Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“The Eighth Step” by Linda Peer

My counselor tells me that methadone addiction is superior to heroin addiction because it fills the hole but it is not psychoactive.

I tell him that it fills the physical hole but not the emotional hole. My heart does not sing when I see that translucent plastic cup, that unnatural green liquid. When I swallow it, joy does not blossom. Where is the thrill? Methadone is like a tired marriage. Methadone is like a droning suburb on Monday morning, busy as a bee hive and with the week of work between you and whatever you love to do: fishing, or skiing, or hanging at the bar, or whatever. How can methadone, the humdrum wife, replace the fiery bloom, the natural magic, of mistress poppy?

But I've been told that I quibble about words and argue about semantics. My counselor says, “What is the emotional hole you refer to, Billy? Why is it there? Go deeper. Let the investigation be your thrill.”

So I don't often mention my opinion to my counselor.

I'm on a mission and a pilgrimage. I'm on the eighth step of the twelve-step program. I am to let a Greater Power aid me. I am to make a list of the people I have harmed and become willing to make amends to them. I'm told that, "...in making amends, not only are we to 'right all such matters to the best of our ability', but we must ALSO change and stop doing the behavior that brought about the harm to begin with."

I'm well aware that habits both support and bind us. I've... let me say I've side stepped. I've side stepped a big habit by using methadone and the thought of attacking more habits at this juncture makes me... makes me want to hide in the bar. And why shouldn't I?

Instead, I've decided to sidle into the eighth step with the easier part, the men in my family--my father, grandfather, and uncle--because there are more women and although they are easier going, they will question me harder.

I should add that the inventor of AA wrote, "Every (addict) has found that he can make LITTLE headway in this new adventure of living until he FIRST backtracks and REALLY makes an accurate and unsparing survey of the human wreckage he has left in his wake."

He liked to capitalize words, but every time I (capitalized) read this it is the uncapitalized word 'unsparing' that gives me a pain in my heart and a twinge below my lungs, in the region of my liver. My heart and liver want to run away and take me with them.

Let me begin over: I'm sitting at my computer in my studio apartment in a dilapidated hotel whose heyday was about 1920. The current owner, a hippy turned rainbow person/entrepreneur, painted the old wooden gingerbread a Mediterranean blue. I am a good recovering addict: I have a job as a cabinetmaker and I pay my rent. That is important.

To my left, a window overlooks a half-cut lawn and the edge of the forest. Out there, even the air seems green. The smells of grass, spring lilacs, and lawn mower exhaust float in to distract me, but I will not indulge myself in the seductions of the view yet. I will exercise self-restraint. I will finish this. It is an effort I will eventually show to my counselor.

Let me set the stage for my remorse: I live in Piney, a tiny sylvan paradise where my grandparents bought a summer cabin. The landscape reminded them of the old country: the craggy mountains, the evergreen forest punctuated by groves of deciduous trees. I will relent about the view and describe it: beyond the spartan dimness of my room (addicts don't waste money on household accoutrements), wooly clouds drift over the mountains and browse in a cobalt sky. A neighbor swears as he repairs his lawn mower, oily parts and tools spread across his drive. Piney looks quaint, with Victorian buildings lining the short Main Street.

On gray, dull days I see the other Piney: the decaying trailers and the abandoned renovations, their sagging roofs protected with taut blue tarps. I notice curling shingles and dead-beat pickups, and Piney looks worn out and hopeless.

My grandpa never knew I was an addict, but he saw me grow from a clever boy to a youth without apparent ambition or any pleasure except to play guitar, a youth driven by the silliest of his friends' wishes and impulses. "Who are those boys to you?” Gramps said, “They are not your friends. Your family will care for you long after you've forgotten their names."
Dad said, “Everyone plays guitar. You can't depend on that to make your future.”

But I thought I knew better. I thought I'd leave my family far behind in my great American adventure, an adventure that would begin as soon as I could escape from them.
I did not become an addict in Piney, that happened in Texas, but you can buy drugs anywhere. Finding heroin is like hunting or fishing: if you know the habitat and behavior of the species 'dealer,' and you know how and where to wait, eventually you find what you seek.

My Dad and uncle both preferred their father's weekend life to his weekday life and settled in Piney full time. For years Dad commuted an hour and a half to work in Almedia. One autumn night he hit a deer, then a tree. Dad sat trapped in his car with the door crushed and his leg broken for an hour before another car drove by on that lonely road. He was lucky his horn worked, else he might have waited there all night.

After that, Dad went native. He raised honey, four kinds of pears, apples, and vegetables. He caught fish and shot deer, ducks, and turkeys. He fixed cars in our driveway and computers on our kitchen table. Mom baked bread, canned vegetables and fruit, and smoked trout. She sold honey, jam, pumpkins, and pies. We all chopped wood for the stoves and tended the garden. It was an earthly paradise for Dad, but all I wanted was to escape.

But I have wandered. Back to the eighth step. What it says exactly is this: “8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.”

It is awkwardly put, isn't it? Is that the royal “we?” The tenses are a mess. It reads as though even the guy who invented it didn't want to do it. But as I said, I've been told I pick nits.

How have I harmed my dad and granddad? My grandfather is dead, but that does not matter for this purpose.

I did harm in the usual addict ways. OK, I'm supposed to be specific. After I returned from Texas, I needed money. Mom has a softer heart than Dad and she's a softer touch. I nabbed a ten from her here, a twenty there, long after Dad cut me off, saying I'd just spend it on drugs. And I spent it on drugs. So I caused conflict between them. I was not the only conflict they had, though, nor the first, nor the most important. I may have caused the obvious flowering of their troubles, but the root lay elsewhere. In those days, Dad would come home late, into the neat, bright kitchen where Mom was already washing dinner dishes, his meal waiting on a plate atop the wood stove, a pie tin over it to protect it from drying out. He'd give her a swift kiss and a pat that took her for granted. He'd get a beer, take the plate to the table and dig into meatloaf or chicken, home made fries or mashed potatoes, summer squash or kale. He'd stretch his long, jeans clad legs wide under the table and fill the space with his heat and his smell: the man of the house. He'd give some lame excuse for his lateness: he ran an errand for Mom or he'd stopped for a beer to celebrate a buddy’s birthday. “Don't imply it's my fault,” Mom would answer, keeping her back to him. “Don't say it was for someone else. You are late for your own reasons. It's just selfish.”

He gave her reasons to complain. She complained and gave him excuses to stay away, his home was not a haven anymore, he said.

The truth was, Dad's eye had wandered and it came to rest on a young lady who seemed to see in him what he needed to see in himself. My counselor talks about that: the terrible need to see a polished version yourself, the image of your hopes and wishes. You make excuses for all the other things you do, or you blind yourself to them.

For a while, Dad was a big man in that young woman's eyes. He was a fascinating man and a man of means. He bought her the bland Bud Lite she asked for, then taught her to appreciate the micro-brews he preferred. He got her something luscious from the Nordstrom catalog. Did my mother feel that money leaking away from her household?

The young woman flirted, listened admiringly, took what she could get, and then married a guy her own age from the next town over. She'd had a fiancé all along, a soldier away on duty. She had a harmless fling with Dad; she never slept with him. I wondered what she said about him behind his back. No matter what it was, after she dropped him, Dad stomped around at home and barely talked to Mom, as if he had no other place to unsheathe his hurt and disappointment.

But I am avoiding the eighth step. Let me try again. My father and grandfather could not understand why I acted so aimless and rambling. I wanted more fireworks, more excitement. I practiced the guitar, I started a band, then another band. I aimed to be a rock star. I prayed for groupies. I was hot to go to LA, to Austin, to Seattle, to New York City: any place where things were happening and I could test my metal. Ah, my metal.

The trouble with methadone is that sometimes you crave a high. You crave that searing bliss that vomits you out of yourself. You want that annihilating other. You want the soft loving vision of an opiate that caresses and transforms everything. The sordid world blossoms and everything is paradisiacal.

Unfortunately, that is only true at first or if you quit for a while. The illusion of transformation is the seduction of the drug, like a sexual infatuation, like my Dad. Or maybe you really are transformed, at first, and maybe infatuation transforms you, too. Addiction itself is mostly about getting sick and getting well, where the drug makes you well again. Getting well is a transformation, too, I suppose.

The things you will do for transformation! My counselor says that for most addicts, the excitement of the life is itself addictive. The abused substance and the culture of drugs fill up the foreground of the addict's world. They trump all other problems. Without them, life seems both flat and pettily problematic.

I have vowed not to tell stories of my addict adventures, of dare-doing, close encounters of the worst kind, and near escapes from the law. My counselor says life on the edge is the romance of addiction, deluded like all romance and more dangerous than most. But what is life without romance?

When I lived in Texas, Colorado, and California, I met people who scaled frozen waterfalls, trusting their lives to ice screws and the spiky points on boots and axes. My buddies raced motorcycles and mountain bikes, and rode bulls. Their eyes lit up when they talked about tires skidding, falls into crevasses. They were ignited by danger. The thrill rises like a wave, crests, recedes, wears off, and then cries to be renewed. I think the old time explorers were avid that way about the Northwest Passage, the headwaters of the Mississippi, and the Fountain of Youth. They were possessed, and we admire those who succeeded. In truth, we glorify life on the edge.

And what about other excitements, like my father's? What about life on the edge of betrayal, on the edge of being caught? There is fire burning everywhere, in everyone.

My counselor dismisses that fire. He says it is just the inability of the body to properly metabolize testosterone, as automatic as the knee jerk reflex. Unromantic. Testosterone swirls round and round until it produces a kind of internal version of a forest fire. He claims I suffer from simple testosterone poisoning and should find a productive outlet. I point out that I mountain bike, but have you ever met a serious mountain biker who did not smoke pot? So you see, my addiction is nothing special. I am just like everyone else. A productive outlet is not the final solution.

Mom says I'm a smart aleck. She says, "You won't get better until you stop talking in that cynical, smart alecky way. You think you have to act like you don't care about anything." Lines form in her brow and I see how anxious she is for me.

But I do. Care about things. But this is the only way I know how to talk.

Damn. Let me start over again. About Dad: one afternoon after that girl blew Dad off, I was with him, driving up to Piney Pass on the straight two-lane, not the curvy back road he usually takes. There are rock ledges and trees on both sides, so you see the sky as a blue V above the crest of the ridge, where the road tops out. It looks like you could launch from there and drive into the clouds.

For a change, Dad and I weren’t arguing, just listening to the Grateful Dead on the CD player and commenting on the music. I was explaining some guitar moves I call stoned riffs. He had his head back, laughing, when a dog darted into the road. Dad stomped on the brakes and swerved but the dog thudded against the bumper. When I opened my eyes, Dad was gripping the steering wheel, staring out the window, and we were stopped off the edge of the road. He exhaled and opened the door.

The pup was into the weeds. The poor thing was shattered; spine twisted all wrong, not going to live but not yet dead. It tipped its head toward us and looked as though it thought it had done something wrong, that I'm sorry dog expression. Dad said, “Shit, it's Walter’s Emmy.”

She was a little boarder collie mix. I was stunned, shattered in my mind, and just stood there.
Dad said, "Sometimes I wish I carried a gun."

He went to the truck and got a hunting knife he kept under the seat. He knelt by the dog, stroked her forehead between her eyes where dogs like to be rubbed, and said, “Good girl, Emmy, good girl. I’m sorry, girl.” Then he held her muzzle closed and slit her throat, like he'd kill a Sunday chicken, and that good dog's life bled out in a red stream into the weeds. Dad pulled her body deep into the grass, out of sight of the road, and arranged her and so she looked normal and comfortable. Crows had already gathered in the trees, waiting for us to leave. Dad kicked at the dirt and said, “We could try to cover her, but they'll just uncover her. We have to tell Walter.”

I hadn't said a word. I just watched what he did. I admired how clear Dad was, how he handled it. Then, once it was over, he sat down in the grass, covered his face with his hands, and began to sob, brutal and constrained. I didn't know what to do so I sat down by him. When he stopped he said, his face turned away, “Nothing I have ever done has come out the way I intended.”

It didn’t seem right to try to reassure him. I didn’t understand what he was accusing himself of. I could guess some of his regrets, but I had never thought about his intentions. I only thought about him in relation to myself, as if I was still a little child.

We drove to Walter's, but he was away. Dad wrote a note in carpenter's pencil on a paper bag and masking-taped it to the door. He wrote that Emmy’s body was half way up Piney Hill and he was sorry.

When we got to my place, I offered Dad a beer. We drank two each sitting in the yard and then he went home.

Two days later I signed myself back into the methadone program I'd dropped out of. They gave me the counselor I have now and he's a decent guy, really. I've given up the fire in my heart and the world that blooms into flame or flowers to search for something more quotidian and steady.
My counselor describes it as the thing that sustains ordinary people and that, at its best, runs like a deep, cold river rich with trout.

But I've wandered again. From the eighth step, I mean. I seem to have difficulty sticking to the point. I am supposed to be recalling the harm I've done, become willing to make amends, and stop doing the things that caused the harm in the first place. I guess I'd better start over.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"when i was still young, and when you still weren't, and our father was already dead" by xTx

I got the fallout, like how a movie theater floor receives lost popcorn. Every chance you had; a kick to the thigh, slap to the head; kid shit. Brother shit. At the corner store I’d want a pack of Bubble Yum and you’d want a Marathon Bar. Dad would never give you more money than what was needed and even though you had the newspaper job and a real wallet for the money you made, somehow wanting some fucking Bubble Yum turned into an ordeal made easier for you by our unfair sizes. You’d twist the rectangle out of my hand; your hand a mutton chop choking my wrist.

At night I’d pray for God to make me catch up to you quick. The stories I’d swim in my head as I suffered through your snoring were of me bigger than you, twisting your wrists and making you put back your Marathon Bars.

At six, I didn’t really know who the real enemy was. But if I did, the stories would’ve been different - the prayers too. The adult me chokes on the I’m sorry’s I still haven’t said. But what do six year old boys know when all they can’t see past is the torment of an older brother; a shield.

The day we buried dad we were wearing black. The shoes hurt my feet but I didn’t say anything. Nobody was saying anything. You made me keep my hair fixed nice while yours hung long over your eyes. Dad would’ve been mad and called you a ‘little faggot’ again but you still wouldn’t have cut it, even if it might’ve made a difference, which it wouldn’t have. Even if you might’ve cared, but you didn’t.

After all the praying and talking were finished, people lined up to put a flower on the casket. We were last because I guess sons’ flowers should be on top, like it meant something. You lobbed your flower lazy and then tossed a handful of pocket change like you were feeding a beggar’s palm. The flowers scattered like scared ducks with the weight of the metal. A few fell to the ground and I wanted to cry right then, but I didn’t because I knew if dad were watching he’d call me a faggot too. Instead, I bent down to pick them up, adding to the one clenched tight in my fist. I saw your shoe kick the grass and then walk away.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"A Normal Birthday Party" by Nicholas Claro

Rick stood next to his wife in the living room looking out the open window. Their son William waited at the end of the block for the bus, adjusting and readjusting the straps of his backpack. After a time a few other children soon joined him. It was at the point in the morning where it could be mistaken for dusk. There were no clouds and the sky held a dark and drowsy shade of gray and for a time now sat resisting the dark blue that slowly crawled and was turning light blue in the east, which was tinted blood red at the very edge from light of the morning sun not yet quite raised. Some stars clung and blinked insipidly on the opposing slope of the firmament.

“All I’m saying is that I’m concerned,” Joanna said. “Look what happened to Reeve, Louis the fourth, Oleg the Prophet.”

“You can’t count Oleg; it was the snake in the skull that did him in.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Don’t you think he’s a little young?”

“I was his age when I first rode,” Rick said.

“You also grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. All you had were horses,” said Joanna. “I don’t see why we can’t throw him a normal birthday party at an arcade or something.”

The bus rounded the corner of the block. It rumbled and stridently came to a halt. The doors split open with a hiss and the schoolchildren began filing in. William turned and waved and Rick and Joanna waved back and the boy boarded the bus.

“Thought we could do something a little different,” Rick said. “Something he and his friends could brag about at school.”

Joanna pulled her robe tight and shook her head and looked down at her feet. “Where would this even take place?”

“Up at Plug’s place in New River. He has a few mares and acres and acres of land.”

“He’s okay with this?”

“Yes. I talked to him about it last week. We owe him a visit anyhow.”

“I just really don’t know.”

“About Plug or the horses?”

They stood looking at one another.

“You know as much as I do I enjoy Plug’s company.”

“It’s not like they’re not broken. He keeps them fresh. He can still ride.”

“I just think it’s dangerous is all.”

“I rode for years and nothing bad ever happened to me,” said Rick. “And you should’ve seen William’s face when I brought up the prospect of horseback riding.”

“You should’ve discussed it with me first. I’ll be the bad guy.”

“It’s not for another week and a half.”

“What’s your point?”

“I’m just saying give it some thought. You don’t have to make your mind up this instant.”

Rick turned the car onto the 202 and merged on the 101 and when he exited onto the 17 he put the cruise control on. Joanna read one of those celebrity magazines in the passenger seat with her bare feet propped on the dash. Two boys aside from their own were in the backseat talking and telling jokes and laughing. Rick put his hand to the vent and let the cool air blow over his palm.

“Is that better,” Rick said.

The boys nodded.

It was early afternoon when they arrived to New River. Gravel rattled beneath the tires when the concrete quit and the car kicked up clouds of rich yellow dust. The surrounding hillsides were pale brown and scattered with rocks streaked with red. Saguaros and Mexican broom and other thistly flora were spread across the desert floor. They passed several small adobe houses all bearing the same shade of beige with slightly different tones of brown accents beneath windows or on doorways. Their ceramic tile roofing looking like thick red scales pulled from some massive sea-beast. A low adobe wall of deep red encased one house. Fire barrel and acacia planted and spaced evenly all alongside of it. Some decorative painted clay pots sat upon stacked rocks.

“I forget how beautiful it is out here,” Joanna said.

“Why’d we never take a look at a place in this area?”

Joanna put the magazine in her lap. She turned to Rick and tilted her head and pulled her sunglasses down to the middle of her nose where they balanced delicately on the bridge. “Would you really want to commute all the way to work?”

“No. I suppose not.”

Plug was sitting in a lawn-chair just outside of the front door when Rick pulled into the drive. Plug smoked a rolled cigarette and wore a brown shirt with pearl snaps and blue jeans tucked into beige boots made of ostrich. He nodded and raised the hand with the cigarette fixed between two fingers. A small ribbon of smoke drifted off the blackened end and curled as it took the wind.

“Good to see you, Plug,” said Rick.

Plug rose slowly from the chair and took Rick’s hand and smiled. His entire face seemed to wrinkle all at once. He turned to Joanna and nodded: “Mrs. Sibley.”

They hugged.

“Boys. Say hello. William, you remember Plug, right?”

The boys all said hi. William said that he sure did.

“Thanks again for doing this,” Rick said.

“Shoot. Could use the company,” Plug said. “Don’t often get too many visitors. When a man reaches my age there sure ain’t many folk who’re still around to drop on by.”

Plug flicked the cigarette on the ground. Rick watch as it bounced and the ember broke off and looked like any other rock in the sunlight once the smoke petered out. Plug opened the door and motioned for the visitors to come in. A faint pop in the distance echoed and faded like weak thunder.

“What was that?” Joanna said.

“Sounded like a gunshot ways off,” Plug said. “Kids shootin cans and such.”

The backyard consisted of three and a half acres of land encased by a large wooden fence that Plug and Rick had erected some years ago. In the foreground was the horse barn. A four-stall structure made of pine and oak and gates painted green and made of steel. Plug had taken an old foldout table and set it up on the back porch and covered it with a white tablecloth held down by a wire sculpture centerpiece of a rider with a lasso in hand. There was a large bowl filled with tortilla chips and several glass bowls not yet filled with different color salsas that Plug had made. The salsas were in mason jars next to each bowl waiting to be opened. Little metal chairs with strapped-down cushions stood tucked into the table. A cooler sat pushed against the wall filled with ice and Coke cans and beer. They ate chicken and brown rice with potato salad off red faience plates. Both Plug and Rick sipped beer from cans between bites while Joanna and the boys drank Coke over ice in glasses. The presents sat opposite the table in front of a sliding-glass door that led to the living room. The temperature had steadily risen since morning and plateaued just shy of ninety degrees in the shade. Joanna remarked how quiet it was out here. No car horns or sirens or the perpetual the din of city streets. There was little else than the slight percussion of silverware on the plates between quips of dialogue.

“Never was one for big cities,” Plug said. “Like to be able to look up at the sky at night and see stars, if you take my meaning.”

When everyone finished eating Rick collected the plates and silverware and brought them into the kitchen and set them on the counter and filled the sink up. He forked the remaining tidbits of food into the trashcan and put the plates and cutlery into the soapy water. When he came back outside the presents were on the table and Plug was standing off a ways smoking and squinting in the sunlight.

“Want to go ahead and open these up kiddo?” said Joanna.

Rick watched as his son looked over the cluster of gifts and then turned and looked out over the yard. The horses stood idly in their stalls and one whinnied loudly and swung its head and William looked back at Rick.

“Presents will still be here,” Rick said. “If you’d rather ride now.”

Several minutes later Plug came back walking and guiding a horse by the reigns. The horse was tawny in color with a mane as black as spent coals. A red saddle was strapped upon the animal. A thick white stripe ran from between its eyes down to the nostrils. White ran from just below the joint and down to the hooves on the hind legs. William stood looking at the animal as though looking at something he’d only heard or read about but never truly knew whether it existed or not until this very moment.

Plug hoisted William onto the saddle and told him to hold the horn. William’s feet didn’t quite reach the stirrups. Plug handed the reigns to Rick.

“I thought this would be more difficult,” said Joanna.

“It’s like taking a dog out. I lead, it follows.”

Rick walked along the edge of the yard in the heat near the fence with a firm grip on the reigns and everyone surrounded the animal as if exalting a war hero returning home. When they reached the end of the yard they turned around and started walking back. Some thirty yards off across the fence walking along the plain were two boys. By their clothing Plug recognized them to be the Hollis brothers of the next house over about a mile and a half. They walked and smoked a cigarette that they passed between one another. One of the brothers carried a rifle by its strap on a shoulder. Rick and the rest continued walking on and one of the birthday goers asked William when it was going to be his turn and William said in a minute, that he wanted to ride just a little bit longer. Rick handed the reigns over to Joanna for a moment to roll up the sleeves of his shirt to the elbow. When she handed them back she looked well of it out of her hands. Rick ran the backside of his forearm across his head. Plug walked a little behind and pulled out the pouch of tobacco from his shirt pocket. A slight breeze started up and rustled the bushes and failed to bring any relief from the heat. Rick brought the horse to a halt.

“Everything okay?” Joanna said.

“Yeah, just give them a second.”

“Who, the boys?”

Rick pointed. “No.” A little ways in front of them stood two young javelina nibbling on prickly pear.

“That’s odd. Don’t see them much during the day,” Plug said. “Especially when it’s this hot out.”

“They won’t come at us will it?” said Joanna.

“No, they don’t see too good,” Plug said. “Just listen to Rick and hunker down a bit.”

The two javelina leisurely walked in circles and sniffed and nipped at other plants as if they didn’t notice the group and the horse and they probably didn’t. They kept this up for another minute before scuttling off beneath the fence. Rick resumed walking, but at a slower pace at Joanna’s request after Plug cracked a joke about rattlesnakes and scorpions.

“How are you doing up there bud?” Rick said.

“Good. This is fun.”


“Does this make me a cowboy, daddy?”

“You feel like one?”

“A little bit. Yeah.”

“Then I suppose it does.”

Rick spat on the ground and turned to Plug and said a cold beer sounded good right about now. Plug lit the cigarette and said he agreed. The hooves of the horse hit the ground rhythmically and clattered against the rocks as it walked. Joanna walked next to the horse with a hand on the cuff of her son’s jeans. Looking back Rick saw the two boys fixed on the legs of the animal as they watched each footfall attentively and scurried closely behind it, half-bent and sideways like crabs.

Rick heard a faint holler and looked over the fence and saw one of the Hollis brothers jumping about and shouting loudly while the other brother slung the rifle around and jammed the butt into the pit of his shoulder and took aim. A shot rang out and cracked and echoed and died off. The horse nickered loudly and beat its hooves against the earth.

“Whoa. Easy, easy,” said Rick. “Hold on tight, buddy. Okay?”

“Okay,” said William.

“Please,” Joanna looked at Rick wide in the eyes. “Just get him down.”

“It’s fine. The horse just got a little spooked.”

Meanwhile, Plug had walked over and up to the fence and placed both hands on it. “Goddammit. You boys knock that racket off. You’re old enough to know better not to be shootin so close.”

The Hollis brothers kept looking down. Kept running. Then Rick saw the tan and black and grey peppered hide of the javelina come out from behind bushes. Plug yelled once more and waved his arms above his head and the brothers continued running and the one had lifted the rifle and chambered another round. The boy slowed his steps for an instance while taking aim and again fired. Then two more shots quickly followed. Blam blam. The sound cracked loudly like dried wood giving under some tremendous weight. Rick felt the reigns tightened and he turned and saw the bottom-side of the two front hooves held high in the air. The animal’s eyes were wide and black and searching. He yanked down on the reigns and the horse came down heavily on its front legs. The force threw William a little forward on the saddle, but still he held onto the horn tightly. He was crying loudly and looked wildly in all directions. Rick tugged on the reigns and brought the animals face close to his and ran a hand down between its eyes and talked quietly to it. Rick pulled William down from the saddle and the boy wrapped himself tightly around his father and continued to cry onto his shoulder. Over William’s shoulder Rick saw Joanna crying and leaning over the body of one of the birthday goers, repeating I don’t know what to do I don’t know what to do. He put William down and told him to stay put and rushed over. The child lay on his back on the hot earth with his eyes closed and his arms splayed out above him. He looked relatively unharmed except for a little cut just above his left eye. It had started to bruise some around it. The other friend stood a little ways off, looking as though not knowing what to do or how to act and did nothing but stand still and silent. Rick knelt down and put an ear to the child’s lips and then pulled away and put two fingers on the throat and after he removed them stood up.

“Plug, mind getting back to the house and calling an ambulance.” Rick said.

Plug had walked up from the fence and stood close to Rick. Rick heard the old man exhale loudly and in the corner of his vision saw Plug shaking his head slowly. Joanna had walked over to and collected the other child and brought him over to William where she now crouched and spoke calmly and collectively to each child.

“It ain’t gonna do much, is it,” Plug whispered into Rick’s ear.

“No. It won’t do a bit of good. But it’s the only thing any of us can do now.”

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Sweet Heart" by Christina Murphy

It wasn’t that he was angry—just, as he liked to say, unfulfilled. Anger did not give him the permission he needed to be unkind to her, but unfulfilled vaulted him into a new category. Unfulfilled, he was misunderstood, and someone must be to blame for that. Not that she was, by any means. But no one could convince him of that. Whenever he was unhappy, it was always because his life had taken the wrong turn in marrying her. None of it was his fault even though he had left a marriage and a child behind, and obviously the decision was his. No, that did not matter. What mattered was she was not living up to his expectations and, after all he had sacrificed in leaving his wife to come to her, didn’t she owe him?

We all had known her for a long time. She was a very sweet and very honest woman who largely thought in practical terms—except, of course, when it came to love. Then she was like the rest of us, trying to cope and do the best you can while your heart speaks a language you don’t understand. She was taken with him. None of us saw in him what she did. We all thought he was self-centered and that nothing was more important to him than getting his way. His way was wrapped up with that she should be making him happy. Never mind that he was seldom happy for long. And never mind that he was hugely critical of her and unkind, embarrassing her in front of friends with his criticisms and complaints and his sense that if she would just obey, everything would be all right. None of us could imagine how long-suffering she could be until we saw her in action. She took it upon herself to protect him from revealing his true pettiness and worked hard to have others see him as the public self he had created for himself—kind, understanding, supportive. It was all an act, on both their parts, but hardly anyone ever saw through the pretenses.

So, was it a surprise that he left her for another woman who thought he was a saint and later learned how angry he could be at life and at her? Yes, it was a surprise. It caught her off guard and destroyed what was left of her faith in herself and in relationships. Not that she ever let us know. She had control of her emotions, and none of us would have known what she was going through. Except the one night she went by the house of her former husband and his new wife and stood across the street, watching. An hour or so later, she crossed the street and stood by the large elm tree in their front yard. She had a note that she thumb-tacked into the tree: Hearts do break, it said. Someday you both will know.

On the walk back, she cried. It was perhaps the first time ever that she cried in front of others. And there was an ice cream parlor across the street that she had passed many times. Behind the counter was Miss Doris, content to scoop out the various vanilla, chocolate, peppermint, and butter pecan flavors that people longed for. Miss Doris was smiling as each child’s face lit up with joy and small pink tongues lapped up the sweetness.

She was tempted to go inside and be a child again with a large cone of sugary ice cream, and she would have done it had she been able to stop her tears. But something about watching Miss Doris made her sadder. There was not enough ice cream in the world to satisfy the hunger of the children and adults lined up for scoops of marshmallow heaven or strawberry morning. Even if Miss Doris added sprinkles and candy chips, peanuts or gummy bears, there just wasn’t enough. More and more would be needed, and soon Miss Doris would have scooped out all the huge ice cream tubs she had, and, one by one, the people would all abandon her—moving down the street to the next ice cream parlor and the next server who would attempt to make all their longings fulfilled.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Denial In The Backroom" by Campbell Kennedy

I never stopped having the images appear, even after drinking myself into unconsciousness.

It happened again, earlier today. I was walking towards Flatbush through the Fulton Mall, bobbing and weaving thru the crowd, G Unit blasting out of Max's discount Shoe Store. Max's was where Jerome and I got a pair of Pumas ten years ago.

I was looking in the window almost in a daze. How could I not be? The sun was beating down on my neck, my tongue was like sandpaper. I could feel the coolness of the hosed down sidewalk thru the gap in my sneaker under my big toe.

I needed new sneakers.

I looked in the window and I saw him staring at me.

Jaw hanging down.

Hands like brown purple tree trunks raising up to me.

His blood coated white gold teeth sparkling at me. The exclamation point of the gash that ran down his caved in eye. Just like the last time I saw him in good lighting. Ever taste your own heart? That’s what happened to me in that moment.

I turn around and run smack in to an old Rasta. He carries the scent of myrrh with him. Our eyes lock and I barely register the words "Peace Ras" flow from his tongue before he enters Max's. Then it’s just me, G-Unit, Max’s display window, the wet sidewalk, glaring sun and a few hundred black and brown living souls.

No blood.

No stumps

No peace.

I didn't buy the shoes.

* * *

I'm not paranoid.

I don’t believe in ghosts.

What I saw was just the result of a lot of the shit that happened last week. The party, the fight. I now know where they got the "bullet time" effect in the Matrix from. I saw it when the hand holding the shovel came down and smashed in to Jerome’s face. Everything slowed down. I understood exactly what was happening, from every angle. And there was nothing else that I could do.

He was a big motherfucker.

Always was. And I guess that’s one of the reasons we became friends a dozen or so years ago. Him the bulky former elementary school bully and me the quiet unassuming mixtape enthusiast. I was playing a 60 minute TDK dub of a bunch of Tribe Called Quest remixes with some James Brown and Parlament Funkadelic thrown in. He stopped in front of my stoop and I thought he was going to kick my ass. Instead he said, "That’s the dope shit right there yo." and smiled.

In high school he got sent upstate for possession. I didn't see him again until maybe six months ago. He was still a big motherfucker. Although I had gotten my growth spurt and filled out a bit. Working out and boxing. I was never good in the ring and after being pummeled on the mat for a year I quit.
It was my Ife, my sister’s fault, I did it for her.

She was best friends with the coach’s daughter and talked me in to getting smacked around for a few months. But I loved the training, the focus. My coach said my form and technique was good, but "You can never think of the other guy as a piece of meat that needs to be taken down. You have too much heart."

He might as well have cut off my balls and dangled them in front of my face.

So then one day Jerome shows up again in Clinton Hill, three blocks from my home. He stepped out of a Chinese take out shop on Myrtle and hollered at me from across the street. I thought I could ignore him, but he crossed over to me and gave me a pound on the shoulder. He smiled, that white gold tooth sparkling at me. He didn’t say much as to where he had been, just that his parole had ended. He hinted that if I had any friends looking to score to give him a call. Apparently he had made some friends in his time upstate.

He put his hand on my shoulder as we walked side by side and I felt a chill running down my spine. He mentioned something about wanting to hang out, like old times.

I tried to avoid him for the next few weeks, but it was useless. Even more so once my Ife told him about her birthday party. Her man was in Iraq for the third time. So rather than waiting it out alone she decided to pack up her SUV and move in to the middle room of my railroad until Damon rotated back stateside.

She mentioned Jerome while I was down in the garden. In exchange for a cut on the rent I worked a few hours a week in my landlady’s backyard. It wasn’t much, a ten by ten square tacked on to the corner brownstone but with a few flowers and herbs it was coming along nicely. I had started getting ambitions and was digging a trench for a line of bamboo to add some privacy. Of course the half blind landlady took credit when showing it off to her church hat friends. But I didn’t care.

I did the work.

It was mine.

But I digress. My sister stuck her head out of the back window, my bedroom window.and yelled down at me as I dug out the trough for the bamboo. I hated it when she was in my room, but I smiled up at her anyway. She said she was talking to Jerome the night before and invited him over to her birthday party, no sorry her birthday soiree as she called it, and asked if he was seeing anyone.

I cursed under my breath.

Knocking the dirt off of my hands I stood up and smiled my best plastic smile and felt the dirt seeping in to the hole in my shoe. I yelled back up at her that I didn’t know but he has a soft spot for Old English. He hated Old E, said it tasted like day old warm piss, but I wasn’t about to let her off easy.

That was six days ago and I’ve lost count of how much Old E I’ve had since. Ife was a drinker. She kept the once dry kitchen well stocked. I wasn’t a fan of alcohol but she got me into it again. I think I drank more in the 2 months since she moved in than in my year at college.


And look at me now. I’m drinking chai liquor out of the bottle. The last leftover from the soiree. The cups and glasses and ice trays from the party still littering the living room and kitchen. I’m tired. And there is a smell coming from the back room that I can’t place. But I don’t want to look for the source now. My shoes are by the door, dirty and broken with holes in the soles. I should have brought new ones.


By the time I got home on Ife’s birthday there were already people in my apartment for the party. I could hear them from the other side of the door. There was music playing, a few girly laughs and manly boasts echoing in the hall. My key was in the lock when I felt the door creak slightly, some one leaning against the other side. And I heard a new voice, pretty but slightly slurred saying, “I didn’t know he was your brother. He’s kind of become the neighborhood weirdo.” Then another voice “I thought he was a crackhead for a while.”

Whatever, they didn’t know me. I began to turn the key but then another voice cut thru the scarred brown door. “Nawh crackheads have more personality.”

I froze.

I know that last voice.

That last voice knows me.

It was Ife’s.

I pulled my key from the lock and went downstairs. The weight of my feet causing the rickety steps to groan under me, becoming louder and louder with each step. I didn’t see Jerome walking up the stairs until I was pressed between his bulk and the stairwell wall. Trapped. I could smell him just like before. Drakar Noir mixed with sweat and something fried and that cheap laundry detergent on his oversized blue button down that makes my skin itch. I must have mumbled something about leaving Ife’s present at work as I squeezed by his hulking frame. I do remember him smiling this big toothy grin showing off his white gold tooth. Getting down those last few steps nearly killed me. But I managed to make it to the door with out breaking any of the land ladies antique vases that lined the foyer.

I hated him.

I didn’t know it at the time, but yes I hated him.

I breathed in the night air and went out in to the garden.

Working at night in the garden is great. The air is cool. Much fresher than my apartment now. You don’t get sweat in your eyes as easily in the dark. People used to look at me strangely when they passed me at midnight and see me with a spade or a pickaxe. They just didn’t see the logic of it. Well there isn’t much to see in to the garden now. Not since I put the bamboo in. Between the darkness and the fast growing green stalks you would have to be standing right on the edge of the property to see me at work.

It’s a good thing Ife is respecting my room while she has her party, no, soiree. I couldn’t hear much of the noise going on upstairs as I struck my shovel in to the dirt making room for the acidic topsoil and fertilizer. I don’t know how long I was working back there. Must have been a few hours. I had heard the front door slam open and shut maybe a dozen times as I dug out a trench, much larger than I should have. I guess I was just in to the work. Every shovel full of dirt muffled the words that came thru the door. I was covered in grime and sweat. I wasn’t thinking about the pain any more, or the scent or of that night where he called me a bitch. I was thinking about how I was going to have to fill in half of this hole in order to plant the rest of the bamboo.

That’s when I heard the first scream.

I looked up and saw my back room light on. For a second I was angry. Then I heard another, and another piercing scream. Something about that sound that finger print of pain made me know it was Ife’s voice.

Something was wrong.

I ran in to the house tripping up the brown sandstone stairs. I entered the foyer and gripped the shovel like a rifle before rushing up the creaking steps. I must have collided with one of the antique tables because I remember the sound of something crashing behind me and a dull pain radiating up my thigh. I fumbled with my keys and managed to throw back the deadbolt.
The front room was empty, bottles and plastic cups were everywhere. I could smell the mix of alcohol and weed seeping in to my skin, mixing with my sweat.

I moved in to the empty kitchen. More of the same, except for a shirt on the floor. Buttons ripped off, one of them found its way thru the hole in my shoe.

My hands were shaking. My eyes were burning. My lungs felt like a hot hand was trying to claw it’s way out of my chest.

I crept, shovel at the ready, in to my sisters bedroom and almost tripped over a pair of her pants. I caught myself on the tiny Ikea twin bed she picked up from Craigslist. There was light seeping under the door that connects her bedroom to mine. I leaned up against it and listened.

I heard the bed squeaking.

Her moans

His grunts

My heartbeat.

A dozen thoughts flashed through my head in those quick seconds, but it came down to just seven words.

He is raping Ife in my room.

Without another thought I rammed shovel’s handle under the doorknob. I can still hear the sound of the impact of metal slamming into wood. There was my sister under Jerome. Naked, on my bed. His back was arched and her eyes were closed.

That’s when I had the bullet time moment. Everything slowed down. Like I was moving in water. As if God put his finger on the pause button with just enough force to slur the tape.

Between the door bouncing off of the wall and my first steps in to the room Jerome turned in to a pile of meat with gold teeth.

I could see everything.

My sister opening her eyes, the corners of her mouth turned up showing off her dimples.

The condom wrapper laying next to the gun on my oak nightstand.

A fly buzzing against the ceiling

A hand swinging a shovel into Jerome’s head.

My hand.

I swung.

I treated his body like meat.

I must have pounded his face and back two or three times before I heard my sister screaming. She must have been choked up, full of fear, unable to call out while he was violating her until I busted in to the room.

It’s going to be ok, she’s going to join in, she is going to take her revenge.

Jerome was spread out on his back now. One hand covering his half smashed in face while the other gropes blindly for the gun. I ran to the other side of the bed and sent the shovel down edge first on his outstretched wrist, smashing it on to the oak. I hit it again and again.

Then I felt a weight on my back. My sisters tiny fists beating on me. God he must have done something awful to her to turn her against me like this. She’s screaming at me to stop. I push her back and look at her long enough to see her head crack against the footboard. She passed out from the trauma that he put her through.

The bastard.

Jerome moaned one more time. I had to punish him even more now. I dragged his other hand on to the nightstand, raised the shovel high over my head and swung. I heard the crunch, felt the table give way under the blow and felt the warm spray of blood graze my face, shirt, pants and shoes.

And then it was over.

The bullet time ended.

And I had blood on my shoes.

It couldn’t have lasted for more than a minute. The pile of meat that was Jerome McGill was soiling my bed.


I still have bloodstains from the meat on my shoes, along with the holes. I take another swig of the liquor. I must look quite the sight. Clothes still dirty from digging. Meat blood on my shoes. Bottle of chai liquor in one hand. Jerome’s gun in the other. Staring at the dark creamy liquid in the bottle. I haven’t cleaned the house since the party. I’ve had to keep myself busy or else... or else....God I see him again. In the glass. His face bending in to form, then my sisters face. Ife’s face looking at me in those blank shell shocked eyes. They swell up, growing larger and larger morphing in to one another until they are all I can see. I drop the bottle. Ife/Jerome images shrink then shatter. The dozen fragments of glass and pools of dark fluid all have there fused together faces on them.

That’s why I have to keep myself busy.


The window overlooking the garden was open. I guess that’s how I heard her screams. I dragged the big motherfucker to it then pushed him out. It was surprisingly difficult to do. He fell down the half story with a dull thud in to the soon to be fertilized soil.

It was just a matter of rolling his fat ass in to the trench I had built the night before. In the back of my head I wondered if he would be good for the bamboo or not. I’m guessing he would be pretty acidic if he was drinking a lot tonight. So I covered him up. I was done before dawn.

When I came back in to the room my Ife was still passed out on my bed. Her head was at a crooked angle. She needed to sleep. I made her comfortable. I can’t begin to think what she has been through. When she wakes up we’ll talk and figure out what to do.


That was four days ago. She is still asleep. And there is this smell comming from somewhere in the back of the apartment, like something died.

She hit the floor four days ago and hasn’t woken up. Damn him for pushing her, for knocking her down for raping her. I should have done more to him, to make him pay. Yes, make him pay for throwing her off my back.




My back.

Her fists were pounding on my back.

I killed her.

I need another drink.