The Threat

Opens in a small western town. There’s a flatness. A dryness about the place. We are everywhere and nowhere. Far away. He doesn’t fit in. He’s running, but from what? We won’t find out for awhile, but it might be fun if he looked like Larry Hagman from the Dallas years, but not dressed that way. He’s in a tracksuit and either jogging or buying a soda and candy bar from a convenience store. If buying, in the background are tabloids. Headlines. His face? It’s face-like. There’s a roundness? But not too much. Solid chin. [See: Hagman, Larry.]

Scratch all that. He’s in a new town similar to that Catholic town in Florida where media is regulated. This is the only place where he can start over—but still lives in fear of being noticed since these folks will be more judgmental, thus: irony. But still buying a soda and candy bar from a convenience store.

Time period is important. This is at an unspecified point in the future. Something has changed. The change is not overtly obvious, but there has been a change in how humans interact with each other, strangers are even stranger, the difference between a friend and a casual acquaintance is negligible. Intimacy is hard to come by. The worst fears of some have come true, but these aren’t fears of terrorism or global warming—the new fear, the new threat, is more subtle and presents itself in many forms.

This person who looks hauntingly like Larry Hagman walks across a desolate street into a church (candy bar and soda in hand). Then the church basement. Opens the doors. Another fellow stands in a circle of men and women sitting in folding chairs. Very AA. That’s what you think immediately. When seeing it.

He says: “Welcome to the Hypocrites Club. We’re kinda like the Witness Protection Program. Except no one wants to find us. And no one’s protecting us.”

Do people laugh? Try it out. Try one take with the assembled folks laughing, not hard but that measured knowing laugh, that laugh that is more fatigue than levity. Gallows. And one where he’s dead serious and they are silent.

(It would be good if there was the potential for redemption. Yes?)

Who are these people? They’ll cut across society, of course. It’s probably too heavy-handed to have one be a snake oil salesman. Like he sells it on the Internet, this oil, make from snakes, but of course not. Olive oil. Canola. Maybe just water?

Some ideas:
A family therapist who routinely had affairs with the couples he counseled.
A police officer with a publicist.
A gay conservative politician, estranged from family.
A black judge who says his blackness affects his life as much as his being 5’8”. But have him be taller/shorter so it’s not obviously Clarence Thomas.
A school teacher who helped her students cheat on standardized tests. She’ll be the sympathetic one the audience roots for.
A gun-toting poet/pacifist.
Don’t go too wacky, too reality TV-y.
Wait. Wait. Larry Hagman’s lookalike is really Larry Hagman. We see the news of his death (2012) in the tabloid headlines. Then we see him, Larry Hagman, in the flesh, looking at them. And, say, flipping one over so the back cover shows instead but what’s there? Larry Hagman, of course, his face even bigger.

Problem: Larry Hagman is dead. At least as far as we know. Also: if this is in the future, then why are the tabloids still covering Larry Hagman?

Whatever. Easy problem to fix. For now, Larry Hagman’s lookalike squeezes into the circle.

“What do they want us here for?” asks one; a guy who’s been in the frame and seething, like the camera has never landed on him square, but caught him in the corners with crossed arms and rocking a little. Bad news, this guy, who says, “What they want? I’ll tell you what they want. They want us to fall on our swords. Cry on camera. Go on TV and beg forgiveness. Write a book about it all. But I won’t do it. I won’t give them what they want. I’m done with that. I don’t care if they are right about me, I don’t care if I did everything they said I did and am who they say I am—that doesn’t mean I have to give them the pleasure of inflating their own damn egos. They’re the damn hypocrites. Just like me. Bastards. They called me a con artist. Let me tell you this, people who get conned get conned because that’s what they want. Well, it takes two to tango. They allowed it to happen. They needed me and wanted me. Then they needed to destroy me.”

Too much?

Where does redemption fit in?

Nah. Forget it. What about this.

We call it MEAT.

A war zone. A family. Starving.

Simple. Yes? No?

END

 

 

Stephen McNutt is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa, where he received his M.F.A. in Nonfiction and a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture. His work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and appeared in the Iowa Review, The Atticus Review, The Millions, Knee-Jerk, The Morning News, The Burnside Review, Annals of Iowa and on WSUIs (Iowa) Weekend Edition. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

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We Were Blind Drunk By Noon

We were blind drunk by noon. I woke up in my car when the sun was fading out. My grogginess fell away, replaced by mounting horror. We were in the parking lot of the LL Bean flagship store. I had no idea how we’d gotten to Freeport. It was three hours away from our houses. You were passed out in the backseat, your forehead pressed against a gallon jug of windshield washer fluid.

Your beard was scruffy and quite blond. I rubbed my own beard, enjoyed the dull scratch of it against my palm. I needed a drink. There were bars in this town but none of them were for us. We were no good. Freeport is a tourist town meant for people who wear boat shoes, capris, tasteful asymmetric haircuts. Not for us.

I shook you awake. You dry heaved over and over into whatever empty thing was close – a McDonald’s bag, a travel mug, an empty fifth of rum. I wiped the spittle off of your mouth with the sleeve of my sweatshirt.

It was dark by the time we got out of the car. You said you needed air. I was still shaky on my feet. There were several LL Bean stores arranged around a central courtyard. We went into the one with bedding. You wanted to climb on the display bed, like a child. But we couldn’t risk the cops discovering the empty bottles in the car, nor the other things that the light of a cop’s flashlight must never touch.

I looked at the cardboard cutouts of healthy men with square jaws. Their beards were lovely. I told you about a YouTube video I’d seen where they told you how to set your eyes so they looked better on camera. “It’s called squinching,” I explained. You nodded and told me how your face looks greasy in every photo. I told you it wasn’t true. You put one hand on the cardboard cutout.

You jerked away to look at us in the mirror. You were not a healthy man and neither was I. We had broken backs. We met on a lobster boat and then we broke our backs. On the sea there is no law so we snorted oxys together. You got them from your sister-in-law, initially. You hadn’t mentioned her in months and I was afraid to ask.

Lobstermen get off work at six in the morning and are blind drunk by noon. We continued the tradition, even though we can’t work anymore. There is a scar that runs down half your right thigh and I have never asked you why.

The shop girl was nervous. She muttered into her radio and a burly man appeared. He glared at us. I wanted to pull you away but you wouldn’t quit it. You unfolded every shirt in a display of polos. I was forced to promise that I’d buy you a beer. Still you wouldn’t go. “Rock Me Amadeus” played on the store PA. You told me that the guy who sang that got drunk, snorted a bunch of cocaine, and crashed into a bus. You laughed. My teeth chattered at the thought that we are the kind of men who laugh at that. The burly man was coming closer. I convinced you.

In the car you stuck your head between your knees and complained of vertigo. I wanted to tell you that we need each other. I wanted to place my hand on your shoulder and let you know that we’ll be together until one of us dies. Then I would tell you how that will never be long enough to qualify as “forever.”

But I couldn’t. We had to go. I sped towards somewhere we could be alone.

 

 

Meagan Masterman’s work has previously appeared in Unbroken Journal, Reality Hands, Specter Magazine, and more. She lives in Massachusetts and grew up in Maine. She haunts twitter with the handle @MeaganWords.

Dementia Journal

In the cooling light of morning, I swept the yeast from the corners of my eyes. I put on wheat, cooked the toast that is, spread the crisp with orange jelly. Spoons spilled out of the drawer. Although I had no plans for the morning or the afternoon, I didn’t want to pick them up and wash them one-by-one. I did, though. A task like that can gnaw at you if you don’t do it. I picked up her book after that and fell asleep.

Domes accrued. One arch was constructed above my head. A trowel could have dropped and knocked me further into sleep. Further, where the buildings were not only mine, but were built where I told them to be. Oh, why so many buildings? Don’t we need inhabitants to justify all these things?

When I woke, it was time for lunch, and I ate toast with tuna salad from the refrigerator. My tuna salad has capers, and this is caperless. The knives spilled out. More work.

But washing all the spoons and knives can be like sorting through old pictures if you look at it right. Memories. All the meals eaten. When you bring a spoon to mouth, of course, you don’t want to think of where it’s been before. But when you wash it, sometimes you can remember how it touched those you loved, and though you’ve washed their germs, there could be a touch of the talismanic. The energy of one you loved resting somewhere below, or maybe above, the disinfected skin.

It’s best not to think of the departed until sunset. Don’t mar the day with them.

The sun isn’t so different from a canister of cloves. Or no, that isn’t right. But both are homey when they’re in your home.

Blooms the day between lunch and dinner. Stretch and stretch of blinding light. It grows, the day, like a child mannequin turns into a mannequin.

One day in the ancient past, I went to a skating party. A girl in my second-grade class went to the new roller skating rink to celebrate her birthday.

At the party, I broke my finger.

Gravity is like an apple. It pulled things together. Sickness is also like an apple in that it also pulls things together. It pulls skin into bone, eyes down, hair off, and it pulls people to the sick to tend to them. God, I hate being tended to.

 

 

Ivy Grimes has work in Salt Hill, Weave, PANK, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Barn Owl Review, and elsewhere. You can read more of her published work at www.ivyivyivyivy.com.

One Less Lonely Girl

Everyone knew about Max’s obsession with Justin Bieber, so they didn’t want to hang out with him. They felt they were given no choice. When a boy you’ve gone to school with for most of your short lives turns from normal into something—else, it’s hard to know how to treat him.

They could have handled the T-shirt be wore every single day (Justin with a bowl cut, crooning into a microphone, his name plastered in neon lights)—it was ugly, but it wasn’t necessarily crazy.

But then he began speaking only in lyrics from Justin’s songs: I don’t know about me but I know about you. Say there’s another and look right in my eyes. They’d say, “Hey Max,” and his nose would twitch, the energy around him would stir, and he’d say “you should go and love yourself” or “I’m missin’ more than just your body.”

Naturally, the girls felt violated—an early, immature form of it—and then, realizing he had no intention of actually doing anything, that he was actually too nervous, like a timid kitten batting at yarn, they grew defiant. They laughed at him. And the boys, eager to align with the girls (though they couldn’t explain why), made fun of him, parading by him, clutching their hair and their crotches, gagging on pretend microphones. They didn’t want to be mean to him, but they wanted the girls to laugh, and didn’t quite understand the difference.

The teacher, Ms. Jennifer, was distraught. She called her boyfriend every night on the way home from school. He lived two towns over and was often too busy to spend time with her. She told him about Max and the other children. “What should I do?” she said, adjusting the blue tooth piece in her ear, smoothing out her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “It’s getting bad. They’re so mean. And he’s so sad.”

“He sounds crazy to me,” the boyfriend said. There was coughing in the background.

“Are you sick?” Ms. Jennifer said. “Can I bring you some soup?”

“No, babe. I don’t want you to get it.”

Ms. Jennifer began to cry. Small tears welled up like troughs in her eyelids. She squeezed them out, careful to keep her eyes on the road. She lived not far from the school in a basement she rented for $812 a month, and occasionally the school children darted in and out of yards and trees like they were everywhere, all the time.

“I don’t mind,” she said, sucking in a deep breath. And then she said, “I’m going to have to send notes home to each of those kids’ mothers.”

Ms. Jennifer pulled up in front of the house. She was not allowed to park in the driveway because the owner kept his truck there, which he had not driven in 6 years. It had blue paneling on the sides and brown leaves, built up from autumn, were glazed over with ice.

“Which kids?”

“The ones who are making fun of him. They’re grabbing their crotches and making sexual noises and they don’t even know what they’re doing. It could maybe be harassment.”

“What do the noises sound like?” the boyfriend said.

“You know…” Ms. Jennifer’s voice tapered off. She did not get out of the car. She was thinking of Max. She was trying to remember what it was like to be eleven years old. What clothes she wore, the dreams she had.

“Try me,” the boyfriend said. His voice had gotten low, like velvet. She thought of one of their first dates, when he took her into the city to a jazz club that was under ground. It was dark, with low lights of purple and red, and she liked the smooth feel of the worn, velour seats. She’d never been to a place like that before. Her boyfriend ran his hands from the back of her neck down to the waistband of her skirt, and pressed inside, and she felt like her body was no longer hers, and the deep notes from the saxophone and strums of the piano thrummed her chest. She was scared, but she told herself that it was thrilling.

“Uhn, uhn, ai!” she said, softly at first, then growing in momentum. Her breath began to fog the window in a growing, perfect circle on the window. But then she remembered the boys, the mean ones, and Max, and the girls, and their stringy hair and already questioning eyes. And she stopped, but she did not want to.

 

 

Lisa Gordon’s fiction or essays have been published in Paper Darts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Rumpus, Eleven Eleven, Hypertext, Storychord, Sidereal, and others.

Aftermaths (Three Stories)

1
Today we made a bonfire. Your story in things, its cross-stitched lie, up in smoke. Face wily on every channel—you when you sneaked up, surprised me; you when you squealed and ran, said “Boo!”

2
It isn’t until Fifth Street that I realize he, too, is tailing someone. When I turn around a man’s eyes drop. Face a mask until he stops, squares his shoulders—and darts a look behind him, too.

3
Just kids: a wave of giggles over a name in Young America.
So why this queasy calm? These shallow breaths?
Why this jaw now set against legions—the damned human race going back?

 

 

Stephen Delaney writes short fiction, essays, and book reviews. His work has been published in, among other places, Crazyhorse, Euphony, Per Contra, matchbook, Gingerbread House, and The Believer online. He tweets on writing craft as @marginalwords.

Like Your Favorite Drums

As she approaches retirement, she thinks it is for the best that most of the people and memories from the days spent in the shimmering safety of their galaxy-jar-world have paled into far-off places. There are exceptions of course. Like images of them sitting on his veranda, with two mugs of coffee between their legs and how she wrestled with telling or not telling him that he sucked at songwriting and singing, but would definitely make it big as a drummer.

He was the one dancing his fingers on his beer-stained jeans to the rhythm of Seven Nation Army, by the White Stripes. She went up to him and whispered: love me like your favorite drums. He pretended he couldn’t hear her. She could tell he did, because his fingers lost the rhythm for a bit and later he offered a ride.

They drove through the mouth of the forest and listened to half of Jellyfish’s Split Milk album. She didn’t spare a single thought then on how the lake and the forest had outlived their ancestors and will outlive them. How they must be sensing one another, despite never touching.

In the morning, she threw a shirt on and he handed her a mug filled with coffee. They knelt on the veranda, observed a pair of ducks combing the bottom of the lake, butt-up. He played the conga for her and then shared some of his freshly written songs, even though she hadn’t asked.

She almost told him he was never going to make it in songwriting, but then he pressed his hand on hers and she drew fragility from his touch. And so she took in the calming smell of coffee, his questionable music, the quarreling ducks and the fog sifting into the lake.

 

 

Ana Prundaru is a Romanian-born translator, writer and visual artist. Her work appears in DIAGRAM, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Kyoto Journal and elsewhere. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

Aurora

We don’t remember the days before Aurora Borealis. How we’d scoured weather reports for months and left for Abisko only when conditions were perfect to see her. How some compared her light to biblical fables but we wanted to see for ourselves. How they told us she would appear in an inky, cloudless sky. How Aurora wasn’t really Aurora, but an amalgam of solar particles and gasses and magnetic fields.

We don’t remember the time. How the sun shone brightly at midnight and made clocks an inconvenience rather than a necessity. How we counted hours by the progression of ports on our journey around the Swedish coast. How we hiked with supplies on our backs through mountains and forests before we reached that point. How we went days without seeing a local. How it didn’t matter because neither of us spoke the language well and each person we encountered eventually threw up his hands in frustration. How we considered the act a rejection. How the rejection stung like paper cuts, hundreds of small paper cuts. How, after some time, we thought we’d found the perfect spot in the marshes and waited. How Aurora took four long days and nights to arrive. How we read about the ancients, who reasoned Aurora’s delay was punishment for digressions in a past life. How we dreamed of Aurora’s reflection in the sea. How we prayed. How we loved her before we met her.

We don’t remember the legends. How the ancients revered Aurora and named her mother of the sun. How they believed her fingers pink as roses painted the clouds. How she kidnapped Tithonus from his father and made him her lover. How she’d petitioned Jupiter to grant him eternal life but neglected to ask for eternal youth. How Tithonus, tortured by time, turned into a withered, gray cicada. How Aurora watched in horror from the sky. How she wept.

We don’t remember the stillness before Aurora came. How her light pierced the sky with no warning. How we jumped up and down in vain attempts to touch it. How Aurora drowned the moon and smothered the stars with shades of blue and green and pink. How we fell to our knees in reverence. How fragile we believed she was, how we feared even a sneeze was enough to make the light disappear. How we whispered to each other because we thought she couldn’t hear. How the cool air punched at our lungs. How we were so close to the Arctic Circle, we felt small as dots on a map at the edge of the world.

We don’t remember what happened to the film. How we’d left four canisters in a bin near the lip of the x-ray machine at the airport and can’t recall whose fault it was. How we argued. How we settled for photographs taken by others and illustrations we found in small gift stores. How they could never replace the pictures we’d taken. How we didn’t hold on to many things from that trip—not even a receipt, or a postcard. How neither of us felt it necessary was once the light was over.

 

 

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, 4’33” and elsewhere. She is a Callaloo Fellow, a Kimbilio Fellow, and the fiction editor at Apogee Journal.