Issue 85 — Mallory Doban, Louis Gallo, Zachary Hay, Raymond Luczak, Thomas Mannella, Chris Wilkensen
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock... It’s one-thirty, one-thirty, one-thirty, one thirty-one, one-thirty one. She’s late; she’s late, she’s late, she’s late . . . From the moment she walked in the door everything in my head went quiet. All the ticks, all the constantly refreshing images of mistakes I made and things I forgot just disappeared. And when you’re like me, you don’t really get quiet moments.
She was beautiful; there was no doubt about that. Her blond wavy hair reached to her shoulders and her face was glowing and scattered with freckles. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold and her eyes were the color of dark chocolate. Her age appeared to be close to mine, about thirty-five. Despite everything all I could think about was the hairpin curve of her lips, and the eyelash on her cheek, the eyelash on her cheek, the eyelash on her cheek. I knew that if I met someone that could make all those ticks disappear—there was something special about them.
My body picked itself up and started walking towards her, then it changed course and headed towards the men’s restroom. Why did it do that? Why? I tried to turn it around but I couldn’t. I pushed the door open and stood in front of the mirror. The mirror was round, but the design on the edges made it imperfect, I looked away. My body turned back around and stared at the mirror, imperfect, imperfect, imperfect. I pulled a small black, plastic wrapped comb out of my pocket. My hand held it as my arm lifted up and started to comb my black hair, back and forth, back and forth. The stranger who calls himself my therapist every week tells me I do this because of a disease I have. He says I am a special person, and I have what he calls Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I have social embarrassment he says, social embarrassment. But that’s just what he says, he doesn’t know, he is just a man in a fancy suit every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He tells me he is a professional, and I ask him A professional at what? He tells me he is here to help, but he isn’t helping anybody. I put the comb down and stare at my hair, unacceptable. My eyes stick to the reflection in the mirror of the hair that refuses to lay flat. I throw the comb away, it had touched the sink. I pull out another plastic wrapped comb, and try to tame the stray hair. The hair eventually lies flat, but the rest of my hair is unevenly combed. I grunt as I throw the comb away. It has been too long; she will be gone and I cannot let everyone see my hair like this they will laugh.
The wooden door bangs, or maybe somebody is banging it with their fist. Now they are speaking, speaking, yelling, banging, banging, banging. I am trapped there is no way out, no escape. The walls close in, smaller, smaller, smaller. I am squeezed into a tight ball on the cold tile floor, the sink turns on and the water overflows to the floor. The water rises, rises, rises. Car horns beep, beep, and beep. The water covers my head and all thoughts are cleared from my mind. I drown in the small men’s restroom, curled in a ball, with car horns beeping, water rising, people pounding, and the walls closing in.
My eyes fly open. My head will explode. Stop. My head will not explode, that is not even scientifically possible. Well, it could be I suppose but— STOP! My angry brain is telling me to stop, I have to listen. I am in no danger, I was sleeping and I was dreaming. I was only dreaming, only dreaming, only dreaming. I sit up and stare ahead, trying to get my blurry eyes to focus on the alarm clock. The LED numbers on the clock say it is one-thirty. Every night I wake up at one-thirty, look at the clock, look at the clock, look at the clock and then fall back asleep. And every time I fall back asleep I meet the girl again and again and again. I told the therapist man in the fancy suit that I have met this woman over and over. I tell him she is the love of my life, but then he reminds me that I have never talked to her. He says it is another part of my disease. I hate him.
I don’t want to meet her again and I don’t want to drown again. I untangled the sheets from my wet body. Why am I wet? Why is my shirt and matching pants wet? Was I really drowning? No, I wasn’t. I was sweating and I was dreaming just dreaming, just dreaming, just dreaming. I walked to the bathtub. I picked up a brand new washcloth and wet it with cleaner, and began cleaning the bathtub. When I was done I turned on the water. I filled the tub and stuck in the thermometer, it was seventy-five degrees. I drained the tub; seventy five is an uneven number. I filled it again and again until it reached eighty degrees, perfect. I sat in the tub for 180 minutes. I stared at the wall in front of me. There were 600 tiles. The tile man had to do it over again four times (he got it right the third time but three isn’t an even number). I asked him to make it even as possible, which meant 200 white tiles, 200 black tiles and 200 red tiles. I counted them ten times just to be sure. I stared at their pattern-but soon I got lost inside my head and I began to see her again.
I woke up underwater in the bathtub, too bad I hadn’t drowned for real. I couldn’t breathe so I sat myself up out of the water. The water was cold now so I got out. As I was cleaning the bathtub, my brain realized that if I wanted to meet that woman I could, I just had to find a way to control myself, a way to control myself, a way to control myself.
. . .
It took three months. I was ready, but it had been three months and three was an uneven number, so I waited until four months. My brain knew I had to talk to the pretty woman, the pretty woman, the pretty woman. So I went to the place where I saw her in my dream, to the place I had come every day for a year.
I stood in the middle of the room, shaking and sweating. I had to go take a bath... no, I do not need to take a bath; I need to talk to the pretty woman, the pretty woman. I put one foot in front of another, one foot in front of another. I walked, a bit unsteadily but I walked. No, I am too unsteady, she will notice I am nervous. I turned around; going to the exact spot I stood. I wanted to walk again but there was no way to tell if I was in the exact spot I was before. I messed it all up, I couldn’t do this, I give up, I hate myself, I will try again tomorrow.
I started to walk out the door when somebody touched my shoulder. I turned around; I could feel the germs seeping into my body. I tore of my jacket and threw it across the room. Now I really had to take a bath. I looked straight into the eyes of the person who touched me. I blinked, I was making this up, I am probably dreaming, probably dreaming. Those eyes- they are so familiar, I had been looking at them for months, for months. The eyes belonged to her, the pretty woman, the pretty woman. She spoke: she asked me if I was okay, then she asked me what my name was. Her voice was soft, as if she was trying not to scare a young child, a young child.
She told me that she felt like she knew me from somewhere, she said something else too but all I could think of was her eyes, her eyes, her eyes. She stared at me. Was she waiting for an answer? Why was she still here? Maybe I am dreaming. Yes, that’s it I am dreaming, I began to walk away. Something inside me stopped me, my legs refused to move. I turned around, facing the pretty woman, the pretty woman.
I asked her out six times in thirty seconds. She said yes after the third one, but none of them felt right so I had to keep going. She smiled, showing her white teeth, her white teeth. I smiled too. She told me her name was Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s. Two was an even number, I liked this girl.
On our first date, I spent more time organizing my meal by color than I did eating it, or talking to her. But she loved it. She told me she had a brother that had the same interests as me, she said interests weird. I told her that my worst fear was being crushed by an endless succession of cars. She said she understood, I like Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s.
Usually when I obsess over things, I see germs sneaking into my skin or covering my body or facing my endless list of worst fears. I wash my hands over and over but I can still see the germs. I take twelve baths a day, one for every two hours. Two is an even number. So when I met Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s, everything changed. She was the first beautiful thing my mind ever got stuck on.
Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s’, said she loved that it took me forever to walk home because there are lots of cracks in the sidewalk, and I had to tiptoe over all of them. She loved that I had to kiss her goodbye sixteen or twenty-four times at different times of the day. She loved it. She loved how clean I kept my apartment, she said most men hate cleaning, hate cleaning, I can’t imagine what she meant.
She surprised me when she told me she was okay with who I was, because she loved who I was, she loved who I was, she loved who I was. She told me that she wouldn’t leave me because she believed in us, she believed in us. I told her I liked her, I liked her a lot. She told me she liked me a lot too.
When we moved in together, she told me that she would be careful not to rearrange anything or touch anything because she knew I liked the house a certain way. I told her that it was okay, she could move things. At night she helped me lock the doors. She told me she felt safe, like nobody would ever rob us because I definitely locked the doors eighteen times. She would lie in bed and listen to me lock the doors over and over. She would answer me when I asked myself Did I lock the doors? Yes. Did I lock the doors? Yes. Did I lock the doors? Yes. Did I lock the doors? Yes. She would watch me as I turned all the lights off— and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off. She would close her eyes and imagine that the days and nights were passing in front of her.
We were happy, we were happy, we were happy. We fit well together, she would spend the whole day helping me clean and re- clean the house ten times. Ten was an even number. We would sit in the chair in the corner of the room and she would read to me, she would read the book twice because two is an even number. I didn’t go see the man in the fancy suit for a long time; I was too busy loving Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s.
We would sit at the table and she would watch me separate my meal into colors and I would watch her talk, watch her talk, watch her talk, watch her talk. I would watch how her lips would curl up when she told me she loved me and how her face got flushed when I told her I couldn’t ask for anyone better. When we were holding hands I would squeeze her hand two times then she would squeeze my hand four times (we skipped three because three is an uneven number). I don’t know how I got this lucky, how I got this lucky, how I got this lucky.
. . .
Then came the day everything changed. It was November 11. It was a horrible day, November is an uneven month, and eleven is an uneven number. She told me that I was taking up too much of her time. She said she didn’t have time to help me lock all the doors, turn off the lights, clean the house, wait for me to jump over the cracks in our sidewalk or kiss me goodbye, kiss me goodbye, kiss me goodbye. I still loved her.
She stopped kissing me goodbye because she said she would be late for work, late for work. When she said she loved me her mouth was in a straight line. She stopped holding my hand, she said she other important things to do. I still loved her.
Then she started sleeping at her parents’ house, instead of ours, instead of ours, instead of ours. She came by once in a while, but it was only to get her things. She told me she didn’t know what happened, this was a mistake, she should have never let herself get so attached to a person like me, a person like me. I was a mistake? Why was I a mistake? Was our love a mistake? No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. How could it be a mistake that I don’t have to wash my hands after I touch her? Love is not a mistake. I still loved her.
I started going to the man in the fancy suit again. He said he missed me, I highly doubt it. I told him about Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s. I said that she told me that our love was a mistake. I said that it was killing me that she could just walk out the door from her problems, but I had to deal with them every day. He told me that sometimes the best way to get over someone is to find someone new. Was he stupid? I don’t want someone new; I want the pretty woman, the pretty woman. I can’t go out and find someone new because I will always think of her. I will be reminded of her smile, how her lip curls up when she talks, when she talks, when she talks. How she holds the steering wheel in our car and how she turns the shower knobs like she is opening a safe. How she blows out candles, blows out candles, blows out candles, blows out candles . . . .
So now I stay alone in our house. I had almost forgotten what it was like- being alone all the time. I eat alone at the table, looking across to the empty chair where she used to sit and watch me. My brain sometimes thinks it hears her talking to me, but then it realizes she isn’t here. She isn’t coming back. When I walk home I walk over the cracks in the sidewalk, not stopping to jump. I stopped washing my hands after every touch, and talking twelve baths a day. I stopped cleaning my house twice, I was fine with once. I tried to drown myself in my bathtub over and over again but every time I closed my eyes I saw her face, saw her face, saw her face. I saw her chocolate eyes and freckled covered nose, her rosy cheeks and her perfectly curled hair.
I went back to the place we met, thinking back to the day she came up to me. Why did she come up to me? Why me? Of all the others, why me? I never understood that. She was so beautiful and I am so messed up, so messed up, so messed up. What would a pretty woman want with me? I never went back to that place.
Now, I just think about who else is kissing her. I can’t breathe. I think about how he has to just kiss her once, he doesn’t care if it is perfect. When they walk she doesn’t have to wait for him to jump over the cracks in the sidewalk. She doesn’t have to watch him turn the lights off at night, on, and off, and on, and off. She doesn’t have to convince him that he really did lock the doors, because he doesn’t lock them a hundred times over. By now, she probably doesn’t even remember me. I want her back so bad, I want her back so bad, I want her back so bad. I still love her.
So now when I fall asleep I am being hit by an endless succession of cars, with her in the driver’s seat. I drown in the men’s bathroom with the wall closing around me. Germs infest me and take over my body, eating away at my flesh. I see myself dying over and over, over and over.
I cannot control anything, not my thoughts, not my actions, not my life. When I walk by the chair we used to sit in and read, I walk away trying to erase her from my mind. I never want to see the man in the fancy suit again, I hate him- he doesn’t help anybody. I just want Ashlee, Ashlee with two e’s.
So I leave the doors unlocked, I leave the lights on.
Copyright © 2016 by Mallory Doban.
Mallory Doban lives in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and attends Lincoln Park Preforming Arts Charter School and has a passion or writing.
When the rat dropped
from the banana tree onto our table
we laughed and ordered more martinis.
Which the fiercer omen? That,
or the molten stare of the macaw
unruffled in its golden cage
by river breezes curling through
clacking tubes of bamboo
that rise like stirring rods
into the black soup of sky?
It’s hot here. And wet.
I drink and seldom care
about bills, cancer and dirty air.
I peer into your sultry Aztec eyes
with tedious longing.
A blond Aztec?
Why was that rat perched
in our tree? Why do we eat
green pepper stuffed with peacock meat,
Oysters Margot and trout meuniere?
Will the world spin from our feet
or slink away in rodent fear
because we oblige old appetites?
You have spilled Tabasco on your blouse.
We laugh . . . as reality lolls
like a herd of cows.
We dance when we can, recite poems
and honk like quaint accordions.
I’ll return alone some other night
to toast a ghostly summer moon
Copyright © 2016 by Louis Gallo.
The Best Po-Boy
Once, not in Aleppo, not Byzantium,
not stony Prague, but Bogalusa, Louisiana,
I found a corner dive, the kind decorated
with gaudy metal Coca-Cola signs
and hand-written specials on blackboard slate,
that served the best shrimp po-boys ever concocted,
hell, maybe it wasn’t Bogalusa but Domilici’s
on Annunciation Street. Those who indulge
know that every po-boy is different, every
chef fiddles with the ingredients and degree
of ketchup, horseradish, Tabasco . . .
the white sauces don’t cut it at all.
So when you come across the Platonic
sine qua non, you slip into a gustatory sublime
and spread the gospel. It’s religious, of course.
And does this not apply to just about any
summum bonum? The purpose of metaphor.
I alone am come to tell ye!
No finer woman than what’s her name
down in Bogalusa way back.
Best Dodge Dart I’ve ever driven!
But as to what’s her name, here’s the glitch:
nothing else that comes along will do.
It’s what’s her name or nothing because
we stick with what we crave and give up
craving anything else. Whereas, we all know,
a finer sedan, a finer woman, a finer po-boy
may lie inches away around the corner.
But we won’t even sniff, taste or sample.
We’re buried in the tomb of nonpareil.
We know our Plato. The heavenly fix
before Heaven. I knew the man—no democrat
let me tell you. Gave him a bite of my po-boy,
let him fondle my what’s her name
for a moment for the sake of comparative ecstasy.
And it’s absolutes ever since, absolute misery
over what we’ve lost and what we refuse to
find anew. And this we call judgment.
Copyright © 2016 by Louis Gallo.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared in Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review ,and many others. Chapbooks include THE TRUTH CHANGES and THE ABOMINATION OF FASCINATION. I am founding editor of the now defunct journals, THE BARATARIA REVIEW and BOOKS: A NEW ORLEANS REVIEW. I teach at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.
“Can you tell me exactly what you saw when you came into work last Thursday, Mr. Hurly?”
“Please, call me Tim.”
“Okay, Tim, can you tell me what you saw? What did you see when you went into the office?”
“Well, ma’am, when I came in I noticed that Bob wasn’t at his cubicle and I noticed that Frankie, that reception guy, he wasn’t at the front desk like he usually is. Natalie wasn’t there either. So I look around and, wouldn’t you know it, no one’s there. The office is empty. So I, like, stand there a minute, right? Like, what’s going on? Did I not get a memo? Is there some big, important meeting I didn’t know about? Then I hear a noise.”
“A noise, Tim?”
“Yeah, like, it sounds like some kind of chanting. So I follow it and it’s coming from around the corner: Steve’s office. So I head over there to see what all the buzz is about and everyone’s standing around him, Steve that is. People are crowding all around his office, watching him. There are people in the back on their tip-toes, trying to get a view. I’m like ’what’s going on?’ and Bob says to me ’he’s going for a record!’ ’who?’ I say. ’Steve. He’s going for the record. Most paper clips eaten in one sitting,’ ’What?’ I ask. And so Bob says ’Steve’s eaten, like, three hundred paperclips. He keeps putting them down, one by one like. He’s a machine!’ So I do what anyone would do; I grab a chair and stand on it to get a better view. I look and, what do I see? I see Steve, sitting there at his desk, like, totally straight faced, just staring off into space. It’s crazy! There was like, no emotion whatsoever on Steve’s face. And so he’s eating, one by one, just like Bob said, these metal paperclips right out of this big plastic bag. Anyway, Frank, the reception guy, he’s right in front, right next to Steve and he’s egging him on the most.
“’Come, on! Let’s go, Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve!’ and then everyone else starts following along, shaking their fists up and down as they chant: ’Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve!’ and he keeps on eating and eating these paperclips like they’re the world’s most addictive candy or something and then, before I knew it, there I was chanting right along with them ’Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
“Weren’t you worried? I mean, you made a point of mention that Steve looked out of it, right?”
“Yeah, I mean, I knew something was wrong but, like, I don’t know, man, I guess I got swept up in it. I never saw anything like it before.”
“Anyway, go on. What happened next?”
“Okay, so we’re all chanting, right, and then Steve just stops. He has this paperclip right in front of his face. He has his mouth open, he’s about to eat it, but then he just, sort of, stops. Everyone gets quiet. Steve puts the paperclip down, real slow like. A few seconds go by and then, well, it happened.”
“Steve exploded. Well, more like Steve coughed . . . I think it was a cough. It might have been a sneeze. Anyway, whatever it was, it was loud. It was more like an explosion out of his face. Just a lot of blood and paperclips just go flying onto his desk. It was like, projectile, you know? Like a bucket of blood and bile and office supplies got whipped into an industrial fan or something. I personally was horrified. Everyone else was really silent. And then Mike from accounting, the big guy with the suspenders, he just sort of chimes in really quiet ’I guess he was full—’”
“So this all disturbed you, yes?”
“Well, of course! Here Steve was, poor guy, face down on his desk with blood gushing out of his face and his belly all extended when suddenly everyone roars with excitement as if their favorite team just scored the game winning goal. I think that was when Frank and Natalie hoisted Steve up on their shoulders. He’s all floppy and limp and stuff so they hold his arms to keep him prostrate. I’m telling you, it was absolutely grotesque. Steve’s got blood all over his shirt, paperclips just raining out of his mouth, slipping off the tip of his tongue and everyone is dancing around the office, chanting like crazy people!”
“Including you, Tim?”
“Yeah— Including me.”
“Tim, are you aware of how many paperclips Mr. Hutchinson had eaten all together?”
“No, I was never given a total tally.”
“The autopsy report states that there were 1,237 metal paperclips inside of Mr. Hutchinson at the time of his death.”
“And that’s not including the ones he spit up before the autopsy?”
“No, those are not included.”
“Oh, wow, then it was probably more like 14 or 15 hundred. Umm, Mrs. Sorenson? Actually, no, never mind, that’s irrelevant, I’m not gonna ask that.”
“Mr. Hurly, I know what you’re going to ask and yes, Mr. Hutchinson did indeed break the record for most paperclips swallowed. Does that make you feel satisfied, Mr. Hurly?”
“Does it make me a criminal if I say ’yes’? And I told you, please, call me Tim.”
“Okay, Tim. And no, Tim, it does not.”
“So anyway, if we may get back to business, what is it that I can do for you? I mean, I was one of the last people to see the event and surely I didn’t even have the best view. I mean, surely Bob had a much better idea of what happened.”
“Well, Tim, are you aware of why Mr. Hutchinson had eaten those paperclips, why he wanted to do that to himself? And before you answer, I will let you know that he was not hoping to break any records that morning.”
“I can’t say that I do, no.”
“Tim, Mr. Hutchinson had some, well, issues with his position here at Dunnihue inc.”
“Tim, what can you tell me about Mr. Hutchinson’s job? I mean, you didn’t know him well but you did know that he was Head of Projection Analysis, right? Can you tell me about that position here?”
“Jezz, well, yeah. Head of Projection Analysis . . . I guess what that implies is that Steve was responsible for looking over quarterly projections. Like, scanning through fiscal data, looking for errors, making sure the projections are sound, making sure that calculations are correct. A lot of that stuff. Hey, you know, actually, I think I remember a conversation with Steve where he said that most of his job was figuring out how to save paper on the actual reports themselves, cutting down margins and stuff. Said he spent a lot of time re-formating the actual reports before they were printed out.”
“Can you tell me when it was that you and Mr. Hutchinson had this conversation about his position?”
“Um . . . I guess that would have been at the picnic, the company picnic. I remember he and I were waiting in line to get a couple beers and he started going off about how some intern or assistant in the bosses’ office can never get the formatting in the projections right and how tedious and time consuming it was. I was friendly to him, went along, but I just kind of thought it was odd, him going off about work like that out of nowhere, you know?”
“Well, you were at a work function, it’s only natural.”
“Yeah, but, when I got in line behind him, he just sort of turned around and said ’the kid that does the formatting is killing me!’ and I said ’what?’ and he started going off about how much he hated reformatting the projection reports and how he hates reformatting so damn much and so on and so forth.”
“So then what happened?”
“I don’t know, he just sort of went on and on and then we got our beers. Actually, I remember finding out that they were only serving non-alcoholic beers at the picnic, which bummed me out, but Steve, he just sort of looked at it and muttered something under his breath before walking away.”
“And what was it he muttered? Did you happen to hear it?”
“Well no, not really. I mean, a little bit maybe. Like, I don’t want to say he said he was going to set the building on fire but I definitely heard ’whole building . . . ’ and ’ . . . fire . . . ’”
“So from all this I think you understand that Mr. Hutchinson was dissatisfied with his position, yes? That he was disgruntled.”
“Well I mean, no offense but everyone hates their job, especially in an office like this. I didn’t take Steve’s comments any more serious than when Bob bitches at the water cooler or when Natalie takes ten smoking breaks before lunch.”
“ . . . ”
“Hey, listen, I hope you’re not trying to pin any of this on me. Steve made his choice to start chugging office supplies, I had nothing to do with any of this!”
“I am not saying that, Tim. I am just trying to get the facts straight. Anywho, I have gathered from what you say that you do have some understanding of what the responsibilities of The Head of Projection Analysis are. You have the basics, which is all we need at this points. The ins and outs of the job will come in time so don’t be nervous. Now, Mr. Hutchinson’s office should be perfectly cleaned within a day or two, sterilized as well, but if you have issue with working in there, having witnessed the event and all, we understand and it won’t be a problem if you remain at your cubicle. Naturally, we encourage you to accept the office as it is a very good space.”
“Wait a moment, now. Just what are you saying here?”
“Mr. Hurly, you are the new Head of Project Analysis. Now that the position is, well, open, we need someone to fill it and you were next in line. We’ve looked over your file and it’s about time you’ve seen a promotion. Not a sick day in, what was it, 5 years? Anywho, you will obviously have to have a brief medical and mental examination with recent events being what they are and, um, how are you with the minutiae of formatting?”
Copyright © 2016 by Zachary Hay.
Zachary Hay was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1994. He enjoys reading, writing, and performing stand-up comedy. His work has recently been featured in Crab Fat Magazine and the No Extra Words podcast.
Off the Cliffs of Lake Superior
of these walls
that never clear
rains and snow.
The prickly hairs
of pine trees
make them cringe
and cry in resin.
Only in shadows
do we see
they still are,
for fear of
Copyright © 2016 by Raymond Luczak.
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of 17 books. His poetry titles include HOW TO KILL POETRY (Sibling Rivalry Press) and MUTE (A Midsummer Night’s Press). His most recent title is QDA: A QUEER DISABILITY ANTHOLOGY (Squares & Rebels). He is the editor of JONATHAN, a queer male fiction journal. He is online at raymondluczak.com.
Mom worked late again
so I sat around Grandpa’s table
for another boiled hotdog dinner.
Sauerkraut from a can,
the stock report
on a thirteen inch TV
atop the refrigerator,
checkerboard linoleum underfoot.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at . . . .
We chewed in silence
and the space heater glowed.
The teal wall phone startled us
with its shrill ring.
Hello, Grandpa answered,
a mouthful of cabbage and pork.
He stopped chewing.
I’m sorry, she recently passed away.
He cradled the receiver,
stared at the wall,
maybe through the wall,
before resuming his meal.
I sipped my root beer,
watching him blink and blink,
and recalled the night last week,
after Grandma’s wake,
when the power cut without reason
and Mom reached across the table
for his hand
and said, Dad, it’s a sign,
as if more darkness
meant things would be alright.
Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Mannella
Take a Bow
One more beer, I thought,
rising from my velvet seat,
ticket stub in one hand
and Heather’s hand in the other.
In the lobby,
his naked belly rippling
like Smokin’ Joe’s guitar,
the fat man’s chest.
We looked without looking,
drifting to the bar.
Our footsteps fell in
with the rhythmic pumping,
the drums and base onstage.
Then: abrupt silence.
The big coda.
The gurney legs snapped to attention
and the crowd roared.
I slid the barkeep a five
and strode with my girl
from one eruption of lights
to another in time to see
the band take a bow.
Flames flickered in the darkness.
Encore! Encore! we chanted,
imploring them to play the blues,
to give us one more song.
Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Mannella.
Thomas Mannella has a B.A. in writing from St. Lawrence University and a master’s from St. John Fisher College, both in New York. Excerpts from his memoir, A Matter of Time, have appeared in issues of Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, Jet Fuel Review, The Casserole, and South 85 Journal, The Lindenwood Review, Empty Sink, and SLAB Literary Magazine. Currently, he teaches English and Environmental Literature in Naples, NY, where he lives with my wife and sons around the corner from the house he grew up in.
During my teens, I videotaped extreme stunts with the smokers and drinkers. When faced with two identical choices, I made the more exciting choice that would make the better story. According to my life’s philosophy, the best storytellers became prisoners or near-death survivors.
One of the guys, Matt, did Jack Ass-esque extreme sports only to impress me. Obvious. Everyone knew, especially me. Instead of appearing privy to it, I chose the alternative, which most growing women chose.
Matt tolerated direct shots from a potato gun and paintball gun. Eyes closed, he once ran full force into a brick wall. A car hit him while he sat in a shopping cart. And so on. He had full medical coverage and took advantage of it. Matt did all that to show me his toughness.
Off-camera, he wouldn’t stop. He showed off his drinking tolerance. He proved he could handle weed and coke like it didn’t faze him. When he and I were alone, we played truth-or-dare games. Once he ran across a highway just to kiss me. Another time, he confessed to beating up on his immediate family. Game over.
When Matt found out I was pregnant, he proposed to me. I declined, told him to leave me alone. Firm on that.
Unlike me, Matt had trouble sticking to one decision. He was up-and-down, left-and-right, and day-to-day about whether he wanted me to keep the child. His opinion didn’t matter, though. I was having the baby.
I named the boy Sid, after my favorite punk icon. We changed apartments every other year for own safety. Sid changed schools often and became adaptable in making friends. He turned out gentle, thanks to growing up without violent Matt, whom he had never met nor wanted to.
As a child, Sid saw the bruises Matt left me at least twice. My ex became more careful, waiting until the boy was at school. I usually hid the black and blue marks under my long-sleeve sweatshirts, but when Sid saw them, he became irate for days.
I’m going to kill my dad, he said. I’ll kill him for what he did to you.
Please don’t, I said.
I would forget about Matt for a year or two, until leaving the door open while bringing in groceries or the window open during a hot summer day. He always made sure to leave before Sid came home.
I want to be stronger than Dad in case I ever see him hurt you again, Sid said in his pre-teens. That was why he joined football and wrestling in high school. Those sports made him stronger, serving useful in his pursuit of becoming a fire fighter.
One afternoon, Sid ditched school early. The kitchen was full of blood when he walked in. He heard me crying, noticing blood in my hair and broken glass everywhere. He saw Matt, passed out on the floor.
Sid paced, kneeled down at the lame excuse of a man he kicked awake.
This is all your fault. If she would’ve rejected you like I asked her to years ago, none of this would’ve happened to your mom, Matt said.
I’ve wondered if I would ever get this chance. Sid picked up a piece of the shattered glass.
Go ahead. Matt laughed.
No, I said. He’s almost dead anyway. Just call the cops.
Then I’ll finish what was started, Matt said. Everyone has to die.
I dialed the police, but Sid had already finished.
If I knew you were going to call the cops, I wouldn’t have saved you. I would’ve let him kill you instead. My son cried to me.
The cops took the young man away. The coroner took the dead man away.
Sid wrote me letters that I didn’t read. He called my phone that I didn’t answer, not even for his lawyer who took everything I worked for since Sid’s birth.
I was too ambivalent to see Sid again because he was a monster like his father but also a follower of my own life philosophy. I needed to consider two alternatives which were perfect opposites. This decision would be the biggest of my life: disowning my son or killing myself.
Either outcome would make a good story for my prisoner son to tell.
Copyright © 2016 by Chris Wilkensen.
Chris Wilkensen is the editor of the e-journal Rock Bottom. Originally from Chicago, he has worked and traveled Asia and the Middle East. He currently lives in Saudi Arabia. His short stories have appeared in Thoughtsmith, eFiction, The Story Shack and others. More of his work can be found at chriswilkensen.com