Fiction

“Single” by Jaime Fountaine

MobileMatthewKlein

When she’s single, my mother goes out with the girls from work. “Men don’t grow on trees,” she says.

They grow in bars, in line at the bank where she works, at the gas station where she used to get her car inspected before she and Scott broke up. They grow older, wider, meaner, tired of her. They grow apart.

If she comes home still single, my mother is honest, tipsy. “I just miss the feeling of a man on top of me,” she’ll say. “It’s so hard to sleep alone.”

When I was little, I used to have these nightmares about her disappearing, getting into some car and never coming back. I never bothered telling her. She’d be upset about the wrong thing. I’d just go into the living room if it was late enough and turn the TV on real low, so it didn’t wake her.

I guess I spooked a boyfriend enough, asleep on the couch in my nightshirt, that a little TV showed up in my room one day.

“Wasn’t that nice of him?” she beamed.

She’s the kind of person who adapts to a broken thing instead of figuring out how to fix it.

When she’s single, my mother will climb into bed with me when she thinks I’m asleep. I can tell she’s disappointed that I’ve started to face the wall, because it means she has to be the big spoon, the protector instead of the protected.

I wait, until I can slide down the length of my twin bed and sneak out into the living room to sleep on the couch, facing the door, until the infomercials turn to news.

 

Jaime Fountaine 1Jaime Fountaine was raised by “wolves.” Her novella, Manhunt, is forthcoming from Mason Jar Press. She lives in Philadelphia, where she co-hosts the Tire Fire reading series with Mike Ingram.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photo by Matthew Klein

Fiction

“Neighborhood Watch, circa 2009” by Susan Rukeyser

“Oh, you have an answering machine? I thought all you Millennials used voicemail. Look, I know you’re home. I watched you pull into the garage. I see you’ve added another bumper sticker to your Prius: hope not hate. You girls have some nerve.

“So you’re screening my call? Suit yourself. This is Mrs. Darcy Wallace, from across the street, and, yes, it’s about the lamb. Here it is, a beautiful spring day, and the Colemans’ lawn ornament is still under a tarp. Like it has been since you bought the house. I imagine Betsy Coleman would’ve taken her lamb with her, if she’d known you were just going to hide it. I mean, if she hadn’t died. We had all that rain yesterday, but you didn’t see me covering up our Easter cross. We have an HOA in this subdivision. Restrictive covenants. You girls are from somewhere up north, right? Some city?

“You’re in Georgia now. This is a nice neighborhood. Our home values have taken enough of a hit, thanks to your Obama. I saw that bumper sticker, too. I know some of you homosexuals are drawn to Atlanta for the permissive culture. But this is not Atlanta. We have traditional values here.

“Cindi, at the corner, says there are churches that allow homosexuals, now, but you don’t go because you’re Jewish. Not the one of you who’s Black, obviously. You, with the nose.

“I’m not homophobic, don’t go calling the ACLU. (The mailman misdelivered your membership renewal. You should know—we’re patriots, here.) Gays love to play the victim card. Like the Blacks, for that matter. Or you Jews. Never let anything go.

“My husband and I are descended from Confederate heroes. We raised six children in this neighborhood. Suddenly we’re expected to let anyone in, even if they don’t respect our traditions? And hide the lamb of God at Eastertime? My family is saved, do you understand?

“You’ve been home a few minutes now, maybe you’ve started to look for your cat? While you were out, I saw her at the window. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be just like liberals to leave their windows unlocked, as if trust makes you a better person?’ She didn’t fight much. She’s okay, she’s in a cage. Don’t think of coming over here. I have a gun, and I think it’s a fair bet that you do not.

“Just uncover the lamb. People are talking; I’m doing you a favor, honestly. Do it and your cat comes home safe. Oh look, your garage door’s opening. What’s the Black one of you got in her hand? A baseball bat? Am I supposed to be scared? I already told you: I have a gun. Call her off! She comes onto my property and I’ll shoot. I do have some rights left in Obama’s America. Do you see what she’s doing to my Easter cross? Make her stop! I’d say you’re going to Hell, but you were already. You think you’re getting your cat back now? I’ll drown her in my tub! I gave you a chance. How many notes did I leave, before you pushed me to this?

“She’s at my door! Still with the bat! And you, running down your front walk with a kitchen knife? You don’t scare me, you lunatics! You lesbians! I have a gun, didn’t you hear me?

“Fine, take her! I didn’t hurt her, obviously. I’m not violent like you people. I don’t shove my politics down everyone’s throats. Just like a couple of Yankees, not closing the door behind you when you leave. Southerners have manners, haven’t you heard? Since when is there no freedom of speech, anyway? Since when do we bully real Americans? You should know that I’ll be reporting you to the—”

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep….click.

Rukeyser Susan 20182Susan Rukeyser is a white lady but she’s trying to do better. She’s half-Jewish, queer, and in recovery from 12 years in the suburban South. She wrote the novel Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications) and a chapbook of tiny stories, Swap / Meet (Space Cowboy Books). She edited and published Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. Susan’s short work appears in numerous places, including River Teeth, Mojave He[art] Review, Luna Luna, and Monkeybicycle. In 2017, Susan moved home to the Mojave, although she grew up in Connecticut.


Photo: Answering Machine by Susan Sermoneta via Flickr

Fiction

“A Puppet Show On Top of a Puppet Show and Under a Puppet Show” by Rhoads Stevens

The child watched the burn pile.

She had a hose, which had a rusty nozzle gun on its end, and every time the fire made a move toward the house or toward the fields, she worked the rusty gun and sprayed that fire.

Earlier, the child caught her palm in the clamp that worked the gun. The clamp left a purple mark. She had wanted to cry, but she didn’t because her father was near.

The child’s father stacked the child’s mother’s furniture onto the burn pile. Sparks flew up at him. He put her clothes into the fire. He dumped her books into the fire. He tossed her collection of puppets into the fire. One puppet had black glass eyes in a wood head, so its head burned but not its eyes.

“Don’t let the fire get too big,” the man said. “And don’t let it reach the house. Or me.”

 

Stevens_Rhoads_picRhoads Stevens was born in Baltimore and grew up in Honolulu.

Fiction

“The Gazers” by Neil Serven

Rollie was convinced that what Michael Stipe was really singing was come into the Winnebago and that “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” was about child abuse (the evidence in the lyrics: candy bar, falling star, The Cat in the Hat), but nobody on the boards was having any of it. The other newsgroup members pointed him to the FAQ—he pronounced it like a word in his head, rhyming with whack—and congratulated him on figuring out Usenet, now stop being a sorry-assed troll.

They were out there, ducking in and out of rec.music.rem to show off their pistol wits as artfully as the white-dot VAX graphics allowed. He imagined, from how they strung together eloquent sentences or tucked in extensive literary .sigs, that they were English majors like he was, only they blew off their classes to read Baldwin, Nabokov, and Bertrand Russell in paperbacks with their spines broken. They spun hard-to-find seven-inch vinyl at their campus radio stations. They had outsized personas and carried pocket handkerchiefs and drank whiskey in heavy glasses and dashed off verse on cocktail napkins. They got no joy from rage. They didn’t hook up, they made love.

Were he able to swing the postage, he would send everyone on rec.music.rem the new issue of Smug Fossil. There would be one hundred fifty copies of Issue Three, twenty-four pages of poetry and fiction and cartoons and rants folded and stapled and hand-numbered and brilliant. A few souls humored him by tossing a poem or doodle his way, but most of Issue Three was the work of himself and Alyssa, who now sat at the main table of the Writing Center, folding and stapling and numbering the issues and stacking them inside a printer-paper box. The school didn’t know it had loaned the paper. Rollie and Alyssa had hid under the table as Campus Security did midnight sweeps. Then they kept the lights off while the copier went to work, emitting its patient hums and hot black musk.

He logged back into email to see if there was another message from Melody, the sophomore at Ohio State whom he had met in alt.music.betterthanezra and with whom he had been pen-palling for much of the semester, she dropping him lessons in conversational French and sharing complaints about Newt Gingrich. He worked out that a trip to Columbus from New Hampshire would take twelve hours by bus. Melody had mentioned a boyfriend back in October, but since then the guy had thinned out promisingly to a murmur.

The Writing Center was on the top floor of the library. From the darkened room, the windows showed a nice night for stargazing. Howlers were out, stumbling back along the Rape Trail. Through Rollie’s lenses, the new lamps along the trail were halos.

Alyssa had finished with the issues and was now squinting at the Boston Phoenix. “Pavement’s coming to the Middle East,” she said.

Rollie said, “I hate the new album.” It came out hostile. Then he said, “Let me see if I can turn up funds.” There have been more of these suggestions to ditch campus and have adventures in the city. One month ago, a mosh pit on Lansdowne Street: Juliana Hatfield with special guest Cold Water Flat. Their friends disappeared. Rollie had the urge to muscle up against the BU fratholes copping handfuls of Alyssa’s tit as she crowd-surfed. Then she accidentally on purpose put her left shitkicker into one frathole’s ear, and when the guy came to, Rollie was the one he wanted to fight. He sort of felt something for her then.

But Alyssa hung too close. She had read Prozac Nation, and began to suspect that Rollie’s every eccentricity was a warning sign. (Rollie couldn’t finish the book, too annoyed by the platter of opportunities handed to the author.) Alyssa found him on the roof of the science building, stripped to the waist in subzero temperatures, gazing out at the lights of Manchester Airport with Automatic for the People spinning on repeat on his Discman.

The school called his parents. Rollie refused to talk to them. They’d say he was being a brat. Alyssa made him promise to get counseling. His symptoms were consistent with manic-depression, she said. It made Rollie think of the hair dye they sold at Newbury Comics.

Why did he choose to go to school with these unhappy walled-in Catholics, with their flip-flops and Irish kegger politics and pajama drama, their proud aversion to complexity? At other schools, it seemed, you could hang in the lounge all night, pass around a two-liter of Mr. Pibb and watch Barton Fink or S.F.W., and not have to explain any of it, and it didn’t matter if you lacked the thumbs for NHL ’94.

Diane at Health Services—an aunt-type who talked hip and let Rollie smoke in her office, his Chucks up on the split, electrical-taped upholstery—pressed him to find a creative outlet. So he started Smug Fossil. It was cathartic: a fuck you to every hacky-sack-playing, Cider Jack-drinking, Neil Young-listening mock-anguished trust-fund baby who had ever stuffed a towel under a door. If ten people opened the thing before chucking it into a garbage can on the quad—last spring, the pages piled up everywhere, caught in the wind, snagged in bike racks—then there was the satisfactory chance that one or two might bleed a little bit.

Alyssa put the cover on the box, then stretched back in her chair. Her t-shirt rode up. She said, “You’re awfully quiet.”

He was thinking that if he returned to his room he would find Shep’s gray ankle sock slung over the doorknob, insultingly content in its limp threadbareness. On that floor, it only encouraged knock-bys.

“Need a place to crash?” Alyssa asked.

“Thanks. I can sleep here.”

“We were going to deliver these in the morning.”

“I said I can sleep here.”

“Until security throws you out, then what?”

“They won’t find me.”

He did want a cigarette. He would have to go outside, and then he wouldn’t have a way back in.

Alyssa lived in one of the community houses set aside for straightedge kids. Her roommate was visiting a friend at UVM. She and Rollie used the Rape Trail to cut across.

The box was heavy. The cardboard handles cut into his fingers. “I need to stop,” he said.

He shook out a clove cigarette and lit it, and shared it with her.

Alyssa looked up. “You can’t see shit now since they put in these lights. This was the best spot on campus.”

“The science building.”

She looked at him.

“I know a way in.”

“So do I, remember?”

It involved going through a window. Alyssa, a foot shorter than Rollie, had to stand on the box to reach it. The cardboard almost gave way. Rollie then passed the box through the window and followed her inside.

They moved hushedly, though nobody was there, no alarm had sounded. Up four flights, through a service door. They were on the roof. He wedged the box inside the door to hold it ajar.

“Is this why you come up here?”

“Shh. We might see a shooting star.”

But every twitch they spied turned out to be a plane. The airport twinkled to the east. With his head craned upward, Rollie started to lose his balance; he let Alyssa lean against him. They lost themselves in the whirl of blues and blacks and lavenders, the visible static: light-years, ecstasy, shiver of a proof of God.

Beneath his chin she said, “Nobody’s going to read your stupid zine.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Everyone already knows what’s in it. None of it’s you. All your talent, and you’d rather be a creeper in a world that’s crammed with ‘em.”

Rollie lay in Alyssa’s roommate’s bed feeling the weird scratch of flannel, his nose tickled by a strange shampoo. Posters looked down on him in the dark. Alyssa, removing any doubt, fell right asleep on her side of the room. Shadows of feet darkened the light beneath the door. Rollie passed the time making lists in his head. He pondered second acts. He wondered if he should transfer to another school, or drop out and learn a trade. He wondered if he should try Pavement again, if the new album would grow on him.

 

Serven_Neil_picNeil Serven lives in Greenfield, MA and works as a lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Washington Square Review, Cobalt, and elsewhere.

Fiction

“Titanic Built for Two” by Sarah Sorenson

I am building an imaginary Titanic and yes, I am using zero research. I am imagining everything. This is how I self-help myself. You already know me. And this project is my recovery from you. Oh, my love. This is for you. I’m serious, zero research. You are the methodical one. I am the spontaneous flutter of just being present. Besides, the truth isn’t the point. I know, you just shuddered at that. But, this is about feelings. Yes, I saw you frown just now with discomfort. I can promise you one thing only from here on out: this will be uncomfortable. I would hold your hand, but I am learning boundaries.

Remember how in the movie Leo and Kate were super in love and he held her up by the front of the boat in the pointy corner and she spread out her arms and looked like an angel hood ornament? Yup. And then the whole thing just sank and failed and all of their love was irrelevant? I feel like all love is a ship, a big dazzling miracle—buoyant and filled with life, floating under the sunshine—and it’s supposed to carry you to the other side. It’s supposed to ride you out gloriously until death. But sometimes you hit some glacial ice or some other terrible thing happens like pirates or cannonballs. Then, there you are and the fucker is going down and you can only bail out so much water with your stupid little tin bucket. You are stuck flailing and worrying, but you know the ship is a goner and you just hope like hell that you both manage spots in those rescue boats that will drag you across the ocean in opposite directions and to separate continents where you will live in miserable, unhappy safety until you acclimate and live in complacent, deadening routine.

I love you. Keep reading.

The crew band has to keep playing music while they drown. Or was that the Edmund Fitzgerald? Maybe that is just every shipwreck. If I was the band, I would have said, “Fuck you. I am devoting this time to shitting my pants and crying.” Who would the crew band be in this metaphor? Maybe just all of the songs that we both loved that are now ruined forever? And they play on a loop so that they torment us while we are forced to recognize the futility of our situation? Ah, okay. So then, the band is not playing to comfort us, the band is playing to add chaos and pain. Those bow-tied bastards. Probably some jerk with a tuba just going blug-blug, blug-blug while a half-drunk saxophonist makes some long-winded soft, jazz solo. Wait, I think I just said these were songs that we liked and no one would like that. Moving on.

I’m building the ship figures—that’s you and me. I’m using some sort of child’s crafting putty that I found in the dollar section of the craft store. Yours has lots of long, pretty hair that keeps breaking off and I keep gluing it back on with Elmer’s. I have to admit, she doesn’t really look much like you. To be fair, my lady figure didn’t turn out any better and it is bizarrely large shouldered and hot neon pink. I tried to make them clasp hands and they won’t do that either. In short, if anyone were to find these, they would look as generic and childish as if any elementary school student fashioned them. You and me, the orange and pink putty ladies. I gave yours small feet, but those fell off too.

Our Titanic is made of card stock paper. I am still drawing on porthole windows with sad, screaming faces of agony behind them. In the bottom are scraps of paper reading all of the things I wish I could say to you but just really can’t and shouldn’t and won’t because I am determined to leave your life so that we don’t hurt each other anymore.

Are you really there? Are you really reading this because these are the things that I wrote and you just shouldn’t even know, except that I still want you to know. I wrote:

You brought me to all of my extremes

Your voice and its criticisms haunts me

I still believe that you are the most beautiful woman who has ever lived

I love you forever

When you held me I felt loved

I wanted to be with you for all time and eternity too if that’s real

You have been my world

I know we both did our best and we failed

Why didn’t you choose kindness?

I am dropping our figures into the boat, these distorted little weirdoes that don’t look like us are riding a paper ship bound for a river that will drown all my efforts.

I am putting it all together in my imaginary Titanic. My heart is pounding now because this is going into a real river where real people might see it and where, if I am as unlucky as I feel, even you might see it. And I’m going to set it down in all of its metaphorical glory and let it go the way that I am supposed let go of you. I’m going to place it out there in its meticulous efforts, let it fail, and walk away.

I can’t keep it because it’s a journey, not a possession. I can’t keep it because it’s already gone.

Remember Leo painting Kate topless and it was supposed to be all sexy and stuff? Remember how it was a big whoopty deal? Well, it wasn’t. Because there was more sex in just the way you could look at me, more fire in the heat of your whisper in my ear. I’m just saying. But I guess that’s done happening now so I should probably stop mentioning it, especially to people other than you. Sometimes I have mentioned it. I’m just saying.

But fuck it, because here we go to the river with some fake clay figures in a little paper boat. Here we go with a few shreds of paper and a few busted words to tell the universe about the volumes and volumes of words that I flounder through and rearrange all in an effort to say that I love you more completely than anything singly or cumulatively in the entirety of time or space and yet you and I will not work because we somehow can’t. The shockingly bright fucking fireworks of all of my deepest happiness and the razor that same light of my previous happiness now fires into brain is the source of some medical research worthy migraines.

Here is your lady figure in orange. Here is my lady figure in pink. They will not hold hands. Here is a boat made of paper and filled with shreds I’ve coated in words. It’s a real imaginary Titanic replica diorama thingy and I did zero research because I already know what terror and pain and joy feel like and because this is my self-help help-myself project and I can’t do it wrong. I can only do it.

So I place our little love boat in the water and it is gliding so sweetly. And I am turning fast and walking because I know the ending. I know, I know, I know. I know the ending and it doesn’t get easier by watching. It is not my possession, but it was our miracle. And miracles fail too.

 

SorensenS_photoSarah Sorensen has most recently been published in Whiskey Island, In Stereo, Dirty Chai, Cactus Heart, Embodied Effigies, Your Impossible Voice, Gone Lawn, and Monkeybicycle. She holds an M.A. in English from Central Michigan University.

Fiction

“How to Survive Your Inner Demons: Special Version for Writers” by Penny Perkins

1. Demons are spawn of hellfire and brimstone. They sweat blood and live in the cauldrons of excruciating Mercury-like temperatures and Jupiter-like atmospheric pressures. Consequently, they need relief, too. Offer them a refreshing beverage. It will help take the heat off. Pink Lemonade is a favorite among demons. But never on any circumstance offer Red Bull or Monster. These FDA-approved concoctions have been know to grow demons three times their original size!

2. Do something unexpected in your battle with the demon. Most effective: ask the demon about his own backstory. Where did he grow up? Does he have any demon siblings? What were the conditions of his birth? What were the circumstances of his death: Was he brutally murdered and dismembered, or tortured with bullwhips, or bound by rusty chains in dungeons? What was his favorite toy as a child-demon? Engaging an adversary in the dramas of his own narrative takes the focus off of you and offers the demon an audience through which he can explore his own inner turmoil, which may be fueling or exacerbating his persecution of you.

3. Everyone has a guilty pleasure. Even the demons who taunt and massacre you. Find out what is the go-to escape hatch for your demons. Did they just spend a week binge-watching Orange Is the New Black seasons 1 and 2 back-to-back? If so, dig in! Are they Team Piper or Team Vause? What about that awesome evil Vee character—dead or not? And how lame is that Larry dude? And, my goodness, Pornstache is almost growing on me! (Not literally, of course.) Find your demon’s guilty narrative pleasure and focus on that instead of the torments that are preventing you from finishing your own literary to-do list.

4. Take the demon for a drive. Hitting the open road (or even meandering down new city blocks full of traffic and double-parked delivery trucks spewing exhaust from diesel idling engines) is a swell way to interrupt the constant gnashing of sharp teeth against the tattered cloth of your fragile soul. Roll down the windows, leave on the air conditioning, pop in some old-school tracks that remind the demon of his younger years. A ride in a car with no destination is a time-honored American cure for all sorts of internal ailments—not to mention a neat way to expedite global warming and the extinction of the human race, which will also end the problems you are having with your demon in a different way.

5. If all else fails to give you relief from your demons, look them straight in their dead, black, shark eyes, and simply say out loud: you don’t exist. Then be sure to update your Facebook status and hit your Twitter feed with #DemonsExtinguished and #FinishingMyNovel.

 

Perkins-pennyWaxwing-photoPenny Perkins has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Her short story, “Car Ride Through Corn Fields (1975),” was chosen by Manuel Muñoz as the winner of Beecher’s Magazine‘s 2014 Fiction Contest. Recent short stories have been published in Waxwing and HOAX. Other publication credits for fiction, poetry, and non-fiction include SalonConditionsThe Portable Lower East SideCurvesGirlfriend No. 1, and Book.

Fiction

“It’s Just a Dream” by Justin Hamm

Neil Young wakes in the semidarkness, rises like the very sun itself, and places upon his head a dusty black fedora. He wraps his physical manifestation within a flannel shirt, as if wrapping it within a shroud of the Holy Spirit. He eats something organic and picks up the news and quickly puts down the news, and outside is waiting a specially engineered, environmentally conscious classic car into which Neil Young climbs with great pleasure.

He stretches, rubs his eyes, keys the ignition.

Neil Young’s dreams have been troubling. In them, there was a Rubik’s Cube that Neil Young had been trying to solve. This Rubik’s Cube should have been called the Devil’s Cube, so certain is Neil Young that he could not have solved it, even if he had been given a lifetime. Now, as the American West unfolds before him like a motion picture that does not move but is, rather, moved through, Neil Young begins to mentally design a machine that will not only solve the Rubik’s Cube but also punish the Rubik’s Cube for being all but unsolvable. Neil Young, in his dream, and, in the here-and-now, as they call it—in “dream” or in “reality”—is suddenly willing to do anything, willing to risk anything to bring this machine to fruition. He will meet presidents and prime ministers. He will go on television and try to remain at least moderately cheerful and accessible. He will record new music, perhaps even alongside fellow rock icons with whom his current relations are rumored to be as frigid as an Ontarian winter.

Of course, all of this is a tall order, even for Neil Young, who finds himself suddenly sweating beneath his fedora with the heat of the enormous pressures he places upon himself. Off comes the fedora. The western atmosphere sucks through the car window and swirls around Neil Young’s uncapped head, cools him, restores his senses. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief, catches a glimpse of himself hatless in the rearview.

His hair is less substantial than it was at one time. His face is different than he usually imagines it. His eyes still cut, but…but…but…

I look so…mortal, Neil Young thinks. Back on goes the fedora, quickly, and yes, Neil Young feels himself again, restored to legend-in-the-flesh status, just another rock god out cruising in his environmentally friendly land yacht to breathe in the soul of the mountains and the essence of the valleys he so desperately hopes but is not confident will be here for future generations.

He reminds himself the fedora stays in place from now on.

Now a song begins to knock at the cellar door of Neil Young’s imagination. He applies greater pressure to the gas pedal, feels the minutes and the miles falling away like old habits and old friends. Someplace deep and lost and wild, Neil Young pulls over. He takes out, or perhaps conjures up, a guitar and an amplifier, which he plugs directly into the side of the first mountain he reaches. This perhaps seems unlikely, and it would be, except that it happens. It is the truest thing you will find written here. Neil Young plugs the amplifier into the side of the mountain and he plugs the guitar into the amplifier and he makes a contorted face and begins to do Neil Young–like things to/with the guitar. The sound is the sound of an electric beard trimmer and a concrete truck making strangely melodic love. The sound travels high out over the lands and everything the lands support—the flowers, the cities, the rivers, the graves of the famous and the graves of the forgotten alike. The sound travels out over everything and everything willingly submits, agrees to believe that Neil Young can create anything Neil Young can dream. The irony: in that same moment, Neil Young himself no longer believes. Neither does he disbelieve. He has no opinion; in fact, no existence except in the noise he has become, or perhaps that he has always been. Neil Young has forgotten the Rubik’s Cube of the long dark night behind, the punitive measures he wished to take against it, the great promise of his unmade machine.

Our scene must shift now. Missouri. Early morning, just me and a steaming cup of Jamaican blend, three sugars and three creams. I’m sitting at an outdoor table watching the breath steam like dragon smoke from the mouths of the winter sidewalk walkers, Neil Young’s memoir spread open beside me, when the sound of his guitar hits my ears. I can’t tell if it is real or if it is something I have invented from what I have been reading.

I hear the guitar, and soon after I hear the trees calling back. And the mountains, and the valleys, too, and the last of the clean rivers who still have voices and a chorus of gleaming fish. And I wonder if these sounds are mine. Do they belong to my mind? Or are they formed from the corporeal stuff of this world?

That’s the thing. I can’t begin to say for certain.

For their part, the mountains and valleys and rivers and fish do not seem to care. Neil Young, they howl in ragged unison, responding to the call of his guitar, and their howls easily stretch the long miles between us.

Neil Young. Neil Young. Neil Young.

 

Hamm,JustinPhotoJustin Hamm is the author of a full-length collection of poems, Lessons in Ruin, as well as the chapbooks Illinois, My Apologies and The Everyday Parade/Alone With Turntable, Old Records. He is also the founding editor of the museum of americana. His poems or stories have appeared in Nimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Hobart, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Recent work has also been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest and the Stanley Hanks Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center.

 

 

 

Fiction

“Big Cat” by Tom Bennitt

The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.
—William Blake

August 15, 2013

Dear Fiction Editor of Defiled Corpse,

Submitted for your glowing approval and orgasmic pleasure is my story “The Cat Is You.” As you know, I’ve submitted countless stories to your literary magazine for thirty years, spending several hundred dollars on contest fees and postage. But this new story is the one that will attract a five-star literary agent, a six-figure advance, and launch my career. It was called “the story of the decade” by a Pulitzer Prize winner who prefers to remain anonymous. Do you want to leave an editorial legacy? Long after I’m dead, scholars and writers will be studying my diverse, eclectic oeuvre (sounds like a naughty word!), which will likely consist of ten novels, two story collections, and a scandalous memoir. They will put me in the literary canon—Krampert comes right after Joyce and Keats—and my work will be read and admired for decades. Do you want to be remembered as the editor who discovered Leonard Krampert?

What is my story about? Glad you asked. In a word, it’s about a week in the life of Nikolai Gogol, my cat. You see what “Gogo” sees and think what he thinks. For example, when his owner (me) fills his milk bowl in the morning, Gogo’s excitement becomes your excitement. You experience Gogo’s abrupt metamorphosis when he becomes fully aroused and ready for action. He goes from Mr. Sleepy to American Gladiator in 0.3 seconds! You follow him as he chases the red laser-pointer-thingy around the house, or climbs halfway up a wall to snag a cockroach and then tortures the roach like a terrorist before eating it. When I go out for the evening—my social calendar is always full—Gogo’s suffering and depression will tug at your heartstrings. But sometimes, Gogo forgets his manners and urinates in my bed or bites my toes while I’m sleeping. Bad Gogo! Sometimes he watches me when I’m on the toilet. Creepy.

When he escapes from the house and embarks on a crazy adventure, you go along for the ride. He sneaks through a hole behind the kitchen cabinet and journeys into the wild, where he encounters a pack of stray dogs. These bullies control their “turf” like gang members. (The dogs wear different colored bandanas to show which gang they’re from. I think the Low Riders control our block right now.) Finally, without giving away the goods, the real drama unfolds when Gogo naps—his favorite pastime—and we enter into his dream world. In the well-crafted dream sequence, Gogo slips into a wormhole in the back yard and shoots down through a tunnel, which feels much like a waterslide. This wormhole ejects him onto a planet where cats rule society and humans are the pets. Are you hooked yet? Thought so!

Just a word about the narrative voice of my story. Yes, I’m aware of the potential pitfalls of second-person. It feels contrived when used by certain writers—I won’t name names—but as you know, I’m a pioneer of this point of view. Remember my story “Masturbator” that I submitted in 1994? Rest assured, you’re in the hands of a master. Here is my updated biography:

Leonard Krampert was born on the Planet Quasar. (Kidding.) Actually, he is from Intercourse, Pennsylvania, where he was “reared” by abusive, fundamentalist Amish parents who forced their children into lewd sex acts with barn animals. He ran away from home at sixteen. After spending a few years sowing his wild oats, he became a lawn-mower mechanic and world-class bowler. Last year he rolled a perfect game during the semifinals of the Lancaster County Bowling League. His creative writing talent is legendary. His stories have been published in envy-inducing magazines like The Amish Review, The Mennonite Quarterly, Feline Monthly, Kitty Kitty Bang Bang, and Cathead. Douglas Spaniel, the editor of Cathead, said “Leonard Krampert’s prose is the new standard of excellence in the genres of feline fiction and erotica.”

Since I’m sure you’ll want to publish my story soon, just a word to the wise: I submitted “The Cat Is You” to your competitors, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Paris Review. So you’d better jump on it before it gets scooped up!

Your partner in crime,

Leonard “Big Cat” Krampert

§

To:            Editors@defiledcorpse.com
From:       BigCat69@yahoo.com
Subject:   Submission Query
Date:        January 10, 2014

Dear Fiction Editor,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. New Year’s Eve is so overrated. Been there, done that, know what I’m saying? I was invited to a party hosted by the President of my Bowling League, but my cousin Sally was going, and there’s a lot of sexual tension between us. It’s so awkward to be in the same social circle as your ex. She gives me the bedroom eyes at parties, but then she plays hard to get, even when I stalk her for months. Talk about mixed signals!

Anyway, since I have not yet heard back from you regarding my story, “The Cat Is You,” nor have I received any correspondence whatsoever, I’m interrupting my busy schedule to inquire about its status. I’m assuming the delay has been caused by one of two things: either you’ve already accepted my story, and the acceptance letter was lost by our laughable postal service, or your editorial staff is in discussion—not about the literary merit of my story, which of the highest order, but about any revisions or fine tuning to make my intellectually challenging story more “accessible” to your audience. To be clear, I will not compromise my integrity. You should also know: my attorney and I are presently negotiating with The New Yorker about payment terms and copyright issues. But I want to give you first dibs, so the ball is in your court. Time to make your move. If you want to run with the big cats, you’ve got to piss in the tall grass.

‘Nuff said,

Leonard

§

January 20, 2014

Dear Leonard,

Thanks for letting us read your work. After careful consideration, we have decided, once again, that your story is not the right fit for our magazine. I’m sure it will find a good home somewhere, perhaps buried in your backyard. But I encourage you to enter our upcoming contest, the Lady Covington Short Fiction Prize. This year’s theme is the umbilical cord, which can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. And remember, your entry fee comes with a copy of our next issue, which is jam-packed with literary greatness!

Best,

Fiction Editors

§

To:                    Editors@defiledcorpse.com
From:               BigCat69@yahoo.com
Subject:           Mysteries of the Universe
Date:               The Ides of March, 3043

Hey Big Bully,

When you say “fit” I assume you mean that my story is too good for your joke of a magazine, that it would eclipse all the whiny stories and self-indulgent poems you publish. The universe is a galactic orgy of light and heat. I am a black hole waiting to grind up a star. And that star is you.

Unkindest Regards,

Big Cat

P.S. I’m no longer under psychiatric supervision. When I skip my medications, I react violently to personal criticism and perceived insults. Have a great weekend!

§

To:                    BigCat69@yahoo.com
From:               editors@defiledcorpse.com
Subject:           RE: Mysteries of the Universe
Date:                April 15, 2014

Dear Leonard,

We have decided to ban you from submitting to our magazine for the duration of your life, plus an additional fifty years. If you submit any more work, we can assure you that it will never be published, although we reserve the right to post it on our office refrigerator, so we can share a good laugh during coffee or lunch break. Also, please never contact us via this email address, or any other possible means of communication. Your emails are now considered Spam and will be kicked back to you immediately.

—The Fiction Editors

§

 10 Thermidor, Year II of the Revolution

Re:      The Reign of Terror

Dear Enemy of the State,

Terror without virtue is evil, yes, but virtue without terror is impotent. You cannot have a Revolution without revolution! You cannot win a war without waging war! We are creating a world where everyone will be brothers. But to achieve this world, we must run the blade of justice against those criminal heads that rise among us. You, sir, are the chief enemy of the new world order. The time has come for you to answer for your crimes and offenses. Can you hear that music? It is the song of the executioner playing for you! Tomorrow you shall meet your end. You shall be escorted to the guillotine at dawn. (Unless you reconsider and accept my story.)

All best,

Robespierre (Kidding, it’s me, Leonard.)

 

Bennitt_Tom Photo SmallBorn and raised in western Pennsylvania, Tom Bennitt teaches writing and literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He received my MFA from Ole Miss, where he co-edited The Yalobusha Review. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Texas Review, Prairie Schooner, Word Riot, Burnt Bridge, and Fiction Writers Review, among others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest and the Ropewalk Press Novella Contest, and a resident at VCCA.

 

Fiction

“A Letter to the Watertown Community Players” by Ryan Napier

After much consideration, after several soul-searching days and sleepless nights, I have decided to accept the role of Polonius in the Watertown Community Players production of Hamlet.

I assume the role is still mine, despite the little incident after my audition.

I have been reading the play almost ceaselessly. I have many ideas.

§

Act I, Scene 3, Lines 5480. Polonius bids his son farewell and gives him advice”—“Neither a borrower nor a lender be, To thine own self be true, etc. The famous advice scene. The dreaded advice scene.

In every production of Hamlet I’ve ever seen or acted in, this scene is played for laughs. Polonius talks and talks and talks, rattling off his shopworn sayings. His children stand there and bear it. They wink at the audience, they roll their eyes, they poke out their tongues when he isn’t looking, they heave their strong young shoulders. They slump over; they literally sag under the ponderousness of their pedantic father, their stupid, irritating, long-winded father.

Tedious stuff. We can do better.

Polonius has an inner life. He must have an inner life. He says stupid things, but he is not a stupid man. He is educated, he makes learned references, he has worked his way up to the king’s right hand. What happened to him? Did his talent and intelligence disappear?

No—they are hidden. Polonius was, he says, an actor at the university, but now he’s required to play a different role—a toady to the king, a right-hand man, a bit part in the great drama of the kingdom. He’s a profound man who has to spend his life in an unprofound role.

And now his son is leaving, going off to school. Polonius wants to call forward that old profound part of himself, to pass it on to his son. “To thine own self be true,” he says—but his own life requires him to play a part that’s too small for him.

If we don’t spoil this scene with funny faces, I can make it into a real heartbreaker.

§

Act II, Scene 1, Lines 173. Polonius dispatches Reynaldo to France to check on his son and gives him witty instructions.

This is a very fine scene. It shows Polonius as a model father, liberal and caring. And he has some clever lines. The audience gets to see him as the expansive intelligent man that he is, deep down.

I was disappointed to see that you cut it from the script. Hamlet is long, I know. Something has to go. But there are other ways to save time. Do we really need a Rosencrantz and a Guildenstern?

§

Act II, Scene 2, Line 92. POLONIUS: I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.

I should apologize for what happened after my audition. It was, in its way, a kind of madness.

I had prepared for weeks. I performed Act III, Scene 2—“Speak the speech,” my favorite lines in the play. You watched the other actors. You offered me the part.

I felt like you punched me in the nose.

I mean that very literally. Have any of you ever been punched in the nose? (It has happened to me several times.) It sends you into a special kind of rage—a visceral, below-the-brain feeling. That hot scent of anger gets trapped in your nostrils.

When you told me you wanted me to be your Polonius, I smelled that scent, hotter and stronger than ever in my life.

Let’s put it behind us. From now on, the only scenes I make will be onstage.

§

Act II, Scene 2, Lines 172221. Hamlet and Polonius banter.

We will have a lot of trouble with these lines.

This scene is a game of wits, but competitors are not equal. Hamlet’s mind is moving twice as fast as Polonius’s. By the time Polonius understands one insult, he’s been hit with another. This can be very funny, with the right cast.

But not our cast. I think you know the problem. For this scene work, the audience must believe that Hamlet is brilliant and Polonius is dull. Our Hamlet—“Josh,” I think his name is—has many virtues, I can admit. He has a very expressive face—he can conjure up that feral sort of fear and happiness that one usually only sees in golden retrievers and other attractive mid-size breeds. And he is a handsome fellow—but it is a brutish sort of handsome: the heavy brow, the deep-set eyes, the flat nose, the massive jaw.

In short, the audience won’t believe that a man who looks like that is outwitting a man who looks like me.

We can cut some of his wittiest lines—or maybe the whole scene. If we do leave a few of the lines, I suggest reversing the dynamic. Instead of Hamlet running circles around a doddering old man, Polonius is clearly consenting to be the dupe, playing along with the spoiled little prince. I’ll deliver one or two of my lines with a growl to make it clear that I’m not oblivious. I can growl, as you know well.

§

Act II, Scene 2, Lines 196203. Hamlet insults old men: their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with the most weak hams.

You were right: Hamlet is a younger man’s role. You said it too bluntly, but you were right.

But young as he is, does he really need to say all of these things about old men? It is too cruel to poor Polonius.

§

Act III, Scene 2, Lines 114: Hamlet advises the actors: Speak the speech. . .

It really does make more sense for Polonius to speak these lines. He was the actor. He has experience. Who is Hamlet? What has he acted? What does he know about the stage? He is a twenty-five-year-old boy.

§

Act III, Scene 2, Lines 96102. Polonius recalls being an actor at university.

Your script omits these lines. We’ll have to put them back.

§

Act III, Scene 3, Lines 2735. Polonius enters the kings chamber, concocts a plan to spy on Hamlet, and rushes out.

These lines are workmanlike. They are there to reveal the plot, and not much else. Shakespeare can’t have spent much time on them. But we can.

I imagine Polonius sweaty. His sleeves are rolled up. He’s glowing. He’s puffing too—he’s just run across the castle, and he isn’t as young as he used to be.

But he is grinning, hugely. He’s glad to deliver this plan, to perform his part. The role as henchman to the king is beneath him, he knows—but he’ll do it well anyway, because he can do it well.

§

Act III, Scene 4, Line 25. POLONIUS: O, I am slain! He dies.

Shakespeare was human. He made mistakes. This is one of them. He forgot to give Polonius a death-speech.

“O, I am slain!”—is this line for the people with the cheap seats, the people stuck behind a pillar? Is it for the blind? Of course he is slain. It is far too banal to be the last thing that I say on the stage.

I am preparing, as Hamlet would say, “a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines,” in my best iambic pentameter, to replace this stupid “O, I am slain!”

If any scholarly busybody complains, we can refer him to some obscure edition of Shakespeare—the Awful Quarto, the Nasty Quarto. But I doubt anyone will object. My Polonius is the sort of character who deserves a death speech, and the audience will see that.

But even a good death speech might not satisfy them. They will think that it is a waste to kill off such a deep character two minutes after the intermission. I have created a Polonius so strong, so powerful, that they may not accept his death midway through the play.

Imagine this: Polonius dodges the dagger. He slips out from behind the arras, collects his daughter, and escapes to Norway. He avoids the final bloodbath—he outwits tragedy. At the play’s end, he returns. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” says the messenger—“but,” says Polonius, “I live! Hamlet is dead, but I live!” The people see that he is the strongest and smartest man in Denmark, and they crown him king. Imagine it—King Polonius. He will be a wise and kind ruler, and he will live for a very long time.

 

Napier_Ryan_A_PhotoRyan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in Bartleby Snopes and the Bangalore Review, and is forthcoming in Per Contra and Pacifica. He lives in Massachusetts. You can follow him on the internet at ryannapier.tumblr.com.

Fiction

“What Would John the Evangelist Do?” by Thomas Israel Hopkins

“The seven techniques of successful bodhisattvas,” she said.

“What would Siddhartha barbecue?” I said.

Eleanor Eames, two months before she dumped me for my failures, she and I were in a hotel, a real fleabag joint in upstate New York. We were there for the wedding of a friend of hers from the prestigious publishing house where she worked, where Ellie was an associate editor. That title, that job, her glass ceiling.

“No, no, simpler,” she said. “Just: What would Siddhartha do? That’s sufficient.”

“Like Buddha for chocolate?” I said.

We were back at the hotel after the Sunday brunch, after the Saturday-night wedding, getting ready for the ride back to the city in our rental. We had work in the morning. We dreamed of easy money. We were hung over, moving sluggishly, in disarray. We were slowly stripping off all our clothes, every article, one by one.

“That’s a bit silly,” Eleanor said. “The Buddha’s best practices, maybe.”

“You’re the expert,” I said. “Your own private Shiva shrine?”

We were wired on coffee and cigarettes, we were brainstorming, we were on the verge of sex.  We had to have sex, couldn’t check out without having had sex. This was the rule, her rule—not kink, just ritual—sex at weddings, sex to sanctify weddings.

“Your own personal Vishnu,” she said. “Your own private Ramadan.”

“Tuesdays in the garden of Ben and Jerry?” I said.

People don’t know; people think the publishing racket is all good little girls from good families and good schools putting out good little books. And yes, that was her. But books are dangerous, and if it was Eleanor Eames at the office, then it was some other Ellie, some dark, inner Ellie, who got drunk on old-fashioneds and presbyterians at whatever open bar was nearby, rode bridesmaids, doggie style, on wedding-reception dance floors, said embarrassing things to writers at book-release parties about their height, their gut, their jowls, their faded talent.

“In the Zen kitchen,” she said.

But that’s a bullshit dichotomy.

“It’s a careful balance, this,” she said. She was down to her Sunday underwear: cotton, Swedish.  “You need a number. Some scripture, some redemption, a little bit of financial salvation. An easy path, a key. Unlocked doors. An answer that’s been sitting under your nose this whole time if only you could see it. Wisdom from a familiar dead genius or dead civilization.”

“Also, dieting,” I said.

“Dieting helps,” she said.

Her boss was a famous editor, a gay man, famously closeted. He did sentimental yet award-winning highbrow fiction, he was girlish yet thuggish, he was married. A lavender marriage, Eleanor called it. She called his wife his beard, which was funny, because this was definitely a clean-shaven man, for one thing, and because Eleanor’s terms were accurate, but cute—cute in an old-fashioned way—and quaint, quaint like being in the closet in the late nineties was.

“How to win cheese and influence rabbis.”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” she said. We were both naked now, starting to lie down on the cheap yet squeakless bed. “The power of positive baking.”

Eleanor worked like a dog for her boss, but it was a drag; she’d sign great books, great authors, he’d take all the credit. She quit one month after this wedding, which was one month before she dumped me for my failures. She gave a month’s notice at work, then dumped me, drunk, at her getting-out-of-publishing party. She wanted a life full of astonishment, she said; she wanted to write a book, she wanted a book with her name on it without having to write it, she wanted to get married, she wanted to write self-help. Self-help, her weakness. Her Achilles heel, slogging in the sentimental yet award-winning highbrow racket: self-help was all she read.

“The vomitorium that changed the world,” I said.

“That’s gross. But in the right ballpark, perhaps,” she said. We pulled the sheet over us. It was peppered with cigarette burns. “How the Romans invented the world?”

Her favorite: a book called Ablutions. It told her to get up in the morning and write all her first thoughts, write the raw stuff out of her, then burn it. Ellie did this religiously. The burning smell helped with her hangover. The ashes in her sink didn’t help with her page count.

“Okay,” I said. “How the Unitarians saved the world.”

“Shh,” she said. She widened her eyes at me, nodded her head toward the door.

“What?” I said.

“John,” she whispered.

John, her ex-boyfriend, in the room across the hall from us, twenty feet and a couple cheap hollow-core doors away. John, as a junior agent at a good firm, had sold Eleanor three award-winning novels, three of the many for which her boss took credit. Working late at the office one night, he’d had a divine vision at the copy machine; he passed out, dropped out, started divinity school in Minnesota. He’d begun tentatively, just planning on a career as an academic. It was only after his first year that he aimed his life whole-hog for the ministry.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “The excellent girlfriends of Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

She glared. We were touching each other, gently. She mouthed the words “Stop it.”

The three of us were the only ones broke enough to be staying in the burned-sheets, thin-walls fleabag, thirty minutes down the road from the church and the good hotel. I had heard that, before the angel knocked him off his copier, John had been funny, and I’d had the impression that the Unitarians I’d met before had been funny, but the John he was when I met him was a dour and serious man. He was a Christian who took the whole of Christianity personally, took the weight of its history on his back, in spite of the fact that, what with the whole divinity-of-Jesus thing, some Christians say the Unitarians aren’t even part of their club. Not technically. It was none of my business, but I secretly felt that there was something odd about a conversion that serious for a denomination that loose, like falling in love with a piece of dry toast.

“Rich Saint Francis, poor Saint Francis,” I said.

“Cut it out,” she whispered. We were lying next to each other. She stopped touching. “Please.”

When Eleanor had said she wanted to get married, she’d meant she wanted to marry me, specifically, but I never intuited that, and she never explicitly said so. This had to be explained to me later, after Eleanor left town. She astonished everyone, after she quit publishing, by joining John in Minnesota, making it safe for me to sleep with her friend Rivka Schoenberg, a badly lapsed Orthodox Jew who also worked in publishing, whom Eleanor knew from the Radcliffe Publishing Course. Rivka had been an assistant editor at another house. Coincidentally, within weeks of Rivka and me first getting together, she made a move up in her career by snagging Eleanor’s old job.

“Seven divine secrets of the Sisters of Mercy?”

“Just—the game’s not fun anymore,” she whispered. She reached her arm across me, grabbed my far arm, tugged as if to pull me on top of her. “Let’s just do this, okay?”

The famously closeted editor thought it was hilarious, the first time he saw me show up at a book party with Rivka—same boyfriend, same job, new girl. He said something in French that I didn’t understand, but that Rivka did. I wanted to defend myself, tell him that she and I had slept together for the first time before she’d gotten the job offer.

“What would John the Evangelist do?” I whispered.

But it didn’t seem appropriate.

“This is important to me,” she said. She kept tugging.

Eleanor did not ever write a self-help book. Or if she did, she didn’t write it under her own name. It was Rivka—in bed one night, not long before she, too, dumped me—who finally explained to me what Eleanor had meant about dumping me because of my failures. I’d assumed she’d meant the fact that I’d dropped out of Hebrew Union, that I spent most of every day high, that I was slowly smoking my way through every last dime of the twenty grand I’d inherited from my bubbe. Wrong. She’d meant my repeated failure to realize that she, Eleanor, had wanted to marry me, since that was the only way anything would ever come of that want, since she believed that a girl could never tell a boy such a thing. A girl trapped in a high school from another time with no Sadie Hawkins dance to save her. A catch-22. But it threw me for a loop nonetheless. Eleanor and John eventually got married, I’m told. I’ve heard she’s a very happy minister’s wife, active and involved in their church. I heard she quit drinking. I’m assuming she quit smoking. I’m guessing she gave up on the dream of easy money. Rivka ended up a powerful editor of tough-minded yet uplifting women’s fiction, one of the ones who made it, but publishing is a sharp pyramid, and there are only a few spots up top. The ones who burn out on the climb end up cast off, thrown off the side—so many castoffs!—all these sharp kids landing on their asses, running broken and broke to other business, other lives.

“I can’t remember,” I said. I was on top of her now, but not doing anything, just lying with the weight of my torso on hers, propped up with my elbows on either side of her chest, tucked into her armpits, her arms above her head. “Did John of Patmos get knocked off his horse, or was that Paul, Paul the Apostle? How would John of Patmos fall?”

“Come on,” she said. “I just need to get this done. Okay?”

 

Tom Hopkins headshot, 5 of 5 croppedThomas Israel Hopkins lives with his wife and their two sons in Northampton, Massachusetts. His short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Massachusetts ReviewBOMBLady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletFenceCincinnati Review, and One Story, among other places. He has also also written for BookforumTablet, and Poets & Writers