the Bicycle Review
Issue # 6, 16 April, 2010
Original Artworks by Ernest Williamson III. Photography by Roman Shea
All images copyright 2010 by Williamson/Shea
Bicycle Review # 6
The internet’s been off in my place. Hard times. This issue is late. Enjoy it.
Share the road,
- J. de Salvo
I DON’T GET IT
The stuff that is said in the movies to the girls with the deep blue eyes
I don't get it
pretending to be busy and running
ghost cigar in my hand
imaginary lighter in my shoe
straight jacket in my purse just in case
I forget that its a crazy world
the straps hit my leg as I run
reminding me that I can't be tamed
closing my eyes
I don't get it
Pamper myself with mad ramblings
"It's cool... I understand.."
the dew of wellness will moisten
lips and make flowers grow in the sand
thinking over and over again
I don't get it
I don't get it
I don't get it
and experience is spit on the side walk
to melt into someone's new shoe
but not mine..so I am kind of alone
that I don't
Copyright 2010 by BC Petrakos
'A Man Walks Into the Doctor's Office' Jokes for the Rather Upwardly Mobile and Massively Self Aware
Doctor: Did Martha verify your insurance?
Patient: Neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, tightness and/or stiffness, pain, the sweats, waking up in a sweat, profusely sweating, sweating at night, sweating during the day, sweating while immobile, no energy (as in zero), feeling lethargic, tired, numbness, numbness, tingling, numbness, repetitive numbness and/or tingling, other sensations, no sensation, I have hands, I have feet, a face, a head, I have other places on my body, persistent muscle tension, random muscle tension, relaxed muscles, general stiffness, acute stiffness, stiff stiffness, pounding heart, racing heart, walking heart, resting heart, heart feels like it's beating too hard and/or not hard enough and/or just hard enough, pulsing and/or throbbing muscles, weak muscles, beach muscles, shellfish, I have a cage around my ribs and it’s tight, pressurized and/or feeling like a tight band around my ribs, rib cage makes lungs claustrophobic, angers pancreas based on rigid unquestioning belief in duty to protect, sexual dysfunction, sexual uninterest, sexual function, lack of reciprocal sexual interest, sexual interest without appropriate funding, shooting pains, stabbing pains, pains from stabbing, pains from being stabbed, odd pressures in the neck, head, face, and/or professional environment, shooting pains in face, shooting pains in scalp and/or head, scalping pains in head of white man, painful pains, shooting pains from shooting guns, movies, shooting the truth, skipped heart beats, sore and/or tight scalp and/or back of neck, easily startled, difficulty getting started, impossible to finish what I've started, starting and not finishing, starting and finishing too early (too late), finishing without remembering ever having really gotten started (as in blacked out drunk (as in time traveling (as in this is really anonymous right?))), difficulty settling down, professionally, romantically, physically, did I mention sweating? uncontrollable profuse sweating, repulsive amounts of sweating, sweating that affects the color of my mattress in a negative fashion, I stand and sweat and the floor feels like it is moving either up or down and/or for no apparent reason (as in "the earth moves under my feet" (as in "i feel the sky tumbling down" (as in "i feel my heart start to trembling")))...
Doctor (into wall intercom call box): So, the insurance has been verified. Very good. That'll be all Martha.
Patient (cont.): ...throat and/or mouth clicking and/or grating sound when I move my mouth and/or jaw, such as when talking and/or trembling and/or shaking, twitching, unsteadiness, dizziness, feeling dizzy and/or lightheaded and/or hard headed and/or boneheaded and/or headed in the wrong direction (as in the wrong path (as in life (as in all the wrong decisions))), urgency to urinate, frequent urination, massive urination, sudden urge to go to the bathroom (as in the washroom (as in like clockwork (as in the water flows backwards in australia))), warm spells (re: sweating), cold spells (re: sweating), weakness, feeling weak, weakness, low energy, light energy, soft lighting (as in Barbara Walters), feeling like I may faint, like I'm fainting, like I fainted (as in did that muthafucka just faint?), weak legs, weak arms, and/or weak muscles, weak paycheck, weak skill set, weakness in multiple professional and/or social areas at once, weight loss, weight gain, feel fat, look fat, feel like throwing up after meals and/or skipping meals, worrying compulsively about having a heart attack, not having a heart, being a heartless prick (as in I never want to see you again), having heart failure, failing to find a new heart in time, breaking hearts, having heart broken, failure, failure, chronic failure of the heart and/or the mind and/or the reaching of goals, having a serious undetected illness, detecting a serious illness, not being able to pronounce serious illnesses, dying prematurely, finding the right time to die, dying too early and not having the fast, reliable and safe option of being cryogenically frozen, fear of being cryogenically frozen, going insane, having gone insane, realizing I'm insane, being found out as a fraud, being a fraud, realizing I am just like everyone else, suddenly snapping, losing it (as in gone fishing (as in batshit (as in re: rat in tin shit house))), uncontrollably harming myself and/or someone I love and/or hate, continuing to take orders from my loser out of work dog, losing control of my thoughts and/or actions, choking and/or suffocating and/or being alone and/or having no one to choke and/or having no one to choke me (as in drowning (as in auto-erotic asphyxiation (as in CSI Detectives note marks consistent with strangulation, here, and then again over here))), fear of talking too much, too little, too often, not at all (as in I'll shut up now (as in can it (as in piping right the fizzuck down))).
Doctor: You may be suffering from hypochondria.
Patient: If it's all the same to you doc, I think I will get a fifth opinion.
Copyright 2010 by Nathan Thomas D’Annibale
The Odyssey, done dirt cheap
There were no sirens
we couldn’t afford them,
they wanted to ride around
in a Porsche,
I was told
they wanted cash,
maybe even diamonds
it was pretty much
a lost cause
I told Odysseus,
we don’t need
need that kind of
bullshit adding to
I bet they can’t
Sing for shit anyway
Copyright 2010 by Melanie Browne
waiting for my proletariat limo
"In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns" – Sun Tzu / The Art of War
You stink… you, and your voluminous girlfriend decked out in her dusty black XXX-Large mumu.
We're waiting for the MTA bus. It's getting late. The streetlights are too bright on this stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. The traffic whizzes by, sheltered and indifferent.
You're loud. You both take up too much room on the bench next to me. I'm tempted to flag down a cab, but I already paid for a day pass. My feet itch, my eyes burn, my ears ring… I want to go HOME!
You bray like a donkey, and then you smile; your teeth are broken and brown-stained. From the corner of my eye I watch you caress your gelatinous companion's cheek like she was Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. You both laugh; great deep belly laughs that burst forth and rain down like missiles on my head.
I want to tell you to go AWAY. I don't like you. Your mutual happiness, your poverty and your simple ways irritate me.
I want to read my book. I want to have a glass of wine, or tea, or water. I've been up for 17 hours. I want to go to bed. I want to watch a movie; something funny. I want to finish paying my bills. I want to relax. I want some peace away from all the thoughts pounding in my head. I want you both to get the fuck AWAY from me!
I don't like you. Your mutual happiness, your poverty, and your simple ways irritate me.
I detest the fact you share the same space as me. I can't stand the way you innocently tried to include me in your conversation by asking me what I was reading. Now, I'm more irritated as you pull out a well-worn red copy of The Art of War embossed with gilt letters from your raggedy backpack to show me that you, too, are a lover of the Word.
I really DON'T like you… either of you!
My over-bitten lower lip is bleeding onto my tongue. My hands wrap tight around my book, bending the corners, cracking the spine. My chest tightens as I take a deep breath and slowly exhale. Where is that bus?!
Oh… phew… here it comes. Great! And there are you two, gathering up your numerous bags and paraphernalia. You shoulder your backpack like a mountaineer. You gallantly give your overripe paramour a shoulder to lean on as she struggles to shift her monumental bulk off the bench.
The bus doors open. I step through them, wave my pass at the driver and swiftly make my way up the aisle to the seats in back. The air on the bus is cool and slightly stale. I sit down, relieved… until I see you both coming up the aisle holding hands
The bus doors close. Besides one surf-punk in the seat behind me, there are no other people in the back. The bus moves away from the curb and merges into traffic.
You whisper something in your girlfriend's ear. You both laugh. You move up the aisle and take the two seats directly across from me.
My heart races; I'm trapped. If I get off now, I'll have to wait an hour for another bus. What do I do? What the fuck am I supposed to do?!
Then… you reach up… and… pull the cord.
The bus pulls over to the curb.
You, and your girlfriend rise from your seats and head for the exit. I close my eyes against the words "Art" and "War" that pop off the book that peeks out from the top of your backpack as you pass by my seat.
I bow my head, defeated.
I just want to go home…
Copyright 2007 by M. Lecrivain
There Is No Mind
There is no mind
No one mind
Or collective mind
And revolutionary minds
And the revolution
Will not be televised
Because no one can
Make up their mind
As to which station
Will air it
But never mind
Because there is no mind
No one mind
Or collective mind
And the minds eyes vision
Has been obscured
By an evangelistic visionary
Who will proclaim
That he will come
Like a thief in the night
To steal the next election
But never mind
Because bear in mind
There is no mind
No one mind
Or collective mind
And if we all had
A half a mind
We would all be rational
Wishful thinking? But never mind
Copyright 2010 by Steve Barratta
-Yes, I’m here.
-You’re breaking up.
-Am I? I can hear you fine.
-Elsa, you there, love?
-Poor connection; can’t make out a word of it. Well, I’m on my way. Home in a bit.
Elsa stares into the receiver a moment, sighs, hangs up.
It’s Thursday. She is making her way through the usual menu: pot roast, stewed cabbage, boiled potatoes. She developed a menu for each night of the week during their first year of marriage and it has remained, mostly unchanged, over thirty years. James doesn’t care. He eats to stay on his feet, for fuel not flavor.
In the early days she’d felt duty-bound to labor half the day over a meal that had some air of elegance: creamed parsnip soup, three cheese soufflé, hand whipped cream over poached pears. She soon realized James slurped it all up the same as he might canned spaghetti, his only response was to lean back in his chair, pat his belly and exclaim, Ah now, that’s nice.
She’d lost the tip of her ring finger trying to prepare one of those fancy meals in their first year. Unaccustomed to wielding the bright, sharp new knives his parents had given them she slipped while trying to separate a chicken breast from the bone and severed her finger. Clean through the joint, the doctor later said, astonished. It had been such an odd moment when she realized what she’d done. She was able to look at the whole thing quite objectively: the knife in one hand with a slim red swish on it, the chicken breast, pink and wet with her blood, and the little digit of her finger laying there so innocently, like the tip of a carrot. For a moment she had felt strangely capable and free. Amazing things were happening and her husband wasn’t even there. She woke later in the hospital. James was there, petting her right hand delicately, and she still in her apron, all bloody.
The front door creaks and she hears his hard-soled shoes striking against the wood floor in the hall. When James appears at the doorway of the kitchen she slips her left hand behind the edge of her apron. He crosses the small room, kisses her swiftly on the cheek.
-Isn’t it Thursday? He looks expectantly at the potatoes bobbing happily away in their pot on the stove, the cabbage beside them, churning slowly.
-Yes, of course. I’ve only been waiting for you.
-I’ll get the roast!
James grabs the potholders off their hook and turns to the stove, but when he throws open the oven door he is greeted by a small round of raw meat, cold and pink, sitting in the cool cavern of the oven. A pool of pale ruddy juice has leaked out into the pan.
-What’s that, dear?
-It’s not. Is it really?
-It is. He turns to her, looking almost as if he might cry.
- It’s as if, he stands, letting the potholders fall to the floor - you weren’t paying attention.
She slips her right hand beneath her apron and holds the left one tight.
Copyright 2010 by Ebony Haight
love seat love
rocking chair love, granite love, coat closet love, hair dye1 love1, sleepy love, back porch love, sandwich love, potbelly love, caffeine love, linoleum love, fountain2 love, bookshelf love, bathtub3 love, F2505 love!, alarm system love, mirror love, peanut butter love, basement love, leather love, coal love, backyard love, red light love, apology love, coat closet love, quarter moon love, convertible love, blanket love, story time love, milky way love, headlight love, forest love, sunday morning love, laundry room love, electric love, hybrid love, floral love, water buffalo love, jungle love, hardwood love, flat tire love, grouchy love, desert love, cactus love, radiator love, half full love, silk love, refrigerator love, marble love, fiery love, rooftop love, living room love, wool love, pomegranate love, goofy love, picket fence love, white rose love, barbeque love, high chair love, vocal love, medium rare love
Copyright 2010 by Justin Kibbe
1 first date blonde highlights
1 over course it was, but it would take several years of convincing
2 wet, feet slipping on pennies, nickels and dimes – you were my fountain
3 story time on road trips or car rides – “book titles”
5 aka Brutus
The Art of the Long Look
Each morning Paul
moves like a machine,
his left arm stuck,
frozen in a perpetual
left hook, a long ago
fight lost with a turbine.
In his right hand
bottles snug, wrapped
tight in brown paper,
adds balance that counters
his arm swinging gait.
At the hot dog nest
girls gather before school
smoke cigarettes and practice
the art of the long look,
with men over thirty.
Copyright 2010 by Michael C. Foran
Keeping up with the Joneses
Curiosity is a set of twin sisters – Questions
and More Questions. They marry Mistakes
and Miracles and have children named Who,
What, When, Where, How and Why. Later
in life their families grow to include offspring
named Truth, Not Truth, Wisdom, God and
Religion. Many still speculate Religion
is the product of an extramarital affair
between Mistakes and Power. God – known
for fits of rage and being misunderstood –
follows His older sister, Truth,
like She made the world. Unlike most teenagers,
Truth never shies from His company.
She doesn’t even tire of Him reading Her journal.
Religion, the baby of the family, receives gifts
every weekend. More Questions and Miracles
have been discussing adopting a child
and naming her Happiness. They worry
he will be showered with too much praise
and envied by his siblings.
Copyright 2010 by Colin Gilbert
White male, 42 years old. Motorcycle Collision. Tattoo: right arm. “Trust No Bitch.”
Trust no bitch, especially the one who turned
left in front of you.
All trauma pre-mortem.
Trust no bitch, especially the one who turned
Trust no bitch - even the one who is rubbing eyes
raw in the lobby, rummaging for a marriage
certificate, ruminating on which suit is best,
Fracture of the anterior cranial fossa.
Trust no bitch - not even the one who is asking
“Can we see Daddy
Bone saw, please.
This bitch won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
Copyright 2010 by Elizabeth Arana
The Neo-Hegelian Outlook #5
There you are wearing khaki pants and World War 1 gas mask asking me to sum up my life when all I had for breakfast was a mushy banana sliced over colored puffs that were supposed to float in milk followed by a potent H2 antagonist and little chocolate soldiers.
Copyright 2010 by Kyle Hemmings
The ocean swallowed whole generations of men from my family, and my uncle was the only one so nasty that it spit him back. When he told me about the curse, everything finally made sense.
I was trapped in Phoenix for the summer of 1993, so I didn’t mindvisiting him once a week. He had been beaten, shot, stabbed, and set on fire, and he had gone through more than one windshield. He looked as if he had been taken apart and put back together without the instructions. He was bedridden, incontinent, and unable to speak. I thought he was harmless.
One day, I walked into the care center and the nurse grabbed me by the arm and dragged me toward his room. “He’s having a lucid window.” She whispered to me in the empty hallway. “I called your father, but he doesn’t seem to be answering the page.” She shoved me through the door of Uncle’s room. The lock clicked behind me. There was no knob on the inside.
He leaned forward into a blast of sunlight from his unused patio. The good eye widened. “Little Franklin. You’ve gained a few. You’ve got to eat a lot of sushi to put it on like that.”
“The nurse calls this a lucid window. Don’t waste it.”
“Lucid means clear. I’m always clear. I’ve been clear through all your whining about how you miss Japan and your sleepy little moose. How you’re afraid it’s all falling apart.”
He was a hateful man. He had been a hateful boy, and no one cried when he shipped off to war. Years later, when the Navy finally dumped him drunk and bloated in San Francisco, my father drove out alone to pick him up. It was a mistake, and someone should have rectified that mistake. He was only three steps away, but the nurse’s station was right outside the door. She might even be listening. The day before, I might have been able to get away with it.
He cocked his head as if to hear my thoughts. “Here’s a lucid window for you, boy. Don’t worry about your life falling apart. It’s already fallen apart. It’s already gone. It happened before you were born.” He fell back into the shadows, breathing hard.
I turned toward the door. There was a call button where the light switch should have been. I reached for it. I should have known better than to think he was safe while he was still above ground.
“You hate me, Frank. You think it’s my fault.”
“You don’t know what I think. You don’t know me.”
“I know that your world is getting smaller and tighter. Doesn’t matter where you go. Go around the world twice, boy, and the world twists you in twice as tight. How old were you? When did you start?”
I didn’t look at him. “You started me out when I was nine.” The call button was warm under my finger as if the circuit were already overloaded.
“I don’t know the math. It was after Tet, I know that. So that’s it. Nine. That’s how old you are. You’ll never get any older. You’ll be a rotten brat in an old man’s body, flapping your gums to hear your own voice, keeping yourself company in a dark little room. And you’ll blame it on me.”
“Sounds more like you than me.”
“I am a victim of circumstances and the United States Navy, may all those assholes in their dress whites rot in hell. But more than that.” He leaned forward again. His eye glittered. “Every wonder why our little family is so small? You and me and daddy makes three, and everyone else just dies. Ever wonder?”
“He’s not like you. Neither am I.”
“He’s a carrier. He didn’t have it, so he married somebody that did. It killed her. It’s killing me. It’ll kill you.”
“That was an accident. The coroner said so. She wasn’t like you either.”
“Oh, she was like me. She was soooo like me. Now that you’re old enough … well. What if I told you I was your real father?”
“What if I strangled you with your own catheter?”
“Do me the favor, boy. Do me the favor.”
As I moved toward him, he raised a forefinger to the hidden sky. It stopped me in the middle of the floor.
He grinned with half his face and pointed the finger at me. “Here’s your future. You’d better just get out of here, because you’ll run out of steam somewhere. The curse is on you, wherever you go, so you’d better make sure it catches up with yousomeplace nice.”
The finger began to curl and the eye began to dim. His lucid window was slipping shut.
“Terrible thing for an old sailor to die in the desert. Damn! Why couldn’t I be stuck in New Guinea or Taipei or Singapore? Arizona. Damn, damn, damn. Boy, do me a favor, and you’ll never have to work another day in your life. Come a little closer.”
The purple cap of smog above Phoenix shrank in my rear view mirror as I drove to higher desert. I stopped southeast of Merritt Pass and bought tequila, jerky, bread, water, and candles from a leathery woman without a tooth in her head, and then I left the main roads for cracked and dusty asphalt. Scree pounded the undercarriage and yellow dust billowed through the windows as I left the pavement altogether a few miles further northwest. There was no real trail to this place to which few had gone and fewer still had bothered to return.
We called it El ganado del Sol, or just Ganado. It was the only property in my uncle’s name, fifty-seven acres of desert and a deep wash that ran wet or dry as it would. Some fool before us apparently took the wash for a stream, and the bones of his herd lay chewed and scattered: thirty-three pelvises, sun-splintered along the top and half returned to soil below, with bits of a man scattered among them. When I was nine, I walked for a morning smashing bleached cow skulls with that man’s right femur before my uncle snatched it from me and told me what it was. He made me lead him back to the spot where I had found it. There we searched out cracked vertebrae stained the color of clay and scapulae turned roofs for small stinging ants. While I dug up ribs, Uncle batted sage and prickly pear and low cholla with his snake stick. He stopped presently and bent with his back to me. The way his fat shook, I thought he’d been bitten, but he turned with his hands behind his back, his eyes calm and serious. When he got to me, he held out a human skull blotched yellow and palest orange, jawless, toothless, zygomatic arches chewed through, sand draining out as he shook it.
In memory, I watch this tableau from the outside: the meaty red drunk presents the child with a skull, points out grooves left by scavengers’ fangs, speculates as to whether the heart was still beating as the lobos began, and lists the lesser beasts that helped polish the bones. He indicates the distance to which they might have carried carpals and metacarpals with a sweep of his arm, looking himself like a fat clerk called upon to sell painful death in that deserted place to the terrified child squatting in the dust.
My uncle sensed my fear and confusion, though I tried my best to hide it from the dangerous thing inside him, and it pleased him beyond all bounds of reason. Such simple and successful bullying called for celebration. It was on that afternoon, in a tack room shack near the wash, that he got me drunk for the first time.
I pulled up to the shack. Dust drifted in breeze too faint to feel as I walked round kicking doorjambs and hammering at corner beams, scaring up anything that had moved in. There were no answering rattles or hisses, so I went back to the truck for my gloves and the tire iron.
The door came off the hinges so easily I almost lost my balance as it cartwheeled past, and I stood staring in. Swirling motes rode the afternoon sun blazing in through the northwest window. Beyond, a jagged green-and-gray horizon divided desert from sky. Below, the table was set just as we had left it: a chewed, rotted bridle, a child’s double handful of arrowheads (left in the desert by Apache, Maricopa, or others, I’ll never know), a tin plate of dust that may have been piñole, a half-flattened mini ball, two rifle slugs, a white porcelain pitcher, scattered Mexican coppers, Uncle’s rum distilled to a black ring at the bottom of the bottle, and the skull staring past me shocked and cheekless at the land that had stripped it of flesh.
Most still life compositions evoke the unseen hands that left the objects and will take them up again, like the fat, red hands of the scullery maid who’s laid aside fruit and fowl while she kneads dough, or like the blue-veined hands of the maestro who’ll come along presently, collect his scattered sheet music, and pack away his violin. This was a different sort of still life altogether, a surreal arrangement of apocalyptic portent. There was no imagining human hands placing these things there, even though I had put half of them on the table myself. These objects were charged and luminous, as if they had gathered there under their own power.
It took about ten minutes to pull the whole thing down. I started by yanking boards from beams. They came as easily as the door, exposing the old square-headed nails. The nails were still shiny where wood had shrunk around them, good steel, maybe drop forged, perfect for hanging tiny Christs. The thought angered me with its irrelevance and I stripped the rest of the boards off quickly. The corner beams were four-by-fours, the joists two-by-fours. I hit the frame with my shoulder and my boots scrabbled for the first two steps and then bit in. The whole thing went over squealing and crackling as nails pulled and wood rent, then crashing like small thunder as the metal roof hit sand. The desert had scoured zinc from the roof so that it was brittle and rusted through in spots. It tore as I kicked it free of the frame, but the pieces folded up nicely under my boot heel. The falling frame had smashed the table, shattering both pitcher and skull. I kicked over the cranium expecting blackened bits of brain or leaves of meninges, but ants had picked it clean.
I had to use the tire iron to pry the flooring planks off the foundation, and I sincerely hated that. Getting down close to that cool earth underneath was most likely to get me stung or bitten. The planks were stubborn enough that I had to get in there and lever them up with a beam. Any sound or motion from below would have set me running.
Nothing got me. The foundation was a loose square of eight railroad ties with four set in diagonally to support the floor. In one triangle thus formed was a blue-backed Bicycle playing card, the four of hearts. In the others were only cobwebs and the nests of mice and hares. No bones. Nothing in this barren land even got the chance to die in the shade.
The ties went in two parallel stacks. They had been creosoted, but they would burn with a little coaxing. I had brought along two old tires to coax them. The ties would burn, even if I had to drain my gas tank and crankcase to get them going.
The wreckage of the shed looked much smaller than the shed itself. I smoked a cigarette and then hammered down protruding spikes. They looked as if they would rip me up pretty well if I wasn’t careful, and I didn’t plan to be careful at all.
When I had gotten my breath back and had some water, I took a tarp from my truck and started flipping the bones onto it with a two-by-four. I had never realized the cattle had died in some kind of corral, but it had to be so, even if it had been only a simple cholla barrier. There were remains of neither post nor wire, but the bones were all within a half-acre half-circle bounded to the north by the wash.
As I scraped together jackstraw ribs, a splayed slug rolled out of the scree clay-yellow and huge, bigger than .45 caliber. I bounced it in my palm and tried to imagine what such a thing would do to flesh. Looking around the plot, I realized there were at least thirty more, plus the two on the tack room table. I went back to the two patches I’d already cleaned and found five more slugs. The cattle had been shot to pieces, probably from a distance; otherwise, no one would spend two and three slugs on single cows.
It took six trips to get all the cattle bones, and then I went back for the man. He was so scattered that I couldn’t tell whether he’d finally ended up on his back or his belly. Judging from the locations of the slugs I’d found, there had been at least three gunmen firing from three directions, one with the large rifle, one with a smaller caliber rifle and one or more with a pistol or pistols, but there were no slugs among the man’s bones, nor buckles, buttons, nor traces of rotted cloth. He had ended his days dead and naked with his cattle, which had died in a concentrated triangle of fire. If Uncle were trustworthy, I would have asked him more aboutGanado. I was curious as to how that scattered, cheekless bastard had ended up on my tarp.
Mr.Bones was taking his last ride when the snake and I surprised each other. I was scanning the ground for stray bits of man or cow, and the rasping of canvas and the chuckling of bones drowned out his rattle until I was right up on him. He was five feet from me, about sixty degrees left, raised up on his coils in the sparse shade between a chunk of sandstone and a prickly pear. He was huge, seven feet or more, big around as my forearm with a rattle that looked long as my hand, and I thought he could have hit me mid-thigh without even stretching.
I tasted copper looking at him. He wasn’t even smelling me, just coiling tighter and drawing in the S of his neck. I jumped away and flung the tarp up between us in the same motion. I tripped over the two-by-four, but I don’t think I even hit the ground with both knees; I was ten steps away before I looked back. He had advanced about two feet, so he must have struck the tarp. He was still rattling furiously. I almost threw the two-by-four at him, and then I thought about going after him with the tarp and the two-by-four and my boot knife. I shook that off, too. Even if I had killed him, it would have been a waste. There had been enough blood spilled there.
I yelled at him: “Snake!You knew I was out here!I’ve been banging around for hours!Don’t tell me you didn’t hear me!”
He coiled a little tighter, I thought.
I turned on my heel, but after a few steps, I turned and yelled for him not to go to sleep under my tarp, either.
I ate in the shade of the truck. My hands were still shaking, though I had known I might meet the snake or his cousins out in the desert. Death on a fool’s errand would be a crowning irony to my life. Cleaning upGanadowas probably a waste of time. Destroying the tack room and disposing of the bones wouldn’t even hide my family’s problems, much less solve them. I could plough up the land, burn off the underbrush and spread salt on the ashes, and the plot would still haunt me. The only possible advantage to cleaning the tract was making it sellable without any legal tangles. If my uncle tried to sell while I was on the other side of the Pacific, some smart-aleck might find the bones and start asking questions. There was no telling what might turn up in a careful title search.
I might not be able to afford such delays. If I needed the money fromGanado, I would need itin a hurry. Things were going sour, and I didn’t know how long I was going to be employable. I might need quick capital to start up in another country. I liked to think I had options. There was no real planning, but I had started to picture myself on an island. It would be a place where I could lead a gentle, beachcombing existence, where expectations would be much lower.
Just a thought. Cleaning up my uncle’s dubious business was a step in that direction, just in case.
I was afraid of the rattler, but there really wasn’t much to do out there, so after lunch and a smoke I went back out to collect the dead man’s bones. The snake was nowhere in sight, and the tarp lay flat. I poked it with the two-by-four anyway before I scooped the bones onto it. When I got back, I just dumped him onto the cow bones. I didn’t know if he would care at that point, but I certainly didn’t.
The boards were so old and sundried that they split easily with the tire iron. When the sun was two diameters above the horizon, I lit a fire between the stacks of railroad ties. The tinder and brush started split boards, and burning boards warmed the ties, but the ties did not burn. I fed in floor planks until I had a trench of flaming wood, and then I rolled in the tires. Rubber and creosoted oak began to smoke.
There was a slight shifting breeze, so I backed the truck farther from the flames. I did not know how high the flames would get, nor how hot the fire. I sat and watched the last glow of sunset from the truck bed, cradling the fifth of tequila in both hands. I hadn’t been drunk since an embarrassing outing with my students just before I left Japan, and I had some catching up to do. There had been several brands in the old woman’s stall, so I had chosen a cheap, yellowish fluid with a white label that read, simply, TEQUILA. For all I knew, it was kerosene with a worm, but I smelled of it, and it was indeed tequila.
I shut my eyes and put the bottle to my lips.
Tequila burns, and the body does not want it, not right off. The first swallow is an act of will, but the first swallow spreads a warm pain in the gut. I knew if I sat and waited, I would feel it spread through me and envelop me, but I didn’t wait. Three more slugs, with quick breaths between, and then I had to stop so I didn’t throw it all up. While I was waiting for my stomach to quit lurching, the liquor rose up my spine and hit my brain so hard my jaw rattled and my vision blurred.
The desert was beautiful within minutes. A pint or so into the bottle, I was staring into the coals holding dialogues with people half a world away and decades in my past. Halfway through the bottle, the mood swing came without warning. I threw all the wood into the fire at once, probably around 10 o’clock. It roared, sucking in cool desert air from both sides and swirling up in a vortex from between banks of glowing railroad ties. The bats that had been circling and darting high above the flames disappeared, as if the confused desert insects weren’t worth braving the heat. I was just sober enough to pull the truck further back, and then I wandered out into the desert with my shirt open and my face burning. The stars were diamond sharp out in the desert, clear enough that the twins shone perfectly above. After a few minutes, I remembered that the snake was sleeping out there somewhere, and I returned to the fire.
Two-thirds into the bottle, I threw in all the bones at once, shouting, “Welcome to hell, Mr.Bones!”One of the last things I remember clearly is looking at those bones after they had spent some time among the coals. The broken skulls were incandescent, pulsing orange and yellow with pale flames feathering from empty eye sockets. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I woke at about ten the next morning in the bed of the truck with my right hand throbbing. I pulled myself up. The truck was parked sideways on my father’s front yard. I had driven fromGanadothrough Phoenix to Tempe in a complete blackout. It was nothing new. I had done it before, and I knew that if I stayed in America, I would do it again, and again, and again. It wasn’t really a matter of choice. Dr.Jekyll can’t do much about it when Mr.Hyde is in a motoring mood. The best reason for going back to Japan: I was unlikely to kill anyone with my bicycle.
There was a fine layer of ash over everything, and my hands and arms were black with soot. The bed liner had dug deep ridges into my back and head, and I massaged them until the deeper, duller ache of the hangover came. Legs spread and back bowed, I looked at the hand. I decided I sure as hell had been stung or bitten, by what I didn’t know. My fingers and the back of my hand were red and swollen, with tiny blisters showing through the soot. I decided, because there was no one there to decide for me, that it was not a black widow bite or I would be even sicker than I felt. I got the water out of the cab, drank as much as I could, then waited for waves of dizziness and nausea to pass. I poured some over my head and over my throbbing hand. Looking at the blackened toes of my boots, I reckoned I had spent the evening kicking flaming wood into the coals. It had been a hot fire by the time I blacked out, and it had probably burned clean. The only sign of the past would be a scorched spot of desert with bits of blackened porcelain and iron nails. The rest would be fused or melted into the bisque-hard desert beneath.
The tequila bottle was in the floorboard. The label was blackened, bubbled up in spots, and the whole had been licked with soot like an old oil lantern, all but where my handprint was scorched onto the glass. I hadn’t been stung or bitten at all. I had reached into the coals for an empty bottle, maybe hoping for one last sip.
There was beer in the refrigerator. I took a six-pack straight to Uncle’s care center.
He was facing the patio, cutting his good eye at me like a scared dog. I knew how I looked, and it made me grin through the hangover. I stepped into his room. “Don’t worry, old man,” I growled, leaning over to kiss his oily brow. He recoiled as best he could, eye wide. I thought to ask him how it felt to be terrified of a drunken blood relative, but it seemed a waste of time. He was reactive, but not coherent.
I thought I could improve on that.
I held up a can of beer, and he snapped to attention where he lay. Even the dead eye twitched to track this unforeseen event.
“I want to know about the family. And I want to know about Ganado. No more lies about you and Mom.” I popped the top, and he blinked in the spray. Then his face dropped into the old heavy, loose-lipped grin. Maybe it would only work once, but I had opened up one of those lucid windows.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to hear, boy.”
Copyright 2010 by James Kendley
My girlfriend J and I turn the corner, see this guy sitting on the ground completely still, legs crossed, shirtless. Greying wiry hair and beard, primate eyes, leathery skin. You all right, man, I say. Nothing. Hey, I shout, you hear me? Nothing. What should we do, J says. I shrug my shoulders, wave my hand before him. Some guy appears, says, he does this all the time. He’s a weirdo—like he’s there but he’s not. We study him—sporadic eye blinks, chest moving up and down. Still life, like a museum exhibit. She grips my hand, the softest one ever, says, let’s go, always conscious of her public presence, afraid her parents will see us together. Under ball-field bleachers, we talk about my going to college next month. Later, I come home, see dad on the recliner, still in his work blues, hair disheveled, mouth open, staring at the tv. He doesn’t move. I worry he’s dead. Dad!, I scream. He jumps, says, what the hell. You okay, dad? Yeah, looks around, I’m zonked, where’s your mother. Don’t know. If you see her, ask what’s for dinner. I grab a Coke, go upstairs, see mom sitting on her bed, facing away. I start talking: I don’t think J and I will last, her parents hate me, but she doesn’t respond. Zoned out, like when I asked, why a state school? My friends tell me, once you go to college, J’s history, and yeah, I’ve got to believe them.
Copyright 2010 by Christian Bell
The dogs in my backyard
and although I am still leaning towards this window
can no longer hear their barking against the moon;
the cats are sleeping on the red rug
which is redder from a blooming rose,
redder from your blood
and I think of leaping bodies from the bridges
of the world,
while I am ready to jump from the lip of the grave
into the swirl of the nothingness.
The curtains of the future are waving and yet there
is no wind.
Copyright 2010 by Peycho Kanev
All of the windows replaced by walls that are spare.
The moon has no yellow feelings. The stars don't care.
I have no reason to cultivate pathetic fallacies while
peonies die & fracture in a wind that blows them off
to the eyes of some bearded library doodler holding
a notebook for proving their glories to himself again.
I hate it here! Ralph Waldo Emerson was full of shit.
Leaves of Grass my ass! I have yet to see one bather.
I motor deep in the woods with my bare eyes leering
out the windshield for old Black Bears to ravage by
waves of electricity from an array of high voltage
tasers that leap out and stick in flesh like neat lies.
When the Bear is just dying there, I won't eat it,
or sleep in it, or make something crafty out of its
steaming body parts. I'll have lots of coffee packed.
In my opine, being one with nature would be death.
Cup in hand I'll stand there watching it suffer on the bear
trail like I do every day when I wait for the crosswalk to
come on so I can go to my job & listen to my boss's heart
plod around in his fat chest all winter until the day a temp
girl in a pencil skirt finds his body hibernating in a stream
of lukewarm water crowding around a broken toilet seat.
Don't look now. We're bathroom attendants on the inside.
Copyright 2010 by KJ Hays
Hiding behind thorn bushes, I watched the man I was about to rob.
Tiny pebbles gnawed at my knees.
With rough disheveled strokes, anxiety painted doom in simple things. Clouds moved with urgency. It was dark but I could see them well, great brown billows sweeping across the sky and wiping off the face of the moon. Sharp and wet, thorns gleamed, little drops dangling from their tips. Against an ebony background, they gave the impression of a collage of dinosaur heads, their open grinning mouths in a gnarl, teeth glistening.
Roshan sahib ate again at nine. Usually a plate full of grapes and pomegranate seeds culled from fruit like a diligent bird neatly plucking fuzz out of a tight bud.
I knew this because I worked for him. And watched him every day sitting at his feet by the fireplace. Tonight, on Gagan uncle’s instructions, I had excused myself early.
Belching thunderous rage, the skies opened. The river must be active, I told myself, and thought of Mother.
She had always wanted to get away from this town. To some place beyond the river basin. Often we stood there listening to the murmuring water.
"Close your eyes", she said one day, "and focus on the sounds you would not usually hear. Like tiny bubbles mumbling close to our ears underwater, pressing us to escape."
I saw Roshan sahib rise with his empty plate.
“Sahib eats two dinners while we scramble for one meal a day,” Gagan uncle always hissed. His hands moved animatedly when he spoke, unclipped fingernails permanently caked in mud. He spoke to the leaky ceiling, the empty pot that was supposed to cook rice. Even mumbled in his sleep. He claimed he had become an insomniac, sleep gutted by long hours at the kilns.
My friends felt that Roshan sahib was the most caring of all brick factory owners. I agreed. I was with him the whole day. Nodding at his directives, fanning him while he slept in the afternoons, polishing his shoes, and playing with his kittens during my free time. It was charitable of him to have asked me to continue coming to his house to help even after Mother died.
Not in Gagan uncle's opinion. He felt sahib did this to appease his guilt of having worked Mother to death in his sweltering kilns, where sweat and tears commingled in windless space. But then, uncle disliked every owner in town.
Roshan sahib, to me, was a gentleman. He never raised his voice, even in anger.
It was not willingly that I tiptoed towards his house when the lights went out in his bedroom. Gagan uncle said he would be waiting next to the well in his bullock cart. Once I handed him his gold trophy, I could run back home while he drove to the city.
I didn’t like the idea but Gagan uncle was a monster.
He is so spiteful that Mother used to say he is better off being poor and weak. She withstood his violence because he let us stay with him. Mother's screams as she collapsed to the ground, still rankled in my ears; I woke up almost every night perspiring at the loud hoots of a passing train.
I had a key to sahib's house. My breath quickened as I sneaked in through the door; Gagan uncle’s old blue shawl slipped from my hand. He had asked me to wrap the statue with it in case someone stopped me on my way back. I picked it up. The marble floor felt cold. My hands dripped, eyes trained on the unlit hallway to the prayer room.
“Do you pray?” Roshan sahib had asked me one day, to which I silently nodded yes. Then, surprised myself by adding, “I used to pray with Mother.” He didn’t respond, a burning oil lamp flickering in his hand that he moved in a circular manner facing his deities. I watched gray fumes pause in a misty sphere before rising to the ceiling. The room was filled with incense. “Prayer is good,” he said and turned towards me and gently patted me on my head, “helps clean your thoughts.” Since that day I felt he paid more attention to me. He even asked me to polish his gold and silver statues.
I wished I hadn’t told Gagan uncle about it.
One of the lamps was still burning from evening prayers, casting shadows that shuddered like a wind-filled flag. There were a few books neatly stacked on the floor.
I bent forward and clasped one of the statues. Hesitating for a moment, I put it right back and turned around to leave. Missed the raised edge of the mat and tripped on it, falling face down on the floor. The thud was loud, and the wind from the sudden movement blew the flame out, plunging the room into darkness. Staggering blindly, I kicked a steel plate sending it clanging against the wall. Lights came on in the bedroom.
I aimed for the door and gunned through it. Instead of running towards the well, I headed to the back of the house, where a gravel road curved around mango trees. I ran and ran, mind racing in and out of the prayer room, imagining Roshan sahib walking down the stairs to find an intruded room, a disfigured plate, a replaced idol.
And Gagan uncle’s shawl that I had intentionally left in there.
Tiny pointed rocks stabbed my soles but my feet didn’t stop. I kept running, blood humming in my ears, till I was finally there, standing amidst familiar smells, a gentle breeze lapping at my face.
Chest heaving for breath, rain racing down my forehead, I looked up at the sky, then closed my eyes. And listened to the murmuring water.
Copyright 2010 by Ajay Vishwanathan
HOW DO YOU GO SOMEPLACE WITH NOTHING?
How do you go someplace with nothing?
We have different memories, you and I.
I enter the room of other thought,
a rude space strong as dripping water,
strong as a lapse of memory, a last love,
whatever this is sitting next to me as I drive
cursing into the yellow darkness threatening
me if I do not turn the next corner too sharply.
I never lose sight of responsibility.
On the train platform of predators,
I do as the wolves taught me--
stare into them until they leave me go.
But none of this has any real importance.
Twice I lost my way. This is what is important.
Once in the snowfields, Northern Montana
and again in the bogs, Southern Wisconsin.
Last night I felt my place slip again.
Where do you think you are going?
Copyright 2010 by Michael H. Brownstein
“I am a lion in a cage. Let me out,” he said.
“How? By having sex with you?” I meant to sound skeptical but my voice hitched when I said “sex.”
A little smile. “For now, just shake my hand.”
“Shaking hands with you would be like having sex with a normal person.”
“Yeah?” he said. “What about having sex with me?”
“Probably the same as getting hit by a bus.”
He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward, sighing. His breath tickled my arm. I had learned to watch him. But, unlike a magician, his tricks worked regardless of transparency.
He leaned forward and reached for a drawer behind me. I waited until he sat back again before I let myself inhale. He lit a match and touched the flame to the wick of the beeswax candle between us. I rolled my eyes at him as he stood to turn out the lights.
When he came back he didn't sit down. Instead, he held out his hand. I would have felt embarrassed for him if anyone else had been watching. His hair was messed up and his shirt was pinched tight under the armpits, probably to make his chest look bigger. Not knowing what to do with his free hand, he had tucked it into his belt loop. And he slouched, even now.
But the candle flame softened his nose and lips and made his eyes glow bronze. Another trick.
“Fuck it,” I said, and grabbed his hand.
He let his fingers close but didn't squeeze.
“I should tell you that I lied to you,” he said.
Of course he would want to rub his victory in my face. It had been weeks and I had not allowed him to touch me, not even in my mind.
“Since I am out of my cage, I can tell you the truth,” he continued. “I am not a lion. I never was.”
Now he squeezed. Hard.
“You're hurting me.”
He looked at my breasts.
I squeezed back as hard as I could, to keep my knuckles aligned.
“I can fly,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I whispered. I had not meant to whisper.
He didn't move but his shadow bobbed and swayed across the bare patch of wall behind him. He closed his eyes. The shadow arched its back and broadened. Its head and torso thickened and it shook wildly, seeming to lose its balance. I tried to jerk my hand away but his grip only tightened. The satisfying snap of a baby carrot somewhere inside my hand. The shadow opened like an upside-down flower. Then I saw the feathers. There was something coming off them in long drips. The room smelled like a lobster tank. I used to stare at the lobsters while my mother bought bags of dead shrimp and once I tugged on a dress that was not my mother's. The table cloth was wet with something. Sweat. I was tugging it into my crotch. My cheeks were wet. My chair was wet. The wings of the shadow stretched across the entire wall behind him. He leaned forward. His tongue felt like hot molasses pouring into my mouth, down my throat, filling my stomach and spilling into my lungs, my heart pumping it up through my neck and I could see my little brother's newborn body, he was covered in molasses, pouring out of my mother and out onto the floor of the funeral home, pushing ripples through the Persian rugs, my sister's coffin drifting past the rows of wooden black chairs and out through the doors, out through the wrought iron gate, out into the tall grass to bake under the hot brown sun.
Copyright 2010 by Max Karson
an open air market
did you see the pin
from inside of this shirt?
are we always engaged?
how is it you pitted the parsnip
against the tripe when it asked
for tomatoes “lit up like the sun”?
was it Shelley that called
looking for their guitar?
whose memory left
this divot in the foam?
what time was it
when he ate the pepper
and saddened his grandmother?
when is the day ever aged?
why is the sign still up?
Copyright 2010 by Anne and Mark DeCarteret
A Bicycle Review Serialization:
Kosty the Ghostwriter, A story from grub street, New York, Part Two
Some days passed, the ghostwriter being employed upon another lengthy work. His late remarkable conduct led me to regard his ways narrowly. I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went anywhere. As yet I had never of my personal knowledge known him to be outside of my office. He was a perpetual sentry in the corner. At about eleven o’clock though, in the morning, I noticed that Ginger Nut would advance toward the opening in Kosty’s screen, as if silently beckoned thither by a gesture invisible to me where I sat. The boy would then leave the office jingling a few pence, and reappear with a handful of ginger-nuts which he delivered in the hermitage, receiving two of the cookies for his trouble.
Kosty lives, then, only on ginger-nuts, thought I. Never eating a dinner, properly speaking, he must be a vegetarian then. But no, he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but these odd ginger-nuts. My mind then ran on in reveries concerning the probable effects upon the human constitution of surviving entirely on ginger-nuts. Ginger-nuts are so called because they contain ginger as one of their peculiar constituents and the final flavouring one. Now what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Kosty hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then, had no effect upon Kosty. Probably he preferred that it should have none.
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavour charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment. Even so, for the most part, I regarded Kosty and his ways. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Kosty; to humour him in his strange wilfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. But this mood was not invariable with me. The passiveness of Kosty sometimes irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition, to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own. But indeed I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of Windsor soap. But one afternoon the evil impulse in me mastered me, and the following little scene ensued:
“Kosty,” said I, “when their criticisms of my speech are complete, may I compare them with you?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“How? Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?”
I threw open the folding-doors near by, and turning upon Turkey and Nippers, exclaimed in an excited manner--
“He says, a second time, he won't examine his papers. What do you think of it, Turkey?”
It was afternoon, be it remembered. Turkey sat glowing like a brass boiler, his bald head steaming, his hands reeling among his blotted papers.
“Think of it?” roared Turkey; “I think I’ll just step behind his screen, and black his eyes for him!”
So saying, Turkey rose to his feet and threw his arms into a pugilistic position. He was hurrying away to make good his promise, when I detained him, alarmed at the effect of incautiously rousing Turkey’s combativeness after lunch.
“Sit down, Turkey,” said I, “and hear what Nippers has to say. What do you think of it, Nippers? Would I not be justified in immediately dismissing Kosty?”
“Excuse me, that is for you to decide, sir. I think his conduct quite unusual, and indeed unjust, as regards Turkey and myself. But it may only be a passing whim.”
“Ah,” exclaimed I, “you have strangely changed your mind then—you speak very gently of him now.”
“All beer,” cried Turkey; “gentleness is effects of beer—Nippers and I dined together to-day. You see how gentle I am, sir. Shall I go and black his eyes?”
“You refer to Kosty, I suppose. No, not to-day, Turkey,” I replied; “pray, put away your fists.”
I closed the doors, and again advanced towards Kosty. I felt additional incentives tempting me to my fate. I burned to be rebelled against again. I remembered that Kosty never left the office.
“Kosty,” said I, “Ginger Nut is away; just step round to the Post Office, won’t you? (as it was but a three minutes walk,) and see if there is any thing for me.”
“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”
I staggered to my desk and sat there in a deep study. My blind inveteracy returned. Was there any other thing in which I could procure myself to be ignominiously repulsed by this lean, penniless wight—my hired ghost? What added thing is there, perfectly reasonable, that he will be sure to refuse to do?
“Kosty,” in a louder tone.
“Kosty,” I roared.
Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.
“Go to the next room, and tell Nippers to come to me.”
“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.
“Very good, Kosty,” said I, in a quiet sort of serenely severe self-possessed tone, intimating the unalterable purpose of some terrible retribution very close at hand. At the moment I half intended something of the kind. But upon the whole, as it was drawing towards my dinner-hour, I thought it best to put on my hat and walk home for the day, suffering much from perplexity and distress of mind.
Shall I acknowledge it? The conclusion of this whole business was, as it soon became a fixed fact of my chambers, that a pale young ghostwriter by the name of Kosty had a desk there; that he wrote for me at the usual rate of twenty dollars a folio (one hundred words); but he was permanently exempt from examining the work done by him, that duty being transferred to Turkey and Nippers, one of compliment doubtless to their superior acuteness; moreover, this Kosty was never on any account to be dispatched on the most trivial errand of any sort; and that even if entreated to take upon him such a matter, it was generally understood that he would prefer not to—in other words, that he would refuse point-blank. There was no need for me even to ask.
As days passed on, I became considerably reconciled to Kosty. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing reverie behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterable demeanour under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition. One prime thing was this: He was always there in my office—first in the morning, continually through the day, and the last at night. I had a singular confidence in his honesty. I felt my most precious notes perfectly safe in his hands. Sometimes to be sure I could not, for the very soul of me, avoid falling into sudden spasmodic passions with him. For it was exceeding difficult to bear in mind all the time those strange peculiarities, privileges, and unheard of exemptions, forming the tacit stipulations on Kosty’s part under which he remained in my office. Now and then, in the eagerness of dispatching pressing business, I would inadvertently summon Kosty, in a short, rapid tone, to consider, say, the writing machine that was resisting me. Of course, from behind the screen the usual answer, “I prefer not to,” was sure to come; and then, how could a human creature with the common infirmities of our nature, refrain from bitterly exclaiming upon such perverseness—such unreasonableness. However, every added repulse of this sort which I received only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the inadvertence.
Here it must be said, that according to the custom of most offices in densely-populated buildings, there were several keys to my door. One was kept by a woman residing in the basement, which person weekly scrubbed and daily swept and dusted my rooms. Another was kept by Turkey for convenience sake. The third I sometimes carried in my own pocket. The fourth I knew not who had.
Now, one Sunday morning I happened to go to Trinity Church on lower Broadway to hear a celebrated preacher. Finding myself rather early, I thought I would walk round to my office for a while. Luckily I had my key with me; but upon applying it to the lock, I found it resisted by something already inserted from the inside. Quite surprised, I called out. When to my consternation a key was turned from within. The apparition of Kosty appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, thrusting his lean visage at me and holding the door ajar. He said quietly that he was sorry, but he was deeply engaged just then and preferred not admitting me to my own office at present. In a brief word or two, he moreover added, that perhaps I had better walk round the block two or three times, and by that time he would probably have concluded his affairs.
Now, the utterly unexpected appearance of Kosty, inhabiting my Greeter’s office on a Sunday morning, with his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door and did as he desired. But not without sundry twinges of impotent rebellion against the mild effrontery of this bumptious employee. Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly that not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were. For I consider that one, for the time, is a sort of castrated when he tranquilly permits his hired hand to dictate to him, and, as now, order him away from his own premises. Furthermore, I was full of uneasiness as to what Kosty could possibly be doing in my office in his shirt sleeves, and in an otherwise dismantled condition of a Sunday morning. Was anything amiss going on? Nay, that was out of the question. Not for a moment did I think that Kosty was an immoral person. But what could he be doing there? Writing? Something for himself? Nay again, whatever might be his eccentricities, whatever might be the effects of ginger nuts, Kosty was an eminently decorous and sober person. He would be the last man to sit down at my desk to do his own writing—the last man to work in any state approaching to nudity. Besides, it was Sunday; and there was something about Kosty that forbade the supposition that he would indulge any secular occupation violating the proprieties of the day.
Nevertheless, my mind was not pacified; and full of a restless curiosity, at last I returned to the door. Without hindrance I inserted my key, opened it, and entered. Kosty was not to be seen. I looked round anxiously, peeped behind his screen; but it was very plain that he was gone. Upon more closely examining the place, I surmised that for an indefinite period Kosty must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office, and that too without plate, mirror, or bed. The cushioned seat of a rickety old sofa in one corner bore the faint impress of a lean, reclining form. Rolled away under his desk, I found a blanket; under the empty grate, a blacking box and brush; on a chair, a tin basin, with soap and a ragged towel; in a newspaper a few crumbs of ginger-nuts, always, and a morsel of cheese. Yes, thought I, it is evident enough that Kosty has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s quarters all by himself. Immediately then an ominous thought came sweeping across me. What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude relived only by ginger-nuts, how horrible! Think of it. On a Sunday, the City Hall neighbourhood is as deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which on week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Kosty apparently makes his home as sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage! Pray that this fate should never happen to me.
For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Kosty were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the condition of this pallid ghostwriter with this ginger-nuts, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. These sad fancyings--chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain--led on to other and more special thoughts concerning the eccentricities of Kosty. Presentiments of strange discoveries hovered round me. The ghostwriter’s pale lifeless form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding sheet.
Suddenly I was attracted by Kosty’s closed desk, the key in open sight left in the lock. I mean no mischief, seek the gratification of no heartless curiosity, I thought; besides, the desk is mine, and its contents too, so I will make bold to look within. Every thing was methodically arranged, the papers smoothly placed. The pigeon holes were deep, and removing the files of documents, I groped into their recesses. Presently I felt something there, and dragged it out. It was an old bandanna handkerchief, heavy and knotted. I opened it, and saw within it a savings’ bankbook. Of writing possibly for himself I found nothing—not even a poem or an article.
I now recalled all the quiet mysteries that I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer; that though at intervals he had considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading—no, not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall. I was quite sure that he never visited any refectory or eating house, while his pale face clearly indicated that he never drank beer like Turkey, or tea and coffee even, like other men; that he never went anywhere in particular that I could learn and never went out for a walk, unless indeed that was the case at present; that he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world; that though so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health. On the shelf beside his desk was a single book, unopened and unmoved, its author J. L. Borges. Perhaps the book wasn’t his.
And more than all, I remembered a certain unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid haughtiness, say, or rather an austere aristocratic reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities, when I had feared to ask him to do the slightest incidental thing for me, even though I might know, from his long-continued motionlessness, that behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall reveries of his.
Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, I was not forgetful of his morbid moodiness. Revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Kosty grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear and that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succour, common sense bids the soul be rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him. It was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.
I did not accomplish the purpose of going to Trinity Church that morning. Somehow the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going. I walked homeward, thinking what I would do with Kosty. Finally, I resolved upon this: I would put certain calm questions to him the next morning, touching his history, etc. If he declined to answer them openly and unreservedly (and I supposed he would prefer not), I would give him a thousand dollar bill over and above whatever I might owe him and tell him his services were no longer required; but that if in any other way I could assist him, I would be happy to do so, especially if he desired to return to his native place, wherever that might be, I would willingly help to defray the expenses. Moreover, if, after reaching home, he found himself at any time in want of aid, a letter from him to me would be sure of a reply.
The next morning came.
“Kosty,” said I, gently calling to him behind his screen.
“Kosty,” said I, in a still gentler tone, “come here; I am not going to ask you to do any thing you would prefer not to do. I simply wish to speak to you.”
Upon this he noiselessly slid into view.
“Will you tell me, Kosty, where you were born?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“Will you tell me any thing about yourself?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“But what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me? I feel friendly towards you.”
He did not look at me while I spoke, but kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Ronald Reagan, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head.
“What is your answer, Kosty?” said I, after waiting a considerable time for a reply, during which his countenance remained immovable, only there was the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth.
“At present I prefer to give no answer,” he said, and retired into his hermitage.
It was rather weak in me I confess, but his manner on this occasion nettled me. Not only did there seem to lurk in it a certain calm disdain, but his perverseness seemed ungrateful, considering the undeniable good money and indulgence he had received from me.
Again I sat ruminating what I should do. Mortified as I was at his behaviour, and resolved as I had been to dismiss him when I entered my office, nevertheless I strangely felt something superstitious knocking at my heart, and forbidding me to carry out my purpose, and denouncing me for a villain if I dared to breathe one bitter word against this most forlorn of mankind. At last, familiarly drawing my chair behind his screen, I sat down and said: “Kosty, never mind then about revealing your history; but let me entreat you, as a friend, to comply as far as may be with the customs of this office. Say now you will help to examine write speeches and press releases tomorrow or next day: in short, say now that in a day or two you will begin to be a little reasonable. Say so, Kosty.”
“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.
Just then the folding-doors opened, and Nippers approached. He seemed suffering from an unusually bad night’s rest, induced by severer indigestion than common. He overheard those final words of Kosty.
“Prefer not, eh?” gritted Nippers. “I’d prefer him, if I were you, sir,” addressing me—“I’d prefer him; I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule! What is it, sir, pray, that he prefers not to do now?” Kosty moved not a limb.
“Mr. Nippers,” said I, “I’d prefer that you would withdraw for the present.”
Somehow, of late I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word “prefer” upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. And I trembled to think that my contact with the obstinate ghostwriter had already and seriously affected me in a mental way. And what further and deeper aberration might it not yet produce?
As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey blandly and deferentially approached.
“With submission, sir,” said he, “yesterday I was thinking about Kosty here, and I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in his writing.”
“So you have got the word too,” said I, slightly excited.
“With submission, what word, sir,” asked Turkey, respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen, and by so doing, making me jostle my errant ghostwriter. “What word, sir?”
“I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Kosty, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.
“That’s the word, Turkey,” said I--“that’s it.”
“Oh, prefer? oh yes—queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer….”
“Turkey,” interrupted I, “you will please withdraw.”
“Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I should.”
As he opened the folding-door to retire, Nippers at his desk caught a glimpse of me, and asked whether I would prefer to have a certain text printed on blue paper or white. He did not in the least roguishly accent the word prefer. It was plain that it involuntarily rolled from his tongue. I thought to myself, surely I must get rid of this demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads, of myself and my team. But I thought it prudent not to break the dismissal at once.
The next day I noticed that Kosty did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall reverie. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.
“Why, how now? What next?” exclaimed I. “Do no more writing?”
“No mas,” he repeated.
“And what is the reason?”
“Do you not see the reason for yourself,” he indifferently replied.
I looked steadfastly at him, and perceived that his eyes looked dull and glazed. Instantly it occurred to me that his exemplary diligence in writing by his dim window for the first few weeks of his stay with me might have temporarily impaired his vision.
I was touched. I said something in condolence with him. I hinted that of course he did wisely in abstaining from ghostwriting for a while; and urged him to embrace that opportunity of taking wholesome exercise in the open air. This, however, he did not do. A few days after this, my other ghosts being absent, and being in a great hurry to dispatch certain articles by the mail, I thought that, having nothing else earthly to do, Kosty would surely be less inflexible than usual, and carry these articles to the post-office. But he blankly declined. So, much to my inconvenience, I went myself.
Still added days went by. Whether Kosty’s eyes improved or not, I could not say. To all appearance, I thought they did. But when I asked him if they did, he vouchsafed no answer. At all events, he would do no more writing for me. At last, in reply to my urgings, he informed me that he had permanently given up ghostwriting.
“What!” exclaimed I; “suppose your eyes should get entirely well—better than ever before—would you not write then?”
“I have given up ghostwriting,” he answered, and slid aside.
….To be concluded in June
Copyright 2010 by Richard Kostelanetz
On the weight bench
inclined, reaching like two arms
balancing a toddler’s ballerina dress
and a white bra.
The dryer is broken again
The workout stalled for one more day.
Copyright 2010 by Michael C. Foran
THE SECRET I NEED
Let me tell you all of this.
You have to find the glory within yourself.
The inventory of the soul is your private piece.
There are those who reach for history books
To read about themselves and there are those
Who write the history books so they can.
Still others shadow the behind scenes,
Create power, imaginings, give birth to…
The inventory of your soul is not a bragging stone,
Nor is it a public mitzvah. It holds no weight;
It has no shadow. In the Book of Life you know
And that is enough. Let the outside noise
Lift away. The best compliment lives within you.
Copyright 2010 by Michael H. Brownstein
EDITED AND CURATED BY J DE SALVO AND KAITLIN ANDERSON
PUBLISHED BY J DE SALVO
ASSOCIATE EDITORS: JOHN DOMINI AND JEFFREY CYPHERS WRIGHT