Jessica R. Barnes, 10/16/2017

Current Occupation: mother, writer, teacher, scholar, musician, innkeeper
Former Occupation: corn detassler, musician, packer, customer service representative, cook, grounds keeper, reporter, editor
Contact Information: Grown from a wooded valley in rural Wisconsin and driven a perch 7,000 feet in the sky – Flagstaff, Arizona USA – Jessica has taken notes along the way and wants to share them with you. Her current occupations (a telling word) include mothering, writing, making music, teaching geography, and welcoming travelers. She does these things as magnifying glasses to examine the scraps of humanity we share. She has long been preoccupied with how the work we do for our own pleasure fits into the economy, her doctoral research was on how crafters' work fits into lives and livelihoods.  

 

#

A Chance

 

I’ve worked in a factory for three weeks.

It makes me want to play the lottery.

 

#

Robots take my job

 

Robots take my job,

Don’t let me be here twenty years on,

Let’s just end this drudgery.

 

Nostalgic cogs in the machine,

Don’t turn me on, won’t set you free,

Maybe I’m too bourgeoisie.

 

Don’t ship this work across the sea,

Don’t wish this hell on anybody,

Solidarity for people being free.

 

Machines of love and grace,

Watch over while I find my place,

A living well economy.

 

I could be loving you all day,

Or writing songs or play and play,

Robot is better at that, you say.

 

Til robots strike for minimum wage,

Til robots strike for weekend days,

Write ones and zeros poetry.

 

 

Posted in

Christian Woodard, 10/9/2017

Current Occupation: I just finished a Forest Service season out of Red Lodge, MT and am on my way to Kodiak to pack goat hunts. This winter I'll guide glacier trips in Patagonia. 

Former Occupation: I've been a newspaper writer, managed an apple orchard, gillnetted salmon, and built trails. I've had short stints as a professional kayaker, graphic and web designer, driver, and dishwasher.

Contact Information: I was born in Western New York and live most of the time in south-central Montana. 

#

Skinning the Fish

 

Graham followed, bloodying his palms on the salmonberry to catch his balance. “It’s important to be wounded,” he said. He showed his hands to the guide then wiped them on his new pants.

“I avoid it when I can,” Falco said without looking back. He followed game trails through birches which sometimes opened into cottonwood orchards where deer had trampled the meadows to mud. The elder bushes were bitten back hard. Too many deer.

They were going to fish on Park Creek. That’s what Merle and Falco called the drainage that linked their camp to the center of the island. Merle had built the camp near Park Creek’s mouth, where it carried quartz and gold dust to a black gravel delta that, at low tide, nearly closed off the bay. It was an old mining claim.

Falco was taking Graham to the pool where silver salmon collected before thrashing up a canyon. The drainage hooked behind one of the long, peninsular ribs that descend from the backbone of the island and define its bays. Merle had always called those sharp, icy mountains “The Spine.”

They were nearly to the pool when Graham whispered, “Look,” and pointed out a lone hoof track in the mud. “I think there might be a deer here.” His eyes went wide inside their heavy brows.

“I think you’re right, Graham.” Falco tried not to treat him like a child, but he couldn’t help ending sentences with his name. He led with exaggerated quietness, stopping sometimes to listen.

Graham unslung his rifle — a Savage 30-06 that still had stickers on it — and tried to walk exactly in Falco’s footsteps. It was the same, ordinary rifle Graham had used two days before to shoot a mountain goat through the hoof, across the rump, and in the gut before they could finally get close enough to kill it.

Falco’s rifle wasn’t old, but saltwater had corroded the blueing and its butt stock was chipped because he used it as a walking stick. He was hard on his body, too, which at thirty-five had bad knees and back, arthritic fingers, and deep lines around the mouth that showed through a fine blond beard. The skin above his cheeks was thin and creased, which which gave him a distant expression. From time in the binoculars, he thought.

His eyes, though, were quick and earnest. In close conversation he had the same youthful energy as when he had first met Merle at O’Hare.

Falco had stood at the baggage claim, looking for an Alaskan Hunting Guide that had rescued three Kodiak bears siblings when their mother was shot. The Zoo was flying Merle down for their bear symposium. Big beard, Falco had thought. Plaid shirt.

“You the zoo kid,” a very tall man asked. He wore a blazer. The man bent toward him and Falco could smell booze on his breath. His short dress pants made him look even taller.

Falco stood quietly until his expectations adjusted. “How did you know?”

“You smell like shit.”

Falco worked in an animal behavior lab where he entered data on a computer. He wished he smelled more like shit.

Merle leaned down again and winked. “No. I can’t smell worth a damn, anyway.”   

At the symposium, Merle had talked about how trophy hunting helped Kodiak bears. One of the scientists asked how many he’d killed and Merle said he had only taken one bear himself. “I caught her knocking down my cabin wall,” he said. “Wish I didn’t have to do it.”

“But when you take trophy hunters, do you carry a gun?”

“Of course.” Merle shook his head slightly at the scientist. “I back my clients up, if that’s what you mean.”

The man smiled. “How many bears have you pulled the trigger on?”

Merle thought for a minute and counted on his fingers. “Close to a hundred, I’d guess.”

Doctor Petersen stood quickly and thanked Merle politely for saving the baby bears.

Merle sat down heavily next to Falco. “They think I’m a peasant who accidentally dug up a pot of gold,” he’d said from the side of his mouth. “These bitches,” he finished his wine and exhaled, “wouldn’t know a tapeworm if it crawled out of their ass.”

Falco quit his job and went to Kodiak that summer. Merle flew him to the hunting camp in his 206. Neither of them had been south in eight years.  

 

Falco walked upstream until the canyon vaulted above them. Its whitewater swirled and churned into a dark pool. He pointed out the slow, dark dorsal fins of salmon resting at the inside bend. “Just cast across them and pull your lure through that bunch.”

“Won’t we scare them?” Graham scrunched his eyes shut when he asked questions. He might have thought he was blinking, but it used more cheek than eyelid.   

“I doubt it,” Falco said. “Good job walking quietly back there, Graham.” Falco picked a stem of dry rye grass and chewed it while Graham lowered himself down the cutbank and threaded his rod.

Once, in the zoo basement, Falco had found an escaped chimp tugging at a payphone. The monkey squinted at him. With a sudden violent motion it broke the telephone cord and galloped down the hall holding the receiver.

Graham glanced up at Falco and moved a few steps upstream. He swung the rod with the bail closed and the lure splashed into the shallows. Graham slammed the reel open and tried again, losing his balance with the cast. Falco turned his back to the stream so Graham didn’t feel watched.     

Falco had gone to college for animal behavior, which had all the benefits though none of the social requirements of studying people. He had had a few strong human relationships, but they’d all soured in the end. It had been that way with Doctor Petersen and the director at the lab. Merle was different, though. Merle had never meant to misuse him.

When Falco had cornered the escaped monkey it brandished the phone receiver. He knew he should return the chimp to its enclosure but crouched to speak softly and the animal came to him. It rested the thick skin of its palm on Falco’s shoulder in the sort of gesture only one free being could give to another. He let it walk its strong fingers up to his ear. They faced each other curiously.

“I’m sorry,” he’d said. Startled, the monkey jumped back, clubbed him on the forehead with the phone and run out into the hallway. Oh well. He had been sorry, all the same.  

Graham made a few casts well short of the fish, which held their place. The lure was heavy enough that he should have been able to send it all the way across. Graham relaxed into the gentle repetition of retrieving the spoon. Maybe he just wanted to fish without actually catching one.

 

When Graham had arrived three days earlier, Falco expected to see Merle get out of the floatplane, too. The old man wouldn’t be tying up at the floating dock anymore. He had flown straight into a mountain that spring, when the ceiling closed down during one of his rare runs to town. Crashes like that didn’t happen very much anymore, but it happened to Merle, and Falco still had the small bag of his ashes in the hide shed.

The new pilot was young and couldn’t get the back door handle to turn. When it did pop open a flat of eggs slid onto the dock.

“Sorry,” he said. “Rough flight.”

Falco set the eggs on a fuel drum. Graham stumbled off the plane under the weight of his backpack. His lips and eyebrows stuck out so that he looked like a pensive, balding ape. He shook Falco’s hand and then leaned in for a back-patting hug. Falco had hunted with Graham before — sheep and moose in the Alaska Range and once for brown bear on the Peninsula. Graham pretended to be a plumber, but he sure had a lot of money for trophy hunts.

Falco planned to bring the ashes into the head of Park Creek, but he was booked solid through the winter. He’d have to get up there on a hunt, and needed a strong client to make it over the mountains and back. He and Merle had always wanted to hunt up there. Once they’d watched from the plane as forty-six goats formed a line and walked out the head of the valley through a narrow notch. They could plot approaches on the map, but neither of them had made it to the high bowl that looked, from camp, like the belly button of the island.

Falco helped Graham carry his bags up the slick stairs. Camp was a collection of buildings racked by wind. Merle built the main house and a guest cabin; Falco had added a small cabin for himself. There was also a small shack leftover from the mining claim that, by unspoken tradition, they left to decay. They stretched and salted the hides in there and hung mesh meat bags from the haphazard rafters. So far, it still stood. Canning salt seeped from its foundation and the door skewed off one hinge.

The charter plane roared away from the cove. Graham set down bags at his cabin. He spread his arms and sighed deeply. “It’s good to be back,” he said, and wrapped Falco in another hug. He meant Alaska, maybe, because he’d never set foot on Kodiak. Falco imagined that Graham was the disappointing son of a powerful businessman. He tested Graham’s gym muscles under the new camo jacket. He could probably make it to the Spine.

 

Finally, by luck, Graham snagged a silver in the heavy current. After a few runs he pulled it onto the clay. The fish was pale red, with its silver scales long gone, and lay tangled in monofilament from desperate rolls to throw the lure. As Graham worked the line off, a few orange eggs rolled out onto the bank and back into the water.

“A nice fish, eh?”

“A very nice fish.” Falco used pliers to pull the rusted treble hook from where it had snagged, near her vent. “Would you like a picture?”

“Of course.” Graham held the fish gently for the photo.

“Nice. You know how to let her go, running the water over her gills?”

“I’d like to keep it.”

Falco always paused before speaking. This came off as awkwardness among people who prepared their next statement while the other person spoke. Here on Kodiak, though, he felt that clients appreciated time to weigh their thoughts. “Will you eat it? The meat will be pretty far gone.”

“No, we’ll mount him.” The fish moved quietly and Graham squirmed against it.

Clients came to escape whatever trapped him down south, and Falco didn’t like to burst their bubbles. Falco touched his waxed baseball hat. “They don’t do skin mounts on fish anymore. A taxidermist will use a photo and measurements to make a fiberglass model. You’d better let her go before she’s too weak to swim.”

“Aren’t those skin mounts in the house?” Graham squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head a little.

At times, Falco pitied his clients so much he forgot to be angry with them. “Yes, but they were done fifty years ago. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who does them, now.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll find someone,” Graham said, handing the fish back. “Can you kill him, please?”

Falco didn’t notice Merle’s absence so much a shadowy presence in his own habits and attitudes. Now wordless, Merle-like hatred overtook his pity. He rapped the fish on its forehead with his knuckles. She jerked and the muscles quivered. Graham scurried off into the weeds, probably to take a shit, which he did after most exciting events.

He slid the thin tip of his boning knife into the fish’s skull, cut out the stiff gills and washed her in the water. Even so, her body undulated in the current. Dying was such a long process. Her skeleton was already soft and the throat had separated so that her head gaped free, attached only by the backbone. She was a poor, mid-sized fish. He held her over the water and massaged the eggs from her belly into the current. Salmon, he thought, most ancient of fish. Female antecedent to all. The current was probably too strong for them to be fertilized but what did it hurt.

The canyon cut its top layers through glacial sediment and volcanic ash, but the bottom was a dark corridor of smooth schist. Salmon rested in pockets carved into its overhung walls. A few bright dikes of quartz receded up the black walls, padded with moss and fern. Falco had tried to walk around it on a bear hunt last year, but his client had been fat, and they had to turn back. Even after the canyon it was many miles to the green, headwater lake.

Two days ago they had nearly made it over the mountains to that basin where spring’s lemony green held long into the fall. Falco loved Kodiak’s insistent wetness. The water that evaporated here seemed to fall right back down. There was always a bit of life crawling out of some sodden pore.

He’d had his eyes on the highlands and when he looked back down, a bear walked on a sandflat downstream. It moved slowly with steps originating in its swinging belly. Falco liked watching them peel open salmon and swallow them down. The bear looked at Falco, glanced above him to where Graham may have been pulling up his pants by now, and disappeared silently into the alder.

 

    They walked back to camp, where he set Graham up in the guide cabin with a small curved knife and a sharpening stone. Falco demonstrated how to pull the blade over the stone, and George tried with shaking hands.

“I don’t think I can do it,” he said.

“You got it, boss.” Falco opened the fish down its side and set it in Graham’s lap. It would be difficult to finish without ripping the decaying skin, but Graham needed to do something for himself, even if he failed.

    Falco got some beer from under the porch and pulled a broken plastic chair next to Graham to work on the goat head. The painstaking work of ears nose, eyelids and lips would last him the afternoon.

Falco stropped the fine tip he needed. He adjusted the diesel stove and made his first cut to pull clean, white skin away from the skull. Falco loved the inner workings of animals — where the blood comes and goes; how the bones fit into one another. Muscles peeled apart in perfect packets like they were supposed to be meat. On the mountain he was careful not to set boned meat on dirty rock or lichen. Sometimes, he would drag an animal a long way to get it to snow or a stream where he could clean it properly.

He had made Graham drag the goat to the edge of the snowfield so Falco could look down into Park Creek while he worked. It was such a perfect, blue day to walk and still early. Falco had tried to settle into skinning, but the ragged flaps of hide were dirty and he had to be careful around the hind flanks where a bullet had creased both haunches and the scrotum. Maybe his bullet. The front hoof was punctured through its hard sidewall. Viscous oil poured from the soft interior pad where the goat used to feel its footing on slate.

He blamed Graham for taking the shot, but Falco should have been a better babysitter. They had watched the small billy for a few minutes. It was at about four hundred yards, sidehilling talus. It had small glands and spiky horns and was no trophy, but it kept glancing up before moving. Falco snuck ahead to see if it was looking to more goats above.

He hadn’t been ready when Graham shot. Falco turned to see the goat hunch and stumble before trotting down the talus. It looked like a good chest hit from the way the animal shrugged, so he was slow to find a rest on his jacket, dial down and shoot.

He should have been able to put the goat down, but the animal ran before Falco got on. He’d hit it once at about five hundred, and he’d broken its front leg at even farther. That was long range for a .375, but Falco wasn’t proud. There was no reason for a fit guy like Graham to take a long shot like that. With a little patience, you could usually get inside a hundred yards. He’d never done it with a client, but once, wearing a white Tyvek painting suit, he’d come close enough to see a big billy’s strange, squared pupils. The hunters always brought camo, but goats were more comfortable with white.

Graham’s goat drug itself downhill to lay in the melted pocket under a boulder. It raised its head to moan as they picked their way down. It looked like a yellow stain in the shadow. At two hundred yards, Falco made Graham shoot again.

“Hold right where its shoulder pokes out. You can kill it, Graham.” But he’d missed and it still whimpered when he shot again at a hundred.

Sick with its distress, Falco ran up and killed it from ten yards. He smoothed the goat’s ears as it finally quieted and waited ten minutes with his fingers in the coarse hair. Falco wanted them both to calm down before they did anything.  

Falco stood slowly. “Alright, Graham?”

“I feel awful, man.” His eyebrows were pulled down tight and their wispy outer edges quivered.

Falco eyed the pass above them. Once he’d seen a bear run through that gap. It wasn’t likely, but if it happened he wanted more time before it got to the goat. He took a piece of cord from his pack and slipped it around the hind leg. “Drag him down where the ice rolls over that edge. Not too close, though.”

The guts were destroyed. They poured out in a stinking mess, purple and green and all mixed up. Above the diaphragm the lungs were roiled with broken ribs and froth from his last shot. He found a fragment of Graham’s 30-06 against the far hide and held it up.

“That’s your bullet,” he said. “Went through the chest, probably your first shot.”

Graham had a small knife out but hadn’t found a way to help. “It’s ruined, eh? The trophy?”

Falco turned downhill. The body cavity breathed rank steam across his view of Park Creek. “No. The taxidermist can fix it. At least it didn’t lose a horn, like if it had fallen off a cliff.”

“They do that?”

“Fall off cliffs? Yeah, when you poke holes in them. A taxidermist can make up a fake horn, even.” Falco worked the hide off the ribs. It was a three-year old and came off easily. He hardly had to use the knife. “The fall’s what kills ‘em a lot of the time. They’re one hell of a tough animal, and yours wasn’t in a place to fall.”   

From where he skinned, the hanging lake at the head of the valley looked like a green eye. Park Creek’s highest spring sprouted from a bank of wet stones below the lake. Falco pulled the undamaged tenderloins from the vertebrae and sensed his own hidden muscles with a sinking thrill.

Merle had shown him that the island’s interior was a secret. Kodiak’s people had always looked outward, drawing their life from the sea. But the interior — its thickets and milky streams, berry-covered highlands and long plateaus — remained a mystery to almost everyone. Pilots flew over and knew the landmarks, but Falco had run his hands through its hair.

 

He finished two beers before he looked up. Graham was running along pretty good. He had his tongue out between oversized lips, which he hadn’t opened to speak in who knows how long. Falco let out an impressive fart. It was magnified by the plastic chair on the raised plywood floor and they both paused before laughing.

“Whew!”

It was nice to see a smile on Graham’s face. He’d been taking himself so seriously since the goat. “You know, I’ve been married twenty years, and I’ve never farted in front of my wife.”

“Go ahead,” Falco flipped the skin off the head bone, “I’m not your wife.”

“I mean anybody.”

Falco gestured around the bunkhouse — antlers and bullet boxes, old gloves and knives. “This is the best fart rehearsal room in the world.” He stomped the resonant floorboards. “Makes even an amateur something special.”

Graham laughed again and with a distracted gesture put a long tear in the fish skin. He swore and jiggled his foot. “That’s it, then. The whole thing is fucked. I ruined it.”

That was the same way he was on the way up the mountain, poor guy. Always ready to blame himself. They were almost to tundra when he realized that every movement of his arm spun his scope turret. It was an expensive scope, but Graham hadn’t marked the zero, so he couldn’t tell how far off it was.

“This whole hunt. I’ve been planning it for years, and now look. My rifle is fucked.” Then he ran into the bushes to shit.

Falco said it was okay, that they could boresight it when they got to camp and if nothing else, he could use Falco’s gun. Beneath his reassurances, though, Falco’s anger rose against the pitiful, frantic energy.

Falco set down the nearly skinned head in his lap, its lips inside-out. The fish skin was torn across the belly. He reached down to the sixpack and opened one for each of them. “You’re going to have two ragged trophies from this trip,” he said, and drank half the beer in a gulp. He raised the can. “Congratulations.”

“You said the taxidermist could cover up the damage, right? Because the hair was so long?”

“He will.” After a year or two of looking at the perfectly mounted animal, Graham would forget how they’d ripped it apart. And how it lay there bawling for half an hour before they could finish it off.  Falco despised clients who mangled the pure essence of things to serve their ego. Few didn’t.

“Fuck, man. You know I feel awful about how that went.” Graham extended the tear in the skin until it separated into two strips over the gray flesh. “It’s not polite to talk about it.”

Falco lifted his hand. He was ashamed of ruining Graham’s hunt and disappointed they hadn’t made the high valley. He would be polite. “I just wish we hadn’t ruined that goat’s day.” Falco knew that Graham was waiting for an opportunity to justify himself. He’d probably start by glorifying the animal.

“It’s okay. They’re just tough animals. Magnificent animals.” Graham sipped his beer with hazy eyes and exhaled like he’d taken a shot of liquor. “I just like being in their country.”

They sounded like soothing phrases that Graham had repeated to himself before he came, but also like practice for stories he’d tell his indifferent wife. Next, Graham would say something about friendship. He always talked like Falco and Merle were his buddies, but you don’t pay your buddy this kind of cash.

“I’m glad we could go up there together,” he said.

Falco wished they hadn’t gone up there at all. “They are tough.” They both drank their beers and stared at the wall. Falco turned down the oil stove.

Graham burped loudly. Getting warmed up for a fart, maybe. “How come you never got married?” He rolled strips of fish skin into little balls.

Falco shook his head and pulled the wooden form out from the ear. Just the eyelids left to finish up. “Not fit for female company.”

“Don’t you get lonely?”

Falco was lonely but not for women. He wished Merle was there to help him hate Graham. Merle always believed that living without humanity is superhuman, but made an exception for Falco. “I was born lonely, I think. Nobody to remind me of it around here.”

“I’m the opposite. I have to try hard to get alone. Back home, everybody wants me to do something.” He laughed. “Try being married sometime, man.”

Falco coughed. “You’re not lonely, then.”

“Not when I’ve got good friends to hunt with.” Falco had to uncomfortable sense that Graham was about to lean against his shoulder. He scooted his chair away.

“Listen, man, if I could live this life, I would. Little house on the water. It’d be perfect.”

Falco finished his beer. Graham looked so mournful that the pity returned against his anger. “I don’t have to bite off farts for anybody, anyway.” “

“But I didn’t grow up to it. You must have done this since you were a little kid.”  

“Nope. My dad ran a grain elevator.” Falco hadn’t admitted that in years. “I’m from Indiana.”

“What?” Graham shook his head. “Guess I never knew you could. Until too late. How’d you start guiding, then?”

Falco laughed a little and crushed his can with a twist. “I got a college degree for it.”

“Stop shittin’ me.”

“No, I did. Animal Behavior. Had a bunch of stuck up bosses, then I met Merle by accident.” Merle was the first man he’d met who was proud of imperfection. He wore t-shirts filigreed with sweat holes. He spit into the bottom of the skiff. It wasn’t always easy to be around him, but it was easier to be around himself in Merle’s presence. Falco clenched his jaw to keep the tears back.

“I never went to college.” Graham turned the fish’s gray flesh in his hands. “What are we doing tomorrow?”

Graham had paid for a five day hunt and they were only two down. Three days was a long time to sit around camp. They could go ocean fishing, but the halibut had likely moved deep by now. They could hunt deer or chase ducks around in the skiff. “Haven’t decided yet. You think about what you want to do, and let me know in the morning.”

“What time is breakfast?” Graham stood and dropped the rank fish skin in the scrap bag.

“I’ll get you up,” Falco said.

Graham stepped outside then peeked back in through the almost shut door. “I’m sorry about Merle,” he said. “He was a good friend.”

Falco nodded slowly. He waited for Graham to close the door before slowly shutting his eyes and squeezing tears onto his nose. You got no idea, he thought. Falco finished the head and took the hide to the shed. His headlamp cast plump shadows from the meat bags. He unfolded the skin on the floorboards and poured salt from a forty pound bag. He knelt to spread salt across the flapped skin.

The hide would cure here for a couple weeks before he sent it off to the taxidermist. Every animal out of Merle’s camp had paused in this building before its immortal tenure in somebody’s trophy room. Falco liked the humid, metallic smell. Moisture from the skins of all the bears and deer and goats and even a few foxes had had joined the air in this broken down shed. He liked that their living wetness stayed on Kodiak so the hunters took nothing but dry, dead husks with them.   

The salt got into nicks on his knuckles he hadn’t noticed. Falco carefully worked the fine crystals into sinuses of the goat’s face. He turned out his light and knelt over it a long time. He listened to the dock sway under light waves. An oil drum bonged with the cooling temperature. The salt dissolved with a subtle hiss.

He cleaned salt and fat from his fingernails. Falco turned on his light, nodded to the rafter where he’d hidden Merle’s ashes and went in to bed.    

 

Falco slept badly and got up to piss. The moon was down and it was past the middle of the night by the tide. The dry skiff was about to float. His inland mind told him that a moonless night is pure dark, but the sea gathered starlight and the subtle electrical pulses of its creatures and heaved itself luminous on the shoreline.  

The Spine’s was a jagged, blank border below the stars. Merle was up there. The Coast Guard retrieved his body but up high, Falco felt, he could still meet Merle. He didn’t know if they’d recognize each other, Merle being dead. Some old trait would give him away, though — long steps on the outside of his feet, maybe. He expected to see Merle through the binoculars, striding a distant ridge.

Merle never said much, so it wasn’t right that they’d talk. Even just a wave would calm him down. In the last few years, Merle resented his clients more and more. Falco didn’t think it very professional, but as part of his unconscious imitation, he indulged himself in the same, quiet judgements: naive, childish, helpless, egotist.

To avoid confronting those traits in himself, Falco tried to live one moment at a time. He didn’t give much thought to the future and hadn’t considered what guiding would mean without Merle. He hadn’t planned to take over the operation but he was licensed for it, and the hunts had already been booked.

Graham was his first client since Merle died. Falco had put up with him so far, but the remaining three days weighed like a dense pack he couldn’t find a place to set down.

Falco hummed but it made him more lonely. The nights in October were too long to wait for sunrise. They could still make the green-eyed lake, he thought, if they got an early start. Graham was fit and if they escaped the brush before lunch they could take two days up with one to get back down. The tide filled under the skiff and it floated free to the end of its painter. He went into the main house to make breakfast.

 

He said they were going deer hunting. They ate in the dark and by the time they skiffed to the gravel flats it was dawn. Falco carried their camp and Graham, his rifle. The deer were just standing from their beds as the sun hit them.

“What about that one?” Graham pointed to a tall deer with his nose up a doe’s butt.

“That’s a little guy.” It was a nice three-by, but Falco wasn’t hunting. If they were going to make it he needed to keep Graham from shooting anything.

By lunch they had passed the canyon and were in the broad, meandering flats.  Graham had figured out they were making a dash for the Spine. “Better deer hunting up high, eh?”

Falco stayed in his binoculars, watching an eagle fluff itself by the water. “That’s where the big ones are.”  

They camped on a small rise where they could see the rolling backs of salmon headed to spawn in stillwater crooks. A small bear walked out of the alder and through the floodplain grasslands at dusk. Graham reached for his rifle but Falco touched his arm.

“He’ll scent us when he gets to those trees,” he said. The bear made the downwind birches, then turned and put its weight on its hind legs to sniff at them. It dropped its ears and loped sideways across the stream.

“He sure doesn’t like how you smell.” Falco said, and Graham smiled a little. He had peeled the stickers from his rifle, maybe seeing that they weren’t an integral part of the gun for the first time. It’s easy to get attached to things you don’t need.

Falco remembered when he’d showed his first rifle, a Browning .338, to Merle. The old man said there was a lot of extra gun there and took it to the shop. Falco had watched, speechless, as he hacksawed four inches off the barrel.

“It’ll just slow you down in the brush,” Merle had said, “You don’t need it.” It looked stubby for a while, but Falco got used to it.

He got them up early. They ate by headlamp and started walking with the first blue light. Falco angled uphill to get out of the river, where it was too easy to surprise a bear in the brush. They left the cottonwoods and every clearing stretched longer than the last. By mid-morning they were below the snowfield where Graham’s goat had bawled, waiting for them to kill it.

Bears had already visited the carcass and spread ribs and back and leg bones along the snow’s lower skirt. Falco stopped to watch the ravens fight over scraps of fat. One flew with a strip of meat and the rest harried it. “It doesn’t take long to disappear out here,” Falco said. He wished the Coast Guard had just left Merle on the mountain.

“Don’t let me die on this mountain, man.” Graham was only partly joking. “I want to tell stories when I get home.”

After four days most clients got a little homesick. Falco scanned the valley through binoculars. He could never remember where Graham was from, but it had to be shittier than this. Falco had lived with general homesickness for too long to recognize it in himself. “I wouldn’t mind turning into raven poop.”

“You know if I were younger, I’d be doing what you’re doing.” Graham heaved a heavy sigh.

Why did they all say that? Like they were victims of their age. “Nobody’s getting any younger.”

Falco led on, using his rifle as a walking stick. Graham struggled behind. He’d hurt his knee and tied a red bandanna on as a brace.   

They sat in the vibrant, antlered lichens that topped the hummocks to eat candy bars. Graham hadn’t seen them yet, but they had pushed a line of ten goats onto the bulge to their left. Ahead of them was the steep trail that he and Merle had watched the huge herd use. The final push.

“Is that the top?” Graham asked.

“I think so.” It wasn’t quite, but from there they could look down into the lake.

“Christ. I don’t think even a goat could get up that.”

They dropped their packs and went up, leaning into the hill. The ridge was too thin to stand comfortably, so they lay down and peeked over the edge. The far side was a steep gully of broken rock that emptied onto a hanging patch of ice before dropping again into the green lake.  

It was perfectly round except for a small dent below them at a rockfall. Falco had thought that the lake was Park Creek’s source. He’d imagined that this ridge was porous so that its water seeped into the stream. But they had climbed on solid rock, and the lake met the cliffs in a clean line. Falco saw now that it was a terminal basin. It didn’t drain to anywhere, and the same water had frozen and unfrozen in that pocket every year since the glacier melted.

“Is that the Spine?” Graham pointed to the serrated cliff opposite the lake.

It was. If they got on those cliffs, they could see the other side of the island, but now that he was here Falco didn’t feel like exploring. “I thought it was going to be different,” he said.

Falco shuffled forward on his knees and peed over the edge. Graham tried, but was too scared to get any out. They returned to the grassy bowl behind them to set up camp. The willow twigs around them were covered with hanks of dirty goat hair. Falco lay on his pack and glassed the herd they had displaced. They made dinner, and sunlight walked up the opposite slope. By then the goats had come down and stood near camp, even though Graham wouldn’t shut up.

“What a beautiful spot!” He said, yet again. “Thanks for bringing me up here, man.”

Falco drummed his fingers on a wet stone. He had expected this to be a sacred place but couldn’t get into the mood with Graham around. Falco uncapped his binoculars and glassed the nearest goats.

“Too bad we didn’t see any good deer, eh?”

Of course he still wanted to kill something. “You have another goat tag,” Falco said from behind the binoculars. “That one by the stream is a huge nanny. She’s got to be twelve or better.”

“You mean shoot her?”

“She’s inside two hundred yards.” There was a big billy, too, but he was farther and Falco didn’t trust Graham’s aim. “You can use my rifle if you’re still worried about yours.”

They watched her for a few minutes before Graham picked up Falco’s gun and stretched off the scope cover. He sat quietly on the ground and settled his elbows into his knees. The nanny fed toward them. She was very white against the yellow willows, and the hair fell from her flanks in twisted dreadlocks.  

Falco heard the safety tick off, the bolt draw back and the familiar clink of one of his jacketed rounds in the chamber. She lifted her head to the noise. Dusk was coming quickly, and the first stars were out above the bowl. The goats, bunched around them in the depthless, rolling flats, appeared to float as they fed.

If it couldn’t be sacred, Falco had a perverse desire for the chaos of fleeing goats and the transformation of a gorgeous wild animal into nothing but a carcass. “Just keep shooting,” Falco whispered. “If she’s still moving, reload and shoot her again.” He slid a rack of bullets against Graham’s leg.

“Should I wait until she turns?”

Head on wasn’t a great shot, but he wanted Graham to blow her to bits. He shrugged. “Your call.”  

She had a narrow face and graceful horns that seemed to almost touch in the back. He usually tried to ask the forgiveness of animals but couldn’t tonight. Graham adjusted his seat and settled the stock into his shoulder. His breathing was fast. “Damn. Can’t hold it.”

He put up the gun and stretched prone, resting the stock on a hummock. Graham’s breathe slowed and Falco hunched his shoulders in anticipation of the shot. The dark was coming quickly, but things looked brighter in the scope. Graham still had a minute or two. Falco heard the safety click back on and the rustle of Graham lifting the rifle to vertical. “Not going to shoot her?”

“That’s okay,” Graham said. “That would be a long way to carry her back.”

Falco nodded. He slumped against the pack, and his sweat chilled him. All his overlying emotions had burned out, and Falco drifted on his sadness. It was a pleasant enough night up here. He couldn’t remember why they’d come. Deer hunting. He laughed silently. “It’s a still night for a shot, anyway.”

Graham dropped the magazine, ejected the chambered bullet and handed the rifle back to Falco. “You know, you could live up here.”

Poor guy. Falco understood that Graham’s life felt like a cage, but this was a little extreme. “No, you couldn’t.”

“I mean, make a little hut from stones, eat ptarmigan and goat and deer.”

In a minute he sat up. “It’s a tough winter this high. See that line where the grass stops? The bowl is drifted full to there. There’s no wood to keep a fire going. No place to land a plane. You’d have to make it down to salt every time you needed something.” He shook his head. But, even with all those reasons, he knew it could be done. They both knew it was possible, just hard and lonely, which heightened the attraction.

“But still,” Graham said. “Maybe in that hollow by the spring.”

Falco already had looked it over. “That is a likely spot.”

“They’d probably find us eventually, though.”

“No, man. Nobody comes here.” He wondered if Graham would ever suggest a rock hut on the Kodiak Spine to his wife.  

Moonlight filled the valley, and the goats bedded on the face turned to vibrant silver splotches. A few still fed across the moraine where their feet skittered on loose stone. Falco stood with the bag of ashes. “We can catch you another fish on the way out, tomorrow. I should have helped you skin it last time.”

Graham looked up at him. “Where are you going?”

The valley had a companionable emptiness. His loneliness, most palpable in town and on the coast, was soothed by the encircling bowl. He rolled up his sleeves so his sweat could burn off. “On a walk.”

“What about bears?” Graham’s eyes showed a prehistoric fear. He pursed his lips and looked around for his stickerless rifle.

“Don’t put a bullet in your chamber,” Falco said. He smiled in the dark. “I’m going to come back in a few minutes. I might snuffle and stomp a little, and I don’t want you to shoot me.”

Falco walked uphill across broken flat slates that rocked under his feet. He climbed in a light shirt to the ridge, where the lake was already in moonlight. The moon’s shadow line crept across the Spine. When it reached his knees, he poured ashes from the corner of the bag in a thin stream along the boundary.

Posted in

Douglas Cole, 10/2/2017

Current Occupation: Poet, Writer, Teacher, Stage Hand/Roadie
Former Occupation: Construction Worker, Waiter, Caterer, Driver, Cook, Staff Manager of a Middle School, Painter, 
Contact Information: Douglas Cole has published four collections of poetry. His work appears in journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, The Pinyon Review, Solstice, Eastern Iowa Review, Kentucky Review, Wisconsin Review, and Slipstream. He has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. His website is douglastcole.com

#

Calling in Sick

I stole Friday from the grinding work beast 
and I went to the gym and read and slept
but still I felt those hours I’d already sold
and the existing contract sucking my soul
as though even slick and sly and careful
you can’t slip away and trick the machine 
its hooks deep electric down in us all 
and I have this image of petty low-level 
bureaucratic clerks on their detectors 
extracting the exact energetic equivalent 
of those pre-sold chunks of my life 
as I grip in trying to yank them back.

Jobs

My first job was Disabled Student Services
at a little college where I drove disabled students 
back and forth to class in this little golf cart
I might make a run every other hour or so
but the rest of the time I just sat around
playing chess with a woman with flipper arms
a birth defect and she had a crush on me
she only came around during my shifts
well a couple of years and cities later I saw her 
and we both acted like we didn’t know each other 
though you don’t see a lot of people with flipper arms
but seeing her reminded me of something 
my boss Chauncey told me when I started work
it’s not important that you be busy but you look busy 
and that’s the best advice I ever got about jobs

The Great Equalizer

I’m calling this Good Friday
paying off the last bill I’m left broke 
absolutely stripped and lined up for overtime
sitting in a meeting with a bow-tie fool
and his charts and graphs on how times are tough
underlying meaning is you’re lucky to have a job
so shut up and take what little pay you get
smug type-A fucker going home to his partner
a glass of wine television sexy time and sleep
up before the rest of us making a new agenda
corporate cog machine drone boring and loud
death’s little helper hand holding us down 
the gangplank into the grave saying think again
oh think again as sad lost confused ones pray
but death’s coming to wipe his slate clean too
little stooge man think again mouth wide open 
eyes wide open with surprise as he’s swept 
into the empty hole with the rest of us
falling flailing bowtie fluttering
burned of all that petty triumph he falls
babbling incoherent right back into the cradle
arms waving mind blazing new understanding
I’m here he says though no one understands
groping helpless he cries out I’m here I’m here

Posted in

John Grey, 9/25/2017

Current Occupation: Retired
Previous Occupation:  Financial Systems Analyst
Contact Information: Australian born poet, US resident since late seventies. Worked as financial systems analyst. Recently published in Front Range Review, Chiron Review and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Midwest Quarterly, Convergence and Pulsar.

#

TOUGH JOB

The walls are slowly closing in on me.
It’s a race to see if they can beat 
the collapsing ceiling 
in a bid to crush me to pulp.
But, don’t worry, senior management.
I will not leave my cubicle.

I will brave the fire
and the lightning strikes.
And the guy you fired last week
who is now roaming the office
with a loaded machine gun.

Sure I have a deadly disease.
But no one here will catch it.
They’re already dead.
And the copy tastes like poison.
It is poison.
But slow-acting enough 
to allow me time to finish this report
and have it on your desk by five.

I will crawl on hands and knees if I have to,
dodging bullets and the whirring blades
of the helicopter that just plunged into the roof.
I have a contract.
You are paying me to fulfill it.
Nothing will stop me.
Not even acts of the one who, unlike you,
is a god who goes by the name of God.

I am a worker.
I have a duty to perform.
Even if it kills me.
Even if it lets me live
to work another day,
that state of gratitude and grind
not be confused with living.

 

#

WHEN IT FINALLY LETS GO

Home from the job
but hauling it with me.
Through the front door
of my house
but never quite out of
the towering factory gates.
Slumped in the couch
but body still working the assembly line.
Silent and clear
like a brief pause in
deafening and dusty
Eating my meal
like a cold sandwich
gulped down
in a grimy lunch room.
Watching TV
like I'm chained to the screen.
But then lying in bed
and feeling
the business flow out of me.
A kiss from my wife,
the first complement all day.

#

WEEKEND

The work week is almost over.

Friday night,
once a place
beyond the horizon
is a mere mile or so
from the parking lot.

Saturday,
kept in chains for days,
welcomes the turnkey
to undo all its locks.

Even Sunday,
that kind and indulgent
hangover healer,
may be invisible now
but it's somewhere close
and at the ready.

The clock moves ever so slowly
toward the five.
If that machinery were us,
it'd be there already.

But the grinding gears
are on notice.
They've been found out.
They are not a fundamental of our lives.

We're ready to go native,
crazy, wild, semi-dangerous
whatever it takes to fit into
our joyous selves.

There's so little freedom in the world.
The weekend may not even be it.
But it gives a brilliant imitation of heaven.
Almost as good as Monday does hell.
 

Posted in

Scott Laudati, 9/18/2017

Current Occupation: None
Former Occupation: Bellman/Concierge at NYC boutique hotels
Contact Information: Scott Laudati lives in Harlem with his Iguana, Donna. He is the author of Hawaiian Shirts In The Electric Chair (poems) and Play The Devil (novel), both published by Kuboa Press. Follow him on instagram @scottlaudati

#

Leave Me Alone

you’re the new guy 
so you work the graveyard shift.
the boss has finally gone home,
you can smoke a cigarette in peace.
no hiding
no sneaking around the corner.
the garbage trucks clean up the streets.
you watch the last of the drunk girls stumble out, 
some go home alone
some fight with their phone.
the city is finally yours.
just a faraway hum of an ambulance.
no taxi horns.
no one is left to ask anything of you.  
the soft gray clouds reach
over the low tenements 
with winter always right behind them.
and the bums 
sit against the brick walls
like tomorrow is guaranteed.
and they know your face,
they can see what the job has done
so they don’t lift their cups,
just a slow nod or nothing at all.
the same as last night.
and you keep thinking the world
is going to end 
but right now that
doesn’t make you feel so crazy.

alone.
finally.
over rats
and cobblestone.
it’s a world 
that failed a lot 
of people
before you showed up for a paycheck.

 

 

Posted in

Aaron Summers, 9/11/2017

Current Occupation: Retail Support Associate
Former Occupation: Video Store Clerk/Student
Contact Information: I am graduate of Florida State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. My life's ambition is to translate the complete works of Jane Austen into emoji. I am @AaronovichJoker on Twitter.

#

The Post-Collegiate Guide to Slow Death

 

    You close your eyes to make it darker. Too early. This is too fucking early to be awake. Unfortunately your bladder disagrees. So there’s the damned culprit. You twist your legs, spiting it. You can hold it in your sleep but if you stand up, walk those ten feet to the toilet, turn the light on and acquiesce to your organ, it’s all over. Sleep is gone and you get to lay there for God knows how long, losing rest until the alarm makes your day official. You don’t want to check it, pick up the phone, squint under the blue screen, let your eyes focus on the time. As bad as it is not knowing, the anxiety of the countdown is futility. You squeeze tight, damn, please, only forty-five more minutes, thirty, twenty, then…fuck it. You throw in the towel and let the last fifteen go by the wayside. Give up. The game is over when you start counting.

When four o’clock swoops in through the dark and silence and that blissful cloud of ignorance, you roll onto your side and pick it up, hold it above your head, try to push the buttons. Your hand’s still asleep, so it slips through your fingers and hits the bridge of your nose. You curse the phone, then the day, then yourself. You find it in the folds of your covers and turn the damned thing off. Then you find the switch on the lamp sitting next to your bed and close your eyes before turning it on, letting your lids filter the new light. When you open them you see the room in your mother’s house that used to belong to your sister, then your brother, now it’s a mess. Your dirty clothes are strewn in heaps on the floor, twisting all over each other like fallen souls in some Renaissance depiction of Purgatory. They cover everything: the boxes of your old pots and pans, two unused laundry bins in the corner next to the mirror you can’t look at, your old garment bag, your old messenger bag, your books. You scan and squint and lock in on a black shirt and pair of black slacks, and boxers. You know they’re clean because they’re still folded. You only slightly care. Now the feet have to leave the bed and find the floor. You stand up, your left ankle says a dirty word that it repeats with ever step as you gather today’s garments and limp to the bathroom.

The usual happens.

Half an hour later you emerge, clean and wet. Your limp is better; the ankle has adjusted. It gets this way when you get too fat. That’s been happening too much lately. Into the dark living room, your mother and the dog are asleep on the couch. Three kids, three-bedroom house; sleeping in a real bed these days makes her back hurt. You hate yourself when you acknowledge shit like this. Next to the love seat are today’s shoes and yesterday’s socks. You sit down in the dark, put them on. The clock on the cable box tells you that you have to leave in ten minutes if you don’t want to be late. Do you? Breakfast is taken on the back patio: two cigarettes and a bottle of refrigerated tap water. You gave up caffeine for fear of heart palpitations. They still come sometimes. It’s probably the cigarettes. On the way out you collect your wallet, car keys, name tag, and your pocket watch, the chain of which broke off two weeks ago.

On the way to work you blast music, The Offspring, The Fratellis, Eve 6, anything loud enough to keep you safely lucid. For a moment you can appreciate being up and out at this hour. There are only a few other cars and the orange street lights on the pavement has always been one of your favorite aesthetic motifs. They line the roads as if inviting the small fraction of night owls and early morning grinders a clear way in a world that is temporarily their own, coveted from those still stranded in their nocturnal comas. The car can rev up to 55 on 45mph streets with little fear of cruising authorities, though still, even at a quarter to five, there’s too damn many in this town. You come to a red light that fills up the windshield, giving everything a glow that matches your eyes. You blink and wait for the green. It comes a few seconds later than you want it to.

The large parking lot behind the department store has a handful of cars spread about. None right up next to the entrance, associates aren’t supposed to take the good spots from the customers. The limp is almost gone as you make it from your car to the employee entrance. You punch the code on the little key pad on the secure door and hear the lock click out of the frame. Inside, the walls are white. Down the hallway and to the left, the selling floor is dimly lit in the early morning hours. An endless catalogue of designer garments hang off of racks and sit folded on tables ready to be molested by prying consumers. At the nearest checkout counter you find a computer and punch in your measurable identity, a ten-digit number that brings your name and hours up on the monitor. A few more buttons are pressed and a little piece of paper spits out telling you that the day’s transaction has commenced: your time, their laughable paycheck. Three different songs are playing from the speakers as you walk from the Juniors section, passed Better Collections and Swim Ware. You make your way into the alcove decked out with mattresses with price tags and through door on the right to the loading dock.

It’s first a thin hallway with stale yellow lighting and rough concrete floors and racks with clothes hangers and metal shelves hugging the walls. A bunch of bars are on the next wall behind a concrete ramp decked out with with wooden hangers bearing names like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Bahama. Your co-workers are walking around dressed in black like you. Tim, your leader steps forward with his tall, balding, liver spotted head and offers you a ‘good morning’ and a fist bump. Maybe he does it ironically; it’s hard to tell. You return the courtesy and try to seem more awake. The clothing that came off the truck two days ago has been processed enough that everyone is taking the wheeled racks out into the store for the merchandising team to put out on the selling floor. You grab a bar of Kids Apparel and wheel them out into the store, swerving between fixtures and tables advertising Estee Lauder and whatever fetid piss is being promoted by Justin Bieber or Brad Pitt till you reach the elevator and drag the bar passed the impatient sliding doors. The box rises and you look out through its glass walls over the floor, its white walls and gaudy displays soon to be lit up by bright fluorescents and crawling with consumers like a beehive in slow motion. At the second floor your roll out your wares and then jump back in to get a second load. Two minutes later you’re pushing a gigantic open cage on wheels carrying sixteen comforter sets in big plastic cases. You open the elevator, push it in, squeeze in with them and see that the end of the cage is just an inch passed the doors. The doors too seem to notice this because they’re not closing. The cage is too big for you to maneuver it at a diagonal angle. Eventually the elevator calls out in some ominous beeping. While muttering curse words you push the damned thing back out and try to think. The first and last idea that comes is bringing the damned comforter sets up by hand. You grab as big a stack as you can and stagger back to the elevator. When the doors open the comforters spill out of your arms and onto the floor. You step in and press the 2 button. As the elevator rises you remember that six months ago you were sitting at a desk and talking to a tenured professor about Thanatos and Eros and the homosexual undertones in Coriolanus. You get to the second floor and kick the comforters out before picking them up and trudging your way into the Home Textiles department. When you get back you have to wait for the damned elevator. It comes back up and when the doors open you see the cage with the rest of the comforters accompanied by your new work friend, David. He’s had time to get to know you for the dick you are so instead of saying ‘hi’ you say “How the fuck did you get that thing up here?” He explains that apparently it’s as simple as just pushing the CLOSE DOOR button and you try to come up with an excuse for not figuring that out yourself. You sigh and thank him for helping you with the rest of the load.

On the way back down the two of you make small talk, ask about the last seventeen hours between when you last saw each other and now. Not much transpired, it rarely does for people like you. David is four years younger than you, but it’s hard to tell. This says more about you than him. Interestingly enough he’s pretty close to where you were at 21, living with his mother, working part-time, matriculating at a snail’s pace at a community college. Much different than where you are now, living with your mother, working part-time, recently graduated from a state college. You’re kind of friends because you’ve both spent a significant amount of your hours on earth watching movies and seem to share an almost limitless capacity for talking about them. Where you differ is that he’s more attractive than you, tall and thin, and you’re more educated than him: he gets laid, you get drunk and read Walt Whitman to yourself out loud. David’s also a hopeless romantic. He tells you that he was up last night texting with ‘Pittsburgh,’ a girl who he knew when she lived down here in Florida but now lives in Pittsburgh. One morning you went to breakfast after your shift and he showed you a picture of her on his phone. She was not far from what you imagined, slim and beautiful with a smile that could have been a billboard for optimism. You took a second, let him see you see her and let it sink in. Then one word. “Remarkable.” It really seemed to work for him, after a moment he said that was probably the most complimentary thing anyone could say. Before you could stop yourself you told him that there’s a French phrase that sort of applies to that, mot juste, which translated literally means ‘best word.’ After that he was quiet until one of you thought of something else to talk about, something random, non sequitur.

When you two get back to the dock you see Tim kneeling down in front of the truck door. He takes off the tag, unlocks something and strains to push it up and open. A ten-foot-tall wall of boxes looks ready to spill out from behind it, a few at the top do and nearly come down on Tim’s head. To your left are a bunch of bars and racks on wheels, on your right is about half a dozen big open cages, also on wheels. In five hours or more they’ll all be full of hanging clothes, boxed House Wares, and bedding wrapped in thick plastic cases. There will also be other boxes of garments and accessories to be opened later which are stacked in the space between the dock and the hallway. The task seems daunting, it becomes more so the more times you do it. Jobs like these kind of suck that way. You grab a box cutter, push out the blade and pull it back in and then pocket it and move to “the line,” an extendable table with a surface of little metal wheels that works like a manual conveyor belt. Glen, another kid in his twenties, helps you wheel it to the mouth of the truck trailer, and then you all go to work.

As you start to wake up the hours become longer, the first two feeling like one and a half, the third feeling like century. It’s exacerbated by every moment being punctuated in every step with your ankle’s discomfort being too pronounced to continue ignoring it. The limp is only gone for while at the beginning before it’s reminded of how it came to be in the first place. You slice into tape, tear open the cardboard box flaps, grab handfuls of dresses on hangers and place them on a wheeled rack with other dresses. Then you break down the box and put it on a pile at the end of the line. The pile’s getting big. You lay your chest on it and reach around, finding the edges of the bottom box with your fingertips. When you come up your ankle groans and the stack you’re holding is pressed against your face. You have to walk sideways so you can see where you’re going while gravity works against your whole body. Around the corner, up a few steps, you’re in the compactor room. The last person to do this forgot to reopen the compactor doors, the metal rod is still horizontal across their edges. After a curse or two you push it open with your funny bone while bitterly questioning – and then acknowledging – the hilarity of something hurting like hell. The metal doors swing open and your use your upper-half to throw the cardboard stack into the compactor before you close it up and turn the knob to start it. Industrial squeaks and moans echo through the hall until your latest load has been jammed into the dozen or so that preceded it. You open the doors and limp down the steps.

The wall of boxes in the semi trailer has given away to another, then another almost indistinguishable from the last, like a bunch of failed games of Tetris. To look at the regression of boxes still to be unloaded, the first couple of hours seem like no progress at all. Then you’re halfway through and you stay there for another hour until you see the back wall of the trailer above four more layers boxes of all shapes and sizes. You come to love big boxes because they take up more space in the truck; you hate smaller boxes because they take up less. You also take note of the different types of plastic you have to strip off the clothing. Some of them are thin but are difficult to tear; others are thicker but come apart easier. The best are the ones with a perforated line down the front that separates and falls of the garment with the least effort. Not long ago your Italian Cinema professor – who has two post-graduate degrees, one from the Sorbonne the other from Berkley – was grinning at you while you explained the use of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries in Lina Wertmüler’s Pasqualino Settebellezze, and how, in the same sequence, the imagery was an homage to Fellini’s Otto di Mezzo, and that both scenes were inspired by Dante’s Inferno.  Later she asked for anyone else to speak after making a joke about you knowing ‘everything.’ Now you know about what types of plastic are easier to strip off a pink t-shirt with #YOLO printed on the front of it.

You and your co-workers move closer to the truck trailer’s end and your limp is more imposing. In an effort to think about something other than your jobs, your lives, and the fact that you woke up at four in the morning, you and David play a game, a memory game known to the rest of your friends as “categories.” Yours is specifically movie themed. One of you comes up with a category such as movies set in the 1950’s, and you each have to come up with qualifying titles. The first to get stumped and give up loses. Today is a particularly grim day. The fourth can of Miller Lite consumed was, in the end, only enough to fuck up your REM cycle, limiting the hours you actually slept to something between three and four.
    “Movies in which an animal dies,” you suggest.

“Aww.”
    “No disaster pictures where everything dies, and the animals can’t be evil or anything, it has to be either tragic or funny.”

“Okay,” he says, and takes a moment to think. “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

“Of course you’d start with something that obvious,” you say back as you pick up a heavy box to take to the sensor room.  This task is the most of the ankle-punishing things you do while working a truck. Big boxes loaded with up to a hundred pieces of higher-end Ralph Lauren, Tommy’s Hilfiger and Bahama, and Guess need to be carried to a room in your workspace so they can be affixed with magnetic sensors before hitting the floor. After hour four your ankle isn’t just fighting you in the present, it’s making promises for the future.  You get back to see him opening a big box of Michael Kors and tearing the hung dresses out to place on a nearby rack. “A Fish Called Wanda,” you throw back, and the game goes on: Marely and Me, Needful Things, Dumb and Dumber, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Turner and Hooch, Hudson Hawk, Secret Window, etc. You’re both distracted long enough to finish the day. The truck trailer is now a big dusty block of negative space. Tim and Glen pull the door back down and fix it into place with its iron lock. You’re thanked for your help and offered another fist bump from Tim as he says that he’ll see you tomorrow, same time. You thank him for the reminder and limp off the dock next to David. He says that you move like a geriatric. You tell him you feel worse, and also, fuck him.

The store is lighted now and a medium volume of customers are milling about the floor. You avoid eye-contact until you can clock out and take your name tag off. The walk to the door is excruciating. The walk through the parking lot is worse. Out of the doors the A/C abandons you to the aggressive sun and stifling humidity. You say goodbye to David and the two of you veer off in different directions across the black top. The car is an oven. You roll down the windows and back out, moving as fast as you can to get the wind blowing through the interior. The A/C has been shot since two years before you first drove it to Tallahassee. On the way home you hit the liquor store for a handle of gin and a twelve-pack of ginger ale. Your limp conveys and air of desperation that gives the pretty girl behind the counter a pained look.

No one is home when you pull in. You sigh in relief. The little Jack Russell jumps around in excitement when you open the door. You let her out into the back yard and change your work clothes for a dirty pair of shorts and a dirtier stained t-shirt. The shoes come off, the ankle brace comes off, the socks come off, the ankle brace goes back on. The dog starts barking to be let in. You step into a pair of worn flip-flops and violently limp back to the living room, leaning on walls and furniture for support. As the dog continues to bark you manage to get the gin, ginger ale, cigarettes, and a tumbler full of ice on to the table on your mother’s back lanai. The dog’s barking is getting louder so you limp over to the other side of the screened in area and let her in, and then follower her inside for your IPad and Bose noise-cancelling headphones.

Finally seated outside with your ankle resting a beige plastic lawn chair that matches the one under your ass, you pour the booze and soda over the ice and glug down half the glass. Pleasure finally ceases being and abstract as the ice chills your body and the painfully sweet mixture of ginger, sugar, and distilled juniper berries fizzes out over your tongue. You light a cigarette and pull in a draft of warm nicotine that further numbs you into some form of relaxation. On your tablet you find a podcast of comedians talking to other comedians about what it’s like to be comedians.

You put your head back and smoke and drink and try not to think about when you would pound beers with the girl who lived in the apartment across the hall on the bricks of your shared stoop as you talked about how E. M.  Forrester’s A Room With a View was really about Charlotte Bartlett as opposed to the two young heroes of the novel, and how Dylan’s “Serve Somebody” is a better song than Lennon’s “Serve Yourself” though you more agree with Lennon’s overall message, and that you both hoped that the Tea Party movement would eventually tear the Republican Party to shreds in the coming elections. You also try not to think about sitting on the bed she kept in her living room while she showed you the best way to crush a beer can, and how you took turns playing songs on YouTube and drunkenly danced with each other to Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” and how you drunkenly wailed through tears that you were in love with her and how she through her own tears asked you to leave for the third time and how you prematurely opened your first bottle of absinthe when you heard her loudly fucking one of your upstairs neighbors and how your days outside of class became couch-stranded with sitcoms on Netflix and cases of cheap beer and your grades started to slide and taking the GRE with a hangover was probably a mistake and the counselor in the student center working on his psych. degree wasn’t much help and you didn’t get into any graduate programs and your School of Arts and Sciences robes felt like a funeral shroud, and that the sun is setting and tomorrow and tomorrow – and that tomorrow you have to wake up at four a.m. again for another truck, and that you likely won’t get very many hours of sleep.  

Posted in

Will Reger, 9/4/2017

Current Occupation: Historian/Professor (Illinois State University)
Former Occupation: I have been in the classroom in one capacity or another since 1987 – as a long term substitute teacher (high school), grader, TA, tutor, grad assistant, research assistant, post-doctoral, adjunct, etc.  In addition, here and there between the 1970s and the year 2000 I have worked in tree nurseries, hotels, as secretarial help, at a sandwich counter, measuring dental implants for accuracy, janitorial, and house sitter.  Since then, I have also spent some time working as a professional musician (flautist), mostly at art galleries, charity gigs, yoga classes, etc.
Contact Information: Will Reger was born and raised in the St. Louis, Missouri area.  He has been writing poetry since the 7th grade, and has published in a wide variety of print and on-line publications, including among others, Dialogue, Herontree.com, Hymns Today, Deepwater Literary Review, AmericanTanka.com, and Vermillion Literary Project.  Most recently, Front Porch Review, Chiron Review, VerseWrights.com, and the Paterson Literary Review have accepted his work.  He is a founding member of the CU (Champaign-Urbana) Poetry Group (cupoetry.com). He has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and currently teaches at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  He lives in Champaign, Illinois, with his wife, Mary, with whom he has raised four children.  When he is not teaching or writing poetry, he collects flutes, plays flutes, and sometimes even writes poems about flutes.  He can be found at https://twitter.com/wmreger.

#

Flagman

Stop, slow
I turn my sign.
By high design
I turn the flow
let traffic go
let traffic wait
because the state
has paid to pave
this stretch of road.
I am the guard 
as, yard by yard,
every load
of rock and tar
arrives – I wave
them through.
It’s what I do
car by car
I nod, salute
drag on my cig
let pass a rig
and with my boot
I turn my sign.
Let them wait
let them go.
My duty’s clear.
I stand here
and regulate
all this labor.
My metal sign
more than a tool
more like a scepter
by which I rule.
I turn my sign
I turn the line.
Wait and go
wait and go
stop and slow.

 

Greyhound Driver

When I say love is hard I mean

    his long hours alone at the wheel

         listening to machine and the road

 

the susurrations of passengers

    who race unseeing across the countryside

 

his scratchy uniform against my cheek,

his childhood dream touches me

         with its ghostly fingers

 

and the upper deck of a ’54 Scenicruiser

a carapaced thing hard and warm in the sun

 

When I say love is hard I mean the liberation

    he received on his upholstered throne

         following that silver hound

 

    his way back

to what he lost for love

    a kingdom before the silence

 

Leaving for Work

The metal door shimmies open

with a chorus of squeals and grunts to reveal

the neighborhood with the park beyond,

its trees lean together like cattle at rest

and beckon me to enter the scene

of a street curving into the leftward distance,

deeper among the houses.

 

Fresh light skitters across the snow-enameled

driveway as the dank garage inhales

the clean morning like Lazarus

greedy for his second first breath.

 

It is a Wednesday morning.

Perhaps the one I’ve waited for,

perhaps the one that waited for me.

Two crows call and answer with news,

five caws answered by seven, their voices

inscrutable against the bright sky.

 

In answer, the urge hits me to get down

and etch the innocent driveway

with my angelic silhouette, awkward,

bulky, universal icon of pleasure in snowy days. 

 

Instead, I squeeze into the driver’s seat

and crease the snow with long, arcing tire tracks,

leaving for work as I always do, but today happy

to know the instinct for joy is still with me.

 

#

Posted in

Colleen Wells, 8/28/2017

Current Occupation: Writer, Volunteer, Mom, Vendor at B-Town Flea Market
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty at Ivy Tech Community College
Contact Information: Colleen Wells writes memoir, short stories, features and poetry. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review and Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. Her memoir, Dinner With Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness and Recovery became a springboard for mental health discussions and inspired her to become certified as a community health worker/peer recovery specialist. Colleen taught college courses and currently mentors high school students. She edited One in Four, an anthology of student mental illness narratives. You can read more about her work at:
www.dinnerwithdoppelgangers.com 
www.colleenwells.com

#

The Order

 

    The Blue Flamingo Bar was seedy, but not overtly so. I had been working there for nearly three weeks and it was a much coveted Friday night shift. A few minutes before 5pm, I entered the bar noting Bryson the bartender with the blonde, curly mullet who doubled as a manager was working. This fact would not set me up for success. He was more attentive to the other servers, which resulted in them getting drinks to their tables first while I had to wait like the last dog in a pack to be walked. Tonight would be no different. Jackie was leaning against the bar laughing with him. She was loud and wore a sleeveless lime-green t-shirt with a low-cut V in front. Denise with the expertly drawn, smoky, eye-makeup who spoke in a slow, southern drawl was also there. Nikki, who was actually the nicest of the three, was clearing a table. She wore cut-off shorts which revealed the tail of a serpent hanging down her left thigh.

    At the start of my shift, I went into the back to get two ketchups for tables in my section that were missing theirs. The kitchen help appraised me. One of them said something in Spanish and they laughed. The cooks didn’t speak much English, and what knowledge they did have of the language seemed to be used selectively, especially with me. They had brooding brown eyes, caramel colored skin, chiseled arms and chiseled chins that made them appear all the more cute and yet somehow a little sinister too.

    Everyone at the Blue Flamingo was hired on a probationary status. There was an emphasis on up-selling, and being to work on time. No one was allowed to drink on the clock, but many people did when Chet, the owner wasn’t working. Chet wore thick glasses and sported a bowl-cut that might have been a toupee. His hair swooped down a little over his right eye. Everyone knew that he had a mail-order bride tucked away at home. She never came into the bar. Chet had the ability to see everything that was going on at his establishment with eagle-eye precision. Bryson had this gift as well.

I learned to avoid both of them as often as I could. Especially since all of the new servers were required to join Bryson on the karaoke stage to sing a duet. It had to be either “Don’t go Breaking my Heart” or “Islands in the Stream.” It must also be sung within the first 30 days of employment. When I was hired, I was given tax forms and Xerox copies of the lyrics to both songs. Bryson always got to choose which to sing, and Chet said to familiarize myself with both since I wouldn’t be privy to the song we would be performing until we took the stage. He pushed his middle finger up the bridge of his glasses and cracked a crooked smile. This job requirement didn’t seem legal to me as a condition of employment, maybe a hazing activity at a sorority at best. I just told myself they wouldn’t remember if I didn’t bring it up.

My roommate Ericka, who works lunches and Saturday nights, is one of my best friends from back home. She neglected to share anything about this rite of passage with me when she encouraged me to apply. All Ericka talked about was how good the tips were especially on the weekends. I didn’t get too angry with her about this considering she gave me a free temporary place to stay on her couch on the screened porch.

After graduating from Ohio State near home, I’d planned to get a job in the area, but was tired of the Midwest including the cold winters and the predictability. Ericka seemed happy in Atlanta, so it made sense that I could be too.

    Checking my section included making sure that the tables were wiped free of sticky ketchup and barbeque sauce. Some of my tables faced the other side of the street where a waiter in a white collared shirt served appetizers, probably bruschetta or calamari, on the quaint patio of the Italian bistro.

    I tried to appear busy even though I only had one table to wait on. It was a married couple bickering about their parenting differences. “You spoil her rotten,” she accused. “You’re never home to give her the time of day,” he fired back. As the tone of their conversation grew more toxic, it was difficult for me to gage when to ask them if I they wanted another round of drinks.

    Bryson caught my eye and nodded toward a portly middle-aged man who I had overlooked. He sat alone at a two-top near the window. I hurried over and he ordered a Jack and coke. The man wore a dark grey hoodie and matching sweat pants. Dark hairs sprouted from beneath a bejeweled Peugeot watch.

    When I served him his drink being careful to place it on a cocktail napkin, I noticed an almost sad, and definitely faraway look in his eyes. As if he could hear my thoughts, he perked up and asked, “How is your night going kid?” I wanted to reply with something flirtatious like the other servers always did, but I couldn’t whore out my words in a way that sounded natural like they could. They would have said something like, “Better now that you’re here,” and it would come out like butter.

    “It’s okay,” I said. “A little slow for a Friday night.”

    He winked at me, clinking a chunky pinky ring against his glass as he raised it for a sip.

    When I circled back to check on the angry couple, the woman was gone, and her husband tapped his credit card against the faux-wood table. A four-top had also been sat in my section. I couldn’t decide whether to get the abandoned husband’s bill, or take the new table’s drink order. I went ahead and grabbed the man’s credit card mumbling an apology that seemed to drag behind me as I greeted the new patrons and promised to be right with them. This was met with an eye roll from one of the guys. He had a Gamecocks ball cap on that just said “cocks.” Frat boys. I sighed.

When I swiped the cranky man’s card it took forever for no apparent reason to clear. As this departing customer signed off on his transaction, I apologized again for the delay on getting it settled, and noted the measly tip of three dollars on a forty-two dollar and thirteen cent bill. Then out of my peripheral vision, I saw two of the frat boys making their way to the bar.

Next I checked on the other two since their buddies had already gone rogue, asking them if they wanted food or just drinks. The one with piercing blue eyes wearing a Braves ball cap, said, “If we do we know we’d have better luck having a pizza delivered.” His friend laughed revealing too much dental work for someone his age.

“I recommend Domino’s,” I said, trying to play it off. But my voice cracked like a young boy’s going through puberty. I could feel heat creeping up my cheeks, and hoped this crew would not be back the night I had to sing karaoke if it ever happened. And then it dawned on me this could be that night.

Bryson hollered for me from above the increasing din of the crowd. “Add two Buds, shot of Jager and a well tequila to their bill,” he ordered. As I walked away writing the drinks down on my pad, he barked at me again. “You’ve been here, what? About three weeks? he inquired while bending down to scoop ice into a glass. The movement made his mullet swing a little. When are we gonna’ sing?” Just as I opened my mouth to say it was getting too busy to talk right now, Denise stepped in front of me propping her drink tray against the bar causing me to trip a little on my way back to the floor. “I need two long islands and four buttery nipples she announced in her slow, Southern drawl.

 

I had been living in this bedroom community of Atlanta for over a month now and had already quit a stint at the gas station around the corner from where we lived before starting this job. I wasn’t hired for the night shift, but the third shift was all that appeared on my schedule. After a stoned couple came in one night and I could hear them having sex in the bathroom, I quit the next day. I wanted to get my own apartment so my parents could bring me Bastion, my faithful, spunky Beagle. Ericka already had two dogs, a mellow aging mutt with coarse brown fur hanging over his listless eyes and a Jack Russell puppy who was insane with boredom. The evidence came in the form of chewed up couch cushions, hairbrushes, the legs of kitchen chairs, and once even the remote control for the TV, but of course his favorite chew toys were tampons.

I learned the guy sitting by himself near the window was named Larry. He drove a truck and lived alone. He stared into the bottom of his third Jack and coke as if looking for something he’d lost. We were trained to up-sell. “You could get some food if you wanted. Our nachos are good.”

“That’s a fine idea,” he said. Larry tilted his drink in my direction rattling the few remaining pieces of ice at the bottom of the glass. “But darlin’, bring me another one of these while you’re at it.”

    The heat in the kitchen shocked my face as I pushed open the swinging door. Manuel took my ticket and stuck it behind the other orders hanging by plastic clothes pins from a metal wire.

    “How long?” I asked, trying to sound tough, like I heard the other girls do.

    He shrugged and said, “No lo se.” Then the cook turned his attention back to plating some onion rings. He seemed to work at it in exaggerated slow motion like it was some sort of meditation.

    Larry’s nachos took forever and he had to wait on his drink too, because when I went to get it from “mullet,” he was doing a shot with Jackie. I grew more and more disappointed when I went back to the kitchen and Larry’s food wasn’t sitting in the window. Constantly having to check on its status slowed me down. Once when I went to look for his nachos again, I got double-sat. I was met with dubious expressions by both parties when I discovered them.

    As my shift wore on, I started to develop a rhythm to my work. It felt akin to like when an athlete’s been away from a sport for awhile and muscle memory kicks in. Somebody fed the jukebox, and “You Shook me All Night Long” rumbled the room. A wasted guy in his late thirties got up to dance pushing a chair out of his way like it was an enemy he didn’t have time for. Others joined him until the dance floor swelled with jerking hips and air guitars.

As the night progressed along with a lot of people’s alcohol buzzes, the narrowed, steely looks in a couple of my patrons’ eyes clued impending danger. These were the types of customers who could get angry at the drop of a dime as if they had drank their normal daytime personality away and their dark, nighttime one sprung from the wings to take over. Last weekend a woman I had waited on was passing by me as she stumbled toward the restroom. Suddenly she grabbed my arm and called me a “strumpet” for no apparent reason. The red, squiggly lines of her bloodshot eyes formed a maze jutting out like secondary roads on a map.  A little bit of her spittle hit my neck as she spewed forth the second “t.”

    Luckily Chet had been working and saw the encounter. He rushed over and handled the situation by issuing a stern warning. While fixing her with a frozen look, he said something about not biting the hand that brings you drinks.

    To add injury to insult, I didn’t know what a “strumpet” was, but when I looked it up later I was not happy.

    I glanced at my watch. It was only 9:30p.m., way too early it seemed for people’s alter egos to emerge, but whatever. Sometimes it was unpredictable. Nikki had warned me once however, that things had a tendency to get especially dicey on nights with a full moon. While there was not a full moon tonight, something was definitely in the air.

When I finally got Larry his nachos, they had been sitting awhile and the cheese had

dried so hard it looked fake. “No lo se” smirked when he saw the mortified look on my face as I stared down at the plate.

 

    Larry picked at his order, but drained his drink. In the background “Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap” was playing. Somebody here sure loved their AD/DC.

My customer paid his bill with a twenty and a five, already sitting out on the table. As he rose, Larry fished around in his pocket jingling some change, then produced a fat roll of cash and peeled two crisp one hundred dollar bills from the outside. He silently thrust them into my hand, squeezing my fingers around the wad. Without releasing his grip, he pointed with his free hand to the restaurant across the street. “The same guy has been out there all night waiting on a few tables. He goes inside, he comes out. Nobody’s in a hurry, nobody’s getting fussy. He clenched my fingers tighter in his and said, “Kid, I don't want to see you in here the next time I come in.”

I cast my eyes to where he pointed. The tiny white lights hanging down from the awning of the dimly lit patio reminded me of Christmas back home in Ohio. The glow of the streetlamp on the corner briefly made the scene, the waiter in the white shirt, the white table cloths, the nearly emptied tables; it all looked so warm and inviting like the cozy set of a play inside a small venue.

    I didn’t want to take his money. It felt wrong. But the way he told me not to be here when he next came in was like an order.

So I took his money. I did. I took his two hundred dollars, plus he left me all of the change after paying his bill, and I vowed to Larry that tonight would be my last shift.

Posted in

Joseph S. Pete, 8/21/2017

Current occupation: Reporter
Former occupations: Soldier, janitor
Contact Information:Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest 2016, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary work and photography have appeared in As You Were, O-Dark-ThirtyThe Grief Diaries, Gravel, Synesthesia Literary JournalChicago Literati, Dogzplot, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, Lumpen, Stoneboat, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, and elsewhere. He’s okay at  hyperbole, he guesses.

#

You Can Dance If You Want To

 

    Donny drifted from job to job, aspiring to little more than keeping up with his electric bill so they wouldn't cut off the power.

    He cleaned carpets, hauled around furniture, dredged canals, manned the admission booth at a state park, dunked French Fries into scalding oil, cashiered at a fireworks store, used a pressure hose to rinse the inside of oil tanks at a refinery and painted sheds.

    He went one cold February day into a tax preparation business trying to file his taxes, but got up and stormed out the door when he was told it would cost $60.

    “I don’t have that kind of money,” he said as he angrily cut a path to the door. “I’ll just go to the library and take those free forms. Or the internet, it’s supposed to be free to file on the internet now.”

    A guy in a loose suit with boxy shoulders followed him and tapped him shoulder.

    “Hey friend, look…”

    Donny whipped around, fists clenched, scowling.

    “Don’t touch me.”

    “Hey look, if you need a job, I can hire you.”

    “Bad enough you want to rip me off. Don't touch me. Don't patronize me.”  

    “Look I got a job for you if you want it. For $9 an hour. I need some help attracting customers, bringing more people in the door.”

    Donny was indignant. Why did this man assume he needed a job? Was he judging him because he reasonably thought $60 was a lot of money? Or was he making assumptions because of his paint-splattered clothes, the holes in his jeans, the ink stain by his pocket, his five-day shadow or his untrammeled bed head? Who the hell did this man think he was?

    Still, $9 an hour was pretty good pay, about $1.25 an hour more than he was making now.

    “Sold,” he said, slapping his hand into the man’s palm for an unsolicited handshake, squeezing forcefully in a display of aggression that was mostly unconscious—mostly.

    “Great,” the man in the suit said with forced cheer. “When can you start?”

    “I can start right now.”

   

 

    Donny donned the Statue of Liberty costume, slipping the robe over his head in a moment that almost seemed transformative. He quizzically stared at the torch. The flame on the plastic torch looked too molded, too much like an action figure’s crew cut.

    “This would be cooler, way cooler with real fire, like one of those eternal flames or maybe even fake fire like in an Amish furnace or whatever.”

    “Not sure if that’s in the budget,” the man in the suit said. “But I can, um, look into that for you.”

    Donny frowned at the tiara. His eyes narrowed with suspicion.

    “Hey wait, isn’t the Statue of Liberty a woman?”

    The man in the suit considered this.

    “Well, it’s, um… not really a boy or a girl,” he said. “The Statue of Liberty is, uh… a symbol… for, um, liberty. It’s not really a gender thing. It's like, um… you know, a symbol.”

    The man in the suit explained he had a Benjamin Franklin costume too, complete with a kite and a key, but no one really picked up on the reference or got the connection between one of the Founding Fathers and filing your taxes.

    Kids today knew nothing, he ranted. Blame the schools and their lax standards, or maybe parents just didn’t care anymore. At any rate, he needed Donny to wave at passing cars and get their attention. No one ever notices a tax preparation service storefront in yet another cookie-cutter strip mall, but maybe they would if you got directly up in their face.

    It was tax season and the deadline to file loomed, closer than anyone realized. All that was necessary was to prod them to remember, to alert them that a tax preparer was tucked back there, deep in the bowels of the nondescript strip mall they passed by and ignored every single day, the man in the suit reasoned. Sure, they might not slam their brakes to make a quick, squealing turn into the parking lot, but it would plant the idea to come back in their heads. They might return later when they have time or it occurs to them they can’t procrastinate and put off their taxes much longer.

    He almost sounded like he was trying more to convince himself than explain what the job entailed.

    Donny went out there to the curb, flailing his arms and waving a sign about how April 15 was right around the corner. At first, he really tried to get every passing car to notice, motioning with vigor. He was the Statue of Liberty, hear him roar goddamn it. He figured he'd give notice at his old job later, or they'd take the hint when he didn't show up to work.

    Some drivers flipped him off. Others yelled obscenities. One guy tried to throw an empty pop bottle at him, but was going 40 mph so the wind velocity pushed it back right away, to where it almost flew back inside the window and clattered down harmlessly on the pavement. One woman called out, “hey boy,” and as he looked up expectantly, pointed and laughed while rolling up the passenger window.

    Mostly though, the cars just passed. Cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, hybrids, electrics all flowed by, ceaselessly. Sometimes they had interesting bumper sticks like “Imagine whirled peas” or “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” But mostly, they were unadorned, plain as that endless ribbon of asphalt. It was an endless procession of cars—rusty, new, glistening, rattling, with bashed-in bumpers, in need of a car wash. Few paid him any mind as they puttered about on errands, commuted to work or zoomed past to points unknown.

    Donny was bored. It was boring. He was nowhere near a stoplight or stop sign so the cars never stopped. They just whizzed by in an unending, hazy blur of motion.

    But some people noticed and cared enough to honk or chuck crumpled bags of greasy fast food at him. He realized he had a stage. Not everyone had a platform like this. He knew he could get their attention. He could make them all take notice.

 

    That night after work, he called his friend Elaine.

    “You still got that boombox?”

    “Yeah, I think so, why?”

    “I’ll be right over.”

    Elaine switched over to the call on hold.

    “Hey mom, I’ll call you back. I gotta dig something out from the crawl space.”

 

    Now there was music, sweet music, and dancing on the curb.

    Donny boogied on the side of the street, putting on a show for one and all. He pushed and rolled, turned and dropped, and raised the roof. He bended, twisted and gyrated. He dabbed, did the Whip and of course then did the Nae Nae. His dance moves elicited quite a response. Drivers honked and hollered. They slowed down to watch, even snapped pictures with their phones. A woman catcalled, giggled and sped off.

    His inner, long-dormant hamminess was fed and nourished. Donny was resolute. He would entertain drivers with a dance spectacle like they’d never seen before. He did cartwheels and tried to learn how to do flips, with intermittent success. He moonwalked, though maybe not with the most graceful, effortless slide.

    Whenever he got tired, he’d just cross his arms over his chest and nod his head theatrically to the beat. Even when he just bounced his head up and down like a beat boy in the background of a music video, cars rolled their windows down to hear what song he was moving to.

 

    For the first time he could remember, Donny was actually excited about his work. He was lost in the moment out there and, when he wasn't, he constantly thought about new routines and ways he could get better. He would go home after a shift and look up hip hop dance crazes on YouTube, practicing all the movements in the mirror so he could expand his repertoire. The man in the suit was thrilled because walk-in traffic was way up. Elaine excitedly told him she heard people talking about him during her shift at the coffee house, that he was a local celebrity and that she was glad to have played her part.

    “Just don't forget us little people,” she joked.

    People gave Donny positive affirmation, actually yelling encouragement like “bust a move bro.”

    Still, the harassment didn’t completely cease. He wasn’t sure what it was about a man standing on the side of the road wearing a Statue of Liberty costume—whether waving a sign, dancing to retro hip hop on an old boombox, or even doing nothing at all—that provoked such fiery anger in people. Some people were just irrepressible cauldrons of rage, looking for anything to vent it on. Some kept hurling epithets and trying to pelt him with garbage. The driver of one vehicle—a big, black SUV—was smart enough or brave enough to slow down first.

    “Here, buy some dignity for yourself,” a bald middle-aged man yelled, tossing a handful of cash out. A gust of wind caught the bills, and they blew all over. A bloom of currency billowed everywhere.

    In spite of the man's vitriol and hostility, Donny wasn't going to pass this opportunity up. It was free money. He rushed around, scooping up as many bills as he could. He snatched them off the curb, out of the sewer grate. He ventured into the street, chasing after a few stray ones.

    A speeding car swerved, and the driver honked. He really laid on the horn, holding it for more than a few beats.

    “Watch it loser!” he screamed “Watch where you’re going.”

 

    At the bar after his shift, Donny counted through the cash. It seemed like a huge amount as it whipped around in the wind, but it was all singles. There was only $57 total. It was a decent haul, but the man was taunting him, probably just to sadistically force him to prostate himself, and he was nearly killed trying to grab a buck from the street. That was it, Donny decided as he set down his empty beer with a clink, he’d had enough. He had to do something bigger, pursue something more sustainable and long-term. He needed a better-paying job, an actual career plan. He couldn’t just bounce around from gig to gig, chasing a buck just to keep the rent paid. There was more to life than just bumming around and avoiding eviction.

    He had no idea what to do, or what he even wanted to do, but as Donny walked home he spotted the library. He walked by the branch everyday, but suddenly it felt like an epiphany, a revelation, a shining beacon of hope. Donny ran in, found the bulletin board and located what he hoped was there—a  career guide from the local community college. He grabbed the pamphlet, which was crammed with a boggling listing of night classes, each the first step down a potential new path.

    His heart swelled with hope. After studying it for a minute, Donny folded the pamphlet and stuffed it in his pocket. He did a little dance as he left the library, moonwalking backwards out of the automatic sliding doors. To hell with it all, he would quit tomorrow.

 

Posted in

Koon Woon, 8/14/2017

Current Occupation: Koon's current occupation is mathematics and logic tutor, freelance writer, editor, literary consultant and publisher.
Previous Occupation: Koon's previous occupations include running a restaurant and as an employee of the US Postal Service.
Contact Information: Koon started working in the family restaurant at age 12. Then he worked for the US post office. He earned his BA degree in creative writing from Antioch University and his MLS in literary arts from Fort Hays State University. He currently works as editor and publisher of Goldfish Press. Here is a link to Poetry Foundation website about Koon  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/koon-woon

 

#

A Drive to Nowhere

 

Like I would just jump into the car; it was variously a ’55 Plymouth, a ’61 Comet, or a ’68 Plymouth again. Where would I go? There was no one I know on a Saturday. The weekends, the dreaded weekends. My search for psychic sustenance begins with those fifty mile drives to nowhere.

 

The family restaurant would be busy on the weekends. I would need to work until three in the morning on both Friday and Saturday nights, amid the grease vapors and the clanging of the wok, steam from the noodle vat and the steam table. I was eighteen and still a senior in high school in the coastal town of Aberdeen, Washington. These are the towns that the freeway missed in Richard Hugo’s poetry. The rain was melancholic and it drip and slanted all day, and I was trapped being “Number-One-Son” of a Chinese immigrant family, born to Kim and Bill who operated the Hong Kong Café on Simpson Avenue which was on the Highway 101 as it slices through the logging town of Aberdeen, where logging trucks carried the long logs with dancing red flags on them to warn the drives behind them. This road goes up to Forks, Washington and eventually to Port Angeles as it looped around the Olympia Peninsula. And going south, the same two –lane road would lead to Pacifica, California.

 

I worked variously as waiter, cook, and occasionally manager. Except for work and study, I was lonely and alone. I was so lonely that I enjoyed reading Silas Marner in my room during the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only two days that we closed the café. My parents had undergone the world-wide Depression in their youth in China and then the Sino-Japanese War. I was so lonely that the book on the back seat of my car, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was actually a good dialogue with an imaginary companion. I knew the writer in the sense that he knew me, he knew my loneliness. It was a small town, and there were few minorities in it. There was a black janitor at the Smoke Shop Café, owned by the mayor. I suspect that he was there for a reason, just like the only black student at the local Grays Harbor College was a football player. The black janitor seemed to recede into the wood panels of the café dining room as he mopped it during idle hours.

 

I remember I keep on filling the coffee cup of the girl with the dark Spanish eyes that came alone or with her sister, mostly alone. She drank her coffee black and I was the awkward waiter in the slow hours of the afternoon. She and I never chit-chat and I never learned her name, but somehow once I summoned the nerve to asked her whether she lived at home. She said she lived away from home alone and as long as she doesn’t get into trouble, it was OK with her mom. She was a year older and had dropped out of high school. I was also a part-time worker at the Aberdeen post office and I drove the truck two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon picking up mail from street boxes. And on Saturday, I had the downtown walking route. I had a regulation uniform on, and I felt like a worker, a government worker.

 

The way out of town was a windy road, evergreens on both sides, a monotonous green with firs shouting up 30 to 40 feet. These were new growth and I was a fourth generation immigrant to these parts of lands. I was wondering how far I could go and how high I could rise. But all I could envision was driving a modest car to work at Boeing and perhaps have a son and a daughter and live again in a modest house, befitting of an electrical engineer. Everybody in high school said I could have become whatever I wanted to.

 

I didn’t go that far, I drove to Ocean Shores and back then in 1968 it was only one street along the beach front with the burr of the crabgrass waving in the wind. There were summer homes that people did not live in during the winter. It was fog and winter mists as described in Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion. He was talking about the roads in Oregon. Here the crabgrass rose from the sand, an occasional gull, and the steady sloshing waves greeted my loneliness, and I encounter no other cars.

Posted in

Jeff Nazzaro, 8/7/2017

Current Occupation: university English instructor and copy editor
Former Occupation: journalist
Contact Information: Jeff Nazzaro teaches English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he also serves as copy editor for Tsehai Publishers. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Angel City Review, Oddville Press, Aberration Labyrinth, and Flash: The International Short-short Story Magazine.

 

#

Jobs

    I was stuck in traffic on Merrimack Street downtown, in the right lane, behind a bus, two buses, that bus stop between Central and John, just past Bridge Street and the monument to the little old industrial city’s most famous son, you know the one—that hip angelhead, dharma slacker, beat drunk. It was cold and drizzly. I want to say December, but it could have been March.
    I hadn’t locked the passenger-side door. What for? Then it opened, and in a wet frazzle a guy hopped right in my car. This surprised me, not a little, but it was a surprise that was, along with any possible violent reaction, overwhelmed by the fake arm. The stub.
    The man who’d jumped in my car out of the cold rain was missing the lower half of his left arm. The thing just rounded off into a stub where his elbow would have been if he’d a had a full arm, and he was trying to attach a fake arm to the stub. It was a plastic forearm with metal clips at one end, and at the other end a system of straps and buckles. He tried and tried to attach the contraption, and then he just flung the thing onto the floorboard of my car.
    “Fucking thing!” he said. He turned his head towards mine. A streetlamp through the rain-spattered windshield, dots at the corner where the wiper arced but couldn’t reach, red from bus brake lights, lit his face, rough-hewn, dirty-tanned beneath a tangle of damp black curls, nut-brown eyes craving explosion into tears—or violence. “I been standing out here all fucking day with this thing. Finally, someone who can help me. Can you help me?”
    I had no time to answer, to process. I could help him.
    He unleashed a torrent of agitated speech about his car, his arm, a cousin’s phone number, a mechanic’s garage, money. He said where. It was on Bridge Street, just across the river, a pain in the ass because of all the one-way streets, but close. It was very close and I had time.

    I was in college then, taking a full load, writing for the school newspaper and doing a media internship with the local PIRG chapter. Twice a week I cleaned a small professional building downtown for a little cash, since none of those other things paid a dime.
    It was Friday. I was on my way to clean the building. There were two dentists—one for children—an orthodontist, an oral surgeon, and an optometrist. I’d been or still was a patient of each one. I cleaned all the offices except the oral surgeon’s. I felt very comfortable in the building and, sometimes, when I stopped to think what I was doing in there, I felt very strange. 
    I didn’t mind the work, but I never thought I’d be mopping floors and emptying wastebaskets for chump change in my early twenties. I always thought I’d go to college then get a good job, but I now knew that to have been an oversimplification if not flat-out wrong. I’d already flunked out of a private university and was attending the state school down the street from my parents’ house, paying for it with loans. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I could do.
    I often took my time cleaning the building, especially on Fridays, looking through unlocked cabinets and desk drawers, flipping through magazines, messing around. I got paid hourly in practice, but it was the same amount every week, no matter how long it took me. I was hanging onto this relationship I’d had with a girl at my previous school and we talked on the phone, had phone sex, but I had no real social life at that time.
    The guy who’d hired me to clean the building was my mother’s cousin’s husband. Maybe. Something like that. Jerry. He was in between my mother and me in age. He’d never gone to college, but he was doing okay. He had this cleaning business. He had four or five buildings he cleaned and two or three other guys who worked for him. He took me around on my first day when the offices were still open. I got specific instructions from the various doctors—mop this bathroom floor, empty these wastebaskets, don’t go in there. I knew all the doctors. 
    Jerry and I talked to the orthodontist’s son. His father had put on my braces, but his son had done most of the check-ups. There was a blonde assistant with huge tits who tightened the braces. She used to pull my head close to her chest and wrench the braces tight. It hurt like hell but the back of my neck would be warm and my cock would be hard. Then the son would come in to check on me. I’d be melted into the vinyl chair, gums and cock throbbing and there would be his grinning face. 
    He was always after me to wear my retainers. Now he was married to the blonde assistant with the big tits and close to taking over the whole practice. He asked me what I was doing besides cleaning the building. Maybe the other doctors knew I was in school. Maybe they asked. But the orthodontist’s son really asked. “What are you taking up?” he asked me. I hated that expression. I hated the way he said it out his grinning face. But I told him: English. “What do you plan on doing with that?” he asked out a new grin. I told him: teach, write. I didn’t tell him I didn’t know. I didn’t smile. I never had worn my retainers.
    I went to clean the building late most nights, after everyone was gone. I tried out those little water and air guns in the dentist offices; at the optometrist’s, I tried on frames, expensive ones I’d never be able to afford. The latest fashions. I never took anything, not even one of those toothbrushes dentists give you for free after a cleaning, or one of those cloths for wiping your specs. I saw one of the dentist’s season tickets to the Bruins, pulled apart, stacked, secured with a rubber band. They were just sitting there in his desk drawer. I flipped through them once, but I didn’t even think about it. Oh right, once I found an old Physician’s Desk Reference in the trash, and I took that. I couldn’t understand the thing, and I didn’t need it, but I liked the way it looked on my shelf at home, and it made a nice bookend for my CDs. 
    The optometrist had Sports Illustrated in his reception area, and sometimes I sat there and flipped through it. I found the swimsuit issue stashed in his private office the week it came out. This business with the guy with the fake arm came after that, so I guess it probably was March. I opened up the swimsuit issue and slowly turned the pages, then I took it into the bathroom, folded it back to a shot of Kathy Ireland, topless, arms wrapped around her body—and beat off all over the floor. I had to mop the floor anyway because the optometrist was like eighty years old and pissed everywhere. I had to vacuum the lobby, mop the lower floor and clean the common bathrooms down there, and vacuum the rugs and clean the bathrooms in the other offices.    
    The guy with the fake arm was sitting in my car. I started to drive. To get to the garage he said his car was in, I had to go right past the police station. I thought I could pull in to the station and politely ask him to get out of my car. If he refused it was a crime, right? But I had already decided to help him. I felt bad for him and his stump and his defective prosthesis, his dirty face with its visible frustration, his angry but cracking voice, and yes, I feared him. He was speaking to me in a calm voice now, thanking me, asking me where I was on my way to, but yes, I feared him. I feared his intrepidity and the violence he laced into his helplessness—the cursing, the slamming down of the equipment, like a vintage John McEnroe tantrum designed to unsettle a psychologically weaker opponent, to seize what he wanted through practiced force of will. His good arm, his right arm, kept rising up and over into my side of the car, the fist at the end balling and balling.
    I drove him to the garage. I drove past the cop shop, past the office building I still had to clean, across the steel expanse that lent Bridge Street its name, over the swollen river below. Or was it still frozen? In the garage parking lot the guy sat in my car and said he needed fifty bucks to get his car out. I told him I only had twelve on me. It was a lie. I had a twenty, a ten, and two ones. He said twelve was perfect, actually. He could get the rest from his cousin, if he ever fucking called back. I extracted the ten and the ones and handed them over. He held up the stub, like a reminder, then reached over with his right hand and took the bills. Then he told me to give him my name and address and that he’d send me the twelve dollars once he got home and could get to the bank. I did it. I did it because he told me to. True, I hoped he’d send me the money, but as soon as he was out of the car and I was back in traffic, I knew he wouldn’t. He hadn’t needed my information to get the money. I’d already forked it over. He’d needed it for a threat. Once he had my money in his pocket, and then had his threat, he reached back across, shook my hand firmly, leaned his chiseled head towards me, and thanked me.
    I went back and cleaned the office building. I mopped the downstairs and vacuumed the lobby, then I hit the offices. I worked quickly that night, like I had a date or something, but I was just going home. My girlfriend would be out. If I waited until she got home I’d get a story. Maybe something fresh. I cleaned quickly anyway. I thought the whole time about the guy who’d jumped into my car and what I’d done and what I should have done and then I started worrying that maybe he’d come to my parents’ house to rob it. He’d said he lived in Leominster or Groton or something, or his cousin did, but I no longer believed any of it. Only the stub. It was pretty stupid to give him my name and address. I thought all this and emptied wastebaskets and vacuumed and when I got to the optometrist’s office, that was definitely the night I found the swimsuit issue, the week it came out, so really it was a cold, rainy, slushy night in the middle of February, and once I had the page with that Kathy Ireland shot folded back and secured in my right hand, it didn’t take long at all. 
 

Posted in