The Bicycle Review
Issue #5, 15 February, 2010
Original Artworks by Morgan Miller/Photography by Adam Henry Carriere
All images copyright 2010 by Miller and Carriere
BICYCLE REVIEW # 5
Celebrating the arrival of # 5.
Thanks to all who responded to our open call for a new editor. You guys are awesome, and it’s not your fault. We welcome Kaitlin Anderson aboard in that role; watch out boys and girls, she’s got a sharp eye; double check those submissions, please.
In other news, BR is traveling to Vegas in the Ides of March for the Far West Popular Culture conference at UNLV. Our panel “Through the Looking Glass Macabrely: The Passed Tense of Letters and Their Future in the Ether”, is chaired by Adam Henry Carriere, editor and publisher of “Danse Macabre”, Nevada’s first online literary magazine; whose series of photographs from the Frankfurt Hauptfriedhof, or city cemetery, graces these very pages. I will be representing BR. We’ll be discussing this crazy internet publishing stuff with Lisa Veyessiere, publisher of the excellent “Tonopah Review”, and author Jeffrey M. Wallmann. For more details, see our “Links and Plugs” page.
Our featured fine artist for #5 is Morgan Miller. For those of you who think that portraiture is dead, or become archaic, she will set you straight.
Also in this issue, our first serialization: part one of Richard Kostelanetz’ “Kosty the Ghostwriter”. We’re excited to bring back the serial long form, without which Dostoevsky wouldn’t have been able to support his nastier habits and find out so much about the inherent depravity of humankind and the inferiority of Germans to Slavs; especially when they want you to cover your losses at the roulette table.
In the Stories Archive, we’re proud to feature Richard Lutman’s “the Nut Tree”, a carefully crafted historical romance which transcends that genre through superb storytelling. Also, I “review” the first half of Robert Louis Henry’s new book, “God Loves Rich Kids And We Smoke Off The Same Cigarette”. Robert is an editor, along with Melanie Brown, at “Leaf Garden Press”, a small print and online press out of the south. We’re also featuring a poem and story by Henry in this issue.
Other returning writers include John Bennett and Eric Basso, and as usual, we’re pleased as rum punch to be exposing you to work by a variety of writers known and unknown.
Share the Road,
J de Salvo
A House Divided
Let's roll up our sleeves. Hard work for the common man, up in the attic, track marks on the veins of the addicts. Down in the basement the dark secrets start to moan and bang on the pipes.
A dwelling of deranged opportunity. Out in the kitchen under the long-tubed fluorescents, Mother Hubbard breaks down and sobs. "I can't take it no more," she says to her reflection in the window over the sink and empties a shoe full of children into the garbage disposal.
Father Time is in the living room surfing channels. "Fie, fi, fo, fum!" he roars, and then slams down a Budweiser. "Where's my supper?" he whines.
The addicts in the attic tie off and pretend they have needles. Three weeks of imaginary highs and they start to get antsy. Whatever happened to the pleasant surprise? The mild-mannered retort? Grim-faced civility? It's almost time for transgressions.
Father Time and Mother Hubbard go to bed. They fornicate on the piss-stained bare mattress and then lie side-by-side on their backs. Light the last cigarette with the last match. Suck in smoke.
"Remember the Lone Ranger?" asks Father Time.
"Hi-ho, Silver," Mother Hubbard whispers.
"And away," says Father Time.
The floorboards in the attic creak. The banging on the pipes echoes thru the house. Father Time and Mother Hubbard lie still and quiet, waiting for the night to pass.
A Little Bird Told Me So
Wading thru a labyrinth of equations, Quantum Physicists discovered what Zen Monks realized 1500 years earlier--that everything from the universe to a tea cup spins out of Nothingness simultaneously. Except until recently they overlooked simultaneously, which the monks find highly amusing.
Space and Time are the inventions of perplexed minds.
Reality is a freeze-frame, and God is the ultimate politician, hiding Dark Secrets behind scientific Pat Answers.
Don't linger too long on such matters. Anything you try to grab hold of erases you. It's a reshuffling of energy that results in the termination of personal perception.
It's a bitter pill to swallow, but there's no way around it.
I know, because a little bird told me so.
He wanted to tell people what he didn't want to tell people. He tried explaining that to his son long distance, except nothing was far away anymore, everything was in reach but unreachable. He tried explaining that too, even tho he was filling with dread by the minute and terrified of getting locked up, locked down, confined in a small space and unreachable. A flash of alarm--who was trying to get thru to who?
To whom, you know better said his son.
He saw where that was leading, saw who was trying to put one over on whom. But wait! He hadn't said that, only thought it, so what was going on? Wasn't anything sacred anymore? The cow? The moon? The blue lagoon cram-packed with monsters?
The cow jumped over the moon! said his son as if he could read his mind and began breaking up. Not the connection, AT&T never lets anything slip away. But his server was CREDO, the corporate knight in shining armor, so his son must have AT&T, and that didn't bode well. He needed to backtrack, retract, get the hell on out of there.
It was his son breaking up, reading his mind and laughing like a hyena, loud and clear like he was across the room in the shadow of the malfunctioning lamp, up to his old tricks.
Are you on drugs? he asked and his son said say what you called for, I ain't got all night in a perfectly normal voice.
To say hi he said, scrambling for small talk, to see how you're doing.
Thirty years too late for that said his son.
Listen, I want to tell people what I don't want to tell them he said, no longer sure if he'd already said it.
How did you get my number? said his son. If you turn me in I'll come looking for you.
He dug deep looking for that part of him that used to terrify people but it was gone. And just like that he realized he was old and no one cared what he told them. He looked down at the thing in his hand. It was tiny and black and he didn't know where it came from. He stuck it in his pocket and went out the door.
He began walking fast, his son's muffled voice ranting and raving in his pants pocket. He didn't know how to stop it. He thought that if he walked fast it would go away.
People stared at him as he went by. He was sure he heard someone whisper call the police.
He began running, his whole life dissolving behind him like a disintegrating comet.
Copyright 2010 by John Bennett
the first happy man
takes broth through
a straw in his nostril
the first happy man
trades in his Mercedes
for a horse and buggy
the first happy man
picks lint from your jacket
with a fine tooth comb
the first happy man
sticks his toe in your
glass of vintage wine
what is more horrible
than the unfettered joy
of the first happy man
the sad man takes out
a contract on the life
of the first happy man
when a monster arises
in our midst drastic
measures must be taken
September 12, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Eric Basso
I have a favor to ask
I'll dip my
So I can
in a year.
Copyright 2010 by Robert Louis Henry
The organization of united petroleum
would like to invite you to participate
of stark raving animus
by driving your car off the dock
and into the great
womb of the sea
momma in her absence can
buy you another
which costs less
than filling you up on love, chump.
Copyright 2010 by George Moore
Like the first raindrops,
On the parched Sahara
Inside the atrophied soul of
An alpha male/female executive/worker,
Commuting on the crowded local of 6.47,
Boarded from a dingy railroad station in
One of the South Asian countries,
On a foggy tired morning,
As a learnt ritual.
Are like flowers---
Decorated on the side table
Of a terminally-sick patient,
Amid the vials of medicine,
Adding colour to the drab
Existence of the bed-ridden person,
In a partitioned-off space
Of a long sick ward
Of a private hospital
Like long-forgotten letters rediscovered in your child’s drawer
That he won’t read again,
Settled as he is, in Silicon Valley,
Where these things
Are now irrelevant.
Like a mysterious mid-night knock on the barricaded doors
Of your lonely 13-floor house in a high-rise,
The face of a smiling
After a full gap of twenty years
In a strange, teeming city.
You feel music in the ears,
Never heard before,
And find that
You still matter to someone,
In the frigid mega cities of steel and chrome.
Sudden and brief
Copyright 2010 by Sunil Sharma
Karl and Jenny
If Karl and Jenny were on a date, on a Friday night, to a Thai restaurant, would he be a hypocrite for ordering papaya salad and drinking ice tea from glasses of heavy crystal? And would Jenny make small talk, speak of half-constructed dreams? Was Jenny the kind of young woman to dream only at night, or would she doze off in the afternoon, on the subway, or in Karl’s bed while he read by the window? What heavy books did Karl read? Did he read aloud to Jenny until she fell asleep? And when she slept, did Jenny dream of utopias or was it water animals? Could Jenny fly in her dreams? And if she could, where did she fly to, and who was waiting for her at the bottom? Would it be Karl, or would she be alone? And would Jenny have pierced ears, and if she did, would she wear diamonds or plain glass? And if she wore either, was it Karl who bought them for her? Did Karl buy her things at all? Or were the earrings a family heirloom, passed down from his mother and his grandmother before her? Did they weigh heavily on Jenny’s soft ears? And could Karl remember the earrings on his mother? Could he remember them lying on his mother’s dresser, in her round jewelry box? Did Karl’s mother own a dresser? Did she own a jewelry box? And if she owned either, would Karl have been allowed anywhere near her jewelry? Did Karl love his mother? Did he love Jenny more? Whose ears did he find more beautiful? Would Jenny notice if Karl touched her ears with his lips? Would she like it? Was Jenny an intellectual? If she were a student of history, would Jenny submit to it, or to Karl, or would she flounder in her mind, twist her glass earrings in her ears and tell Karl it’s dangerous to eat too much of papaya salad, because, after all, didn’t he remember that movie they saw last week, of the lizard, the librarian, and the two sisters, one dead? And would Karl remember the movie? Would he remember how the librarian and the first sister had stared at one another from across a busy highway, both on the brink of death? Did he cry when she was hit by a car? Or perhaps when the last lizard is seen again, alive on the white walls? Were the walls white or were they splattered with blood? Whose blood was it? Did Karl find the love story compelling? Did he think it was a love story? What did Karl think of the ending? But he won’t answer, because Karl has no talent for retaining the plot of movies, and the only thing he has ever felt the desire to summarize was the history of mankind. And because Jenny is perhaps a student of history, she will proclaim the impossibility of summaries, and he will proclaim the impossibility of history, and they will toast to impossibility, with heavy glasses of crystal. By then, twilight will arrive at the windows, illuminating Jenny’s throat, bare from both diamonds and glass, and Karl won’t see how beautiful the light is, because he is thinking of the last lizard and why all the other lizards had to die.
Copyright 2010 by Thirii Myint
by the sun by the sun by the sun
vicious purple curtains retreat
bones crackle to the bathroom
hiss and purr
meds takes effect
a cigarette with a shaky coffee
a cigarette with a piss
a cigarette with cereal
a cigarette between each
this particularly anxiety disorder
is cured when the sun
in all its hazy orange disfigurations
collides with the western wallpaper
warming various aches
and so the first drink of the day
splendid bitter, sweet as ocean-sand,
tickles the throat with a million expectations
before allowing sleep and peace
the routine, by some standards,
might appear boring or alarming
but for us who expertly examine textures of orange
and degrees by the inhale
by the sun by the sun by the sun
Copyright 2009 by Derek Richards
The adman sees his wife give birth. Her labia tear; his emerging child streaks with red. All he can think of is striped toothpaste.
Copyright 2010 by Robert Laughlin
Circumstances of My Life
To begin with there’s the sound of water in pipes, a rushing, or hushing, or another shing word. And it’s morning, it’s dark, I don’t want to get up―but there are different states of not getting up, there are these states and I want to be clear about them.
So the first state, or maybe the pre-state (because in fact this state occurs before the sound of water or any other sound)―the first state is finding myself conscious, unpleasantly so, and ignorant of the time, and unwilling to look at the clock because looking will make me more awake. So I doze. The way time passes in this pre-state is indefinite, my eyes are closed and I'm dozing and it’s pitch dark; but meanwhile time and its passage are very much my concern, insofar as I have any concern, because the thing that's on my mind, I mean the backbrain part of my mind that thinks in images and is exactly aware enough to shrink from getting up―the thing that is on this, the only semi-active part of my mind, is how much time I have left.
And the subsequent state, which we’ll call the first state (the timeless pre-state having been the zero state) is the beginning of this rushing of water. Because someone has turned on the shower downstairs. The first person up, who is not me, is taking a shower. The condition of this subsequent (first) state is mixed: on one hand the indefiniteness of the zero state is over, and I will now definitely have to get up in some number of minutes (perhaps nine) to take my own shower, which is an unpleasant knowledge in my body, but on the other hand the sound itself is pleasant: a drone without the biting tones of a drone but just, so to speak, the subterranean part of the drone, the part that speaks directly to my unconscious. And so this sound immediately throws me into a state of unconsciousness, or hypnosis, which is going to be of a definite duration equal to the definite duration of the shower of the person downstairs; and the end of it will be the end of this state and the beginning of more unpleasant states, waking states.
And the effect this hypnosis has is to prolong time, I mean to prolong it in my perception, so that the ordinary units of material time, although theoretically present in this state, are not a meaningful measure of its duration. In fact this state is perfectly unitary, it is precisely itself: it is one full unit of time of its type. And you―I am talking about you, now―you are not anywhere nearby during any of this; in fact you could not reasonably be farther away; but what I’ve been dreaming about (which I will only remember with difficulty and if the events of the later states are so objectionable as to turn me to thinking about my unformed, intuited, inarticulate and insufficiently sheltering dreams) is precisely you, in your incarnation as something like a color, or a pattern of textures, or an arrangement in the backbrain; and this perception, or dream, is, as it happens, somehow adjacent to the hypnosis-of-rushing-water that I’m in, has always been that way or has been made that way, so that you become fused with this rushing of water, and even with the idea of water itself; and later, years later, in fact forever, all the sounds of water―the usual rain and waves, but also water dripping in the sink, water percolating through the filter, water boiling on the stove, icicle-water dripping from the eaves―all will bring you up without naming you, like a shade of the color, a corner of the pattern, an obscure movement in the backbrain; and so I will seek out this element but always feel that I cannot properly find it. And this state, the state of rushing water in the unconscionable morning, has both a beginning and an end, but they are two quite different things, not at all alike; and so it is not right to call them a beginning and an end, but I should use names for them that indicate not their relation to the state that they are a part of but their difference from each other. Once this state ends and the next begins, all of this will go away; and if I happen to remember you it will only prevent me from working.
The Internal Combustion Engine
What we have here is a collection of states united by the sound of a small engine in the distance. I hear it as a chainsaw, though more likely it is a weed eater, but in any case it is a continuous buzzing or humming―in fact the rest of the drone this time, precisely the biting part that was absent this morning, but far away and not at all intrusive. The states of this collection intersect for the most part in a coincidental way, in the sound of the small engine, and otherwise have little in common; but there are some general characteristics: for example it’s daytime, afternoon, because the sound is someone doing yard work, which is done in the afternoon; and also for example I’m at home, because the place yard work is done is at home, and if homes are near enough for me to hear this engine, then I too am at home; and since I’m at home in the daytime, we can conclude also that I don’t have anything urgent to do, in the sense of “urgent” where there are people actually in my presence making demands―there are no such people, I am home alone. And it isn’t unpleasant here in the afternoon, and the function of this sound is to string together the moments and to cause them to cohere into a single moment far longer than the ordinary moments of the afternoon, which otherwise come apart easily; I mean that my ordinary state of distraction is defeated by this sound, or neutralized for the moment, and so I am living―temporarily, but looking neither forward nor back―in the scale of time in which I imagine ordinary people to live, people for whom the afternoon is a pleasant occasion on which to have an experience or two and perhaps to remember, later, with serenity. And I can say that, although this sound has both a beginning and an end, these are not entirely well defined: at the end I feel that it might start again at any moment, because indeed it has been stopping and restarting, somehow without discontinuity, intermittently for the past two hours, and because even at the beginning I felt that it may actually have been restarting from some time before; but at the end there does come a moment when I understand that it has finally stopped, this sound. I don’t know whether I like that or not, because it means it’s now later in the day: it’s a new part of the day, the part after the part where there was this sound.
Almost certainly there are shadows getting darker outside at this time of day, and it’s hardly worth sitting in the sun because it will be gone so soon, and to be honest I might start to panic, because waking up tomorrow is nothing to look forward to. And where you are during this state―you’re nowhere. You’re not present, before or after or anywhere; and the tragedy of this state is that once it passes there is nothing left of it, but it seems to me that, had you only been here, we might between the two of us have kept an impression of this collection of moments that by chance, through the lasting and secure drone of a distant engine, has been made into a state in which a brief peace consists; that is, this state which has been created might now have been fixed between the two of us and so might have remained. And so although I do not find you anywhere in this state, there is, somewhere in the pattern of sunlight aslant a battered desktop, a palpable absence, and so a kind of seed―the truth is that what I’m doing is waiting for you.
A Pattern of Food Consumption
This one isn’t easy, to tell the truth. I’m not sure about this one. There is someone else in the house now―I didn’t know she was here―but there’s a housemate, for example, and I’ve heard her, shuffling around or brushing against things―of course that could always be the cat―but nevertheless I’m being quiet now without having exactly decided to, because for some reason it’s essential to me that I hear this person for certain before she hears me; and the first thing I definitely hear is the refrigerator door. Pop! Or rather, Suck! Shap! Some sound something like that. And so it is not the cat: it’s someone. And the development here is that this person is looking for food. But after that this state bifurcates: is she looking for a solitary snack, or is she preparing a meal for everyone?
In the former case my state becomes one of dread, or a kind of helplessness, because this person now occupies the kitchen, and even has a claim to the kitchen which I consider superior to my own, and besides that she probably doesn’t know I’m here. And partly I want her to continue not knowing I’m here, because if she does know I’m here and have been here alone, she’ll assume I’ve been doing something more or less loathsome; but she’ll have to know I’m here sooner or later, and if later, then it will no longer be a question of my having been here alone, but of my having remained here perfectly quietly and, let’s be frank, hiding from her, and so actually indisputably lurking, or even skulking, and of my having been doing so for some time. But beyond all that, it seems to me that if she doesn’t know I’m here, then in some sense I’m not here, which means that she’s not here, and I can go on doing what I was doing here before, alone, which was just sitting and waiting. In fact this principle does not work perfectly, the quality of the wondering will no longer be the same, but I’m anxious to preserve any shadow of my wondering.
The duration and character of this state are both uncertain: it will persist until this person discovers that I am here (I have decided to keep quiet), or until she leaves again, or until some distraction arises that will enable me to leave unbeknownst, or to pretend I’ve just arrived; and all the time this state will be pretending it is the former state, the state of solitude and wondering; and even though it cannot successfully pretend, it will refuse fully to take on its own character; and the whole thing is an ill-realized and unconvincing mode of existence.
But on the other hand it may be that this person is making food for everyone. In this case things are turned around entirely: we are heading once more toward a definite time, a time when more people will come and we will all eat together. In that case, this housemate is not in possession of the kitchen in the same way, since she is prepared for people to join her and is even expecting them; and so it is up to me whether to emerge, now or at some time in the future, as I choose, and say to her that I am here, which will not create any kind of rupture in her own state or any kind of loathing, because it is precisely what she has been preparing for and expecting; and if I wanted to figure more fully in the forthcoming state of everyone eating together, I could even offer to help her, and that would not be unpleasant. So in this case the activity of the state is mine to decide: I can choose when and how to emerge with complete freedom, and can even expect to be included in a social occasion; but whichever I choose, the character of the state will become definite, because this social occasion has a definite form; and so the state of waiting or preparing for it (because it is up to me whether to wait or to prepare) also takes on a definiteness, and I have passed definitely from a state of aloneness into a state of waiting, or preparing, for a future state of sociability; this waiting or preparing will likely last for between one and two hours and can be rich in experience.
But, moving back from this bifurcation to the moment of the Shap! (or what have you) of the refrigerator opening, what has happened is that this Shap! (), which was the climax and culmination of the earlier shufflings and brushings, all heard from my room, has initiated a period of uncertainty or indeterminacy of state, during which I don’t yet know whether I’m in one state or the other. The way to tell which state I’ve fallen into is by listening to the sounds that come after, uninteresting in themselves: if they are the hum of the microwave, the click of plate on table and fork on plate, then she is snacking on her own and I am caught in a half-life, either here in my room or there with her and her loathing; if other sounds, the oven door squealing, or any collection of chopping or crinkling or other more extensive food preparation sounds, then I am saved, I will be together with people and matters will be with me as they are with others who are together with people. It is during this period of indeterminacy, beginning with the Shap! (), that I am most likely to forget you entirely; and, because I am speaking frankly, the reason is that it is during this period that I am most ashamed, and most want you never to have been in the world: it is not only that I don't want you to know me in my uncertainty and weakness, in what is actually a debased state in the face of this entirely common and unexceptional Shap! ()―it is not only that, but also and more deeply that I don't like to think of you and this weakness coexisting in the same world.
It may be too much to say so. But it must be for this reason that in this state, the state of helplessness and of not knowing whether I will next be in the state of a ghost or the in state of a human, I cannot think of you; or rather, I might try it, to console myself, but what will come to mind is not you but an insuperable false image of you. Allow me to clarify: I hate you in this state. I hate that you put me in the position of being only a ghost in the world where you exist as flesh, and a drain in the world where you exist as an agent of creation. So in fact it is this state that you can most illumine, and this state into which I wish to draw you now, selfishly, in order that you might dash me against this habit of shame, like a mariner against a cliff, and in order that I might finally cease or survive―it is an uncertain sound, this Shap! (): a difficult sound. We can lose ourselves in it. I am looking back now and it seems I lost much in it and still do; and if you have lost anything there yourself, or elsewhere, it may mean little for me to say so, but I can tell you in faith that I welcome your loss as well as your strength.
The Mechanical Clock
What I used for many years was a small black travel alarm clock. When it reaches the time for which the alarm is set, supposing I’ve set the alarm, it makes the usual alarm noise, a blunt noise, a beeping; but what I hear first, before the beeping, is the click of some cog (gear, spring) falling into place. Click, and a quarter of a second, and then the beeping. And the result is that, after so many years I’ve been waking to this clock, it is not to the beeping that my ear has become attuned, and not the beeping that wakes me, but the click. I can hear this click in my sleep, even from the next room: it propels me instantly into a state of wakefulness. My body will be sluggish and will continue sluggish―this is an elastic wakefulness, a not-quite-formed wakefulness―but the sleeping part of me, the dreaming part, is banished instantly and irrevocably by this click. And over the years this effect has gone beyond a relatively simple matter of sleeping and waking, so that now I am like the subject of an accidental experiment; because (I am not yet done explaining about this clock), even if I have left the alarm off, it is nevertheless set, subjunctively if you like, for some time, the time that, if the alarm were set, it would be set for; and regardless of whether the beeping actually follows, the time on the clock will at two points during the day (it is a 12-hour clock) coincide with the (subjunctive) time for which the alarm is (would be) set, and there will be this click, not the alarm but nevertheless the click. And then even in the next room I jump. I jump physically at this click and you can see it if you are watching.
The alarm itself has been broken now for years, but the clock works, and so I keep it, and it still clicks, twice a day, at two minutes after ten. And what I feel then is merely that time is passing. I don’t hear clock-tower bells from here. I have a broken alarm clock instead, two minutes after ten. So that’s some more time that’s gone by.
It would almost encourage me to activity, first because I can hear the time going by and might wish to capture it, and also because the click has given me a jolt of energy that I might put toward some activity; but instead I feel it as an opportunity lost: it is too late, that time has already come and instantly gone. And maybe it is in my nature to see things in this way, to see the past that has gone instead of the future that is approaching; maybe that is a defect, maybe it’s why I never do accomplish much of anything but instead ignore it all until the instant when my time is up, and then regret. And in fact if I were without this defect, if I were the moving-forward type, I would not address you in this way: I would not address you as someone in the distance, as an image of something once lost and forever after beyond knowing. And I would be a better person then, I think, better in the sense of more fully achieving that which people want to achieve; but at the same time I want to think that achieving is easy enough, that anyone can live healthily and work toward the future―it hardly takes thinking about, people do it every day―and that it may be better that some of us be not right, but wrong: that there ought also to be someone experiencing the whole world from behind a wall, that perceptions filtered so thoroughly through helplessness and regret will be rarefied perceptions, and ultimately will make an ingredient in some formula, the final, obscure ingredient of that cosmic composition in which everything begins to make sense. That is, I can’t think I’m behaving this way for myself. But at the same time it is not for you that I’m behaving this way, unless it is somehow for us together, for the sake not of finishing but of breaking that very same cosmic composition, for the sake of a rupture from which trivialities emerge and which allows us for a time to be separate from each other and in a state of uncertainty prefatory to resuming our composed state with renewed devotion; and indeed, at times it seems almost possible to me that it is precisely for the sake of prolonging my approach to you that I remain behind this wall, and that I conspire with myself to hear this click, this nothing of a sound, not as a beginning but as an end.
This thinking has spun very much out of control. And when we talk about spinning, or a spiral―they talk about it spiraling up, the authors of comforting books talk about a corkscrew spiraling upward, where one seems to be going in circles but in fact one is constantly advancing upward, by which they mean “improving,” the idea being that one is doing this thing, advancing upward or “improving” even when one feels oneself flailing. But what is this upward that we are all advancing toward? And in fact it seems to me that the spiral I’m on, I in particular, is not a corkscrew-shaped spiral but a flat spiral radiating outward, drawn, perhaps, in the sand on a beach which I have reached at dusk; and that I am on this spiral and moving outward (skirting kelp, careful of the cigarette butts) so that with each revolution I see landmarks, the places where I have been on one hand and those that I’m approaching on the other, just as one glimpses these landmarks above and below on the corkscrew spiral; but in my case, rather than moving upward, I am only moving away from the center. It does seem like that, away from the center.
I went to the beach in order to get out of the empty house, but when I came back it was as though I had never left, except that now it was later, the evening was gone. There isn’t much of any sound at all in here, there’s nobody around but me these days; but if there is to be any sound, it will be the sound of my phone, which, were it to ring, would ring with a recorded sound―the sound it rings with doesn’t matter, the point is only that it’s a recorded sound, a copy of a previous sound and not a sound manufactured fresh. And somewhere in the recording or editing of this sound―what I’m trying to say is, there’s a single instant of silence in this recording just before the ring itself begins, a recorded silence that doesn’t have the same quality as actual silence; there’s no hiss, I won’t say there’s a hiss, but there’s suddenly an audibility to the silence in the room. The silence becomes audible and then in an instant the phone is ringing. This one instant goes by too quickly to know anything about it―right away I have to answer the phone―but nevertheless the collection of these instants of audible silence itself forms a state, a state of negligible total duration and scattered over a period of years, but nevertheless a state that I seem almost able definitely to recall. It features of course certainty (someone is calling) and uncertainty (who?), but it is different from the character of the ringing, which features the same elements. Because the instant of silence is still without the demand that the call be answered; it is merely a warning, or an alert: something is happening. Indeed, in the instant that I perceive or rather intuit this audibility, there is not even time to know that what is happening is that the phone is going to ring; even that thought is too developed for the instant; there can’t be anything more than the alerting of the backbrain, which recognizes only the tiniest lexicon of alerts: something is happening. And so in this scattered state of negligible duration, there is, along with uncertainty, possibility, which is a richer thing, a possibility in which you―I am talking about you, now―are instantly present, and just as instantly absent again, in your incarnation as something like a premonition or a pattern of awakenings. But I confess that this state is intractable and unanalyzable, it has neither beginning nor end, the instants which constitute this state are just that, instants, they are nothing; and moreover each of these instants changes nothing, they invoke no new state, because although the phone has rung it is sure to be nobody―or, again, perhaps it is you; sometimes indeed it is you calling, and then I do improve somewhat. But really the lexicon that we have between us is not much greater than that of the backbrain, where only images dwell; and so although your voice will tell me that something is happening, the nature of the thing that is happening is left to me to imagine; and as this goes on I am filled with fear: is it not true that with every step forward I only spiral farther away from you? Or perhaps (I don't believe) I am advancing upward, who knows? or simultaneously upward and outward; but in fact what is more likely is that I’m going nowhere at all but only sitting in this room, having come back from the dusk-deserted beach where I only went because I have nothing else to do―I have nothing else to do―and I had no pleasure even in the beach, because the water has only reminded me that, after all, I have failed to get anywhere. And what I want as I sit here is to bring together these instants of secondary silence, these instants of possibility, and to annihilate them, to excise them all, past and future, from the fabric of my experience, to live in a world where there has never been such a thing as this possibility, or any possibility; because I’m feeling more and more that this possibility is itself the prison, this possibility which in the end is more absence than presence and which in becoming anything at all can only collapse, into nothing or at best into some trifle, something incommensurable with the promise there seemed to be in that instant―there is no silence, this recording of silence is not after all silence but some very definite noise: there is a static, there is after all a hiss, it has a duration which can be measured and it is only a thing in the world; that it acts in this way on me is a mistake, or an illness, and this thing is merely one of the multitude of things that happen every day, both in my house and in yours―but I do not know what happens in your house. In my house all is quiet.
Copyright 2010 by Brian Conn
A Bicycle Review Serialization:
KOSTY THE GHOSTWRITER,
A STORY FROM GRUB STREET, NEW YORK
To the surviving memory of J. L. B.
I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written. I mean ghostwriters, those whose words appear under other men’s names. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate diverse histories, at which good-natured gentlefolk might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other ghostwriters for a few passages in the life of Kosty, who was as a human being the strangest ghostwriter I ever saw or heard of. While of other ghosts, as we call might them, I might write the complete life, of Kosty nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. Kosty was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from my observations, which are very few.
Before introducing this ghost, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employées, my business, my office, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.
Imprimis: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession verbally energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those public-relations men who never addresses an audience unprepared and thus must depend upon intermediaries to write articles and speeches that appear under my name. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. Mayor Edward I. Koch, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be thoughtfulness; my next quality, deference. I will freely add that I was not insensible to Ed Koch’s good opinion.
Some time prior to the period at which this little history begins, my avocations had been largely increased. The good old office, recently extinct in the City of New-York, of a Master in Greeting, or simply Greeter, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. My chambers were up stairs at No. 23 Park Row, across from City Hall. At one end they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom. This view might have been considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call “life.” But if so, the view from the other end of my chambers offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes. Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.
At the period just preceding the advent of Kosty, I employed two persons as ghosts and a promising lad as an intern. First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut. These may seem names, the like of which are not usually found in the Directory. In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three employees, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters. Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman of about my own age, that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o'clock, meridian—his dinner hour—it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing—but, as it were, with a gradual wane—till six o’clock, p. m. or thereabouts, after which I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity and undiminished glory. There are many singular coincidences I have known in the course of my life, not the least among which was the fact, that exactly when Turkey displayed his fullest beams from his red and radiant countenance, just then, too, at that critical moment, began the daily period when I considered his writing capacities as seriously disturbed for the remainder of the twenty-four hours. Not that he was absolutely idle, or averse to writing then; far from it. The difficulty was, he was apt to be altogether too energetic. There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him. He would be incautious in selecting words for me. Sometimes too many, often too few after the twelve o'clock meridian. Indeed, not only would he be incoherent and sadly given to mistakes in the afternoon, but some days he went further, and was rather noisy as well. At such times, too, his face flamed with augmented blazonry, as if cannel coal had been heaped on anthracite. He made an unpleasant racket with his keyboard; spilled his coffee; in negotiating his computer, impatiently banged its screen, and threw my papers on the floor in a sudden passion; stood up and leaned over his computer, messing his manuscripts about in a most indecorous manner, very sad to behold in an elderly man like him. Nevertheless, as he was in many ways a most valuable person to me, and all the time before the twelve o'clock meridian was the quickest, steadiest creature too, accomplishing a great deal of work in a style not easy to be matched. For these reasons, I was willing to overlook his drunkenness, though indeed, occasionally, I remonstrated with him. I did this very gently, however, because, though the civilest, nay, the blandest and most reverential of men in the morning, yet in the afternoon he was disposed, upon provocation, to be slightly rash with his tongue, in fact, insolent. Now, valuing his morning services as I did, and resolved not to lose them; yet, at the same time made uncomfortable by his inflamed ways after twelve o’clock. Being a man of peace, unwilling by my admonitions to call forth unseemly retorts from him; I took upon me, one Saturday noon (he was always worse on Saturdays), to hint to him, very kindly, that perhaps now that he was growing old, it might be well to abridge his labours. In short, he need not come to my office after twelve o’clock, but, lunch over, had best go home to his lodgings and rest himself till tea-time. But no; he insisted upon his afternoon devotions. His countenance became intolerably fervid, as he oratorically assured me—gesticulating with a long ruler at the other end of the room—that if his services in the morning were useful, how indispensable, then, in the afternoon?
“With press releases, sir,” said Turkey on this occasion, “I consider myself your right-hand ghost. I write nothing for myself. In the morning I but marshal and deploy my columns; but in the afternoon I put myself at their head, and gallantly charge the foe, thus!” And he made a violent thrust with the ruler.
“But the mistakes, Turkey,” intimated I, reluctant to raise such likely causes as alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.
“True, but, with submission, sir, behold these hairs! I am getting old. Surely, sir, a blot or two in a warm afternoon is not to be severely urged against grey hairs. Old age, even if I make mistakes, is honourable. With consideration, sir, we both are getting old.”
This appeal to my fellow-feeling was hardly to be resisted. At all events, I saw that go from my employ he would not. So I made up my mind to let him stay, resolving, nevertheless, to see to it, that during the afternoon that Turkey had less important tasks to do.
Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers—ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience with the duties of a mere ghostwriter, an unwarrantable usurpation of his genius in writing words for me. Unlike Turkey, he very much wanted to write for himself. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together in response to demands made upon him; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of writing; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked.
Though of a very ingenious mechanical mind, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting-paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk. Then he declared that this high table stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was that Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted anything, it was to be rid of ghostwriting altogether.
Among the manifestations of his diseased ambition was a fondness he had for receiving visits from certain ambiguous-looking fellows in seedy coats, whom he called his “other clients.” Indeed I was aware that not only was he, at times, a sort of ward-politician, but he occasionally did a little business at City Hall, and was not unknown on the steps of the nearby prison commonly called the Tombs. I have good reason to believe, however, that one individual who called upon him at my chambers, and who, with a grand air, he insisted was his client, was none other than a cocaine kingpin.
But with all his failings, and the annoyances he caused me, Nippers, like his compatriot Turkey, was a very useful man to me. He wrote neat speeches for me and, when he chose, was not deficient in a gentlemanly sort of deportment. Added to this, he always dressed in a gentlemanly sort of way and so, incidentally, reflected credit upon my office. Whereas with respect to Turkey, I had much ado to keep him from being a reproach to me. His clothes were apt to look oily and smell of eating-houses. He wore his pantaloons very loose and baggy in summer. His coats were execrable; his hat not to be handled. But while this hat was a thing of indifference to me, inasmuch as his natural civility and deference, as a dependent Englishman, always led him to doff it the moment he entered the room, yet his coat was another matter. Concerning his coats, I reasoned with him; but with no effect. The truth was, I suppose, that a man with so small an income could not afford to sport such a lustrous face and a lustrous coat at one and the same time. As Nippers once observed, Turkey’s money went chiefly for red ink.
One winter day I presented Turkey with a highly-respectable looking coat of my own, a padded grey coat, of a most comfortable warmth, and which buttoned straight up from the knee to the neck. I thought Turkey would appreciate the favour, and abate his rashness and obstreperousness during the afternoons. But no. I verily believe that buttoning himself up in so downy and blanket-like a coat had a pernicious effect upon him, upon the same principle that too much oats are bad for horses. In fact, precisely as a rash, restive horse is said to feel his oats, so Turkey felt his coat. It made him insolent. He was a man whom prosperity harmed.
Though concerning the self-indulgent habits of Turkey I had my own private surmises, yet touching Nippers I was well persuaded that whatever might be his faults in other respects, he was, at least, a temperate young man. But indeed, nature herself seemed to have been his vintner, and at his birth charged him so thoroughly with an irritable, brandy-like disposition, that all subsequent potions were needless. When I consider how, amid the stillness of my chambers, Nippers would sometimes impatiently rise from his seat, and stooping over his table, spread his arms wide apart, seize the whole desk, and move it, and jerk it, with a grim, grinding motion on the floor, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent, intent on thwarting and vexing him; I plainly perceive that for Nippers, brandy and water were altogether superfluous.
It was fortunate for me that, owing to its peculiar cause—indigestion—the irritability and consequent nervousness of Nippers, were mainly observable in the morning, while in the afternoon he was comparatively mild. So that Turkey’s paroxysms only coming on about twelve o’clock, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time. Their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances.
Ginger Nut, the third on my list, was a lad some twenty years old. His father was a sanitation man, ambitious of seeing his son working at a desk instead of a truck, before he died. So after the intercession of a neighbourhood politician the garbage man sent his son to my office as student of writing, errand boy, and cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one hundred dollars a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited a great array of the shells of various sorts of nuts. Indeed, to this quick-witted youth the whole noble science of writing was contained in a nut-shell. Not the least among the employments of Ginger Nut, as well as one which he discharged with the most alacrity, was his duty as cookie and apple purveyor, a gofer as we now say, for Turkey and Nippers. Ghostwriting being proverbially an anxious sort of business, my two senior scribblers were prepared to put food and drink their mouths very often. Also, they sent Ginger Nut very frequently for that peculiar cookie—small, flat, round, and very spicy—after which he had been named by them. Of a cold morning when work was but dull, Turkey would gobble up scores of these cookies, as if they were mere wafers—indeed they sell them at the rate of six or eight for a dollar—the sound of his keys blending with the crunching of the crisp particles in his mouth. Of all the fiery afternoon blunders and flurried rashnesses of Turkey was his once moistening a ginger-cookie between his lips and howling at a bad joke he’d written for me. I came within an ace of dismissing him then that afternoon. But he mollified me by making an oriental bow, and saying, “With submission, sir, it was generous of me to find you in stationery on my own account.” Though Turkey’s afternoon sentiment meant nothing to me, the tone was apologetic.
Now my original business as a professional well-wisher was considerably increased by receiving the Greeting Master’s office. There was now great work for publicists. Not only must I push the team already with me, but I must have additional help. In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Kosty.
After a few words about his qualifications and a test of his prompt writing skills, I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of literary ghosts a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thought might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey and the fiery one of Nippers.
I should have stated before that ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my ghosts, the other by myself. According to my mood I threw open these doors, or closed them. I resolved to assign Kosty a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, as well as an occasional bedroom patronized by raucous lovers, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Kosty from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined.
At first Kosty did an extraordinary quantity of writing for me. As if long famishing for something to write, he seemed to gorge himself on my outlines and proposals. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, writing by both sunlight and by electric light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
It is, of course, an indispensable part of a ghostwriter’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more ghosts in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the impatient poet Lord Byron would have contentedly sat down with Kosty to examine a document of, say one hundred pages.
Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in proofreading some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this purpose. However, one crucial reason for placing Kosty so handy to me behind the screen was to avail myself of his services, before the others, on such trivial occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Kosty. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand side-ways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Kosty might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.
In this very position did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to proofread a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Kosty in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Kosty had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a tone came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”
“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you writing for yourself? Are you moonlighting for someone else? I want you to help me proofread this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.
“I would prefer not to,” said he.
I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his grey eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of my great god Ronald Reagan out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily proofread.
A few days after this, Kosty abridged my week’s testimony to the board of city aldermen, a group now called the City Council. It became necessary to examine this text before offering it to magazines. As I had important things to say, improving it was imperative. Having all things arranged I called Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut from the next room, meaning to place four copies in the hands of my four ghosts, while I should read from the original. Accordingly Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut had taken their seats in a row, each with his copy of the document in hand, when I called to Kosty to join this interesting group.
“Kosty! quick, I am waiting.”
I heard a slow scrape of his chair legs on the uncarpeted floor, and soon he appeared standing at the entrance of his hermitage.
“What is wanted?” said he mildly.
“Your intelligence,” said I hurriedly. “We are going to improve my speech. There”—and I held towards him the fourth copy.
“I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen.
For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt, standing at the head of my seated column of clerks. Recovering myself, I advanced towards the screen, and demanded the reason for such extraordinary conduct.
“Why do you refuse?”
“I would prefer not to.”
With any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence. But there was something about Kosty that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me. I began to reason with him.
“I prefer not to,” he replied in a flute-like tone. It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully considered every statement that I made, fully comprehended the meaning, could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some secret paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.
“You are decided, then, not to comply with my request—a request made according to common usage and common sense?”
He briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. Yes: his decision was irreversible. Having accepted idiosyncrasies, if not peculiarities, in my three other ghosts, I was already prepared to be benevolent toward Kosty.
It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.
“Turkey,” said I, “what do you think of this? Am I not right?”
“With submission, sir,” said Turkey, with his blandest tone, “I think that you are.”
“Nippers,” said I, “what do you think of it?”
“I think I should kick him out of the office.”
(The reader of nice perceptions will here perceive that, it being morning, Turkey’s answer is typically couched in polite and tranquil terms, but Nippers replies in ill-tempered ones. Or, to repeat a previous sentence, Nippers’s ugly mood was on duty, and Turkey’s off.)
“Ginger Nut,” said I, willing to enlist the smallest suffrage in my behalf, “what do you think of it?”
“I think, sir, he’s a little loony,” replied Ginger Nut, with a grin.
“You hear what they say,” said I, turning towards the screen, “come forth and do your duty.”
But he vouchsafed no reply. I pondered a moment in sore perplexity. But once more business hurried me. I determined again to postpone the consideration of this dilemma to my future leisure. With a little trouble we made out to examine the papers without Kosty, though at every page or two, Turkey deferentially dropped his opinion that this proceeding was quite out of the common; while Nippers, twitching in his chair with a dyspeptic nervousness, ground out between his set teeth occasional hissing maledictions against the stubborn oaf behind the screen.
Meanwhile Kosty sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own recalcitrance there. Was he rebelling against writing words for someone else, much as I or Herman Melville, say, might have done were either of us employed by someone else?
To be Continued in April...
Copyright 2010 by Richard Kostelanetz
The day he was released from Telecare psychiatric hospital, Joe Gibbons made plans to die. His first thought was about the medication they had given him. He was supposed to take three blue and white tablets a night. Would ten do the job? Joe arrived home and looked up his medication on the internet in order to discover a lethal dose. He feared a painful death if he took the all the pills. He feared being alive with brain damage or some other impediment which would leave him dependent on others if he took too few. He found many sites for his medication but none would specify what an overdose would be. He gave up on the idea of an overdose and began to think of shooting himself with a revolver. But he was perplexed. What caliber was best ? He couldn’t decide the right method to commit suicide.
He was still thinking about suicide when he met Nancy. She was a waitress at a diner near where Joe lived. Her easy going manner attracted him. Realizing she had feelings for him he became emboldened and asked her to come over to his apartment. She came, and Joe felt alive for the first time in several months. “You give my life meaning.” Joe said. “Will you marry me?” Nancy agreed three months later.
Several months into their marriage Joe began to act strange. He insisted their bed was the shape of a harp and, grabbing Nancy, demanded she play it. “I want to hear Home on the Range,” he screamed at the top of his voice.
“Stop it! It’s just a bed. You’re acting like a mad man!” Nancy pulled away from him.
Joe began to undress.
“Joe! What are you doing!”
“Sharing my body’s sweet smell with the world.”
He stood nude at the window. “Come smell me,” he yelled at people walking by, “I am not even wearing cologne.” Crowds gathered and Joe saw this as a sign of his greatness. Joe was taken back to TelecarePsychiatric Hospital. He paced the hallways and insisted on inspecting the hygiene of the other patients. “Missed a hair,” Joe said as he inspected one patient’s face. “Need a whitener,” he said to another. Joe sat in therapy and had to be asked to stop talking. His medication was changed. Joe gradually stopped talking and sat quietly. He agreed to see a therapist as follow up after his discharge.
When he returned home Joe was apologetic. Nancy was understanding. Joe believed his problems were behind him.
When he began to think of suicide again, Nancy was not concerned. “You’ve been here before,” she said. “You always get through it.”
Not long afterwards Joe went to visit Nancy at the diner. Smoke drifted out from the kitchen. At first everyone thought it was from the cooking. But as the smoke thickened it became clear the diner was on fire.
“Get out” yelled the man at the table behind him. “Fire!”
Customers shrieked and stampeded for the door. Joe looked for Nancy but couldn’t see her. He went into the kitchen and, mesmerized, watched the fire destroy countertop after countertop. The smoke made him gasp for air.
“Joe!” Nancy had made her way back into the kitchen from outside. She called from the door. “Come on, honey. Run!”
Joe refused to move. The fire inched toward him.
“Joe! What’s wrong with you? Do you want to die? Come on!” Nancy coughed and held her throat.
Joe looked at his frantic wife. He waved and walked smiling into the flames.
Copyright 2010 by Nomi Liron
The Reaper Of Cowardly Deeds
Constantinople has fallen again
like a rank towel beaded with imitations of algae
in the worst winter of 1678
Constantinople had revealed a ghastly shadow
until the Danes in Northeastern Europe
where the waltz of the corroding winds
hummed up and down the ridges of the great verdant mountains
but now I have traveled into the astounding waste of 1912
bondsmen carry me from African precious stones
within their indestructible nuclei
awaiting my disgruntled cry
for a replenished sitting
while Constantinople reaches for precious Eastern balms
for the extant anguish in furrowed brows
of molested plankton
in all of the human seas of arrogant
and sadly winning is not an option
for walking dead men
with grand ideas
with no time to spare
here nor there
Copyright 2010 by Ernest Williamson III
Del Ray’s Basement
Nate and Allison lived in an unfinished house. The completed portion was partitioned off by clear plastic sheets from the other half, skeletal joists filled in places with pink insulation. Microscopic fibers hung suspended in the air, causing Nate to itch and sneeze. Allison seemed immune.
They leaned against the stainless steel oven in the incomplete kitchen, felt the heat from it on the sides of their legs. Inside, a vegetarian casserole was cooking, in case Nate’s soon to be ex-wife, Bess, wanted to stay for dinner after they were done signing the papers. Nate didn’t think Allison wanted her to stay, but he did and she knew he did, and she always went out of her way to make him happy.
“I know you’re conflicted about this,” Allison said.
“I’m not conflicted,” Nate said.
She put her hands on his shoulders, gave him a look that suggested she knew better. She fancied herself an armchair psychiatrist, read many books on the inner functionings of the human mind.
Bess arrived while the casserole was still cooking. She held a sheaf of papers and was followed by her new boyfriend, Dallas, who was much older, but he was moderately wealthy, and Nate suspected this was why Bess was with him. He stood behind her on the front porch, white-haired and shriveled like a man-sized voodoo doll.He carried two plastic Kroger’s bags, one containing a six-pack of beer and a bottle of barbecue sauce, the other containing four swordfish filets and a sausage. No one thought it weird at the time, but one evening several weeks later, while they were watching a rerun of The Bachelor, Allison would turn to Nate and say, “Who the fuck eats swordfish with sausage?”
The two came inside and Bess put her arms around Nate. “Kisses,” she said, kissing him on each cheek. The sheaf of papers scuffed against his shoulder blade.Dallas held up the bags and said, “Figured we might be hungry after.” Then he excused himself to the kitchen.
“Allison, Bess. Bess, Allison,” Nate said.
Bess hugged the other woman the way she’d hugged Nate. “Kisses,” she said again. Standing face to face, the women could pass as sisters. Almost the same height, same blonde hair. Bess’s eyes were brown to Allison’s green, and her skin was darker on account of her smattering of Native American blood.
Bess set the divorce papers on the coffee table, walked around the living room, taking everything in. Nate was the architect, but the design had been as much hers as his.She had insisted they give up the lease on their apartment, move in before the place was finished. “We’ll love it even more if we watch it grow around us,” she’d said. And that had been true, until it stopped growing. The contractor started dicking around, yanking their chains, and finally Nate had to fire him. The plan was to hire another, but Nate always figured they’d have plenty of time and the finished half of the house was perfectly comfortable, and then, almost six months ago now, the marriage ended, and by that point Nate didn’t care enough to bother.
Bess found a bundle of wires emerging from an outlet near the front door. “Dallas knows a good electrical guy.”
“I’m sure he does.”
Nate picked up the papers and took them into the kitchen, where Dallas stood looking through the plastic sheet at the sizeable backyard. “Got a nice chunk of property here,” he said. “You ever going to fill that pool?”
“Thank you,” Allison said. “I keep telling him I want to go swimming before it gets cold.
“You’d burn up, sweetie,” Bess said. “Cook like a steak.”
“Sunscreen,” Allison said.The two women stared at each other.Allison smiled, and then Bess did too.
Nate took a seat at the old oak table in the middle of the kitchen, which was also the dining room. The oak table was once Bess’s, bought for her by her mother at a garage sale, but it was one of the many things she’d deserted when Nate threw her out. He pored over the divorce papers, initialing where necessary, signing at the end. Bess and Dallas stood near the plastic sheet separating the kitchen from the backyard, pretended they weren’t watching. Nate had ended the marriage and yet he seemed to be the only one who regretted the marriage ending.
Bess and Nate used to go out drinking every night and they’d go to work the next day with matching hangovers. Sometimes they’d go without sleep, would go to the Waffle House down by the Mississippi River and watch the sun rise over the water as they ate. Nate got too old for this and she started going without him. She would be gone all night, come home sometimes smelling like sweat and, he was almost certain of it, other men’s cologne. Eventually he confronted her and she said, “Tell me to leave if you don’t like it.” He did and she did.
After Nate had closed the packet and tossed his pen on top of it, Dallas said, “Now to show y’all what a mean barbecue I make.” He got his bags out of the fridge and together the four of them went out to the back patio. It was getting on towards evening and the sun was starting to set behind the tall trees bordering the back edge of the property line. The patio was a slab of concrete sunk into the earth next to the swimming pool, the bottom of which was tiled in tan and black, a pattern of Bess’s design, an octopus with arms curled in S’s.
Bess had bought Nate a barbecue grill from Target in the hopes that he would learn. It was still in the box, which was warped and faded. Dallas opened the box and dumped out the parts, along with several crumbling roach carcasses and a large black spider that ran for the edge of the lawn.Dallas stomped it, rubbed the bottom of his shoe in the grass. Then he examined the parts of the grill, said he had a respectable toolset in his trunk.He went to fetch it, came back carrying a metal box, shiny and red. He and Nate started on the grill while the women sat at the white plastic patio table and watched.
“I was never able to get him to cook a thing,” Bess said.
“Me neither,” Allison said.
From down the street came the sound of an engine backfiring, and then the neighbor’s pickup, a powder blue monster from the fifties, hood high and round, grille like a toothy mouth, pulled into the gravel driveway of the house next door. The driver side door opened and Del Ray climbed out. In a sweater and with a head of bushy white hair, he reminded Nate of Albert Einstein.
Sometimes Del Ray stood on his porch and took photographs of Allison when he didn’t think she was looking. He’d done the same with Bess, and she’d thought it was creepy, had once considered reporting him to the police as a peeping tom.
“He still crazy?” Bess asked.
“Lost his wife recently,” Allison said.
“So did Nate and he’s not crazy.”
“That’s the difference between divorce and cancer,” Allison said.
“Stop,” Nate said.
Both women looked at him.Then Allison turned back to Del Ray, who had gone around to the passenger side to retrieve a brown paper bag. “Del Ray,” she called. “Come eat some swordfish and sausage.”
Del Ray looked over the fence at them.Eventually he said, “Sounds fine.” He hefted the brown paper bag in his arms. “Give me a bit?”He didn’t go up the front porch steps, but rather circled around to the side of the house, where a pair of old fashioned wooden doors opened onto the stairs leading down to his basement.
It took about fifteen minutes for the men to get the grill together. They found an old bag of unopened charcoal in the garage, filled the grill and fired it up.Dusk was coming on, and by the time the charcoal was hot enough, it would be dark out. They decided to break out the six-pack early. Nate lit the tiki torches and the insect repellant candles, and the four of them sat at the table to drink and talk.
“I have to admit this is awkward,” Nate said.
“It’s weird,” Allison said. “But therapeutic.”
“You a psychiatrist?” Bess said, swatting away a hovering insect.“That your line of work?”
“Space pilot,” Nate said.
“Chemical engineer, as you no doubt know,” Allison said.
“Comes home smelling like antifreeze,” Nate said. “It’s sexy on her.”He patted Allison on the hand and she smiled at him. Bess watched closely.
Del Ray’s basement doors opened and he stepped out. He looked over the fence and held up a finger to say one minute.He went inside the house proper and came back out a moment later carrying an aluminum pie dish wrapped in saran wrap. He disappeared around the fence line, and a moment later the gate to Nate’s back yard opened.Nate rose to greet his neighbor, introduced him to Dallas and the women. Del Ray set the aluminum dish on the table, along with a cake knife he’d brought.
“Apple crumble tart,” he said. “Secret recipe of Mitzi’s.”
A couple of slices had already been taken from the tart. He divided what was left, and the five of them enjoyed dessert before dinner.The apples had hardened, the sauce congealed from the time spent in the fridge. Perhaps Del Ray should have reheated it first, but it was good anyway. Sweet and cinnamony.
“You wouldn’t think Mitzi’d be a good cook,” he said. “She was a big women’s libber in the sixties.”He licked his fingers.“Took her getting sick before she’d let me make her a kept woman.”
“Dallas wants me to be a kept woman too,” Bess said.
“Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen,” Dallas said.
Dallas ran a barbershop down on Washington Street, an old-fashioned one with a striped pole out front, wore a white smock and kept his combs and scissors in a jar of blue stuff on the counter.His crop of regular clientele grew and grew, and he recently opened a second barbershop on the other side of town, which would be run by one of his sons.Nate had gone to Dallas since he was a teenager, and Dallas had seemed like an old man even then.That was how Bess had met him, going with Nate to get his hair cut. Their romance was creepy:no discernible chemistry between them, and anyway the idea of an old man domesticating his wife made Nate uncomfortable.
“The barefoot part I’m okay with,” Bess said, kicking one of her shoes off and wiggling her toes in the air next to the table.
As they sat talking, a stray cat, orange and white and visibly skinny, emerged from the woods bordering the far end of the large backyard. The grass was taller there; Nate only mowed back so far. The rest he let grow long because the ground became uneven and treacherous, full of gopher holes and tree roots. The cat was hiding in the tall grass, its eyes shimmering between the rustling blades. One of the eyes shone a different color, brighter than the other.
“Here, Kitty,” Bess said, snapping her fingers.The cat stood statue still.
Del Ray watched her trying to coax the cat over. Then he leaned to one side in his chair and fished a slim digital camera from his pants pocket. “Do you mind if I get a shot of you two together?” He moved his finger back and forth between Bess and Allison.
Bess turned away from the cat. “Why?” she asked.
“I paint portraits,” he said. He held the camera up in front of his face, and a green light blinked on the front of it.Even with the flash, it was likely too dark to get a good picture now.Allison moved her face closer to Bess’s and turned up the corners of her mouth, not a smile really.Bess moved her head away from Allison’s.
“If I’m going to pose for you,” she said, “I want to see some of your stuff.”
Del Ray lowered the camera. “I’m afraid I’m not very good yet,” he said.
“Well you can have your picture when you get good,” she said.
Del Ray shrugged. He sat the camera on the table in front of him, peered at the cat off in the tall grass.
The charcoal was hot enough, so Dallas got up to put on the meat. The gamy smell of the sausage filled the back yard. Occasionally, Dallas would pour some of the beer he’d been sipping over the meat. “Adds to the flavor,” he’d say. Each time he did this, the coals would sizzle and crumble, creating a pillar of smoke.
“So how’s the architecting business?” Dallas asked.
“Fine,” Nate said. “People still need buildings.” A lie. In Vicksburg people hadn’t needed buildings before the recession, and they certainly didn’t need them now. Old buildings came down; new ones rarely went up. “And how’s barbering?”
“Fine.People still need haircuts.”
“What do you do, Del Ray?” Allison asked.
“Retired,” he said.“Used to sell vinyl siding.”
“When are you going to finish this?” Bess said, looking at the house.
“I keep telling him,” Allison said. “‘Costs too much,’ he says. We’ve both got good jobs, but he won’t listen. Personally, I’m ready to have a place to call home.”
Bess went back to trying to get the cat to come over, clucking her tongue, leaning down close to the concrete and waggling her fingers. The shiny, mismatched eyes bobbed up and down in the grass, but didn’t move. “Actually,” Bess said, giving up on the cat, “maybe he has a point. Economy’s rough right now.”
When Nate had told Bess that Allison was moving in, she’d tried to talk him out of it, tried to tell him he hadn’t known her long enough. “She’s trying to fuck you out of what little money you have, Nate,” she’d said. He figured she was jealous over the house, that she didn’t want a place that had once been special to her sullied by another woman.
When the food was done Dallas loaded it onto a plate, brought it over and set it on the table between the women.Without asking how Nate wanted it disposed of, Dallas dumped the charcoal onto an ant nest growing up in the grass at the edge of the concrete. Then he sprayed it down with the water hose coiled at the corner of the house.
Everyone loaded their plates with swordfish and sausage except for Del Ray, who politely declined. Allison went inside to get the casserole, which was mostly done now, still a little raw in the center. She’d been trying the vegetarian thing, but wasn’t yet a strict adherent. She loaded her plate with a helping of the casserole, but also a swordfish filet and a couple of links of greasy sausage.
But she didn’t eat the swordfish. She tore it into bite sized chunks, took one piece in her hand and bent down to show it to the cat, who was a good distance away still, maybe twenty yards.It was dark enough now that Nate wouldn’t even know it was there if not for those eyes.The cat crept forward to the edge of the tall grass, peeked its head out. “Come on, Kitty,” Allison said, whistling.
The cat crept closer and closer, slinking across the yard, skirting the pool, until it reached the edge of the concrete. When it entered the circle of torchlight, Nate was horrified to see that its face had been eaten up by some kind of infection. The hair there had fallen out and its skin was crusty and oozy; this infection was the cause of the discolored eye, milky white and useless.As the cat approached, everyone held their breath and watched.Allison dropped the piece of swordfish on the patio and the cat came over and gobbled it up.
“That’s disgusting,” Bess said.“Someone needs to put that poor thing to sleep.”
Allison picked up another piece of swordfish and held it out to the cat, who nibbled it off her fingertips.
“You shouldn’t waste that on a dying cat,” Bess said.
Allison picked up the cat, who purred loudly, and placed it on her lap.It put its paws on the table and leaned its horrible face over her plate, nabbing chunks of swordfish one at a time.It ate loudly, smacking, tongue darting out of its mouth as it chewed. They all watched the cat eat.Nate glanced at Bess, and in the dark, she looked sinister, the tiki torches casting her face in shadow. He could make out the contours, and his brain filled in the rest.
And then her face was brightly lit for a brief instant by the flash of Del Ray’s camera.Everyone looked at him, surprised. He turned the camera around and held it over the center of the table so everyone could see in the viewscreen on the back the snapshot he’d taken.It showed Allison, the cat in her lap hunched over her plate eating, Bess’s face at the very lefthand edge of the screen, frowning, which made her look much older than Allison.
“Not bad,” Del Ray said.
“I told you no,” Bess said. “Delete it.”
“Let him have it,” Allison said. “Don’t you want to be immortalized?”
“It’s creepy,” Bess said.“How many pictures of me do you have?Do you look in windows? Do you like watching women?”Dallas touched her on the back of her hand, whispered for her to calm down.
“I should go,” Del Ray said, tucking the camera back in his pocket.He stood up.
The cat jumped from Allison’s lap and lay down underneath the table, still purring. Everyone listened, trying to resist the urge to look under the table.
“Thanks for the dinner,” Del Ray said.
“Come back anytime,” Nate said.
Del Ray went back over to his house. He opened the basement doors and went down. A light came on in there, and a few minutes later went off again.He reemerged and slammed the doors shut, looked over at his neighbors and waved. Then he went up the steps of his back porch and disappeared into his house.
“Maybe we should go see what’s down there,” Bess said.“I bet that’s his studio.”
“No,” Allison said.“Absolutely not.”
“I want to see his paintings,” Bess said. “What he’s done to me.”
“I will call the fucking cops.”
Bess looked at Nate. “This one’s not much fun,” she said.“Are you, Nathaniel?”
Allison and Bess both looked at him now. Dallas did too, but he didn’t matter.Nate leaned back in his chair the way Dallas had done, but he could feel the plastic legs bending precariously beneath him, put it back down on all four.Eventually he said, “Let’s do it.” Allison threw her plastic fork down on her plate.It bounced off onto the table, leaving a smear of barbecue sauce. She stood and picked up the cat, stomped towards the sliding glass door, tried to open it and found that it was locked. She grabbed the sheet next to it and yanked it aside. It made a crinkling plastic sound as she stepped through.
* * *
With the help of a crowbar from Dallas’s toolset, the padlock gave easily.The basement studio was immaculately clean, sterile, filled with an ammonia scent that made Nate lightheaded. Almost every free spot of wall space was covered with Del Ray’s work, painted canvases of varying sizes. The low ceiling made the basement a cramped space, the sort of place you’d expect to be full of cobwebs and dead insects, but the concrete floor was spotless, every surface well scrubbed.
Dallas examined the paintings.“You’re right,” he said to Bess. “They are a little creepy.”
The women in the paintings were strategically arranged so their hair covered their faces.And where their faces were visible they were featureless, blank skin-toned circles and ovals. One wall was devoted to Bess and one to Allison.Nate could tell which was which by the color of the skin, but mostly by the poses.Bess lounging poolside sipping wine, getting out of her car in a backless shirt.Allison doing domestic things: watering plants, outside spraying the windows with Windex and wiping them, going to get the mail wearing a straw hat and a long sundress. Del Ray had a natural talent for shading and contrast.
Bess didn’t seem to think they were creepy.She seemed transfixed.Nate had never seen her interested in works of art, and he wished he could know what was going on inside her head.What could she be thinking? Standing there, staring, she looked almost like a painting herself, and Nate’s heart ached, just for the briefest of moments, as he remembered things from their past: the time they fucked and she started laughing during and at first he wondered if he should be offended until she explained she was laughing because it was so good, the time they got drunk and snuck into the military park to see if the Five Faces monument really bled at midnight, the time she made him breakfast in bed and cried because the toast was too dark and the eggs weren’t cooked solid.The ache lasted a moment, and then was gone, but he knew that from now on it would sometimes come back.
She approached the nearest painting of herself, in which she stood on the front porch of the unfinished house at dusk, sending a text message to somebody.She placed a thumb over the faceless head, leaned in for a closer look.
“Do you like them?”
It was Del Ray, standing on the steps. They hadn’t heard him come down. It was hard to see his face, hard to tell if he was angry, but he rubbed his chin with the back of his left hand and Nate caught the glint of a wedding band.
“I said do you like them?”
“They’re beautiful,” Bess said. “I love them.”
Del Ray came and stood next to her. He smiled, clearly proud of his work.
“I call this one Neighbor Sends Message,” he said.
Dallas touched Bess on the arm, jerked his head toward the stairs. “Look,” he said to Del Ray. “We’re sorry about this.We’ll go now.” He tugged on Bess’s sleeve.
She moved her arm away. “Why don’t you have any of your own wife?” Bess asked.
“No recent photos of her,” Del Ray said. “Tried painting her from old ones. Never turned out right.”
Bess touched him on the arm.“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Are any of these for sale?” Nate asked.
Del Ray looked at Nate as if he’d just committed blasphemy. But what he said was, “I don’t know, never thought about it. They got those artist booths every year at Riverfest. Think I could get anything for ‘em there?”
“I’ll buy one right now,” Nate said. He turned to Bess, “Which one do you want?”
“Come on now,” Dallas said. “It’ll give me nightmares.Where are their faces?”
Del Ray looked at Dallas. “Can’t do faces well yet,” he said.
“I like that one,” Bess said, pointing at one in which she was sitting at the edge of the diving board in a skimpy red two piece, legs crossed, head angled as if she were looking down into the empty pool.
“How much you want for it?” Nate asked.
Del Ray shrugged. “Don’t know what it’s worth. Hundred?”
“Let me go get my checkbook,” Nate said.
Nate went up the steps, went next door. Allison was sitting on the living room sofa, her legs pulled up against her chest and a blue and white checkered afghan spread over her knees. The cat sprawled next to her on the couch, purring and drooling, getting its face ick all over the leather.
“Do you know where my checkbook is?” he asked.
“Wherever you left it,” she said. “What do you need it for?”
He hadn’t thought about the fact that she might ask this question, that he’d have to have an answer. There was no feasible lie he could tell, so he told the truth, kind of. “Buying a gift for Dallas and Bess.”
“Del Ray is selling one of his paintings.”
She stared at him. “How much?”
“Don’t know yet.”
He knew she’d find out when the check cleared, but hopefully by then everything would have calmed down.
“You can’t expect me to like her,” Allison said.
“I know,” Nate said. “I don’t.”
His checkbook was between the sofa cushions, dangerously close to the cat, who batted his wrist as he dug into the crevice. He felt the urge to scrub with rubbing alcohol where it had touched him.
“I’ll be right back,” Nate said, and walked out of the house.
* * *
Nate wrote Del Ray a check for a hundred dollars. Del Ray took the painting down from the wall and handed it to Bess, who tucked it under her arm.Nate heard Dallas whisper, “You shouldn’t be accepting gifts from him.” Bess shushed him, started towards the steps with him in tow. They stopped at the bottom, waiting for Nate.
“Actually, can I buy another one?” Nate said.
“Which one do you want?” Del Ray asked.
There was one in which Allison seemed to be looking towards the camera.You could see the fence line in front of her, her on the back patio.She had one hand held to her forehead, shielding nonexistent eyes from the sun. The shadow of her hand slanted elegantly across her face, and individual strands of her hair seemed to be dancing in the wind, almost impossible to see unless you looked closely.Her other hand was held next to her shoulder, waving at the artist.
“One of my favorites,” Del Ray said.
He wrote another check and again Del Ray took the painting down from the wall.It was slightly larger than the one Bess carried, but Nate was still able to tuck it under his arm. The four of them went up the wooden stairs, two of them carrying bulky canvases.
Next door Nate helped Bess carefully place the painting in the back seat of Dallas’s Impala. Nate hoped it didn’t get damaged on the drive home.Dallas stood on the driver’s side, looking out at the empty country road, frowning. Once the painting was loaded, Del Ray said to Nate, “You’re going to pay for that padlock you broke, right?”
“Of course,” Nate said. “I’ll cut you another check.”
Del Ray nodded. He said, “Pleasure doing business with you.”He turned to Bess and said, “Hope you enjoy.”And then Bess gave this man she barely knew, a man who just under an hour ago she’d declared crazy, a hug.Her chin rested upon his shoulder, her eyes fixed on Nate. Then she let go, waved goodbye to him and to Nate. They got in the car, the headlights came on, and they pulled out of the driveway. Del Ray and Nate watched, and then Del Ray said goodnight and went back over to his place.
* * *
Nate found Allison upstairs in bed, thumbing through a book about synesthesia. The cat slept curled up on Nate’s pillow. He pushed it off, and it left behind a stain. He took the pillow, tossed it on the floor, and the cat climbed back onto it.
“That’s yours now,” Nate said.
He got undressed and crawled into bed. As he did, Allison said, “There’s this case study in this book, about a man who had a brain tumor removed, and when he woke up he discovered he could smell numbers.”
Nate felt reassured by this.
“I’m sorry tonight didn’t turn out as you’d planned,” he said.
“Let’s never see them again.”
“That’ll probably be okay.”
Nate turned off his bedside lamp.Allison, reading, kept hers on, so he covered his head with the blankets and closed his eyes. He listened for a few minutes, listened to her breathe, listened to the cat purring, listened to her crinkling pages. Just as he was falling asleep, she got up and went downstairs. The cat followed her out the door, and a few minutes later so did Nate.
Downstairs she sat on the couch, a plate of swordfish and sausage on the coffee table in front of her, untouched.She looked at the painting of her, which lay next to the plate.
“So much for the vegetarian diet,” Nate said.
“What is this?”
“It’s you,” he said.“Peace offering?”
She stood and picked up the painting, examined it more closely.Then she started up the bedroom steps with it.The cat jumped off the couch and followed her, making this weird near silent meow.Allison went so fast up the stairs that the plastic sheets demarcating the boundary between finished and unfinished fluttered with her passing.
Copyright 2010 by Billy Middleton
The Wrong Way
No one blames desperate or poverty-stricken specters
for going the wrong way.
If they knew where they were headed
they'd be corporeal and make better money
in the real world of commercial humanity.
As it is, these phantasms are on fantasy welfare,
getting hand-outs of industrial beaches
and polluted sunsets just to get through the day.
They don't know better;
they'll always head the wrong way.
Copyright 2010 by Adam Henry Carriere
Vincent put a mitten on his left hand; he held a cigarette and lighter in his right. He flung the plaid scarf around his neck one more time, looked at himself in the mirror, and said, “It's you.”
As Vincent stepped outside, he lit up his cigarette and sat on the decorative wall. He watched the smoke come from his lungs. He kept exhaling until he ran out of breath, and then pushed a bit harder, unsure if it was the cold or if he had smoke lingering at the bottom of his lungs.
“It's fucking freezing,” someone said. It was that black guy that Dylan used to hang around with. Maybe they had a class together.
“Yeah,” said Vincent.
Vincent shrugged, reached into his pocket, and removed a small metal tube made to resemble a cigarette. Holding his lit cigarette between his pinky and ring finger, he took a hit off the discreet pipe, and handed it to what's-his-face.
Back in his room, Vincent immediately went to this blue bucket of socks and boxers and grabbed the only argyle pair of socks. As he unfolded them, they appeared to give birth to a small piece of cellophane from a cigarette pack. It had been melted to prevent the contents from spilling. There were different colored pills inside.
“Annie-dannie-hannah-joe...” Vincent started. He smiled, but it didn't hang around. He took one of each color – three total. He broke the blue Xanax in half. He took the whole Flexeril, and took the whole Percocet. He took a sip of last night's soda. Vincent grimaced at the flatness. He folded over the cellophane, and with his lighter he resealed the makeshift baggie.
Vincent finally found his wallet, which he knew only had three dollars and seventy two cents in it. Upon inspection, one of the quarters was Canadian. Another was actually a token that a girl had given him. Vincent sat on his stiff bed and slid a wooden box from beneath it. He took a smaller wooden box from it and slid open it's top. He removed the metal cigarette from his pocket and plunged it into this box, which he then set aside. Vincent put the larger box where it went, and the smaller box went into his pocket.
“Preparation is important for success,” he whispered.
Vincent stood near his door and patted each of his pockets. He tried to make sure he had everything he needed. He grabbed his backpack, opened his door, and turned back into the room, shutting the door behind him. Returning to the cellophane on his desk, he reopened it and took out two more of the orange ones. He ate one, and took another sip of the flat soda. He put the other in his pocket. Vincent decided to put the other half of the blue pill in his pocket too.
Vincent pulled off his scarf and sat down in the theater chair. Always the third row, and the very far right of the room, on the second seat from the wall. On the second row, in the middle of the room, the third seat from the stairs, sat a girl named Barbara. Or was it Esther?He watched her shoot glances at him every Monday, but on Wednesdays, he'd pretend only to look at his cellphone.
Vincent pretended to have conversations through text messaging, but he really just asked questions to an information service.
Question: What can I do to avoid penguin attacks?
Answer: Avoid penguins.
After class Vincent re-wrapped his scarf as he walked down the stairs. He spotted a set of vending machines and smiled at avoiding a vendor with a face. The vending machine took the Canadian quarter. He bought an orange soda and two chocolate chip cookies. Vincent left the building and started walking across the courtyard toward his room. He put the cookies in his mostly empty backpack and opened the soda. He took a small sip, closed it, and put it in his backpack as well. Looking up he saw someone waving at him, smiling happily, and approaching quickly.
“Hey!” she piped. “Are you ready to turn that token in?”
Vincent hadn't stopped walking, but she followed him back in the direction she'd come from. He shrugged, fingered the orange pill in his pocket, and cupped it into his hand. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed it with the soda left resting under his tongue. He lit a cigarette.
“What token?” he asked.
The girl rubbed his arm and giggled. Vincent didn't smile, but she didn't seem to notice. He offered her a cigarette, which she accepted. They stopped, and he faced her. She lit her cigarette off of his. They continued walking and emitting smoke.
“Do you want to get a cup of coffee?” she asked.
“I have seventy two cents. Let's get high instead. A drive.”
She smiled, hopped once in her step, and Vincent smiled that quick, diminishing smile again.
Vincent sat in her car. “Tabby,” he started.
“What was the token for?”
Tabby started the car, and they pulled out of the parking lot. Vincent took a glass pipe from her glove box, removed the wooden box from his pocket, and tapped some weed into the bowl; he handed it to her. Vincent ate the other half of the blue pill.
“What are you eating?” she asked.
She played The Beatles. It was A Hard Day's Night, which Vincent noted was almost entirely love songs. He peered at the bare trees and the yellow grass, and smoked a cigarette, and then another. Tabby stopped at a stop sign, and it felt like his stomach forgot to stop with them. His eyes squeezed together, and he placed his head on the glass of the window.
“Too many vitamins?” Tabby asked.
“A sundial doesn't work in places that are always dark.”
She laughed, “What?”
“Growth takes time. Time is a measurement. I don't have a watch,” Vincent tried to explain. “You know what I mean?”
“Not one bit.”
“I'm still a kid.”
“So am I.”
“No, I mean a little kid.”
“With snot on your face and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in your hand?”
“With soft bones and taut skin.”
“You're a trip. Are you sure you're alright?”
Vincent lifted his head from the window and took out his wallet. He removed the token and placed it on her lap.
Tabby and Vincent ventured back toward their dwelling, back to the cells of dwellings stacked up on each other. As he entered his room on the bottom floor, she nodded and headed toward the elevator. He entered his room and went for the sock. He ate three more orange pills. His head spun, and he grabbed his graphing calculator. He locked the door behind him.
Tabby waited in the car. Vincent pushed open the glass door, and the jangle startled him. On his right he saw his old guitar hanging on the wall. He was tempted to look at the price tag, but as he walked it felt like his legs were starting to go out ahead of him. Catching up, he walked to the counter and laid down the calculator.
The man behind the counter was Indian or Arab, Vincent wasn't sure which. Vincent hoped it was Arab, since history proves they're better at counting money. He left with thirty dollars.
When he reached the car, he said, “Perfect.”
“Wait here,” Vincent said for the second time.
“Don't hang out.”
“I barely want to hang out with you.” Vincent shook his head. “I don't mean that.”
Vincent knocked on the townhouse door, and the guy who opened it appeared to be happy to see him. Tabby listened to the radio. It was a Christmas song. It was Green Sleeves.
Vincent came back with a bag of brownies and a little piece of tinfoil. He opened the tinfoil, which had a small strip of paper in it. He ripped it in half, and placed the half under his tongue. He gave Tabby the other piece.
They sat on his stiff bed. There was music playing. Something soft. Something non-monumental. They laid down.
She tickled his face with her hair; he began to laugh. She laughed.
“More,” Vincent said.
Tabby tickled his face with her hair; he laughed, but only until he started to cry.
Copyright 2010 by Robert Louis Henry
Ah, Bird Poop Van
Ah, bird poop van,
there in the far corner of the fast food lot
where wind-blown paper congregates,
and you squat against the curb,
a rusted Ford Econoline home,
spattered with a thousand puked starbursts
of smell on your dull finish,
a metal fadedness of has been.
Your owner in his tourist-trash hat
and long dirty hair hanging to his collar,
squats on the splattered grass,
grizzled before his future demise,
a throwback to Ashbury
where he used to panhandle.
He sits with his wilted wildflower
in her faded jeans splotched with patches,
sipping their mocha coffee on the matted grass
wary for the squad car to cruise by again,
and roust them out of their corner nest
under the gilded arches.
But oh you rest and rust so easy--
at least there are no fowl in sight.
Copyright 2010 by Daniel Wilcox
A baby in a shopping cart and I must take care not to let it roll away. The asphalt is black with deep gorges hidden and somewhere my sister is trying to explain all the suicides in Ithaca. I am out of orange tic tacs to feed the baby but there’s nothing to do. The Russian mafia has infiltrated the 7-Eleven across the street and Roman is disguised in a white turban, selling cheap vodka behind the counter. His eyes are a little bloody on the edges. He tells me it's all true, what Camus wrote in The Plague. Outside in the parking lot, Jessica is waiting for me in her mother’s minivan and I fit the shopping cart into the back seat. We get lost on a one-way street and loop around a giant glass house full of needy families. The women, with narrow shoulders bruised purple and their daughters in white pajamas. We are stopped at a red light beside an apartment building, a Third World ghetto sprawling into the sky. Laundry is hanging out to dry and empty beer cans, strung together like paper cranes. When the light turns green, we climb a vaulted highway and the baby laden shopping cart rolls out the back seat. Somewhere a dam breaks open and the many waters come rushing down Market Street. Children cling to the city walls like little eggs waiting to hatch.
Copyright 2010 by Thirii Myint
We were discussing a line you had drawn, you or another of us. We arranged the furnace and came together and remembered a flock of egrets that had come in a different way, apart; returning to our problem we arrived at a distinction between line and ball, one of which adopts innumerable postures and the other of which comes in a different way, apart. Let us discuss the matter: I have here a group of noises, which I have misplaced, yet which, loving mischief, must finally intrude at our moments of leisure; to capture them will be a trifle, can we only keep our temper. You have a quantity of fear. It cannot go on in this way: let us attend with sacrifice, not much, and then we will know one way or the other; let us discuss the matter. We came together discussing a certain line and arrived at our discussion of innumerable postures. I will arrange our progress if I am able. But it may be that mine is a quantity of fear and yours a group of noises; then you will have to arrange our progress, though I warn you in this case we may only proceed by conflagration, and may I warn you in particular against the forwardmost portion of the topskull, where we find one or more protrusions; but I have not forgotten in this case it is you who will have to arrange our progress. When you look closely you will see that the image comprises many types of ball. Yet their arrangement, as for example at the edge of her―is that silk? Forgive me.
Hush. The light swings wide after lunch, leaving us governed two or four hours by the worldbath. Then we contemplate: how may a man be suspended in the air, yet at the same time entombed below the ground? Our advantage lies in our knowledge of sorcery; let us therefore describe a circle, or rather a spherical construction, of radius two to four hours, and name it the lesser bath and have it for our own. Overlook the beasts. The rock is red with the vigor of the earth, the custom to hire a carriage and instruct the driver to frighten you in safety, all in safety. Afterward we may enjoy the fruit of the land, the yucca, which the ancients knew to prepare with pepper; as well the fruits found in the cellars, in which we shall overlook the silver thread in favor of the arch and the light. Permit the slave to massage your organism with healthful oils. Have we performed this act well? The rectangles here stand bound in every direction, bound and bound again; perhaps you wish to know how many are the bindings, but I entreat you do not overlook the golden doorway clad in holly, whose lintel is inscribed to light.
I caught up, today, one like myself, yet who walked on a street toward the river, as though on some errand. Have you marked that they build the city of moist materials which dry, brick and mud, and do you ask yourself where are the materials which they hold dry and then, the time arriving, moisten by the air? We shrank from the din and I sought with him some place where we might set ourselves aside. A woman approached; it became evening.
I have never known the method for rendering a staircase in ink: certain methods we come to grasp, others we never know. There are those among us whom you may mark by their faces, in which the mandible balances uppermost upon the tip of the spine, and the dome of the skull swings beneath; who, although they command means no greater than do you or I, yet, their tongues wagging topsy-turvy, perhaps discuss matters differently than we, so that to speak as they do will shed light where before there was none. I know that you are not happy here. Listen, there is danger beneath, danger tonight, I feel my eyes set against the door and I ask you for patience. There are those among us for whom cold matter shivers as prey freshly killed. By confiding in each other we may decrypt the sequence of watches and learn the language of the clock, and in the end we may descend into the hold. Do you understand what I am suggesting? In a wise city the days decline at a measured pace and the citizens trust only the wisest with the preparation of food. If I may tell you a story: a man once suggested to me that I help him; he wished us to descend into the hold, there to commit an act of love.
There had been some sighting of the devil―gentler it was said, and dressed as a fawn. Or perhaps he had been dressed in a fawn suit and the story took root from there. A talisman of the vicar’s, suspended from the lintel, began spinning unceasingly in the stove-light. Finally a scientific gentleman came from the city to observe it, and even formed definite conclusions, but declined to make them public. He remained to wed the butcher’s daughter, who was shortly delivered of twins.
It snowed again (we had thought it finished). I opened the attic and set the usual powders aflame. Even as the dove stammered and our attention was drawn once more to the minor arts, they were discovering her fountain pen, a gift from the officer, dry under the spare bed of the doll house. The stocking that was used lay for many months unbeknownst above the ceiling plaster. Over cocoa we glimpsed a cardinal, prey to the hawk.
Much later I recall chiefly her hearth and the stink of iron. I tell myself it was cold then. In the fire’s voice there may have been some other voice too―a smaller fastidious creature, a beaver or the like. What was it the vicar said to me that day? It was he who had built the cottage, and he who had dug the cellar, for he had been there longer than any of us. He was cautioning me I think, but I never knew against what: he spoke of it only figuratively, calling it the doe.
Copyright 2010 by Brian Conn
A Slow Wisdom
Sixty-some years later
and am I one bit wiser?
The toss of time has flung me
out to here, spectator-friendly.
I came into this world caterwauling.
The touch of novelty passing through my lungs,
year after year.
Copyright 2010 by Ed Higgins
Luz was dying inside. The raw pain never diminished. She gasped harshly, unable to suppress an overpowering feeling of suffocation. Things had not gone as she had anticipated.
She became aware of the silence. Justin’s crying had finally stopped as she had known it would. The secret was in ignoring the screams. Eventually, he would wear himself out.
Luz closed her eyes briefly. How long had it been now? It felt like years but she knew it had only been a matter of a few months.
She had done all the right things, voraciously reading the new and expanded edition of “The Modern Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy,” avoiding alcohol, and eating the way Dr. Chapwick had solemnly advised. She had even attended for the last two trimesters a group for first time expectant mothers. She had taken to it like the rest of them. Every week they had bounced around names, (Sierra and Devon by far the most popular), discussed the choicest maternity wear, and smiled about the dimensions of each of their growing bellies. Similar to everyone else she had complained loudly about the inconvenience – the nausea the first three months, the hunger and weight gain, the difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position, and the swollen feet. But, all of that had been swept away when the group gathered together each week, laughed about their unborn babies startling and vigorous kicks, and compared the precious little images on their respective ultrasounds, imagining with joy the person that little fetus would become.
Gary had been delighted and tender. They had been told it was not possible to conceive and urged to consider adoption. Luz would have done this in a heartbeat. Surreptitiously, she cruised adoption sites on the internet and scrutinized little faces. She had even uploaded their picture and placed an online ad at one of the most promising sites. “Happily married, affluent couple in their mid-thirties would like to give a loving home to a newborn or infant up to three months. Hospital expenses gladly reimbursed.” However, Gary had been insistent. He wanted a child who resembled himself. So, she surrendered her yearnings to be a mother, worked more hours at her job during the week, and apathetically placed herself on call on the weekends. Their income rose higher but Luz could not rid herself of a feeling of dissatisfaction.
She rolled over in bed and glanced at the clock. She had lain under the blankets for three hours. Sleep had not delivered her from her plight but at least there was silence.
She glanced at the alarm clock by their bed. Ten to five. On an ordinary day she’d be winding things down at work right now. It was crazy to have let herself be so caught up in the initial feeling of “baby wonder” that she had quit work. Look where it had led to. Demands more numerous than she could have known would occur. Insistent howling and an extended family and friends who expected her to bask in a warm glow of willing sacrifice. She had been so jubilant about her unexpected pregnancy that shame now stifled her from telling them she no longer wanted to be a full time mother. In fact, she did not want to be one at all.
She could barely drag her still too large body throughout the day. She could no longer rid her mind of despairing thoughts nor shed a feeling of worthlessness.
She looked across the room at the ten year old framed photo on top of the bureau. There they were, Gary and she smiling broadly, arms linked, standing on a small platform high on a crater, long streaks of red in the Hawaiian evening, the Pacific Ocean farther in the background. The honeymoon before the honeymoon they had always joked. Why hadn’t they left well enough alone?
Luz got up to go to the kitchen. She passed the crib and paused for a moment. It would be years before her life was her own again. By then every hope and dream inside her would be extinguished. She could have easily gone on to become the manager of the department and risen even higher in the organization. She would have been a powerful woman. She looked down at Justin. He had stolen her life from her. It was so unfair. She was imprisoned. Everyone cared about the baby. It didn’t matter if she was unhappy.
Somehow, it had to be stopped. She wanted her life back. Luz was no longer aware of thinking. She walked over to her bed and grabbed a pillow. She returned to the crib and bent over. Justin squirmed in his sleep. Although she knew she was alone, Luz hastily looked around. She lowered the pillow onto his son’s face and stood immobile while the infant flailed. It did not take long. She tossed the pillow back on her bed, ran her hand through her hair, and riffling her clothes, grabbed her cell phone off the dresser. Breathing rapidly, she dialed 911, preparing herself to be the frantic mother who had just discovered that her baby was a victim of SIDS.
Copyright 2010 by Nomi Liron
The Bicycle Review is Edited and Curated by J de Salvo and Kaitlin Anderson