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  • Robert L. Giron

Issue 193

This issue features

 

  

 

Vchalup

 

Plasma Ball with Lightning in Hands of Magician or Illusionist

 



© by Vchlup.

 

  

Panika M.C. Dillon

 

the magician (revisited)

 

the magician wants to saw

the world in two. he assumes

the world willing—his lovely assistant.

the magician wants. to saw

the audience—he holds his wandup

like he’s goddamn Rasputin. goddamn,

the magician wants to saw

the world & assumes you do, too.

 

Copyright © 2024 by Panika M. C. Dillon.

 

 

 

six of wands

 

we killed the messenger because no

one asked for a hero & he came

framed with trumpets. like a bad penny

the messenger plonked down in the midst

 

of our daily devotional to a thorned crown.

he was a medal etched in triumphant EXTRA!

EXTRA! we killed the messenger because

he was dressed in praise like a Thanksgiving

 

turkey divorcing grace from gravy.

the messenger plastered a wreath over

his bald spot to match the one perched

atop his lance like a kepi. he wore

 

the posture of a modern major

general—the very portrait of

mediocre pride with paisley elbow

patches. we killed the messenger for it.

 

we were certain he kept paradise in his

breast pocket & was rewarded for it.

the messenger posed with his pennant pole

hoisted like a polo mallet—prodding the blue

 

ribs of the sky, correcting the sun’s

crooked grin into a skewed sneer.

the messenger sat on a pure white horse

as if he’d harnessed the kingdom of

 

dreams to hide his failures in. we killed

the messenger because we did not desire

whatever tidings he may harbor in his satchel.

the messenger rode through a crowd he

 

hadn’t yet earned—felling each person

in passing with news from the front.

we had the sharp corners of our prayer

cards; he, his blunt billiard cue. we killed

 

the messenger because we wanted his head

on a platter baptized in blood. we killed

the messenger because it was an act

& we got away with it, too.

 

 

Copyright © 2024 by Panika M. C. Dillon.

 

 

 

two of swords

 

she’s learning to feed the wolves with her heart in her

mouth, to sing you are my sunshine, my only without a tongue.

 

there is no end to the mice deposited at her feet. we are

to understand the blindfold as a choice. there is no end

 

to the offerings, may it please the court, in sight. the ants

march in—a choice, all hers. she’s learning to feel when

 

the man with the white flag enters her chamber tailored in

chalk outlines all Mister Colorblind to you & [ insert transcript

 

here ]. they make a hell of a pair—him leaving bleach fingerprints

all over her halls before her coffee kicks in its two cents.

 

the ants march out with each mouse. her molars roll over &

growl against each other. he howls at the moon for the pleasure

 

of the court. he wasn’t made to care. he has the hallelujah

of a pistol tucked into his waist band. the ants march in.

 

if it may please the court, she will lift his shirt with a

blade. he said there’s always another wrist to snap. she will

 

expose the hashmarks like a tally of his transgressions burned

into his beer belly with the gun’s barrel. if it may please

 

the pack, the ants march out. the pink paws of mice seize against

the unforgiveness of her palm & his [ insert transcript here ]

 

crashes into her lips until her mouth fills with a balm of blood,

with you are my [ insert transcript herer ]. the ants march in

 

to collect their hurrah! hurrah! when it pleases them. when all

the lights land in her hair, they march out again. when she

 

becomes a bombshell, he [ insert transcript here ]. when

the woods learn her name, he [ insert transcript here ].

 

to remove the blindfold would be suicide. she would look upon

the best of the bad [ insert transcript here ] & in doing so, make it

 

her sunshine, her only. the wolves pull her tongue from the sky

just like love will do. may it please the court. [ insert amen here ].

 

 

Copyright © 2024 by Panika M. C. Dillon.

 

 

About the Author

Panika M. C. Dillon's work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Poets & Artists, Copper Nickel, The Diagram, and others. She received her MFA in creative writing (poetry) from Sarah Lawrence College and works as a legislative reporter at the Texas Capitol.

 

  

 

Nelson Graves

  

Postscript

 

Wound tight

Release my tension

After a night of love that leads to nowhere

A craving I can’t provide

I’ll fantasize about it all day and for days to come

 

Just how the squares on the sidewalk

Make me want to play hopscotch

Make me miss the walks I took home from school

Your body makes me want to hold you

Prompting a memory

Of what I’m not quite sure

 

What the philosopher finds in logic

The poet sees in expressive language

Each critiques the other yet both are the same

We hold each other too far and inching closer only makes the other back away

 

I got out of bed and did some laundry

I listened to some music in the shower

I wrote this down

And I laughed.

 

I should think in we

Even when you aren’t here

So I don’t feel those crushing anxieties that I only feel as an individual

And you’re what pulls me to get on with my day

Even when you aren’t here

 

We got out of bed and did some laundry

We listened to some music in the shower

We wrote this down

And we laughed

 

Copyright © by Nelson Graves.

 

 

The queerness of Monadology

 

Leibniz says that we’re monads

We’re like a pond or like a garden, he says

Not just the fish or the plants

The little bits in the water or in the air

Creatures with desires unknown to my mind

 

I’ve got those little creatures inside me too

Without windows

Without doors

But still a mirror to the world around me

 

I see it here in the city

A relation to you or to him or to them or to her or to the plants or the waters or the squirrels

If I know you I can know them all

A monad with predicates that when enumerated can give me all the knowledge in the world

Beyond Montreal, beyond boarders

You can know about Arkansas through me

And I know about Alberta through you

And we can know the world through each other

 

So, each day I try to enumerate your predicates

Your brown eyes, your humble smile, your masculine body

But also your positionality

Were you in my bed or not this morning?

You were last night but you couldn’t stay long

I’ll add that to the list of predicates

 

But I need you to affirm my choice to be with you

And I need you to affirm my choice to enumerate these predicates

I want you to try to sketch my predicates

Because I’ll know you when you know me

Because knowing you is knowing the world

And I won’t be too far from my philosophical research when waste time thinking about you

 

Copyright © by Nelson Graves.

 

 

Your closet

 

I took some clothes your clothes to wear from your closet

You love blue

It’s always been my favorite color too

Lots of blue, any blue

And you had all these hats

But none would fit me

I just took a couple of sweaters

I hope you don’t mind

 

Copyright © by Nelson Graves.

 

About the Author

Nelson Graves (he/him) is a Tiohtià:ke (Montréal) based writer originally from Arkansas. Currently working on his MA in Philosophy at Concordia University, Graves’s poetic works concern the philosophical problems of individuality and alterity interweaved with a queer lust for the romantic.

 

 

Rebecca Green

 

Still life in my grandmother’s kitchen

 

I lean back against the wall, below the

oil painting of a table scene. The same

curtains from two decades ago ruffle

against the pull of a light breeze in a

cracked window.

 

We paint in the morning. My portrait

is blue, a still life of scattered flowers

poking up from a round vase. Hers is

the sea: a stiff, rigid home standing tall

against rising tides. A purple sky, a

disillusioned seagull pressed up against

the canvas, as if to say he flew too close—

splat—beak first disfigured out of heavy clouds.

 

I feel something rigid press against my body

as her brush glides over my vision. Bones

replaced by slight textile ridges, skin turned

papery, I trace a gap in the paint, where the

canvas peaks out.

 

I want to show her a portrait of my youth:

us, side by side, clawing through the forest,

collecting acorns, smashing them open to

find small, wriggling worms. Us, on the

back porch swing. Us, telling stories together

as I curl into a quilted blanket on the bottom

bunk of her spare bedroom, the green

night light bursting against faded wallpaper.

 

I want to tell her that I am not a mother, a wife.

That unlike the seagull, I am afraid of getting too close.

 

 

Copyright © 2024 Rebecca Green.

 

 

Your roses

 

 

Still rest on a ledge along the

staircase to my bedroom. Once

 

shimmering in a bush of fuchsia,

folding gracefully, fresh and

 

searing, they now float onto the

steps in twos. I feel stiff petals

 

crunch between my toes, flake

into small puddles of powder as I

 

run up and down, to work and

home. I watch them wallow in a

 

pool of maroon dust, muddy water

still as the night you left. I

 

remember pulling you close, small

sharps pricking into my chest. I

 

felt the bruise of the shriveled

thorns, the rotting scent.

 

 

Copyright © 2024 Rebecca Green.

 

 

 

About the Author

Rebecca Green is a graduate student at Rowan University, where she also teaches in the First-Year Writing program. She is the associate editor at Glassworks magazine, the university’s graduate publication. She is a recent Denise Gess Literary Award recipient for poetry. When she’s not writing, she enjoys gardening, drinking a hot cup of tea on the porch, and watching classic cinema.

 

 

 

 

W. R. Moseley

 

If Texas Were a Man

 

 

If Texas were a man, I would talk to him,

            for I have a few questions and grievances

I would ask him to look into a mirror and ask, how? 

How do we lead America in mass-incarceration . . .

Why do you insist on locking up black and brown citizens

            at alarming rates?

                        Are convictions that important to you

                                    or do you really care about public safety?

In terms of safety, young children should be taught

            of your gross atrocities to marginalized communities

                        how you do not give a fuck about mistakes and

                                    how your system was not designed for us

The American Dream, no, the Texas Dream

            People come here and we lock you up

Nah, if Texas were a man, I would pick a fight

            throw the first punch

                        say something so fucked up you would want to hit me

Sorry, that is the old me talking, a man who would pull out a pistol and

            Smoke your bitch ass

                        No, I know what to do bullies now . . .

                                    Navigate to a different area,

                                                let you talk all the shit

                                                            in the world

Because in the end all you perpetuate is noise

 

Yeah, if Texas were a man, I would look him in the eye and choose to be

            the bigger man

 

Copyright © 2024 by W. R. Moseley.

 


About the Author

W. R. Moseley, a Texan, is currently serving a sentence in prison since 2017. While in custody, he has obtained a BA in Behavioral Science and an MA in Humanities from the University of Houston-Clear Lake at the Ramsey One Unit in Rosharon, Texas. Upon release from prison, he plans to attend law school.

 

 

 

 

Jim Roberts

 

Late Fiction

 

The Writer

 

Vultures flock to the small town of Hobart, Ohio every summer. They cover the trees with their dark, brooding silhouettes. They align themselves like a battalion of death sentries—fifty at a time—across the long, century-old slate crest of the Rickman Student Union building at Hobart State University, and stare. Some estimates say three thousand gather every year, maybe more. Ornithologists from across the world come to the rural, college town of Hobart to study the phenomenon. All are mystified as to why it happens. Why here? Why at all?

 

I’m no ornithologist—I teach creative writing at HSU—but I know why the buzzards come. They come to pick the bones of my career.

My first novel, Where the Ragged People Go, was a finalist for the National Book Award. The second book, Bridge to Everywhere, won the Pulitzer for fiction. And my third (and last), that wretched pile of uninspired sentences and plot holes called Rodeo Monkey, hit Amazon like a turd hurled by . . . well, a monkey.

 

Everyone hated it: The New York Times (“shockingly mediocre”), The Washington Post (“frankly, an embarrassment”), elite critics and influencers, readers—especially fans of my other two books. My third wife (now ex), friends (also, now mostly ex), and family hated it—even if they didn’t say so, a writer knows. I considered reading it to Cormac, the family dog at the time, hoping to at least get a few random tail wags, but then thought better of the idea. No need to add animal cruelty to my rap sheet of humiliation and failure. My crash was swift and painful, dropping from the English faculty of NYU (the top) to Boston College (respectable) to Texas Mid-State (embarrassing) to my current exile at HSU (literary Siberia).

 

If teaching in a place best known for vulture infestation was not degrading enough, I was being stalked by a seventy-something farmer. He’d written a novel. Yes, yes, of course he had. Apparently, every Ensure®-sucking, diaper-clad, titanium-hipped Boomer living within a two-hundred-mile radius of Hobart, Ohio had written or was writing a novel. Or at the very least, a short story or ten. About their cat. Or how their tender, teenage heart was broken by the head cheerleader. Or the untimely death of such-a-good-boy Spiffy the childhood pup.

 

I had to read this shit because my boss, Dr. Hector Vicente, the chairperson of the English Department, had the brainstorm to create a badly needed new revenue stream for the university called “Late Fiction: The Hobart University Senior Writers’ Conference,” held each summer and specifically designed for older people, age sixty-five and up. Three days of craft lectures, workshops, and one-on-one feedback sessions with geezer neophytes. Christ!

Most of these clowns, as they circle the drain and realize the meaninglessness of their lives—finding themselves sitting on fat-ass 401Ks with nothing else to fill the hours—announce themselves “writers” with SOMETHING TO SAY. Few can string three good sentences together.

 

I didn’t know if my stalker farmer could write a good sentence or not, and I wasn’t going to know because, as I told him repeatedly, “I’m not reading your novel!” He attended the conference—having never submitted a writing sample—and somehow got the notion I would Yoda him along. Affirm his worth, his intellect, his stinking soul. Wrong guy, pal.

 

Hector saddled me with this mud-pig of a job so the university could plaster my long-faded accolades across the conference’s web site and brochures to impress all the grandmas and grandpas across flyover land: Come one, come all! Come learn at the feet of novelist Preston Grant. Admire his Pulitzer. Learn how to catch a permanent case of writer’s block. Watch him slowly dissolve into obscurity before your eyes! Poof! Preston who?

 

Very clever of Hector, finding a way to use me to put arthritic butts in chairs—at fifteen hundred dollars a pop—and at the same time punish me for his suspicion that I was sleeping with his wife, Lila. I was, but still, punish the crime before the indictment? Downright Un-American.


And that stalking farmer? He’s why Lila and I got caught.

 

The Farmer

 

I don’t farm anymore. Don’t do much of anything but slowly go blind. Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). That’s a diagnosis creative writing professors refer to as “the inciting incident” of a story. About a year ago, when the docs told me I was entering late-stage AMD and had maybe two years of functional vision left, it incited the hell out of me to get my novel published.

 

I started writing it as a nineteen-year-old infantry grunt in Vietnam in 1968. Carried the loose, hand-written pages in my pack where most soldiers carry a Bible or extra ammo or maybe letters from home. Maybe pictures of their honeys, or dope or porn. Little comforts to salve the nerves between alternating bouts of terror and boredom. Not me. I already knew the Bible front to back and was on very good speaking terms with God. I didn’t smoke or drink anything. Didn’t have a girl back home.

 

My opiate was words, to bury myself in story, to let myself sink headlong into a self-induced trance, scribbling on any scrap of writable material I could find. The backs of maps. The backs of letters from my parents. Candy wrappers or cardboard. Anything. Random notes at first. Then paragraphs that made little sense until I nipped and tucked and nursed them into complete pages that did.

 

The manuscript grew steadily, filling up more and more space, both physical and spiritual. It was scraggly and ragged, stained with coffee and greasy C-ration fingerprints, with sweat and blood, paddy water and piss. Ugly to look at, to be sure, but my ugly baby, beautiful on the inside I hoped, growing there in my pack, along for the murderous journey. The two of us traversing muddy swamps and deep bush. Surviving ambushes and napalm drops. My baby, gestating across a full tour of duty, right there in its little olive-drab womb strapped to my back. Miraculously intact—save for a shrapnel rip through the first forty pages—and about one-third complete when I left Nam in ’69.

 

When I got home, Dad was too sick to harvest his crops, so I stepped in. Temporarily helping my parents out, I thought, then back to the novel. Dad died. The “helping” turned into owning and farming my parents’—mostly leased—five hundred acres of corn and soybeans, along with a second job selling used cars to make ends meet.

 

During those first few years back from the war, there would be times late at night when I managed a few new sentences, or maybe a handful of edits and revisions. But over time, those snippets of work petered out. What was the point of it after all? A foolish waste of time.

 

Decades clicked off and I turned into a middle-aged man with a wife and two young children to feed and clothe with my patchwork of income from dirt-farming and hawking cars. The idea of walking into a bookstore, or even better, a library, and seeing my book under the same roof with O’Connor and Ellison,

 

Carver and Walker seemed more and more childish, self-indulgent fantasizing.

 

One day I woke atop a steep pile of years and looked out to see my twenty-something self, toiling way down the mountain. I screamed out to him and waved my arms and pointed. Pointed to the exact spot where his dreams would die.

 

The Writer

 

We broke out into genre groups, and I stood at the lectern in the classroom set aside for the Fiction Workshop and watched a dozen aspiring oldsters take their seats, many of them stutter-stepping down the aisles like heavily sedated sloths.

I knew Hector wanted me and my fellow colleagues to sing the same song, our national anthem of bullshit, cheerleading the seniors with “it’s never too late.” He’d plastered that slogan on all forms of tchotchkes to sell to them: tee shirts, notebooks, tote bags and backpacks, on and on ad nauseum. I wanted to scream out to them as they took their seats:

 

“Oh, but it is too fucking late! You can’t start writing now and accomplish anything worth a damn. Show some respect! This is not something you wait to do until you have time in your life, until you retire. It has to be your life during your life. This is not a hobby! Would anybody walk into a vanity basketball camp and expect to one day join the NBA? No one here is ever going to be LeBron James.

 

“Spend your last few years relaxing. Don’t torture yourself. Do something fun. Cruise maybe. It takes decades of self-loathing, deprivation, and rejection to master the skills necessary to properly crush yourself with a keyboard.”

 

That workshop was the first time I met the farmer. His name tag read “Carl Flanagan” and he had a pine-tree look to him, well over six feet, trim and tight with longish, wispy gray hair that shifted every time the air conditioner kicked on. He was the only one who hadn’t submitted the “required” ten-page writing sample. Who was Hector kidding with that “required” bit? The university wasn’t about to forego fifteen hundred bucks over a missing ten pages of drivel.

 

“Mr. Flanagan,” I said. “Did you not submit a writing sample? That means no one here has read your work. So, we can’t discuss it.”

 

“I brought it with me,” he said and lifted a disheveled, stained tome over his head.

 

“Holy crap,” the woman behind him said. “Is that all handwritten?”

 

“Never learned to type,” the farmer said, his voice scratchy and strained.

 

“Good grief man,” someone said. “Hire it out.”

 

“Don’t want to leave it anywhere,” Flanagan said and looked down at his hands. “It’s the only copy. It means everything to me. I never let it out of my sight.”

 

“Better find a Kinko’s,” someone in the back shouted. “Although that’d be a bitch to copy. One damn page at a time, I bet.”

 

“OK, everyone,” I said, trying to regain control of the room. “Mr. Flanagan, why don’t you read us a few pages. Get some feedback that way?”

 

Flanagan shot me a startled look, then raked his eyes around the room. The class sat silent for a long moment while he fumbled for reading glasses, then pushed up from his chair and peeled back fat rubber bands from their death grip around the manuscript.

 

“Chapter one,” he read and pulled the page to within a few inches of his face, then pushed it back and changed the angle. Criminy, I thought, he can’t even read his own handwriting. Or worse, he can’t read well, so how good could his writing be?

 

He muttered a few words at a time, almost in a whisper, often breaking mid-sentence to readjust the paper for better light. His wavering, shy voice and halting speech made it impossible to make much sense of what he was reading. About midway through the third paragraph, the farmer fell silent and clamped his eyes, trying but failing to block tears. He bowed his head and wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve.

 

“Sorry,” he said. “This gets a little emotional for me.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Flanagan,” I said, ending everyone’s misery. “That’s enough for today. See all of you tomorrow morning.”

 

 

The Farmer

 

That first winter back from Vietnam, Dad was in bad shape. He’d had a massive heart attack a few months before I came home, and it kicked him into congestive heart failure. Systolic failure they called it, meaning his heart was damaged so much it could no longer properly pump blood through his body. He struggled to sit up in bed and spoke in a weak, gasping voice. Couldn’t make it twenty feet to the bathroom and back without leaning against the wall to rest. He would probably live a few more years, the doctors told my mother and me—if he didn’t have another heart attack or stroke—but there was no coming back from it. It would be all downhill now, probably not long before he would need full-time nursing home care.

 

This news turned my previously joyful, perpetually optimistic mother into a zombie. I’d awake to screams at three a.m. and run to her bed as she surfaced from a nightmare, sweating and shaking and pounding the headboard. This went on for a month until I finally got her to talk.

 

Over coffee one morning, she told me the farm was bankrupt, the mortgage on their modest house underwater, the annual lease payment on the land due soon. Their health insurance was shitty, covering some of Dad’s expenses, but still leaving them with major bills to pile on top of other bills. The mortgage could be covered for another couple of months by exhausting their savings, but there was otherwise no way out, nothing of significant value to sell, no way to raise cash.

 

“If we’re evicted, I could move in with my sister, your Aunt Pauline, in Cincinnati,” she said. “Get a job at McDonald’s or something.”

 

“What about Dad?” I asked.

 

“I can’t ask Pauline to take both of us. Not in the shape your dad’s in.”

 

“Then what? A nursing home? God, those are awful places.”

 

“You’re young, Carl. I don’t want you tangled up in all this. Your dad and I will figure it out.”

 

“How would you even pay for a nursing home?” I asked.

 

“If we were destitute, he’d qualify at some facilities. The ones who get funding from the State or something, I think.”

 

“Those places must be the worst of the worst.”

 

“You should start looking for a regular job, Carl. Or maybe the Army has some benefits you could use for college?”

 

The idea of college did appeal to me. Hobart State was only ten miles away. I’d major in English and load up on creative writing courses. I’d learn to type and live in the library and work on my novel every day between classes. Read all the great books I always wanted to read. Go to bars and coffee houses and debate novels with literary folks. For the right people, I’d let them take a peek at my war-torn baby-in-progress. Maybe impress a few co-eds with my wordsmithery. Yeah, sure. Someday, far away.

 

“No way I’m leaving here and throwing the two of you to the wolves. I’ll get another part-time job somewhere. Do whatever it takes to keep things afloat.”

 

I showed Mom a half-smile, but the words laid sour in my mouth. I didn’t mind working hard, that’s the way I was raised. But getting yet another job meant I’d never have time to work on my book. This was the trade-off God had given me. Write a book no one will likely ever see or help save my parents. It sounded like an easy choice. It wasn’t.

 

***

 

The night my father died, snow collapsed the roof of the barn. I’d driven into Hobart to see a movie and buy feed, and when I returned, the barn was a pile of splinters and twisted tin roof panels, capped by a gigantic scoop of winter. I started digging out the tractor and as much other equipment as I could, to assess damage to the few pieces of property we had to sell. After an hour of shoveling, hands and feet numb and stiff, I trudged to the house to change into dry clothes. Got some coffee and sat by the fire. Let the quiet and the dark wash over me.

 

Mom was whimpering upstairs. She was in the master bedroom, where Dad’s hospital bed was set up next to the regular bed.

 

“Mom? You, OK?”

 

“Don’t come in here!”

 

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I pushed the door to open a crack. She was slumped to the floor, her back against Dad’s bed, a pillow in her lap.

 

“Why are Dad’s arms tied down?” I asked.

 

“It’s the best way, Carl,” Dad said, not much above a whisper. Mom sobbed and clutched the pillow tighter to her body. Turned her head to the wall.

 

“Pills would show up in bloodwork,” Dad said. “If there was an investigation.”

 

“No, no, no. Jesus God!” I stomped over to Mom and snatched the pillow from her. “Have you both lost your minds?” I shouted.

 

I bent over, eye level with Mom. “Smother him?” I said, my voice cracking. She covered her face with her hands and wailed.

 

“Don’t blame your mother,” Dad said. “My plan. All the way. I’ve got enough life insurance to pay off the house. And there’d be a little left over for living expenses. For a short while, anyway. We’d default on the medical stuff. What’re they gonna do, repossess me?” He grinned.

 

“There’s got to be another way,” I said, trembling. I could always tell when he was serious about something. He had that distant, stony look in his eyes.

 

“There ain’t,” he said. “And the insurance won’t pay if it’s suicide. I’m sick as hell. Everybody who knows us knows that. Won’t be no big whoop if I don’t wake up one morning. We just have to make it look good.”

 

I sat on the floor next to Mom and put my arm around her. She stopped crying and I started.

 

“I could live maybe two more years as an invalid, which would leave your mother homeless and penniless. I’ll be goddamned if I go out that way.”

 

Of course, Dad was right. You’re an asshole for thinking that; are the three of you God now? It would solve a lot of problems, and it’s coming soon anyway. Mom keeps her house, and you get breathing room to write. If I don’t do it for them, they’ll find another way—better me in prison than Mom, in case things go south. OK, now you’re making some sense.

 

I pulled Mom to her feet and walked her downstairs. Poured a little Jim Beam in some coffee and set her up in front of the fire with her drink and a blanket. I took the Beam upstairs and when Dad saw it, he said, “good idea.”

 

I poured him about two fingers. “Carl, this ain’t no church social. You better double or triple that.”

 

I held the glass to his lips, and he drank it down. I hated the stuff, but I swallowed half a glass, and checked how Mom had tied his arms to the bedsides, to make sure the padding was adequate. To make sure there’d be no bruising if he fought it, which was sure to happen.

 

“Son, you’re a good man. Just think of it as finishing what God already started.”

 

I picked up the pillow and stepped toward him and started crying again, hid my face behind it for a moment. My cowardice had no place in the same room with his bravery.

 

“Did I ever tell you my favorite quotation?” he said. I almost laughed. I’d heard it a hundred times as a kid, working the land alongside him.

 

“‘I hope to arrive to my death, late, in love, and a little drunk.’ A man named Atticus said that. Whoever the hell he is.”

 

I nodded and looked out the icy window. A full moon reflected off the white, flat land he’d worked on all his life, all the way to the horizon.

 

“Well,” he said. “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

 

He was fifty-one.

 

 

The Writer

 

I waited in my office for the farmer. It was time for his one-on-one feedback meeting with a real-life Pulitzer winner, although without a writing sample, I had no idea what we were going to talk about. Everyone was entitled to a short, private session each conference, but thank God only about half of them ever signed up. My waiting wasn’t totally wasted though; I watched as two vultures pecked and ripped the windshield wipers off Hector’s BMW. 

 

I loathed the one-on-one meetings. They were the rotten rock bottom of the whole charade. Me, trapped face-to-face in a cramped office for fifteen minutes at a time with one sagging, faded bag-of-bones after another. I felt like the protagonist in a B-grade horror flick, awakening to discover I’d been sealed in a coffin with a corpse. A well-seasoned corpse.

 

That was it, the heart of my phobia. I was afraid of catching something from them. What? Frailty? Disintegration? Mortality? I was afraid of literally catching old age, and there was no cure for that, save death. I was Father Damien, wading through lepers, but without his grace and purity of soul. I didn’t want to help the afflicted. I wanted to run like hell.

 

Oh, God did Jennifer Egan nail it when she said, “time is a goon.” A great big bad ass fucking goon, gonna mess you up, boy. Gonna mess you up good. And every damn summer, I get thrown smack into the middle of a major outbreak of the geriatric, time-goon virus.

 

It was four fifteen. The farmer was late. Only fifteen minutes left. Maybe he won’t show. Oh, happy day.

 

I waited another five minutes before texting Lila a picture of the pink, padded handcuffs I’d bought. She texted me back a pic up her skirt.

 

Sorry, farmer. Got to go.

 

 

The Farmer

 

My meeting with Professor Grant was at four o’clock, and I left in plenty of time.

 

As my vision worsened, I promised my kids I’d give up driving. But the two-lane country road from my house to the HSU campus was lightly traveled and only ten miles, a straight shot. I could see well enough to get there and back, the biggest problem being some fuzziness and blackness right in the center of my sight. I’d learned to work around that, but I knew time was running out. I needed to keep driving at least until the conference was over, until I could put my book in good hands. In Pulitzer-winner Preston Grant’s hands.

 

About a half mile from campus, the car in front of me swerved around something I couldn’t see. Buzzards. One of them smashed into my windshield, leaving it covered in a fractal maze of cracks and blood and buzzard shit, impossible to see through.

 

I left my truck on the shoulder and walked my novel the rest of the way into town, but it was too late. Professor Grant was gone.

 

 

The Writer

 

Lila and I had a system. She’d leave her and Hector’s house to go for a run, then cut through the park to the bike path that passed right behind my place. About a mile total, but nothing for her, she was a marathoner. There was a thick strip of trees and brush between the back of my rental house and the bike path. A quick push through the undergrowth, and voilà. All she had to do was jump the back section of privacy fence that surrounded my yard—with the aid of some strategically stacked concrete blocks—and she had arrived.

 

Once inside the house, she’d usually shower, get a glass of wine, and then cuddle up with the two stray cats I’d taken in, Boo and Radley. There was nothing better than coming home to the three of them stretched out on the couch.

 

 

The Farmer

 

I embarrassed myself the first day of workshop, breaking down while trying to read aloud from my book. I could blame it on diminished sight, which was partly the issue, but the truth was that in the reading of it to other people, I was seeing the true nature of the thing for the first time. And that both saddened and terrified me.

 

Standing there trying to read aloud, I was no longer in the twenty-first century, surrounded by well-to-do retirees in a safe, dry room. I didn’t stand in a classroom in Hobart, Ohio. I stood in a burning village in a past century.

 

The words seemed not my words, but the ripped flesh of friends slaughtered in a forgotten war. The words were the broken bodies of dead children, the screams, and pleas of dying teenage soldiers, and the last pale breaths I’d stolen from my father.

 

That stack of pages had ceased to be merely a story to me. It had become prayer and curse. An albatross formed by my own hand from the blood of warriors and the sin of patricide. Something to hold close and something to expel.

 

  

The Writer

 

The stalking began after the farmer missed his one-on-one opportunity. He ambushed me in the English Department’s parking lot the next morning, foisting that nasty block of paper at me. I waved him off with “Sorry, sorry, no,” repeated it a few times, faked a big smile, and almost broke into a run as I skirted past him and into the building. It was the last day of the conference. I figured that would be the end of it.

 

But no. He must have followed me from my office about a week later as I took a break. I sat in Roost Coffee, about half a block from campus, sipping a steaming Americano and texting Lila. When I saw him cross the street and head toward the cafe, manuscript under arm, I hightailed it through the tiny kitchen and into the back alley.

 

Over the next few weeks, he cornered me on the cereal aisle at Kroger. Drove up on me at a car wash. He’d lurk for hours in the hall outside my office, so I changed my office hours. I tried unsuccessfully to convince Hector I should move my office across the street into the History Building.

 

The farmer was relentless, I’ll give him that. No amount of “sorry, no, can’t help you, sorry, sorry, sorry” would work. “Sorry” became “Please go away” became “Just fucking leave me alone” became “I’m calling the police.”

 

I didn’t call the police. But I probably should have because he somehow got my home address. That’s when the real unraveling began.

 

 

The Farmer

 

I wasn’t proud of pestering Professor Grant, but damn it, he wouldn’t take my phone calls or respond to letters. Talking to him in person was my only option and time was running out on my ability to drive to HSU and back. If I could get just one hour with him, buy him drinks or dinner maybe, I’d convince him to read it.

 

If he liked it, maybe he’d talk his agent into taking a look. Spread the word among all the right people. And the truth was, I felt cheated because I only attended the Late Fiction conference to get that one-on-one meeting with him, and it was botched. I couldn’t afford the fifteen-hundred-dollar tuition. Had to sell my Bronze Star, my grandfather’s gold railroad watch, and Mom’s one and only string of pearls to raise the money. All now wasted. I desperately needed to see that book in print, while I could still see. My book deserved to live.

 

I decided on one last try. Gave a kid in the HSU library twenty bucks to use one of the library’s public computers to search the internet for Grant’s home address.

 

No one answered the doorbell, and I couldn’t see much from standing in the flower bed and peeking in the front window. It was a beautiful day. Maybe he was out back?

 

There was a tall privacy fence around the back yard, and the gate was unlocked. I went through and rounded the corner toward the deck, calling out “hello, hello,” and almost bumped heads with Mrs. Grant. She was a striking woman with copper hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing a black and tan yoga outfit and expensive running shoes.

 

“Jesus!” she said and jumped back, sucking in a deep, whistling breath.

 

“Oh, God!” I said. “So sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not a burglar, I promise, I promise. I’m a writer!” I smiled and held the manuscript up for her to see. “Just looking for your husband.”

 

“You scared the bejesus out of me!” Her accent was British. Or maybe Australian. She jumped behind me and jerked the gate closed but kept one hand on the pull.

 

“He’s not here,” she told me, with annoyance in her voice. She took her phone from a holster around her bicep, paused, and rubbed her neck. Avoided eye contact with me. I prayed she wouldn’t call the police.

 

“You best leave. Yes, that would be best.” She opened the gate just enough for me to squeeze by.

 

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Sorry I scared you.”

 

The gate shut quickly behind me, and I heard the bolt clank into its slot.

 

 

The Writer

 

A week later, I stood on the English Department steps chatting with Khalid, one of our graduate assistants, when Hector and Lila came out of the building, headed for their car. We all said polite hellos as they passed. I tried not to make eye contact with Lila, which was our agreement if we ran into each other around Hobart. Khalid and I resumed discussing his MFA project when I heard the farmer’s voice behind me.

 

“Hello, Mrs. Grant!” Flanagan said. “Again, I’m so sorry for scaring you in the backyard the other day. And I need to apologize to Professor Grant too.”

 

I spun around to see what was happening. Lila froze and flashed a tense look up toward me.

 

“Vicente. My name’s Vicente,” she said. Flanagan narrowed his eyes, looked first at Lila, baffled, and then at Hector. An awkward pause later, he gave them a shallow nod, adjusted the grip on his manuscript, and headed up the steps toward me.

 

Hector leaned back and took a long look at Lila, like he was seeing his wife for the first time, then glared up at me. She tried to take his arm, but he jerked it back and huffed down toward the car, leaving her skittering along behind, calling out, “Hector. . .Hector. Wait!”

 

Enough was enough. I didn’t care if the farmer was almost thirty years my senior, I was going to stomp him. I left Khalid behind and ran down to the old man and slapped that silly, mangy bundle out of his hands. It flew over the handrail and caught in the top of the hedges that grew eight feet high on either side of the concrete steps rising into the building.

 

“You’re a goddamn idiot!” I screamed.

 

“Professor! Professor!” Khalid shouted, running behind me. “What are you doing?”

 

“No, no!” The farmer turned his back to me, fixated on his ridiculous manuscript. He leaned out for it, but it was just beyond reach, hanging by a twig or two above a long drop into the gunk and muck left by the sprinklers.

 

“Please God,” he said, and laid himself belly out on top of the handrail, stretching.

 

“Sir, sir,” Khalid called out to him. “Let me help you.”

 

I slipped back up the steps as Khalid descended, planning my escape through the building, and hoping a twig would snap, and the damn thing would drop and fall and keep falling into the bottom pit of hell. Get away from the old pest, Khalid, while you still have a chance. Save yourself!

 

The farmer leaned further and further out. “Almost!” he cried, one hand on the railing, his other arm stretched past any natural limit. Khalid tried to grab the old man’s belt, to belay him, but was not quick enough. The farmer fell headfirst over the edge, both he and his novel vanishing into the bushes.

 

The shrubs cushioned the fall somewhat, according to the EMTs, but he’d still suffered serious neck and head injuries.

 

“At his age,” one of the medics said, “he’ll be very lucky to make it.” 

 

 

***

 

 

About midnight, Lila texted me she had confessed all to Hector, and they were staying together. That was it. I’d lost her. My untenured job at HSU, also gone. Hector would surely fire me tomorrow or the next day.

 

I sat in the dark on my back deck, sipping Glenfiddich in a misting rain, trying to figure out how everything had collapsed over the past decade. Yeah, fired again. Next stop: teaching grammar at Inbred Community College in Bumfuck, Wyoming.

 

I drove to HSU, squinting through scotch goggles, navigating with one headlight because the other one was shattered when I hit a vulture three days ago. Disgusting creatures, like an army of grim reapers invading town.

 

I went to my office to get a head start packing my things, but also because my bottle had run dry, the liquor stores were closed, and I had another Glenfiddich locked in my desk. I flipped on the lights in my office and there sat the tattered mess of the farmer’s manuscript square in the middle of my desk, waiting, patient as a rock. Goddamn you, Khalid. I picked it up to make sure I was really seeing what I was seeing that the liquor hadn’t fooled me.

 

Damn it was heavy. A rainbow of colors and a sampler of textures. I swear, some of the pages were written on the blank insides of chicken-feed sacks, rough cut to about letter size. I gulped whiskey and sniffed the little bitch. It stank. An odor like a cross between mildew and despair.

 

As I flopped it back down on the desk, the first line caught my eye. A brilliant opening. At least the old man’s handwriting was legible. I read another line and then another. I was half sloshed, but I’d done some of my best analysis and thinking while sloshed. And some of my worst.

 

It was titled Of Fathers & Gods, and the slimy bastard hooked me from the first sentence, I mean hooked me right through the jawbone. Writ large, it was a retelling of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. His prose was beautiful. Lyrical but never pretentious. The structure was magnificently executed, the intertwining of two primary story lines. On one level, it was about a Special Forces colonel during the Vietnam war who struggles with the decision to send his own son on a suicide mission into a treacherous Viet Cong tunnel. But on another level, it was a recasting of the story, where America is Abraham, Vietnam is Mount Moriah, and 58,220 Americans are Isaac. But this time no angel arrives at the last minute to stay the hand of the father. Abraham completes the sacrifice of Isaac and waits in silence for God to approve.

 

By dawn I’d finished it, after taking several breaks to cry, or sit in stunned silence and ponder an especially striking section, a pitch-perfect chapter. It needed a few edits, of course, but the farmer’s novel was the best thing I’d read in twenty years. The bad news was it beat my three books all to shit. The good news set my mind on fire with ideas for a new book, a really good one, my comeback novel! I could see most of my new book in a single flash of imagination, just like my best days before Rodeo Monkey. At the exact moment I needed a lifeline, here it was. Steal from it? Oh, hell no. I might have been an asshole, but I was no plagiarist.

 

Shortly after sunrise, as I let the farmer’s book seep further into me, I carried the crazy patchwork of pages down to the English Department’s copy room. I couldn’t stop sobbing over the beauty of it, and how it would change my life. No one is ever alone after falling in love with a great book.

 

I stood in the copy room and let tears of tribute and release flood over it as I peeled off a few pages at a time and fed them into the shredder.

 

 

*

 

 

Hunched over an untouched Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s, I drank a river of coffee until I felt at least half sober, and decided that if the farmer survived, I’d tell him his manuscript somehow got mixed up with the trash. After all, it looked like trash. So terribly sorry, but it’s gone. Damn those janitors! Or damn those airheaded office people! You just can’t get good help these days.

 

As I sobered, my focus returned to the new book I had to write. I ordered a fresh carafe of coffee and ferociously jotted notes in my Moleskin. I rushed to get the broad strokes of plot down on paper before they floated away.

 

There would be two primary characters in conflict: A washed-up novelist turned misanthropic professor of creative writing who hates old people because they are harbingers of his own death, and an aged farmer with brilliant but undiscovered writing skills who sacrifices his literary dreams for the good of his family.

 

The farmer was in the ICU at Hobart-Stratton Memorial. I drove over there, as it was my habit to visit as many of the physical places as possible where scenes from my novels took place, the best way to get the details right, to make sure things rang true.

 

“Are you family?” The duty nurse asked, not bothering to look up from his computer.

 

“His nephew,” I said. “Just flew in from California.”

 

“Fifteen-minute limit on visits. There’s some family in there now, so please wait in the hallway. Don’t crowd the room.”

 

“How’s he doing?” I asked. The nurse said nothing, just looked at me and bit his lower lip. Shook his head.

 

I moved quietly toward the farmer’s room and hovered in the hall, feeling like just another vulture come to town. There were two couples with him, about my age, and four children. All quiet but for an occasional muted comment or whisper.

 

I sat on a bench in the hall, just outside his door, checking messages on my phone.

 

“Excuse me,” someone said. I turned and saw a fortyish woman leaning out from the farmer’s room. She had a flat, round face and sandy-blond hair, cropped short.

 

“Are you here to visit Carl Flanagan?” She said, her eyes moist and bloodshot.

 

What now? I had foolishly thought I could avoid talking to anyone. I tried to smile, and opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t quickly think of just the right lie.

 

“Were you a friend of his?” she asked, “My father?”

 

“Yes,” I said, standing, regretting I didn’t have a clever answer, something to extract me from the situation. “He was just at my house. Maybe a week ago.”

 

“Please join us,” she said, and motioned toward the room. I looked up and down the hall, stalling, trying to think of some reason to say no. Couldn’t come up with one.

 

As I entered, everyone turned and looked, nodding and sad-smiling at me.

 

“There’s no brain activity,” his daughter said to me under her breath. “They’re going to remove life support today. After we leave.”

 

“So sorry,” I whispered.

 

“Let’s pray,” one of the men said. His son, I guessed.

 

Everyone stepped up to the bed, put their bodies right up against it, and held hands. A young girl to the right of me, maybe thirteen, grabbed my hand and pressed herself to the bed, but I hung back a step or two, stretching my arm as far as I could without breaking her grasp. A boy of nine or ten grabbed my other hand and pushed his chest up to the bed. He tugged at me—gently at first, then more aggressively—until I too had my thighs against the bed, just inches from his braindead grandfather.

 

I hadn’t prayed since childhood but bowed my head with his family and listened carefully to the words his son spoke, asking that Carl Flanagan be forgiven his sins, and his soul be folded into the eternal love of Heaven. The prayer done, they took turns leaning down to him, whispering last words, kissing his cheek or forehead. A gospel song broke out, low and sweet and salted with easy tears. An old favorite of his.

 

The sincerity of their love shocked me, as if an assailant had plunged a long, thick icicle into my chest. Shake it off, I told myself. Shake it off and focus on your book. But I couldn’t.

 

 Breaking away from the kids, I rushed into the hall and called my daughter for the first time in months. It went straight to voicemail. Tried to call my son, but apparently his number was no longer in service. I’d had no notice of that. He was a freshman at Boston University. Or was he a sophomore? I wondered if he was even still there. Most desperately, I called Shelia, my second wife, my favorite, but panicked and hit “cancel” when it began ringing.

 

Unlike me, the farmer had never been alone. He was not alone now. I could still feel his grandkids’ hands in mine, could feel their grief and loss lingering on my skin. I dropped the phone and heard the screen shatter with a sickening crackle.

 

My grandkids, if any are born, will never know me like that. I doubled over on the bench and sobbed, struggled to keep myself under control, then finally lost it entirely, heaving and howling like a lost dog. I let the tears flow and covered my face in shame. The farmer’s family filed out of the room, and almost to a person, reached down to hug me, to pass along a comfort, a little love.

 

“We’re all going to miss him,” his daughter said, and patted my shoulder. “You two must have been great friends.”

 

 

*

 

 

With the family gone, I went back into the room and sat at the foot of his bed, expecting medical people to show up at any moment to pull the plug. I sat there for a long while, sniffling and wiping my nose. Thinking about how he was loved. Thinking about how I traded three wives and two kids for a Pulitzer Prize.

 

“Sorry for shredding your book,” I said to the dead farmer. “I was drunk. No, I was jealous. And I was really pissed off about Lila. OK, you’re right, all of the above. Alcohol, women, and jealousy. That’s always a bad cocktail.”

 

I sat in the little half-glass room and took it all in. The sounds, smells, colors. How his gown draped on his body, a count of the tubes and wires, their colors, and locations. The angle of the bed, how the window blinds hung askew, the odd speckled nature of the floor. Then I began pouring notes into my Moleskin, capturing the details, trying to refocus myself on the new book I had to write.

 

I always started a new piece of fiction with two things in mind: the title, and the ending. I’d title the new book Of Fathers & Gods, not as plagiarism—titles can’t be copyrighted anyway—but as homage to the farmer’s book, as a way of bringing a little of his novel back from the shredder.

 

And in a way, I could bring him back as well. Yes, this scene here, this was it, the ending for my comeback novel, my ticket back to civilization. So, from the foot of my newest protagonist’s death bed, I put these words into his mouth:

 

Look at the professor, pitying me because I teeter on the abyss. He wonders what my life was like, if I fought with monsters, wonders how far the abyss looks into me. He knows I’ll never walk into a bookstore or library and see myself alongside all the other narcissists. Never see my name on a book spine, that marquee of confirmation, sitting pretty on a shelf. Knows I’ll never see my name over someone’s shoulder, centered in the glow of a screen, one click away from a new sycophant, a new stranger to inspect my heart and judge my humanity.

 

I never had any of those things, because I couldn’t sacrifice the love of other humans to play God with ink and paper. But I had what the professor will never know. The invincible love of a wife and children, the love of one’s children being the only true way to touch the future.

 

Dear Professor, you and I have done the saddest of dances, each seeking the other’s treasure, each blind to his own.

 

 

About the Author

Jim Roberts’s fiction has appeared in Prime Number MagazineRappahannock ReviewSnake Nation ReviewFlash Fiction Magazine, and ArLiJo-The Arlington Literary Journal. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and twice named to the finalist list for the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Roberts’s debut short story collection—Of Fathers & Gods—is scheduled for publication May 14, 2024, and is now available for pre-order from Belle Point Press at https://bellepointpress.com/products/of-fathers-gods.

 

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