Superman

A creative essay by G. David Schwartz


My eight-year-old son goes into a frenzy each time Clark Kent leaves Lois Lane and returns as Superman. The child is sufficiently wise, or sufficiently naive, to know that clothes do not make the person.

Clothes occasionally, however, unmake the person.

People should not be fooled by the removal of glasses or a slight modification in the way a person wears a hat or carries a glove. My son, at such a tender age, is capable of cutting through the superficiality of appearance in order to reach the ontology of identity.

He knows that Clark Kent is Superman and Superman is Clark Kent. He is not yet, at age eight, to the stage where he knows that Superman is Steve Rieves, or George Reeves.

The identities of Clark Kent and the Man of Steel are frequent topics of conversation in our house. Why doesn’t Lois notice the obvious?

Why doesn’t Jimmy? Lois claims to have a romantic interest in Superman and to resist the supposed romantic intentions of Kent. Jimmy claims to be Clark’s best friend.

To complicate matters, these people are reporters, trained with a critical eye. Perhaps the Superman series, movie, and television revival are a collective satire?

In each of the venues through which Superman has made an incarnation, including the comic book, Superman engages our willing suspension of disbelief against the hard and newsworthy evidence of our eyes. Or, as Dan puts it, they are stupid. Neither of us are convinced that the issue of putting on or taking off glasses as a disguise of identity is a secret meant to be shared between the “actors” and the audience. Dan might say the “actors” want us to be as daft as Lois and Jimmy.

In my opinion, the writers and producers are propagating the obviously false idea that small changes betoken major events, a notion that might help them sell mascara or hair coloring, ointments and creams.

I have to admit that I enjoy Dan’s agony or, more correctly, the fact that his mild disturbance results in our continually talking about the issue.

The television, movie, and comic book’s loss of recognition is our gain. I also enjoy the fact that when I was Dan’s age I, too, shouted at the television for Lois to get a little critical distance and notice that Clark was Superman.

I phrased it thus: “Don’t be so stupid.”

Being privy to secrets of one kind or another can be a burdensome thing.

Perhaps Dan, as I once did, nourishes the hope that Lois, too, has a secret. Perhaps she will turn to Clark at some point or another and say, “Hey, Clark. Want to hear something really funny? I’ve known for years you’re Superman. That’s right. I’ve known it all along. But I’ve done the decent thing, the human thing, and kept your secret because you’ve wanted it that way. But here’s the funny part. Here’s the really funny part. I have a secret, too. You see, I’m not Lois Lane. I’m…”

But I go astray.

Attributing to Lois a moral stance, the secret that she has never betrayed Clark’s secret, has the advantage of allowing us to see her in some way other than stupid. In fact, if my hypothesis is correct, Lois did such an outstanding job of keeping the secret and buttressing her knowledge by playing the utter fool that she needs to be designated the very best actor on the show—possibly in history.

Lois not only knew and did not tell; she did not behave in any manner that would have led her co-workers to know she knew. Jimmy, I assume, is just stupid.

Perhaps that’s the point of fantasy and fancy, miracle stories and other culture-bound inspiring work: to enkindle us with questions and statements of what we know to be obvious.

What is obvious to one person is a deep mystery to the next. What can best be done in those situations is to arrange conversations not between those who know it all and those who know nothing… The conversations that need be arranged are between those who know the obvious and those who know the obvious as mysterious. Each will gain by being informed by the other.

I did not understand the fact that the identity issue was a charade until I was older. Not Lois, but Clark, was in a predicament about expressing character issues.

It was, after all, Superman who purchased glasses—a symbol of seeing clearly—he did not need. Superman clothed himself in conventional clothing and hid his functional suit. Superman was the one who wanted to look like less than what he was.

I did not understand this until I had to purchase glasses. Until I purchased them, I not only did not recognize their benefits and virtues, but claimed I did not need them.

Perhaps the refusal to change appearance is vanity. Perhaps dressing in style is a vane conceit. Perhaps switching glasses, or clothing, or hair styles, is to engage in the ebb and flow of appearance.

Perhaps the becoming and changing of reality occurs, as it were, through the vessels of our clothing. Or, perhaps the identity, not the duality, of Clark and Superman is more real than any of the “spectators'” concentration on glasses in one scene and removal in the next. Perhaps consistency of change is more important than identity. Or perhaps not.

That’s the way it is with “perhaps”.

I knew my eyes were bad for some time, but thought I could live without the sheer anguish of glasses; I had been accustomed to wearing glasses to see into the distance, but slowly, ever so slowly, the lenses deteriorated—they didn’t work as well as they once had. The fact of faulty lenses did not bother me; all it meant was that I was becoming accustomed to not seeing as many things, a condition I rationalized as acceptable given some alternatives.

Well, it was acceptable until those other cars on the highway suddenly began appearing in lanes where they had not been moments before.

So I needed new glasses. So what! I would get them. Some day. In the mean time, I’ll just drive a little slower. You’ve wanted me to drive slower for years.

And now I will. So there!

What was most annoying was that I noticed, faster than a speeding bullet, that I could not see things up close.

I could not read as easily as I had so recently been able to do: When I first became aware of it, I was curious to know if the economy was so horribly bad that all books were now being printed in a fuzzy, obviously cheap, ink.

Then I began to notice that the economy was so terribly bad that even books I had possessed for years had retrospectively been affected.

“Why are you holding that book so close to your face?”

I resisted the urge to say the reason was because I was convinced it was a razor.

I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, such a statement would not make my reasonable defense against getting new glasses so reasonable. I do not know who first uttered the word “bifocal”, but I adamantly refused to purchase glasses that would make me look like my grandmother.

Split lenses, indeed! I already was bi-focal. Some things I could see, and some I could not see.

So I ended up getting two pairs of glasses. One pair was simply for seeing (which, as suggested above, I was accustomed to doing); the other, which had a secondary purpose, bore the less obnoxious name “reading glasses”.

I despise the very concept of bifocals, with their smug suggestion of growing old and their self-complacent suggestion of double vision. It suggests indecisiveness, and the one thing I am not is indecisive, I think.

So I made an appointment with the optometrist and explained sadly to Dan, “I can no longer see through these things.” I grew instantly accustomed to the reading glasses. I could see what I was reading without squinting or straining my eyes.

Reading was enjoyable again.

Because my long-distance vision was corrected perfectly with the glasses I had, and would remain so for a solid week after I received my new reading glasses, I chose to have two pairs of glasses.

Consequently, I grew accustomed to switching back and forth between corrective lenses. I grew accustomed, that is, to taking off one identity (one set of circumstances, requirements, and modes of being) and putting on another.

I became, in a phrase, a virtual Superman of the visceral world.

I felt great. I felt like I was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—if I was standing atop their roofs and had overcome my fear of heights.

Now, if I could only break the habit of whipping off a pair of glasses and staring into my son’s eyes—or an imaginary camera if he is not available—and saying, “I’m Batman.”


G. David Schwartz is the former president of Seedhouse, an online interfaith committee. Schwartz is the author of A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue (1994) and Midrash and Working Out of the Book (2004). He is currently a volunteer at Cincinnati, Ohio’s community center, the J (Mayerson JCC); and Meals On Wheels. His newest book, Shards And Verse (2011) is now in stores, and can be ordered online.
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Cupcake Mistake

A short story by Glen Donaldson


This felt neither odd nor quirky, just wrong. Instinctively, even culturally, ‘sunglasses at night’ wrong. At the distinct risk of laboring the point, a hundred shades of wrong with counter-intuitive thrown in to match. In fact, a degree of wrong on such a scale Glorbert Fletcher’s personal amber alert had had no choice but to go into immediate car alarm mode. And now the most ill-fated and far reaching of consequences were set to follow.

Moments before, unsuspecting Glorbert had been forced to watch, in something approaching mouth-gaping horror, the sight of his fiancée of precisely twenty-six and a half weeks, the love of his life Taliqua Clancy, use her privileged right index finger to separate, in one sweeping, seemingly well-practiced motion, every last butter cream-based molecule of the St Patrick’s Day-green icing from the cupcake she had held poised ready to eat in her hand. Incredibly, for Glorbert, she then inserted the denuded mini sponge into her open mouth and flicked the discarded icing into a foot operated trash bin resting in the far corner of the room.

‘Freakshow’ was the ungracious pronouncement that filled Glorbert’s head with the force of a judge’s gavel smashing down on a wooden sound block. He’d been somehow able to overlook Taliqua’s past series of offbeat indiscretions, those such as serving milk with dinner or fried chicken with waffles and syrup. He’d managed to convince himself to almost-but- not-quite accept her regular purchase of bizarrely apportioned three liter wine bottles. And recently he’d been worn down to such an extent he’d even bowed to her habit of pouring milk into a bowl and adding the cereal last. But this?

A travesty of this magnitude caused the whole delicately poised pack of personal-habit playing cards to come cascading down in spectacular fashion, coming to rest in a scattered heap at the base of his feet. He felt an ancestral chill run down his spine, for he knew what it all meant. The preference for cheese from a squeeze can, the deep fried oreos, and the spam, especially the spam, had all been little red flags trying to gain his attention with an unsavory message he hadn’t been ready to hear. Separating icing from a cake like this meant there would be no cake. Separation yes, but definitely no cake.

He chanced a final look at the dented silver trash bin that now contained the cast-off green icing, before having his gaze come to rest once more upon his once-beloved Taliqua. He regarded her now, for the first time, as a stranger he’d once known. Glorbert’s mind began churning, like the milk-eggs-flour-butter-mix-covered stainless steel blades of the blender he’d used so lovingly to make those very cupcakes not the day before. Words fell out of his mouth like vapor, though he’d intended them to land in Taliqua’s guts like shrapnel.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

“Do what?” she replied innocently, her expression advising she was unaware of the unfolding
calamity.

“What you just did.”

“Oh that? That’s what those bins have a pedal for, isn’t it?”

This was the trouble treating people like fools, thought Glorbert to himself as he began scanning Taliqua’s face, this time rapidly, from eye to eye, as though she were a magician’s ball-under-which-cup game. You had no way of knowing whether the other person was doing the same thing back to you. How is it possible, Glorbert wondered, to know you are in denial and yet snuggle into the feeling anyway? It was clear to him she had retained her talent for being completely unaware of what was bugging him.

But now, now it was time for him to get serious with Taliqua. Time to descend upon her from the rafters with a full roll call of all her exasperating, maddeningly eccentric ways. Carrying out his own little prenup, pre-decided exit strategy would follow. There was just one thing he had to do before any of that though. He simply had to retrieve that precious abandoned icing from the trash bin. Scooping it out lovingly as though it were some precious, about-to-be memorialized baby placenta, and placing it in the fridge on a china plate next to a plastic wrap covered container of asparagus gave him comfort and made breathing easier. Relationship-destroying idiosyncrasies might be one thing, but to the unbending mind of Glorbert Fletcher, sheer waste was plain unforgivable.


Glen Donaldson’s writing style has been described as “an intriguing combination of Tolkien, Donaldson and Abercrombie”. This is astonishing to him on precisely two counts.

Glen blogs at SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK.

Swamp Thangs

A short story by Susan H. Evans


Blond, thirty-something Cousin Billy tells me, “Sue, we need to rent a canoe and go down the Congaree Swamp.” Trawling through a South Carolina bog with B-movie creeptoids and festering sloughs seems too attractive to miss. I phone my daughter, Laura, that saucy blue-eyed minx, and she is in.

The day of our trip dawns sunny, and soon reaches 75 degrees. Before leaving his Charlotte condo, Billy asks prudently, “Aren’t you all bringing a change of clothes?” I don’t really see the point, but Laura and I tuck extra jeans and tee-shirts in our backpacks.

At Congaree National Park, we stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a map. Over the center’s entrance, a small chalkboard reads, “Be aware of submerged logs.” Hmmm. Oh well, who cares about a couple of dinky floating sticks?

At Cedar Creek parking lot, the banana-colored canoe is heavy as a pregnant elephant when we try to get it off the roof of Billy’s car. Under Bannister Bridge, Billy tells me to sit in the canoe middle since I weigh the least. He vaults in next to roost in front while Laura steadies the canoe—bucking like a bronco on Ritalin—from the bank. Then she flops in. I smile. Fraught with danger already, and we have just launched. It takes a gutsy woman like me to venture into the swamplands like this.

We glide peacefully under the forest canopy, with the river as silky as a blue ribbon, paddling past bald cypress and otherworldly water tupelo, their roots exposed like gums in a very pathogenic mouth, anchored in the bowels of the swamp. We row past a few downed trees and floating logs but manage to paddle around them. I love this oozy place.

After an hour of seeing no one, we row to a low-lying area and pull the canoe up on the shore, stretch our legs, and take a couple of pictures. Then we get back in the canoe. This time, Cousin Billy thinks it best for Laura to sit in front with me again in the middle.

Halfway back, Laura—redolent of Lot’s wife that just had to take one last look at Sodom burning—turns and leans sideways, saying “I think we are about to hit a log.” It is an ill current that flows no good. Her weight to the right as we smash into the log does it. Our canoe pitches forward and butts heads with another poorly appointed floating log.

I barely have time to utter, “Here we g-o-o-o-o,” before catapulting over the side of the canoe like a rag doll pitched over Niagara Falls. I eventually stand up, sputtering a gurgling profanity, looking like a cat that has been dropped in a toilet, my hair plastered to one side of my head. The pockets of my denim jacket full of water weigh on me like sacks of ball bearings.

Laura, with all the natural grace of a rhinoceros, half-falls and half jumps out of the canoe, while Billy strategically scrambles into the fen before the craft turns over, and starts a slow descent into the bog. Billy takes charge and tells me that I must get out of the quagmire. I manage to squeak, “How?” He picks me up like I am a Dutchboy knickknack and sits my soggy bottom on a log.

Then Billy tells Laura, “Let’s just get the canoe up.” Laura scrabbles to help, and Billy, with herculean force, heaves it at a 45 degree angle onto the bank.

Meanwhile, I am morphing into an amphibian. Billy looks around and fixes his blue eyes on me turning green on my bole. He resignedly says, “Sue, you need to walk to the shore.” Shivering like a naked Floridian in February Fairbanks, I eye the thin layer of dark chocolate slime over the heavy leaf sludge. Screwing up my last crumbs of courage, I slog to shore, my sneakers filling up with muck as I go, and my throat in a wet pocket of my jacket. I make it to shore and find a rock jutting out of the sand, and soak into it as I wring out my socks, curse the swamp, and wonder why God hates me so.

As Billy puzzles out how we will all get back in the canoe, a flotilla of 20 or so curious gawkers in a tour group slowly move by, plying their oars smoothly in the water. Some faces register sympathy, some barely conceal mirth, but most just look at us sourly. Two hours in the water. Seeing no one. Now they appear.

The plump female ranger eyes our errant water bottle floating downstream, and motions to the bottle, suggesting gaily that we go get it. Billy and I ignore her; both of us would rather even poke her in the eye with a burnt oar than go after that bottle.

Later, Billy, Laura, and I get back to the parking lot. I retrieve my dry clothes from Billy’s Hyundai, and in soggy jeans waddle to the port-o-let. It reeks of abject defeat. I sigh.

Months later, Laura asks quite innocently, “How come we turned over?”

Return from the Land of Olive Pits

A short story by Susan H. Evans


Our flight out of Porto’s TAP, possibly meaning “Try a Pushcart,” airport is scheduled for 6:40 a.m. Christiana, our glib Portuguese cruise director, assures us that only one pilot’s union is on strike and she will alert us about flight cancellations 24 hours in advance.

At 15 minutes to 4:00, on the morning of our flight, I arise from a sleepless night, tangled and strangled in bedclothes, to the sound of Stan’s funereal voice: “Susan. It is time to get up.” Stan shuffles off for breakfast. He returns at 4:00, and we wrestle luggage outside our cabin for the porters. I ask Stan if he inquired about our airport cab, and – not one to ponder the immediate future – he did not. So he bounds back up the steps to ask. I throw on already worn tee shirt, jeans and raincoat. It is dark and drizzling as we clamber over the metal walkway bridging the Douro River to the shore. The ship’s lights dance on the water. A pot-bellied driver waits, his car motor humming. I wearily climb in the back of the cab. A rosary dangles from the cab’s rear-view window and the taxi maneuvers through the wet streets. We arrive at the Porto airport at 4:30. But all the swinging rosaries in Rome won’t help this morning.

The driver swivels around in his seat and in heavily accented English announces, “Twenty euros, por favor.”

Stan, in his own mid-Western accent, explains that the ship is to pay for the ride and tells the cabbie, “Call the ship.” The man can’t understand and jibber-jabbers angrily, thinking we are English-speaking lowlifes. I stay mute in my morning fog. Stan throws a credit card at the man. The card reader promptly refuses it. Stan fishes another credit card out of his wallet, but the result is the same. I have no euros and keep my Visa to myself.

The argument drones on. Stan, a 72-year-old reedy former LAPD cop, darkly threatens to alert the policíal, one of the few Spanish words he knows, except for the phrase, “Drop your weapon and put your hands in the air.” The threat to call the law seems to work because the driver and Stan slam out of the cab.

I superglue myself to the cab’s backseat, afraid that Stan will push the driver’s taximeter too hard and the man will speed away with my valuables in the trunk. My pink and purple earrings and frog matador tee shirt are priceless. To me, anyway.

When I hear the welcome sound of the car trunk click open and the thunk of our suitcases hitting the pavement, I untangle myself out of the cab’s backseat, collect my battered blue suitcase, and scurry through the automatic doors of the airport like a squirrel with its eye on a newly fallen acorn. I’ll let the men sort it out. I have a plane to catch.

Stan catches up with me just before an escalator, and says breathlessly a cruise employee appeared and appeased the cab driver. We settle on metal chairs to wait for our gate to open and the plane to board. Time leaks away like water in a clogged-up sink, and we don’t board. Ten minutes before we are scheduled to fly out of Portugal to Madrid, people around me start rising, shaking their heads, and gathering their belongings. I snare a young man who tells me, “Si, our flight has been cancelled. Pilot’s strike.”

Over at nearby Gate 6, I spy a Senora in Charge. High heels. Swinging high glossy black ponytail. Coat in lime green. Like refugees fleeing bombed-out Berlin circa 1945, we hightail over to Gate 6. The woman crisply tells us, “Collect your luggage and come to the third floor.”

After an interminable wait for suitcases, we race to the third floor, only to find Porto-Bombay, sitting and standing dark-haired people and piled luggage in a long spread out queue. No sign of Lime Coat.

After an hour waiting, I wander off to find a restroom and spot the green-coated senora. I rush up to her and beg, “Will I be able to reach the United States any time today?” Again, a curt reply to bring my bags and follow her. I race off for Stan and the woman walks us over to a counter where a man in his early twenties sits at a computer.

After tapping some keys, he says that the earliest flight out to Madrid is tomorrow morning at 8:10 AM. We protest, and look suitably deranged – Stan, with his wispy white hair saluting the air and Polish face screwed up in a scowl, and me, whiny and pitiful in a salmon raincoat and with frizzing red hair – that the startled young man considers other options to get rid of us. He allows that we COULD go by train to Lisbon’s airport and might be able to fly to Madrid today.

I explain to Stan what the young man says since Stan can only pick up the sound of a speeding train two feet away. Not an option for him. He is antsy to go home to eat his next breakfast at the Outback Steak House and ride his lawn mower. And neither of us is convinced that we won’t have our flight cancelled again in the morning, so we race downstairs to catch the next metro.

We ride the metro for 40 minutes to the long distance train station. Wallpapered with damp people, Stan and I scrunch up in two adjoining train cars. We are to get off at the Campanhã station. Although I am limp as an old rag, hungry, and drowsy, I must stay alert. Someone must. The effervescent Stan nods off, his head buried in the neck of his navy jacket like a turtle, just when the train announcer, over a crackling intercom, intones our stop. At my pantomime request, three young women poke Stan and frantically motion to the door.

The train station is outside through a courtyard. Rain beats a staccato on the breezeway. I open my suitcase and drag out my new lambswool sweater from Barca D’Alva and my Walmart umbrella. Cobblestones crunch under our feet.

Stan and I board the train, bone-tired and swimmy-headed. As we steam south to Portugal’s capital in economy seats, the trains’ green shutters flap in the wind and a watery gray landscape flies by. We disembark to find hundreds of animated teenagers and an expensive looking shops surrounding us. Bewildered, we finally realize that we are not at the airport on our way to a concourse, but stranded at a far distance from where we need to be. It is a terminal condition.

I approach some young Spaniards who say we need to ride Bus 44 to get to Terminal 1. They wave us off in an easterly direction where the bus ostensibly shows up from time to time. I suggest to Stan that we hail a cab. His unshaven face reveals a miserly and wizened money-clutching soul, but he reluctantly agrees. Then he grumbles bitterly like he had been pricked by the devil’s pitchfork when the cabbie announces a whopping fare of 4 euros.

We get new boarding passes at Terminal 1. Stan is in front of me in the security line, grabs his suitcase, and sprints off to find our gate like an ancient stallion on steroids. I lift his boarding pass out of the tub on the conveyor belt and follow the signs to our gate.

Seeing My First Dead Person

A short story by Alan Balter


“Funeral homes,” “funeral parlors” or “funeral chapels”—whatever they’re called, people are dying to get in. Hah!

I was 12 years old at the time, almost 13, in the seventh grade at school. It was April; the last of the dirty snow had melted, and it was getting light enough for the neighborhood kids to come out after dinner. Even better, the softball season was starting, and I was ready to take my position in left field. The first time out there in the spring meant the end of winter and the joy of running free again.

I got to school in the morning and joined a group of my classmates who were standing in a circle talking and waiting for the bell to ring. Someone passed around some Chiclets, little pieces of gum with mint flavor. Vincent Abbinanti was practicing “Rock the Cradle” with his Duncan yoyo, and Frankie Schmidt was spinning a metal top. He could bring it up and make it spin on his hand: To me a very amazing trick.

Lorraine Lucas, who wore lipstick and eye makeup and had a fine rack by the end of sixth grade, stopped cracking her gum for a second and told us that Carmine Bellazinni’s father had passed away.

“Yep,” she said, “my mom told me he ‘expired’ yesterday while he was changing a flat tire on his car. Probably a heart attack.”

“Do you mean he died?” I asked

“Yeah, like deceased,” Lorraine said.

“What’s with the fancy words?” I asked. “Dead is dead, y’know? And it doesn’t matter what you call it.”

“Yeah,” Vincent said, “especially to the person who croaked.”

“Well anyway, some of us should go to the funeral parlor,” Lorraine said. “Carmine is our classmate and friend, so we should go and tell him we’re sorry that his father expired. That’s what you’re supposed to do, y’know? Like, pay your respects to the family of a deceased person.”

At the dinner table that evening I told my parents what had happened. They agreed that going to the funeral chapel would be a nice thing to do.

“You’ll need to take a bath, put some Brylcreem on your hair, and wear clean clothes and your new shoes,” Dad said.

“Well, what am I supposed to do when I get there?” I asked. “I mean, am I allowed to talk, and how long am I supposed to stay? Do I sit down or just stand around with the other kids from school who won’t know what to do either?”

“Walk in quietly with your classmates and look for Carmine and his mother,” Mom said. “When you see them, go up to them, shake their hands, and tell them how sorry you are for their loss. Stay for just a few minutes, and before you leave, you might tell Carmine that if he needs help with anything, like the schoolwork he’s missing, he should ask you.”

The next morning eight of my classmates were wearing their new shoes, too. They would be going with me to visit Carmine at the funeral parlor after school. The rest of the kids took a pass. My guess was that they were planning to pay their respects after Carmine got back to school or maybe send him one of those sympathy cards that tells a person how sorry you are for their loss.

During class, Mrs. Peppin, our teacher, asked if any of us were going to the funeral parlor. When a few of us raised our hands, she said, “It’s nice of you to go; be on your best behavior, and don’t stay long. You might want to tell Carmine we’re all praying for him and his family.”

I’d never spent much time praying, but I thought old “Peppy,” the nickname for our teacher, gave us some good advice. I liked her even though she had buck teeth and put on too much perfume every morning.

When the bell finally rang at three o’clock, we headed out together on the four-block walk to the funeral parlor on Madison Street. For the first three blocks, we were playing around like kids usually do. A few of the guys were teasing Rosita Contreras and pulling her hair. A couple of other girls were giggling and whispering secrets, all the while checking out their reflections in the store windows. The guys were mostly talking about baseball, except for Billy Comforti, who was making fun of Peppy, who couldn’t hear very well and once told him to, “put it on the blackboard,” when he asked for permission to go to the restroom.

As soon as we saw the funeral home, though, everyone got real quiet; I think “mute” is the word for it. And, when we got to the entrance, each of us waited for someone else to open the door and walk in. Finally, Linda Ciccelli took the lead and the rest of us followed. Inside, the lights were dim and some soft organ music was playing. A few people, relatives and friends of Carmine’s family I guessed, were milling around and talking in soft voices. There were bouquets of flowers all over the place giving off a real sweet smell that almost made me sick. A bunch of chairs were arranged in neat rows, even though no one was sitting. A priest was there too, with the black suit and backward collar, talking to Carmine’s mom and some other folks.

Carmine was off to one side looking uncomfortable, kind of stiff I’d say, in a suit and tie. He was standing next to his mom whose eyes were red from crying. I went over and told them how sorry I was for their loss, like I was supposed to do. The rest of my classmates did the same, and that’s when I should have said “Arrivederci” (“goodbye” in the Italian tongue) to Carmine and his mom and gone home. Instead, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark wooden coffin with Carmine’s dad all stretched out on his back with his hands folded over his chest. He was decked out in his own suit and tie, and he looked very gray. He was the first dead person I had ever seen, and I didn’t want to look at him too much, but I couldn’t help it.

Eileen Spiegel, Larry Farkus, and I walked over to the coffin, got down on our knees on some soft cushions, and stared at Mr. Bellazinni, who was looking more and more gray with every passing second.

An adult standing behind me, a relative I think, who was fat and smelled of booze, said, “He looks so peaceful, almost like he’s asleep. Surely, he’s with the angels now, in a better place.”

All the time I was thinking that Mr. Bellazinni wasn’t sleeping at all. He was as dead as a brick, and he was never going to wake up from any kind of peaceful slumber, either. Maybe he was with some angels in a better place, but there were a whole lot of better places that I’d rather be, including left field, religious school, a piano lesson, cooped up in the library on a sunny day, or even the dentist’s office when he’s coming at me with his drill and his hand is shaking. Fact is, the whole thing was starting to creep me out, so I gave my place on the cushion to the fat guy who smelled of booze.

Finally, we said goodbye to Carmine and his mom and headed out into the sunlight. A few of us, including me, were scared. Actually, I’d say that all of my classmates were scared, even Vincent Abbinanti who was usually not afraid of anything, but none of us wanted to admit it.

When you’re scared because you’ve just seen your first dead person, you want to get home as soon as you can. So, I walked as fast as I could, even ran some, in order to make sure I made it home before dark. All the time I was thinking that I should have given the whole thing a pass like most of my classmates did. Carmine wouldn’t have cared much if I hadn’t shown up at the funeral chapel to stare at his dead father. Fact is, he probably wouldn’t have missed me at all, and his mom wouldn’t have given it a thought either.

Truth is, I had nightmares for months. In most of them, Mr. Bellazinni and his gray face were chasing me. One time he caught me, and when I looked at his face, it was me. Another time I was back on the soft cushion again, and Mr. Bellazinni sat up in his dark wooden coffin and pointed a skeleton finger at me.

Of course, I’ve been to many funeral parlors since my first visit. I’m always relieved when the coffin is closed, and when it isn’t, I stay in the back, as far away from the gray person as I can.

Vincent Abbinanti and I are still friends after all these years. I meet him for lunch almost every week, and we both remember going to Mr. Bellazinni’s funeral. I told Vincent that if he doesn’t come to my funeral, I won’t go to his. Hah!

Backseat

A short story by Mike Lee


We were on the road again, with Kansas nothing flying by on the narrow
Interstate strip, barreling toward Salina, to take the turnoff south through Oklahoma, and to old homeland Texas.

I sat in the back with my daughter, both of us bitching about the cold. Won full custody of her the month before. Child protective services said it was cool to take this trip and not inform the mother of our plans, reminding me that the court removed her parental rights.

Dorrie, my daughter, returned to her book, wrapping herself tight with the blanket Lia gave her. I pulled my black leather motorcycle jacket together, zipping it up.  I looked out through the window staring at some exposed rock on the side of the road.

I felt loose at every inch, thinking of American mermaids I dated that could have been Dorrie’s mother. Instead, I picked the Irish bottle-stashing drunk who I caught choking the kid. Had mom led out in handcuffs, slapped papers on her while she was in rehab and ground her through the family court machine back in New York.

I hated every minute of it. I may have fallen out of love of my estranged wife, but I did marry her, put up with years of bullshit, and let things slide to apocalyptic lows. But I am a man who causes trouble for himself, and at the moment while staring at flat fields of prairie spotted with exposed glacial stone, I committed the guilty sin of dragging the innocent into my bad decisions.

Lia was driving; her glasses slightly askew while her husband read the book lying on his lap. Lia asked him to change the music on the iPod attached to the cigarette lighter.

The music was some Americana band I had a vague affection for, Wilco, and I recognized the song. Dorrie’s ex-mother liked that song. I liked it better. “I’m Always in Love”—that certainly wasn’t the problem for anyone but me because maybe it was not true. Maybe for one, someone whose heart I continue to beat for.

Could have been Lia. I knew her since she was fifteen, but she is married to Tad, and though she bailed me out of this jam, she is glued to the man. I accepted the help, but this still felt weird relying on girlfriends from 30 years ago.

No, it was someone else. She was before Lia, and although she was not the first girl I kissed, she was the one I fell in love with.  This distinction belonged to that American mermaid dream with green eyes who was Texan with each hand gesture and in the tenor of her voice.

While Heaven loves that driver, the one I wanted behind that wheel was that Texas girl; she may still be around once we arrive in Austin. I’d look her up, but she has a boyfriend she told me she liked in an e-mail she sent when troubles formed like thunderstorms on the horizon.

The backseat where this new family sat was getting slightly warmer. The heater kicked in big time by the turnoff toward Oklahoma. It spared that lucky child, Dorrie, who let the blanket drop while silently reading her book.

I thought to ask the woman I loved to please let me in, but knowing she may say no, I shifted my thoughts back to the road ahead. We were looking at twelve hours through Oklahoma, then across the state line and on to a hotel in Georgetown.

Closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat, slumping against the cold glass. I pushed my hat aside to keep my head warm, and fell asleep.

When I woke up it was getting on sunset. I pulled my cell phone out and took a couple of photos of the draining sunlight on the far western horizon.

The faster Lia drove, gunning it up to make Georgetown, the closer to home and green eyes from teenage years I felt.

Maybe I will look that girl up. Won’t tell anyone.  After we check in, I will tell Lia I need some air. Knowing her, she’ll be tired and crash out while Tad goes on his laptop and plays all-night online bridge while lying in the bed next to his wife. Dorrie will be in her room, probably still with her novel, maybe watching television.

I will go out into the Texas cold, flip open my phone and look for her number. I have it written on scrap folded neatly in my wallet.

I did not call her during the hell-time. I did not want to be a bother.

Fumbled for the number. Could not find it. Frustrated, I sighed and walked to the gas station for another pack of cigarettes.

I sat on the curb, smoking nervously, wondering how I could have lost that
number. Felt like I had let that connection become severed, and for no good reason.

Instead, I made up a poem on the spot, reciting the words I knew I would forget before I went to bed. The girl in my memory would hear it, though, as I lost myself to the cadence of my feelings and lit one smoke after another.

In Austin, I will be with Lia and Tad. Dorrie. Lia’s mom had arrived earlier, with her daughter and son-in-law’s children. I will have no time to find the girl I actually really did love.

Perhaps just being in Austin will be enough. It is possible I will run into her and finally tell this woman face-to-face how I feel, boyfriend or not. I shall even say it in front of him, if need be.

I finally finished reciting my poem, and bid her good night with a sweet, lingering kiss into the winter night.

I slept through until half past dawn. The best, restful sleep I had in years.

So be it.


Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. His fiction has been published in West Trade ReviewThe Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, The Airgonaut, Sensitive SkinReservoir, The Avenue, and others. His photography is currently being exhibited at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California and as part of a group show at Darkroom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont, curated by Bruce Gilden.

Bitchin’ Freeze

A short story by Maxine Kollar


I got a dog.

I didn’t want a dog.

It was fluffy and white and never barked. It just made a soft humming sound followed by a high-pitched sound. It sounded like a fan gathering speed but I never told it that.

All dogs going to heaven is a movie; well, a straight-to-DVD waste of time, but still. Not true.

This damned dog entered my world through a hole. He had torn the throat out of a boy named Adolf and had been sent here. It didn’t belong here. The boy named Adolf had continued on in another time and the dog couldn’t save the people. It tried. It was a good dog. You should get points for trying but this damned dog got hell for trying to save humanity from itself. A hole opened because there was a tug of war of sorts for its soul. Yes, it has a soul.

He was supposed to fall into the lake but I saw the fluff ball coming down and stuck out my hand and well, here we are.

How do you care for a dog in Hell? I wasn’t even sure what kind it was. Bitchin’ freeze?

“You know that animals know things that people never do,” said Edmund after he saw me ‘stealthily’ looking at my… the dog in the bag next to me.

“Like what?” I asked. Edmund and I were working on the intestinal torture line.

“I dunno. That’s just what I heard. But I’m pretty sure they can tell when earthquakes are coming,” he said.

“That’s stupid. We get earthquakes all the time and…” There was a big one coming right now. The dog started whining in a pitiful way. You’d think we’d be used to that kind of stuff by now—oh, the cries for mercy!—but this was different. I started stroking him and Edmund leaned over and started making a shh noise. The dog quieted down even as we hung on for all we were worth. Big Guy was mad this time.

Two days later, Malicant comes walking up behind me and Edmund while we’re feeding her. She likes intestines and we have plenty of those. Malicant is actually a manager, but he’s been at this for so long that he can’t even bother anymore. He asks her name.

Edmund and I look at each other. We took to calling her ‘The Dog’ and kept it that way because anything else would be how you get attached to something. We didn’t want to get attached. I mean, we were keeping her from getting scared and we sure weren’t going to let her get thrown into the lake with people. But that was it.

We tell Malicant that we don’t have a name for her. He says that it’s important because she is a female dog and if she gets lost you can’t just run around Hell calling, “Bitch, Bitch, hey Bitch.” He had a point.

We named her Contessa without knowing why and without much of an argument. It must have just fit. Malicant comes back the next day and we tell him to take Contessa for a walk. He is delighted but tries to hide it by breathing fire that scorches our foreheads and horns.

Unfortunately, a new manager gets transferred into the Division. He is young and eager and a total pain in the neck. Literally. That’s his thing. Anyway, when he finds out about Contessa, he loses it, while still smiling and scraping my trachea with the sharp end of his tail. He is writing up the report when Malicant walks up behind him and bites his head off. We roll his body into the lake with the people.

No new managers transfer into our division anymore.


Maxine Kollar is a wife and a mother of three. Her works have appeared in Mamalode, Clever Magazine, Funny in Five Hundred, Rat’s Ass Review, and elsewhere.

A Place for Those without a Place

A short story by Thomas Elson


Gerald Xavier Kilmer placed his cell phone on the corner of his walnut desk, breathed in deeply, exhaled, looked down from his fourth story window, and saw for the second time that day what he had experienced more than thirty-five years earlier. Kilmer turned away, his eyes followed the long corridor connecting other executive offices, and then he turned back toward the window. When he looked down, it was gone.

~

Thirty-five years ago, he stood in front of an armed guard, the one rumored to have been the state’s hangman, as he paired the men together. The wind ricocheted from building to bus, then exploded in Kilmer’s face as he stood on the gravel driveway highlighted with small mounds of snow. Another guard shackled the prisoners. First, the individual waist chain, then wrists were secured at the waist with handcuffs. These followed by leg chains attached to each man’s ankles, then a single chain which bound two men’s ankles, one to the other.

“On the bus,” The guard said. Each word pronounced slowly with a pause in between. “On to the bus, ladies.” The former executioner’s voice was amplified by his face—scowling, defensive, angry at some ancient slight, eager to drive his anger into the first defenseless opportunity. Capital punishment by lethal injection had killed his status among the prison guards and relegated him to a bilious bus driver.

Kilmer was one of the prisoners transported that day from a county jail to the State Penitentiary shackled to a man he had never seen—probably someone from solitary. Chained one to the other, they hopped in unison toward the feeble transport bus with its sun-splotched dashboard, no circulating air, windows covered by welded W-beams, and two-degrees hotter than hell—even in early January. Kilmer and the other prisoners sat behind a heavy chain-link wall with their hands locked at their hips.

The arthritic bus gathered momentum, then stopped, creaked, coughed, and exhaled smoke that compounded the odor of unwashed prisoners, guards dripping with anxiety-sweat, and the mold from the bus seats.

The driver cranked the ignition again, shouted at no one—then to everyone:

“They ever service this POS?”

It was going to be a difficult sixty miles, made more difficult by the former hangman’s insistence on complaining about his every imagined slight. “This’ll be a joy,” Kilmer said to himself without smiling. He kept his own counsel in county, decided early to avoid groups, knew he had just enough of a sentence to satisfy a politically savvy district court judge.

~

The bus bounced over the gravel path, stopped at the main gate for a security check, and drove past the chain-link fence, soon to become the twenty-foot limestone walls of the State Penitentiary.

Sixty miles later, a singular view. The bus crested a small hill, continued down the ridge and toward the right—Lecompton State Penitentiary. The bus was silent. Even the driver stopped bitching. Each man silent. Their fears surfaced. Their intestinal fortitude strained to hide fear, bury helplessness.

From guardhouse, to towers, to stone walls seven feet thick and twenty feet high. Blank stares. Clenched teeth, tight jaws. Eyes darted, as if following a large predatory bird. As the bus edged closer, the noise rose. The men attempted to mask their dread with quick, explosive talk. The one-liners of fear.

Soon to be under the superficial control of the prison guards; in fact, they would be under the care, custody, and control of the rules and customs long established by other prisoners. Alpha prisoners who filled the authority vacuum, and organized to enforce the unique common law of the prison cells and yard. Within minutes, Kilmer’s perspective changed. Prison reality would descend later—locked down inside the cell house, where authority was transferred.

The guardhouse gates opened. Kilmer walked through. He saw drawn faces surrounding abandoned eyes. Men with limps he would soon learn they did not have when they entered prison. Parts missing—parts buried within the prison walls. Keep your eyes down, but stay alert. Don’t look, but observe everything. Kilmer and the others were unshackled on the rock-strewn lot. Sounds alternated between crunching and hammering.

“All right girls, y’all fresh meat now.” Without another sound, the driver’s body bounced up and forward, as if he were laughing as he uttered his default phrases: “Asses inside, ladies. You somebody else’s problem. Keep your legs crossed. And don’t drop the soap.” The other guards ignored him.

The Lecompton State Penitentiary. Officially renamed the Lecompton Correctional Facility. A rose. To Kilmer it was a name change representing only a name change. Built by prison labor in the 1860s, the first cell house completed by 1867, and in continuous operation except for the 1896 smallpox shutdown. The central 11-acre maximum-security prison was surrounded by a 46-acre medium security unit and a separate 85-acre minimum-security area. Towers staffed by guards with rifles, each unit separated by limestone walls and concertina wire. Over 2,480 inmates and a folklore of serial killers that ranged from Richard Hickock and Perry Smith to Lowell Lee Andrews and the BTK serial killer.

Kilmer walked past old men with hunched backs whose resentful eyes followed him. His mouth tightened like a drawstring—then grimaced. He held his head down just enough to seem disinterested, but alert enough to see danger with eye contact made too fast for anyone to take offense.

He shuddered. Scenes flashed as if in a movie—images of young men, heads raised, eyes alert—temporarily above the rules; older men, hope absent, heads and eyes lowered and replete with resentment and distrust; the oldest men, bent and limp like effigies—always crouched as if expecting another body blow. The long-timer’s bravado. The short-timer’s briskness as if passing through on an assignment. An assignment unwanted as hell, but an assignment nonetheless. Consigned to a place for those without a place, surrounded by rage, with just enough hope to inhibit further hope.

During processing, guards separated the new arrivals. Some were assigned to Cellblock D—a semi-isolation building inside the walls; others to Cellblock E—a circle of World War II Quonset huts located fifty yards outside the walls, exclusively for child abusers. The child abusers had remained inside the walls just long enough to scare the living hell out of them. The repeat offenders were assigned to Cellblock A, the notorious limestone fortress—four men into cells designed for two. First-timers, including Kilmer, were sent to Cellblock C for further observation with a more gradual integration into the general population.

As soon as Kilmer entered Cellblock C, a muscular man walked by, looked at Kilmer—whiter than Queen Elizabeth—and then laughed. The man called out to the prisoners seated at a nearby table, then to everyone, “Hey, look; a white guy in Lecompton. They’re ain’t no hope for us now.” He slapped his right thigh and walked on.

~

After Kilmer returned from the Mess Hall, he sat on the top bunk hoping to remain separated from the others. On the right side of his bunk, a shadow moved, then he heard a voice—“Hi. I’m Seán Tyler.”

On the same side of the bunk, another prisoner walked up, and smiled. “Hickock.” Waited a moment. “James Hickock. Not the other one,” said the tall, thin, crevassed man, referring to Richard Hickock from the 1959 Clutter family murder. He smiled as he talked.

Kilmer leaned away. His voice rose a panicked octave. Words sprinted from his mouth: “I’m sentenced for a short time. I’m engaged. I teach law. And I’m straight.” He caught himself. Regretted his mistake. He had been determined not to reveal his background.

Both Tyler and Hickock smiled. Hickock’s face open and calm, he continued, “Not why I came over. Just wanted to make sure you had what you need. Do you have a glass or cup for water?”

“Yes,” Kilmer said, determined not to become indebted to anyone.

Hickock extended his hand. “Okay, then. I’m in for manslaughter, hit with the bitch.” He said, referring to the third strike law—third felony, you’re in for life. “So, I’m not going anywhere. If you need anything, let me know.”

Kilmer returned Hickock’s gesture with a handshake and a simulated nod of appreciation. As soon as Hickock turned away, Kilmer exhaled. His back was tight, and his neck began its chronic ache.

Tyler, who had not moved during the exchange, waited for Hickock to leave, then said, “I’m in for first-degree murder. Twenty-five to life. Circumstantial evidence. I’m appealing. Since you teach law, could you explain my trial transcripts to me?” He stepped forward, then said, quickly, “What’re you in for?”

Kilmer answered, “I was accused of allowing planes filled with marijuana and cocaine to land on my parents’ farm. Just let ‘em land, let ‘em unload, let ‘em drive off, and not call the sheriff, and I got $2,500 bucks a visit—two visits per week for three years.” Kilmer looked at Tyler as if assessing whether to continue. “Told I’d get a misdemeanor. Judge gave me just enough of a felony sentence to justify being sent here. My best guess is I’ll be here three-to-four months.”

~

Kilmer and Tyler were assigned jobs with the Lecompton Quartermaster. Each day they stacked the cleaned laundry, then sorted the dirty laundry underneath the outside stairway of the cellblock. They worked together for three days before Kilmer uttered a complete sentence when he asked his first question, “Did you have any Christmas in county?”

“Not even music. Not a sound. Nothing special. Same damn food. Same everything.” Tyler said, as he tossed dirty socks into the stained canvass laundry bin.

~

At 6 a.m. the next day Kilmer woke with a momentary feeling of freedom, then quickly slid back into reality. Daily decisions. Make ‘em quick. Know where you are. Know how to act. Know the routine. Don’t screw up, don’t look up, and don’t bend over. No favors accepted. No debts incurred.

At 7 a.m., after a guard opened the door, the men were led over to the Mess Hall. As Kilmer walked down the metal steps onto the cement, he heard the wind slam the door against the guardrail. Out into a world of browns and grays lacquered with splotches of industrial green. The color combination of depression and despair usually seen in hospital basements.

A large auditorium with a raised stage at one end doubled as the Mess Hall. Men lined up against the wall near a small, waist-high food service opening. Knives were withheld, even though fork tines served as a respectable substitute. Single tables bolted to the floor—six prisoners to a table. No long rows as in movies. Too difficult to patrol. The Mess Hall divided by a railing that in practice color-coded the prisoners.

“The food’s the same,” Kilmer said. “Brown and white. No matter what they call it, it’s always brown and white.” Kilmer remembered a county prisoner warning about the bread. Don’t eat the bread. The cook fucks the bread. Kilmer grew sarcastic. “Well, at least, nothing bad could happen here.”

After several minutes, Kilmer said to Tyler, “Lucky for us.”

“Huh?”

“Lucky for us. Not being sent to A-Block.”

“I’ll be there soon enough”, said Tyler. “You get a decent bunk assignment?”

“Yeah. Typical institutional crap. I’m six-three and have the bottom bunk. The guy on the top bunk is about five-four and sixty years old. Has to jump, hang, then swing to get on the top bunk.”

Tyler pointed to a squat man with a blaring voice. The kind of voice emitted by skinny children from large families whose parents have interests elsewhere. A blaring voice usually followed by a sad-eyed parent saying, “I said no. You can’t.” Usually followed by more bellowing, followed by a louder adult voice, followed by a raised hand and a slap, or with the parent bending over and handing the child the sought-after candy.

“There’s Jerry. I don’t know exactly what he’s in for. He just spends time talking about Russell the One-Eyed Muscle, up the Muddy River, and how when you get out of prison, your soldier can stand at attention, but you can’t make him spit too good.”

Tyler glanced at the peeled, gray floors, and continued: “Jerry also said he was a comedy writer for John Belushi. I doubt it, but he sure can manipulate the system.” He went on to explain how Jerry obtained glasses, then contact lenses through the prison systems, and then how he got his teeth filled and capped.

“The white guy over there,” he continued, motioning toward a stocky, hunched, middle-aged prisoner with a puffy face that served as a roadmap for the results of running a con. “That fellow used to run a check-writing scam on merchants. He’d come into a town, get a bank account, order printed checks, come back after he got the printed checks, buy things like power lawnmowers and refrigerators in the morning, and cancel the purchase in the afternoon, get cash for the returned goods, and leave the merchants with worthless checks. He was caught when one of his meth-whores started talking inside a store. I think they now require a ten-day wait.”

Kilmer stopped eating and said, “You know, just to say it, I’d give some thought to avoiding those kinds of folks.” He caught himself and refocused, “I made a decision in county to stay away from those types.” He looked at Tyler, who was scanning the Mess Hall, and added, “But I’ve got months, not years.”

“Decades,” said Tyler. “I have decades.”

Kilmer said nothing.

~

As Tyler was leaving the Mess Hall, a guard standing by the raised stage pulled him over.

“What?”

The guard responded, “I’m pattin’ you down. You carryin’ food? Spread your arms and legs.”

While the guard bent over to frisk him—legs first, then hips—Tyler, with a smooth one-arm motion, extracted the milk carton from his tattered jacket sleeve, and, with the movement of a surgeon, placed it on the stage. After the guard had searched his coat sleeves, he dismissed Tyler, and bent over to frisk the next prisoner. As if his first-degree murder conviction weren’t enough, Tyler cemented his reputation when he picked up the milk carton, placed it back in his coat sleeve, and walked away.

Outside the Mess Hall, dusk buried the prisoners while moving klieg lights exposed them when they leaned against a building. A distant amplified voice: “Step away from the walls… the walls… walls… walls.” The last word reverberated, like Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech. Gothic buildings, cement expanses, stone towers. Impenetrable and immovable. Steel and locks. Patrols and rifles. Their way or solitary. As if thrown into deep water at night, unable to swim or to come to the surface.

~

Days later, after a dinner of fatty beef (dry as July mashed potatoes), boiled green beans, white bread, and red Jell-O, the guards herded the prisoners back for the evening. Kilmer asked Tyler a central prison question: “How did you get caught?”

The rolled-in television emitted drone-like mantras of canned laugh tracks peppered with over-acting, laced with insults and gratuitous attempts at humor.

Tyler said, “When they came for me I had no place left to go, so I surrendered.”

Kilmer waited for a while, stood, then said, “I’ll be right back.”

When Kilmer returned, he carried Tyler’s trial transcripts, and dealt them on the bunk like a deck of cards. “Pick a card, any card,” Kilmer said with the right side of his mouth tilted upward.

Tyler’s eyes caught the yellow sheets extending from the white transcript pages.

“I’ve made a few notes,” said Kilmer, understating his review. He looked at Tyler, then said, “Who the hell did you piss off?”

Tyler looked up. His face began to form a scowl, before he saw Kilmer’s smile.

During their review, as the guards walked the perimeter outside the cage pretending to maintain a semblance of order, Kilmer outlined his thoughts.

“To start off, certain things didn’t happen in your trial that should have.” He reached for the transcript’s first yellow sheet.

“First, why wasn’t your attorney given a copy of the autopsy tape recording? And where are your copies of the autopsy photographs?”

“And,” Kilmer’s voice sounded like a repeating rifle, “was the person who did the autopsy a certified forensic pathologist, or some moonlighting elected coroner? Those bastards are rife in rural counties.” Kilmer took a breath, and outlined his basic thoughts about Tyler’s witnesses: none called—his attorney’s skill—no cross exam questions asked.

Tyler looked up, mouth slack, eyes clouded.

Kilmer continued, “I didn’t read any of the usual cross exam questions that anyone testifying as an expert is subjected to.” Kilmer glanced down and saw Tyler’s ashen face.

“Sorry to be so damn direct. Let’s just get through this. No need to answer any of my questions,” said Kilmer as he reached for the next yellow sheet.

~

A few days later, Tyler returned Kilmer’s favor when a tall man with a strained face came within twelve inches of Kilmer and said, “You look like the kind of man that has a Pilipino wife.” A threatening statement given the environment.

Tyler, known as a high-status prisoner with his twenty-five-to-life sentence for first-degree murder, stepped between the two men. “No, no, he has a very nice family; just like mine,” he said. The man backed away.

Kilmer, grateful as hell, knew that Tyler had never seen his family, since Tyler never had visitors.

Then, without notice, a loud voice: “Who? Who the hell? Why?” An echoing voice—a roar lowered to a rising chant. They saw a column of a man holding a wrinkled, brown paper sack, his right shoulder and the right side of his head pressed against the wall as he walked.

Another prisoner dressed in a t-shirt and headband walked up to the large man and said, “Stop it. Stop asking those questions, or you’ll end up in the psych ward.” He pulled the man’s head down and whispered something. The man became silent.

Tyler looked at the two men. “What’s that about?” he asked.

“He keeps walking like that and asking, ‘Why?’ Then mumbles. His voice gets louder and deeper until his protector over there shuts him up. The guards steer clear.”

The next day, three guards came for the man who held his life in a paper sack. As they led him down the corridor, Kilmer heard the man repeat, “Why?” Then he disappeared.

Kilmer fixated on the man. “They’ll bury him in solitary. Christ. He’ll never see sunlight again. Die of neglect in that isolation hole.”

The blare from the guard hit Kilmer’s ears:. “Get off. Move away. You can’t sit there. You, Kilmer, take a broom and sweep.” He pointed directly at Kilmer.

~

On Sunday morning, breakfast and church services were voluntary. Cellblock C inmates could sleep in. Kilmer and Tyler moved to a window by Kilmer’s bunk.

“How was it—the sweeping?” asked Tyler.

“Sweeping. Hell. After sweeping, he had me clean the toilets. Told me the warden was coming, and he wanted him to see me working. I guess it makes a good impression to have a white guy doing manual labor. Warden never did show up.”

~

Three months later, before breakfast, while Kilmer and Tyler were talking, a guard shouted, “Kilmer, pack your shit, and get. You’re leavin’ in thirty minutes. Sheriff’s comin’.”

Kilmer stood mute. Tyler said, “Give me your coat.” When Kilmer entered Lecompton, in the luck of the pull he had been handed a new, lined, denim winter coat. Tyler exchanged his thin jacket for Kilmer’s coat, and added, “They’ll never notice it when you leave.”

Kilmer grabbed Tyler’s shoulder. “I’m so scared,” he said.

Tyler, surprised, said, “You’ll be okay. Out in forty-eight hours. Guar-onteed.” Kilmer pulled him in for reassurance. “Thanks. You made this shit bearable.”

With that, they walked down the corridor. The deputy sheriff met Kilmer at the door. After the deputy said all the things required at a time like this, he handcuffed Kilmer and with his left hand guided him away.

Kilmer heard Tyler call his name. He turned his head sharply toward the long corridor. Seán Tyler was gone.


Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. His short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in the United States, Ireland, Wales, England, India, and South Africa.

Bob’s Big Promotion

A short story by Z. M. Darkbloom


The ineffable Sun God Sal, Bringer of Light, Life, Growth, and Sunburn rose every day, and he had done so tirelessly for billions of years. His loyal subjects remained anchored in primordial mud beneath him, dutiful human-apes slouching lowly on two limbs before such an awe-inspiring tapestry of clouds and stars, convinced that the Bringer of Life would not ascend the divine summit of heaven without their offerings and prayers. But how could such simple nether-beasts know that Sal would rise regardless of their groveling? Not that they really considered this—and, if they did, it’s not as though these thoughts would have kept them from sleep or solace. Bob didn’t like to question the ways of the Gods anyhow, or much of anything for that matter—but today he was certain of one thing: Today he was getting that promotion.

~

He rose with Sal as tradition dictated. Naked, he anointed his body in red and yellow paint, lit incense, and through the cloying smoke he prostrated himself before the Gods as the emberous Father of Light and Life rose to the East. Then Bob strolled naked through his meager apartment to the kitchen. He sat and ate cereal at a small wooden table, reading the newspaper and checking text messages on his phone. Afterward, he showered and shaved and washed off the ceremonial paint, and dressed himself in a new pair of slacks, a white dress shirt, and a garish red and gold tie. This will please Sal, he thought. Before Bob left, he cast bones before his personal altar—the way they landed, what they spoke of, well… praise be unto Them! Success was assured. He smiled and strolled outside to greet this glorious new day, not just a gift from the Gods, but surely a promise.

~

It was a bright, ceremonious fit of a Sacred Monday, mankind gloriously heading back to work after a weekend of rest, golden bars of light beaming down from the heavens with the dawning of morn, the world of animals alive and slithering. The budding elms and maples that lined the city streets waved in the wind amongst the noodling of the telephone wires above Bob’s head, and with the car windows down, he could smell fresh grass clippings and fragrant spring blossoms in the air. Neighbors waved to him as they strolled the sidewalk. Bob waved back, and as he rolled up to the town’s center an earthy odor of rot filled the car. Bob smiled at this—his favorite part of the day—the approach to the roundabout named “Solstice Circle”. Here the Ceremonial City Engineers designed a monument that was unparalleled for hundreds of miles. The nearby settlements and villages looked upon Solstice Circle with jealousy and spite, praying to Lord Vishra, Goddess of Fury and Scorn to smite them down, but alas, the gods shed only their blessings, or so the High Priests told themselves. At the center of the roundabout a massive granite pyramid was erected, with polished onyx blood-letting channels leading symmetrically down in a star-shaped pattern from the great sacrificial stone tablet at the top of the monolith. Through all the seasons the monument to eternity bore fruit.

The winter had been gentle that year, and spring was promising, with great heaps of organs filling the moat that the blood-letting channels oozed into quite generously. The smell was pungent, a bouquet of copper and iron and sweet decay rich in the air, the grounds covered in thick and syrupy blood. The outer edge of the circle was adorned with heads skewered on long wooden spikes, and mounds of bodies were stacked on each side. Bob smiled as he drove around this holy tribute, certain that today was his day. He nodded to the great ziggurat, offering a silent prayer as he passed its mighty circumference, keeping an eye on it in his rear-view mirror, the heads on spikes disappearing behind him on the way to work.

~

Bob arrived at the office ten minutes early but Kenneth was already there before him, dressed in the same garish tie Bob wore. He frowned, but Kenneth smiled.

“Look at Father burn,” Ken said, nodding at Sal. (“Praise be unto Him,” they both uttered.) Bob nodded and looked away, attempting to shrug off Ken’s stupid, friendly chatter.

“Hey, I’ve been reading up on the old ones,” Kenneth said—”can you believe these people used to think the Great Sun God…” (“All praises be unto Him,” they both murmured again) “… was just the eye of some asshole called Ra? How dumb is that?”

“Who’s Ra?” Bob asked. Kenneth shrugged.

“Some old god, some superstition—but just the eye? I mean, c’mon! What kinda god is missing an eye? And what kinda idiots even worship something preposterous like that?” Bob frowned.

“I dunno,” he said as he opened the door to the office.

~

With the last few employees filing into the small brick building, Ashra, High Priestess of the Office spoke over the intercom:

“Sal brings us a new day once more…” (“All praise be unto Him,” the office murmured) “… and to answer His generosity we shall bring Him gifts to slake His fiery hunger, to bid Him rise once more. Let us pray and satiate the Gods of Dawn—Bean, Goddess of Coffee; Bengal, God of Toasted Breads; Birdie, Goddess of Morning Song; and Contraxius, Lord of Business!”

At this, the office prostrated themselves on their plastic floor mats, their rolling chairs offset to one side before their computers, and they offered up their sincerest gratitude and thanks.

“Praise be unto You,” they murmured, bowing towards Sal twenty-seven and a half times, as tradition dictated.

“And Praise be unto us,” Ashra answered through the intercom. “Now let us go out and seek new contracts, bring new glory to the Gods, and if we please Them, then perhaps the great Taco Truck will bless us with a hearty lunch as it often chooses to parketh in our lot.”

“Amen,” the office workers cheered, “Amen!”

Bob set to work, calling more clients, securing more contracts. Kenneth walked to the kitchenette at the back of the office and toasted a bagel. Gloria the intern brewed another pot of coffee, and the office partook.

Praise be to the Gods, Bob thought. Praise be unto Them.

~

At noon the taco truck waited in the parking lot of the office.

So the Gods truly be on our side, Bob thought, a sure omen that his promotion was forthcoming, that he would be guaranteed to dwell forever with Sal on the Plain of Light, a halo of stars to be all his own, infinite wisdom just out of reach from the limitations of this dirty, deathly, physical realm.

He ordered five carne asada tacos, and once he had his plate he strolled towards the Sacred Sun Altar that was surrounded by a small grove of pine trees behind his office. As was custom, he offered a taco before the large, carved stone altar at the center of the tree ring, leaving it there for the immortals among the many previous taco offerings, and he bowed before it. Then he sat down in the dirt at the edge of the grove of trees, too unclean to sit with the Gods themselves, and he ate in silence. When he finished, he entered the office and Ashra’s voice resounded through the intercom. Bob and his fellow employees prostrated themselves on their black plastic floor mat prayer rugs.

“Let us give thanks,” she said, “to Taquitzo, God of Tacos, let us give thanks to Sal for this unrelenting flood of daylight, let us give praise to Contraxius for another fruitful morning, and may an even more bountiful afternoon be ours, a gift for us to utilize—precious time for us to build upon.” (“Praise be unto the Gods,” the office murmured in turn.)

Bob set to work with a spirituous fervor, like a man possessed, like an animal who was more beast than man.

~

The work hours were almost up, and already Sal’s love and light and warmth waned towards impending night, the fire of the Father giving and taking His brilliance as He saw fit, coming up short in the fall to inspire faith in the weak hearts of men, and rewarding their piety with the bursting forth of light and life in the spring.

Ashra spoke over the intercom once more, completing the day’s triad of holy proclamations. The front of the office all bowed low on their floor mats as she spoke:

“I am pleased to announce, before the highest Gods and us lowliest mortals, that our new promotion has been chosen,”—this is it, Bob thought, this is my moment—”and that promotion, Ashra said, is Kenneth!”

Kenneth blushed there on the ground a few feet away from Bob. The office cheered. Kenneth bowed up and down on his prayer mat, he bit his lips, he smiled and cried out in joy as sobs of glee shuddered through his body.

“I am not worthy, I am not worthy,” he cried. Everyone in the office cheered.

Dammit, Bob thought, not smiling, not cheering. Dammit. On a sacred Monday? She chooses him?

Ashra entered the corridor to the front office, a vibrant floral-patterned dress kissing her ankles as she walked, feet angled on hallowed high heels, face covered in a traditional black silk veil, auburn hair tied back in thick braids. She bowed before Kenneth, who bowed to her from the ground, and she took him by the hand.

“Stand,” she said, and he did.

With Ashra’s two burly, robed attendants in tow, they walked outside, heads held high while the rest of the office worshippers remained bent low before them. Before Kenneth exited the building, he wiped away a tear, and then he turned and winked at Bob. Kenneth exited the building and closed the door behind him. The rest of the workers remained on the ground, eyes pressed down into the plastic of their prayer mats, with only Bob sneaking glances up to the door, cursing his lowly mortal status as they waited for Ashra’s return.

The employees laid there for minutes that spanned on like an eternity to Bob. In his excited frustration, he forgot he had to pee. He squirmed on his mat, curious now if people had to engage in bodily functions on Sal’s Eternal Plain of Light, when his thoughts were interrupted by a clanging of bells as Ashra opened the front door to the office. She gracefully bowed as she entered the building with blood smeared across her face in the shape of a hand print. She held a brass blood bucket in her left hand, and in her right hand was a dipper. Her attendants stood behind her at either side, holding up bowls of smoking incense and brass bells. As the chimes ceased their ringing, Ashra spoke:

“As you depart from us great Sal, let us offer you this blood, these organs, this head, this heart—in the covenant that you shall rise again.” Ashra dipped her spoon into the blood bucket, and she flung it this way and that, adorning the office in Kenneth’s DNA. The employees cheered, every last one of them except Bob, who only burped quietly in disappointment.

The blood splattered all across his co-workers, across the walls, across Bob’s shirt, across his garish tie, and as it splattered into his face, he spat.

“Dammit Kenneth,” Bob murmured to himself. “Always been such a show off.”

~

Ashra finished anointing the office in blood, then walked back to her private chambers, her attendants waiting faithfully outside the door as tradition dictated. She clicked the intercom once more to free the children of the Gods from their work day—she spoke deeply and slowly:

“May Mother Moon guide your sleep tonight, and may the Traffic Gods Stahp and Gho show you a swift, safe and merciful journey home. (“Praise be unto Them,” the office chanted in response.) Ashra then sat down and called upon the Sacrificial Body Movers to come and pick up Kenneth’s pieces to be displayed ornamentally at the revered grounds of Solstice Circle. Then she phoned Michael, owner of the taco truck.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Please come by our office again tomorrow for lunch. Noon is perfect. Thank you.”

She hung up and smiled fervently, staring through the office windows into the distance. Then she dipped her hand in the ceremonial brass bucket, the blood coagulating and cooling between her fingers. Ah, she murmured to herself as she craned her neck, closed her eyes, and wiped another smattering of Kenneth’s blood across her face.

“Praise be unto Them,” she said, “Praise be unto Them.”

~

Bob drove home. He rounded Solstice Circle and as he watched the heads on spikes disappear past eye-shot in his rear-view mirror, he lamented that once more he was not there as sacrifice for all to see. What went wrong? Was he not worthy? Had he not divined the day? Had the bones blessed by Sal himself not read in his favor? No, it wasn’t Sal, it wasn’t the bones. Bob had just read them wrong. No, no, wait. Couldn’t be. It must be the bones. Or maybe it was a hex. A curse. Something or somebody else. However it tumbled out though, he would practice the night rituals and prayers. He would divine the rocks and bones and tarot and tea once more, and surely he would understand. Surely, he would come to know.


Z. M. Darkbloom is a writer living in Southern California, where he enjoys camping, traveling, and musing on the absurdity of humanity’s rich primate heritage.

A Trick My Father Learned in Prison

A short story by Donal Mahoney


I’m not saying my father hated the English, God forbid. If he were still alive, he’d hate to hear me say that. He’d correct me right away and say he didn’t hate the English. Truth be told, he despised the English, especially the Black and Tans. They were the troops the English sent to take over Ireland before, during, and after the Troubles in 1916. That was the time when the Irish first fought seriously for their independence.

My father would tell me often about what the Black and Tans did to him in 1920, at age 16, when he was captured while running guns for the IRA through marshes in rural Ireland. He knew the marshes in County Kerry very well because he was reared there as a farm boy. The IRA thought a boy like him would never get caught. But a boy carrying guns was not a common sight in the marshes of County Kerry.

The Black and Tans put him in a cell with a dirt floor. He sat on that dirt for a month after they broke both his legs with rifle butts. They were in no hurry to summon a doctor.

A cellmate gave him a pad of paper and he would sit on the dirt writing his name backwards with his left hand until his signature matched the normal one written with his right hand.

Decades later, in America, after he had been expelled from Ireland and had married my mother and settled down with a job in Chicago, I heard many stories not only about his life in a jail cell, but his life milking cows and goats on a dairy farm as a young boy. He had to do that if he wanted his oatmeal for breakfast.

I was in grammar school in the Forties when I heard a lot from my father about the Irish seeking their independence. His stories were a lot better, I thought, than paying 25 cents on Saturday afternoon to see a Western with Gene Autry at the local movie house, even if the movie was followed by 25 color cartoons.

One day after school I had some friends over at the house. My father, a man of many moods who was then not yet diagnosed with PTSD, took a pad of paper and, with a pen in each hand, signed his name forwards with one hand and backwards with the other, simultaneously. He then held the pad up to the long mirror in the hallway and, of course, the signatures were identical. My friends and I, crowded around him, were very young but even if we had been adults we would still have been amazed.

After my friends went home, I asked my father how he learned to do that and he told me about the Black and Tans, their gun butts and that pad of paper the cellmate gave him. Rather than write letters to his family and upset them by letting them know he was in prison, he practiced writing his signature backwards with his left hand. This was one of a number of odd things that my father had mastered, all of them interesting to a child, but not worth going into at the moment or I’d be typing for a long time.

Eventually I grew up, went to college, married, and moved to another city and my father wanted to come and visit us and see his first grandson. Fine with me, I thought. I just hoped his affable mood would last and not disappear during the visit. I didn’t want to impose on him the nighttime crying of an infant since he had lived through that with me as a colicky child and my mother said he didn’t weather it well, having to get up early for work the next morning. So I decided to get him a room at a nice hotel. However, I picked the wrong one.

I made the mistake of making a reservation for him at the Henry VIII Hotel, named after the English monarch. I can still hear my father yelling when I mentioned the Henry VIII Hotel over the phone.

Indeed, the Henry VIII was a nice hotel decorated in an English style that would truly have enraged my father. It was torn down not long after he died. But he had never been a guest at the Henry VIII, having stayed at another hotel free of any English taint. And his visit went well, all things considered. No outbursts or commotion.

Had he lived long enough, however, my father probably would have been far more upset to learn years later that his grandson, after graduating with honors from the University of Chicago, went to England to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Tuition, room, board, and books were free, but Oxford, of course, was in England—and it was England that had sent the Black and Tans to Ireland, and it was the Black and Tans who had broken my father’s legs.

Sometimes I think about what it might have been like had he lived long enough to learn that my son had won that scholarship. I imagine calling him to tell him the news, and suddenly I can hear him yelling louder than when I told him about the Henry VIII Hotel. This time he would sound like a muezzin in a minaret on top of a mosque. Only he wouldn’t be summoning the faithful to prayers.


Nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net and Pushcart Press’ Pushcart Prize, Donal Mahoney is a resident of St. Louis, Missouri. Some of his earliest work can be found in his online collection of poems, The Gravedigger’s Son (2011), part of a series of blogs featured in The Camel Saloon’s Books on Blog™ Web anthology. Some of his newer work can be found at his poet profile page in Eye On Life Magazine.