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.


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.