the spade. She dropped pizzas onto the floor, and most came out burnt on one side where they hadn't been spun.

    When Lily walked over to put the pizzas down in the boxes, her mascara was smudged. Carl was gone ten minutes, then twenty, and Lily was still cooking. Order tickets stacked up on the ticket rail. The pizzas were coming out raw on the bottom and burnt on top. It was like slicing bubblegum.

    Forty-five minutes had passed when I noticed Lily's face beginning to melt. Foundation was running down her cheeks like wax on a candle, all mixed up with smoke and sweat and tears. Her lipstick had dried and cracked along her lips, darker in patches and flaking off at the corners of her mouth. The skin on her forehead looked cracked, like the dough after it defrosts and refreezes. She wiped her face and rolled her shirtsleeves up into her armpits, keeping her head down while she worked.

    The oven was on its highest setting. Inside the chamber, the flames licked at the high metal archway. It's five hundred degrees on the clay bottom. That's hot enough to see a daddy long-legs turn to dust. I know this, because they fly into the oven and land on our pizzas all the time. When I cut these pizzas, I can just about make out the tiny blot of their body and the faint shape of their legs in ash.

    That doesn't stop me calling out the correlating order number, and handing the customer their pizza.

#

 

Five hundred degrees is hot enough to melt your face. Lily's face was halfway there when Carl came back. When she saw him, she tried to hand him the spade and run out, dipping her face into her t-shirt. Carl grabbed her by the arm and told her she couldn't go running off again, not when we're slammed.

    “Take your face out of your shirt and get on with your job,” he said.

    She didn't. She stared at him. Two blue eyes staring out from the dark material. They were standing below the metal frame of the marquee which was threaded with fairy lights.

    “I said take your face out your shirt.” Carl's top lip curled into his gums.

    “It's smoky,” she said. “I can't breathe.”

    “Bullshit,” Carl shouted.

    “I have to go to the toilet,” she cried, folding her free arm across her chest.

    Customers soon caught on to the argument. A group of men waiting for their order shouted things about how Carl couldn't let a little pizza bitch undermine him. Carl laughed. I handed them their pizzas and hoped they would go away, but they stayed, watching Carl block Lily's way out of the marquee. She still had the spade. I wanted her to jab the hot metal sheet into his throat.

    “Let me go, Carl,” Lily said.    

    He didn't move for her. He grinned as he yanked the t-shirt down from her face. The make-up had melted, leaving behind a pale ghost. She had scars in her cheeks. The skin was pocked with these deep, hollow pits. In places, it bubbled like her face was cooked. There were different scars too, little ice-pick scars where the skin hadn’t regrown and left little holes in her face. Carl rubbed her cheek with his thumb, running his fingertips over the gristly patches.

    “Go sort yourself out,” he said, moving for her to leave.

    She ran out, pulling her hair out of her ponytail. She ruffled it around her cheeks, hiding her face.

 

#

 

Lily reappeared an hour later. She had showered, and changed into a flowery playsuit. Her usual face of make-up had been reapplied. Carl didn't say anything. She walked past him, carrying her blue uniform folded up in a neat pile. She squatted down and placed it in the bag of dirty laundry.

    Carl reduced the gas on the oven, shrinking the flame to half its size. Lily said something to him and he walked over to the till, popped the drawer open and counted out from a stack of 20's. He handed Lily her wages. She folded her wad of cash and tucked it into her bra.

    Lily said goodbye to Tom and he hugged her and said it would be good to see her again sometime. He bit his bottom lip as she embraced him, staring at me from behind her back. Then she came over to me. It was the first time I ever touched her. I closed my eyes as she wrapped her arms around my neck and I pulled her in close, my hands settling in the curve above her hips. I held onto her. It was a shame she was leaving. I'd only just met her.

    She let go of me and walked out, ignoring Carl. We all watched as she left, but nobody said anything. After a couple of minutes, Carl left too. Tom followed him, trying to tell him he couldn't leave the two of us in the marquee. Carl didn't care. I guess he was following Lily, because he was running to catch up. I knew she wasn't coming back.

    I closed the front of the marquee, attaching the white plastic panels and pulling them together with the rope. The oven was still on, and felt even hotter when the front was closed. There was nowhere for the heat to escape. I made myself a pizza, dusting polenta over the making boards, rolling out a dough ball and loading it with sauce, cheese and pepperoni. Then I grabbed the shovel, slid it beneath the pizza, and put it into the oven.

    There was still no sign of Carl or Tom. They'd probably had a fight over Lily and got themselves kicked out. Twenty minutes had passed when I walked over to Carl's bag in the corner. I unzipped the pocket and picked the camera out of his rucksack.

    I turned it on and looked through the photos of Lily. Most of them were of her working on the oven, squinting as the smoke blew out into her face. I found the photo the Carl first took of her, standing by the oven, holding the spade. The black streak of ash below her eye wasn't noticeable in the photo. It had been so clear at the time.

    I picked up the spade, placed the camera on the metal sheet, and slid it into the back of the oven. The picture of Lily holding the spade was still glowing out from the screen as the casing melted onto the hot stone, and the lens exploded.

 

Jaan Seunnasepp, 4/13/2015

Current Occupation: Writer – Financial Blogs
Former Occupation: Forestry Worker, Software Engineer, Technical Writer
Contact Information: Jaan (pronounced YAAN) Seunnasepp moved to Oregon in the early 1970s where he first worked with Hoedads Co-Op Inc. in a variety of forestry jobs, mostly reforestation (tree planting). He did this for five year, then dabbled in selling real estate just as the bottom fell out of that market. Jaan returned to the University for Bachelor and Masters degrees in Computer Science. After working for 14 years, he took time to write his novel The Songbook of Suomi, in which a Peruvian-American girls is swept back into the world for Finnish mythology. He is still trying to market that book and find time to write more fiction. You can find illustrated anthologies of Jaan’s short-short stories at 50CentFlash.com.

Note – The story Elk City is based on real events, including the final scene.

#

Elk City, Idaho

A group of old timers and a bunch of kids sat around the campfire. A couple of fresh logs were tossed on, sending a rush of sparks up to the sky. Robbie Richards pushed back his grey hair, and stretched his long boots towards the fire. Someone handed him a fresh bottle of Black Butte Porter, and he took a swig. The others, young and old turned towards him as he began his story:

Dusk was settin’ in and the rain was pourin’ down like there was no tomorrow as Tim Boty and me turned onto route 14 outa Grangeville and headed toward Elk City in spring of ‘76. Tim was driving his dusty old green Saab 96. That thing had more creaks and rattles in it than an old horse buggy, but she ran just fine. Man it was comin’ down!

Now in 1976, that road to Elk City was not paved at all, so it took us well over two hours to go that forty-five miles of dips and turns and two-foot-deep pot holes, as we snaked along the South Fork of the Clearwater River. We couldn’t see the big trees along the road in the dark and rain, but we sure could feel ‘em looming silent above us as we edged along. Well, you guys all know what I mean.

Anyway, it was about ten o’clock when we finally reached town, and since we didn’t know where camp was, we headed straight for the tavern. It was a big old log place, with huge old-growth beams and the smell of pine smoke. Inside it was toasty warm.

There were about six or so of us Hoedads in there, mostly Logrollers, if I recall correctly. I remember Tim Johnson, Peter Beleato, and little Katie in those tan jeans she always wore, and a couple more, and they all gave us a big welcome.

I remember standing at the bar with Peter and Katie (Tim and the others were shootin’ pool), and they’re tellin’ me how we got a nice camp on the river ‘bout fifteen miles outa town, and that we can crash in the Logrollers’ bus or else Burt and Cindy’s tipi, and pitch our tents in the morning.

Katie tells me “It’s a real small town, Robbie. With the three crews, almost fifty of us, I think we damn near double the population.”

Just then, up walks a couple of local guys. Now we had seen a little trouble in the past from local red-necks. Our long hair and funky rigs made it pretty clear that we are on the hippie side of the spectrum, and back in ’76 that was an issue for some of those guys. But these two seemed to be friendly, so we flash a quick smile. The first one speaks up.

“Howdy. How you all doin’? I’m Bob, and this here’s Tommy, and say, we don’t mean to be nosey or nothin’, but we kinda noticed quite of few of you and your friends come into town, and we was just wondering, what brought you all here?”

Bill gives ‘em one of his big smiles. “Well, we’re tree planters, and we got a big contract here, and so here we are.”

“Tree planters?” Bob asked, “you mean like in the woods?”

“Yep!” we replied, “reforestation.”

“Shit!” Tommy said, “One my cousins did that for about two weeks. Said it was the damn hardest work he ever did in his life, running up and down those hills in the rain and all. Never do it again, he said.”

“Well,” Katie piped in, “we’re from Eugene, Oregon, and we do it about eight, nine months out of the year, so we kind of get used to it.”

“You do it too?” Tommy’s eyes widened just a little.

“You don’t wanna get in a race with Katie Sullivan out on the slope,” I put in. “She’ll put you to shame.” I ordered a pitcher and we all moved to the tables.

So then Tommy asks us how much they pay us, and Peter goes on and explains about us being a Co-operative, which means we work for ourselves. Whatever we earn in a week on the contract is what we make, and a percentage goes to running the company.

“We’re divided up into different crews,” we explained, “and each of the crews is like a separate little business, takes care of their own vehicles, and camping arrangements, and keeps books and all. Here we got three crew, Red Star, Logrollers, and the Green Thumbs. But we all get along pretty well.”

“And the girls plant too?”

“Yep! I hear there are about fifty of us here, probably fifteen or so are women.”

They found that pretty interesting. Katie gave one of them an arm wrestle, and while she didn’t win, she didn’t just flop over neither. Everybody was laughing, but they were pretty impressed.

Well pretty soon we are takin’ turns buying pitchers, and playing pool and just having a good time. I remember Peter breakin’ out his fiddle, and some more of the crew folks filtered in. It looked like everybody was going to get along just fine.

Now I’ve been on a lot of contracts over those years back then, and I’ve seen some friendly towns, but never before nor since was there any town that took us in like they did in Elk City.

We had some 2400 acres to plant, and so with three crews we had about three weeks’ work, but we got snowed out almost a full week, and so on, you know how it goes. So we were there just over a month. We were the darlings of the town the whole damn time. On weekends we’d come in and party and never did anyone ever give us even a bad look. Not once! Everybody always just greeted us with a smile.

Well, most of us Red Stars and a few other folks went up to Mare Ridge. It was a six mile hike in, since the road was under three of four feet of snow in places. It was one big, 485 acre unit. I remember there was this absolutely enormous grand fir tree, right on the top of the ridge. It took four of us to get our arms around it, and it was tall! Liz Madera set up camp right there, and every single night you could see her resting with her back up against that tree, looking up at the stars. That was her spot, and you better not be in it when she wanted to sit down there. I swear it was really awe inspiring. That was when Galen Daicie had this crush on Liz, and was following her around the unit every day like a puppy dog. Funniest thing you ever saw.

The long and short of it was, once we went up to Mare Ridge, we kinda missed out on some of the town fun, but being up there was its own reward. Anyway, we were also the last to finish up. The road had opened up by then, of course, and half a dozen planters came up to help us finish off the last couple of days.

Boty had already split, so I was riding back home with the Logrollers in their big green bus, and we got camp all cleaned up and the bus packed up and headed on into town. Now Liz and this gal Rachel were doing some laundry, so I walk in there to see if they’re ready to leave. They say it’s almost done, so I sit down and wait, watch the big old dryers going flop, flop, flop.

As I’m sitting there, in walks this young woman and her little girl, maybe six years old. As they walk by, the girl gives us a big, wide-eyed stare. When they get to the machines on the other side, we can hear her whisper, almost breathless:

“Mommy. Are… are those hippies?”

Her mom straightens up just a little, throws us a quick glance, and says back to the girl proudly, with just a touch of awe in her voice, “No dear. Those aren’t hippies. Those are tree planters.”

 

Aileen Hunt, 4/6/2015

Current Occupation: Teacher, adult education
Former Occupation: Teacher, adult education
Contact Information: Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer with a particular interest in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, and the Lindenwood Review. Additional essays are forthcoming from Creative Nonfiction and the Eastern Iowa Review.  She is currently working on a collection of flash nonfiction pieces based on the lives of pioneering women.  You can find her at Aileen-Hunt.com where she blogs regularly and indulges her passion for photography.

#

After Coffee

 

When I return from the break, Dave is slumped in Peter’s chair, his head resting on the table. “O good. You’re here, Dave,” I say, my heart sinking. “How are you today?”

He mutters something into the wood (good? fine? terrible?) and pulls his phone from his pocket, begins jabbing at the keyboard. His cuticles are red and swollen.

Peter bounds into the classroom, stops short. He takes a seat opposite Dave, reaches across the table to retrieve his pen and paper. He smiles his big Peter smile. Jesus Dave, I think. Every bloody week.

The new guy, John, comes in. He seems nice. But you never know.

Michael is last back. He’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, even though the weather’s turned. Last week he forgot the code to get in and stood outside for half an hour. This week, he got lost on the way to the centre. “I know how to get here,” he told me. “I just can’t remember.”

I’ve been teaching this group since September, although I doubt I’ve ‘taught’ anyone anything. The students are dealing with addiction or mental health issues; that’s as much as I’ve been told. I’m dealing with my own inadequacies. Lack of skills, lack of training; for the first time in my teaching life, I’m out of my depth.

I pull out some photocopies: a newspaper report about technology use among adults. It’s a topic they know about. A part of me begins to feel hopeful. Maybe we’ll get a debate going.

I ask Dave to read first, immediately regret it. He mumbles through the paragraph, but the others don’t seem to mind. Peter jumps in as soon as Dave stops. “Windows 7 is the best,” he says, and I scan the paragraph to see if I’ve missed where it mentions Windows. “Windows XP was good too,” Peter continues. “Windows 8.1 and 8.2 are no good. They’re skipping Windows 9. Windows 10 will be the next.”

John announces his phone is broken. He speaks loudly, just this side of shouting.  Hearing loss? Anger? He seems nice, but you never know.

I took this job because I thought I could learn to do it well. Now, I don’t want to learn it at all. I’m counting the weeks down until the end of term.

Michael picks up the reading. He bends his head to the page, uses a magnifying glass. Dave takes a long slurp from a bottle of Yazoo, twirls a pencil in his hand.

“Are you surprised to read that adults spend more time using technology than sleeping?” I ask. Peter announces that he’s going to get his new computer at the weekend. Michael says people don’t talk to each other anymore. John says you don’t have to remember phone numbers these days. Dave says nothing.

I repeat the question, emphasise the key words. I can feel the tension in my neck, the tight knot forming.

“Dave,” I say. “Do you stay up all night playing video games?”

“Only at the weekend,” Dave answers. “If I stay up during the week, I can’t stay awake in class.” He says this without irony, stretches his legs and slumps further in his chair.

His inertia infuriates me. I imagine him sprawled in a therapist’s office or a courtroom, staring into space while strangers decide the direction of  his life. He’s in his early twenties, the same age as my son.

I want to shake him. “Ok,” I say instead. “Ok.”

John reads the next paragraph in a loud, staccato voice. He was a student here twelve years ago. I’m not sure why he’s back.

“Is technology changing the way we communicate?” I ask, and Michael looks up. “Nobody talks anymore,” he says.

A few weeks ago, he moved into a new hostel. The lads he’s sharing with are nice, he says, but it’s a long way from Leixlip, where he used to live. He has his new address written down on a piece of paper. Just in case.

Peter says the new iPhone bends. The Galaxy Note is better. So is the HTC1.

John nods.

Dave says nothing. He lifts his head for a second, lets it snap back onto his chest. He looks better than he did last week. Not as pale, maybe.

He taps his pencil on the table, shifts a little in his seat. Peter is humming to himself. John is doodling. Michael is looking at the ceiling. I take a breath and smile at them in turn, give it one last shot.

“Do you prefer communicating online or in person?” I ask, and Michael responds immediately. “In person,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about spelling or reading.”

“In person,” says Peter. “You can tell if people like you when you can see their face.”

“In person,” says John. “If you hook up with someone online, they mightn’t look like they say they do in real life. They might be an ugly bitch”

Jesus, I think. I’m too old for this. Nothing could bring me back for another year.

“Dave?” I prompt. “Dave?”

He lifts his head slowly, looks at me for a second.

“Online,” he says.

And then, in a rush: “People can’t hurt you online. They can’t find you and they can’t beat you up. They can say they will, but it’s only talk. They can’t really do it. Not like in real life.”

“You’re safe online,” he says, and stabs his pencil through the page.

 




 

 

 

 

Hiromi Yoshida, 3/30/2015

Current Occupation: Academic Librarian Job Candidate; and President of the Apartment & Family Student Council, Indiana University Bloomington
Former Occupation: Reference Services Assistant, Wells Library, Indiana University Bloomington
Contact Information: Hiromi Yoshida has worked in academic libraries throughout most of her graduate student career.  Winner of multiple Indiana University Writers' Conference awards, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Clockwise Cat; The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society; Borderline; Evergreen Review; Bathtub Gin; Flying Island; and the Matrix anthologies of literary and visual arts.  She loves the smell of old books and pending rain.

 

#

Porcelain Lady

 

I remember her porcelain fragility—the way she handled her neurosis

carefully like medieval embroidery, or Ming china, her eggshell

lining skin shot through with Botox injections and other

 

kinds of invective that hadn’t been invented yet. Her alcoholic

fingers stapled photocopy askew: she couldn’t align the ruler with

her hemline to see who measured up to whom despite her giraffe

height. Thus we were caged birds of a different

 

species from each other singing shrill ditties for the supper that never

came to us at the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) Department we cohabited.

 

We wasted time on the clock begging the hairy

prince to come to us like a good Neanderthal in a silver G-string.

 

And maybe he did come for us to perform the Chippendale’s dance

behind locked doors, gyrating voyeuristic

Vaseline moves in skewed Manhattan moonlight. Yet she remains

 

for me the porcelain lady with her raucous neuroses: She gawks at me

from behind the torn lace years—mistress of bitchy vodka moods.

 

Today, I’m sorry I never knew anything

about the rain she saw behind eyelids shuttered against the storm that bothered her

when she told me about her hairy pedophilic uncle. Perhaps she

 

saw him standing in the moonglare behind

my back. At least we know he shouldn’t have reached into the pubic

spaces of her body like parks closed after Sunday dark. After all these years, perhaps we

 

can escape the ILL cage we cohabited, once upon a time when the prince came to us in

the scintillating regalia of respective desire for liberation from our father the hairy ape and the luciferian angel of antediluvian mercy and elusive catharsis.

 

And perhaps the caged birds will sing again and won’t fall

off their easy perches into narcissistic sunlight. And perhaps

 

an invective has been invented by now for Ming china, and we can dig our way to

the other side of the moon.

 

Ed Nichols, 3/23/2015

Current Occupation: Management Consultant and Author
Former Occupation: Human Resources Manager and Consultant
Contact Information: Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia. He is a short story award winner from Southeastern Writers Association. He has had many short stories published, online and in print magazines.

 
#

 

Men’s Dress Shirts

Bobby Lee Sims walked down to the pond behind his house and sat on a bench.  He looked across the water, watching ducks frolicking.  He figured they were cheerful because they were headed south for the winter.  Don’t blame them, he thought.  Wouldn’t want to live up north either.  Cold, harsh winters.  High heat bills.  Bobby Lee leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees.  Bills!  Bills!  What was going to happen to him and Polly now?  He had wanted to stop by her beauty shop when he got off work and give her the news.  But, he didn’t want her customers to hear him say, “The plant is closing!  And I won’t have a job!”  He rubbed his temples, stood up, picked up a rock and skipped it across the water toward the ducks.  They glanced to him, quacked, flapped their wings, and floated across the pond.  As if they were telling him, Leave us alone—we can’t help it you lost your job.

Bobby Lee went back to the house and waited.  He was sitting on the sofa when Polly arrived.  He gave her the whole story, straight out.  No use to downplay it.  The company was moving to China.  Mr. Maxwell was closing the plant.  He might sell the building—but, no one will want to buy a fifty-year-old garment factory.  No more will men’s dress shirts be cut and sewn here, or anywhere else in Georgia.  “Everything is moving overseas,” Mr. Maxwell had told the employees.  “Soon there won’t be any garments made in the US.  I hate it, but we stayed open as long as we could.” 

Polly said, “We’ve talked about this before.   You sort of saw it coming, didn’t you?”

“Yea.  I guess,” he said.  “But still—“

“Bobby Lee,” she said, reaching over and putting her hand on his thigh, “we’ll be all right.”

“I don’t know.  I feel so helpless.”

“Stop being so down in the dumps.  You, I mean us, have got to stay up.”

Bobby Lee rubbed his eyes.  He smiled, then leaned over and kissed her.  “I’ll stay up, but I’ve got to find another job.  We still owe six years on the house and a couple on your car.”

“You’ll get unemployment money for a while, right?”

“Yea.  And Mr. Maxwell is giving each employee six weeks pay.”

“That’s good.  We’ll be all right, with what I take in at the shop.  For a while, anyway.”

——    

For the first couple of months after the plant closed, Bobby Lee had agreed with Polly.  They seemed to be all right.  But as the unemployment started to run out, he became frustrated.  This economy stinks, he kept telling her.  There are no jobs for a sewing machine mechanic anyway.  “They’ve all gone to damn China!” he hollered at her one night.  Polly knew his skills were limited; now she figured his age might be working against him.  They were sitting on the bench at the pond drinking a beer late in the afternoon when he said, “I’m going to see if I can get on at Piggly Wiggly, bagging groceries or putting up stock.”

Polly looked at him for a long minute, and then said, “I hate you doing that.  You’re capable of so much more.”

“I know.  I know, but what we gonna do?”  Bobby Lee put his hands over his face and rubbed his eyes.  “We need a little more money every month; pretty soon our savings will be wiped out.  Then what?”

She nodded, realizing he was right.

“You should’ve married that dentist you dated, before we met,” he said.

“Quit that talk, Bobby Lee.  I love you and we’ll ride this thing out.”  She added, “I remember what my daddy used to say, ‘This too shall pass.’”

Bobby Lee stared across the pond.  He said, “I sure hope it passes soon!”

——

The next morning Bobby Lee slept late and when he went in the kitchen there was a note from Polly stuck to the refrigerator.  It said:

I love you.  Stay up.  Something good will happen!  See you tonight.

He sat down, ate two donuts and drank three cups of coffee.  He felt charged up.  He put on a pair of jeans and a denim shirt, tennis shoes and a baseball hat.  Then he got in his pickup and drove to Piggly Wiggly.  He parked his truck, got out and stood facing the store.  He looked to the left and right of the grocery store.  On the left was Hanson’s Furniture, on the right was a café, then Alexander’s department store.  He decided to check out the department store before going in Piggly Wiggly.  Inside, he gravitated toward men’s clothing.  Looked to him like there were a lot of items on sale—everywhere there were little signs, 25% OFF or 50% OFF, sticking up next to piles of clothes.  He found the men’s dress shirts.  He started picking shirts up and examining labels to see where they were made.  Most were made in China, and then he found a pile made in Malaysia, another pile made in Indonesia, and a stack from India.  He said out loud, “Sonofabitch!” just as a short, bald salesman approached him.

“Sir, may I help you?” the salesman asked.  He looked at the shirt Bobby Lee was holding.  “That’s our most popular color, this year.”

“No. I just—“

“The salesman said, “It’s aqua blue, not too dark, and—“

“I’m not interested—“

“But it’s our most popular,” the salesman said, taking the shirt from him and pressing it against Bobby Lee’s chest.  “Oh, you’d look good in this, in your suit.”

“Don’t own a suit,” Bobby Lee said, looking down at the salesman as he backed up to get the shirt off his chest.  He said to the salesman, “Do you know where this shirt was made?”

“Well…no sir,” the salesman said fumbling with the shirt, looking for the label.  “It says, India.”

“That’s right!” Bobby Lee said loudly.

“Well…well, our finest shirts come from India now.”  The salesman winked at Bobby Lee and said, “Personally, I prefer them over shirts made in China, or South America.”

“Do you ever buy shirts made in America?”  Bobby Lee said louder.

The salesman looked around nervously.  “Well, sir,” he said.  “Mr. Alexander buys all of our men’s clothing, and he tries to get the best price, and—“   

Bobby Lee stepped closer to the salesman and swept his arm around the store.  “Do you have any shirts made in America?”  He noticed sweat beads on top of the man’s bald head.

“Do you!” he repeated.

“The salesman patted his head with a handkerchief.  “Sir, I don’t recall…seeing any shirts made in America.”

“Well, do you have any clothes!  Anywhere in this store!  Made in America!”

The salesman backed away.  “Sir, I believe we do have some women’s things—I remember hearing Mr. Alexander talking to Mrs. McCollum…about a new shipment of women’s scarves.  I believe he said they were produced in South Carolina.”

“Women’s scarves!  Damn, man,” Bobby Lee said.  His face was red and he suddenly felt nauseous.  He watched the salesman step slowly back into a rack of shirts.  Bobby Lee moved closer.  “I want you to do me a favor,” he said.

“Sure…sure,” the salesman said.

“You go find Mr. Alexander, and you tell him this!  You tell him, because he buys all this—all this shit!”  Bobby Lee reached behind the salesman and pulled a stack of shirts onto the floor.  “Because he buys these shirts from China and India and everywhere else, he’s helped put one hundred and ten people out of work.  Out of a job, not twenty miles from here!”

“Well, sir, I—“

“And you can tell him my name, if you want to—Bobby Lee Sims!”  Bobby Lee turned and walked out of the store.  He didn’t look back.  He got in his pickup and drove out of town onto a county road. 

As he drove, he tried to figure out what had happened to his country.  Thirty minutes later, he stopped at an overlook near the top of Low Gap Mountain, got out and leaned against the fender.  He could see nearly to Atlanta.  He wondered if any clothes, or shoes, were being made anywhere in America.  He wondered how many people out there had lost their jobs because of foreign imports; there were probably thousands of people in the same circumstance he was in.  He didn’t know what he could do about it—what anybody could do.  It’s just the way things are.  Most people suck it up, he figured.  They try to find another job—one that pays anything, most likely a lot less than they were making—and get by as best they can. 

That night, sitting at the kitchen table, he told Polly what he’d done at Alexander’s department store.  She laughed, and then said, “You almost lost it, didn’t you?”

Bobby Lee smiled.  “Yea.  Guess I did.”

“Good thing that Mr. Alexander didn’t come out and call the police,” she said.

“It wasn’t that bad.  Although I think the little bald-headed salesman was shook up.”

“You think he told Mr. Alexander what you said?”

“I hope so.” Bobby Lee said.

Bobby Lee was sitting at the kitchen table the next morning when the phone rang.  He picked up the receiver, and said, “Hello.”

A pleasant man’s voice asked, “Is this Bobby Lee Sims?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Mr. Sims, my name is Boyd Alexander.  I believe you were in my store yesterday.”

Bobby Lee had a sinking feeling, but there was no sense in lying.  “Yes sir.  I was.”

“Well, I was wondering—“

“Look Mr. Alexander, I’m sorry for what I said, and did in your store, and I—“

“Oh, don’t worry about that.  I understand your frustrations.”

“I appreciate that…I—“

“I wonder if you could stop back by the store today.  I would like to chat with you for a few minutes.”

Bobby Lee rubbed his neck.  “Well, I suppose so…I’ve got all day.”

“Good.  How are you with one o’clock?”

“Fine.  I’ll be there,” he said, hanging the receiver up.

Bobby Lee ran through the conversation with Mr. Alexander several times in his mind.  He was puzzled.  Was it a ploy to get him in the store and have him arrested?  He thought about not going—he didn’t have to go.  He could stay home and sit by the pond.  But, what the heck, he didn’t have anything to lose.

At twelve-thirty, he combed his hair, put on a pair of khakis, a pressed shirt, and loafers.  He got in his pickup and drove to town, thinking, wondering.  He entered the store at ten minutes to one.  He immediately looked for the short bald-headed salesman.  He didn’t see him, so he asked an elderly lady behind a cash register where he might find Mr. Alexander.  She pointed to the back of the store.  

Mr. Boyd Alexander was tall and slim with silver hair.  He shook Bobby Lee’s hand and motioned to a chair in front of his desk.  “I really appreciate you coming by, Bobby Lee,” he said, as he sat in a large leather chair behind the desk.

Bobby Lee sat and crossed his legs.  “Look, I’m really sorry about yesterday, and I—“

“No problem,” Mr. Alexander said.  He smiled.  “I know what you’re going through—went through a rough spell myself when I started my first store.”

“You’ve got other stores?”

“Five.  All in Georgia.”

“I didn’t know that,” Bobby Lee said.  He uncrossed his legs and said, “I guess your salesman thought I was nuts.  Hope I didn’t scare him, or anything.”

Mr. Alexander laughed.  “No, he’s okay.  I just glad he told me…about your visit.”

Bobby Lee glanced around the office.  He said, “I guess you know about the plant closing.”

“Yes, I do.  It’s sad.”  Mr. Alexander leaned forward and put both arms on his desk.  “I called Bob Maxwell last night and asked him about you.  He told me you were one of the best employees he had.  Said you knew more about men’s dress shirts than anybody.”

Bobby Lee felt his face turn red.  “I enjoyed working for him.  He always treated me right.”

Mr. Alexander reached to a box beside his chair and removed a man’s shirt.  He held it up.  Bobby Lee noticed a monogram on the pocket.  “Bobby Lee, the manufacturing business and the retail business is constantly changing.  I have to be on my toes—always trying to do something the big box stores are not doing.  See this monogram?”

Bobby Lee nodded.  Mr. Alexander said, “Bob Maxwell told me you could run and fix any kind of sewing machine.  I’m going to buy a monogram machine and we’re going to offer a new service to our customers.  Not only for men’s shirts, but for women’s clothes, too.  Even pocketbooks and so on.”  He paused, laid the shirt down, and looked at Bobby Lee.  “I want you to come to work for me, set the machine up and run it.  If it goes like I think it will, we’ll buy four more for the other stores and you can set them up and train our people to run them.”

A month later, Bobby Lee had the machine humming and monogrammed shirts were selling faster than Mr. Alexander could get them in: from China and Malaysia and Indonesia and India, and even South America.  Bobby Lee liked the shirts from India best.  They seemed to hold the monograms better and didn’t pucker or wrinkle.

 

Mark J. Mitchell, 3/16/2015

Former Occupation: Temporary Convention Staffer, Wine and Spirits Expert

Current Occupation: Tour Guide , San Francisco

Contact Information: Mark JMitchell studied writing at UC Santa Cruz under Raymond CarverGeorge Hitchcock and Barbara Hull. His work has appeared in various periodicals over the last thirty five years, as well as the anthologies Good Poems, American Places,Hunger Enough, and Line Drives. His chapbook, Three Visitors, has been published recently by Negative Capability Press .  Two chapbooks, “Lent, 1999” and “Artifacts and Relics” will coming out later in the year. His novel, “Knight Prisoner” is available from Vagabondage Press. Another novel, “A Book of Lost Songs” is going through the editorial process, on its way to publication by Wild Child Publishing. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the activist, documentarian and film maker, Joan Juster.

 

#

WRITERS AT WORK

 

                The working writer

                Is not really staring

                Off into space. No,

                He’s looking for the word

                That will perfectly capture

                The color of that tree

                That just happens to be

                Lurking in the middle distance.

 

                And the writer works

                As he shuffles around the room

                Picking up a book he’d

                Quite forgotten he owned

                While waiting for the water to boil.

                Coffee is his staff of life and

                That book is purest research.

 

                A writer’s at work even

                While missing a spot shaving.

                The gray stubble reminds him

                Of something in a green book or

                Was it the bark of that tree

                He was looking at? When he sorts it out

                He’ll write it down.

John Lowther, 3/9/2015

Current Occupation: Data Analyst and Dissertator

Former Occupation: Graduate Student and Teacher

Contact Information: John Lowther's work appears in the anthologies, The Lattice Inside (UNO Press, 2012) and Another South: Experimental Writing in the South(U of Alabama, 2003). Held to the Letter, co-authored with Dana Lisa Young is forthcoming from Lavender Ink. He blogs as Lowtherpoet at wordpress.

 

#

Five Sonnets from 555 & a ‘Note on the Text’

To work is destroy or to curse the world.

The curves of your lips rewrite history.

Mad man gesticulates in negative fashion.

You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.

There is a condom stuck to the carpet over here.

My doorbell rings but I was still waking up.

To be alone in that is hard and uncomfortable.

There is no redemptive moment.

Obviously this is no solution.

It’s like committing a murder.

Silence is tacit approval.

Love laughs at locksmiths.

I would totally fuck a duck.

That is the moment of overdetermination.

 

#

 

Yes, like why some people are born into a life of lazing around and philosophizing, and others are shoved into a hole and told to fucking get busy.

This is how pathetic this planet has become.

 

Sanity tends to be the word we use for any preferred state of mind.

The nation was not mobilized to do anything.

 

There's no such thing as going to college getting a career and making a life.

Anti-intellectualism is American intellectualism.

 

It’s not a question of actually promoting that.

If I were you I’d wake up and smell the violation.

 

#

 

He who does not 'die' from being only a man will never be other than a man.

It’s a portrait of the human processes which constitute that awfulness.

Molly in that sense either comes from or accounts for the term Molly House.

It's no one's place to tell me where my priorities for my own body should lay.

If you ever voted for a homophobic Republican political candidate, your child is gay.

The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity.

I found myself thinking that with a bit of makeup he would be very passable, even pretty.

 

#

 

Do not write anything anymore to the drive you want to recover the data from.

It meditates you.

Your voice is like nails on a chalkboard.

It’s the shit.

Your track record is all the information anyone needs to know.

It’s not pink.

Your Hungry Man Turkey Dinner is finished microwaving.

It’s a bit shit.

Your psychic abilities aren't needed.

It’s not so bad.

You can call other people sock puppets, or claim that you are a good person all you want.

It’s a pretty strange idea.

 

Spirit is at war with itself.

Spooky action at a distance.

 

#

 

How to tell if you're American.

Here's to spending daddy's money.

Her mom slit her wrists like a dumb ass.

The more prominent of the brothers, presumably, is holding a fish in his right hand.

Your hygiene is suspect, your hair is gross and you have no fashion sense whatsoever.

Tattoos that are inappropriate or gang-related must be covered at all times.

In actual time, no heavenly harmony resonates in the sound and fury.

There is nothing wrong with me a massive lottery win wouldn't fix.

 

#

 

Note on the Text

 

555 is a collection of sonnets whose construction is database-driven and relies on text analytic software. I crunched and analyzed Shakespeare’s sonnets to arrive at averages for word, syllable and character (inclusive of punctuation but not spaces). These averages (101 words, 129 syllables, 437 characters) became requirements for three groups of sonnets. I collected lines from anywhere and everywhere in the air or in print in a database. The lines are all found, their arrangement is mine. Values for word, syllable and character were recorded. Typos and grammatical oddities were preserved; only initial capitals and a closing period have been added as needed. The selection of lines isn’t rule-driven and inevitably reflects what I read, watch, and listen to, thus incorporating my slurs and my passions as well as what amuses and disturbs me. These sonnets were assembled using nonce patterns or number schemes; by ear, notion, or loose association; by tense, lexis, tone or alliteration. Every sonnet matches its targeted average exactly. Think of Pound’s “dance of the intellect among words” then sub sentences for words—it is amongst these I move. The dance in question traces out a knot (better yet, a gnot) that holds together what might otherwise fly apart. I espouse only the sonnets, not any one line.