The Understanding

A poem by Jeffrey Zable


I was listening to the swomies in their pajomies
and they all said the same thing: Be here now,
and don’t take anything too seriously except providing us
with necessary cash and some pretty girls on demand.
Nodding like a bobblehead,
I was so glad to come to this understanding:
that the universe makes perfect sense if you just let it be,
and listen to the right people to explain it.
Hopefully I’ll never feel out of place again—
and to that I say, Amen.


Jeffrey Zable is a teacher and conga drummer who plays Afro-Cuban folkloric music for dance classes and rumbas around the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and anthologies. His poetry, fiction, and non-fiction  have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and anthologies. Some of his recent writings have appeared in Serving House Journal, Mocking Heart ReviewKairos, Third WednesdayFutures Trading, Tower Journal, Jokes Review, and Fear of Monkeys, among others.
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Joachim

A poem by John Grey


He underwent a change, unable to believe whether it was day or night,
he drove a fast sports car in an attempt to matter,
the crash, of course, sent waves rollicking across the sea,
he became the past participle of a bent lamppost,
an attempted heist on the part of jewelweed and coneflower—

they warned him against all unannounced, unplanned rebellions
by recent graduates who piss on established fare,
wear the gaudy nomenclature—experimental writer—

he anchored the street for fifty minutes before the cops came,
he wore unleaded low-grade petroleum in his curly locks,
for a moment or two, his heart played drums in a soft-rock band,
then the occasion hauled itself back from a great dent in the scheme of things,
became just another accident—
the sun looked down on his future—
saw nothing but language poets, beats, white ants and castanets.


John Grey is an Australian poet and U.S. resident. His work has recently been published in Front Range Review, Studio One, and the Columbia Review with work upcoming in the Louisiana Review, Poem, and Midwest Quarterly.

ontology

A poem by Paul Brookes


Lifted the black rubber bin lid
saw antlers first then nostrils
then eyes without light
as if looking upwards

horticultural handyman
emptying grass cuttings
into a bin beside greenhouses
owned by a venison farm

hands soft and puffy
pen push finger bone
grooved over years
nursery to college
glad with calluses

scraped, scratched bled
gloveless heave of concrete
flags, grasp shovel handle
to mix sand, water, gravel

collapsed tired muscle
in mam’s deep armchair
knackered and a smile


Paul Brookes is a former shop assistant, security guard, postman, administrative assistant, and lecturer, as well as a member of the poetry performance troupe Rats for Love. His work has been included in Rats for Love: The Book (Bristol Broadsides, 1990), and more recently in the publications Clear PoetryNixes Mate, Live Nude Poems, The Bezine, and The Bees Are Dead.

His first chapbook, The Fabulous Invention Of Barnsley, was published by Dearne Community Arts in 1993.

Check out his website!

Provocation

A poem by Fred Pollack


When, after years or decades, the detectives
corner the bull-necked abuser and recite
what he did, he snarls, “Shut up. Shut up!”
as if he could demoralize them like
his daughter. Though the poisoner-CEO

tells his assistant to call his lawyer,
we can see from his face he’s doomed;
if it’s near the end of the show,
he confesses. The assiduous hero
gets in some cold remark. But in the world,

detectives are elsewhere. Cops mince
along a line of kneeling demonstrators,
macing them; the latter, their youth fulfilled,
disperse. Abusers and their large adoring
families advance with chants and crosses

upon health clinics. All faith is abuse. At
rallies, people in fortunate sections
where protesters appear surge forth
to prove again the guilt of the victim.
If fools were passive we could work around them.


Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness (available from Story Line Press), and a collection, A Poverty of Words (available from Prolific Press). Another collection, Landscape with Mutant, will be published in 2018 by Smokestack Books (UK). He has many other poems featured in print and online journals.

Pollack is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.

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.

Consider the Source

A poem by Fred Pollack


When I start feeling good about myself,
I return to a coffeehouse of yesteryear
where friends – real, imagined, composite –
set me straight. Only one, however,
is eager to talk about my work,

a smiling sensitive whose wheatgrass
and yoga segued smoothly into mergers.
“You seem to think it can change things.”
I disagree. “It’s unpleasant.” I agree.
“You aren’t a politician, after all.”

“They don’t help either,” I point out.
The others seem to read responsively,
their voices shriller than recalled,
from slightly discrepant copies of one book:
about concerts, cars, cults, kids,

cruises and, more recently,
prescriptions that rocked their worlds.
Not everyone is there, even in fantasy.
I miss especially
one friend who said I would conquer illusion itself.


Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness (available from Story Line Press), and a collection, A Poverty of Words (available from Prolific Press). Another collection, Landscape with Mutant, will be published in 2018 by Smokestack Books (UK). He has many other poems featured in print and online journals.

Pollack is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.

Gumpland

A poem by Fred Pollack


“What do you mean,” they asked, “you
‘drew conclusions from loneliness’?
Loneliness isn’t a premise.”
I goggled at them. They were already
goggling at me.

Mourning, for them, was likewise
rudimentary, a prolonged
inarticulate questioning
(I’m not saying I’d do better) of
the Incommensurate. The rights and wrongs

of leaving a trail of blood
behind one, as I had,
were left to the minds of judges,
who allowed just one plea:
insanity.

So at meals thereafter I sat with
intellectuals, who built castles
in the air with food.
“You won’t be lonely now,”
said the guards, without subtext.


Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness (available from Story Line Press), and a collection, A Poverty of Words (available from Prolific Press). Another collection, Landscape with Mutant, will be published in 2018 by Smokestack Books (UK). He has many other poems featured in print and online journals.

Pollack is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.

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.