Current Occupation: Software Engineer
Former Occupation: Lawyer
Contact Information: Henry Crawford lives and writes in the Washington, DC area. A native New Yorker, Henry received a BA in Philosophy from Queens College and a JD from the George Washington University. He is a software engineer who has practiced law, worked in the garment district in New York and began his work life as a factory hand in a Queens laminating shop.

 

#

Short Story Writer at the MVA

 

It was his first day of school

and Roscoe Weatherby was becoming boring

I had clocked in two hours ago

and despite all the free coffee on this job

I had written nothing to feed

the short story machine they set up

at Motor Vehicles for people

waiting in line

so I turned Roscoe into a baby kangaroo

unhappy with life in a kangaroo pouch

but that approach lacked a cast

of well-developed characters

so I renamed Roscoe “Russ”

the lead teenager in a haunted  house story

along with Vicky, Amber and  good natured Joel

but just then

the project manager messages me

to say the MVA needs the story before lunch

and they’re cracking down on clichés

so I’d better watch out

or I’ll be back driving Uber cars

and I tell him I get it

so its back to work on Roscoe

who’s now attending the double funeral

of his parents

who poisoned themselves

eating uncooked fish at his bar mitzvah

setting him off on a journey of self-discovery

but first he needs a driver’s license

so he appears at the MVA

and selects The Story of Roscoe

from the short story machine

and it comes out on a long twisted sheet

of thermal paper

something like a plot-driven Target receipt

which he immediately tosses away

asking himself the question

how do these people

come up with this stuff?




 

Current Occupation: Professor of English, Corban University, Salem, OR
Former Occupation:  I worked in retail and as a waitress for years. Some of this poem is based on that.

Contact Information: Colette Tennant has two poetry collections: Commotion of Wings (2010) and Eden and After (2015), as well as the commentary Religion in the Handmaid’s Tale: a brief guide published by Fortress Press, September 2019.  Her poem “Rehearsals” was awarded third by Billy Collins in the 2019 Fish Publishing International Writing Contest, and Eavan Boland just accepted a poem for Poetry Ireland Review. Otherwise, her poems have appeared in Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, and others.

 

#

Teaching English at the Old Tuberculosis Hospital II

 

Our mailroom used to be the morgue.

All outgoing mail then –

tucked in crisp, white folds,

carefully enveloped.

 

Elevators are deep enough

to hold gurneys.

In the periodical room,

faucets still protrude between bookshelves.

Here scalpels edged with tainted blood

clattered into gleaming pans.

 

One student’s grandmother died here –

probably in one of the old sleeping porches,

maybe the same room where we read about Jane

locked in the red chamber,

about Bertha and her love of fire.

 

The cafeteria now – the hospital proper then –

medicine counted out in rubber-topped droppers,

knives handled with care, small breaths

pressed against each heart.

 

By the stone steps, the cherry tree –

old enough to remember it all –

covers new grass with white petals,

snow in the wrong season.

 

#

Bob Evans Sausage Restaurant Mid-70s

 

Okay, so our red white and blue menus

included no calorie counts

for anything back then –

not for the salty slabs of Virginia-cured hams,

not for the sausage dinners, pork patties

bigger than the kitchen cook’s hands,

served with a pile of home fries

and biscuits and honey

and a salad slathered in dressing.

 

And then for dessert – there were thick slices

of sugar cream pie made with a secret recipe

from Bob’s hillbilly aunt who lived

along the river in Monroe County.

 

Smoking was allowed.

We had a smoking section,

but that was a joke

since the whole front of the restaurant

was one big room anyway.

 

And it was years before anyone

even heard of Chai Tea,

so we served Pepsi and Diet Pepsi

and Mountain Dew and coffee

with real cream and real sugar.

No one asked for a latte

no one had even heard the word

macchiato.

 

People talked to each other then,

looked at each other across the table.

Current Occupation:  Low-grade sales assistant for big supermarket company.
Former Occupation: Student, Music PR, writer, admin serf.
Contact Information: Bradford Middleton lives in Brighton on England's south coast.  When he isn't writing stories and poems he can often be found on the check-out at a local supermarket.  For more from him follow @BradfordMiddle5 on Twitter.

 

#

 

STRANGE DAY AT WORK

 

Sunday afternoon and I walk through the door

Loathing myself and desperate for a caffeine shot

I get in downstairs and work is ready for me

But alas today I certainly ain’t ready for this

As I feel myself close to tears again as the sense

Of worthlessness is insurmountable as I regret

Every damn thing I did the day before.  That first

Beer around two and that shot of tequila around half

Three that signaled the end, the end of my mind

And the end of any hope of a calming day of rest.

From there it just got worse, rushing headlong into

The drink and then the smoke, walking round and

Round, then home at last.

 

Sunday afternoon and I get sent to the checkout

As they say I’m the best one.  I go on, desperate

To get this shift out of the way, but as the day wears

On my nerves calm and my mood brightens.  I eat

Some food and find myself nearly happy as at last

I find a way out of my gloom.  Now this is odd

As in all these years of working food retail never has

This happened before, turn up feeling horrible full of

Regret about what I could have done and then by the

End of my shift I leave smiling, turning down a visit

To the pub as I go on home and straight to bed.

 

#

GET THIS WEEK OVER WITH

 

This damn last week has seen me

Killing it all the time.

Working is easy when you don’t really

Care or need it and

The rest of time has just been spent

Doing what it is i love to do

Drinking

Sleeping

Reading

Writing

It’s all i need but this morning i sit

Here completely exhausted.

 

Tomorrow i’m back at work and 4

More to follow after that is

Sure to leave me feeling even worse

But maybe i can take this time to

Just slog it out

Get it done and

Then lay in my darkened room

For another 4 day weekend

Beginning next Friday.

Maybe i’ll sit around reading Sartre

Contemplating the human condition

Then again maybe not.

 

But this week i’ll step away from the word

As it’ll just be a struggle to get through

And then next week i’ll pick up a book and

Then, maybe, it’ll be time to start work

On my next one.

 

Current Occupation:  Low-grade sales assistant for big supermarket company.
Former Occupation: Student, Music PR, writer, admin serf.
Contact Information: Bradford Middleton lives in Brighton on England's south coast.  When he isn't writing stories and poems he can often be found on the check-out at a local supermarket.  For more from him follow @BradfordMiddle5 on Twitter.

 

#

A SARTRE KINDA MORNING
 

I woke this morning and the first thing I felt was
A wave of nausea overwhelming me, leaving me
Weak, running to my toilet.  I let it all go, a long
Simple puke that left me feeling not a whole
Lot better.  After washing down I had some food,
A mug of tea and a wee little smoke.  The day
Carried on almost normally and I soon forgot
About my morning incident, I suppose I'm kinda
Used to it, that early morning puke but generally it's
Caused by a heroic consumption of booze the
Night before.  This time it’s simple to see the cause
Of this nausea, the thought of work that I'll have to
Return to tomorrow after a week off de-stressing
Off sick.  Oh well, wait until tomorrow when I puke
Up over the feet of my first new customer.

Current Occupation: Teacher


Former Occupation: Quality Control Lead, Technical Publishing House


Contact Information: W Tracy Dillon lives with his family on a farm in rural Oregon where they practice permaculture farming techniques. He is a faculty member at Portland State University.  However, he’s a lot more fun than this bio would seem to indicate.

 

#

Meditation 95


 

When I was a little girl

Mother gave me milk to drink

And a selfless thought to think

About the whole wide world

 

When to a woman soon I grew

And began to taste some blood

I simply could not get enough

From other kids in school

 

So I set me on a path

To get a job and love a boy

(Which is all a grown girl’s joy)

But on my way I had a crash

 

Scrapes and bruises quickly heal

It’s boo-boos that don’t go away

So mine decided it would stay

All my mights its pains to feel

 

Through all of this never was seen

By friends who knelt beside my bed

And told me it’s all in my head

The secret that my story means

 

Their wounded thoughts I try to mend

When they visit to kill time

Even though they say they’re fine

Mostly just by listening

 

But on the days when I am full

Of the clotting blood they spill

From my lips their necks I peel

Thinking easy prey is dull

 

Separating in my mind

As mother suffered me to see

Lamenting our minority

The bleating sheep from my sharp kind

 

That’s when I feel I’m most alone

Beyond all measure overdrawn

Who needs my thirst I cannot love

And nowhere think of to go home

 

So I wandered all my days

Prowling like a wolf disguised

Chewing thoughts behind bright eyes

Thinking how the moon glows phase

 

One day I found a slippery pit

Where climbing up the sides of it

Was not the business of the weak

Although its depths they often seek 

 

Setting jobs and boys aside

I’d settled on career to find

So of the owner of the field

I asked if pay the pit might yield

 

He offered me uncounted wealth

For maintaining the general health

Of the creatures that call home

The pitted pasture that he owns

 

At first I feared what I might do

When all that meaty blood I viewed

Because my charge was to protect

I ignored each woolly neck

 

To my new boss could I explain

The complications in my brain?

“Once weekly to myself I stay

I cannot work on a Sunday.”

 

That deal he said would be just fine

So for six days I spent my time

Dragging kiddies from the pit

For which their feet were so unfit

 

Finally came my day of rest

So all my care I meant to quit

I settled myself in my seat

And that is when I heard the bleat

 

A sheep had fallen in the pit

All I could think was “Goddamn it.”

All I asked for was one day

For six was all that I’d get paid

 

Of course I crossed the muddy field

And at the rim of the pit kneeled

In its deep shadows nothing saw

But heard repeated frightened “baahs.”

 

Hovering there upon that brink

I’ll tell you what I thought I’d think:

That the kid owed me its life

For assuming I’d be nice

 

My kindness would be not to kill

With that in mind I forward fell

Into the hole and broke my foot

With sheep I now could not climb out

 

Still there I’m lying in the mud

Wondering if I am good

To save another on to feed

Made me the creature that should bleed

 

I know the sheep I do not blame

I know that I am not the same

For help I must raise bleating voice

I do not think I have a choice

 

He’ll come to work on Monday morn

The owner of this fecund farm

Until then I’ll wait to see

If first he’ll lift the sheep or me

Current Occupation: Behavioral Health Technician, caring for people who are mentally challenged
Former Occupation: Twenty years as a Food Service Supervisor, mostly in a 300-bed hospital
Contact Information: donnarkevic: Nutter Fort, WV. MFA National University. Recent poetry has appeared in Triggerfish, Nassau Review, and About Place Journal. A Best of the Net and Pushcart nominee. Poetry Chapbooks include Laundry, published in 2005 by Main Street Rag. FutureCycle Press published, Admissions, a book of poems, in 2013. Many Sparrows, a book of poems was published in 2018 by The Poetry Box. Plays have received readings in Chicago, New York, Virginia, and West Virginia.

 

#

Job Interview

 

There is not much to tell.

I would describe myself as unemployed.

I do not know what I will be doing
five years from now. I may be dead,
a suicide. I have had experience
in sales. I sold my birthright
to a man on a corner for a couple grams. 

No, Sir, I cannot pass a pee test. 

To be honest, I am not trustworthy. 

I cheated on my wife. She is a doctor
of philosophy. Once, I believed
she tried to poison me like Socrates,

but I felt better after she kicked me out.
My best quality is thrift.
I can live on a shoestring. In fact,
I want to die with my boots on.
No, Sir, I do not plan on hanging
myself with my shoestrings.
At the Methodist Mission,
the ceilings are too high, and I am afraid
of heights. Same goes for bridges.
I do have transportation.
I can walk, unlike my war buddy
who fought in Iraq. Fucking IED.
No, Sir, I do not think it is appropriate
to cuss in the workplace.
Like your company, I am motivated by money.

I handle stress like a snake charmer.

Having been bitten in the ass a few times . . . 

Yes, Sir, no cussing in the workplace.
When my last boss fired me,

he said I wasn’t a good fit, like some old shoe.

I am wearing my war buddy’s Nikes.

He no longer needs them. Lucky me.
Nike is the goddess of victory.

No, Sir, I was not proselytizing.

I enjoy working alone.

If you need a team player, 

I’ve got your back like a Kevlar vest.

I don’t have pet peeves, just goldfish.

If needed I can gut any hostile like a deer.

Yes, Sir, no violence in the workplace.

Just one question, Sir. When do I start?
 

#

 

The Ohio River

 

As a child, I heard stories
about the unforgiving Ohio,
how kids disappeared in the dark
cold water like paper- mâché puppets,
bodies never found.

As a child, I watched my mother
sweep the porch of steel mill soot,
each day, a black sunrise.
No one cared.
The money good as a new Buick.

As a child, from the polluted river,
I caught catfish and carp,
good for nothing
except fertilizing the backyard garden
of tomatoes, onions, peppers.

As a child, barges clogged the Ohio.
From shore I waved to fearless men
taming the terrifying water,
delivering cargo to the miles
of smokestacks, blast furnaces,
and gray steel buildings, producing
tin plate, I-beams, pipe, and jobs.

 

As an adult, the river is a scar,
a reminder of a life I once believed
would never end.
Along the shores, no mill,
Torn down, sold for scrap,
No trains, no railroad tracks,
Uprooted, sold for scrap,
The barges, a rare sighting,
my children asking
What are those; what
are they for?





 

 

Current Occupation: Graduate student
Former Occupation: Indexer
Contact Information: Stephen Waldron is working on a Ph.D. in theology. He sometimes wonders why we now have "thought leaders" and what exactly their qualifications might be. He also isn't exactly sure why some people get paid a lot and others don't. He can be reached at stephenwaldron0 at gmail dot com.

 

#

Thought Leadership

 

Socrates and Jesus and Hypatia were all

innovating, disruptive thought leaders until

mobs moved their respective cheeses across

the River Styx–countless small-minded ferrymice

 

who refused to buy into the visioning of

those industry pacesetters, which was marked by

strategic dynamism, an awareness of market conditions,

and a willingness to make the tough decisions.

 

“People tend to resist change,” said Socrates,

who lost a municipal consulting contract.

His intern wrote up a case study on their difficulties

with organizational change and development.

 

And Jesus tried to create efficiencies and improve cash flow

by cutting out unnecessary vendors,

but encountered resistance due to rent-seeking behaviors

and an agricultural cartel’s public-private partnership.

 

How Hypatia attempted to shape an entrepreneurial space,

when direct competitors engaged in regulatory capture

in the aftermath of the Alexandria TedX fiasco,

just before catching the trireme for Davos.

 

All this shows the importance of succession planning:

that intern Socrates hired? 

He started a variety of spin-offs,

which gained market share in key 

global education-sector supply hubs.

And when Jesus flew the coop? 

His board of directors launched the greatest conglomerate of all time.

But Hypatia, it seems, leaned in a bit too far

and failed to establish a contingency plan.

 

 

Current occupation: Graduate Part-Time Instructor at Texas Tech University
Former occupation: Editor Arkana Literary Magazine
Contact info: Cass Francis holds a MFA from University of Central Arkansas. She attends Texas Tech University and can be found on Twitter @WriterCFrancis.

 

#

The Craftswoman

           TellCorp wanted the best for your future. The slogan appeared at the end of every news story, at the beginning of every turned-on screen, and ran on a loop around every corporate-supervised building. X knew it well, and believed it too. After all, when she’d been seventeen her mother had passed away suddenly, leaving behind no money or resources for X or her two younger siblings, and TellCorp had stepped in, given her a job at the Tomorrow’s Flight Today Factory and let the two siblings finish school and eventually get their own TellCorp jobs. X owed her very life to her generous employer, TellCorp, and to the corporation’s sharp-thinking CEO, a woman who always wore a gray suit and shook hands with everyone, no matter how low-level an employee, with a firm but friendly handshake—one hand grabbing your outstretched hand as she smiled into your smile, her other hand touching the back of your hand and then touching your shoulder with a burst of warmth that bled through the fabric of your uniform. Yes, X believed in, maybe even loved, TellCorp and the CEO. Yes, they were indeed a neighborhood corporation instead of a neglectful nation. TellCorp really did want the best for your future.

            X lived in the City’s Neighborhood G12 with many of her coworkers, all of them friendly, especially her neighbor, M. M was not particularly warm, polished, proper, caring, or intelligent, though X admitted that M had always been helpful. She was a seamstress at the Tomorrow’s Flight Today Factory, sewing together upholstery for aircrafts, a job that—in X’s opinion—didn’t require half as much skill as X’s job cutting metal pieces for the intricate machinery inside engines. X had to work with numbers, inputting into the computer every single measurement of every single piece, manipulating her RazeR to print the exact shape and metal type and size needed for the delicate engineering of each engine to work. M, on the other hand, basically just traced highlighted lines with her Thread-r like a child tracing pictures on a coloring tablet.

            “Those are… interesting,” M said one day as she stood on her porch, looking over at the flowerbed in front of X’s house.

            X was sitting on a plastic chair on her own porch. She looked down at the plants—petunias, now withered so much that their once bright purple had turned a bruised, inky sort of dark blue. They weren’t X’s anyway, though she knew that’s what M assumed. X just kept them because her last boyfriend had liked them, had suggested that they have something to nurture together—some sort of bonding thing he’d read in Tell More! Magazine—but no amount of petunias can keep two completely opposite people together. They had parted ways, still on friendly terms of course, and the flowerbed was forgotten.

            “Thank you,” X told M.

            “I wish I had a green thumb,” M said blandly, putting her hands on her hips and gazing out at the street as if surveying the expanse of the ocean from a desolate shore. Her blond hair fluttered back a little in the breeze.

            M had a husband and two kids, all of whom—by appearances at least—she took exquisite care of, though privately X sometimes wondered if M taught her children the proper respect for TellCorp, since she was known to tell slight rumors—always jokingly—undermining the corporation. Her husband worked in the office of TellCorp’s Hungry Hearts department, so he was always off delivering meals to people in need and coordinating with other TellCorp departments to make sure all their workers were well fed. Her children were some sort of whiz kids who went to the creativity school down the block, training to one day be bigwigs in the media and advertising departments. Every time X met them, they painfully said “please” and “thank you” and bowed like little aristocrats. X thought them adorable.

            “I never know what to do with myself, on days off,” said X, laughing a bit. “I know we’re encouraged to go to church or study for the elections or to do charity work, but I always find that I just sit around.”

            M laughed too, as if she were agreeing with X, and said, “Oh, I know. I usually just watch Tell More! TV or read.”

            “Work gives us purpose,” X said aimlessly, so quiet that she was a little surprised when M murmured her agreement.

***

            The Tomorrow’s Flight Today Factory was always clean and quiet. Every machine had sound-blocking devices that X, whose senses had always been easily overwhelmed, found kind and thoughtful on the part of their designers. It was corporate policy to be make every job accessible and inclusive to all. X remembered when she was a girl, her babysitter playing the TV so loud that X’s ears would ring and head would roar for the rest of the night, and when she’d tell her mother about it she’d say, “Go to bed. Stop worrying about such nonsense.” Her mother hadn’t been a part of TellCorp or any of the corporations. She had worked in a plain old public job as a waitress at a diner in a dirty old city where the roads seemed to perpetually be under construction, the overpasses were crumbling, and you had to teach your children how to hold pepper spray and how to break a man’s wrist if he tried to attack you.

            X sat down at her desk amid the quiet humming of the factory machines and turned on her computer and the RazeR in front of her. The bluish light inside the glass box of the RazeR flickered on and the metal arm came to life by snapping up like a soldier’s salute.

            “Back to it, huh, X,” said M, walking by behind X to get to the seamstress tables at the far end of the factory. X mumbled some polite reply, remembering how nice M had been to her when she first started here years ago. X had sat down at her newly assigned desk, feeling a little lost, and M had walked behind her, recognizing that they’d been assigned houses right next to one another in the Neighborhood and that they were around the same age. M had paused, stared for a moment, curling her lips together as if embarrassed. She went over and whispered into X’s ear, “I think you should maybe think about putting your hair up. Or using a straightener, maybe, before you leave in the morning? It just looks a little wild is all, and you don’t want people getting the wrong idea about you.”

            “The wrong idea?”

            “That you’re… you know…” She swirled a finger around her ear. “People are already starting to talk. But I know you’re just a little… eccentric. It’s just because you didn’t grow up with the corporation. And besides, it’s little things that are an easy fix. Like maybe brushing your hair every once in a while. Okay, X? I want to look out for you.”

            Before X could say anything, M had grinned and went on toward the seamstress tables.

            On her desk, X had two monitors. On one, she opened up the engine plans for a new plane design to be tested next month. On the other, she opened the three-dimensional images of the parts she needed to cut today. She zoomed in on the first part—a small, bolt-shaped piece of steel with a cog on one end. She studied the measurements, inputting them into the RazeR software system that would print then cut the synthetic steel for the part.

            “Here at TellCorp, we want the best for your future,” came a voice X knew well. It was the CEO, making her usual first of the week appearance live on the large screen at the back of the factory floor. X paused her work and looked up at the screen. The CEO sat behind her own desk—a humble one, not much bigger than X’s or any of the desks on the factory floor. The CEO had deep olive green eyes and black hair and smiled in a way that betrayed her shyness. She didn’t like the spotlight, yet forced herself to make personal appearances for the comfort and security of the corporation’s employees. X could spot her natural shyness, her vulnerability, when the CEO glanced down to the notes on her desk for the briefest of moments in between every sentence or so. She looked like a little girl struggling to explain her homework assignment. And yet, when she looked up into the camera, she seemed like a general about to lead a battalion into war.

            “We want you to feel comfortable at work and at home. We want you to be well provided for throughout your life because we believe that the better our employees are provided for at home, the better they’ll perform at work. This is a no-stress environment. If you have a problem or make a mistake, don’t sweat it—talk to one of your supervisors. They are not your bosses, your overseers out to punish you for work done badly. Like all your coworkers and hopefully everyone in the TellCorp family, your supervisors are here to help you.”

            X didn’t know how the CEO did it. X had always been awkward in a way she’d never been able to get past no matter how many acting lessons she took during school or how she tried to force herself to get out there and meet people. For some, it came naturally, the ability to connect to people—like for M. For others, like the CEO, they could play along long enough to get the job done. But for X, she felt it too acutely. It was like the nervousness had to flow out of her, no way to keep it contained.

            The message from the CEO ended with more of the usual TellCorp-speak, and X returned her attention to the figures on her screens.

            Her job was exacting. It wasn’t like taking care of plants or having a boyfriend or even talking to your neighbor. Instead, it was precise numbers and manipulating computer code so the software would do exactly what she wanted it to do, what the engineers and the entire corporation needed it to do. She had grown to think of it as an art. Every piece she’d ever cut for TellCorp on the RazeR was in her mind as each tiny features of a massive sculpture, a body of work that represented her personality, her passion, her very existence.

            It wasn’t like just sewing lines into upholstery.

            X paused to check back over her work, then pressed start. The RazeR machine whirred to life, cutting.

***

    “A hundred bucks the CEO cries herself to sleep every night,” said M, leaning over X’s desk during the lunch hour one day. M ate a sandwich. X picked at a salad, wishing the hour would end and she could get back to her project.

    “Gambling isn’t allowed,” X muttered.

    “Oh, I’m just joshing,” said M. “You know I don’t mean anything by it. The supervisors encourage us to joke around during lunch hour—it’s bonding. Good for the corporation.” She chewed and swallowed a bite of her sandwich, then dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “You have to admit, though, she’s one of those ladies who is going to have one hell of a mid-life crisis.” X could hear M chewing. “We’ll know when she comes in with a short haircut and some boy-toy twenty-year-old. My husband was saying the other night—”

    X did her best to follow along to M’s ramblings, but still her mind wandered. The wilted flowers in her garden. The eerie cleanness of her house, even the way she kept her coffee pot cleaned—she had so much free time, when she wasn’t working, that the hours overwhelmed her. Once, the CEO had said, “A good worker is always at work, even if only in their mind.” X had taken to this sentiment—she obsessed over her work, and lately over the pieces of the new plane engine she was currently assigned to.

            TellCorp encouraged innovation and expression from all its employees. If you found that a design could be improved, you were supposed to let your supervisor know immediately. Usually they allowed some experimentation, as long as it remained within reason. X had stared long and hard at the current piece of the new plane engine she was working on, the three-dimensional image of bolt of steel with a cog on the end. Practically, the numbers added up. She saw no reason to change it—it would work for the engine, pumping the pistons that would create combustion that would thrust the plane forward. Yet there was a nagging feeling inside of her. Something about the piece just wasn’t right. She was thinking of her fantasy sculpture, the skeleton of it she kept in her head like the negative image of all the real pieces she has made and then turned in to be put into aircrafts. And she was thinking of M and wilted flowers and curly hair that wouldn’t straighten.

    “You know,” said M, her voice dropping to a whisper. She leaned in so close that X could smell the chicken, mayonnaise, and onions from her sandwich. “My husband says the CEO had a romance with somebody who now works in the government. My husband says this guy refused her, so now that’s why she’s so… cold, you know, with the workers here, with everyone. And why she’s head of TellCorp, rather than somewhere else. The government can’t run without the stuff we make and our ideas, after all.”

    “The CEO has never been cold to me,” X said. “I think that’s just rumors.”

    M finished with her sandwich and carefully wiped her fingers with a napkin. “Oh, of course. They’re all just rumors.” The bell rang—the lunch hour was over. X sighed with relief, threw away the remainder of her salad into the trash can underneath her desk, and turned to her computer. “Well,” said M happily, “back to work.”

    It amazed X, how easily M talked, how off-the-cuff her words and sentiments were. Although admittedly her prattling annoyed X at times, she still felt comforted by it. It just went to show that TellCorp valued every opinion from every employee—TellCorp encouraged venting, understood innocent gossip.

    X did have a nagging feeling about it, though. A nagging feeling as if M’s words had been arranged, packaged to be delivered directly to X. A nagging feeling similar to the one she felt about the piece of plane engine she was working on. A vague sense that something was the slightest bit not right.

    She turned back to her computer as the rest of the Tomorrow’s Flight Today Factory fell back into the rhythm of work. She furrowed her brow at the piece, and after the initial moment of hesitation, she found she couldn’t bring herself to press start for the RazeR to start sculpting. She composed herself, her heart pounding madly but at the same time thinking of M’s nonchalant, cool words—the unconcerned way she spoke. Her freedom, her ease, the kind that X had not yet found.

            A few deletions and insertions of code, and it was done. X pressed the command to start the RazeR machine and watched as it realized her work, each twist of the metal arm and spray of steel creating more knots in her stomach—but her heart pounded with nervous exhilaration rather than fear. Yes, she had changed the original design without supervisor approval. But, the piece would still work, and now it would be more appealing to the eye. More appealing to X, and best of all only she would know that her innovation was in some plane somewhere, flying through the sky.

***

            “It’s beautiful,” the CEO said. She held up the piece X had printed the day before. The bolt shape was now more like a blade, still with a cog on the end, but sleeker. It reflected a warped shard of the CEO’s friendly face. “And it’s useless,” the CEO added sadly.

            X sat in front of the CEO’s desk, holding back tears. “I made sure it would still work in the engine, ma’am,” she said.

            Her supervisor had come to her that morning as soon as she arrived to work. Right in front of everyone, right in front of M, he had asked X to come with him and had shuttled her to the CEO’s office in the City’s main TellCorp building downtown, where she’d spotted the piece she had printed yesterday on the CEO’s desk and had felt the usual nervousness turn to terror. X had become a disappointment to TellCorp. She had betrayed her corporation, her family, her very home. All for some gut instinct, a decision she’d made in the moment, barely thinking, only feeling. She had never even heard of anyone getting disciplined for this sort of thing—but then again, who would be crazy enough to betray the people who kept you alive?

            The CEO nodded. She glanced down for a moment like she did in her weekly videos, gathering herself, and placed the X’s engine piece on the desk. Then she got up and walked around to the front of the desk and sat on the corner of it, crossing her arms and smiling. “You know, X, I like you’re hair. I think it looks cute.”

            X was so surprised, she didn’t know what to say.

            “X,” the CEO said, “do you want to know a personal story about me? I warn you—it’s very personal. I don’t tell it to many people. But you’re not some corporate kid. You know what it’s really like out there.” X said nothing, shocked into silence, doubts flooding her mind. She thought of her mother—her mother in the living room, smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of whiskey and slurring about old boyfriends—and X hoped this wouldn’t get too personal. She liked the way the CEO was onscreen, approachable and vulnerable but at the same time professional, and she hoped any confession she made now wouldn’t ruin that precious image of her boss, her leader, her savior.

            When X said nothing the CEO continued, talking softly and slowly as if she would stop if X wanted her to. “When I was a girl,” the CEO said, “I had a bit of a speech problem. I didn’t slur so much as it was hard for me to tell one word, when spoken, apart from another. I got the usual taunts for this from the other children, as you can imagine. If you’re different in any way it’s natural—in an uncontrolled setting—for you to be treated with either cruelty or pity, and I got my fill of both.” The CEO paused, as if again waiting for X to stop her, but after a beat of silence she continued. “One day a group of kids cornered me. They shoved me against a wall and shoved a fishhook into my mouth, tugging it through my cheek.” She touched her seemingly blemish-less cheek gently and studied X’s response.

            Any tears were gone—X still didn’t know how to respond. “That’s horrible,” she said.

            “Of course it was hard enough for me to talk before, but obviously with a mouth full of fishhook and blood—though not as much as you’d imagine—I couldn’t say a word, so they proceeded to tell the teacher and my parents and whoever else that I had put the hook in my mouth myself. That I had put it in my mouth to taste it and had cut myself like an idiot.”

            X could barely breathe, now. She couldn’t even picture the scene in her mind—the CEO’s eyes were suddenly hard and cold and X wondered why she’d never heard of anyone in the corporation being punished before. “I’m sorry they did that to you,” she said.

            “The doctors did a good job though.” The CEO turned her cheek to X. “Not a mark left on the outside unless you look very, very closely.” X tried to look, but the CEO turned away. “On the inside, though, there’s a ridge.” X could see the CEO moving her tongue around against the side of her mouth, perhaps feeling the leftover scar. Or was this just some sort of corporate parable meant to teach any dissidents a lesson?

            “I’m sorry,” X said again, not knowing what else to say.

            The CEO glanced down. The vulnerability returned, the warmth and kindness. Her voice softened. “It’s okay,” she said. “It reminds me that I’m a survivor. And it reminds me to never, ever, let anyone hold me down again—or spread lies about me.” X swallowed. Wilted flowers, curly hair, M. The CEO absentmindedly ran a finger across her cheek and said, “Sometimes I can almost taste the metal.”

            There was a long pause. The office was quiet and empty, though, like the Tomorrow’s Flight Today factory, the building hummed. “Why are you telling me this, ma’am?” X asked when she couldn’t take her swelling nervousness in the silence any longer.

            “TellCorp wants the best for your future,” the CEO said, no longer looking at X or anything else in particular—instead staring off at a bookshelf on the opposite wall by the door, her olive eyes empty. “I want the best for your future. You know, nearly ten thousand people were murdered in the nation at large last year. Ten thousand people. Do you know how many people were murdered in TellCorp jurisdiction?” She smiled. “Zero. And do you know why?” Her smile broke open wide and she held up X’s engine piece. “It probably has something to do with how we don’t allow our employees to make shivs on company property.”

            X laughed a little. “Ma’am, I promise—”

            “Or make anything else.” The CEO’s eyes grew hard again. “You are a craftswoman. A professional. It’s your craft that gives you purpose. It’s not some kind of half-baked, self-expressive art. You have no idea how similar the drive to make ‘art’ is to the drive to commit truly horrible deeds. They both come from very deep hurt, very permanent scars.”

            Then, with the slightest bit of temptation in her eyes, she held out the engine piece for X to take. Hesitantly, X reached for it, feeling the smooth metal on her fingertips. “Be careful,” the CEO said, and then told X she was free to go.

***

            The CEO had said before that the best leaders created situations where it seemed no one else could lead, and the best storytellers created situations where there was no one else to tell the story. She’d said it during the TellCorp orientation video for new employees, the one X had watched as a seventeen year old with two younger siblings to take care of and nowhere else to go.

            Her siblings were grown up now, with places of their own, working for TellCorp in jobs of their own, with lives of their own. X worked at the same desk, manipulating numbers on different designs, crafting precise instruments of flight proud enough to bear the TellCorp logo. And she loved it—her job, her craft. After being caught with the engine piece she had changed and talking with the CEO, she vowed to herself on the shuttle ride back to the factory to never again stray from the design without a supervisor’s approval. After all, they easily gave approval, encouraged experimentation because it led to innovation. She didn’t know what had come over her—part of the magic in that slick piece of steel had been to do it on her own. But now she saw the harm it in. She distrusted her own selfish and nervous instincts.

            Still, she kept the engine piece close at all times, as she imagined the CEO wanted her to—it was as precious as the scar inside the CEO’s cheek. When X was alone, she developed a compulsion to take the piece out and polish it with the shirt hem of her uniform, the thick fabric going over and under the metal point until X could see her own reflection in the steel.

    The part of that day she kept replaying in her mind was M saying, A hundred bucks the CEO cries herself to sleep every night.

    It wasn’t so much the flirtation with forbidden gambling that bothered X—it was the fact that M said it as if it was a bad thing, a symptom of a diseased or otherwise twisted mind. Maybe it was just in her memory that X heard it, but now she couldn’t stop hearing it, M’s voice dripping with judgment. The way she opened her eyes wide as if telling a scandalous, delicious secret. X didn’t know what was so wrong with it—crying oneself to sleep—and if the CEO did it, that was only proof that she was human, deeply hurt but still persevering, like everybody else. But inevitably this thought made X even more guilty and confused about the whole situation. After all, when the CEO had told her terrible story about the kids and the fishhook, X had done nothing but sit there stunned, hoping it would stop, thinking of the way her mother would drink herself to sleep instead of crying, thinking of her father who—like the CEO’s possibly nonexistent man who worked in government—was so distant that he was made mostly of slurred confessions and desperate rumors.

            “What is that?” said M from her porch.

            It was a bright, sunny day in Neighborhood G12. The Tell-Swift Street Cleaners had just come by, so the streets were their usual brilliant white, every lawn on the block freshly watered to an emerald green, and the sky blue and spotted with frothy white clouds. X held the engine piece in her hand, the cog against her palm, the sharp end pointed upward toward the sky. “It’s mine,” she said.

            “Oh,” said M. Probably slightly jealous, X thought. M put her hands on her hips and stretched her back. With cold blue eyes, she glanced over at X again and then drew closer, leaned against the pole at the edge of her porch and looked over at X’s porch. “You know, X,” M began softly—but with a sneer in her voice, “I really hate to break it to you, but the CEO is, like, an actual crazy person. She’s one of those people who you kind of go along with and then years later you find out she’s actually in cahoots with cartels or something, and you’re like, well, I’m surprised but not shocked. Like, really, X. I’m trying to help you out.”

            On her porch next to M’s porch, X didn’t say anything for a moment, a tinge of anger bubbling inside her. M would never understand it, how grateful she should be for this place, for TellCorp, for the CEO. She knew nothing of the outside world, the world of dirty streets and loud noises, a place where a girl’s father is unknown and her mother dies suddenly and she, all by herself, at seventeen, has to do whatever necessary to make ends meet, to take care of her siblings. X thought of the empty flowerbed, the withered petunias she had thrown away a few days ago. She thought of M, the husband, the kids, the innocent gossiping that X was coming to see less as innocent and more as ignorant. And X thought of the piece of metal in her hand, the blade glinting in the sunshine.

            “I made it,” she said, tightening her grip the steel. “Come here, M—do you want to see it?”

***

    The CEO sat behind her desk, reading glasses perched on her nose, watching the video of the stabbing on her computer. She shook her head and glanced up at X. “In our files and internal reports, we often give workers a pseudonym, number, or initial of some kind—to protect their privacy, of course.” The CEO leaned back and smiled, taking off her glasses. “I’ve always called you X. X for… exhilarating,” she laughed, typed something briefly on the computer. “I hope you don’t feel bad about any of this. If I can be frank, the bitch had it coming. She has been needling you, hasn’t she?” She glanced up again.

    X wasn’t crying. She sat very still with her legs crossed and her arms wrapped tightly around her stomach.

    “Anyway,” the CEO continued, “she will probably survive. You missed major organs, and our doctors are very, very good.” Her eyes softened. “Which means trouble for you. If M had died, it would have been very tragic, of course, but we would have just disposed of the body, very easily came up with an understandable reason for her disappearance. It would have been particularly easy with her—her husband travels a great deal. But since she’s still alive, she’ll almost certainly have things to say, and even if she doesn’t, a explanation will be demanded… But c’est la vie. The cards have been dealt, and not in your favor, I’m afraid.”

    X squeezed her stomach tighter. “I’m going to jail, then?”

    “We don’t have jails here at TellCorp. And we do not believe in them, so we do not get the outside authorities involved under any circumstances. That’s our policy, straight from the Board.”

    X said nothing. She started down at the front of the CEO’s desk.

    The CEO got up, walked around to X, and sat on the edge of the desk like she had before—X remembered the day she got called into this very office, the sliver of metal lying on the CEO’s desk, a sense of doom coursing through her. X didn’t know why she felt nothing now. She felt nothing but numbness. She kept thinking about being the first TellCorp worker punished terribly by the corporation. Her face on the TellMore news. Her siblings watching, M watching, her supervisors watching, saying they always knew—her strange resistance to bonding, her lack of a green thumb, her wild curly hair. “I don’t know why I did it,” she muttered, almost to herself. “I don’t know what came over me. It was like there was someone else in my head. It was like…” she looked up. “I thought it was what you wanted.”

    “Oh, yes,” said the CEO, crossing her arms and shrugging. “Again, there’s nothing about this you should feel bad about, or responsible for. Except maybe not having very good aim with a blade.” She grew silent for a moment and swallowed. “I have done terrible things, and I rarely feel sorry for any of them.” Her voice became thin—maybe it was her imagination, but X even thought she even heard it shake. “But I do feel sorry for you.”

    X reached out and touched the CEO’s knee. “I’m sorry too.”

    Jarring X, there was a knock on the door, and one of the CEO’s bodyguards came in. The CEO smiled at him. “I believe X here is ready to take the deal,” she said.

    “Yes, boss,” said the bodyguard. He left, shutting the door softly.

    The CEO got up and went back behind her desk. She sat in the chair and swiveled a bit, watching X. “What deal?” said X, swallowing, her mouth dry.

    The CEO sat with her hands folded together on the top of the desk. “You have been made into a shadow of yourself,” she finally said. “A shadow, and it’s fading. It’s hard to not care for the ones like you—I have watched you grow up here at TellCorp. You know, I didn’t grow up in the corporation either. I wasn’t like M, or the others. I came here out of desperation and search for solace, a search that quickly became a quest for much more than solace. A quest for the solidness of myself that I, like you, have so quietly lost.” She tsked and shook her head. “I’ll give you a hint—now your X is going to stand for something else. Example. Exit. Exile.”

    “No,” X whimpered.

    “TellCorp is changing. The world is changing. We have always done what’s best for our workers. But what’s best for the many is not always what’s best for the few.”

    The CEO quickly explained the situation—the deal. Something in the quick, shy way she talked, no longer looking up, gave X the feeling that this plan was not Board approved. It was not official TellCorp strategy. X’s pulse quickened, not because she was frightened but because she was unsure. Was the CEO playing the TellCorp Board, or was she really trying to help X? Or was this all a lie, a performance for her benefit, Board approved after all? X couldn’t think through it. Her mind stopped weaving and unweaving the tangled threads of possible motivation, of possible gain—easier to listen to the CEO, trusting that she wouldn’t lead her astray. After all, the CEO did seem to care. She had that shy sadness in her eyes, that gleam of compassion and spark of intelligence.

After a moment or two more of convincing, X took the deal.

***

    It was fun to travel, to see the world from the inside and outside at once. X enjoyed working for the government. Some people simply weren’t made to be a part of TellCorp, and it was wonderful that even these outcasts could still somehow contribute.

    What X liked most was the wildflowers. She had forgotten about them—there was none at TellCorp, or none that she remembered, simply because they liked to keep the lawns clean and green there and anything else covered by smooth, white pavement. She still missed the cleanness. The city was dull and drab and crowded, and although she did her duties with dedication she got no sense of pleasure from the dry work—filling out paperwork, sitting in on meetings, taking notes for those of a higher rank. The government did not encourage innovation, or rather, in order to innovate you had to fill out a myriad of obscure forms in order to do so. But, however she did it, the CEO had been kind—had gotten X a job that was easy and paid well and where everyone else on staff treated her with respect.

    The best part, though, was the wildflowers. On weekends she would take long walks out down country roads, looking at them, even in the rain. Purples and blues sometimes, pinks and yellows other times, sometimes puffs of white and gray, peppered through the yellow-green. They inspired X, and after her walks she would always go home, write out her report quickly and easily, careful to get all the facts right but allowing herself to expand and describe in a way that would make the dullness of government life vivid, rife with conflict and even the tiniest amount of human hope. She would imagine that one of the higher ranking men she saw each week—either the man with the slicked back brown hair or the cropped black hair, both with a wounded streak—were the CEO’s long-lost love. So X would write about him, spending pages on his smallest movements, though in reality these men related little to the facts she was supposed to report.

She imagined, among the wildflowers, that if she was getting letters from a world she had left behind, she would read with the silent hope of being reminded of something she had forgotten, something broken and beautiful and just out of reach.

 

 

Current Occupation: Volunteer Museum Guide
Former Occupation: Typesetter
Contact Information: I am from Brooklyn, New York and fell in love with poetry when I was nine years old.  My first publication was in Young America Sings at fourteen. It has been a long and wonderful journey. After retiring from the advertising business, I have moved to upstate New York near the Albany area.  The natural beauty of the area has given me a great deal of inspiration to continue my voyage through the world of literature.
 
Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as Seven Circle Press, Dinner with the Muse, Poet Warriors, Blueline, and Halcyon Days.  Four Bright Hills Press Anthologies, several Poppy Road Review Journals, and numerous Kind of A Hurricane Press Publications have accepted her work.  Her latest title, The Muse In Miniature, is available on Amazon and she has four Best of the Net nominations.

 

#

Hospital Switchboard Operator
 
After thirty years of service,
Francine knows she hears the
heart beat of this hospital. 
 
Voicemail, call waiting, cell phones
were just gadgets, she speaks for
clinics, ICU's and admissions.
 
Francine is the one who connects
post surgery status reports to loved ones.
She can sense the tension in their speech.
 
The weary sick call for visits to clinics. 
Others anxiously requested test results
sent to their homes. 
 
Doctors park in designated spaces.
Walking briskly in a flurry of white jackets,
they converse in their own language.
 
Francine knew how to listen.
#
Long Haul Driver
 
At first he was thrilled by the road 
thinking it an adventure to roam
through cities and states. 
 
His truck a massive 18 wheeler
winding through snake-like
overpasses, gleaming in sunlight
across ten lane highways.
 
But then he had to drive
so many hours  arriving
only to wait for the next
work order, inhaling fumes
in the cold and in the heat.
 
Coffee was not enough
now he needed No Doze… 
easy to pick up at gas stops. 
But how to deal with the pain
in his legs, arms and neck?
 
Later he felt a slave to the
choking engine and ugly
concrete.  The same signs
everywhere, big box stores,
eating holes and truck stops
with cheap souvenirs.
 
Finally he felt left behind.
Weary of this relentless surge
of everything always going
forward and that demanding clock.
#
Pharmacist
 
He thought of himself as a
modern alchemist.   Fluent
in this arcane language.
Knowing the composition within
so many minute capsules.
 
The rest of the store could
be in a gas station or bargain
store.  Filled with candies,
lip sticks, other frivolous items.
 
If you simply had a cough, syrup
could be found on aisle three.
His area was sacred to patients, 
those with serious ailments.
 
Filling prescriptions navigating
insurance companies, seeking
authorizations. Always aware of
side effects, multiple drug reactions,
possible allergic problems.
Austere yet approachable,
dispensing heroic potions
from his prized domain
as chemical high cleric.

 

Current Occupation: Retail. Assistant manageress (living the dream!)

Former Occupation: Call Centre Operator / Customer Relations

Contact Information: Writing under the name of iDrew, to co-ordinate with her titles, Essex girl Drew has previously been published both on-line and in print.  She enjoys shopping, boys and clubs, claiming these are merely research for her writing.  She is one of the founding members of the Clueless Collective and to be found at:  Clueless Collective – Home

 

#

iManifesto

or

A Short History Of The Anti-Book League

 

I once had, no wait a minute let me rephrase that; once upon a-time, I had a part-time job in a book shop.  I considered it a position of power and influence because I could slip explicit photographs of sex change operations into copies of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with full colour detailed references of how to turn a penis into a vagina in glorious close-ups accompanied with full medical procedural explanations as well as psychological profiles for the hard of comprehending.

 

Having used up my supply of these photographs I turned my attention to another set in my possession, that of pus oozing STD infections, which I deposited inside copies of Breaking Dawn (Twilight Saga). Thirsty for bodily fluids?

 

With all these photographs deployed I then set about placing earwig eggs into Miffy In The Garden, rat flea eggs in Miffy At The Zoo, smearing E.coli bacteria onto pages of Miffy In Hospital, and fake telegrams saying; ‘your parents are dead’ into copies of Miffy Is Crying.

 

 One day I was called into see the boss.  He had a breakfast stain on his tie and smelt of  aftershave. I sat opposite his desk and when I crossed my legs his eyes crawled all the way up to the hem of my skirt. He said; ‘Drew, I know what you’ve been putting in the books and this has to stop’.

 

 Undeterred by his reprimand I started cutting out the final pages of murder mystery books with a craft knife.

 

 The boss called me into his office again. He leered at my legs again to which I returned a look of utter disdain. He told me I was sacked, then said ‘sorry’ to my tits.

 

 Well if that doesn’t prove that books aren’t fun I don’t what does. This is how the Anti-Book League was formed, and what follows is the outline of the Anti-Book League manifesto:

 

STOP wasting your time reading stupid books and watch cartoons instead. Cartoons are life.  Flick art.

IF you’re gonna be a sad loner; self harm. Cuts are cool. Old skool. Paper cuts; it’s what books were made for.

IF you really don’t like blood and pain (pussy) find hundreds of friends on Facebook that you’ll never know. Yeah you like that. Twitter twat.

INVENT a reality where you win in a video game and rule the world. If no one believes you.  Kill them. Kill them all.

WATCH porn on-line whilst furiously masturbating to achieve a state of bliss. Anal, bondage, and watersports are the preferred options to a strong wrist and a healthy mind. Call it erotica or a study of fucking in blue.

 

And then I thought the Anti-Book League should have a slogan.  Easy to remember.  Something that would fit on a tee shirt:  BOOKS is DUMB.

 

Please donate lots of money and follow the League on Facebook. Do it TODAY. 

 

Current Occupation: University English instructor, copy editor, copywriter

Former Occupation: Journalist, photographer

Contact Information: In addition to WORK, Jeff Nazzaro's work-themed prose and poetry has appeared in several literary venues, including Down in the Dirt, Terror House Magazine, and Avatar Review.  jeffnazzaro@gmail.com

 

#

 

E

    When Vinny LoPietro was in the second grade, his class was asked by their teacher, Ms. Barton, who was very artsy and always had them doing little seasonal art projects—like in the fall tearing red, orange, and yellow construction paper into “leaves” and pasting them onto a brown background—to draw a picture of their fathers for Father’s Day over a caption that read, “My father is a(n) ________.” 

    The parenthetical N was key. Vinny, who was as glad he didn’t have to tear paper for this project as he was that school was just about out for the summer, wrote in block letters at the bottom of a large sheet of white paper, “MY FATHER IS A(N) A              ,” then he crossed out the A and wrote an E. Then he raised his hand, and when Ms. Barton came over he asked her how to spell “engineer.” She spelled it out slowly while he completed the word. Vinny then took his crayons and drew a picture of a man with dark hair wearing a striped cap and overalls, standing tall in front of a big, black locomotive.

    On the last day of school, Ms. Barton let the students take their pictures home. Vinny showed his picture to his mother that afternoon. She held the paper with both hands and looked it over. She read the caption out loud. Then she laughed. She laughed out loud and said, “Oh, Vinny” in the voice she used whenever he did or said something she thought was cute, like the time he’d asked her in all seriousness if she used Joy dishwashing liquid because it was lemony fresh. She looked at the picture again, patted him on the head, and said, “It’s very, very good.” Then she picked up the phone, called her sister, and told her about the picture. Vinny heard his aunt laugh through the phone. She was a loud laugher, too. His mother laughed again. Then she started talking about the dog.

    That spring, the LoPietro’s had been given Vanessa, a three-year-old purebred Shih Tzu, by their neighbor Mrs. O’Halloran, who’d had to move with her two kids into an apartment where you couldn’t have dogs. Mr. O’Halloran, Vinny’s father joked one Sunday morning, was moving into a place where you couldn’t have Vanessa. Vinny didn’t get it, but his mother assured him it wasn’t funny. The O’Hallorans, to everyone’s great shock, had gotten a divorce. It was the first one on the street. The first one Vinny had ever heard of. It wouldn’t be the last. Vinny worried his parents were next. They fought, sometimes bad. Mr. LoPietro worked all the time, even on the weekends. He often came home after Vinny had gone to bed, and was back at work before he woke up. Once he heard his mother talking to his aunt on the phone. His father had run out of gas the night before and called her from a payphone at ten o’clock. He heard her say, “I told him this is the last time. He runs out of gas once more I’m leaving him wherever the hell he is for the night. He can check in to a motel. He can walk home for all I care.” 

    Vinny’s mother loved Vanessa. She was always giving her baths, brushing her long fur, putting little red ribbons on her head or her ears, and telling anyone who’d listen how Vanessa was purebred Shih Tsu and she was going to enter her in shows.

    “She’s show-quality pedigreed, but also a good little watch dog,” she told Vinny one day. “Shih Tsus used to guard the palace in Tibet and the monasteries. Inside. That’s why they’re so little. They used to sleep in the monks’ chambers and alert them to intruders.”

    “What could a little dog like Vanessa do to anyone?” Vinny asked.

    “Alert the monks. Alert the guards.”

    Vinny stood and listened as his mother talked to his aunt about Vanessa. She held his picture in one hand. He turned and went down the hall to his room, closing the door behind him. Under his bed was a hockey-skate box half filled with baseball cards. On top of the cards were stereo hi-fi brochures he’d collected from the electronics department at Lechmere Sales. He had the latest brochures for Sony, Technics, Onkyo, and Akai. He’d already written a letter, filling both sides of the paper, to Santa Claus, saying that all he wanted for Christmas that year was a hi-fi stereo system with a turntable and tape deck because Gary Ross—who lived across the street and was his best friend, even though he hadn’t invited Vinny to his birthday slumber party that spring because Vinny was only nine and all Gary’s other friends were twelve, or even thirteen—had this excellent stereo system in his bedroom and a bunch of records from wicked cool bands with weird names, like Jethro Tull, even though there wasn’t a guy named Jethro Tull in the band, and Molly Hatchet, even though there weren’t any girls in the band. Gary even played him a song about a girl called Lola who was really a boy, or something like that, from a record that had this really long name and was part one, only there never was a part two. Gary assured Vinny the whole thing was hilarious. Vinny didn’t really get why any of it was funny, but he liked the music, the guitars and the singing, even if Gary did play it a little too loud. In his letter, Vinny told Santa he didn’t know what records he wanted just yet, maybe Lola Somethinorother Part One, but until he figured it out he’d be okay borrowing some of his mother’s records, like Boz Scaggs and Billy Joel. Those guys were the real singers, anyway.

    Vinny’s door opened. It was his mother. She’d hung up with his aunt. She wasn’t laughing. She held his picture with both hands, looking at it, then she turned it around and showed him. 

    “It really is a very good drawing, Vin,” she said. “You know what your father does, don’t you?”

    “Works all the time.”

    “Doing what?”

    “Engineer.”

    “That’s right, but not the kind who drives trains. You knew that, didn’t you?”

    “I don’t know, I guess so.” He put his brochures back in the skate box. He took out a stack of new baseball cards and started flipping through them—Richie Zisk, Manny Trillo, Rick Reuschel, Ron LeFlore—putting any doubles into a separate pile. He’d try trading them to Jason Vadnais for ones he needed. “Doing what, then?” he said.

    “He designs stuff. Electronic stuff.” She bent down and picked up one of the brochures. “Sort of like this.”

    “He makes stereos?” Vinny said, looking up from his cards.

    “Designs. He makes diagrams, sort of like pictures, that other people use to make stuff. Not stereos, though. Much more important than that—really fancy medical equipment so doctors can see inside of people.”

    “Like X-rays?”

    “Like X-rays but newer, fancier.”

    “Can I see one?”

    “I’ll tell you what. I’ll talk to your father and maybe he can take you into work with him one day. Then you can see.”

    Vinny kept his letter to Santa Claus in the hockey-skate box all summer. He hardly bothered with the cards, spending most of his time working on the letter, rereading it, crossing stuff out, tacking stuff onto the end in smaller and smaller letters. By the time school started, he thought he had it perfect, and, though it was still just September, he gave it to his mother so she could mail it to the North Pole. 

    That fall, his mother encouraged him to spend more time playing with Jason Vadnais, who lived up the street and was the same age as Vinny. He liked Jason, and they always had fun playing, but with Gary Ross it was different. Vinny always felt like he learned something new, a song or a board game Gary had, or just hearing things like how watching college football was better than watching the pros because the pros were just playing for paychecks and changed teams all the time. “You’re just rooting for laundry,” he said. 

    Jason Vadnais didn’t know any of that stuff, and Vinny felt like he spent half the time they played together telling him stuff Gary had told him. They still had fun, though, and Vinny’s mother seemed happier. But why did she care? Maybe she’d secretly read his letter to Santa before mailing it. But it didn’t matter so long as she’d mailed it, did it? Someone else reading your letter to Santa wouldn’t cancel it out like telling someone what you’d wished for before blowing the candles out on your birthday cake. Or would it?

    November was warm that year. Vinny’s mother kept calling it Indian summer, but all Vinny knew was that he was still wearing his warm-up jacket, not his parka, to school. At lunch one day, Jennifer Keane said that if it didn’t get cold pretty soon, Santa’s reindeer would need extra magic flying beans to make it through the usual Christmas deliveries, and that touched off the Great Santa Debate of the third grade at Wamesit North Elementary School.

    The Great Santa Debate consumed lunch period all the way up to Christmas vacation that year, the class split between St. Nick believers and infidels. Though no official poll was taken, it seemed as if the believers held a slim but impassioned edge. There were kids, mostly boys, usually tough, who folded their arms, hands tucked under little biceps, shook their heads, and said, “It’s your parents.” When pressed, they said things like, “I just know” or “it’s obvious.” When really pressed, they admitted, “My father told me.” There were other kids, mostly girls, mostly honor-roll students, who crossed their arms, hands on shoulders, and said, “He’s real. I know he’s real.” When pressed, they said things like, “I just know in my heart Santa Claus is real.” When really pressed, they confessed, “My mother swore to me.”

    Vinny took a middle position. He believed in Santa Claus but didn’t think St. Nick could deliver all those presents to all those boys and girls all over the world in the course of one long winter’s night using just a sleigh and eight flying reindeer. No way, even with Rudolph. Even with magic powers like putting a finger to his nose and zipping up and down chimneys. Not everyone even had a chimney. He’d visited the O’Halloran’s new apartment that summer. No chimney. What were they going to do, leave a window open? They’d freeze to death. And where would they hang their stockings?

    It didn’t add up. Vinny’s house alone, between his sister and him, would take at least an hour. Plus, there was no way Santa’s elves made all the stuff they got in some little workshop, like in the TV specials. That was fine for dollhouses and wooden trains and all that, but Vinny was expecting a state-of-the-art Japanese stereo system. They didn’t make those at the North Pole. Sony and Akai were in Tokyo. Onkyo and Technics were in Osaka. It said so on the back of the brochures.

    No, the way Vinny saw it, Santa had to have some kind of turbocharged helicopter with robotic arms that clutched presents in adjustable claws and extended down chimneys into stockings and under trees, like something out of The Cat in the Hat. He probably had a whole fleet of them, and any given Christmas you only got some senior elf in red shorts to deliver your loot.

    It was a reasonable compromise, Vinny thought, but he didn’t get much support for his turbocharged helicopter theory. Jennifer Keane shook her head and said, “He has a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer—everyone knows that,” and Robert Nichols, who would punch you in the arm so hard your fingers would tingle if you called him Bob, or, God help you, Bobby, clapped Vinny on the shoulder and said, “It’s your father, kid. I found out last year when I wanted a dirt bike and got a football instead.”

    Vinny didn’t know and neither did Jennifer Keane in her frilly dresses or Robert Nichols in his plain white T-shirts. Bobby, ha ha. Whoever heard of getting one present from Santa, anyway? He probably gave him a stupid football because he went around punching kids in the arm all the time and making them call him Robert and say he was the strongest kid in the school. No wonder he was like that, with a father who’d just out and tell him there was no Santa Claus. 

    Well, this Christmas would prove it, one way or the other. Vinny’s mother had already said, “What do you need a stereo in your bedroom for when we have a perfectly good one in the living room?”

    “Gary Ross has one in his room,” Vinny had said.

    “Gary Ross’s father is a pharmacist. He owns the Rexall drug store on Main Street.”

    “Gary got his stereo for Christmas. Santa doesn’t care whose father owns a Rexall drug store, does he?”

    “Not everything on Christmas comes from Santa. Some stuff you get every year comes from your father and I.”

    “Like my skates last year.”

    “That’s right, and they’re nicer than half the kids on your team. I just don’t think Santa will get a nine-year-old boy, no matter how good he’s been, an expensive hi-fi system nicer than most adults have.”

    Vinny’s lower lip started to pout out like it did when he was trying not to cry, but before any tears came his mother said, “But he’d probably bring something pretty close.”

    When Christmas finally arrived that year, Vinny’s internal Santa alarm woke him up at five o’clock, his stomach churning with butterflies. Outside it was still dark. Santa had come; Vinny could feel it. He knew the stockings were filled and the presents were under the tree. He also knew he couldn’t open anything. He’d be in real trouble if he did that. But he could look. Except it was still so early. He’d wait until his sister woke up. She’d come and get him. He closed his eyes. They snapped right back open.

    Vinny got out of bed as quietly as he could. His room was at one end of a long hallway, at the other end of which, with its newly supplemented Christmas tree, gleamed the living room. In between was first his parents’ bedroom, then his sister’s.

    He crept across the floor, felt in the dark for the knob and, slowly turning it, opened the door just enough for his thin frame to squeeze through. He only had to tiptoe down the carpeted hallway to where Santa had stashed all the loot.

    His parents’ door was closed. That made it easy. As he went past, he saw that his sister’s door was open. It didn’t matter. Even if she woke up, she’d be on his side. Christmas! He crept past her door. Then, with a sharp eruption of noise, something—Vanessa!—sprang off the bed at him. He jumped, shrieked, and ran. Palace guard dog instincts activated, she chased him down the hallway into the living room, where he flung himself onto the sofa, just out of reach of the Shih Tsu’s nip, clipping the tree with his foot on the way by, sending a shower of ornaments, tinsel, and lights crashing down.

    “Vincent Michael!” his mother shouted down the hallway. “Get back in bed this instant or there will be no Christmas for you this year!”

    There was, eventually, Christmas for everyone that morning. Vinny received some clothes and a hockey stick from his parents and from Santa Claus toys, games, and, for his final, big present, a Fisher-Price phonograph. As Vinny tore the paper from the box, the image of the portable record player brought him an immediate burst of excitement, that feeling of getting exactly what you’d worked all year for—imagining, writing, remembering to be good—before the familiar blue-and-red of the Fisher-Price box, the large yellow lettering, the image on the front—made him stop. His lower lip quivered, threatening a pout. He looked at his mother.

    “Isn’t it great?” she said.

    “This is a toy,” he said.

    “It’s a record player, like you wanted,” she said. “It’s portable. Wait’ll you try it out. You can play it in your room. You can bring it up to Jason Vadnais’ house.”

    Vinny looked at the box, his lower lip slowly jutting past his upper.

    “Vin, you’re nine,” his mother said. “Santa brings toys for little boys. When you’re bigger you’ll get a bigger one.” She looked at him for a moment. “But, if you don’t like this one, we can always send it back to the North Pole.”

    Vinny finished unwrapping the present. He hugged the box to his chest, sucked in his lower lip, and shook his head.

    His mother had a new Christmas album by the Carpenters (who were really singers) she’d bought the day after Thanksgiving, and it was the first record Vinny played on his new phonograph. He played it over and over that morning until his father said they better give the needle a break and turned on the radio.

    The next day, Vinny carefully wound up the power cord, secured the lid on top, and carried his new portable record player up the street to Jason Vadnais’ house. Jason and his brother, Billy, got a computer they called a TR-80, and something called Tobor, which Vinny knew from TV commercials—it was “robot” spelled backwards. Big deal. Jason showed Vinny how to play Hunt the Wumpus on the computer while Billy kept ramming Tobor into their feet and laughing. 

    They didn’t listen to any records that day. On his way home, Vinny saw Gary Ross in the street. He had a radio-controlled car. He zoomed it right up to Vinny. Vinny jumped and the car went flying past him, then spun around and came back. Vinny whirled in the street and watched it whiz by back to Gary.

    “Pretty cool, huh?” he said. “It’s got front-wheel drive. Made in Japan.”

    “From Santa?” Vinny said.

    Gary laughed. “Yeah, it was from Santa, all right. He give you that?” He pointed at Vinny’s record player.

    “I asked for a hi-fi system, but he gave me this for now.”

    “That’s the way to do it.”

    Vinny wanted to try the radio-controlled car, but he was too shy to ask, and though he kept looking at the controller, Gary didn’t offer. Pretty soon, Vinny’s mother called him inside.

    Two days before New Year’s that winter, Vinny, who’d forgotten all about it, went with his father to work. Like Vinny, his father was supposed to be off that week, but he ended up going in to the office almost every day, at least for a few hours, even on Sunday. 

    It was a Sunday when Vinny went with him. His father drove a little Toyota with a stick shift. Vinny was used to his mother’s car, a station wagon with an automatic gear shifter coming out of the steering column. He usually sat in the back seat, roaming around. Now, he was in the front, buckled up. 

    “Guess I have a copilot today,” his father said. “Usually I fly solo, but I guess today I have a copilot.”

    Vinny thought, as copilot, he should watch the gauges in the car, especially the speedometer, since he knew his father had gotten two speeding tickets in the last year, and the gas gauge because of that time before when his father ran out of gas. He certainly didn’t want to have to walk home. 

    As soon as they were out of the driveway, Vinny noticed the fuel gauge stood just above E. There was a gas station very close to the house, right near the onramp to the highway. As copilot, he should say something. He didn’t want to say it.

    “Dad, do we need gas?” he said.

    “Nah,” said his father, without glancing at the gauge, and got on the ramp to the highway. At the end of the ramp he downshifted, then shot out into traffic, quickly working his way over to the far lane. He drove very fast until he was right on top of the car in front of him, then he hit the brakes. Sometimes after braking he downshifted and stamped on the gas. Vinny watched the speedometer, up to eighty, down to sixty, back up to eighty. Sometimes cars got out of the way, sometimes they sped up. Sometimes cars flew around their little car from behind. A couple of times headlights flashed, and once a guy honked. Vinny’s father didn’t seem to notice any of it. Vinny sometimes took his eyes off the gauges and watched his father’s hand on the gear shifter—his fingers would spread out off the knob and then make a slashing movement, like he did when he was talking to Vinny’s mother at the kitchen table, making a point about work, things Vinny never understood: his boss, Larry, or those stupid programmers. “What’s a programmer?” he asked his father once. “Someone who thinks good, better, best is really good, better, ah, the hell with it—good enough,” to which Vinny’s mother said, “Peter!” When they reached the parking lot of his father’s company, the gas needle rested right at the top of the gauge’s E.

    There weren’t many cars in the lot. There weren’t many people in the building. There was a security guard. He said, “Hey, Pete,” to Vinny’s father.  

    Vinny’s father said, “Jerry.” 

    Jerry said, “It’s getting late. I was beginning to think a Sunday might actually go by without you coming in for the free coffee.”

    “If you could say that, Jerry,” Pete said. “I have my son here with me today.”

    “So I see,” Jerry said. To Vinny he said, “What’s your name, son?”

    He hated when other men called him “son.” His father never did. “Vinny,” he said.

    “Vinny. Great name. I know a couple of Vinnys from up the North End, but they live down in Walpole now, working for the commonwealth in the license plate business.” Jerry winked at Vinny’s father. Vinny didn’t know why. His father didn’t say anything back.

    They took an elevator to the third floor. There was one other person there, a woman.

    “Didn’t know if you were going to make it in today,” she said.

    “Just one or two things to take care of. This guy tagged along. Maybe you can, you know, find something to occupy him for a couple of hours.”

    “I think we should be able to come up with something. I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee, too.”

    Vinny walked with his father to his office. It looked just like his office at home, only bigger. There was a desk, lots of books, tables that slanted up towards the ceiling, stacks and stacks of paper, lots of pencils and rulers of all sizes shaped like triangles and L’s. His father started leafing through some papers. The woman returned. She had a cup of coffee and a cup of juice. She placed the cup of coffee on a bare spot on Vinny’s father’s desk and took the cup of juice and Vinny out onto the main floor.

    The woman sat Vinny in front of a large machine. It had buttons and levers and knobs. Vinny sat and drank his juice, and after a while he started pushing buttons on the machine. Nothing happened. There was a little screen, but it stayed dark. There was some paper in a part of the machine that was off to the side. The paper had green-and-white stripes. There was a knob on the end of the machine. He turned the knob and the paper moved. He turned it some more, and the paper started coming out of the machine, more and more until it bunched up into a pile. He tried turning the knob back the other way, but it wouldn’t move the paper. It just made a clicking sound. Vinny panicked. He’d broken the machine and didn’t know how to fix it. His father would be angry with him, like that time with his mother: “Bertie, I’m angry. I’m very angry with you.” He couldn’t remember what his mother said, but then his father swore and swore, louder and louder, until he pounded his fist on the kitchen table and she cried out and ran from the room. 

    There was a lever. Vinny found the lever, and when he pulled it, he was able to turn the knob back the other way and all the paper very slowly turned back into the machine. He turned it very slowly and methodically, and by doing it that way it returned neatly into the machine, as if it had never been out. The paper was crinkled in places, but he made himself not look closely enough to see it. 

    Vinny didn’t know how long he had been sitting there, but the juice was long gone and he had to pee. He didn’t want to bother his father, and he didn’t know where the woman had gone. He went back to the buttons and knobs and levers on the main part of the machine, inventing a game. The game was simple: if he pushed the right buttons, turned the right knobs, pulled the right levers all in the right order, the machine would transmit a signal alerting his father that he had to pee and was ready to go home. He had no idea how many combinations he tried, but finally Vinny typed in his father’s first name, pushed the row of buttons at the back of the machine in order to the right and then back, typed in his phone number, pulled three levers, typed “L-O-P-I-E-T-R-O,” and … it worked. His father was at his shoulder saying, “Come on, Vin, let’s get going.”

    They stopped at the men’s room, then they rode the elevator down to the first floor. On the way out, Jerry the security guard asked Vinny if Santa had brought him everything he’d asked for on Christmas. Vinny beamed and said he had. 

    Jerry made a sad face. “Santa didn’t bring me anything this year. How come?”

    Vinny thought for a second. He looked at Jerry’s face. Probably he hadn’t been very good. He’d said that stuff about guys named Vinny and gave that wink, whatever it meant, and he just looked like he hadn’t been very good. But Vinny couldn’t say that. He felt bad for Jerry. Besides, he hadn’t been so good himself that year. In the fall he’d smashed one of the garage windows with a hockey puck, then told his father it had deflected off a bump in the driveway, which was a lie. He’d aimed for the window with a wrist shot and, to his surprise, nailed it. Sometime over the summer he’d dumped a pail of cold water on his sister when she was lying out in the backyard in her bathing suit—though she pretty much got him back for that. Just a few weeks before Christmas he’d trapped Vanessa in that old Mayflower box his mother kept all the Christmas junk in, by propping it up with a stick attached to a string and baiting it with a piece of cheese. When Vanessa went to get the cheese, Vinny pulled the string, then cackled as the little Shih Tsu bumped around inside. After all that and a bunch of stuff he couldn’t really remember, he still got his record player and pretty much everything else he wanted.

    “I don’t know,” Vinny told Jerry. “I don’t think Santa would ever want to let anyone down.”

    Jerry just chuckled and told Pete good night.

    It was dark and very cold when Vinny and his father walked across the parking lot and got into the little Toyota. When his father started the engine, the gas needle barely budged. Vinny didn’t say anything. They approached and passed three gas stations before getting on the highway, and Vinny said nothing.

    On the highway, his father spoke to him. He said, “Hey, Vin, you knew that about Santa Claus, right? That it’s your mother and me?”

    “I guess so, yeah,” Vinny said.

    “That’s right, yeah, it’s your mother and me.”

    They were silent the rest of the way home. There wasn’t much traffic. Vinny’s father kept his feet working the pedals and his hand on the gearshift knob, making those slashing gestures. Vinny watched the gas gauge. It sank lower and lower, hovering just below E.