Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This semester is almost over. I have turned in grades for two classes and have one to go. I mark days off on my calendar, like a prisoner chalking days on his cell wall. I will pick up some essays at school and read them tonight or tomorrow morning. I will experience momentary happiness giving students who have done a good job an A or B and momentary unhappiness giving students who did a less than stellar job a C or less. Even when the latter is accurate, it is never satisfying. It leaves the taste of incompleteness in my mouth--like biscuits not cooked through completely.

I recently heard from a couple of friends that they hoped one day to read all the books on their shelves which they have started and not finished or had intended to read but have not cracked. That sounded like something I ought to understand, but I realized I did not have this problem, as I have enough of a driving need to finish what I have started or know why. A book I have not finished does not go back on my shelf, but into the Goodwill box--because it seems to me not worth finishing. There's another feeling of incompleteness.

Once I pick a book to read, I generally read it through. And I generally pick a book knowing a little bit about it. I have usually read or heard something about it, or, more often, read a few pages or a chapter in the book store, enough so I know whether or not I want to read it. A lot of people loved The Lovely Bones, but after a few pages of stomach turning prose I knew I would never be able to finish what seemed essentially a book for young girls. I think the word that tipped me off was skeezy, though I may be botching that word. The young girl who was clearly about to be molested and killed said that something made her feel all skeezy. I put the book back on the shelf. There was enough in that word usage to let me know I had nothing to gain there: morbid sentimentalism and false youth.

There is not much better than finishing a book knowing that it has satisfied you in many of the ways a book can satisfy. I can name things that beat it on the fingers of one hand, though, to be honest, I use all the fingers. In the pitch of the last weeks of a semester, I am usually unable to read something not required of me, as I must reread the books I have assigned, and student papers and stories, perhaps a thesis or two, keeping up and finishing off as grandly as possible. So as soon as I had attended my last class of the semester, and even though I still had plenty of work to complete myself, I picked up a book my dear Lisa recently bought and began to look at it.

When she bought it, it seemed like a book I would pick out; it had been niggling at the back of my mind since she put it on the shelf unread. As soon as I got home from the last class, I pulled it out and gave a look. It looked short enough I thought I might finish it in time to get back to what the world required of me. Two hundred pages of pleasantly produced text, a handsome cover with a photo of lissom grass on a sand dune, obviously near the ocean--inviting and forbidding under the title Being Dead. The writer was a Brit named Jim Crace, who looked pleasantly like he had spent some time on such a dune. Also on the cover, a small gold seal which claimed this novel had won the National Book Critics Circle Award, which had no effect on me whatsoever until I finished the book and felt this was a pretty good choice for such an award.

One thing I noticed right away: each 'chapter' of the book was short, generally of the same length as all of the chapters. This matched the gentle and generous tone of the novel, and made it more pleasant to read, as it seemed to open before me. In the very first chapter we understand that a pair of married zoologists have been rather brutally murdered on a sand dune much like the one on the cover, that Celice is naked from the waist down, and her husband Joseph is totally naked and holding on to her ankle.

Throughout the novel, the couple remains dead, though they are visited by various insects and birds and small mammals, and, finally, by their human counterparts. You might say that the entire novel is a meditation on their being dead, though we go back to the momentous and very unspectacular day they met, and several days in between, but that doesn't really account for how engrossing the book became for me.

Why does it strike me as a small miracle that the two main characters, though dead, were in their fifties? And not entirely attractive. She is built a little like like a satyr, a lovely, small-breasted torso from the waist up, and the large butt and thighs of a normal woman. He is too short for most things, as he often points out, and certainly shorter than her. Their lives, though intense and dedicated to their science, are really common, moderate, usual. And the natural processes of death to which they become susceptible are also completely normal, though often shied away from in the course of our lives.

I want to note that I am sixty-three years old at this writing. I have had a heart attack, which I like to call minor, and have two stainless steel bits in my chest to keep arteries from occluding once more, so thoughts of death, while sometimes as inviting to me as to anyone else, are not entirely welcome. I do not like to take long walks through graveyards--which I take to be the reason I chose not to read The Lovely Bones. In addition to this, sentimentality often seems to me like a way to invite death to your doorstep; please don't ask me to elaborate. But this death I enjoyed reading about. It left me unfrightened, accepting, acknowledging.

Perhaps this is because Crace is something of a naturalist in his understanding of the processes of senescence and thanatology, which are the basis of the study to which the deceased couple gave themselves in life. How, you might ask, can such a gentle novel of death keep the reader's attention? I think the answer is balance. He balances this discussion of death with scenes from life, and just when it seems impossible that Crace could keep my attention alive through his meditations, we get a new character--the daughter of the deceased couple who becomes involved in discovering what has happened to her parents.

Even with her rebellious nature (she has left home, shaved her head, and gone to work as a waitress at a hot spot called MetroGnome) she manages to charge the prose without taking over. In the course of the novel, she discovers her place in this world, and a little about her parents, even if only that they were born to die; much more isn't required of children, is it? Children of decent parents, let's say. That should be enough to cause them to be loved by the child who took life from them and will yet take it further than she or they could have imagined.

But now, alas, I must leave this discussion unfinished, as my duties call me back. I must finish, submit grades, a hundred other little things--some of them large and heart-breaking in their smallness. But let me say this much: the life in Jim Crace's book is real, unadorned by dreams or falsity, yet touched by the grace of decency, of respect for life, such as it is, such as it will be, in this world. And finally, it is touching. Because, at last, the novel is as beautifully complete as their lives.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Few Words about "Flip Cards"

I am going to say a few words about my personal essay "Flip Cards" for my friend Steve Smith, who asked me to. An English class he teaches at Manchester High School will be reading it in the Fall of 2009. When I think of what to say about it, I first think about the experience of getting it published, and only after that what it was like writing it, so that's the way I'll go here. I think these notes will be best after you have read the personal essay.

"Flip Cards" first appeared in The Georgia Review, was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize and then again in my book of stories, Private Acts. I never really thought much about whether it was a story or an essay, and when I first sent it to Stanley Lindberg, at The Georgia Review, I didn't identify it. Stanley told me he first thought it was a story, but then it lit up when he realized it was a personal essay. I had sent him a few things before, and he had published an essay of mine already, but this time he sent me a rejection saying he wanted to publish it but felt the ending needed to capture and reflect the whole essay. I had ended with an image of my friend Danny's father wandering around their house playing the accordion, which seemed to me to do everything I wanted, but then I am strongly oriented toward the visual image rather than excess talk or reflection.

This rejection found me at the end of my rope. It exasperated me more than I could say, enough to write out, by hand, a rather frustrated response that stated that I thought the reflection and any conclusions that could be made were already obvious from what was there. I told him what these reflections and conclusions might be under the force of my anger that even my best work, which this seemed to be, was being tested like someone sticking their toe in the ocean. I laid it out for him. What did I have to do, walk on water? I let him have it. And this is a testament to how frustrating it can be to send out your work, because he was the smartest, kindest, most gentle editor with whom I have ever had the privilege to communicate.

A few days later I got a phone call that I never expected. Stanley asked me if I had a copy of the note I sent him, and I said I did not, a little embarrassed that I had sent it at all. He said, "Let me read it to you," and then I felt like pure crap. But he read it to me, and then he said, "Bob, this is what you need at the end of your essay. Now, I'm going to send this back to you and you see if you think you could work it in. Don't do it if you don't want to, but I think this is exactly what you need." As he said it a light came on in my mind. I could see exactly what he was saying, and that what I had sent him was in fact the true end of the essay. I could not wait to get the note back, but by the time it had arrived I had already been working on the end. I rewrote it and sent it back to him, knowing this was the right way to end the essay. You can see how it ends now, and this is the result of Stanley feeding me back the note I sent him.

Once he had the finished essay in his hands, he called me on the telephone, at a time he had already set up, and we read the essay to each other over the phone. He said he wanted to hear it. He asked me questions about the essay and we talked about it for over an hour--he had a meter on his phone. We didn't change the essay, just read it aloud, perhaps the best experience I have had with an editor. I did make one change from the conversation. For some reason, I had decided to make one of my paragraphs one long sentence. I had seen writers try to make long sentences before, and I always thought they weren't really sentences, that the reader knew most of the time that this one had been patched together for effect. I wanted to write a really long sentence that worked perfectly and that no one would notice. Don't ask me why. Probably pride.

Anyway, Stanley was reading at this point, and when he reached the end of the sentence he paused. "I just noticed," he said, "that sentence is one, two, three....thirteen lines long." I told him what I had tried and he said, "You did it. Now, can we put some periods and commas in there?" I laughed. "Sure," I said, "now that I know I did it." The paragraph was just a little better, and there were no splashy effects after that one was removed.

And then, some time after the essay appeared, Stanley called again. "The Pushcart wants to use it. This is firm. They want to publish it." He was very happy about it, almost as happy as I was, it seemed to me. But all this took place after the essay had been written.

When I wrote it, I experienced delight, not so common for me. I can't remember how the idea entered my mind, but the first thing I did was to describe a game we played when I was a kid, involving baseball cards, and how much I loved these cards, and how they smelled, and how good I was at playing flip cards. Sometimes you discover a talent you didn't know you have and you have no reason for possessing, and it's a high experience, so you go with it. Asked once why she wrote, Flannery O'Connor said she wrote because she was good at it. I played flip cards because I was good at it, and because it became the mode of the day, the thing we did, the expression of our desire.

I spent a very long time one bright morning writing that first section and then I went home. I wrote it at my office at the university, and I didn't think there was anything more, until I returned the next morning and started thinking about my childhood friend Danny Gary, and his parents, and where they lived. I thought, there is more to this, and so I wrote the next section. Every morning I returned I had something more to say, more to remember about this time in my life. What a wonderful period this was, living on the edge of the ocean! Delight filled me as I wrote, and then I spent some time putting it all together. I just laughed when I finished it, a little embarrassed about the way I had been spending my time, feeling foolish about writing so much about my own childhood.

When asked to give a reading on my own campus, I decided to try it out. This seemed like a safe forum, but I was deeply embarrassed to be sharing such private moments, and to talk about who I was at that young age. But I read it aloud and the response was overwhelming. My colleagues might be polite a great deal of the time, but this went beyond politeness, and it surprised the hell out of me. I went back to my office, put it in an envelope, and sent it to Stanley Lindberg with my heart beating. So when I got that first rejection I was dashed.

This was the process of writing, a pure joy, an exploration of memories. In an earlier story, "Beth," I had discovered that once you began to remember a period of time, the memories came back with greater fluidity. You remember what happened before and after, and then before and after again. It spreads, it opens up, before it finally closes again, and the story is finished. This happened with "Flip Cards." And the memories were so bright, and so filled with delight for me, that even the darkest moments were mitigated. The essay made me happy like a piece of music, and it had taken two weeks to complete!

I immediately started another autobiographical piece, one that I had been thinking of for some time, about the year I was seventeen and a paper boy in Maryland. Six months later, worn out, pleased, and still engaged, I sent out a completely different kind of personal essay that had come in three parts. The first, "The Friends of a Stranger," appeared in The Missouri Review, again the first place I sent it, and the third part appeared in the alumni magazine under the title, "Lucky Bob." All three appeared as the last entry in my book of stories, under the title "A Million Billion Trillion Stars," a title taken from an e.e. cummings poem about the good Samaritan. This one was darker, but, I thought, in the long run richer, but readers have always like "Flip Cards" best.

I wondered why this one made such a hit, and for a while I thought it might be the baseball stuff, with the baseball card material, and then I thought it might be the delight with which it was written, the glow of light from another time. Finally, I just let it be and stopped rereading and revisiting it. I moved on, but it was back there, the spot of light, that landscape and seascape with the sun rising or setting over it. It was there just a surely as that time in my life had been there, as magical in the experience as it had been in the writing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"The fairy tale...takes these existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death."
--Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment

My first experience of fairy tales was my mother reading at night before we went to sleep. She read other stories, recited poems, but nothing in a fairy tale stopped surprising. I'd like to know your take on any fairy tales that sticks with you: essay, story, poem. Send to, whatever form it takes.

Steve Smith, "black dreams and blue thieves"
Dave Materna, "Boondockle"
Robert Pope, "The Tailor's Boy"Mary Biddinger, "Show Pony"
Shurice Gross, "The Princess of Building 4"
Tony Bradford, "Slumbering Siren"
Alex Cox, "The Edge and the Other Side"
Dave Materna, "Pre-Mortem"
Gillian Trownson, "True Love Waits"
Tara Kaloz, "Mr. Horner's Heads"
Brittany Stone, "In Support of the Little Guy"
Two by Kristina von Held, "Transformation," "The Pull of the Water"
Nick Elder, "Sandy"


Steve Smith

black dreams and blue thieves


a pregnant wife should dream of

willows and cotton and children

pattering across blanched linoleum


mine dreamt that construction was

going on across the street at 4 am;

the elementary school—crews had been

there for summer weeks.

but nowthe school was vacant and black


so her mind's rattle of saber saws and

clanging scaffolding had to be

the work of a sinister imagination.

REMs spinning like a cockeyed phonograph

they buzzed and screamed in her

wee hour ears and

she thought someone sawing and

grinding and sawing through chains.


she awoke.


sat up, belly full, upright and

cautious—stole a glance

through the window gauze

like deer at leafy branches

watching evening shadows

fall across fallen corn


there, in the back yard, were

the workers that had been laboring—

at least in the black electric dream of hers.

now they'd come back to life

as thieves in midnight blue

wheeling her gas grill noisily through

wet grass—a broken security

chain dragging behind like a brat

by the hand.


for the man next to her side

half nude, open-mouthed and

exhaling dryly like fine sand,

for him

summertime poverty

whispers a strange psalm

that the killing verse

should follow a blue thief to

the grave. final.


here’s the shotgun loaded

in my hands and i pull back

sleep's webbing and

whoosh through

the front door in underwear

boiling blood


Harrington & Richardson is a

tunnel that does not change course or

bird shot in the chamber

and low-brass in the hand.


when you draw a bead

on another man you decide

right then—if you take a chunk of

the criminal mind, you just might

blast something else from the midnight sky.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dave Materna


Gary from Indiana was way outta his league by then. Poor and busted again. He had an old car that looked the part and a handful of little foam footballs in the backseat. He even gave one of them away once without his autograph on it. A shame. Still he drove on through the mountains toward Tennessee. He had a case of exotic perfume that he swiped from the Burgundy Motel in Plainsworth the day before and he could damn well use the money.

By the time Gary got to Tennessee he was out of footballs and hungry. He had a trap in the trunk and caught a raccoon with it before sunup. The pelt and guts were worth $26.50 and he bought three nights in half a house trailer down by the river and still had $4.75 left over. Gary slept till dusk and woke up starvin’. He knocked on the door of the other half of the place and when no one came he went in and stole a whole raw catfish and some bread to make a sandwich. He hid the case of exotic perfume under the bed to wait until tomorrow.

Donny was one of those guys who went to the gym. He didn’t go there to workout necessarily, but he did like to stand around the locker room naked, maybe just wearing matching tube socks in Green Bay Packer colors, and talk to the guys, maybe stand by the blow dryer and show off a little bit. It was his excuse to get out and to fool himself that he was working-out somehow. Nobody ever really spoke to Donny in the locker room except to say fag or queer. It was usually really nobody’s fault. Donny kept warm beer in his locker.

When Gary went to the free clinic he had to wait. For a pretty long time. His stomach was killing him. He started to look around. There wasn’t much to read unless you liked pamphlets. And boy oh boy there were lots of those. Urinary tract infections, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital warts, tooth decay and heart disease, cigarettes and blood platelets, perfume and cigarettes, ringworm, HIV, the dangers of dating older guys, dating older guys who might be HIV positive, they covered the most horrific ailments to be found by mankind. Then they called Gary’s number.

Donny was watching TV at four o’clock in the morning in his little room at the Bennington Motel when an infomercial about girls with acne came on for a whole half hour. I’d like a girl like that, Donny thought, but I wouldn’t know what to do with her slipper kiss.

Looks like October, feels like March. In the middle of February. It was so early it was still dark but the doctor was smiling. Gary told him about the catfish he’d eaten and how he was now poisoned. The doctor smiled some more and gave Gary some Tums and sent him on his way. Gary drove his old car back toward the trailer and thought about what he should do with all that exotic perfume. His guts were on fire and he saw a light so he stopped at this little bar for a drink. Gary spent two dollars of the $4.75 he had left on a tall glass of ice cold draft beer. Donny walked in at precisely 6:23 AM and sat down next to Gary. He ordered a can of oyster juice with a side of horseradish and a vodka chaser. “How ya doin’,” he said to Gary.

“That’s gotta hurt,” said Gary.

“Nah,” said Donny, “but it is an acquired taste, I’ll admit.” The tired bartender watched as the tired early risers filed in and ordered their morning drinks. Donny said, “how’d ya like to be them?” He pushed the dark hair from his face. Gary said. “No way man.” They sipped their drinks in silence. Then Gary said,” I got a big case of exotic perfume that I’m willing to sell for cheap.” Donny shot his vodka and put down a dollar for a tip. “Let’s go,” he said. Donny had a dream, to be the best he could be, and not be like everyone else. It hadn’t quite come through yet, but he was a bettin’ man and he’d been bettin’ on this you’d better believe it. One chance in Hell.

By the time Gary and Donny got back to the trailer the little family from the other half sat outside their half of it staring at their campfire. “Someone stole our catfish” the littlest girl explained. “and now we’ve nothing for our supper tonight.”

“Fuck,” said Gary.

Donny said, “Go in and get the godddamn exotic perfume.” Gary got the case from beneath the bed. Donny said open it up and let’s have a look. Gary opened the case on the steps of his half of the trailer. The little family looked on from their fire with a certain hunger in their eyes.

“I should give them a bottle. For the catfish that’s killin’ me,” Gary reasoned. He twisted his moustache. “They could sell it maybe...”

“Hey you dumbass,” Donny said as he held one of the little sparkling bottles of bubbles. “This ain’t perfume. These are potions. Witches potions.”

Gary looked at the labels. They were written upside-down and backwards. “I thought it was some sorta French,” Gary explained. Donny flipped the black case around and read the various labels. “Plague, Lovesnorts, Ima-bima-bee, Precious-nice, Babble, a dozen or more in all. On the back of each ornate and elaborate bottle was a yellowed paper label with tiny handwriting. Donny inspected the one he held, Zombie Dance it was called, holding the tiny bottle with his fingers. It was round and curved and flowing without shape yet somehow square where it should be with dozens of glass spines jutting sharply from the surface. He squinted to read the label.

“It’s the directions,” they both said.

“You take our fish?” the apparent father asked quietly a few safe paces from Donny and Gary. Gary turned to look at the guy.

“Well, to be honest, yes sir I did and if it makes you feel any better, the damn thing nearly poisoned me.”

“Well mister, I got to feed my family.”

“Here. Take one of these bottles of perfume. You can sell it in town. Or somethin’.

“Oh well...” the little man sighed, “What they smell like?” Without really looking he plucked the one called

Plague from the silk case, pulled out the glass stopper and took a whiff. He dropped to the ground, dead.

“What’d ya let him go and do that for?” Donny hissed. “That was the “Plague” one for Christ’s sake.”

“Whoa—that shit really works,” Gary said. “We better scram-olla.” The little family ran to their poppa and each fell dead from the lingering poison. Gary and Donny tore off in the ’73 Pontiac leaving the family and the fire and the trailer door swinging wide open. But Donny had the case of potions resting on his quivering thighs. Blue smoke rattled from the motor as the duo sped the thirty-six miles to Kentucky. Three miles on the other side they pulled into a gas station with four little log cabins arranged neatly about the grounds—and Donny offered to pay for a night so they could figger out what to do with this chance of a lifetime setting in his lap.

“We could rule the world,” Donny laughed looking at the bottles lying on the twin bed of cabin one. “Look at this one, Fear and Flightless. ‘Put a drop in the sleeping ear, your foe cannot run, but he surely will’ Looks like some one wrote in the ‘you.’”

“So what good is that?” asked Gary.

“Think, man, think!” Donny picked his nose. “If people fear you but can’t run from you, you can control them. Like Hitler.”

“Man I don’t wanna be Hitler. I wanna play football again.” Gary picked his nose as well.

“Who said you gotta be Hitler? Here’s another one. ‘Run and Jump’—the spell reads, ‘Take a drop with a spoon of honey, your feats of strength will make you money.’”

Gary plucked the ball-shaped bottle from Donny’s hand. “It’s almost empty. Lots of people must like this one.”

“Yeah, probably a lot of pro athletes...Probably paid a lot for a drop of this too. Try it.”

"I’m not tryin’ it. Besides, we ain’t got no honey.”

“That’s just ‘cause it probably tastes bad. Here...”

Donny dripped a drop on Gary’s fingertip and he licked it off. Nothing happened. Not right then, anyway. But when Donny woke up from his nap, Gary was not in the log cabin. Donny opened the door to the pouring rain and a flash went past. Then it flashed past again. Donny watched as Gary ran about the grounds leaping and jumping and running really fast. He looked exhausted.

“I been...doin’this...for a while...” Gary wheezed with each pass, “And I can’t stop...”

“Yeah, but your getting in great shape!” Donny hollered encouragingly. He shut the door and looked at the potions. This shit really does work, he thought. “Jesus.”

When Gary wound down some time later he vomited and passed out on his bed in the cabin. When Donny couldn’t rouse him in the early morning, he decided it was a good time to split up. He left sleeping Gary the rest of the bottle of Run and Jump and threw ten bucks on the bed. Then he took the case and Gary’s keys and shut the cabin door behind him.

The Pontiac smoked and chugged up the mountain road and Donny turned the radio up way loud. He never saw the witch until she landed on the hood with the weight of three days of hatred and a toothy snarl of delight. The car flattened to the road as the huge creature smashed through the windshield with one giant black talon and pulled Donny’s head out by the roots, much like pulling the stopper from a bottle. The witch popped it into her mouth like a peanut and screamed and spit. Then she hooked a red claw through the handle of the case of potions and flew off as the old car caught fire.

Gary limped along the mountain road sore and stiff and angry. He had ten bucks, a few drops of potion, no car, no footballs, and a long way to go. He walked with his thumb out in case some one might pick him up. Gary looked to the sky when he heard the wind of beating wings and never, ever looked at the sky again.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mary Biddinger


Every year the fair came
they let the rhinoceros out
to see if he'd come back.

Boxes of tiny panda
mice, bags of goldfish
and other small prizes.
The girl with the heart
grown outside her body
stayed at the Ramada
for safe-keeping.

In the exhibit hall
ten rows of berry pies,
and that woman who grew
earwigs a finger's length
on a diet of cornstarch
and ground turkey.

The girl with the heart
played cards in her grotto.
I threw fried dough at her
because she was not
lovely, but still caught
every eye. Hourly
she'd unbutton.

The boy raised by
wolves watched harness
racing, greased pig
chases. The heart girl
loved him, but he loved
everyone, and was also
known to bite.

When the rhino arrived,
the concert was underway.
Trophy hunters followed
him closely. The earwigs
left their meal piles
and shuttled up walls.

Should we be happy
our paths crossed
so many times?
The heart girl wept
in the bandstand
as goldfish circled
their plastic bags.

"Show Pony" appeared in Apalachee Review and Mary's book Prarie Fever

Shurice Gross

The Princess of Building 4

Artesia lived in the top floor apartment of building 4. Her father said Arty was the princess of the penthouse, but she knew she was just a small brown girl with knobby knees, ashy elbows and a big puff of kinky curly hair.

Her bedroom overlooked the small, fenced playground sandwiched between buildings 2 and 3. A basketball court, a tetherball pole and one set of swings for all the children in the Alfred Wilshire housing projects to share. There were lots of children, but not very much sharing and Artesia sometimes preferred to stay in the would-be penthouse and watch her friends from the window.

Her two best friends, Kenny and Chevron lived on the third floor of building 3 with their mother, grandmother, three aunts and four cousins. They hated being inside and were almost always at the playground.

One rainy afternoon, they noticed Artesia in the window and waved for her to come down and meet them in the yard.

Artesia waved back. She was not supposed to go outside. Not supposed to leave her room until she’d cleaned it. According to her stepmother, she wasn’t even supposed to touch the doorknob until the room was “spic and span,” whatever that meant.

Standing in the window looking down at her friends, Artesia felt very much like a princess locked away in a tower. She touched her knobby braids and wished they were long enough to toss over the windowsill. Kenny and Chevron could climb up and rescue her.

Artesia could hear her friends’ muffled screams through the glass; Chevron began jumping up and down as she waved her arms in the air. She turned away from the window and stepped towards the door. Her eyebrows furrowed as she concentrated, twisting the knob slowly until she could see down the empty hallway. She could hear her stepmother humming in the shower. She squeezed through the doorway and closed the door behind her before tiptoeing past the bathroom. Artesia ran through the living room, snatching her coat from the couch before she escaped out into the hallway.

She ran down the eight flights, her feet rhythmic against the stairs like her father’s fingers on a bongo drum. Forced open the heavy metal door of the building and ran across the concrete to meet Kenny and Chevron.

“Rainy days are the best days,” Chevron said as they ran for the empty swing set. “Because most everybody stay inside.”

“And we ain’t gotta fight for the swings,” Kenny said. He reached the three swings first and chose the one on the left, and his sister grabbed the one on the right, leaving Artesia the middle swing.

Rain soaked through the seat of her jeans as she sat on the strip of black plastic. She gripped the slick chain links and leaned back in the swing. Her legs stuck out in front of her as she pumped the swing higher and higher, wishing she were brave enough to send the swing all the way around the metal top bar. But no one was ever that brave and she had to settle for the raindrops on her face and the view of her sneakered toes pointing towards the gray sky. The wind buzzed against her ears as she thought about jumping off and soaring through the air, weightless until the ground, sure and sudden, caught and cradled her return to the harsh concrete.

“Arty,” Chevron said, her voice close and then far as their swings rushed past one another. “Slow down.”

Kenny watched as she dragged her shoes against the ground to slow the swing. “Your half-mama calling you,” he said, pointing at building 4.

“She ain’t no parts my mother,” Artesia stood in the bowed earth under the swing and stared at her palms, laced with curved indentions. Her hands smelled of sharp rust and she inhaled, waiting until her pulse slowed.


All three children looked up towards the window. Artesia’s stepmother leaned out of the window, her heavy arms pressing down on the sill. Even from where they stood on the playground, her gray eyes were like lasers. “Artesia, get your narrow behind up here right now!”

Her stepmother’s words were like a dragon’s angry breath. Artesia imagined the unfortunate raindrops that fell before her had been sizzled into nonexistence; their smoky souls sent back to the clouds they had fallen from.

Kenny pulled his brown jacket hood over his head and looked away from the window. “I keep looking at her I might turn into a statue or something.”

“You already look like a gargoyle, so you halfway there anyway,” Chevron teased. She jumped off her swing as Kenny chased her towards the tetherball pole.

Artesia glanced up at the empty window. “I’ll see y’all later,” she said over her shoulder. She walked slowly towards building 4. Took her time climbing the stairs. When she finally reached the top floor, her stepmother was waiting for her.

She leaned against the doorjamb, her thick arms crossed over her chest. One bare foot tapped against the hallway floor as her eyes narrowed to slits.

“Took your sweet and precious time getting up here, didn’t you?” she moved to the side and let Artesia squeeze inside the apartment. “Get your butt in that room and clean it up.”

Her stepmother followed her down the hallway to the bedroom and pushed her inside. “You got lots of nerve sneaking outside when this room look like this.” She sucked her teeth and flung her arms open, pointing at the floor. “Look at this. Like a toy store blew up. Your daddy got you rotten spoiled, but you’re gonna clean this place up.”

Artesia looked up from the messy floor. “Where’s daddy?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” she said. Her laugh was like a tortured cat. “Daddy can’t help his spoiled little project princess from where he is. You just do like I told you.”

Her stepmother slammed the door behind her and Artesia listened to her mutter as she shuffled down the hall. She sat on a pile of clothes and looked at her room. It was messy, true. But it had always been a mess and she had never cleaned it. She did not like the hard laminate floor and with so many clothes and books and toys tossed about, it was almost as if her bedroom was carpeted. But her stepmother did not understand that she needed some softness, some buffer beneath her feet and the cold floor of their building 4 apartment.

Artesia gathered her books around her, separating them into stacks – picture books she should give to Chevron and Kenny’s baby cousins, library books she’d never returned, and favorite books that had been buried and forgotten. She unearthed Where the Sidewalk Ends from beneath a pile of stuffed animals and began to read. When her stepmother opened the door an hour later, she was still sitting on the floor, reading poetry.

“I guess you just don’t care if you never get out of here,” she said. Her long toes were a swarm of brown cicadas clicking against the floor. “Put the book down, Artesia. If I come back in here and this room still look like this, you’ll be sorry.”

Artesia let the book slide from her fingers as the door closed in front of her. She glanced at the drops of rain streaking the window. She got up from the floor to see if Chevron and Kenny were still at the playground. Kenny dribbled his cousin’s basketball up and down the court and Chevron’s tasseled red hat bobbed up and down as she jumped rope with some kids from building 1.

They had already forgotten her.

She wished the fire escape was outside her window, but it was on the other side of the apartment beneath the living room windows. Artesia went back to the clean spot on the floor, but pushed the book of poetry back under the stuffed animals. She spotted two playing cards, the queen and five of hearts, and thought of finding the rest of the deck so she could play Solitaire. It would have been better if she could play Tonk with her father.

Artesia returned to the other side of the room and opened her window. She stuck one leg outside, straddling the sill. The ground really wasn’t that far down. Lifting her other leg, she balanced herself in the window, using both hands to hold onto the frame. The sky was the same gray as the hairs in her father’s beard. The warm raindrops like his kisses on her forehead. She pointed her toes towards the ground, leaned forward and soared through the air, weightless.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tony Bradford

Slumbering Siren

I’d been newly stationed on one of the orbiting military satellite bases when the warning signal was sent out. A large unidentified vessel had been picked up on the radar, slowly approaching the earth's atmosphere. The control center at the main space station had attempted to make contact with the approaching vessel, but no one responded to their call. Since the vessel was closest to our post, we went to investigate. We would have to take the stealth pod and board the thing ourselves. The pod only fit four soldiers, so Smiley, Hickson, Loverboy, and I were assigned to the task. We carried the new high-caliber pulse rifles with us, special issue—our first real mission.

We sat with chins touching our knees due to the limited space, but the pod got us there quick. We saw the large foreign craft through the window below, constructed of eccentric shapes and angles, an architectural style I'd never seen.

"Land us at a good spot," I said to Loverboy at the controls. "See that hatch down there?" I pointed. He eased us down, hovering above the hatch. The vacuum tunnel extended out and attached itself to the craft.

"We're on solid," said Loverboy. "Go for it, Cap."

I climbed out of my seat and crawled over Smiley and Hickson to the back of the pod and turned the wheel to open the pod hatch. When I climbed in the vacuum tunnel and closed the hatch behind me, I was weightless. I floated to the smooth side of the craft and with the heat drill in my helmet I cut my way through the strange metal and kicked it in.

It clattered against metal somewhere in the darkness beyond. I turned on my visor flashlight as I held to the edge of the hole and looked down into the dark, eerily empty ship. I dropped to the metal walkway not far below then buzzed in with the comm-link on my visor. "I'm in," I said into the headset.

Hickson, Smiley and Loverboy followed, one at a time. Once we were all in, I went ahead with caution, my rifle tightly at my side as I led us through shadowy corridors. The interior walls arched to one side, creating an odd sense of walking diagonally. The halls were more like tunnels, narrow and curvy. We meandered through the vessel like cells, turning so many rights and lefts it felt like a maze.

Before we knew it, we'd reached the end. We had entered a large open space-- a wide chamber somewhere deep in the ship's interior. Looking out from where we stood, we saw her: perfection. The most beautiful creature I'd ever seen, captured from a fairy tale, it seemed--her naked body elevated above us, locked in a sealed transparent capsule against the wall.

All along the floor in front of her, along the walls around her: writing in an obscure foreign hand glowed with light, and though the markings were unfamiliar, it was clear what they were. Numbers and equations, scrawled sporadically, as if the hand that had written it was toying with endless ratios and possibilities.

The three of us stared in awe, speechless. The pale beauty floated in liquid beyond the glass, eyes closed, sleeping peacefully. Loverboy broke our silent gaze.

"I have to touch her. She's so fucking beautiful."

He walked further into the chamber, closer to the beauty, like one entranced. None of us said a word. We all wanted to touch her. We all watched as Loverboy clung onto a beam jutting randomly from the wall and started climbing, grabbing onto jagged beams that stuck out almost vulgarly here and there in no discernible pattern. The wall was like jagged stones at the bottom of a cliff. He pulled himself onto the platform in front of the capsule and slowly touched both hands against the glass as he stared into it, at the beauty, and at his own reflection inside her. He touched the glass as if he could feel on the other side.

The capsule must have been heat sensitive. His touch made it light up, a soft bluish white gently pulsating light. The liquid in the capsule drained rapidly. Her fluttering black hair floated down upon her shoulders like tangled wet vines as the solution around her receded. Soon she stood in an empty vial, glistening with a supernatural glow, the liquid dripping off of her naked, perfect body.

Loverboy had removed his hands from the glass. He was too close to perfection to turn away. The glass slid apart, opening horizontally. He paused, stiff for a moment, then inched forward, tentatively. He reached out his hand, hesitant, as if trying to pull it back. He couldn’t. His hand touched a stiff wet breast.

A shudder of envious rage rushed through me—a strange moment. I glanced over to see Smiley and Hickson biting their bottom lips. We all looked at each other, then looked away, embarrassed. Something was different—a pair of eyes had opened, gorgeous eyes, the color of a star spontaneously combusting. The eyes peered through Loverboy like he wasn't even there.

By the time I realized it was happening, it was too late. Not that it would've mattered. When I tried to yell, my voice caught in my throat, trapped. I watched as a slender arm lifted Loverboy off the ground by his coat collar. His feet dangled. The other arm impaled him through the chest like he was nothing more than dough. Guts leaked from the back of the wound. The hand reached through the hole in Loverboy's back, clutching a bloody mass that was his heart. Then, the arm was removed, bloody now, a shocking contrast of blackish red and pale white.

Someone pissed their pants. I couldn't tell which one of us it was.

Loverboy hurtled violently to the deck, bouncing, thudding like a rubber doll. A childish laugh echoed through the dark chamber as the monstrosity leapt onto the deck near us with a heavy thud, much heavier than a human body could make. The floor shook beneath us. She turned her head mechanically, staring at us for a moment, and I saw her beauty up close.

Her beauty was utterly frightening—more frightening than death, something demonic and grotesque. I looked closely at her eyes looking back at me. They were a child's eyes. She laughed again, childishly—maniacally—then came for us.

We fired repeatedly. Bullets and lasers ripped off pieces of skin from her jaw and neck, but she kept laughing—walking toward us. We kept firing and sparks showered us as they struck her.

She lifted Hickson by his rifle—he wouldn’t let go—and slammed him to the ground, loudly breaking one of his legs. Quickly, she whirled, struck me across the face, and sent me flying back several yards. I lay there, believing my jaw had been broken for sure. I'd never been hit so hard. As I faded, all I could hear was that cackling girlish laughter, the laugh of a brainless killer.

When I awoke, trails of blood led from where my men last stood. Loverboy's body lay sprawled dead yards away. The murderous beauty was nowhere in sight.

I pulled myself to my feet, using my rifle for support. Gunfire sounded beyond the chamber entrance, deep in the corridors. Faintly, I could hear men screaming.

Then, all was silent.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Alex Cox


The toaster isn't working. I would go to the office. I would make some money. I would make a difference, make something of my life. But the toaster isn't working. Without the toaster there is no toast. Without toast I'm not interested in breakfast and without breakfast I'm not setting foot in the office. After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

This is all the toaster's fault. Stupid piece of shit. I glare at the miscreant appliance and my warped reflection glares right back. “I hate you,” we both mouth.

Plan B. I'm not going to work so I might as well play golf. It's 6:00 AM. I've been up all night anyway. I leave the kitchen and walk down the hall, doubling back at the hall mirror. I'm still wearing a shirt and tie from yesterday. The wrinkles are ancient and damn near permanent. A cigarette hangs limply from my chapped lips. What a picture. My boss couldn't possibly want to see me looking like this anyway.

I grab a nine iron and a box of dusty, garage-sale golf balls, then head out into the morning air. Outside, the world is quietly, groggily preparing for another day of responsible labor. The park bench is engrossed in the newspaper, the squirrels are marching to the office. The pigeons are holding a board room meeting. Everyone is industrious, everyone but me. I'm leaving this workaday world and heading to the edge. I amble through broad, suburban streets. I pass house after uniform, practical house. I walk right out of town.

Eventually, the ground drops off and I can't go any further. I've reached the very corner of the known world. Or something. Yesterday's strip mine is today's scenic wonder: a poor man's Grand Canyon. Since it's early in the day, the mist hangs heavily throughout the depths. I can't see the bottom of the ravine, I can't even see the other side. Perfect. It's tee time at the edge of the abyss.

Somewhere deep, somewhere ensconced in the ether, there is a line of demarcation. Beyond that mythic boundary, everything is ordered and perfect. There is a mirror world, a world of fairy tales and happy endings. Beyond that border, beautiful people fall forever in love. Beyond that border, evil is defeated time and time again. There is purpose and meaning in this mirror world, there is succor that I will never find. From where I stand, the impenetrable void mocks my life of jangled imperfection.

I hate that fairy tale world. I hate the reflection it casts back upon my face. I cannot join in on the happily-ever-after, but at the very least I can make my feelings known. I push a golf tee into the dirt. Here we go.

Prince Charming is galloping about on his noble steed when I brain him with a well aimed shot. He pitches forward into a brambly thorn bush. Rapunzel is combing her long, long hair and staring off into the horizon when a darting shot caps her in the forehead. She totters, then slides head first out of her tower window. The Cheshire Cat grins and then takes a golf ball right in the teeth. I swing and swing and swing, raining contusions and concussions down upon the seven dwarfs, the fairy godmother, the three little pigs.

I was never meant to be beautiful. I was never meant to be happy. I was never meant to win. But if I can't win them I'm sure as hell going to cheat. The key, I've found, is to adjust the rules until I can't possibly lose. Right now, I'm getting a hole-in-one with every swing. All I had to do was find a large enough hole.

Golf balls aren't the only missiles I launch into the mirror world. I've been known to fling large rocks, car tires, framed pictures, worn out furniture, and shopping carts. I am lethal. I am quietly furious. I am a winner. I once crushed Sleeping Beauty with a futon. I ended five of Puss in Boot's nine lives with R through Z of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

I've never seen the bottom, nor do I want to. That would ruin everything. I don't want to see dirt and rocks. I want to see a fantasy land terrorized by my unquenchable rage. So I come here early in the misty morning. I come here at dusk. I come in the dead of night. I fling all my cares over the edge where they disappear forever. It is very cathartic.

I've never heard anything hit bottom either. There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. Explanation 1: the ravine floor is composed of soft, noise-muffling dirt. Explanation 2: There is no ravine floor. Only one of these answers is true. From where I stand, I'm inclined to put my money on the latter.

With each swing I listen for the telltale plunk of impact. I listen for splashes of water, ricocheting rocks, cries of pain, anything. I hold my breath as the club finishes it's swooshing arc, then dangles above my head. Nothing. There's no wind, no crickets, no singing birds in this place, no ambient noise that could mask the thud of impact, however distant it may be. The hum of town ended somewhere back on the trail. Here, at the edge of the void, all is silent.

I've been here a thousand times. I've hurled a thousand odd nothings into the greater nothing. Each time I've listened. I've waited and waited but the void swallows everything without a trace, as if there really were another world lurking in the depths.

But now, breathless and frozen, I can hear it.

It's unlike anything you'd expect to find wafting out of the ravine. It is tiny. It is incredibly faint. When I move, even when I breath, it vanishes entirely. I stand rigid, transfixed, I tautly snatch vibrations from the air. There's no doubt about it, the noise is real. It is singing.

What does this mean? Is this the fairy tale world rising out of the abyss? Is this a trick? Is it a trap? Whatever is happening, it's all wrong. Nothing is supposed to be able to come back up out of the abyss. The edge is where I hurl my misery. The edge is where I dispose of all my haunted baggage. Whatever crosses this boundary cannot trouble me again. That's the rule. There is nothing tangible out there in the darkness, nothing frightening, nothing intriguing, nothing at all. But now there is singing. This is practically an epistemological crisis.

It's time to initiate contact. “Hello?” I call out into the mist. I've never spoken at the edge before. This sanctuary of calm is governed by a code of silence. Now, I am surprised by the disruptive power of my own voice. My call reverberates off of unseen walls. The echo fills the ravine and returns my own greeting to me, now hollow and ghostly. There is no other reply.

I try again, this time louder and longer, “Hellloooo? Is anyone out there?” The echoed words crash together as they roll about the canyon. They fade and once again there is silence. I hold my breath and listen. The singing continues. It is sweet and sad, low and beckoning.

I pace back and forth, frustrated. I need to know where that singing is coming from. But how? Climbing down the ravine would be foolhardy. Who knows what's down there? One false step and I might as well be a fairy tale myself.

The smart choice would be to surrender and go home. I could brew a pot of coffee. I could try my luck with the toaster again. Maybe I can still make it to work on time. The possibilities are limitless. But no. I'm a winner, and winners don't quit so easily. Besides, I threw the coffee pot over the edge last week.

I gingerly toe the ground as it drops off into the void. The sun is feebly peeking over the horizon. This fog won't lift for at least half an hour. Right now, it's impossible to tell how steep the descent is. A gentle decline? A straight cliff? The yawning pits of hell? Perhaps this isn't such a good idea after all. Winners don't quit, but winners don't hit bottom either. What a conundrum. Maybe I'll take just a couple steps and see what I can see...

I crouch low to the ground and shimmy downwards. The dirt is soft and loose. It's easy to slide, too easy in fact. My feet get ahead of me and suddenly I'm on my butt, slipping faster and faster. This is no good. A vicious bump and I've lost what little balance I had left. I can't even face forwards, I'm tumbling. Dirt and gravel invade my shoes and fill my pockets. Dust enters my lungs, choking my startled cry.

Then something hard and hollow breaks my fall. A washing machine? Well I'll be damned. I don't recall tossing one of these over the edge. This must be someone else's dirty work. Puzzling, but an admirable feat nonetheless. I stand up, brushing dirt and pebbles from my soiled clothing. Too bad this derelict washer can't function anymore.

I pause and listen. The singing is louder here, closer. I still can't decipher words, but the voice is stronger, richer, more than just a wisp on the air. It is female.

The decline is shallower now and I can walk upright. I follow the Siren song towards an unknown doom. Here in the depths, the mist is thick and I can't see far. But within my small island of vision, ghostly forms peer through the ether. A box spring here, a vacuum cleaner there, a patio table, a printer, a guitar. I'm walking through a graveyard, a cemetery for the obsolete and unloved.

Many of these objects I recognize. They sit in the dirt, accusing and haunted by memories I'd thought I was rid of. There's my old typewriter. The wire hammers are twisted and mangled, the keys leer with a gap-toothed smile. Once upon a time I wrote poetry. I used to sit and plink out ridiculous little rhymes.

There's my niece's plastic Cinderella doll. My sister brought her kids when she came to visit last month. One of them left the doll behind by accident. I meant to return the stupid thing, I really did. But when life went downhill, so did the doll. Now Cinderella lies on the ground with dirt smeared into her dress. Her cheeks are muddy and brown but she's still smiling her implacable, beauty-queen smile. She's still wearing those glass slippers. I shudder and keep walking.

The singing is close now, very close. I can make out words but I cannot understand them. Is that Latin? Italian? French? The voice is mysterious and alluring. It weaves a silken spell around me, drawing me ever closer. Who is this singer in the mist? Is she a fairy queen? An angel? A princess with alabaster skin? Is she trapped by some spell and waiting for a hero to rescue her? Am I that hero? Perhaps this is my own fairy tale, finally come true. Will I at last live happily-ever-after? Or maybe this really is a trap. Maybe this is a cunning ploy, hatched by the wounded denizens of Fantasy Land to revenge themselves upon me?

I continue to walk and the voice sings ever louder. I walk through the mist and at last behold a singular vision. There she is, beautiful beyond words, sad, and regal. She sits atop the forgotten detritus of civilization: soda cans, cardboard boxes, car parts. Her throne is ruin and she the singer amidst the wreckage. Why is she here? This woman is the embodiment of all that is perfect. What business could she have amidst this desolate waste?

For one second, for less than a heartbeat, she pauses from the weeping melody to acknowledge her pilgrim visitor. The lady smiles, then raises her voice to a wailing crescendo. The mists swirl and part. I lurch forwards, stumbling to my knees, I want only to touch this vision, to know that she is real. Yet as I raise my head, the singer is gone. She was never there in the first place. A battered radio plays atop a pile of rubbish. The antenna is bent and the speaker hangs loosely by fraying wires. The music crackles weakly.

I recognize this radio. I threw it over the edge three days ago. I stand and grieve for the lady who never was. The small miracle of this radio is utterly lost on me. Yet the radio plays on. Bravely, defiantly, it performs its function long after the master has ceased to care.

I stand quietly cloaked in thought. Soon the light of the climbing sun will burn the mist into empty air. Soon there will be no more illusions, no more shadows, no more ghosts. Soon there will be nothing left to hide. As I walk back towards town, the void itself will fail. But what of that? I'll be back again this evening. Perhaps I'll bring my friend the toaster with me. Then again, perhaps not.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dave Materna


“I don’t understand you,” he said and shot her in the head. He’d been creepin’ about for some time so it finally felt good. The snowfall on the streets was soft and quiet as he crept away to find his car down the block and vandalized. Parked there for maybe ten minutes. And now the mirror was torn off and the driver’s-side window smashed. I can’t do nothin’ he thought and sulked for a second.

A second later came a woman ‘round the corner, not bleeding but looking as if she should be and running from a nun with a knife. He jumped into the car in the nick of time. The nun slipped and slid down the sidewalk and stopped herself by plunging the knife into the ice like a mountain-climber.

The running woman was black and white in all the right places and got in the car and said “I gotta go”

“What’s that fragrance?”

“Meat. Salt. Whatever”

“Oh. Yeah.” He started the car. The nun got up and lashed at the window with her Bowie knife. She finally fell over and they zoomed off in the wreck, trailing sparks.

It was the best decision they could have made. He drove out past the houses and bones and streetlights into the dark and found a place to pull over.

“I can’t talk to you right now,” she said. “I just quit the nunnery. The nun-hood.” She tried a kiss.

“Okay.” He got out and opened the trunk. He took out a box kite and assembled it in the beams of car light. Snow was thick on the bare branches and he thought for a moment about heading south.

“What’s your name?” she hollered from the smashed-out window.

“Jake,” he answered. He fired off a round from the gun and tried to fly the box kite in the winter air. Jake ran up and down the road to get the kite aloft. A puff of wind chill finally took it and he stood on the road, away from the lights, and flew the box kite while he hummed an old tune.

“There’s something I’d better tell you,” she hollered through the smashed out window as Jake flew the kite in the dark.

“Nope. Don’t,” he said.

Headlights appeared and came down the road toward them. The car went past spraying slush and Jake let the kite go. It flew off to nest in a nearby tree as he got back in.

“I’m Gertrude,” she said, but you can call me Ruby.” The lights were coming back.

“That’s what you had to tell me?” The car pulled up behind them. A wolf climbed out with a tree monkey on his shoulder.

“Not so fast,” said the wolf. The tree monkey snarled. The wolf looked at Jake then at Ruby. “Hell, I’d eat her,” he said to Jake. “Oh, and ‘go fly a kite’ is merely an expression.” The tree monkey, a water-eater, whispered in the wolf’s ear. Murder. Killer.

The wolf looked at Ruby. “Don’t look at me,” she said, “I’m a nun.” She lit a smoke.

“Uh huh” said the wolf licking his chops. The tree monkey grinned like a tree monkey can and jumped through the smashed out window into the smoky car.
Take me with you, he rasped.

“Okay,” said Jake as he sped off to leave the wolf without his monkey.

The monkey climbed down and clung to Ruby’s chest.


“My whole fucking life is a wreck,” the monkey said.

“We’re desperate. Get used to it.” Jake grabbed the monkey by the scruff of the neck and placed it neatly in the back seat. He squirted and squirmed a bit but then seemed to get used to it. Ruby took off her habit. Red hair fell loose and damp across her face and fired her green eyes. “You may be desperate,” she said, “I just needed a ride away from the nun-hood.”

“Too late,” said Jake. “The wolf’s behind us now. And gaining.”

“Yep,” squealed the monkey from the back seat. “He does that.”

Jake swerved down the dirt street spitting snow from worn-out tires. The wolf was indeed gaining. Up ahead was a fork in the road.

“Left,” screamed the monkey from the back seat.

“Right,” said Ruby from the passenger side. She grabbed the wheel and pulled it hard and the car went right in the flash of lights. Cops had lined the old road in wait. Jake slowed and stopped.

“Get out,” he told Ruby, “and take the monkey.”

“You were never right,” Ruby said.

“And I was never wrong,” said Jake. She slammed the car door shut and the monkey stood up on her left shoulder and waved his paw. I never dream about my teeth anymore he whispered in Ruby’s ear.

Jake ran the cop blockade in his big black Oldsmobile. He knew the wolf was in hot pursuit, so he moved fast and forward.

“I should’a not shot my girl like that,” Jake said aloud while he drove and whipped up the winding gravel road, running from the wolf and the eight cop cars.

One by one the flashing lights were left behind in his rearview mirror as Jake sped on in the big car while Ruby and the little tree monkey watched all the cop-lights and tail-lights and sirens dissolve in the mist over the faraway hills into the winter night.

Only one car remained, idling a hundred feet back with the headlights still blazing in the falling snow. Ruby walked with the tree monkey on her shoulder to the empty car and got in. She put her habit back on and turned off the motor. They sat and watched through the windshield and waited.

Jake looked again in his mirror as the last of the lights dwindled and went out, blinking off like bug lights—all gone now in the dark night. Lonesome.

“I shouldn’t-a killed her that way,” Jake mumbled again as he checked his mirror.

First he saw the ears. Next he saw the eyes. Then he saw the fangs. Strands of drool ran thick, streaming from a grinning jaw.

“That’s what I thought as well,” said the wolf from the back seat. “You should’a done it like this.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gillian Trownson

True Love Waits

Prince Charming’s parents had decided a year ago that he needed to get married, and soon. They were getting on in years, and wanted him to have someone with whom he could share their modest kingdom when they were gone. They became obsessed with the idea of marrying him off to someone, anyone, provided she had royal blood or, at the very least, a wealthy family.

That’s why they held the balls. For three nights in a row, women of fine breeding from all over the continent came and danced and mingled with him, hoping for a connection. And he had found one, but much to his parents’ chagrin, the woman he chose had not even been invited to the ball, but had crashed the gates; he fell in love with a dancing scullery maid in clear plastic shoes.

After announcing his intentions to marry Cinderella, Charming’s parents did all they could to get rid of her. Eventually, of course, they succeeded; they always did. He didn’t know what happened to Cindy, only that she had been there one day, and the next she was gone. Charming’s father declared his innocence, but his mother simply told him that the little tramp wasn’t coming back, ever, and that no bleach blonde hussy would ever be queen as long as she had anything to do with it.

Some months later, to assuage his grief, he adopted a dog, a butter yellow long-haired mongrel with a ratty tail and big paws. Princess was ugly but faithful, and somehow helped to fill the void Cindy’s absence had left. The two of them would pass their days together going for walks in the palace gardens or playing fetch with his father’s royal scepter, and Charming was, for the most part, happy. He missed Cinderella, but as the months went by, he slowly released the last remnants of hope he retained of ever seeing her again. He let the lock of hair she’d given him fly in the wind, imagining it to be a deep and symbolic gesture of his readiness to move on with his life: he was giving the only thing he had of hers to the birds and it was free to soar away as she had. Unfortunately, as the wind carried the lock from his hand, Princess jumped up and devoured it in one long and labored gulp, and Charming doubted that he would ever have Cinderella completely gone from his life.

It was around this time that his parents started nagging him about getting married again. “You’re not going to have us around forever,” his mother said, “and we just want someone to be there to take care of you when we’re gone.”

“I’ll do it in my own time,” he said, repeating the mantra his therapist had once made him chant on a weekly basis.

“We’ll see,” his mother said with a smile.

In bed that night, with Princess curled up by his side, Charming began to worry about what his mother had said. “I still love Cindy,” he told her. Princess licked his hand and he scratched her ear. He thought for a moment. “If I could just marry you, I would,” he said. “But it isn’t legal. Even so, you understand me better than anyone else, and you never leave the bathroom a mess. You don’t care about money or jewelry, and I don’t think you’ll ever leave me. You’re the best dog a prince could ask for.” Princess whined and nuzzled closer to him, and Charming put his arm around her and fell asleep.

The next morning, Charming’s mother knocked on the door.

“My darling boy.” She was grinning.

“What is it, your majesty?”

“Your father and I have a young lady coming for you today, a lovely young heiress from Bulgaria. You must get ready! Your facial begins in one hour, and then you have a mani-pedi at one. Finally, we want you to have a detoxifying body wrap before she arrives. I think it will make you less irritable. She is very special, son; I do hope you will make a good impression on her. Oh, and keep that mongrel in your room while she’s here.”

Charming dismissed his mother. “What a witch.”

Princess growled in agreement.

Seven hours later, the preparations for Mila’s arrival from Sophia were complete, and Charming stood in the foyer waiting for her white stretch Hummer to cross the moat. He was wearing a tuxedo, a burgundy velvet cloak and his crown, which he hadn’t worn since his parents had arranged for MTV to host his sixteenth birthday party three years earlier.

The Hummer drove through the front entrance. Charming opened the door for Mila and bowed to her lightly. She was slight, dark and beautiful, with long, chocolate colored hair, deep brown eyes and long lashes. She brushed by him with a quiet “Thank you,” and stood in the center of the foyer, the broken colored light that filtered through the stained glass window shining on her. She smelled like gardenias and he instantly hated her.

“I’m Charming,” he said, in case she hadn’t noticed his crown.

“I know. Mila.”

He led her into the main dining room, where his parents were waiting.

"Mila,” his mother said, rising from her seat and kissing the girl on each cheek. “We are delighted to see you.”

Mila smiled and curtsied, and took a seat at the table.

“Tell us a little about yourself dear,” said the queen.

“I’m an only child and my father owns a mine. I grew up in Bulgaria, but I went to school in France. I speak four languages fluently, and I have my own chateau in Switzerland. I’m a world class ballerina.”

“Oh how fascinating!” his mother said.

The rest of the dinner went on in a similar way. Charming learned that Mila could play both the piano and the violin, that she wanted to be an actress some day, and that her favorite drink was Cristal. She didn’t want to have children, but instead to adopt, and if she and Charming were to marry, they would own twenty three houses in nineteen countries between the two of them to start. Throughout this, Charming was elated to learn that he need not speak at all. He simply sat at the table, nodded when Mila spoke and drank beer after beer, waiting for the meal to end.

As the servants cleared dessert, there was a large crash in the kitchen. Amid the sound of crystal goblets and the good silver tumbling to the ground, there was a long, low growl. The door to the dining room burst open and in bounded Princess, the chain that kept her tied in the menagerie broken. She snarled at Charming’s parents and bared her teeth at Mila, who slowly backed away, clutching her champagne flute.

“I told you to keep that mutt under control, Charming!” his mother said. “It’s scaring your guest!”

Charming stumbled to his feet and reached for Princess’ chain. The dog calmed down immediately and began to rub up against Charming’s leg, more like a kitten than the 120 pound oaf that she was. “That’s my girl,” he whispered, patting her head. She looked up at him, and from the sudden comfort reflected in the dog’s eyes, he saw something, something his parents would not have wanted him to see.

A flash of recognition. That’s all it was, one brief millisecond, and he knew. This wasn’t a real dog; it couldn’t be. The look in her eyes was too human, too understanding. And was her fur not the same color as Cindy’s hair? The dog’s coat was shinier, but Princess’ fur had never experienced the damaging effects of peroxide bleach that Cinderella’s hair had. No wonder the dog was so loyal, so faithful to him, no wonder she loved him and detested everyone else. He’d always thought it was the hint of pitt bull in her, but no. She hated the others because she knew they were trying to make him forget her. He fell to his knees.

“Cindy, Cindy! I can’t believe it’s you Cinderella!” he threw his arms around the dog’s neck and she licked his face.

“Charming, what are you doing?” His mother looked genuinely concerned. She frowned at him and crossed her arms. “Are you feeling okay?”

“No! You turned my girlfriend into a dog! I loved her then and I love her now. Change her back!”

"I don’t know what you’re talking about, dear. Why don’t you go up to bed and we can talk about this later...”

“No. I want you to change her back. Now. Please,” he added.

“You’re crazy,” Mila said.

“No, he’s drunk. Mila, how about I have the king escort you back to your car?”

Mila nodded and the king pulled her away quickly.

His mother tried to pull him up, but Charming could no longer stand. He was unable to do anything but hold onto Princess’ neck and laugh.

“Maybe if I kiss her, it will break the spell.” He leaned in and kissed Princess squarely on the mouth, but when he pulled away, nothing happened. The dog licked his face and whined. His mother left the room.

“You must think I’m an idiot for not noticing before,” he said between fits. “But if you won’t change her back, I want to marry her like this, now.”

He reached into his pocket for his cell phone and called information. “Yes I would like to speak with Fred Wednesday,” he said, giving the name of the local television station’s investigative reporter. “It’s very important.”

His call was transfered, and after two rings, Fred Wednesday picked up. “Fred Wednesday, Channel Five News.”

“Fred, Fred, hi, this is Prince Charming and I need you to uncover some dirt on my parents.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“Only a little. Look, my mom is a witch and she turned my girlfriend into a dog and I really need you to expose her as the horrible person she is, and also get my girlfriend turned back into a human so I can legally marry her, or find out how to make it okay for humans to marry dogs, or--”

“Son, son. You want to marry your dog?”

“Yes, but she’s actually my girlfriend and she had a horrible spell cast on her.”

"And what is your dog’s name?”
“Well, she was named Princess, but now her name is Cindy, because I know her secret identity.”

“I see. Well, it certainly sounds like an interesting story, Prince Charming. I’ll see what I can do for you.” There was a click, and the call was over.

“Thanks,” Charming said into the dead phone line. “I really do appreciate it.”

The next morning, Charming awoke on the dining room floor curled up with Princess. He had a massive headache.

“Good morning, beautiful,” he said. She yawned and stretched. “I’m going to get you some breakfast and see if we can’t figure this thing out. There’s got to be a way to turn you back.”

He went into the kitchen, wincing at the fluorescent lights above him. He grabbed some microwaved bacon, a bagel and the disheveled newspaper, and headed back into the dining room. He fed Princess the bacon, piece by piece, as he struggled to put the paper back together. On the front page, he saw a fuzzy picture of himself from last night, trying to kiss Princess.
Royal Heir Wants to Marry Mutt, the headline read. Underneath was an eyewitness account by some of the kitchen staff, stating that the prince had gone crazy last night, eschewing a beautiful maiden in favor of his mangy rescue dog. “We’ve always known he was a bit strange,” the head cook was quoted as saying, “but I never thought he would resort to bestiality. His parents are so nice and normal, and I’m pretty sure that bitch must have fleas.”

This is only the latest in a string of strange behavior from our future ruler. Last fall, he tried to marry a poor scullery maid. Channel Five investigative reporter Fred Wednesday says he believes that the prince suffers from a classic case of “White Knight syndrome,” the desire to rescue any woman he perceives as being in trouble. “I will of course go more in-depth in my hour-long special Wednesday night at eleven o’clock, but I believe that the Prince truly thinks that the only way he can adequately save this dog is by marrying it. I hope to prod as deeply as possible into his psyche, showing the imbalance that awaits us as a society if he is allowed to rule in the future.

"That bastard,” Charming said. “I trusted him. So much for an unbiased media!”

The article continued on, and while everyone had his own theories about the prince, there was one consensus opinion. All the interviewees seemed to believe that Charming was dangerous, at the very least to himself, but more than likely to the people as well.

And then, just as suddenly as he’d known that Princess was actually Cinderella, Prince Charming knew what he had to do to save face. He called a press conference for later that evening. He had some very important news to share with the kingdom.

“My friends,” Charming began, “I will be brief. I will not take any questions; I would simply like to tell my side of the story. Almost a year ago, I fell in love with a wonderful woman, Cinderella. She was a scullery maid, but she was a good person and a fantastic dancer. My parents, as you may know, did not approve of her, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that she disappeared one day, and despite my best efforts, I was never able to track her down. I was distraught. The only comfort I found was in my dog, Princess. This is where things, admittedly, get a bit strange. I have reason--serious reason--to believe that this dog is none other than my beloved Cinderella, put under a spell by my mother, whom I believe is not a royal, but a witch.”

The crowd booed.

“As such, I can no longer in good conscience continue living life as I have with my family. I do not trust them, nor do I condone the actions that I believe they perpetrated. Consequently, I feel that I must give up my birthright. I shall no longer be your prince. I wish only for a normal life with my dog, who I love with all my heart. I am formally handing over my claim to the throne to my dear uncle, Prince Obsequious, effective immediately. I shall leave the castle under the cover of night, and I would like to live out the rest of my days in anonymity. Please respect my wishes.”

Camera bulbs flashed and the crowd cheered. Charming quickly left the stage, ignoring photographers’ requests for him to hug the dog for their cameras.

That night, he and the dog climbed into a black Buick LeSabre his parents had procured for him, and they left the kingdom forever. Charming and Princess moved into a small cottage in the Scottish highlands, where he made his living as a fortune teller and Princess served as his protection against intruders. They lived a happy life together for the next several years; Princess grew fat on haggis and blood pudding, and Charming felt the sort of freedom he’d never had as prince. He was a doting lover, and when Princess finally died of old age, he started a lost dogs home on his property. Somehow, every few years, a dog was born that possessed the exact characteristics of the woman he once loved, and Charming knew that Cindy was always with him. Although he now realized the spell could never be broken, he still kept hope that someday he would wake up to find the beautiful bottle blonde with the clear plastic shoes lying next to him instead of a yellow dog, if for nothing else then to get rid of the fleas that had become a permanent fixture in his bed.

About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.