Poetry

Redneck Riviera by Maria Hiers

Fresh bikini-waxed, we eat hot Takis, red-

white-and-blue flying trucks honk us

kisses. Coors-breathed tourists index

finger our G-strings, cuss us Floor-duh

whores out. The Gulf isn’t muzzled, it tugs

at their feet like the suburban past they left

somewhere less congested, in a TV-screen

America we’re scared of. We might drop

school, we talk like Friday we can hot rod

to Miami, where we’d snort, score, flip-flop

to CVS the next morning for Plan B, Dunkin

for coffee. Me and my girls go lotto, dust

from the scratch-off stains wet dollars balled

in my hand we need, for a pack of Newport’s

and gauze. We gamble for an inheritance

already denied, hitch-hike on land licked closer

to bone with each Artic panic, and know better

than to expect our home forever.

 

Cherry Tomatoes by Sarah Butkovic

She was looking at me from across the table with beguiling eyes. As soon as I sat down in front

of my sterling silver I could feel them on me like hot, incandescent stage lights. They were watching me,

sagacious, watching as I picked up my glass of water and brought it to my lips, watching as I wiped the

dampness from around my mouth. Curious eyes, they were. Ogling me like I was the first woman they’d

ever seen in their life.

And I didn’t dare meet their gaze, despite how easy it would have been. All I had to do was look

up— a gesture so innocuous that no one would’ve batted an eye. Pretend to glimpse the clouds, the way

the sun was slanted on our dinner table, the ketchup stains on the worn tablecloth... anything that would

have given me an excuse to glance at her for even a moment.

Keeping my eyes fixated on the wilty spinach salad in front of me may have been the hardest

thing I had to do in my life. And that wasn’t a hyperbole.

Four tomatoes, sliced down the middle. Were they cherry or grape? They looked too rounded to

be cherry but had too many seeds to be grape. Maybe they were some sort of heirloom?

“How’s your food, dear?”

I looked up, stunned, feeling more exposed than a bathtub murder victim, body naked sprawled

out for everyone to see up-close. For a second I’d forgotten there was anyone else around me. I blinked

rapidly and glanced down at my food once again.

I couldn’t bear to glare at those damn tomatoes anymore--all red and fleshy and gushing with

seeds, skins wrinkling ever so slightly from the sting of the sun.

This is itI thought. I’m going to be lovesick all over the table.

 
 

Hive Mentality by William Pattee

Nobody expected the pollen for a while.

If you had seen the bees

You’d deem then unfit for the mission;

Their striped ranks

Forfeit to a winter pallor -

Already aero-anomalies -

Frost would surely be their doom.

And yet

There stood a rhododendron:

Flocks of white

Disorienting

An even whiter terrace

And clusters of soft purple

Disrupting

An already cool-toned promise.

You cannot promise me shade

And yet, I am covered

I am easily entranced by you

Even in the summer

When dictated by the sun

In that recognition

I am vulnerable

But you have bloomed against

The rules of an already chaotic order

And I see that I must

Appear for you,

As you appear for me.

Do you know that its winter?

Have you ever seen the cold?

Maybe I’m projecting,

And perhaps you are not out of your element at all

Because I don’t look for you

When the days are still this short

But your appearance cannot be ignored.

This is to say,

I have assigned my hesitancy

To your bravery,

And alas

You cannot root me like you do yourself.

The bees stopped spreading me long ago.

 

A Conversation of Kisses by David Banach

It is discourse, the graze and drawing back,

the taste and tickle of tongues, the probe

and withdraw, the suckle and nibble,

the ardent press and the trembling open,

the swoon down into body, the centering

of one’s self within the mouth, oracle of

sustenance, saying, not in words, the

double desire to eat and be eaten, to feel

and be felt, to open and be opened, to

create desire by making your desire palpable,

to communicate by making your intention

to communicate felt, to feel your lips

being felt, to strike home, piercing and

being pierced, in increasing desperation

at the impossible act of existing for another,

touching and being touched in our

inaccessible places.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Anastasia Vassos

call you sacrifice

call you indigo

call you bride

call you crossbones

and skull       O primitive conditions

                       O small indentations

landmarks of the body

you said lust

you said artifact

you said I am the person I know best

is that verve and blaze

in your face?

or the sheen of it?

 
 

ON LONG POND by Wendy Drexler

Morning fog    a blur of firs      light-green on the far shore

   I look up           a flock of swallows unfurls

              over the pond            stitching the air with swift flickering

 

    a few birds turn    more turn    a loose confederacy

   that keeps the flock together         my mind swooping

    to that far-from-here backyard    the lilac’s honey

my mother dragging the hose       deadheading geraniums

me in the sandbox       digging tunnels   to China

                go, go, go          says the bird

the fog deepens      into a flock       of silence

     that echoes               long after         the bell has been rung

LOVE IS NOT A CREATURE I KEEP by Jessica Willingham

Mouth like a cat

Curling high, pinned to your cheeks

Blood red but all you eat is

What I give you. Table scraps and wild feathers,

Creatures I keep, carcasses you bring

Just for my praise.

And all the time I might barely see you.

A flick of your tail under the table,

Pawprints in the dust of my doorway.

I hope that someday,

Alone in my house,

You might come close to

Chew my cartilage and lick it clean.

 

Shadow Rabbit by Margaret D. Stetz

Once you make a shadow rabbit

it never disappears.

Outlines of a small clenched fist

two tiny fingers

pointing upwards

live on

like footprints in cement.

Invisible by day

and hidden in the dark

seen only by lamplight

it remains and watches.

What it witnesses in that bedroom

it remembers.

The tears

will go on dripping from its eye

as streaks along the wall.

The cries

produce a trembling of its shape

years afterward.

To cover it with paint is useless.

Its outline will return

immovable, ineradicable

until you tear the whole house down around it—

until you go.

 

love story by Michael Jemal

the next time you write me

write me good lies

momentous lies

lies that bite and fracture

lies that kiss

that dispose

unite shatter and kill

lies that stain the skin

that have you humming Brubeck’s Take Five

lies a hipster might have said

were lies of passion with your hand down your pants

lies of deficits

how you blew your brains out on speed

then jumped from a moving car

onto the cosmic pillow of more lies

psychotic lies

how I found you on the basement bar floor

wet with someone else's piss

tell me that single lie that pulls you apart in such a delicate way

it persuades you to follow the great lie of coincidence

in a world where you can deny any lie

as if to say what is not seen does not exist

an invisible circus upon the pinprick of paradise

a lie without the sadness

a strong lie that gives you the strength

to tell the lie as if it were the last

the lie you want to remember

how you cut glass with your flesh

and bled your way into a love story

the lie of the paisley scarf she tied around your neck

the half painted biographical landscapes

the unmade bed

her head and hands leaning over your shoulder

all lies

a cornucopia of lies

how she clumsily unbuttoned your shirt

and began to pull your arms out of your sockets

until your tendons hung like strands of burnt thread

senile lies

lies of testosterone

how she unknotted your torso

yanking each leg with a quick pop

then dropped the left leg out the window along with the right

that’s when she began to smile

when all that was left was your chest and head

but I must tell you again

write me lies that grip and hold

that curse their way into your step

desperate lies of loss and losing

that speak of need

that will allow you to sleep

sleep and sleep in the nightmare of the lie

to awaken refreshed

as if you had never lied

or ever knew of a lie

you were simply living in a fragile moment

urged on by necessity

never longing or soiled

shameless

but still hungry and in constant want for prayer.

 

Western Bluebird by Amelia Díaz Ettinger

Siália mexicána

 

in the morning,

 

the Bluebird carried a fecal sack

far away from her nest

a tidy demonstration of care and order

 

while that evening

 

my lover discharged his gun inside our home

five deafening bullets—each shot a mark

for a life he finds floundering its purpose

 

his anger a cocktail of disease and vodka

on a rare night of respite from summer’s

heat and fire smoke

 

this spring,

 

the Sialia chose tenderness, i’ve witnessed her losses

—her first and second clutch erased her possibilities

the first to this climate heat that seared her chicks

 

then to the predator who destroyed her careful nest

such common savagery is nature’s way, i guess—

now she tends this new brood heartedly, but i wonder

 

does she also carry

the desolate shards

of empty bullets?

 

One night in a Mexican restaurant with your small son, talking about death by Casey Killingsworth

It’s hard to know what to order, the chicken enchiladas are good,

or maybe something with seafood, both are packed with death,

and finally you have to face it, your son’s anxious face waiting for

news of a new sister or brother, looking as earnest as a dessert menu,

and you start with the standard: everything has to die, must

eventually live only in our hearts, blah blah but you’re interrupted

when the waitress tells you they’re out of margaritas, they’re out of

fucking margaritas, and you lose your place in the speech and,

and instead of returning to the script that had died a death already

you move to his side of the booth and just sit there next to him,

you sit and wait, you both wait for somebody to deliver something,

the salsa maybe, or a side of consolation, to your table.

 

SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY PAINTINGS by Christopher Riesco

You can respect her problem.

The boys and young men in her town

are aggressively stupid, the other girls

cycle through a permanent drama

without the relief of any character's death,

and pornography is aimed at an audience.

That leaves her imagination,

but sometimes she's lazy and wants help.

Murillo's painting of Two Women at the Window,

a.k.a. Las Gallegas, The Galicians, is helpful.

The older woman, probably a madame,

muffles her laughter with a bit of cloth.

The young woman, probably a hussy,

leans on the window looking out at the viewer.

A Protestant painter might have added a moral.

She likes the painting by Velazquez, showing a perfect

Bacchus, surrounded by grinning drunks,

which earned the artist a hundred ducats.

The light on the pale body of the god: perfect.

So is the light on the smutty brown capes

of the red-faced old drunks.

And she especially likes Zurbarán,

the Still Life paintings, the one

with the four boring, elegant jars in darkness

and the one with lemons, oranges, and a rose.

The lemons are piled up on a silver dish.

The oranges are in a basket

with a decorative orange flower.

The rose is on a silver saucer

with a silver teacup, or something.

A great dark space hangs between them.

She has a collection of postcards.

She has one tacked to the edge of her mirror

and she puts the mirror at the end of her bed.

 

Jump by Amanda Miller

Your name is splayed across the grass below

In goose down pillow scrawl

Like the cushion fort you built as a child

Or your mother’s thighs when you first encountered land.

Faith is a prerequisite

Crafted by your one third eye,

Two toned arms and

Ten billowing fingers

Designed intelligently

For wind catching.

 

CONTROL by  Mary Honaker

Next to the Dr Pepper distribution center,

the spires of the hilltop's pines are hewn

leaving the view gutted. Nothing

new in their place, no reason,

no shade. The old men who own

wide lawns poison them

to keep the smiling suns

of dandelions from marring

their control. The bees die.

For no good reason I can think of

roadside mowers are dispatched

to decimate goldenrod, daisies, sweet peas,

those many mouths the land

once laughed with. Everywhere

our human cruelty pricks me.

The owners of a squat ugly house

opted to raze to stumps

their property's only beauty:

firs so thick my fingers

could not find their twins

on the other side of them,

where I swayed while winds

plied quiet notes from needles,

where the squirrels rolled up

tender limbs into round houses

for their young. I don't know where

the squirrels went, if any died in the felling.

I don't know why my neighbors

hewed the elderly, friendly oaks

standing as greeters by the driveway.

A man used a tow truck to wrest

rhododendrons free from their beds

because they made such a mess,

his wife said, how they threw

their pink blessings over the mulch.

Meanwhile, butterflies die.

My eyes sting when pollen flies

but I don't behead flowers.

My demands on this land are small.

When I die give me no grave vault,

no impenetrable coffin, no poisons

to pink my flesh before it meets earth.

Bend me into fetal when I return

to this ground so good as to birth me,

and plant a tree over my crown.

 

Soft Spot by Subhaga Crystal Bacon

for Chris

 

Resting on its nest of thighs, its nest

of eggs, his soft dick. The only way

I ever saw it. My long dead friend, his cupid’s

body, his concupiscence at odds with his innocence—

nude at home, the fluid silk of kimono,

the limp wrist, and Player’s smoke. His languid

eyes and droll mouth. His lazy words.

 

Nights he and his friend, Donald, would go out

looking for Richard they would say. Calling

on Spruce Street: Richard, Richard! Only

to find him, as ever, at the bath house,

where they competed for a pink plastic pig—

trophy—whoever had the most men that night.

 

That last year when we shared a townhouse,

the crazy trick-cum-boyfriend who said he

was a warlock, and whose teeth could be removed

leaving a frightful hole in his face, called

the firetrucks on us. A parting threat—not the fire,

but the sirens—after he had beaten my friend

with a vacuum cleaner hose, of all things.

 

Later, we traded massages. Him naked on my back,

on my buttocks. The soft bottom of him like a purse

spent of coin. His penis relaxed, almost feminine,

delicate, stripped of its hot blood, its one

eye closed for now to what might be gotten.

 

Camerawoman: The Afterwalk, Arctic Tundra by Michelle McMillan-Holifield

“You are of nature’s bright unlucky brood. . . “ – Stanley Kunitz

Afterwards you walk away

in a purging of emotion you held in

during the soft rush of theft:

the mother of fox pups feeding her young

where the bread

is a spread of velvet goslings.

The bronzed summer mixes with

the wisps of these golden babes,

making this feast feel light, feathery.

The fox sniffs fleecy plumes

let loose on the small wind.

She stuffs too many chicks in her mouth,

carries them as she would her own,

by the neck, but with reckless haste.

They tumble out onto the tundra. The buttons

of humble sound they make with such dumb disbelief

alert their mothers whose moans

railroad over this open war map.

You are not equipped for the crawl

of your skin, the way your heart becomes

a drum beating a dirge so underslung

you are too heavy to physically move. Your fingers

go numb clutching the bones of your camera.

When it’s over, her darlings began to feed

on one chick still feebly protesting. Left behind,

four still babies on the ground

their mothers standing as last bastions

over lifeless young.

 

Prose

When Everything Begins to Die by Peter Prokesch

 

October 15, 2016

Dear Penny,

 

           You may or may not have heard that I joined a monastery. I am sitting in my dorm room at my desk by the window, watching a squirrel drag a plastic bag up a tree. It’s autumn here, but not that pleasant time in October when we’d take the boat out for bass on Red Wing Bay. (Remember how happy you were to catch a sunfish?) It’s not that kind of autumn, Penny. It’s that autumn where everything is brown and beginning to die.

           The monastery is what you would expect. We wake up at five every day, and it’s silent meditation in the chapel until breakfast. Every tenth day I skip meditation and help the chef prepare breakfast. Larry, one of the other monks here, says I’m not half bad at poached eggs. I’ve filled out in my mid-section, and I’ve gone up a size in my habit. Oh yeah, we wear the habits you picture monks wearing in your heads—all red with a hood and all. Mine’s a deep crimson because the regular stock was on back order. Larry gives me a hard time about it. Picture that though—habits on back order.

          Anyway Penny, after breakfast I retreat to my room and brush my teeth in the little porcelain sink with no mirror. No toilet or shower or anything, just a sink planted in the room next to the closet. Then I bathe in the big bath house. Picture this: ten monks showering together

with our dicks out, kind of like my hockey team in high school. Only no helicopters, cock-watches, or any of the pranks we used to do. Just silence. Larry says he likes to feel the warmth of the water on his back, and that’s why he doesn’t talk. I don’t know. When I shower, I wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to.

          Anyway Penny, after we’re all bathed and into our afternoon habits, we sweep the monastery. Sweeping is like some kind of thing here. Larry says a clean space reflects a clean mind. He told me this quote a guy Alan Watts said: “Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” I don’t know what that has to do with sweeping, but Larry tells me to pay attention when I do it.

          Anyway, Larry’s an okay guy—probably my best friend here. He teaches woodworking on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the vocational school on Comm Ave. He makes these brooms out of rough-sawn lumber, sands them down, routes vertical patterns going up the shaft, and he even stains them with this oil that turns the oak into an amber brown. Then he takes straw from the school—I guess they have it there—and he fits the straw bunches into a mortised groove in the broom and ties it off with twine. You almost feel like you’re doing something important when you’re holding one of Larry’s brooms. Like you’re really onto something.

         Sweeping’s easy enough, so sometimes, I let my mind wander. My thoughts go to that waterbed at your dad’s condo—that one that I said I hated—that I could never get a good night sleep on. Truth is Penny, I loved sleeping there. You said you couldn’t fall asleep there without me, and I don’t know, I never told you this, but that meant something to me. Like I was doing something important, helping you sleep through the night on that terrible formless waterbed, while the smell of pot leaked in from your dad and his girlfriend’s room. My mind goes to the mornings on that bed. I remember feeling movement of water underneath me and your soft body pressed into mine. The morning time when your hair just smelled like hair. It almost made it worth it to not sleep—feeling you against me.

          Mike called me last Tuesday and said he wants to take me out and wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. I left the monastery at seven with spare clothes in my backpack. I went into a Dunkin Donuts bathroom and changed out of my habit and into jeans and the camo jacket you like. I met Mike at that Irish bar on Mass Ave—the one you weren’t crazy about—with the soggy fries and smell of Ammonia. Well, Mike and I watched the Celtics play the Jazz. Isaiah had forty-six or something and put up twenty-three in the fourth.

           We drank some beers, smoked cigarettes in front of the bar, and Mike got all weird and quiet for a while and kept fiddling with something in his pocket. He cleared his throat, and his voice got all low and firm.

          “Penny’s marrying Andy,” he told me. “The one from Sebastian’s wedding.” I said that’s great, and I’m happy for you and all. We hit the vape pen a few times, and I told Mike I had to be going, or I’d catch hell over at the monastery. His lips twisted in that way when he wants to tell you something, and he stared in my eyes all strange like he was going to cry. Then he patted me on the back, handed me a piece of paper with your name and an address, and walked away towards the T.

          I wear this nicotine patch now, and it says so on the box, that you get these really vivid dreams, like as a side effect. Well, last Tuesday, the night I saw Mike, I had this dream that really freaked me out. Remember when you read Jung for that Childhood Ed class, and you had me keep a dream journal for your project? Well, this one takes the cake. I’m rolling around with a girl in the loft at my cousin Eddie’s cabin on Lake Sebago, and I’m not a monk, and we’re really about to go at it. Except I glance down, and my dick—well—my dick is cut clean off. I look around and there it is on the sheets next to me, just lying there. So, I pick it, and it’s in perfect shape and warm, and I know—I mean know—if I can get to the hospital in an hour, two tops, I can get it re-attached. The girl loses interest and leaves, and now I’m on a boat paddling across the lake to the hospital—paddling with my left hand and holding my penis with my right. Larry-the-monk sails by on a boat and just points down with the beautiful shaft of the broom. I see green and realize I’m not on a boat. I’m on the roof of my Ford Focus. I drove my car into the lake. The water is rising all around the car—halfway up the windshield—and I’m sinking. I can see the hospital, but it’s far away.

          How’s that for a dream? Look that up in the book your mom keeps in the living room and tell me what you find. Please don’t be afraid to write, Penny. I want to hear about Andy, and the wedding and all. Are you still doing it in Brewster like you wanted? Is your brother bringing that

awful make-up artist that we couldn’t stand? Please write me something. I would be joyful with news of your life. Well, Larry just came in, and we’re making the brackets for a ping pong tournament. I can put a nasty backspin on the ball these days. All the other monks say so. Please write, Penny. I’ll check the mailbox often.

Yours truly,

Alex

FINCH by Michael Fontana

           After I lost my job in 1984 I lost my apartment. On the streets I begged change for booze. Not because I was a drunk. Because life on the streets is a terror and booze is a way to numb it. I picked a corner next to a church for my spot to beg.

           One night a small and rusty car circled the block while I watched from my corner. The white man who drove it looked mad and straight at me. Pretty soon he pulled his car to the curb, flipping off a bus that honked behind him. He leaned across the front seat to roll down the passenger window. “You waiting for a ride?”

           “No thanks,” I said. “Just holding down the sidewalk.”

           “Then why don’t you just move the fuck along?”

           “I’m not bothering anybody,” I said.

           “You a cop?”

           I laughed in my rags. “Do I look like a cop?”

           “You look like somebody muscling in on my business,” he said. “You look like somebody whose ass I’d kick if he got in my way or hassled my girls.”

           “So kick my ass,” I said. “But you got to get out of your car first.”

           He idled a few seconds and then cut around the corner to park. He tugged his belt when he walked up. He was a little round man in his twenties, with black hair and a mustache. Instead of kicking my ass, he took a seat. “What’s your name?”

           “Dez,” I said.

           “Mine’s Finch.” He offered a sweaty red hand for me to shake. “I run a business. But I’m no pimp. I’m an executive. In the sex industry. It’s for real.”

           “Yeah huh.” I took a long puff of cigarette before grinding it into the curb. “I’m not looking for trouble. I just like to watch.”

            Finch got all happy at this. “You know,” he said, “if you got money I could arrange it with a couple of my girls . . .”

            It took me a second to figure out what he meant. “No, no. Not like that. I like to do that. I just like to watch cars and people go by, you know?”

            “I grew up in a neighborhood not far from here,” he said. “I was always good with girls. You know. I protected them. I beat up her boyfriend if a girl asked me to. I used my bare hands or a tire-iron to fix his face so he’d remember me the rest of his life.

           “Even the girls I went to grade-school with knew the only thing they got worth a dime was their bodies. When they were teenagers and started in this business, I still protected them from their customers. Now I got more girls working for me than I know what to do with. They

make better money doing this than any straight job. Here their check’s written on their back.” He puffed his cigarette. “You sit here anyway, right? How’d you like to make a few bucks?”

           I could get paid for keeping an eye on girls, and having a hangover wasn’t a problem? Didn’t take me a second to say yes.

           Finch told his girls to trust me so they did. I kept watch on them. Sometimes a brunette named Swoosie sat with me. Finch hated her but kept her on because she was plain enough for customers to think of her as safe, the kind of girl who might date them even without the money.

She was skinny with dirty hair and broken teeth.

           Every night her daddy drove up in a tan Maverick with no muffler and dropped her off. She wore skirts because her legs had muscles from all the walking she did. The other girls liked to sit and smoke. Swoosie stayed on her feet most of her shift. She peeked in stores through riot

screens on the windows. In rain she ducked into doorways. Those nights she wrapped a sweater around her. She kicked off her pumps to pour water from the toes. She waved to any car that passed a second time.

          My job was to catch the make and plate of every car I could. Also I tried to catch the driver’s age, face and race when the door opened and the light came on inside. I watched the direction the car took when it pulled away. Soon I knew every girl’s favorite place to take a date. Jasmine liked the lot behind an auto shop. Sapphire liked the alley between the elementary school and the mission. Swoosie used a street close by the projects. Her spot was away from streetlights and across from a crack house so it was easy to find.

          The names weren’t real. They were just for advertising. The girls dropped the names as soon as they went home to their kids. They all had kids. The business wasn’t part of them but a job like waiting tables, only better paid.

          “Wives ought to thank me for what I do,” Swoosie said one time. “I keep their husbands from straying. I keep men happy so they want to come home. If I didn’t do my job, they’d be out raping little girls.”

           As long as she sold herself in a part of town where rich people didn’t live, she wasn’t hassled. The girls were part of the scenery there, like bars where cops caught a free cup of coffee at two or three in the morning. 

          It rained cold and hard one night like it did sometimes in winter. I sat on my corner, lighting one cigarette off another. Swoosie stepped out of her daddy’s car. She opened an umbrella with red and white stripes. Wet nights were good for business. Customers knew they could talk down the prices. The girls just wanted to make money and get out of the rain. They worked their customers longer and better. They talked more so men wouldn’t throw them out as soon as sex was over.

          Swoosie ducked in a doorway to shake rain from her umbrella. A gray Olds touched the curb and flashed its lights off and on. She walked over to it. When the door opened, I caught the driver: white, near sixty, full face. I didn’t catch the plate but didn’t worry over it. Finch said

older men weren’t ones to hurt a girl. Young ones were most likely to punch, rob or kill a girl, just to prove they were men.

          She came back half an hour later, not in a car but on foot. She was alone and her legs shook so she moved slow. She kept her head down instead of up like normal. I walked over to her and offered her a Kool. “What’s with you?”

          “Nothing,” she said, taking the smoke between her fingers.

          I touched her chin and lifted her face. It was bruised. “Who did this?”

          “Just back off,” she said. “Okay?”

          “Maybe we should take you to the clinic.”

          “No,” she shouted. Then her voice quieted down. “No doctors. I’ll be all right.” She turned away and walked down the street.

          I caught up with her and grabbed her arm. “You need something to eat?”

          She stopped. “Maybe. Yeah, that might be good.”

          She took my elbow in her hands and leaned on me. We walked to a bar. The cook usually went home at that hour but took one look at Swoosie and stayed put. He toasted bread and cheese, poured Swoosie a glass of water and sat us at a back table so cops coming in for coffee

wouldn’t notice us.

           Swoosie had a hard time eating. Her mouth was too sore to bite through bread. She kept her left hand on the table to prop herself up. I put my hand on hers. “Let me take you to the clinic.”

           “No,” she said. “It’s all right.” She took a few bites. “I’m just so cold.”

           The cook kept a jacket in the kitchen and put it around Swoosie’s shoulders. She shivered even near the stove. The last of her sandwich fell apart before she could bring it to her mouth. Finally the cook flagged down a cop who came to the table and kneeled at Swoosie’s feet. The

cop touched her face then spoke into a radio.

           Pretty soon an ambulance came. When the crew finished wrapping Swoosie in blankets and carried her out, the cop stopped me. “She’s one of your girls, right?”

           “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

           “Look,” he said. “I’m not out to bust you unless you’re the one who beat her up.”

           So I nodded. “She’s one of mine, yeah. But I didn’t hit her. I don’t do that.”

           The cop took a few notes, spoke into his radio, and left. I thanked the cook and stepped outside. Rain hit my hat. I went back to the corner and struck a match on the palm of my hand. The flame jumped up even with the wet around it.

           In time Finch pulled up and waved me over. I got in and he pulled away. We slid some in the rain. “Where the fuck you been? I circled this block for an hour,” Finch said.

           “Swoosie’s hurt.”

           “The hell with Swoosie. That don’t mean you disappear. I thought we had cops on us. Don’t do that again.”

           “Didn’t you hear me? Swoosie’s hurt. They took her to the hospital.”

           “She’ll get over it,” Finch said.

           “Don’t you want to catch who did it?”

           “No.”

           “Why not?” I asked.

           “Because I already know who did it.”

           “Are we going after him?”

          Finch whipped the car into a driveway. He kept a foot on the brake and an arm on the wheel while he glared at me. “No, we’re not going after him.”

           “But why not?”

           “Because I’m him, idiot.”

           My heart raced like the odds-on favorite at the OTB. “But why? I thought you protected them.”

           Finch leaned into my face. “I did it because I own her, okay? First lesson in dealing with the girls: When they screw up, fix them quick and hard. Swoosie screwed up royally tonight. I tell them all before they ever hit the streets that with me they never do a job without a condom.

No exceptions, no excuses. The last thing I need is my product carrying a baby or the clap. That only means more cost to me, lost time to her, and a better chance for the cops to butt in. Nobody learns about my business unless I tell them.”

           “But the beating’s going to cost you too. You’re losing Swoosie to the hospital. Who knows what questions they’ll ask?”

           “Swoosie’s been through this before. She don’t talk to anyone but me. She’ll skip out of there quick as anything.” Then his forehead creased. “I hurt her worse than that before. Why’d she call an ambulance?”

          “She didn’t,” I said. “A cop did.”

          “A cop? Why didn’t you tell me she hooked up with a cop? She didn’t tell him what she does, did she?”

          “I told him. He already knew.”

          Finch buried his face in his hands a few seconds, and then looked up again. “They’ll shut the business down!”

          “I don’t think . . .”

          “You’re damn right you don’t think! If you thought, you’d have known the cops’ll be on us like flies. We’ll lose the whole damn business.”

          “I don’t care about the business,” I growled. “I’m worried about Swoosie.”

          Finch didn’t back away. His breath smelled like onions. “Since when did you start falling all over yourself about some whore? What does it matter if she goes and hangs herself? I can trade her in for any girl on the block.”

           At first I didn’t know what to do. Then I caught him by the throat and squeezed as hard as I could. In all the years on the streets I had it in my head that I killed Finch and it was just a matter of time before a cop cuffed me and off I went for the needle in the arm.

           But once I sobered up and left the streets I knew I didn’t kill Finch. I just squeezed until he passed out. Then I left him behind the steering wheel with the engine still coughing. Just like I left everything else behind in that terror of a life.

A Prized Cage by Katy Keffer

My intention is to draw you to the cage. Not into the cage but to it, onto the forest green bars spaced evenly, forming a thin, one-inch box filled with a hot pepper seeded block. My intention is not to ensnare you or trap you, but to showcase you for myself; a selfish self, I seek beauty

before my eyes. I adore the soft bright chocolate brown along your head and back, envy the way black and white peppers the edges of your wings, a muted yellow, as if part of sun’s hidden self, washes over your belly. I seek your beauty, long for you to rest your feather-light feet upon the

cage’s green bars, to grip the unnatural food box that hangs on a tree’s branch, so out of place here.

I spy a victim. But are you really? Are you instead an unaware future recipient of an earthly reward, a prize of man’s making to attract your kind and create nature’s short, sporadic movie? I see you balancing on a branch in view of the cage, just shy of twenty feet, mere seconds in bird’s

flight. Behind panes of glass, I murmur encouragement, “look over there,” an inaudible nudge to your ears. I see you shorten the distance, find logs on the ground, pointing to the prize. You tuck, hop, hide, scamper – a jerky, delicate dance across logs. I whisper, “keep going.”

Then, you take flight, a precise diagonal to the closest leaning tree only a bird’s song away from its thick-bark cousin that holds the cage. I remain hidden behind glass, eyes widening, daring not to move or alert this curious creature. I peer, waiting, hoping, urging this little feathery friend

outside my world to uncover in your world my offer, a Christmas gift to my father who laments the squirrels eating seed intended for their ubiquitous fair flying neighbors.

But father’s squirrels live in another state, scurry across bluegrass lands, in pastures far from this place. There are no squirrels here in sandy Carolina grass. I hear only uplifting birdsongs through loblolly pines, branches that dance up and down, in swaying circles through this late January air. A multitude of shades of browns and greens rest easy on the ground or perch in resolute calm in this patch of land. Brown leaves tuck in beside sleeping gray logs. Tree trunks are lined with a dark gray-brown skin, light gray and lime green coats, yellow-green shawls that wrap themselves in defense of the cold and rain. The rich chocolate brown ball of freedom perches nearby, not yet venturing a visit to the cage. Your eyes dart all around, your head lifts side to side, up and down, in worrisome haste, a jittery life that mirrors mine.

My intention is to draw you to the cage. Seeking not to imprison you but offer nourishment in boxed form, a nod of peace, a bow of thanks for the beauty you bring outside my own glass cage. Standing, all movement ceased, my lips begin a deliberate turn, raise into a smile upon seeing

your last short flight. You see the cage, and you fear it not. You grab hold of its side to sample this hot pepper coated seed mixture, congealed into a square that appeals to your kind, the Carolina Wren, along with your red-headed black and white friends who more often peck the wood of the bark nearby. My grin releases a spoken hum of satisfaction, “you found it!” And I watch this silent movie, unsure of the next showing.

Silent Dreams by Kate Sowinski

 

           The streets of Seville are quieter than I’ve heard them for the past few nights. Outside is a darkness that only 4 a.m. can bring. I don’t remember how I got back to my room. I only know that a man is sleeping next to me and my face is to the window. His body, slick with sweat, is pressed against my back. I try to shift my legs away from the man. It must be a man. His legs feel big, solid. His breath is loud, the weight of him heavy in the twin-size bed. I have the top bunk in this hostel bedroom. I don’t remember him climbing into bed with me, rocking the metal rungs of the ladder with his shifting weight. I wish we were in his bed so I could leave. Scoop my clothes into my arms and disappear.

But it’s my bed. The same view outside I’ve had for three nights. I tell myself I won’t drink tonight, but it’s a lie. It’s always a lie. I don’t drink alone as a rule but isn’t it always drinking alone when you’re lonely. I close my eyes and see the sword. I see the blood, hear the cheers. I open my eyes, but the bull is still there. There are not many places left where you can still see something like that. I thought that meant it was special, a star in the guidebook of Spain. But I’d been wrong. Sweet sangria the color of bull’s blood, the red of their raging eyes. I close my own and pray I don’t dream.

 

            The sun is high, I don’t know if I’m awake in yesterday or today. I feel a thump against my back. The mattress pushed against me.

            “You awake?” The voice below my body asks me.

We’re the only two girls from North America in this room of eight. We’re also the only two girls in this room who start drinking before lunchtime. I rolled an arm off my bed as a confirmation.

           “We missed breakfast.”

            “It’s almost noon. Tapas and sangria?”

            I could hear her lips spread from below. “You read my mind.”

            We get a few nods from the guys in room nine. They know us as Philly and Calgary. We don’t offer anything more, not in the way of information. You never know if you’re going to see the same people the next day, but you do know it doesn’t matter. Backpackers keep it light.

            “Hey.” A tall one with tan skin calls us. I think he said he was from Seattle. “A few of us are going to a bullfight this afternoon, you in?”

            My friend stops, forcing me to stand with her. We look nothing alike, but I bet this guy couldn’t tell the difference in the dark. She wrinkles her nose, tosses her hair. “They still do shit like that? Does anyone die?”

           The guy shrugs, “Tickets were cheap.”

           The one with amber eyes and a long torso comes over. His shoulders are wide. I’ve imagined my hands skimming under his shirt and up his bare back. “It’s a tradition,” he says. He smiles at me. “You’re only here a couple more days, right? You should come, experience some culture.”

           I ignore the fact that we’re all here for a couple more days. I ignore that I’ve overheard him talk about a girlfriend back in England too. Soon this man will only be memories and dreams to me. “Ok, we’ll come.”

           It was hot, and later there will be blood. I wear a dress. We walk down Spanish streets where purple trees line the sidewalk like in Dr. Seuss books I had on childhood shelves. Cafes have their umbrellas out and mist machines turned on. We joke about lawn sprinklers and wet t-shirts. The boy with amber eyes walks alongside me. I wonder if he is as aware of where my hands are as I am of his. We buy tickets at the stadium before we sit down to lunch. All of us try to fit under the same umbrella. My friend speaks Spanish and orders. It’s mostly sangria that arrives at our table.

            A bullfight sounded romantic to me. Where men face down death and women cheered for either outcome. The dirt in the ring was beige, the people around it colorful. You could purchase cushions to sit on over the concrete, but nothing would have made this comfortable. What I hadn’t realized was that they didn’t give the bulls a chance. He’s drugged, dazed, then cut with swords from men on horses. This goes on all before men in capes come out with their own sword to cut the bull again in the most vulnerable places.

            The bull keeps trying though, it doesn’t run from the little man in glittering costume. It fights with blood dripping down its back, snot running from its nose, its tongue limp and dry, but with horns twisted toward the taunting beast in front of it. None of the matches that I stay for does the bull win. Maybe I don’t understand more than the language here, but I wonder about people and their need to feel that they matter, so they kill something that they think doesn’t. But the bull mattered to me. A hulking body on small hooves throwing itself into the sharp pain, either forgetting it was going to happen or not caring that it would.

           After the second match, I stopped watching the bulls in the ring. There’s a beautiful woman two rows down from us. Long brown hair wearing a tank top and white pants. It was so hot, with blood thick in the air, but she doesn’t sweat. Gold jewelry dangles from her arms as she cheers. She stands yelling, yelling for the matador to murder the bulls. She cheers when it’s over and he attaches the bull to the back of his horse, to parade it around the ring for us all to see the kill clearer. She was so beautiful except for her face, so satisfied. Dead bull after dead bull.

          I sit there like a flaked American apple pie in a sweat-wrinkled dress. Red wine staining my stomach, waiting to be taken somewhere by the man with amber eyes who doesn’t know my name. To another bar and then another until I’m too drunk to care. Until I let him on top of me easily. I knew all this and welcomed it. My hand found him, our fingers interlocking. “Want to get out of here?”

ASSASSIN TO THE HEIR APPARENT by Peter Newall

          My name is not recorded anywhere. I will freely tell you my name; it is Gu Losai, but I repeat, you will not find it anywhere, neither on a birth certificate nor a high school diploma,  amongst military or police records, in the records of the Government or the Party, nor anywhere else in the length and breadth of China. Even the official report on the matter says there were only four passengers on the plane. There were five, and I was the fifth.

           I matter only for one reason; I was second secretary to the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, in 1971. At that time, my name was on all kinds of documents, including letters to and from the Great Helmsman, and no doubt my birth certificate and school class roll and diploma still existed then.  

           As second secretary, I was routinely in the Great Helmsman’s office, and occasionally even in his apartment, on official business. One of his apartments, I might say, for he had a number there. But I attended him only in the Library of Chrysanthemum Fragrance. It was to there that I was called to duty one evening in September. That was the evening Lin Biao came to dinner.

Of course I am dead now, as Lin Biao is dead, as – once impossible to imagine – the Great Helmsman is dead. But that night all three of us were alive.

          When I received the call, I left my meal half-eaten and hastened to the apartment. Armed guards wearing white gloves were as usual on sentry duty outside the main door. I showed my pass and was admitted. I was astonished to find no other official there. Only Mao Zedong was in the room, in which food was set out on a low table.

          The Helmsman greeted me warmly, and placed his hand on my shoulder as he spoke to me. This intimacy was such a great shock that my legs weakened, and I trembled. He must have felt me shaking, with his hand resting on my shoulder, but he gave no sign. As I struggled to summon my strength and stop quivering, he asked me if my parents were well. Of course I answered ‘Yes, thank you, Comrade Chairman!’ Actually my father was gravely ill with kidney disease then, but it would have been inauspicious to give the Great Helmsman that answer. Then he said to me, looking directly into my eyes:

         ‘Our dinner guest tonight cannot be allowed to leave, except lying down.’ He gestured to a side table; on it lay a revolver. I stared at this black shiny thing as if it were a snake looking at me. Mao gestured toward it again, nodding his head. ‘You are the only one I trust,’ he said. I could not speak. My mouth was like chalk.

           So it was I who killed Lin Biao. I waited in a side room, and re-entered the central room at exactly nine o’clock, as Mao had instructed me. Only one man was sitting at the table, although it was laid for two, and two had obviously eaten. I knew at once it was Lin Biao. But it did not matter who it was. The Helmsman had told me his guest could only leave lying down. So I walked up to Lin Biao, took out the revolver and shot him in the temple. It was all very quick.

           I realized I had no instructions what to do after this. I put the revolver down on the side table where I had first seen it and was about to leave the room when four men entered, in plain clothes. One was carrying a rolled-up carpet. With astonishing speed and dexterity they unrolled the carpet next to the slumped body of Lin Biao, dragged his corpse onto it, then rolled it again; this time three of them picked it up. The fourth man beckoned to me, and I followed. I didn’t know what else to do.

           We went out a side door, and down a flight of steps. The three men carrying the carpet grunted as they took the weight of the body down the angled stairs. The fourth man walked behind me.

           At the foot of the stairs was another door, which opened onto a courtyard of some sort. It was raining. There were two black cars there, nose to tail. The rolled-up carpet was bundled into the back seat of the first, and two men got into it. The man behind me opened the door of the second car, and told me, ‘Get in.’ I did. What else could I have done?

           We drove – can I say for an hour, because I don’t really know now, although I remember watching Zhongnanhai fall behind us, then the outer parts of the Forbidden City, then industrial areas – until we came to the gates of a military airport. Both cars drove onto the shiny wet tarmac, right up to a plane.

           The rolled-up carpet with Lin Biao’s body was carried up the aircraft’s gangway. The two men in my car got out, and beckoned me again to follow. This time I didn’t want to; I hesitated. The fourth man got out a revolver. ‘Come on,’ he said, and then used my name. I think it must have been the last time my name was ever spoken in China.

           I got out of the car and climbed the metal steps. It was a military aircraft of some sort, I don’t know the types, and had seats along the sides and a big open space in the middle. In that space lay three persons. I don’t know if they were alive or dead; hoods had been drawn over their heads. The rolled carpet was laid next to them. The engines were already running. I could just make out the silhouettes of the heads of two pilots up front; they both wore headphones.

           The plain clothes men turned to leave the plane. I grabbed at the sleeve of the fourth, the only one who had spoken to me. Perhaps I felt we had some understanding, some kinship. ‘Please shoot me now,’ I said. ‘Please.’ He pushed my arm away. They all trooped out and the door was closed.

           So I was sitting on a fold-down seat with four bodies, or three living people and one dead man, at my feet, and we were about to fly somewhere. The aircraft began moving, taxiing, then I almost fell out of my seat as we took off.

           We flew for – again I don’t know; two hours? The plane vibrated and roared, and I had to grip my flimsy seat with both hands. But that didn’t matter. I understood, of course, that I had to die, that I would never get out of this plane. What I didn’t know was how soon I had to die, and how I had to die. That was the terrible part.

           But fear is a strange thing. Sustained for long enough, it becomes exhausting, and provides its own remedy. I swear I had almost nodded off to sleep when there was a great noise, and a violent, heavy blow, as if something had hit us, and I saw fire at the rear of the plane, already inside the fuselage. I heard one of the pilots yelling. ‘Bastards!’ he screamed. ‘Bastards!’

           I could tell we were falling. The fire was licking up the floor toward where I sat. I stared at it, unable to move, barely hanging on to my seat, we were at such a steep angle. Then we smashed into the ground, and the plane exploded, and we were all burned, me, the dead Lin Biao, the three wearing hoods, and the two pilots, however many of us that were still alive when we hit, were burned to death.

           Events shortly after that are not quite clear, but I do know people came to the crash site. We were all decently buried, and I began to feel calmer. But later, and I can remember this more clearly, we were disturbed once more; Russian-speaking men came and dug us all up again. They cut off the heads of two of the corpses, Lin Biao and one whom by then I knew was his wife, Ye Qun. Fortunately they did not remove my head. They buried us all again, except that Lin Biao and his wife were without their heads.

           Since then the time that has passed has brought me some peace. I returned to bardo, and wait quietly in the void. I will not be permitted back on earth for a long time. But while I may be completely unknown down there, I am recognised in this realm. I am one of those, eternally recurring, eternally necessary, whose function in the world is to kill the Heir Apparent. We are a small cohort, the recent ones anyway, and here at least our names are known; Princip, Mercader, Kubiš, Sirhan, Gu Losai.

Look, Sir by Milo Todd

 

           Sir. I can explain. But it’s quite hot and loud out here, so if you’d be so kind as to let us stand closer to this little tree, I’d be much obliged. Yes. Thank you, sir. You’re quite considerate and accommodating. And quite handsome, I’m sure. I feel safer already with you here.

No, sir, this isn’t some sort of sex dust or that other sex dust or whatever else people think queers do in any sense of the word. This is all perfectly legal.

           Yes, sir, so it’s like this. ‘First sign of spring,’ we’d text each other. Every time we saw one of those sweaty, shirtless, muscle twink joggers. Or runners, sorry. Runners hate being called joggers. Oh, you’re a jogger, too? But those were the queers I kept in my sights today, sir. And I must say, they were quite obliging once I explained the situation. Consent all the way.

           Look, sir, the world isn’t as rid of AIDS as we like to think we are. It’s still hitting other countries. It’s still hitting here, too. Only it’s the types most of us don’t really care about, so nobody pays attention. Marty didn’t have the money to live a normal life. We really need to have a talk about accessible healthcare in this country, but—yes, sir, yes, now is not the time.

           Personally, I want to do that new version where they decompose your body so you can become food for a tree. But Marty was never one for trends, so he wanted cremation.

           Have you heard about that one yet, the tree one? It hasn’t quite taken off yet like I would’ve thought. Yes, sir, I guess it doesn’t matter for the moment.

           As for the Super Soaker, sir, that’s just what I had on hand. I’m not even sure where I’d got it from. All I know is that an urn is not him at all, especially one so gaudy. The man had taste. The Super Soaker was the best thing I could find, it spoke to me, and I figured what I couldn’t provide in taste, I could at least make up for in smiles. It even took his smile from him by the end, you know. I can’t forgive it for that.

           But the beautiful thing about a Super Soaker is, when it forsakes its own name, it becomes incredibly docile. Little puffs of dust. One at a time. That’s it. That’s all. Poof.

           Look, sir. It all makes perfect sense if we’d just stop a minute with the whole propriety thing. The world was already sharing the same air as him, so I just wanted to make it a little more permanent. Get him into some hot queer’s lungs and he’ll be with them every time they cum. That gasp of breath, that halt in the chest as the world stops. I knew he’d like that. I knew I’d like that. The world stopped in my chest when he died.

           I’m pretty sure I haven’t done anything wrong here, sir. I fulfilled all of the wishes he left behind and made best guesses for the ones he forgot. Knowing him, he did that bit on purpose. He wanted to see what I’d do.

           Yes, yes, take me in if you must, sir. We can’t even get into the whole cops-at-Pride thing right now, but I would at least like to mention that I have yet to see one help the celebration. You do know how Pride started, right? And yet you’re invited in while I’m still not. Go figure.

           No, sir, I’m not some sort of identifies-as-attack-helicopter person who identifies-as-Super-Soaker. But you know how the joke goes, right? At least attack helicopters are still let into the army.

           You don’t get it? Yes, sir, I know that gays are allowed in the military these days. That wasn’t the joke. Never mind, sir, never mind. No, I really don’t think there’s any need to check my ID. No, sir. If you want to look at my ID, I’m going to request a lawyer or a warrant first. I’m not driving a vehicle, entering a government building, nor anything else that would require my license right now. I’m literally standing here on the sidewalk with everyone else during a parade.

           No, sir, AIDS isn’t contagious through puffs of crematory dust. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a Pride cop? Do they screen you before they give you these assignments? A questionnaire? A quiz? Anything?

           No, sir, I’m not trying to be funny right now. I’m just confused how I can’t have a Super Soaker and you can just carry a gun down a crowded street among people you believe spread AIDS through death dust.

           But yes, sir, we’re getting off topic. I had power of attorney and everybody here consented, is the point. I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything on the books about this. I know because I checked ahead of time. Everything’s on the up-and-up here, sir. This is all just someone returning to his people while returning to the earth. It’s a bit of a shame, though. Everything’s gotten so commercial. The cishets started inviting themselves here once it turned into a party, and then they started complaining about how they were offended by the stuff they weren’t used to. And they won somehow, you know? They won. The amazement of it all in their ignorant audacity. Everything has to be theirs. They say you can’t come into their spaces, so then you create your own and they get mad that they aren’t invited. There wasn’t even any leather allowed this year—

           I see, sir. You still want to take me in? May I ask on what charges?

           Those seem fairly erroneous to my ear, sir, but—yes, yes—it would appear that doesn’t matter. There is just one thing I must ask of you, though. Would you please help me? I need help. Yes, thank you. If you could just stand there a moment. I have just one puff left—

           —Yes, sir, by all means, I assume you’ll take me in by this point for assaulting an officer, as you call it. Your gun’s still full, but mine’s now empty. I’m sure you understand the need; in a way, we both had the same goal for a fleeting moment. It should clean off your pants without too much trouble. No need to get so rough, sir.

           Oh dear, I guess there was an extra puff left in there. My apologies. It’s okay, sir, a few good coughs and you’ll be good as new. Please don’t dwell on it the next time you cum.

           Yes, yes, I know I’m in big trouble. But here’s the thing, sir. There’s quite a lot of people here and heads deep to boot. In the spirit of the season, you’ll have to catch me first.

 

I don’t know if you can hear me right now, Marty dear, but I swear I’ve never heard you laugh so hard in my life.

CRACKERS by Alan Abrams

Crackers was a dog who never knew a leash.

I’ll get to his finer qualities, but first—I must admit that I am not a dog person.  And I’m really not a puppy person.  I don’t like their smell, and I particularly don’t like discovering their turds in my bare feet.

You may think it was Cracker’s misfortune, to come to be raised by me, to be barricaded at night into a corner of the bathroom, but I was the one who had to listen to him squeal.

Man he could piss me off.  Like that time I walked into the trailer house and smelled something.

“What’s that smell?” I demanded.

Mary Ann was sitting across the room reading a book.  Crackers was by her feet, stretched out with his head on his front paws.

“What smell?” she replied.

“Like something died in here.”

“I don’t smell anything.”

Crackers lifted his head and sniffed the air.

“Over here somewhere.”

Mary Ann came over and she smelled it too. The dog came over and sniffed around our feet.  We looked around, but didn’t see anything, so I started searching. Down the hall, into the nook, into the bathroom, the closet. Nothing. Into the bedroom. Nothing. Under the bed. Nothing.

I tromped back down the hall, baffled. The smell seemed worse now.

“Maybe something died under the trailer,” she suggested. So I grabbed a flashlight and went outside. Crackers followed.

I searched under the trailer, but could not find anything obvious. But I still smelled something.

Still baffled, I headed back to the door. There I saw it—the unidentifiable remains of some unfortunate critter, delivered by Crackers, and mooshed into the doormat by a vibram soled boot.  The bootprint, which matched my own size thirteen, was pointed toward the door.

I sat down on the edge of the stoop and lifted my ankle up onto my knee, and twisted my foot up so I could see the sole. More of the remains was embedded in the lugs, and I could see carpet fibers embedded in the glistening tissue. Crackers came over to sniff.

“SHIT!” I hollered, whipping off the boot. “Damn you!” I screamed, flinging it at Crackers. “You stupid dog!”  I bellowed, as the boot chased the dog across the driveway.

But the boot could not catch up with the dog, so it gave up the chase and tumbled into the arroyo.  Crackers just stood there by the fence, looking at me quizzically.

Crackers, however, had a generous heart. He forgave me for throwing the boot, like he forgave me for penning him in the bathroom.

 * * *

Crackers was really Mary Ann’s companion. He’d give me that low growl if I came on to her. Still, we got along fine. Me, throwing a tennis ball, sidearm, just as hard as I could, skimming it down the dirt road. Crackers would tear after it, his paws sending up rooster tails of dust and gravel, until he reached full speed. He’d gallop back with the ball, nearly as fast, like Pete Rose, sprinting up the first base line on a walk, just because he was proud of his powerful legs.

Then I’d fling the ball again, way into the brush. Crackers would search relentlessly, never returning without it, never not eager to go after it again. An hour would pass, just like that.

He was a mutt we picked up at the pound. We got him after we were burglarized, back when we lived on Galisteo Street, in Santa Fe.

I knew who did it, too. It was a skinhead who used to hang around the neighborhood. Don’t ask me to remember his name. He noticed our motorcycles parked behind the wall that formed the miniature courtyard in front of the flat, and struck up a conversation with me. He was wearing a gun on his hip, like some fetish object. “It’s legal, you know, as long as it’s not concealed.”

One evening he knocked on the door and I let him in. He made a feeble effort to make conversation, asking dumb questions about motorcycles. But he just sort of gazed around the room, not listening to the answers.

The next evening we came home and I noticed that a block had been knocked loose from the wall out front. Strange. Inside, it took a moment to discover the guitar was missing. Damn!  Just an old gut string no-name. But still. Ohmygod—where’s my tool chest? It contained a complete collection of Snap-on wrenches and sockets, large and small air wrenches, special tools for Beemers, and some custom tools I had made or modified. It took a day or two to miss the Yashica rangefinder my brother had given me.

So we went to the pound and selected a pup that looked like it might be a german shepherd. He got his name from a dysfunctional character in a John Waters movie.Just for good measure, I bought a gun. Then we moved out of town.

* * *

Crackers grew to be a formidable dog. He looked like a shepherd collie mix: shaggy coat, black, tan, and white, a husky trunk. But his legs were unusually short. You might say, like a Corgi--but three times larger. As odd as he looked, I saw many similar dogs running around the countryside.

Regardless of his lineage, the short strong legs stood him in good stead.  We’d go for jaunts in the high desert, and when we’d come to the edge of a steep barranca, I’d pick him up—all forty five pounds of him—and fling him over the brink. Then I’d leap after him, half free falling, half trotting down the slope, just touching the ground whenever it approached, a quick little double step, tipTAP, tipTAP, not knowing where I was going, or where I would land, letting my boots decide all that. Somehow, we’d always arrive at the bottom, together, upright.

I remember pausing at the rim of a broad, deep arroyo, watching some canyon jays on the opposite side. They were flying around erratically, calling out in crow-like squawks, but in a higher pitch. Just then, I remembered a bird call I had in my wallet. A girl from back east had given me a duck call, a total riff. I had stuffed it in my wallet and forgotten about it.

I sat down on the rim and unwrapped the package. Crackers sat on his haunches beside me as I read the directions. Then I put it up to my mouth and blew. The duck call must have meant something to the jays, because one of them immediately flew over to scope things out. Then a few more flew over. They were calling like mad, and I was calling back, trying to imitate their pitch and intonations. More and more of them came from out of nowhere, and soon there were countless birds, swirling and darting over us and around us. Crackers would follow the flight of one, and then another, wishing he had wings so he could join them. Soon the birds got tired of the game, and one by one, went back about their business.

We slept out in the open that night, under the stars. Whenever I camped out, I was haunted by that scene from Easy Rider, where some thugs club the Jack Nicholson character to death. You could hike way back into the wilderness, imagining no one had ever passed that way before, but no matter where you went, you’d look down and see an empty Coors can or a spent rifle shell. Before I went to sleep, I tied a thong around my wrist, with the other end tied around the revolver’s trigger guard. It was comforting to feel the warmth from the dog next to me.

His stirring woke me in the middle of the night. The Milky Way sprung up out of the mountains beyond, and ranged over our bodies. In the distance, a pack of coyotes was singing.

I reached over and grabbed the loose flesh behind his ear, and kneaded it firmly. He hunkered back down and closed his eyes.

* * *

It’s been a while since I heard a coyote song, but from time to time, I still can hear a distant feral call in the distance from time to time. Time was, whenever I heard it, I would slip my leash—always one I would wriggle into voluntarily, eagerly—I would leap off the edge with no clue, no care, of what the next step would be. But somehow those journeys have taken me to a place where I am content, happy to listen to the call without giving chase.

Intruder by Gillian Wills

           Tom had invited friends to dinner. Despite the pesky flies and withering heat, Lucy was cooking. She played chef during her annual visit which wasn’t such a burden because the kitchen’s rammed-earth floors, the range and well-stocked pantry inspired her. She coddled the steaming curry with a wooden spoon, waltzing diced potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant strips around a cast-iron pan. She tasted the sauce. Not bad, not bad at all, but it begged for chili.

           Inside the walk-in pantry, she looked for a jar of it. She brushed dead moths off old cans of tomatoes on the lowest shelf and recoiled at a mouse trap in the corner, its shrivelled victim long since dead. She closed her eyes and breathed in the pantry’s peppery smell to banish the image. Traps disgusted her. She loathed cruelty towards animals and Toby, her partner, accused her of preferring them to people.

           When she opened her eyes, she noticed an unopened bottle of chili and she reached for it. But her fingers froze, a black ropy thing, like a thick stock whip, was partly coiled around the base of it, the rest of the snake’s black length stretched along the shelf. Lucy admired the snake’s ebony sheen and she was spellbound by the elegance of the probing head and the slow unspooling of its tail. Shocked by her chance intrusion into a secret world, she recalled how time and time again, she’d unknowingly stood beside it when she’d taken fennel seeds, turmeric and nigella from the shelf directly opposite. All the while, the viper was hidden within a thicket of designer oils, including the unopened lemon myrtle she and Toby gifted Tom last year.

           In Tom’s hideaway, she’d seen bats, echidnas, emus, wombats, hares and wedge-tailed eagles. Once, thrillingly, a super-sized goanna, and yet, in fifteen summers, she’d never seen a snake. She backed out of Tom’s trove of culinary treasures, her feet airy as a spider’s. She closed the door, wiped her clammy face on her sleeve. She took a moment to decide whether to tell Toby and Tom about it. She didn’t want them to kill the snake, nor did she want Toby or Tom to try and catch it in case they got hurt. A snake catcher wouldn’t come, because Tom’s off-the-grid property in Australia’s Upper Hunter was ten-kilometres off the road. The property’s entrance so discreet it wasn’t found, except by Tom’s closest friends who knew to look out for a dented hubcap propped against a tree.

***

           She told them about the snake, not because she was alarmed by it as Toby annoyingly thought, but she wanted them to avoid a confrontation. Needless to say, her discovery sparked a kerfuffle. Tom grabbed a hefty, wildlife book buried under a stash of dusty mags, and, sitting at his big country table, he leafed through pages of snake mugshots.

           Toby shone a torch on every shelf and revealed gluten free pasta, pancake mix, dried mushrooms and vanilla essence, but the blue-bellied black – rare, venomous and territorial, according to Tom’s intel – had fled. Toby insisted it would be in the bush by now.

           After dinner, Toby, Lucy and three guests idled in Tom’s Mediterranean-styled courtyard. Lucy’s mind drifted; she’d had too much wine and the stifling morning and reptilian surprise had drained her. Whenever Tom had a captive audience, he loved to play music at ear-splitting volume because, he always said, there’s no one to hear it except us. Lucy wondered, as she’d done many times before, how he could say such a thing when there were emus, wallabies and kangaroos galore in the surrounding bush. 

           Soon, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony crackled through the speakers but, with Tom’s broad tastes, it could just as easily have been Snoop Dog, Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift. It was dark, but light streamed from the living room and made the garden partially visible. Tubs of tomatoes framed the rectangular garden bed and a wisteria’s purple blooms hung like jumbo earrings from a trellised arch. When Toby pointed at the Southern Cross tattooed on the star-filled sky, Tom pulled up a chair beside Lucy. She anticipated his gratitude for the dinner, which had turned out really well. Instead, he warned her not to trumpet challenges to the heat-slugged bush.
           ‘Whatever d’you mean?’
           ‘Remember our conversation this morning?’
           ‘Yes, of course.’
           ‘Dramatically, you proclaimed, “I’ve never seen a snake here.”’
           ‘Right.’ Lucy nodded.
           ‘Be careful.’ Tom waved his beer back and forth like a windscreen wiper.

           ‘Why?’

           ‘Because you got your wish.’

           ‘Tom, that snake lives here, I just happened to see it. The house is uninhabited maybe eight or nine months a year. Does it matter?’

           Tom swigged on his beer, absently patting her knee as if she were Ziggy, his cattle dog and turned away.

           Irritated, she tuned into the second movement’s marching rhythm – dum dee-da, dum dee-da – but her eye glimpsed movement. A slender torso reared up in front of her poised to strike. How regal, how arch, its mouth a menace of a grin. Beethoven was forgotten. She no longer heard the conversational hum. The space between her and the others might as well have been the distance from the earth to the moon.

           ‘Snake. Help. Now.’ Lucy froze.

           Toby sprang to his feet. His shadow cloaked her aggressor and the blue-bellied black speared across loamy, moonlit ground. Lucy’s heart thrummed in her ear. The snake had singled her out. She’d invaded its territory. Maybe her fingers had brushed against its scales. Her face flamed.  

           The beery debrief afterwards exasperated Lucy. She’d heard plenty of reptilian tales: a tiger snake woven through a cattle grid, a horse and rider chased by a taipan, a tangle of snakes spinning in foaming floodwater, a bulging python post kitten brunch. Snake yarns were an Australian custom, they plumped out a chat, filled a silence and even sparked attraction as she and Toby had discovered.

***

           Later, in the darkness, Lucy, torch in hand, headed for the private bathroom which was coyly situated at the end of a long corridor. Drawing near, she realised the diagonal crack across the pressed earth floor was the serpent. Time halted, silence eddied around her, she drifted in a void.

 

           When nature’s song trilled again, Lucy held her breath and backed away slowly in a Tai Chi move. She watched the snake ease its length across the path, like a bow drawn across a cello string, until its tail disappeared under the trellis wall. She wouldn’t tell anyone about it this time. Tom’s Mediterranean styled dwelling was situated within three hundred acres of dry scrub and the creature had every right to be there.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Music

Catch 22 by Rivky Gee

00:00 / 03:55

The Waters Edge by The Odd Birds

00:00 / 03:53

Gog Bless The Day That You Were Born by Joel Peckham

00:00 / 04:21

Emerging from the Sonnenberg Tunnel by Keith Morris

00:00 / 03:28

Hold Me by Bobbo Byrnes

00:00 / 04:21

Frost by Meng Ren

00:00 / 03:50

Movin' Forward by Robin Echo Young

00:00 / 02:21

The Wayfarer by Karyn Patridge

00:00 / 02:38

When I see you again by Jessamyn Rains

00:00 / 03:33