The Daily Mail

A short story by Jason Feingold


John Schwartzkopf awoke to the police banging on his door. After last night, he wasn’t surprised to find the Mail Nazis had come for him. They were going to disappear him like they had so many other mail objectors in the past. With no friends or sympathetic followers to protect him, no one would know he was missing. He’d simply fall off the face of the earth. He wasn’t going to let that happen. If he was going to die, he was damn sure going to make sure that as many citizens as possible knew what was going down.

He took an old .38 revolver his grandfather had left him and tucked into the waistband of the pants he had hurriedly put on. After donning a t-shirt, he went to the front door and opened it, but he left the screen door closed.

“Are you John Schwartzkopf?” the officer asked.

“That’s me.”

“I have some questions for you. Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

John backed away from the door, leaving it to the police officer to open the screen door on his own. As the cop was doing so, with his hand occupied by being on the handle of the door, John drew his weapon. The officer jumped back and went for his own gun, but John had the drop on him, and to prove it he fired a warning shot. He’d meant for it to go to the right of the officer, but it grazed the cop’s left arm instead.

“Step inside,” John ordered. “Drop your belt.” The officer complied with difficulty, his left arm being useless for the moment.

“Now take out your handcuffs, and no funny business.” The officer did as he was told. “Go to the kitchen and handcuff both your hands to the refrigerator door.” John gave the officer a wide berth as he did so. In a moment, the officer was handcuffed to the handle of the refrigerator door and dripping blood slowly on the kitchen floor. He writhed in pain.

“You don’t want to do this,” the cop said. “They’ll come looking for me. This can only end one way.”

“I know that,” John said. “I knew it as soon as you knocked on my door.”

“Uncuff me,” the officer said. “Turn yourself in. It’ll go easier on you if you do. You’ll get a plea bargain.”

“If only that were true. I’m not going to let you storm troopers send me to the Postal Re-Education Centers that easily,” John said. “Not until everyone knows about you Mail Nazis and your Mail Führer.”

* * *

John could not remember a time he had not hated the mail. As far as he was concerned, nothing good ever came by mail.

He knew what time the mail usually came. He could pick out the sound of the mail truck from anywhere in the house. He could hear it stop and go as it came down the block. He couldn’t ignore it. His heart would leap into his throat, and the only way to get it back where it belonged was to go and check the mailbox. He was drawn to the box the way a dog is drawn to its own vomit.

The mail brought student loan default notices, threatening letters from child support enforcement, and notices of garnishment.

The absolute worst thing he could find in the mailbox was a notice that he would have to go to the post office to pick up a certified letter. If nothing good ever came from the mailbox, then certified letters were absolutely diabolical. He’d have to wait until the next day to pick it up – twenty-four hours of excruciating angst spent wondering how bad it was, knowing that the ax was sure to fall. In this, he was usually correct. Legal papers came by certified mail describing various actions that had been brought against him to get more money out of him.

One day a thought popped into his head out of nowhere: the mail was the problem – not his ex-wife, not Navient, but the mail itself. Mail was the medium through which the tyrants of money enslaved people. The whole concept of mail was abominable, and it had to go. If a document were that important, the people who were out to get his money could deliver it by themselves. His resolution to combat the Mail Nazis was firm.

He was going to stop the mail.

* * *

“Now where’s your phone?” John asked the captive officer.

“In my right front pants pocket.”

John set his .38 on the stove and went toward the subdued officer.

“If you try anything, I’ll shoot you again,” John said.

The officer nodded. John retrieved the phone.

“Who are you calling?” the cop asked mildly.

“911.”

John put the phone on speaker.

“911,” the phone said. “What is your emergency?”

“My name is John Schwartzkopf. I’m at 543 Oakfield Drive. I’m holding Officer, what’s your name?”

“Bradley. Ed Bradley.”

“I’m holding Officer Ed Bradley at gunpoint. I have a list of demands.”

“Is he okay?” the operator asked.

“Tell them,” John ordered.

“Shot in the arm,” Bradley said. “Not seriously. Hurts like a bitch, though.”

“Shut up,” John said.

“What are your demands?”

Sirens spoke out in the distance.

“I’ll tell the person in charge.”

“Who is that, sir?”

“You know who.”

“No, I don’t, sir.”

“If you want to play games, we’ll play games,” John said. “I want to talk to the Mail Führer.”

He hung up the phone.

* * *

John began his anti-mail campaign by writing to the head of the USPS.

Dear Postmaster General,

I am writing to you today to demand that all postal services be stopped. All the mail does is deliver bad news from bad people to good people who deserve good news. Mail is all about taking money away from people who don’t have much money and giving it to people who already have enough money. As a citizen and a taxpayer, I have a right to demand that you stop the mail immediately. As a civil servant, you need to honor my request.

Sincerely,

John Schwartzkopf

He waited a few weeks for a response, but nothing came back in the mail. He wasn’t surprised. The mail people were all going to stick together on this one. They were afraid of honest work. After all, they made money with each letter they delivered. That would stop, at least as far as he was concerned. He got online and put an indefinite stop delivery on his mail.

Afterward, John took a bottle of lighter fluid to his mailbox and set it on fire, watching the plastic that had been approved by the Postmaster General bubble and melt and drip to the ground as it burned. Didn’t the Postmaster General have anything better to do than approve mailboxes? By the time he was done, there was nothing left but a metal post sticking out of the ground. With a fair degree of effort, he removed it and chucked it into his garage.

A few weeks later his cable TV stopped working. Then the lights went out. Then the water was shut off. Finally, his telephones, both landline, and cell, stopped working, even though he hadn’t received a bill from any of them.

Dear Postmaster General,

Clearly, my last letter fell on deaf ears that don’t want to see the truth. If you think that your lackeys in cable, water, electricity, and telephone can stop me from exercising my RIGHT to demand that the mail be stopped, you’ve got another thing coming. I know that the Constitution requires the government to redress grievances, and you are required to redress mine by halting all mail activity both at home and abroad.

Sincerely,

John Schwartzkopf

P.S. – Restore my utilities immediately!

Still, there was no response.

Postmaster General,

If you don’t honor my demand that the mail be stopped, I will have to
resort to further action.

John Schwartzkopf

It was only after John sent the last letter that he realized that the Postmaster General was, in fact, the Mail Führer. He studied some stamps he had stuck in the kitchen drawer. If he looked closely enough, he could see the swastika cleverly embedded in each picture the stamps contained. Well, he wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was a swastika, but it was close enough to count.

The Mail Führer completely ignored him, so it was time to take his message to the street. He put a sign in his front yard that said “End the dictatorship of the Post Office! Tell the Mail Führer to STOP THE MAIL NOW!” Once he put it up, he sat in front of his living room window to see if anyone was reading it. He concluded that they were, because a lot of cars slowed down in front of his house, presumably to study it. Some of them tooted their horns.

On the second day, the mail truck pulled up in front of it while John was watching. He couldn’t be sure because of the viewing angle, but he was pretty confident that the mailman spat on it. John was so angry he came out of his house with a bat to confront the Mail Nazi, but the man drove away in his truck before John could open the door.

“Fuck you!” John called out down the street at the truck. “Drive away like a scared little
Nazi bastard!” More than a few neighbors stopped and stared.

It was time for the revolution to begin.

* * *

John sat on the kitchen floor. He had his .38 revolver and Bradley’s .40 caliber Glock and two fully loaded magazines next to him. He could see blue and red lights through the covers of every window in his line of sight. He knew his house was surrounded. He knew he was already dead.

Bradley’s phone rang.

“Hello?”

“This is Sergeant Bill Murphy. I’m calling to talk to you about your demand.”

“I want to talk to the Mail Führer,” John repeated. “If that doesn’t happen, Ed Bradley here is as good as dead in sixty minutes. Tick tick tick.”

“Let’s stay calm,” Murphy said. “Can you tell me who the Mail Führer is?”

“Like you don’t know. She’s the person in charge. She’s the one who cuts your marching orders.”

The line went silent for a time.

“Do you mean the Postmaster General?” Murphy asked.

“So you do know,” John said in an “ah-ha” voice.

* * *

Before the police came and after his nightly ritual of filling his water bottles from his neighbor’s hose, he left the house dressed all in black with his aluminum baseball bat laying across his shoulder. He had duct-taped a towel around the bat to muffle the sound. As he roamed through the neighborhood bashing mailboxes, he imagined how grateful his neighbors would be once they discovered that they couldn’t get mail anymore. He hoped a few of them might take up his cause, going into other neighborhoods and relieving good, honest working families from the totem pole of fear and hate and repression symbolized by their rural route mail receptacles.

* * *

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get her here in sixty minutes,” Murphy said. “Is there someone else you’d like to talk to?”

“Yes. A TV news crew. I don’t care which station.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Sergeant Murphy said. “You release Officer Bradly, and I’ll get that news crew for you.”

“Are you kidding? Do you really think I’m that stupid?”

“I don’t think you’re stupid, John.”

“You better not. Because I’m not stupid. You have an hour to get the TV people or I’m going to pop another cap into this Mail Nazi’s ass.”

With that, John hung up the phone again.

* * *

“They’re here,” Sergeant Murphy called and said forty-five minutes later.

“Send them in.”

“I’m not stupid either, John,” Murphy said. “I’m not giving you more hostages.”

“I’ll send Officer Ed out if you send the reporter and the cameraman in,” I said grudgingly.

“No deal.”

“I’ll send them out again when I’m done.”

“I can’t do that, John. You know that.”

“I’ll still have a couple of guns,” John said. “We’ll get to have our shootout.”

“No one wants that,” Murphy said.

“If you don’t send the camera crew in, I’m going to shoot this cop in the thigh. I’m not sure when the femoral artery is, so I hope I miss it when I shoot him so he doesn’t bleed out all over the floor. I’m not going to shoot him with this piss-ant .38 either. I’m going to use his Glock.”

“Wait a minute,” Murphy said quickly. “Let me see if the news people are willing to go in.”

John waited.

“I want you to know this isn’t personal,” John said to Bradley. “You’re just on the wrong side.”

“Sure,” Bradley said. “I understand.” John knew he didn’t understand. He was just a soldier following orders, blissfully unaware of the tremendous evil he was doing.

Murphy came back on the line.

“They’re willing to go in,” Murphy said. “I’ll let them go in when Bradley comes out.”

“You’re treating me like I’m stupid again,” John said. “You send them in and I’ll send Bradley out.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I haven’t lied to you so far,” he said.

“Okay,” Murphy said. “We’ll do it your way. I’m taking an awful risk. Make sure you keep your word.”

“Tell them I’m in the kitchen,” John said.

A male reporter and a cameraman entered the house and went to the kitchen. John held the gun on them. He had the reporter retrieve Bradley’s handcuff key and let him loose.

“Go,” John commanded. Bradley left without hesitation. John stood up and turned to the reporter.

“Start interviewing me,” John said.

The cameraman manipulated some buttons on the camera and gave a thumbs-up.

“I’m here at the residence of Mr. John Schwartzkopf,” the reporter said. “Mr. Schwartzkopf was holding a police officer hostage, but he released the officer in exchange for my cameraman and myself entering the residence.

“Why are you doing this, Mr. Schwartzkopf?” the reporter asked, shoving the microphone in John’s face.

“I’ll tell you why. I hope the people who are watching are paying attention because they’re about to hear the truth.

“For hundreds of years, people have suffered the tyranny of the Postal Service and the dictatorship of the Mail Führer. Nothing ever good comes in the mail, and that’s an understatement. The USPS uses the police to let all of the big corporations to send enormous bills to everyday people who are tricked into believing that they actually need to pay money to receive services like cable, electricity, water, etc. People don’t know that the big corporations don’t actually need the money. All they do with the money is line the pockets of the fat-cat CEOs on Wall Street.

“Even dogs know that the Mail Nazis are evil. Trust your dog. Trust your instincts. You know I’m right. Anyone in a uniform is a Mail Nazi. Take it to the street. Abolish the postal system now.”

John stopped talking.

“Is that it?” asked the reporter.

“That’s it,” John said.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked. John admired the fact that the reporter seemed so calm. In the same situation, he’d be shaky and stuttering. Come to think of it, his situation wasn’t much different.

“I’m going to send you out,” John said. “Thanks for coming in. It was very brave. I hope the Mail Nazis don’t do anything to you for coming in here.”

John watched them go. After a few minutes of silent reflection, he held the Glock in his right hand and the .38 in his left. He walked out the front door, taking aim at the nearest Mail Nazi.

He didn’t get a single shot off before he heard the loud pop that knocked him off his feet. Sitting up against the door jam, he looked down at his chest. Blood was flowing freely. It wouldn’t be long until he was dead.

A policeman in tactical gear approached him from behind a riot shield. He moved the shield to the side as he knelt down in front of John.

“Right conspiracy, wrong conspirators, comrade,” the policeman whispered. He bopped John on the head with a hammer, and then a sickle came out of nowhere and tore out John’s throat.

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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.

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.

130 MPH

A flash piece by Mitchell Grabois


1.

Mr. Schenectady and his God were sitting in the ruined schoolhouse, the one Mr. S. lives in, the one with the roof falling in, next to the barn with the roof entirely gone, next to the overgrown grave of the farmer who plowed with horses until he was well into his eighties, next to a proud, 500-foot-tall American turbine, its blades spinning slowly.

2.

Historically, God had compassion for whores and lepers (reasoned Reverend Anne, a 60-year-old minister who’d retired from her first career as an English teacher) so He would also have compassion for the much maligned Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, even though Christie was a blowhard, a braggart and a bully, mired in political scandal, some involving political revenge. They know about revenge in New Jersey. It was where Tony Soprano, the Mafia boss, lived. Soprano and Christie were both big fat men who demanded respect and sneered a lot. They would have enjoyed a cigar together and a single malt whiskey neat. Reverend Anne thought Christie deserved some compassion to temper the contempt that the general public felt for him. She began to study him, looking in the nooks and crannies of his life, looking in the many folds of his skin, for praiseworthy qualities, but then she realized the obvious: that God’s love was unconditional, and she stopped looking.

3.

The turbine contemplates violence (because that’s what Americans do), angelic violence, in which wings beat like a goose wings beating a child near to death, traumatizing him for life, making him unable to even see a bird without nearly shitting his pants well into adulthood. An American Child who hadn’t even been to war yet. But wars were being prepared for him, to complete the damage begun in his childhood.

4.

I think I need some of Anne’s unconditional acceptance. I think my dentist does too. I told her (my dentist) that if she didn’t stop stalking me, I’d call the cops and have her arrested.

She looked hurt. We live together, she said. How can I be stalking you?

5.

The American Child’s first ex-wife filled his house with parakeets before she left him, her final Fuck You.

6.

Despite the apparent rationality of her question, I had her by the short hairs. Since she raped me, when I was in her dental chair, my first appointment, flying on nitrous oxide, she gets edgy if I mention cops, even if it’s something as innocent as telling her about the sinister black police cars new to our city’s department. They look like Batmobiles, the officers avengers of the night behind smoked glass.

7.

Mr. Schenectady wears a red flannel shirt. His God wears plaid pajamas, the same pajamas he wears day and night. He’s Mr. Schenectady’s God, so he can do whatever he wants. Mr. Schenectady brings him glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice without ice. When he wants more, God snaps his fingers.

8.

We get up to 130 mph. We terrify ourselves. Then we stop at the junkyard to study cars, like philosophers studying Life, with serious expressions, waiting for mysteries to be unveiled. We see ourselves in the junkers. Bobby always sees himself as a Studebaker. He has no imagination. He once lived next to a farmer who bought a new Studebaker every year and put last year’s model into his giant, unused barn until finally there were at least fifty Studebakers. The farmer’s long-estranged son, when he finally showed up, hardly remembering the place, opened the creaky barn doors and found the four bearded Studebaker brothers, looking a lot like the mentholated-cough-drop Smith Brothers, singing celestial hymns, until they realized that they were being observed for the first time in fifty years, and the oldest was so amazed, he involuntarily farted.

9.

My dentist, my girlfriend, came home and threw off her clothes, put on a Japanese kimono that emphasized her thinness. She had the most delicate wrists I’d ever seen on a dentist, on any woman. I could snap them like toothpicks if I wanted, but why would I? Every night she filled me with nitrous until I floated on a blue cloud, into her bed, into her body.

Don’t be cruel, honey, she begged me in the Southern accent she’d almost lost. Don’t talk about calling the police on me. I love you so much, despite your bad enamel and your periodontal disease, your fear of dentists and your phobia about dental treatment, and your resentment of me.

10.

Mr. Schenectady hates drinking anything without ice. He once washed up in St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, after a significant hurricane, and there was no ice for over four months. Mr. Schenectady suffered greatly, especially as he had shacked up with a hot Caribe momma who boiled his blood twice daily, so he really needed the ice. He was not an air-cooled kind of guy. So there they were, Mr. S and his God, God drinking grape juice sans ice and Mr. S. drinking water from a WWII canteen. Time passed, and they were comfortable sitting together, not even talking.

11.

How long did it take you to get through dental school, I asked her, handing her another glass of vodka with very little tonic in it. 

I don’t know, she said. I don’t remember, but it was a long road filled with pain. The pain wasn’t mine, but that didn’t make it any easier.


Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over a thousand of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, and in print. To see more of his work, google “Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois”. He lives in Denver.

Oh, Nereus

A short story by Steve Carr


The sea is my world, and it stretches on forever, on and on in the days since the sinking of my yacht, The Mercy. This world has no foothold, only islands and coasts seen on the horizon, never reached, reefs and volcanoes sprouting up like exotic flowers and simmering cauldrons in the middle of the jade-green and turquoise waters. The sea provides a mattress, a deathbed of rocking waves that lull me into sleep on this raft where I spend my days and nights; all the hours melding into years. All the years lost.

How many years since the day The Mercy went down in this watery graveyard, this salty, liquid earth? It’s like counting the pinpoints of light in the Milky Way. The days pass like that, twinklings in a distance, miscounted. I can lie on the boards and with the rising sun and its setting, watching the morning and evening skies shift, creating patterns like rotating colored glass in a kaleidoscope. I can watch the moon appear and disappear like a whale’s eye in the ocean of space.

At the bottom of the sea, The Mercy may rest in some crevice, some fissure where striped fish, gray eels and the ink-spitting octopus swim in the darkness. Maybe The Mercy is broken in half, like the Titanic, bow and stern separated, its contents – luggage, furniture, skeletons – scattered and decomposing in the depths or preserved in the coldness. Maybe the First Mate, Pete, stares out at the sharks and barracuda, watching from inside The Mercy. He’s trapped forever in the cabin as he peers with lifeless eyes through the porthole, the porthole where I last saw his has handsome face, his blue eyes full of sorrow. I fell past him, past that porthole, into the sea, tossed from the sinking yacht into the storm-driven waves.

~

The squall came upon us so quickly, so unexpectedly, that before The Mercy went down, Andrea didn’t have time to tie her daughter’s shows, Maximilian and Jan couldn’t tally their gin rummy score, Lucy was unable to fasten the top hook of her Christian Dior gown. Pete couldn’t get the door to his cabin open. I banged on his door. I rammed it with my shoulder.

“Pete, I need you,” I called in to him, then ran up to the deck, to the starboard side to get an ax. I wondered as I fell past his porthole if he thought I’d jumped – that I had abandoned him and the others. He must have known that The Mercy would be swallowed into the sea.

Of the others, including the effeminate Ray and his macho partner Mack, their room full of leather and feathers, of Suzanne who drank too much and looked older than her twenty years, of Sam the cook and the other servants; I don’t know they spent their final moments.

On the way to get the ax to rescue Pete, who could rescue all of us, who knew the yacht better than me, I saw Andrea as I passed her cabin. She was kneeling before her daughter, Tracy, and trying to tie Tracy’s running shoes while Tracy wailed against the horrors of the creaking ship, the pounding of the waves against every outside surface.

“It’ll be alright,” I yelled to Andrea, my shout barely heard above the stormy din.

I climbed the stairs and past the dining room and saw Jan, laughing, his Swedish voice booming “you didn’t win. I won.” Maximilian, much older than his young blond lover, was holding up the pad with the score and laughing also. They didn’t see me as I passed.

Neither did my teenage daughter, Lucy, who stood in front of the wall mirror in the living room, her feet squarely planted on the carpeted floor as the yacht tossed about, her hands behind her neck trying to fasten the top of her gown, a birthday present from me. She looked so much like her mother, the only woman I had ever slept with, when I was twenty, and before I knew what my true sexual tastes were.

The wave that washed across the yacht, that shattered port side windows and portholes, that swept me over the starboard side, seemed like a hand that held me in chilling fingers and emptied me from its palm into the sea. In that moment, beneath the water, I saw a school of fish blithely swimming on like a choreographed marching unit, and it seemed as if there were no storm at all. When I surfaced, I turned every direction, my eyes slapped with the stinging salt of the ocean as I searched for The Mercy. I was submerged again by the crush of the hand that had guided my watery fate, and beneath the water I saw the sinking yacht, The Mercy, stern-first going down into the darkness, bubbles rising from it like giant jellyfish racing to the surface.

I didn’t think at that moment about how such things happen, or why. I didn’t ponder the question of ballast or buoyancy, of the incredible sinking speed, the failure of the yacht to withstand the squall. I thought of Pete, waiting nude in his cabin for me before the squall hit, his door jammed as the boat was suddenly smacked with a monstrous wave, his voice sounding calm, yet strained, as he beat against the door before I ran to get the ax, before I was plummeted into the drifting eternity.

~

And now I try to count the days, the months, the years, and all are lost to me. Just as the memories fade and become distorted, so had time. The hypnotic sparkle of sunlight on sea, the mesmerizing quality of a shark’s fin slicing the water’s surface, the timelessness of playful dolphins; there things alter my perceptions and minutes become hours that become a day. I was thirty-seven when The Mercy sank, and was fit and handsome then, free of the stress of a less-wealthier life. I know by the wrinkles in my face, the whiteness in my hair, the aching in my muscles, that I have entered old age like a man who awakes from a coma and finds his past can never be regained once lost.

Even Nereus can’t stall the ravages of time that will someday be my salvation, my death. In his questioning eyes I see him pondering the growing slowness of my movements, of my weakening limbs as I swim with him beneath shooting stars.

“I’m getting old,” I say to him. “It happens to men, all men.”

He replies in a sing-song vocalization, like a quartet singing in a foreign language, tenor and soprano all at once, and though I have taught him some of my language, I can’t understand his. He reaches out and touches my hair, holds the white strands between his strong, tanned fingers and looks at me with alarm and misunderstanding.

This raft I’m on, this twelve-by-twelve board topped with a canvas tent and a single mast with a single sail, has taken me, I think, around the world, past continents and island chains. I’ve floated and sailed out where the horizon is another man’s piece of poetry. From miles off I’ve seen beaches and cities, ships and harbors. I am trapped on this cell as Nereus’ man. He doesn’t understand the concept of captive, or prisoner, or even possession, as he pulls me with a rope attached to the raft – a rope he holds in his strong white teeth as he swims the seas.

At night he climbs aboard the raft and crawls into the tent and holds me in his wet muscles. He kisses with salty lips, and we make love as he sings, and his songs attract the whales who swim with us as night as I teach Nereus over and over the ways in which men make love.

Nereus knows these things: how to bring food, fish, kelp and canned goods from sunken ships and stolen from ship’s stores; to replace my tent and sail and bedding when they are ragged, by going into harbors and stealing such things from small boats; how to pull me to safety during storms. All other things I must re-teach him every day, every night. He knows that I am changing, growing older, but I don’t think he remembers what I once was, how differently I made love at thirty-seven.

Nereus doesn’t age.

“I want to go home,” I tell him every day.

Nereus laughs and splashes in the water and pulls the rope, drawing the raft so that I go first in one direction, then another, and his message becomes clear: I am home.

“Take me there,” I tell him when we see a beach, a city, a ship. He tilts his head to one side and with grave eyes sings me what I’ve taken to be a warning, a musical note of caution, just as he does when we see a shark or we see an oncoming storm.

Occasionally he brings me things: a shoe, a wooden bowl, a piece of pretty coral. He lays these items at my feet and looks up at me with adoring eyes and rolls onto his stomach and my thank you is to take him, to make him sing, to bring the whales.

From sunken ships and harbor boats he has brought me books and clothes, and hundreds of small items, kitchen utensils and toys, and though there is not room on the raft for all these things, I have thanked him each time, thanked him because I hoped some day he would bring me a blank book, a diary and a pen, which now he’s done.

~

Today the sea is calm and the sun is high above the canvas tarp I wile away this endlessness of moments by recounting what till now has occurred, how my life ceased when The Mercy sank, though I am alive and fed and clothed, provided shelter and safety from the storms, and have a lover who is insatiable and infinite in his lovemaking, and amazing and breathtaking in his beauty. How many times have I cursed this all, and endless times jumped into the sea to end it, only to be pulled back onto the raft by Nereus.

Nereus has brought me a long piece of rope, a gift, laying at my feet and offering himself to me. While inside him, while he sings to the whales who sing to him, I think about the sea, the maddening sea, about getting home at any cost.

In the night the sea is as still as the day and I count the stars reflected in the black of the waters. The half-moon provides candlelight shadows as Nereus and I make love on the boards outside the tent, with the warm breeze drying him, drying his scales that cover his flipper, the whales singing in response to Nereus who seems particularly happy. Afterward we sit in the starlight as he preens his flipper. I comb his sea-green hair and decorate his long locks with starfish and pearls. I feed him seahorses, his favorite, while he strokes my weathered face.

He falls asleep in my arms and when the rhythm of his breath and the tenor notes of his sleep-sighs assures me that I won’t awaken him, I take his gift, the rope, and tie his arms and hands. I tie them so securely that even I couldn’t undo the knots without a knife. I fear that his adoring eyes, his pained song will stir me to change my mind.

When dawn comes, the sea sprinkled with shimmering sunlight, red and pink, I awake to the singing alarm of Nereus struggling with the rope. His eyes implore me, searching my face for answers. Maybe for a moment he thinks it is a game, because he smiles. But when I don’t smile back his alarm increases.

“I’m so sorry, Nereus,” I say, “but you don’t understand. I have to go home.”

Nereus looks about the sea.

“No, Nereus. This isn’t my home.”

I put up the sail and let the winds push the raft, and we float, sail on, and the day grows hot and Nereus becomes quiet. The following whales fall behind, and a school of dolphin who had accompanied us in the night, are gone from sight. I dip my hands into the sea and pour water to his lips and let him drink from my hands.

We float, sail, and I dream of home. I think about the way it would feel to walk up a tree-lined street, to feel the earth beneath me, to walk barefoot in the soil, to see a mountain, solid and unmoving. I think of how I’d smell the flowers and look up at birds other than seagulls.

In late afternoon I fall asleep, made drowsy by the breeze and warmth. I awake a while later to the sound of thrashing in the water. Nereus has rolled himself off the raft and is caught on the edge of the raft by the rope I have tied him with. Several sharks are circling around him, closing in. Nereus is singing, his sing-song voice rising out of the water like children playing flutes. I reach into the water to grab him, to pull him aboard. He looks at me, his eyes full of loathing, and he kicks at my hands with his flipper. His body breaks free from the raft – the raft he placed me on when he found me as The Mercy sank.

The sharks devour him.

Tonight I sail on a satin sea, and I have no idea where I am, but I suspect because of weather and stars it’s somewhere in the Pacific, maybe near Hawaii. If I should die on this raft in the seeming endlessness of ocean, then it will be a just and fair retribution for the death of Nereus. If I awake in the morning, or any morning, or any hour, and spot land and am saved, I’ll tell my saviors that I grew old and alone on a deserted island since the sinking of The Mercy.

The End


Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had short stories published in Double Feature, Tigershark Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, CultureCult Magazine, Fictive Dream, Ricky’s Back Yard, Sick Lit Magazine, Literally Stories, Viewfinder, and The Spotty Mirror, as well as in the Dystopia/Utopia anthology by Flame Tree Publishing, the 100 Voices volume II anthology by Centum Press, the “Waiting for a Kiss” by Fantasia Divinity Magazine anthology, and the Neighbors anthology by Zimbell House Publishing, among others. His stories are scheduled for publication in NoiseMedium, Door is a Jar, Visitant Literary Journal, Panorama, and Bento Box, as well as in the “Winter’s Grasp” anthology by Fantasia Divinity Magazine, to name a few. His plays have been produced in several U.S. states including Arizona, Missouri and Ohio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.