Joe the Salamander  |  Timothy Gager



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             The name Salamander is derived from an old Arab/Persian word meaning “lives in fire,” stemming from an old belief, false of course, that the salamander could walk through fire and remain unharmed.


             He knew it was a musty old suit he wore from head to toe like a piece of armor—dark green with golden spots down the sides, a way to protect him from the world. He knew right away that no one would stop to talk to him, and even if they did, the ridiculous costume would basically eliminate conflict with another human being. He also knew he had high levels of fear that caused sweats and shaking. He never wanted to talk.
             So, long before the suit, he learned a simple defense mechanism. He would “yes” them to death. It was yes and only yes; negative responses might lead to the unbearable human interactions he feared, and it was this fear that caused him to cover up from the world. This, in turn, maintained his debilitating sickness.
             When Joe was a boy, his “yessing” prevented him from doing what he wanted to do. This caused him huge amounts of additional stress. All he wanted to do was sit in his room, listen to the radio, and read books about reptiles and nature. Even simple requests as setting the table for dinner caused him a great deal of anxiety. When young Joe felt this way, he tied a towel around his neck, pretended it was a cape, and became a Superhero. He flew around the house, chased away evil in the world, and ignored any real demands that were given or that might be placed on him. He flew faster and faster, until things started to break at home. While out in the community, it got so bad that Joe wore his cape under his clothing, even at school. He kept his cape on, comforted by the sense of protection the Superhero was giving him. If he was hot or if it itched, he focused inwardly. This way, he was able to overcome his severe anthropophobic reaction, his now generalized fear of nearly all people or situations.
             As a teenager, with the help of only his own intervention, Joe overcame his fear barely enough to graduate high school. But when he went off to Arizona State University, everything broke again. He failed every class his first semester. During that time, he had neither friends nor any other meaningful relationships. His roommate worried he might jump off the roof of his dorm because each night, Joe hyperventilated himself to sleep. Back home, his parents finally realized that Joe’s strange behaviors weren’t just him being shy and quirky; they knew they needed to do something. Joe moved back home. A month later, Joe’s parents made an appointment with their family doctor of fifty years, who was able to create a diagnosis without Joe leaving the house. The doctor filled out a twelve-page form, and Joe collected a disability check every month.
             Three years later, Joe’s parents needed to see the same doctor for a medical-need diagnosis for themselves. Joe couldn’t be counted on to assist them, as he was barely able to assist himself, so plans were made for his parents to move to a safer apartment. With his parents gone and on his own, Joe had to face life completely alone for the first time ever. Joe battled his fears. He hated that all the minor things people took for granted, such as going to the bank or grocery store, were all-day ordeals for Joe to worry about, as he percolated in all the components of his flawed mind.
             He reasoned that, to decrease interactions, he would shop at a 24-hour Albertsons in the middle of the night, but even then he was anxious. Although it was less crowded, Joe feared the late-night clientele who seemed shady and represented potential danger. What if they were drunk or strung out on something? One evening, he was asked to leave the store when he began to breathe heavily in the cereal aisle. He was filled with failure. On his way home, he walked down Main Street, past an old building with a large glass window. He found himself staring at a full-sized adult Superman costume that hung on display in Barney’s Costume Shop. The hours were 10 a.m.–3 p.m. How would he manage to get it? His first plan was to break the glass, but he immediately thought of a probable arrest. He broke into a run instead and tried not to think about it quite yet. It was two weeks of intense planning before he was finally able to leave the house again.


♥♥♥


             The streets of Phoenix were hot, uncomfortable when walking, but at least Joe felt he would soon be comfortable within a new skin. He decided that he would scribble a note to the owner, whom he presumed was named Barney. This way, he would not have to talk to him, and everything would be quick. No talking involved.
             Dear Barney, the note said. I want to purchase the Superman costume I saw in your window. I have a debit card.
             There was a problem. The costume he wanted was no longer in the window. It was replaced by a display with five salamander costumes. He began to shake but dug his heels into the ground. Maybe it was in the back, he thought. He exhaled hard and walked in. Behind the counter was an elderly man with a bald, liver-spotted head.
             “May I help you?” the man asked. Joe forced the note at him then shrunk away. “Name’s not Barney. It’s Hal.” Joe began breathing more heavily. “And I don’t have that suit anymore. We replaced it with these salamanders.” Joe saw a room full of them. “Barney’s is the official costume supplier for the Salamander Festival each year. It’s happening in four days.”
             Joe looked at his feet and counted, “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, five one-thousand, one million one-thousand.” Counting was always a desperate measure. It never worked.
             “Ya want one of those salamanders instead?”
             “Yes,” Joe responded.
             “Okay. Want a carry bag?”
             “Yes.”
             Hal zipped the suit in as Joe wrote down his information, and the transaction was over. Joe quickly turned, but instead of heading out, he bolted to the dressing room.
             “You okay?” the man called after him.
             “Yes,” Joe responded.


♥♥♥


             At home, during the next few days, Joe wore the suit all the time. It was temporary until Superman was back in stock. After a few days, it felt very comfortable, but it was little hot, and the large head bobbled around. Three times, he tripped over the coffee table.
             Superhero Salamander, Joe thought, trying to mentally strengthen the character. There are going to be many of these guys running around town the next two days, but I’m the one and only Super Sally. Joe smiled underneath the smelly, heavy shell. He opened the door and left his house, in the middle of a hot sunny morning, and for the first time in a long time, he was without a care.
             Joe walked through Phoenix, back to Albertsons Market. Being a salamander wasn’t all that bad, besides the sweating. No one was bothering him. It was close to a perfect set up. He picked Albertsons so he could face, and possibly overcome, the setting of his last major breakdown. When he arrived, a few people pointed, while others greeted him enthusiastically. Oh no, Joe thought, but everyone was very excited.
             “Going to the festival?” they asked.
             “Yes, yes,” he replied, feeling slightly protected in his new disguise. Phew, yes, yes … no one was asking him to do anything. I should stock up on food and supplies, he thought.
             He was relaxed enough that he wanted to buy something from every department, but his grandiose ideas pertaining to his new identity (Salamanders are vegetarians.) kept him in produce. Joe purchased a cart full of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn, as well as some other green leafy vegetables. His cart was piled up, and some spinach fell onto the floor. People slapped his back and told him to have fun at the festival. He pushed his cart down West Thomas Road, but came to a direct halt. He heard someone shout at him.
             Joe felt his hair stand on end, the ones on his back pricked against his salamander suit. He assumed at first that it was the manager and that he was being stopped for removing the shopping cart from Albertsons’ lot.
             “You!” the man shouted.
             “Yes,” Joe said.
             “Come here; we’ve been waiting for you.” Joe found himself facing a smiling man who wore a white shirt with a tie and a name tag that read: BOB, MANAGER, SOUPER SALAD. Bob shook Joe’s furry hand. “We’ve been waiting for you. Here, grab this sign!” It read: SOUPER SALAD. YOU CAN BE FRESH HERE. Bob was very enthusiastic; in fact, he was downright super himself. “Here. Go to the corner and start waving and flagging down traffic. Remember, The Salamander Festival is one of our busiest promotions here at Souper Salad. People want to feel a part of it.” Joe felt like he was going to pass out. “Thanks for the stock,” Bob added, and picked out the carrots. “No wonder you’re late. I’d been waiting for a truck shipment. Wasn’t expecting these from the mascot, but this is one hell of a company to work for. You never know what to expect. You know what to do, right?”
             “Yes,” Joe said. He stood frozen in front of Bob.
             “Well, show me,” Bob said. “You know … do your act.” Bob began to grow impatient. “Okay, fine. Move to the corner.”
             Joe stood in one spot.
             “The corner! Move!” Bob shouted. Sweat was running down Joe’s forehead, and it stung his eyes. Bob pulled Joe by his green arms. “Flag ’em down, c’mon,” Bob said.
             Joe said, “Yes,” but when he attempted to jump, a spastic little leap came from his legs, barely propelling him off the ground. Joe’s body was drenched with sweat. He smelled very un-fresh.
             “Flag ’em down! Flag ’em!” Bob yelled.
             Joe knew he had to do something, so he picked up the pace, manically jumping at a rapid rate. His furry head moved up and down, jiggling against the top of his own head. He never successfully waved anyone into the lot, and he looked like he was doing uncoordinated jumping jacks. The Souper Salad sign he held smashed against the top of the salamander head, and the eyeholes became more and more off-centered. Joe was reminiscent of a hyper bobblehead doll that gave the illusion his head might rocket into space. What topped that was, with all this movement, he barely heard Bob, who shouted for him to do more and more of something that he couldn’t quite understand, nor did he want to. So, he jumped some more. He jumped in a way that would block Bob’s murky directives completely. He jumped until he felt tired and dizzy. The earth spun inside a salamander as Joe staggered toward the edge of the curb, clipped the edge of it with his bulky feet, and fell head first into West Thomas Street.


♥♥♥


             Perhaps it was the curiosity factor, or the first car that swerved to avoid his prone body, but the reality of it was that Joe’s lack of “social grace” had caused a three-car accident. One of the drivers, also wearing a salamander suit, because he was the real Souper Salad employee, sustained a head injury. His seat belt couldn’t fit over the girth of his suited belly, and he rolled out of the car when its door flew open on impact. He probably would have died if not for the cushioning of his costume.
             Joe was brought in by the Phoenix Police in a state of shock and catatonia. There was no evidence of any intentional malice, but because of his current state, Joe ended up with a complex medical work-up followed by a psychological assessment that found him incompetent and strangely a danger to himself. The psychologist ordered to keep Joe under care, so he was moved to a very quiet setting with other patients with social issues who may or may not have caused traffic accidents. It was a tranquil place, so no one bothered him. In fact, there were no demands on him at all. Joe enjoyed his new freedom. He had plenty of choices he could handle. Some days, the professionals allowed him to wear his homemade cape around his neck, but on others, Joe wore his salamander outfit. He thought it best to avoid any potential conflicts.

♥ End ♥



Timothy Gager is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry. He has had over 250 pieces published in the last six years, and of those, eight have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. This piece first appeared in Air in the Paragraph Line.


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The Peculiar Incident at Otter Creek  |  Gavin Broom



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             That morning, Momma announced that Heaven had opened up the skies above Otter Creek and had given us due notice of the impending judgment from the Lord our God. So important a day was this, she declared from the porch swing, that by means of comparison, the afternoon of May 22nd, 1880—when the first railroad passed through town—had assumed all the workaday significance of Abby Altman’s continued attempts to recreate her mother’s secret recipe for apfelstrudel. But if Momma embraced the strange developments over our homestead, I must confess to facing them with caution and distrust.
             Certainly, it was a sight to behold. In an otherwise overcast sky, a perfect circle had cleared in the clouds and had been filled with a hovering plate or dish. To assign it such a name was to do it a disservice, however, for while these descriptions conjure the correct shape, they also suggest a size comfortably manageable on an unremarkable kitchen table, perhaps sufficient to accommodate a number of Miss Altman’s indefatigable attempts at bakery.
             In actual fact, I estimated that this plate could quite easily contain the entirety of Otter Creek safe within its perimeter and leave room around the edges for the remainder of Midland County. The idea that human eyes had previously happened upon anything within competing measure, or would do so at any point in the forthcoming hundred years, seemed a preposterous notion. Furthermore, around the rim of the plate, danced lights that would put the most ostentatious firefly to shame, casting all manner of colors and hues onto the surrounding clouds, projecting a show that would surely be visible all the way over to the extremes of Cleghorn County in the North and beyond the banks of the Garrison River to the South. Make no bones about it; I was wary and more than a little afraid. Poppa, on the other hand, chose to defer his involvement in this supposed rapture and remained in the kitchen.
             “Come, Junior,” Momma said. “Come sit by me on the porch swing, and let us await the tribulation together in glorious praise to the Almighty. Let us sing with such spirit that Christ Himself may be beckoned down from Heaven and that even your father may be coaxed from the remains of his breakfast to join us.”
             At fourteen years of age, under usual circumstances, I would shy to be seen outdoors in such affectionate surroundings with my mother. I had garnered a reputation as something of a petty troublemaker on Main Street—stealing apples from Jenkins’ Store and kisses from his daughter, Emma, to boot—but on that morning, my need for comfort outweighed any desire to keep my standing intact. I joined Momma on the porch swing, rested my head upon her shoulder, and as she sang as sweetly as a nightingale to the plate in the sky, I glared at it, silently cursed it, and wished it would disappear.
             Momma was some way through her second rendition of “Amazing Grace” when Poppa finally emerged onto the porch, napkin still tucked down the neck of his shirt and a furious scowl on his face. He managed to summon the words to make half a complaint to Momma about the lack of coffee in the pot when his eyes must have been dazzled by the shimmering plate, and he was rendered mute. He adopted the appearance of a dog who had been kicked once and was now unsure if he were about to be kicked again. Then, without a word, he untucked his napkin, dabbed at his whiskers, and disappeared back indoors. Momma reacted by singing with more zest, as though twice the volume would make compensation to God for this apparent indifference. When Poppa reappeared moments later, armed with his old Civil War Henry rifle, Momma was forced to put her breath to an alternate use.
             “Walter Tyler Spencer!” she exclaimed. “Cease this blasphemy immediately!”
             Poppa paid no heed, took aim, and fired a round at the plate. Momma screeched—further muffling my already stinging ears—and launched herself from the porch swing, her hands clamped to the sides of her face in horror.
             Given the distance, I estimated that the Henry would no more deter the plate in the sky than a pellet from the slingshot residing in my back pocket would trouble the moon, but while Momma shrieked and Poppa continued to fire, I was astonished to note that the light dance around the rim of the plate had ended, and each light now crawled to the center of the plate’s underbelly. When they converged, the colors merged and formed a dazzling red which then drew a line, straight and true, down beyond the trees toward Main Street, accompanied by a ghastly fzzzzz that startled the nearby wildlife into silence.
             Momma and Poppa ceased their feuding and stood frozen like horses on a silent carousel. Then, all our faces glowed from the globe of fire that burned and tumbled in the sky above the tree line. Moments later, a tremulous boom and a boiling wind swept over us, pushing Momma and Poppa onto their rear ends and sending the swing into a violent loop that toppled me belly-first onto the porch boards. As I lay out, the noise could be felt in my throat long after it had passed, and the heat from the wind still pricked my skin.
             As one, we rediscovered our legs and retreated into the house. Poppa began blocking the door with heavy furniture. Momma started singing “Psalm 23.”  I whimpered at the window and watched black smoke rob color from the sky. When another fizzing line was drawn from the plate to the ground, we all took cover behind an upturned table.
             “Momma,” said I. “Momma, I’m scared of the rapture.” Perhaps the act of hearing myself utter these words provided some affirmation, and within seconds, tears burst from my eyes and left clean tracks down my otherwise dusted face.
             “Toughen up, son,” Poppa said in a growl. “This ain’t no rapture.”
             I thought of my reputation, of disappointing Poppa, sniffed my tears away and nodded.
             Momma took pause from singing to say, “And he shall speak words against the Most High and shall wear out the saints, and he shall think to change the times and the law, and they shall be given into his hand until a time and a times and half a time.”
             I did not understand and looked to Poppa. He seemed to be no better placed than I and simply repeated his assertion, which was met by a further fizz and boom from outside, this time from the rear of the house, in the direction of Cotton Bridge.
             “Once the saints have been raptured,” Momma explained, “then the outpouring of God’s wrath shall be felt upon the earth.”
             “But Momma, I thought we were saintly.”
             Momma glared at Poppa. “We were doing just fine and dandy, Junior, until someone thought he could hunt a host of angels from the sky as though they were nothing more than a flock of common geese.”
             “Woman, show me the passage in the Bible where it gives mention to rapture being delivered in a fizzing red line from an oversized pie tin.”
             “Outrageous blasphemy!” Momma covered her ears with her hands.
             “If we were looking up there to find horses in the sky, I would have fallen to my knees next to you, repented every secret sin I had been counting, as maybe, and given praise to God until He had it coming out of His ears. I say again: this is no rapture.”
             While the sun crept toward noon, this back and forth between Momma and Poppa continued and, to my mind, never once navigated to the region of the point: something had sent balls of fire from Main Street, Cotton Bridge, and goodness knew where else, and now the sky was peppered with smoke from a score of locations. The specifics of the cause were almost inconsequential. These were regrettable developments whichever way you addressed it. I took solace from the fact that while the plate remained in its position in the clearing of the clouds, the wanton destruction had come to a halt. This quiet respite forced me to ponder on whether I was likely to meet my fifteenth birthday, steal another apple from Jenkins’ Store, or once more allow my eyes to feast on the delightful Emma.
             Emma. Even the thought of the word caused my heart to soar, only to plummet when I considered the jeopardy in which she may now find herself.
             Whether Jenkins’ Store lay in flames or in rubble or intact I could not say, but I stole gumption from somewhere, and while the debate continued, I snuck out of the back door and made my way to Main Street to find out. It took me ten minutes to traverse the path through the woods. With each odd step, I acknowledged the folly of the idea but each even step strengthened my resolve. Above me, the plate remained visible through breaks in the canopy, and as ridiculous as it must seem, it now pulsed a sound I could only feel rather than hear. The likelihood that Momma had correctly recognized the rapture now seemed slender, but supposing she were right, it gladdened me to think that my concern for my fellow man (albeit specifically and exclusively for a girl named Emma Jenkins) would stand me in good stead when I had my audience with the Almighty.
             When I finally left the shaded sanctuary and stepped onto Main Street, it took me a moment even to recognize it as such. Wooden structures lay broken like twigs, and even the stronger builds, such as the brownstone imposition of the bank, bore the scars of heated battle. People lay strewn in the dirt in all manner of impossible postures. Tethered horses whinnied and bucked at their hitching posts, while others galloped through town, and others still lay dead where they had fallen.
             I staggered along the street and surveyed the carnage, surely appearing to any eyes following me as though I suffered from the same bewildered, faraway nostalgia as that brought home by those poor, injured fellows from the Civil War. My assessment of the scene remained incomplete when the plate began a low-pitched whine, and then a voice, male and desperate, called from my side.
             “Walter Junior!” It was Jenkins, hissing loudly from the open cellar door at the side of his fractured premises. “What absurd display of foolhardiness is this? Get your britches over here this instant, boy!”
             I recalled no other occasion that left me as pleased to see the cantankerous old buffoon as the one that now presented itself, nor one where my natural urge was to run toward him rather than away.
             “Of all the ruffians to collar on this end of days, it should be Walter Spencer Junior,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Proof, if needed, that the Lord works in mysterious ways if his likes should be spared amongst all these good dead folks.”
             “Papa!” This was Emma’s outrage coming from the cellar. Lord above, she was alive!
             Buoyed by sweet Emma’s defense, I insisted with pride from my spot in the middle of Main Street, “My poppa says the rapture requires horses in the sky, sir, not plates.”
             “Well, it truly warms my heart to hear that in these troubling times, your poppa should contemplate anything beyond the end of his kitchen table.”
             “Randall!” It was Emma’s momma’s turn to chide her husband.
             Jenkins angrily drew breath to respond, but his own thunder was stolen by a louder instance from above. Where once I stood with boyish defiance, terror now tarred my boots to the spot, and the only motion I could find was from my head and eyes as my gaze rose to the source of this new intrusion. Whether due to the bright sky or to the sheer incongruity of the scene isn’t for me to confirm, but no sooner had my eyes adjusted to the lighter conditions than I begged to be struck blind.
             The plate had disappeared and left a circle of blue on the overcast sky. The relief was short-lived, as falling from the empty sky was a human-shaped contraption, although its shape was the first and last quality that could be described in such terms. As it neared the ground a hundred paces ahead of me, I estimated its size to be in excess of twenty feet tall. Its entirety appeared to be made from the same shiny material as the plate from which it had presumably fallen. Plumes of blue flame roared from the soles of its boots until the tips tickled the dust on Main Street, whereupon the fire died and the monstrous construction landed with a crushing thud that sent me staggering back a step or two. Once on land, I noticed that its head appeared to be a glass globe, and within the globe sat another creature; this one small and gray with almond eyes as black as night, its spindly arms pulling all manner of levers. A creature within a creature? What devilish witchcraft was this?
             “Walter!” Emma cried.
             When I turned, I could see her cherub face poking out of the cellar, but before I would discover my capacity to respond, the creature regained my full attention when its arms buzzed like a thousand hives of fractious bees as they stretched to point at me. The little gray creature in the globe frowned, a slithery tongue poking out the corner of its lipless mouth, giving the world a mighty fine impression of concentration.
             I sensed something was amiss. If my ill-gotten gains from Jenkins’ Store had given me anything, it was the attribute of light-footedness. I feigned toward Jenkins’ cellar, then dashed in the opposite direction, diving for shelter behind the old jailhouse, just as the mother, father, great-granddaddy, and second cousin twice removed of all gunfire burst from the end of the larger creature’s arms. It was relentless, and as I sat and felt bullets tear up the brownstone at my back, I speculated that this weaponry could be filled at Easter and fired until Christmas before requiring a reload. Poppa’s Henry once more adopted all the comparative muscle and bluster of the slingshot in my back pocket.
             Of course! It was a longshot, but when you possess only one hope, that hope develops potential. I hooked the slingshot from my pocket. Thanks to the assault on the jailhouse, I was spoiled for choice with regard to rocks and stones. I remained calm—or as calm as could be—and rather than reach out into the line of fire, I pinched a fist-sized rock that had bounced near my foot and loaded it into the sling. For the next few moments, I closed my eyes and prayed for the almighty fire to stop and to offer me my one chance.
             “Junior!”
             It was Poppa! Poppa screaming to be heard over the gunfire! Where in tarnation had he cropped up from? He and Momma stood crouched at the entrance to Jenkins’ cellar, where old Jenkins himself was ushering them in.
             By accident or design, Poppa’s exclamation was enough to distract the machine. The gunfire halted, and the buzzing returned. I presumed it was turning to take out the remains of its anger on Jenkins’ cellar door.
             I grasped my chance, and as agile as a mountain goat, I dived and rolled into the center of Main Street, stretched back the pocket of the slingshot, whispered Amen, and let the rock fly. Walter Tyler Spencer raised no fool, and I aimed for the little gray creature in the globe whom I was sure assumed control over its giant slave.
             It took an inordinately long time for the rock to complete its trajectory, and for what felt like days, I was sure I had missed. My aim had been too high. The rock was surely going to miss the top by a good foot. At the last second, just as the buzzing ceased and the guns readied, the rock dived and smashed through the glass globe, right at the little one’s head.
             Well, sir, if the creature had mimicked concentration earlier, right then it was the very picture of surprise. Its spindly arms abandoned the levers, and its hands wrapped around its own throat as though strangling the life out of itself. Now out of control, the enormous gun machine swayed backward a degree or two, and then tipped forward. The gentlest of breezes at its back pushed it beyond the point of no return, and the whole monstrosity crashed to the ground, causing the world to shudder. The sorry little fellow toppled out from his globe onto the dusty street and came to rest perhaps six feet from where I lay.
             There followed whoops of delight from every hidey-hole along Main Street. The Jenkins family were the first to emerge, followed by my own. Then Miss Altman, then the McCallums, then the Franklins, then the others. By no means did this represent the entire population of Otter Creek—far from it—but it was more than I think anyone dared expect. They joined me and pulled me to my feet, patted my back, shook my hand, offered congratulations, and even old Jenkins told me I was welcome to a lifetime of free apples from his store if I so desired. Best of all, though, was the sweet kiss delivered to my lips from my Emma.
             And after that? Well, sir, the good folks of Otter Creek proceeded to kick any lingering dregs of life out of that gray little devil, and Abby Altman never went near a pie tin for as long as she lived.

♥ End ♥



Gavin Broom, originally from Central Scotland, now lives and writes in Michigan. He’s been published over sixty times both online and in print and, in a very focused world tour, has read at Dire Literary Series in Boston, at Last Monday at Rio in Glasgow, Scotland, and at the Michigan State University Creative Writing Open Mic. He edits fiction for The Waterhouse Review. [Author photo by and © Helen Broom; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Near to Him  |  Charles P. Ries



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             The cranberry swamp was just below our farm. It was usually filled with low-lying water and an abundance of cattails. Blackbirds lived and nested there, as well as countless rabbits. It was five acres in diameter, with a murky pool at the center where muskrats built their hutches. In the dead of winter, we’d go ice skating, swerving and weaving our way in and out of the cattails and around the muskrat hutches. At the north end of the swamp was a small, wooded area filled with boxelder saplings. My father called them weeds of the forest because they grew fast and in just about any condition, including those of a swamp.
             We never walked in the swamp until it froze over in early winter. But this autumn, after a particularly dry summer, we found ourselves being able to run through it and play hide-and-seek in it. My eleven cousins, who lived nearby, and my siblings would play war by pulling off the tops of cattails and using them to beat each other over the head, sending plumes of cottony seedlings into the air. It was a natural playground with unending things to see and experience.
             Pheasant hunting season began in late fall. Most of the cornfields had been harvested by this time, and the birds were fat from dining under apple and cherry trees and eating corn dropped by the combines. It was one brilliant, clear day in autumn. The sky was bright blue, and the landscape burst with fall colors. The second round of chores were over, and, as I was walked through the feed house, I found my father loading his 22-rifle.
             “Let’s go hunting,” he said, looking up at me.
             “What?”
             “Hunting, in the swamp. I set up a blind. Let’s get some pheasants.”
             My older siblings had already gone into the house for the day—it would just be the two of us.
             My father and I walked to the bottom of the mink yard, hopped the guard fence, and walked another hundred yards through towering cattails toward the center of the swamp. The ground was uncharacteristically firm and easily held both of us. My father had come down earlier in the week and piled a few old, wooden fence posts into an informal barrier for us to hide behind. Along with his rifle, he’d brought a burlap bag filled with cobs of dry seed corn.
             As he settled in behind the blind, he told me, “Take this and dump it about two hundred feet up ahead. Just dump it in one big pile and get back here. We’ll see who’s hungry today.”
             I did as he told me and ran back with the empty burlap bag flying behind me, jumping over the blind and settling in beside him.
             “Don’t talk, don’t move, just watch the corn pile,” he said.
             We lay on our bellies and watched the center of the swamp bed where he had told me to place the corn. His rifle rested on one of the posts, and we waited for the birds to find the corn. I never got this physically close to my father. I don’t remember him ever hugging me or directly talking to me other than to give me reprimands or directions about work. But on this sun-drenched afternoon in the heart of the cranberry swamp, I lay perfectly still and soaked in the odor of his work clothes. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of his breathing and inhaled the aroma of his Blue Boar pipe tobacco.
             The cattails swayed to a breeze that blew out of the southwest. The air was dry and warm, and the low hum of insects slowly lulled me into sleep, when the crack of my dad’s rifle shook me awake.
             “Got him! Hustle out there and grab it,” my father ordered in a loud whisper.
             My father’s 22 was precise and quiet. With a scope mounted on its barrel, it was deadly accurate. Unlike a 12-gauge shotgun that blew birdshot, the 22 shot small bullets. Because of its relative silence, it didn’t scatter other birds that might be hiding nearby. Rather, they’d sit tight and, once the coast was clear, begin to move and return to the pile of corn.
             I ran out, grabbed the bird, and hustled back to the blind, placing it between my father and me as we resumed our vigil. This time, I kept my eyes open. In about fifteen minutes, a few more birds appeared, circling the corn pile and feeding. My father took aim at the rooster with its distinctive red-ringed neck and nailed him, again telling me to run and get it. We recommenced our waiting, and my father soon laid out his third bird for the afternoon. By the end of our two hours together, we’d bagged three hens and two roosters with five clean shots.
             “That’ll do it. That’s pretty damn good. We’re going to be eating some pheasant. Let’s head back before your mom thinks we got lost.”
             We worked our way back through the cattails. I walked behind, carrying the five birds in the burlap bag, while my father carried his rifle. We hopped back over the guard fence and walked to the carpenter shop, where my father quickly and efficiently cleaned the birds. We then went into the house for dinner.
             At the kitchen table that evening, my father, true to form, didn’t say much about our time together other than, “It went well. We were lucky to get five birds,” before returning to his meal.
             Knowing she wasn’t going to get much information from him, my mother turned to me and asked, “Well, did you have fun with your dad, Chucky? What was it like hunting for pheasants? Was it exciting?”
             Like my father, I was taciturn in my reply and gave my mother a minimum of, “Yup, I had fun, Mom; we got five birds.” I had to fight myself to keep from saying more. I wanted to shout and tell everyone how great it was to be with my father, to lie next to him in a pheasant blind, and how proud I was to be his son. I wanted to tell them what a perfect day it had been and that I wanted one hundred more just like it, but I knew that if I said it, I would break the spell and lose him forever. I wanted to tell them I was afraid he’d evaporate like mist in the morning sun if I adored him too much. So there at the dinner table, I became nothing. I didn’t express my excitement or publicly adore my father. I tried to be silent, stoic, and numb. Like him, I ate with my head down and shoved my feelings to the floor. I strangled the ball of joy that was rising up in me. I chewed my food and concentrated on becoming like him, because I knew that if I could become like him, it would bring me more days like today.

♥ End ♥



Charles P. Ries has had narrative poems, short stories, interviews, and poetry reviews appear in over two hundred print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and is the author of six books of poetry. He was awarded the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association “Jade Ring” Award for humorous poetry and is the former poetry editor of Word Riot and ESC!. This story is an excerpt from Charles’ book, The Fathers We Find, a somewhat-fictionalized memoir of his growing up on a mink farm in Southeastern Wisconsin. His work is archived in the Charles P. Ries Collection at Marquette University.
             Charles has begun work on a second novel, A Life by Invitation, which will follow his rise as a mystic in North Africa and his subsequent floundering while living in Los Angeles, all of which has convinced him of the time-honored wisdom: “Wherever you go, there you are,” and, “This isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.” Charles is also a founding member of the Lake Shore Surf Club, the oldest freshwater surfing club on the Great Lakes. [Author photo by and © Amy Reed of J’adore La Vie Photography; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Blood Jars and Magic:
A Short Guide to Menstrual Art
 |  Shauna Osborn



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             ... The blood splatters on my feet. I step in it and get it everywhere. Sometimes I don’t clean it up right away. Messy, messy. Finger paints in kindergarten messy ... By the simple act of not wearing panties, I can stand in the middle of my kitchen and change the way it looks. Without moving a muscle, a pool of blood appears between my feet. Like magic.
—Inga Muscio


             Michelle Owens has a mason jar with a rusty lid placed discretely by her toilet, where she regularly dumps the contents of her menstrual cup during her blood cycle. She tells me she uses it (the blood, that is) in her artwork, painting on canvas and sketchpads, using either her fingers or a brush. I ask her if the canvas or paper holds that metallic blood scent once it dries, and she laughs, her short, blond, spiral curls bouncing from the effort. She motions for me to follow as she walks to her desk, where she thumbs through a pile of sketches and then thrusts one of her blood paintings under my nose. Grinning, she says, “You tell me.”
             Michelle’s painting practices were quite different from any reaction I had witnessed from a woman about her monthly cycle. In fact, I think this was the first positive response to menstruation I had witnessed. Michelle’s practice alarmed me as well as intrigued me. My image of her had changed so fully, I began to detect freakish qualities in the way she talked and her manner of walking. The quirky elements of her personality, which had drawn me to strike up a conversation with her in the first place, now seemed suspect. All because she had found an artistic way to utilize her blood. But more than that—because she had an intimate working relationship with it.
             When I met Michelle as a teenager, I didn’t know much about my body or about women in general. I had never, ever touched my menstrual blood on purpose. The only person that I had ever seen who touched her menstrual blood purposefully was Sissy Spacek in those memorable first scenes of Carrie, and that was before she registered what it was she was touching. We all know what happened to her.
             Those of us who are susceptible to the moon’s pull and have the ability to bleed in an approximate twenty-eight day pattern, have a hard time finding positive images associated with this blood. What we get instead are horror films like Carrie, where the onset of the menstrual cycle leads to the main character’s transformation to a magical freakish monster, which then cumulates a large number of deaths. Even finding an emotionally neutral handling of this particular situation is next to impossible (unless you count those dry medical textbook articles). Instead, we see advertisements for the latest birth control implement that allows you to put off menstruating all but four times a year. Then, we watch as the lines at the gynecologist offices flow out past the dumpsters and begin to wind around the corner.
             We’re not the only group in history of humans to hold these loaded connotations of menstruation. It’s a fairly universal and historical occurrence, with each era, community, and religious/mystical order creating its own distinct method to attend to the monthly blood question. The one thing that remains constant is that the blood from a person’s uterus has the power to create vast changes to those who come in contact with it—making any person who touches it unclean, gain magical powers, or bound (physically or essentially) to the one who lost the blood.
             I didn’t touch Michelle’s blood painting. I would have had to have taken my hands out of my pockets, and that would have been enough to break my laidback facade. So I adjusted my head to where my nostrils would be closer to the page and took a small whiff. Only the familiar smell of acrylics on canvas paper. “Do you use acrylics a lot when painting?” I ask, maneuvering us ever so strategically toward a conversation on art supplies and preferences, rather than continuing with the blood stuff.
             Four or five years, a couple of identity crises, three female roommates, and a ton of gender/queer research later, I’m cruising the information superhighway and come across The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (mum.org)—a virtual museum featuring artwork about menstruation from around the world.
             The first image I see on the site was that of the goddess painted on paper in menstrual blood. The work consists of various rounded strokes from a brush or finger creating a curvaceous outline of an obviously breasted body sitting. There are two pictures of the image—one taken when the blood was still wet. The other, once it had dried. This was to show how the shade of blood changes from a brighter, more primary red to that of a rust/earth red and how this pigment change affected the aesthetics of the painting itself.
             Created by an 18-year old in Vienna, who began painting with her blood to cope with the reproductive organ abnormalities recently diagnosed by her doctor, the painting mesmerized me as I began to run an extensive list of therapeutic potentials for this art form. I clicked through several artists’ paintings created with menstrual blood, not unlike those Michelle had been creating when I met her. I then began to wonder if that’s why Michelle started practicing such art, although she never claimed any particular reason when I asked much later in our friendship. “I don’t know. Why doesn’t everyone?” she answered. At the time, I thought she was just being flippant, but now I begin to see she might be right. There doesn’t need to be a why as much as a why not.
             Later that day, I stumbled upon a photograph of the first-prize winner of the 73rd Crocker-Kingsley exhibition—a quilt created from 70-year-old texts and photographs, lint, and menstrual blood. A photo was paired with each text about constriction—how to dress, how to clean house, how to behave in public, how to treat your husband—which was torn up and smeared with blood to emphasize certain words and to block out others. Vertical rows of lint were added, as the artist M. Parfitt explains, to tie in “with how these women were treated. They were sort of ignored and invisible, unless they followed these behaviors. Their lives were insignificant, just like the lint. But, if you look at the lint, it’s really interesting, so maybe these women had interesting lives, too.”
             The magic of women’s lives, filtered through lint and blood. The results sewn into a quilt display. The weaving of feminine gendered objects with the ordinary refuse of laundry and menses. The layers of meaning within this project were astounding. Quilting, considered by many as “woman’s work” being created entirely from the products of other types of “woman’s work.” Not only is that a prize-worthy piece of art, but an envy-creating one, as well. How many other women artists are scratching their heads now, thinking, “Why in the hell didn’t I think of doing that?”

♥ End ♥



Shauna Osborn is a Comanche/German mestiza who works as an instructor, wordsmith, and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She received her Master of Fine Arts from New Mexico State University in 2005. Shauna has won various awards for her academic research, photography, and poetry. Recently, she received a National Poetry Award from the New York Public Library.


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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Something Like a Sin  |  Kenneth Nichols



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             Like most bum decisions, I agreed to go to Transformation Baptist when I was four beers lit. I was flush from some unexpected overtime working construction on a new development outside of Cato, so I was drinking Guinness, not my normal domestic swill. Luke was a sheetrock guy, so the invitation was one of those slick inevitabilities. It’s all a script, you see. You’re standing on tamped, Cat-tracked earth, leaning against a temporary chain-link fence at the end of the day. You ask about kids if you have them, sporting events, plans for the weekend and such. Having complimented my shingling, Luke stomped out his smoke and asked me what I was up to that evening.
             I told him I was heading to The Raven. I liked the place because the music is hard but not too loud. The bartender knows me and has my beer poured by the time I shimmy onto my stool. You might think that I hate the yuppies who show up in their button-down shirts, who go into The Raven to pretend they’re still part of the lower-middle-class they escaped when they got their law degrees at SU. They bring in a higher grade of woman, so I don’t mind. You got all kinds, from good women just getting divorced to the slick-pantied college girls they compete with for looking space in the bathroom mirror. Some of those young co-eds dress like they don’t know what goes on in a man’s mind. So yeah, I like the place well enough.
             Luke squinted and said he might show up. He strode in after I’d had a couple and kicked ass in a game of darts, so I was emboldened enough to ask, which I did while he sipped his Bud Light. “Didn’t know you could drink.” I pointed to the silver cross on his chest. The chain was lost in the curly hair that bushed up under his unbuttoned collar. “I thought it was something like a sin.”
             “Naw,” he said. He sipped as though he were demonstrating. “Jesus made wine, right?”
             He was already testing the limits of my Sunday School education. “And the fish, too, right?”
             “Yup. There’s no problem until you get drunk. Until you do things you regret.”
             I tipped the glass of Guinness to my lips and thought of the women they had once kissed. “Regrets? Wouldn’t know what that word means.”
             We changed the subject quick. There’s a time for drinking and thinking, but I usually tie them on to still the churning in my brain. That’s the same reason I like working construction. You can’t be in your own mind when you’re holding a nail gun, or you’ll get one through your palm or worse. I seen it happen and wished I hadn’t.
             So like I said, I was finishing my fourth when Luke mentioned his church. We were outside so he could dirty up his lungs in the dark little parking lot behind the bar. He offered me a smoke, but I declined and told him that one addiction was plenty, thank you very much.
             It was cooler outside than in The Raven. “Me and some of the guys at Trans Bap get together. Guess it’s easier when you do things together.”
             “You know what they say, a shoulder to lean on keeps everyone standing up.” I become a philosopher when I’m sideways.
             “My wife seems happier since I’m hanging with them. Used to be I would belt back more than you. No more.”
             Even in my state, I felt those tendrils snaking around me. “Hey, you trying to get me to church it up with you?”
             He exhaled a long stream, watching as the cloud rose to the low street lamps. “Hell no. That’s not my job. I came out with you because I wanted to get out for a drink. You’re my alibi.”
             I pictured his wife, the perm-and-tan type, frowning on him until he told her about the dangerous state of my soul and how he could help. And I believe to this day the sumbitch was telling the truth, that he wasn’t trying to trick me into a pew.


♥♥♥


             But damn if I didn’t end up there anyway. Trans Bap looked strange at night with half the lights on and no sunlight to beam through the stained glass. My feet made a rude sound on the carpet in the aisle. Like God was telling me my workboots weren’t acceptable, but he’d let me by my first time.
             They were in the front pews, near the glass altar. The big, old cross hung from the rafters. I admired the construction of the beams in the ceiling. They were easier to look at than those six sets of eyes laying on me as I walked up.
             I would have thought that Luke was the Head Dude in charge, but he wasn’t. When I walked up, a bearded, soft man shook my hand. From the lack of calluses on his palm, I was guessing insurance agent. He said he was glad to meet me.
             “This is Mark,” Luke told everyone. “I know him from building jobs, and I thought he might get something from being here.”
             The bearded guy agreed and told me his name was Pastor Hocking and that he was the man in charge at Trans Bap. My guess of insurance agent wasn’t far off. He’s writing people’s policies for the afterlife.
             They did a prayer, and I was a little worried, but it was your standard “God help us with what we’re doing” thing. I couldn’t find fault with that.
             Pastor Hocking told me how it goes. “We’re here, Mark, because today’s men face a unique set of challenges. Through fellowship with other men, we can be better husbands and fathers.”
             “I gotta check ‘none of the above’ on those, Pastor.”
             “For now,” he said. I couldn’t tell if it was a promise, a threat, or something I didn’t expect.
             He started talking, and I looked around. Me and Luke were both blue-collar humpers, like a couple of the other guys. Beside the pastor, the other two wore what I always called funeral clothes.
             The big business went by fast. Trans Bap’s Men’s Group was putting on a picnic for everyone week after next. That meant the parishioners, of course, but anyone else who wanted to have a burger. Maybe, just maybe, the pastor said, they’ll see what good living in Christian love can be and show up at service on Sunday. Everyone but me took jobs: grilling, setting up games for the kids and such. They felt safe enough, so I said why the hell not and volunteered to cook and clean up. There’re worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
             Then we talked about straight-up guy stuff. One of the suits confessed to a little pornography, and I was damn glad no one could see under my bed. One of the hard-working men said he wished he wasn’t so short with his wife and his kids. He didn’t hit them or get long out of line—he just didn’t love them like he felt he needed to.
             Pastor Hocking clucked his tongue like it didn’t matter that this guy wasn’t putting anyone in the hospital. “We make promises,” he said. “We have to fulfill our ends of the bargain. It’s not enough to bring home a good paycheck and put a good supper on the dining room table. We have to prove that we deserve our gifts every single day.”
             Pretty soon, we were all talked out, and Luke walked me to my truck. “I hope that wasn’t too rough,” he said, lighting up.
             “Naw,” I said. “’S good to do new things once in a while. Seems like a good bunch of guys in there.”
             “Think so?” he asked. “Yeah, we all do it right or try.”
             “Guess I’m seeing you at that picnic,” I said. “You know how to make a burger?”
             “What I do best.”
             I unlocked my truck. “You think Pastor cares I haven’t been to church here?”
             “Don’t think so,” Luke said. “He says he’s a fisherman with bait but no hooks. He can lure you in, but you gotta get yourself in the boat.”


♥♥♥


             So I got in the damn boat that Sunday. I say it was because of my great honking hangover. The kind where you force yourself to get up and do stuff, then spend the whole time squeeze-brained, regretting it. I didn’t know what I believed, but I didn’t much mind the soft music and Pastor Hocking’s friendly sermon. I don’t think I would have taken too well to a fire-and-brimstone guy. Pastor shook my hand on the way out. Don’t you worry. I have long practice keeping a hangover inside when I need to. If I could hide it from someone who was looking for a reason to rain shit on me (Angela, four women ago), then I could hide it from someone fixing to speak to whatever kind of soul I may or may not have.
             So I met Luke’s wife at the picnic, and I just as quickly wished I hadn’t. She had that former-beauty-queen look. She was definitely world-class early on, but had flaunted what she got too much before settling down. Still, if I saw her in the soft lighting of The Raven, I’d have asked her her name. (Okay, fine. I would have asked her no matter.)
             “Nice to meet you, Mark,” Gloria said. She had that same cross necklace as Luke, but it looked much more appealing on her, bobbing away only inches from her lady pillows.
             I told her Luke had said kind things about her. Heaven would be pretty lonely if God hated half-lies.
             “How nice.” She pointed toward a couple of rugrats chasing each other around a tree. “Those are the boys. Ethan and Isaac. We call him Izzy.”
             “They look like you,” I told her.
             Luke jumped in, flipping a couple burgers. “I hope they got her brains, too. Mine’s so empty, I’m scared I might float away.”
             Gloria slapped her husband’s arm. “You stop that. I wouldn’t’ve married a guy with no kind of brains.” She kissed his cheek and took off with the kids, and I thought of Sally (16 women ago), who wouldn’t leave my sight without a kiss and an I-love-you-too.
             “You won the lottery, huh?” I watched Gloria and the boys melt into the crowd. The church lawn was full. The kids were playing games, the adults just sitting and sipping. (No booze, which I expected.)
             “I did. I still don’t get why she married me. Especially nowadays. Women have options. There’re no more shotgun deals.”
             He was right about options. I wasn’t planning on saying nothing about Patty (nine women ago) and the trip to the clinic she took on her own without telling me. She said she thought I’d be mad, which I had to pretend wasn’t funny.
             So I helped Luke serve the burgers. I cleaned up after him, trying to make everything easy.
             Pastor Hocking glided over and encouraged me to mix around and meet someone of my other brothers and sisters. He especially told me there were sisters around who could do a lot of good for a man like me. I politely told him that I didn’t think there was a woman who deserved a punishment like me and vice versa. He laughed and said he hoped to see me again at Men’s Group. That we were starting something exciting. I didn’t ask him to define the word for me, ’cause I guessed we had different ideas what it meant.


♥♥♥


             I had every reason in the world not to go to Men’s Group the night things really started getting sticky. ‘Every reason’ was a twelve-pack of Bud Light chilling in the fridge. But I went anyway, and Pastor Hocking told me how happy he was that I had been going to church on Sunday. I was nice—I left out the part about how I really wasn’t feeling the Holy Spirit thing inside me like he said I should be. I sat near Luke, and he did the hello nod and smiled.
             “Like I told you all,” Pastor said, gripping the glass podium like it was going to float away and carry him to Heaven. “Today’s meeting is something special. Last time, we heard about Dave’s problem with pornography. I prayed and thought about a solution, and it came to me. Who knows what an accountability partner is?”
             I couldn’t let myself laugh when Dave raised his hand.
             “You are each going to have a partner, and it’s your job to help them keep on that path. We’ve always been there for each other, but the same technology that brings filth into our homes—heck, even our cell phones—allows us to help each other with the problems of the flesh.”
             He explained that each of us would install “Partner on the Path” on our computers. The program would monitor what we did. If we used a naughty program, our accountability partner would know. Most of all, with web sites. If something dirty came up, it would send an email to our partner. It would then be his job to sail over on a wave of sanctimoniousness and clap their back and say how can I help you brother.
             Now, this didn’t bother me, and I already told you why. I’m not the kinda guy to do his dirty business on the Internet. Sure, I see the appeal. A world full of crazy possibilities and no heading to the windowless building up to Mattydale where the Chuck E. Cheese’s used to be so you can drop your copy of Black Jailbait on the counter in front of a stringy-haired loser who never got the memo about 70s cop mustaches being out of style.
             In retrospect, I think Luke dashed over to make me his partner because he knew what kinda guy I was. That stick-up-the-ass Walter would give him a five-hour lecture if playboy.com came up. Me? I’d pull up a chair, crack open a beer, and say, “Dude. Chicks with horses? That’s fucked up, man.” I guess we can’t really choose the people who will help us the most. After all, if we know how to make good decisions, we don’t need help from outside or above.
             Candy (seven women ago, and a regret; yes, she was sweet) forced me to get the cheap computer that took up space in my bedroom. She was out of town a lot and made the purchase worth my while after teaching me how to see the pictures she sent me. Luke had to show me how to install “Partner on the Path,” but I’m pretty good with the email and all that other basic stuff.


♥♥♥


             Updates came weekly for the most part unless there was something real bad going on on Luke’s end. I guess it gave me something to do on those nights. I’d attack a couple tallboys and see what was going down in Luke’s thought life. So I’m not one to talk, but I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, like “Partner on the Path” did. He was looking at those celebrity web sites, checking out stories about all those no-talent skanks who pass for entertainers nowadays. (Give me Janis Joplin any day. Sure, she coulda chased a warthog up a tree, but shit, could she give you a song.) The only time I got an instant red-light update was when he saw a page with the word ‘atheist’ in one of the ads. After looking at the news, he would go to other sites and look at tons of pictures of them. Much to my own surprise, it didn’t do much for me downstairs to see a 16-year-old girl in a bikini hold a 10-foot python while singing about high school gym class.
             You can’t say I wasn’t a good partner. I straight-up confronted him one Sunday after church. Gloria (maybe looking finer than she really should have in the Lord’s house) was talking to the day care lady who watched the rugrats too small to keep their mouths shut during an hour-long service.
             “I’m not sure about the 10:30 Sunday service,” I told Luke.
             He scratched the back of his head, like he knew I was going to do my duty and tell him what was what. “Too early after a drinking night?”
             “Naw. All these families. And Pastor brings all the kids up to the altar. That takes forever. And then they go back to their seats.”
             “Hell, I guess that’s why you never had yourself kids.”
             “Probably why,” I said. We were in a quiet corner, and I was feeling some kind of thrill with something hanging over his head. That made me feel bad. “Look, I guess I should do it right if I’m gonna do it.”
             “Say what you wanna say.”
             “You sure you wanna be looking at those celebrity stories? The pictures? Those young girls running around in bras and singing about sex? Pastor just said that stuff isn’t good. Distracts us from the Lord or whatever.”
             He looked relieved. “Hell, some of that’s Gloria reading news. I don’t care much about little sins. Don’t think God does, either, or He wouldn’t have put is in a world with so many of them.”
             “Guess that makes sense,” I said. “Are you happy? Did I do my job?”
             “Well, you didn’t chew me a new one, so I say you did.”
             We gave each other pleasantries and such, and I left it at that, though now I know I shouldn’t have. I should have marched right up to Pastor, dragged him by the hand to his wife, and got it done right then and there.
             But there’s not much you can do to change the past.


♥♥♥


             In addition to Men’s Group, I saw Luke on some other jobs. In a market like Central New York, we were right lucky to be working so steady. Everything was fine—great, until that shitty Wednesday. I spent the whole day doing a roof up in the new buildings sprouting up around exit 39 on 690. Then, the asshole owner chews out the contractor because he didn’t like how the shingles he picked looked on his roof. Business isn’t something you pass up on, so when a customer bitches, you say how high. I got that. But that doesn’t mean I liked tearing up a whole damn roof. And doing it carefully so I could reuse the shingles. And I had to come back the next day and do it all over again.
             So I used the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. I started guzzling through the Bud Light at 6 p.m. because I like drinking. I got through ten of them in three hours out of spite. That much pretty much sealed the deal that I would sail to the job site late and move slow, at that.
             I suppose it doesn’t much matter, but I wasn’t brain-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean drunk. From what I can remember, which was most of it, it was 9:30, and I was still going strong. Those Greeks said wine brings out truth, but for me, it wasn’t truth. It was regret. So I got to thinking about Marie (12 women ago).
             Marie definitely wasn’t my first piece of tail. But she was the first one who made me think of sex as more than just going ball deep. I explored her soft topography like all the others, but in the sweat and stink of summer nights in the backseat of my dad’s Dodge Diplomat (three cars ago), I didn’t feel like Columbus, observing a land to make his own. I was Lewis and Clark, in awe of the loneliness and solitude and how the horizon fixed those feelings at the same time.
             I was fooling around on the computer and laughed and slurred something about Luke looking at more pop tarts without panties. Remember, I was sheets to the wind, so I said, “He wants to fuck those bitches.” But it came out in one slurred syllable that only sounded crisp to my soaked-up brain.
             And I got angry and sad. I admit that I’m pathetic, that my lapse in thinking was huge. But that doesn’t mean he should’ve given me shit for searching Marie out. I hadn’t done such in years, so I had to go on guesses to find her. She married that pencil-dick Harry Wright, and his Mr. Potato Head face had been plastered all over town ten years earlier. He was a realtor and stared back at you with that silly picture—calculated to highlight his strong chin and easy smile. The loose tie around his loose-skinned throat and that grin on his face that said, ‘I’ll put you over the barrel—that’s my job—but I’ll make you feel good about it.’ So I fucked up and searched for “Marie Harry Wright realtor.”
             And goddamn if the first fucking site was what I was looking for and didn’t want to see. I expected he’d have a web site for his wares in this Internet-crazy time. So savvy young marrieds could swim around the pictures and imagine what the second bedroom would look like made up as a nursery. I didn’t expect to see something like “The Wright Way.” It was a journal for their happy family, packed with pictures of my Marie kissing his fat cheek at the Grand Canyon; one of her drained from labor, cradling a baby; one of her standing sideline at a Little League game with the little girl who won a trophy just for being there.
             And the journal. She was the smart one between us, which wasn’t a hard thing to be. When we went to the small sand beach at Green Lakes, I would watch her bikini-branded body while she occupied herself with a paperback. I would visit her up at the dorms at Oswego, where she was studying teaching, and tell her how I understood she was distracted by her upcoming final but that shouldn’t stop you from getting frisky and naked and letting me do my thing.
             Reading that Internet journal, I wanted to call up that toupeed prick and tell him how she laid out for me. That each time he tweaked those toughened nipples, he was sucking tits where I had already planted my flag.
             I read as much as my wobbly eyes would let me. I was stuck there for hours, looking at pictures, reading about their trips to museums and domestic adventures inspired by the love of cooking she had picked up since she left me in that parking lot, screaming and swearing and throwing the pebbles that had flaked from the asphalt.
             So I drank the rest of the 12-pack, said fuck you to the clock, and fell into bed.


♥♥♥


             Luke got funny at Men’s Group, and I should have known something was up. He was almost too friendly in that car salesman (or realtor) way, like he knew something you didn’t and was taking great pride in knowing that you didn’t know.
             We went to The Raven one night and he had three, which should have clued me in, too. Probably I was too distracted by Pastor Hocking. I was walking out of church one Sunday afternoon, and he shook my hand. He’d done that plenty in the two months I’d known him. But then he took me aside and asked me to wait.
             It wasn’t too hot outside, and I didn’t have too much of my hops-and-barley Prozac the night before, so I stood under the large, sad willow near the church’s purple double doors while he said goodbye to everyone else and thanked them for coming out.
             “You know, Mark,” he said after the last one left. “You’ve been coming here and to Men’s Group regularly.”
             “Keeps me out of trouble,” I said. “It’s nice being around guys sometimes.”
             He nodded his well-coiffed head up at the spire on top the church. “But I can’t help but notice you haven’t come up during my altar calls. Have you been baptized?”
             “Maybe as a kid. I never asked.”
             “Are you feeling the presence of the Spirit? Do you think it might be time to get you saved? Bring you right?”
             I was polite with him. His face was wilting like a picked flower in summer heat, but I kept saying no thanks, that my soul, if I had one, wasn’t in the place where it could be saved.
             That’s when I started getting a shit-ton of red alerts about my accountability partner. Apparently, “Path” had a dim view of something called myspace.com. He was searching for ladies in our town. They didn’t have much in common, blond, brunette, black (race, not just hair color), short, tall, but they were all one thing: too young for guys like us.
             Shit, I’m a red-blooded dude. Millions of years of evolution tell the testosterone coursing through my veins to fuck whatever’s grown enough to make a baby. (Evolution hasn’t figured a way around rubbers yet, thank God.) I’m not going to feel bad about the brain flashes I had looking through his roster. It was just natural: as I got older, the women I was with got a little older. I know it’s not PC or whatever to admit, but older women expect more, make you work for it and require a lot more priming before the pump splashes, if you get my drift.
             He was sending messages to them, calling them sweetie and flirting and such. I’d done way worse than that in countless nights in The Raven, and I didn’t want to be part of a world where flirting is a capital offense. But still, it worried me. He would regret losing Gloria, if he did.
             So I bided my time. In 20/20 hindsight, I should have nipped it in the bud instead of waiting for the right moment. One night, Men’s Group was really boring. Even Walter, in his suit like always, was fidgeting as Pastor kept pronouncing what we were supposed to be as husbands and fathers. Maybe I just didn’t relate, as I’ve never been either.
             I took Luke aside after and made sure the parking lot was empty, so no one could hear. “Hey, bud. I gotta do my duty.”
             He winced and smiled like a kid with cookie crumbs on his face hearing the crimes against him. “I know what you’re gonna say.”
             “Impress me with your psychic powers.”
             “The women, on the Myspace. The accountability thing showed it up, didn’t it?”
             “My email box is close to exploding, Luke. You sure you’re doing right?”
             He kicked the ground, shooting a rock across the pavement and into the grass. “I’m just talking. Just words. I’ll stop.”
             “Don’t look at me like I’m Pastor. You chose me to look up on you. I don’t want you to lose nothing by being stupid.”
             “You understand, though, Mark. I know you do.”
             It would have been weird for me to lie to him while lecturing him on morality. “Sure as hell I do. I’m just guessing Gloria wouldn’t understand.”
             His look turned cold. I’d seen it plenty before. Like when I would flirt in The Raven not knowing there was a boyfriend on the pot or playing darts. “You saying you would tell her?”
             “Shit, Luke. Don’t get all pissy on me. Stand down. That’s not my job.”
             “I can tell what you’re searching for, too. Maybe I should tell … whatsername … Marie. That you’re looking her up.”
             Okay, so in reality, my name would register as a big, fat zero on her give-a-shit scale. I could see it. She’d get an email: “Ole Mark was looking you up.” And after she got over “Mark who?” she would go right back to sucking Mister Wright’s cock or packing a picnic lunch or baking cookies for one of the kids’ bake sales or all three at the same time, for all I knew. But reason was not exactly my friend. I wanted to slug Luke and fuck the fact I was in a church parking lot. “That’s how you wanna make it?”
             Luke softened, and that made my fists soften, too. “Hell, I’m sorry. Sore spot. Just saying. Neither of us are misbehaving. We work out our issues on our own, right?”
             He stuck out his hand, and I never refused that, so I shook it. “Right. Right. Just don’t add to the regrets we got.”
             We left it there, and I think we both knew I wasn’t going to darken the door of that church for a while, if ever again.
             I hated having that Marie shit known by someone. I hate writing it down, too, but that’s the only way it makes sense that Luke had one over on me, even if it was in a jackass way.


♥♥♥


             I didn’t show up at Men’s Group, and I slept in on Sunday mornings for a good while. I’d pretty much forgotten about the whole shitstorm until I got that call on a Thursday night. I was only a couple beers into my one-man celebration, so I was fine to drive. Marie would not have thought so. She always got on me about it, and that was even in the days it wasn’t a huge big-time deal.
             I did a double take when I saw the name on my cell phone. Why would Luke call me?
             “Hey, buddy. Missed you lately.”
             “I been busy,” I lied. Why rock the boat? Besides, I was still getting reports on him, and it seemed he was keeping his nose clean. “What’s up?”
             “I’m at The Raven.” He sounded so calm. It should have been a hint, like the eerie calm before a storm. “Thought you might like to have a couple with me.”
             I did, so I went. I got there and went inside and didn’t see him. So I went out back, guessing he went out for a smoke. I guess I was half-right.
             “Hey, Mark. Mark!” He whispered my name, and I headed for his truck. I thought it was weird he was sitting in the driver’s seat, until I got close enough to see he wasn’t alone.
             She was slumped across the bench seat, her stringy blond head lying in his lap. I was willing to bet my meager net worth that he had zipped up and buttoned up for my benefit. Her tiny body was wrapped in a little halter thing made of stretchy fabric that wasn’t doing a good job of covering her back. In the dim security light, I could see the butterflies tattooed on the skin buttons just above her ass. She wasn’t moving that I could see.
             I caught a whiff and just barely stopped before I stepped in the throw-up on the ground outside the passenger door. “What the fuck, man?” I kept my voice down. I didn’t know who else was around.
             He put his hands under her head and put it down soft on the seat and got out. I couldn’t believe a real woman could disappear so quickly in such a small space. “You gotta help me, brother.”
             “What the fuck you talking about? Is she okay?” I couldn’t say ‘dead.’
             He opened his palms to me like you would to an angry dog. “She’s fine. She just had a little too much to drink.”
             “I can’t see her face, but I can guess she’s not old enough to buy a beer here.”
             Luke shrugged. “She showed the bartender two forms of ID: a fake license and a twenty.”
             “Why the fuck did you call me?” It was so hard not to shout.
             “You have to take her to your place. Let her sleep it off and fix her up.”
             “You’re out of your mind. Take her home.”
             His eyes bugged out a little. “I don’t know where she lives. It’s not like I can fucking ask her, right?”
             I never saw a man pleading so much to me. Or a woman, for that matter. I took a lot of pride in making sure no one needed me for real. Shit. I should have left there and then and told him to man up and call 911. Take her to the hospital, whatever. Shit, a man could come up with plenty of excuses that would satisfy a woman who wanted to believe.
             He could see I was wavering. “Come on, partner. I’d hate for that Marie to find out how hard you’re pining on her.”
             Normal time, I would have got in his face. Told him where he could cram his threats, brother. But this was a pretty special situation. Seeing slumped dummy form made me want to help her. I was no doctor, but I know about recovering from a night of too many. Luke knew I did, too. “Fuck. I’ll pull my truck around.”
             I parked beside him, happy the space was open and that no lookie-loos had come out to suck down a cig or shoot the shit. We threaded her through the driver’s side. Luke tried to work me to the side where I’d have to get her arms and wash myself in the demon breath, but I put the kibosh on that shit.
             She was heavier than you’d think, but only because she was in no position to move on her own. Ninety pounds of dead weight is still dead. We belted her in and tried to make sure she wouldn’t collapse and smack her forehead on the dash.
Luke tried thanking me or swearing he’d hit me back, but I was in no mood. I peeled the fuck out of there with a quickness.
             It was even harder getting the girl out of my truck and into my ground-level apartment. By now, I could tell she was but a girl. Around the age of 22 or so, a woman’s features start firming up, the first signs of youth slipping away. Hers would have looked just right on a yearbook picture. She wore too much makeup, and the parts of her that didn’t smell like sick smelled like cherry body lotion she had applied for reasons I didn’t want to know.
             I locked the door after laying her on my sofa. Maybe I should have done so earlier, but I stuck my ear next to her nose to make sure she was breathing. I pinched her arm and she moved just a little, so I thanked Pastor Hocking’s god for that.
             I put a bucket near the sofa. Put my pillow under her tiny head and my blanket on her up to her chin. If I woke up in a place I didn’t expect, I would want everything as tight as possible to know no one had gotten loose with me.
             I laid on the floor for a while, but I wasn’t going to sleep. Tired and unhappy, I tidied up a little. I didn’t want her to wake up and think she was in one of those sex dungeons. This 68-year-old man in DeWitt was keeping women prisoner in his basement for years, trapping them along with his world-class beer bottle collection. My buddy, Tommy, was on the crew who took all the bottles from the basement, and he said it was pretty frightening. So all the beer cans went into a big, clanking trash bag. I put a magazine from the shitter on the end table next to a glass of water she’d want at some point.
             With the lights out, I looked up at the form on my couch. And yes, I thought about how I hadn’t touched a 19-year-old since I was 19, too. I thought about Marie showing me the secrets of her body and how scared she was because it was the first time she did it. That moist, soft skin glowing in the moonlight streaming in through my bedroom window. Marie used up a lot of firsts with me. I couldn’t sleep until I realized how many I think I wished I could give back.


♥♥♥


             The little girl gurgled and moaned, and my heart tripped into overdrive. Put that kind of terror into an alarm clock and you’re rich. I snapped up and stood over her. She was squeezing her eyelids, and her jaw was wobbling in that unguarded fashion you only do when you’re alone or think you are. I wet a clean washcloth and swabbed her forehead with it. “You awake?”
             Her eyes opened up like a flash. Her hands squeezed the sofa cushion, and I got the look I’m guessing Ted Bundy saw several times. “Don’t worry. I’m Mark. You tied too many on with Luke last night, and I took care of you. You’re 100-percent safe, swear to God.”
             She slumped. Her head was feeling so heavy, she had no choice.
             “You’re not gonna want to, but you should drink this.” I tipped the glass to her lip. Lipstick was smeared around her mouth and part of her lips were bare and much lighter. She forced the whole glass down, and I told her good girl.
             “What the fuck?” She said it to the universe in general.
             “Just relax. I’ll fix you up and take you home when you’re up to it.”
             My cell phone buzzed, and wouldn’t you know it was the foreman on the job down to Springfield. I answered it anyway.
             “Where the hell are you, Mark? What are you doing?”
             “Shit, I’m sorry, Bob. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
             “Bull the fuck shit. You’re sleeping it off.”
             I just told him sure. Even I knew that sounded like me.
             “Douchebag. I have to shift everyone around on account of you.” He hung up on me.
             “Who was that?” the girl asked. Her voice was full and sweet and as yet untouched by whatever else damage she was doing to sabotage her body.
             “My boss. He’s pretty pissed.”
             She tried keeping her eyes open, but it was too much of a trial. Even half-closed, I could still see they were laserbeam baby blues destined to bore through men’s souls. “I’m still thirsty.”
             I gave her the half-gallon of OJ I had been saving for a future hangover of my own. She uncapped it and drank like she had spent a week in the desert.
             We just sat there for a while. I gave her the remote, and she locked it on one of those shows where your friends sell you out for not dressing the way they think you should. Lucky I had no friends, or I’d be on it, too.
             Without her asking, I made her some scrambled eggs, nice and bland. She ate them lying down and without a thank you. I guess she didn’t need to give me one. I liked that she just lay there on my flat, smelly sofa and felt safe enough to melt into it when her brain contractions told her to.
             After a good while, she sat up. The blanket fell from her chin to her lap and she pronounced the world’s greatest truth. “Men suck.”
             “The younger you believe that, the better.” The straps of her halter top fell around her arms and I could see her shoulders, and I won’t lie that they would look good right under me. Her hair was tousled around her face and just too much of her cleavage was showing. With her face swollen and red, it looked like I already got to her.
             “He didn’t force me to drink so much,” she said.
             “I didn’t ask. I don’t care.”
             “He didn’t make me go to his truck with him, either. I know it’s what he wanted in the first place.”
             I squinted and scratched my temple. “I don’t want to know. You keep that for your scrapbook.”
             She rubbed her arms. “Can I take a shower?”
             I got it all ready for her. My bathroom wasn’t woman-level clean, but she had bigger problems right then. She stumbled through my living room and closed the door behind her. I listened in case of emergency; she pissed so long I thought she was never gonna stop. With all she drank, that made sense.
             I heard the splashing of the water and an angry-at-herself sigh. She sang a little bit of a pop song I didn’t know. Then, she got real quiet. I knocked and asked her name.
             Her voice was echoed and muffled. “What was that?”
             “Your name, little girl. You got one?”
             “Huh?”
             I put my mouth to the jamb. “Name. Handle. First and last. What’s on your birth certificate?”
             I heard a splash and a trickle and was a hundred percent unprepared for the door to open. But that’s what happened. She was dripping onto my tile, but she was correct in guessing that I wouldn’t give a shit. Her body was prime and the kind of majesty that just doesn’t translate in my dirty books. She had a little red heart tattooed on her tiny, round hips and skinny legs with perfect skin that prickled in the slightly steamy atmosphere of my bathroom. I knew that those breasts had plenty of fingerprints on them, but I also knew they hadn’t been touched by someone who knew what he was doing. She mustered a smile and told me what I wanted to know. “Melody.”
             I’m not going to stop being honest now. I wanted what she thought she wanted, too.
             When I hadn’t talked for a while, she took my hand with her wet one and planted my hand on that sacred heart on her hip. “Did you want your reward?”
             You can tell I’m telling the truth because I would have made up something better to have pretended to say. “Time was I would, but I guess I’m not a man anymore.” I still don’t know what that means.
             She frowned at me and dropped my hand. She shut the door and finished her bath. When she got out, dry, in last night’s clothes, she told me she was still pretty fucked but wanted to go home. Her roommate would worry.
             I took her home. She fiddled with the radio, stopping on 93Q or one of those other stations I can’t stand. I listened to the rumbling of my truck’s engine and thought about what I would tell her. We passed some small houses in a suburb that wasn’t as good as it was when I was growing up. Half the houses were filled with people who were working hard to improve themselves and the other half were coasting on what was earned in the past. From what I hear, one of the residents of the block is a singer from a 90s band who had a pretty big mid-life crisis and settled down with a single mom. In the end, the best advice doesn’t come from pretty words, but from a sincere heart.
             “It’s right up here on the left. The green house.” Melody sighed hard and her breath fogged up the passenger side window. She saw it and drew a heart in the mist.
             “You know, young lady. You have to believe you deserve what you really want. Even if it’s hard to settle for at first.” I put the truck in park.
             She added an arrow at an angle through the heart. She ran her fingers through her still-wet hair. “How are we supposed to know what we want?”
             “I don’t know.” My rough fingers tapped a beat on the cracked vinyl of the steering wheel. “It’s like doing construction. You can always cut a little more off a shingle or trim the side of a piece of drywall to make it fit. But once it’s gone, you can never put it back.”
             With her head cocked to one side, it looked as though she were considering my well-intentioned advice. I wished her luck as she jumped out of the truck and slammed the door behind her. She jogged—didn’t walk to the green house with the bald spots on the lawn. She disappeared into the garage door.


♥♥♥


             I’ve thought a lot about how she’d never have someone turn down her offer in the future. I thought about her going with Luke again, even though it makes no sense for either of them. I didn’t check his accountability again. I gave that damn computer away to Elizabeth’s (three women ago) son. She wouldn’t have been too pleased to see me, but I knew the boy wanted a computer, so I left it on the stoop and beat feet.
             I guess I should have called Luke right away to let him know shit was cool. But I didn’t. I saw him on a job two weeks later, and he approached me with a sheepish grin. He got the pleasantries out. “You’d have told me if something went wrong, I guessed.”
             “I would have,” I said. I didn’t want him to know how pissed I was.
             “We miss you down to Men’s Group,” he said. “Pastor asked about you.”
             I squeezed the hammer on my belt. “I’m about through that. I’m doing better on my own.”
             “Fair enough,” Luke chuckled.
             “One thing,” I said. It must have got his attention because he squinted at me, wondering what was going to come. “Why me? How come you make friends with me? Asked me to be your accountability partner?”
             “I don’t know,” he said. “But I guess I chose right.”
             We said goodbye and good luck, and I thought about other things I’d do if I had the chance.

♥ End ♥



Kenneth Nichols received his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State (Go Bucks!) and teaches playwriting at Oswego State and composition at Cayuga Community College in Central New York. His creative work is forthcoming or has appeared in Main Street Rag, theNewerYork, Crimespree Magazine, Suss, and Big Pulp. His nonfiction/incisive cultural criticism has appeared in print and online publications, including Skeptical Inquirer, Ohioana Quarterly, and PopMatters. He also reviews literary journals for NewPages and can be found at Great Writers Steal.


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