the psychoaffective realm – kesi augustine

window

“The first thing which the native learns is to stay in his place, and not to go beyond certain limits. This is why the dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing; I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motorcars which never catch up with me.”

Now
Bedstuy, NYC, 2016

He lays alone in his cramped apartment. Tipsy cars are his soundscape. The yellow of a streetlight hits his dark skin like the promise of rainbows to come.

In bed, one of his legs dangles outside of his covers. The other cradles underneath. An army of sweat marches down his spine.

When he finally falls asleep, his face is a frown.

In Dream, he is walking down an alley. Blunt in mouth. Not knowing from where he came, or to where he goes, he walks.

Suddenly, he hears a familiar crescendo of footsteps behind him. The rattling of nuts and bolts.
He spins around on his heels, briefly seeing the world as a blur of pink and purple.

He stops.

The creature crouched in front of him is part flesh, part metal. Its boxy muscles are boulders. Black voids of eyes. Its chest heaves in and out with each calculated breath.

This creature is an old program, but a stubborn one. The newest creatures can morph into the subconscious. Embody the beliefs that roam in the shadows of the colonial subject. A model citizen at terrorizing Black people.

But this old technology still patrols Dream streets. For many, its physical ugliness cannot be stomached. It can catch and cradle them in their choking itches of fear. Suck the optimism from their hearts. Render them worthless.

“We meet again,” the creature howls, its voice a synthetic sound bite of virus. Its teeth, digital chips. The tone, a caustic, racist disgust. “Motherfucker.”
This time, man and creature draw their weapons. He manifests a sword. The creature, a laser gun. Something of a different dimension. The gun fades in and out of materiality.

It shoots.

In a split second, he makes himself jump. He wields his sword and brings it slashing through the fleshy part of the creature’s neck. Just as he has practiced. Night after night.

The creature drops dead.

He clutches his stomach, feeling warm blood spurt into his hands.

He laughs viciously like the thunders of a torrential downpour.

“There are maleficent spirits which intervene every time a step is taken in the wrong
direction, leopard-men, serpent-men, six-legged dogs, zombies—a whole series of tiny
animals or giants which create around the native a world of prohibitions, of barriers and
of inhibitions far more terrifying than the world of the settler.”

Then
Montgomery, Alabama, 1964

He lies restless in bed, both legs under the covers. Surrounded by an army of toys. A GI Joe. Cars. Even a teddy bear, still.

There are protests outside of his window.

“Mama,” he cries. Shaking. Still seeing the shadows of ghouls pressed against his eyelids. Still hearing their demonic squeals of joy. Still feeling the bony fingers pressed around his throat. The sensation of waking up with a choke.

She comes in.

“Again?” she asks. Weary.

“They’re everywhere,” he says. “I can feel them in my sheets.”

She places glass of water on his nightstand. To swallow the spirits. Then, a hand on his forehead. To soothe the imagination.

“Make it stop,” he cries. “Please, Mama. I’m scared.”

She sighs, seeing a white bubble of light surrounding his black body. Whispers a protective prayer. Feels his body for knots. Soothes the mysterious scratches.

She says, “It’s not real.”

“It feels real!”

She sits on the edge of his bed. Wipes the sweat from his brow.

“Stay centered, baby.”

Shouts seep into the room from between the drapes.

“Someday, you’ll know how to push those fears away,” she whispers. “You’ll learn how to fight back.”

“During the period of colonization, the native never stops achieving his freedom from
nine in the evening until six in the morning.”

Quotes are from from Franz Fanon’s “On Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

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Kesi is a writer and a teacher of literature and creative writing for teenagers and adults. Her writing has appeared in Winter Tangerine, USA TODAY, on the New York City Subway, and in collections like haiku narrativo and ancient futures. Kesi received her Ph.D. from NYU in 2018 and wrote her dissertation on Black writers who are working to correct the lack of diversity in children’s literature. She lives in Queens, New York. You can find her at kesiaugustine.com

Photo: Teddy Kelley

affection/affliction – andrea dreiling

x-ray_of_paratype_of_paedophryne_amauensis_(lsumz_95002)

She sat on the torn sofa and finally glued the last bone in place.  She would write on the black, cardstock backing with white gel pen when she labeled the different bones.  Just like in 5th grade, when her whole class received owl pellets, each containing a single mouse-skeleton to reassemble.  After everything she had been through over the last year, it felt good to pin down what was left of it and label it in clear, scientific terms.  Who knew, maybe as time passed, she would grow fond of the display.  Maybe she would hang it on her wall and imagine flesh for it.  She had a memory attached to each bone, a story to write for them…

 

Innominate

 

In a split second they become so obvious, the two things that I realize.  The first is that I’m pregnant, the second is that I don’t know how it happened.  I hook up with the same couple of people sporadically and I hadn’t been with anyone for a long time.  Through the bathroom window the sky bares its teeth at me. Loneliness calcifies.  I could tell someone else but I’m not sure I can pretend to be happy about it, or if I even have to.  I remind myself that my body is well equipped to handle this.  I thank my wide hips.  What if I never love it?  What if it’s not even mine?  When you try to find answers where there are none, the nature of the task drives you mad.  You know you will lose even before you know that you will never stop trying.  I become a caged animal.  I try to escape because I knew I can’t.     

 

 

Sternum 

 

I grew up Catholic and left the church without regret.  I imagine the people I knew as a teenager and what they would say if they knew me now.  I imagine the way they would touch the rose gold crosses hanging around their necks, as if to remind themselves that they are not like me. I would ask them, Couldn’t there be a second Mary Magdalene to usher in the second coming?  I would ask them, Do you think you can have an immaculate conception even if you’re not a virgin? Why not? Besides, those celibate preachers had us touching the lean skin between our breasts while we murmured the son during every mass.  What could they teach about a woman’s body?

 

Mandible

 

All food has become tinny and dry.  I struggle to take care of myself, I couldn’t feel less maternal.  I call my friend Atticus, the King of Last Night.  We get drunk together.  It is horrible and necessary.  I play the pinball machine at the back of the bar where my face becomes a distortion rolling on the surface of the silver marble.  I remember how my mother ate so much liver when Oli, my baby sister, was born.  So much liver, I can feel its grain between my teeth now.  I clench them to crush the sensation away and wake up in one of my nightmares.  The one where my teeth are crumbling with such violence that they are choking me, making it impossible to tell my mom, who’s on the phone, that my teeth are crumbling.  My teeth are crumbling, and it’s all blood and bone falling into the bathroom sink.  One of the fragments becomes lodged in the bar of soap.

 

 

Metacarpals

 

In my inertia I stay in my tiny apartment, forgetting that my future child will take up space.  If I could, I would scratch a new home for myself in the face of the Earth.  I would wear my fingers down, leaving all ten fingernails inside the tunnels I create, burrowing.  The overripe drip of the summer sun will go on without me.  The flowers, rooting far above my reach.  When the bathroom door is open, I can see every corner of my apartment from the couch in the living room.  In the winter, when the window’s always shut, the dust moves in accordance with my breath, my movements; I like it that way.  If I ever left, I would crawl to the center of the Earth, as far away from heaven as I could be.

 

Sacrum

 

The lonely pregnancy is an anchor dragging me to the bottom of the ocean.  In the silence every word is amplified, every interaction a raggedly inhaled breath.  I visit Anne, a friend from college.  She will have kids someday soon, it is written in her five-year plan.   I sit on her couch gingerly, worried that the leaden weight of my body could break it; like I could crash, tailbone first, into her cellar.  If I relax for even a second, I could come undone.

 

Metatarsals

 

When men stub their toes they howl like baby wolves.  They revert to childhood somehow, or pull their yelps from some layer of their ego that exists without expectations.  They forget that they have to be tough.  It makes me feel closer to them when I witness it.   I also have toes that are often stubbed, and I don’t howl, but I pinch up my face, and sit on the floor and take a moment to revel in self-pity.  If someone is in the room with me, I expect them to ask if I’m ok, even though we both know that a stubbed toe is both ok and not ok at the same time.  At any rate, there is no cure for a stubbed toe. But there is a remedy, which is to momentarily lose yourself in the pain, to howl, or pinch up your face, to sit on the ground and be asked if you’re ok. I stub my toe on Anne’s coffee table when I stand up from her couch, preparing to leave.  She does not ask if I’m ok this time, she is too worried about the other parts of me.  A toe is just a toe.

 

Vertebrae

 

I try to go to a yoga class for the first time in my life, a special one, just for pregnant women.  Compared to the other expecting mothers, I am made of ash.  I do not glow.  I follow along during meditation, trying to roll a ball of light up and down my spine.  It should float gently, a paper boat on a placid lake, but it does not work this way.  Instead, I feel my ball of light swirling violently down towards my abdomen.  My bulbous belly wants to capture the light and snuff it out.  The last of my hope drains through an umbilical cord, I leave the class quickly, before anyone can ask me when I’m due.

 

Ribs

 

Starla lives in a world populated by possibilities.  I don’t know where I met her, I pulled her from the twilight.  I’m endlessly thankful for her company.  Starla’s the only one I can stand to be around as I head into the seventh month of my pregnancy.  We smoke herbal cigarettes and contemplate the possibility that I am carrying a baby pterodactyl.  At times I could believe it, because whatever is in my womb seems intent on pressing against my ribcage, winging its way up into my chest cavity as though my belly is not enough for it.  I suspect that what I have to give will never be enough for it.

 

Skull

 

The contractions come on all at once, as though someone is wringing my guts out like a sponge.  Something is wrong and I know it right away. I call no one but a taxi.  At intake I give all the wrong answers. They just started? And they’re how close together?  It’s like the nurses want me to make sense of it for them.  Finally, I’m taken to a hospital room with horrible yellow wallpaper- the color hurts my eyes.  I feel everything, including something beating against my pelvic wall.  The small fists turn to claws and it is pulling apart my flesh- burrowing its way out.  My screams are disembodied and go unanswered by the nurses.  My distended belly button opens-a new eye.  Finally, some doctors rush in, but they freeze when I rip back my sheet and show them the hole in my stomach that is opening up.  Inside I’m just black, no blood.  Whatever is pushing out of me is doing so without the benefit any natural lubrication.  It’s dryness scrapes through every inch of my insides and I pass out- missing my pillow and banging the back of my head against the wall.

 

Humerus

 

I’m dragged from my sleep by a blood pressure cuff squeezing my upper arm.  The nurse that is taking my vitals will not acknowledge my consciousness.  Hey… I begin but she cuts me off, The doctor will be with you shortly.  An IV drip runs into my other arm, just above the elbow, I bend my arm to feel the catheter burrowed into my vein.  I realize now, that I should be cradling a baby, and for the first time I really want it.  I want to look into its filmy eyes and rest it’s clenched up fist against my chest.  Hey, I want to see my… The nurse whisks out of the room before I can finish my sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scapula

 

I arrive at my apartment with the bundle of dead matter that the doctor forced into my arms.  No one had an explanation to offer, the only thing they would tell me was that my health was stable, that I could go home.  I toss the prescription for Valium that the doctor gave me into the trash. The fear and anger and confusion is a rubber band stretched to breaking point between my shoulder blades. I can’t breathe or sit. I try to take a hot bath but I sink to the bottom like a petrified piece of wood. I finally unravel the blankets to look at the dusty heap inside: a ball of yarn made from human refuse, hair, teeth, nails and bones.  I sink my fingers into the repulsive mass and begin separating the bones from the hair.

 

Wishbone

 

As I complete the gruesome task, I find myself hoping that there is a wishbone amongst all the tiny bones and filaments.  I know that most creatures don’t have wishbones. It doesn’t matter now if the wishbone would have caused a deformity.  The child didn’t have a life to live, deformed or not.  If I found a wishbone, I would set it aside- the only bone that I would not glue onto the black, card stock backing.  I would grip both sides of the wishbone myself, so that my wish would come true no matter which way it broke.  I would wish for a baby, a soft, living one filled with the novelty of breathing. I would close my eyes and pull.

Appendix:

n

Andrea Dreiling is a writer and artist from Denver, CO.  She has been featured in literary magazines like Teeth Dreams, Birdy and Stain’d.  Follow her shenanigans on Instagram @dread._ofbunnycauldron. 

the washing machine sang – jane-rebecca cannarella

dollhouse

All of the appliances in Jen’s apartment sang. In her grown-up home with central air and functioning gadgets, she’d asked me to watch her mature cat — mature as in mellow, not aged – while she was away on a trip, like the ones actual adults take. “A mini getaway.”

It was the day after her departure. As the sun changed the sky into soapsuds of color, the washing machine glittered upon start, spin cycle, and finish. A jaunty sweet song like the plastic teeth of a Fisher Price record bleated at the end. Matt and I had been watching a TV show about magicians and were startled out of a static reverie. Matt ran a hand through his long dark hair and said the machine was probably singing the song of its father, which sounded very theatrical.

I’m going to put the songs of washing machine forefathers on a playlist, or at least put the task of making this playlist on my radar– just like how paying my loans is on my radar, and not taking every single emotion so seriously is on my radar, like how getting quarters to take my laundry to the laundromat on 43rd and Chestnut is always on my radar.

While the washing machine sang, I turned the sound up on the TV to drown out the lullaby. I ran my own hand through Matt’s dark hair.

My appliances don’t sing, but I don’t have any modern-ish appliances to begin with–not even a microwave. People always ask how I live without a microwave. I say something cavalier about using the oven, but really I just eat food that is cold or raw. I don’t care – I honestly don’t care – until sometimes I do, like when I’m staying at Jen’s and everything is merry and melodious. Even her microwave twinkled music as I made ready-to-eat chocolate mousse from a power packet I found in her cupboards along with her leftover milk – not even past its expiration date. I marveled at the microwave’s friendliness. My envy is not contained in small ways, it is the flow of the chocolate-y pudding under a silver skin that forms on top after staying out too long.

Throughout my stay, I drank all of the vodka in the freezer. The refrigerator beeped because I kept the door open too long, pouring from the bottle into my mouth, glugging like a fish. In the freezer, there was an ice cube tray she’d bought that didn’t just come with the place. I have never thought to do that. Buy an ice cube tray. Hers was rubber and blue, and the ice popped out easily, and I envied that too.

***

A day earlier, before she left, Jen had bought us cheesesteaks and cheese fries and we’d drank too much. Jen put away the leftovers but chucked the fries because “fries aren’t good reheated.” The next day, with her gone, I lay in her bed in my underwear watching reality TV on my phone. I ate the cheese fries with my snail fingers, having fished them out of the garbage. Matt said he couldn’t show up until later, so I waited. Sometimes I called, “pss-pss-pss” for her cat to come out and join me, but he never did. He never even made a sound.

The only things that make noise in Jen’s home are the robots.

***

Then later, Matt came over, and there was the music of the appliances. And we had pizza, and new fries, and magicians on TV, and really bad sex. We tried our best, but he wasn’t hard, but we attempted to do it anyway with limited success. And when it was all over, I apologized, and he left, and I took out the load of laundry from earlier and replaced it with the soiled sheets. I cleaned the apartment. The washing machine happily launched into a song to announce that the sheets were clean. I thought about Matt’s joke from earlier, about the washing machine’s father’s song and it made me angry. Where do we learn how to commit to pain? It’s pointless to kick a washing machine because it doesn’t get your hurt – it’s too busy making music to feel anything.

***

I wondered who has loved just like this before in Jen’s grownup space. With computers as companions and even a faucet that chimes – are all trysts here mechanical? Or do hers turn out better than mine? Does love look better when you’re an adult who has their shit together?

I pulled the sheets out: a blue piped one, a bird patterned one, the white pillow cases where, earlier, I’d found a long strand of Matt’s dark hair and felt like even that feathering touch made the entire pillow unclean. I assume Jen’s love is more meaningful, made under the watchful eyes of tender electronics. The bodies she invites into her home power down to melodies of automata, consecrated with the sweat of responsibility.

Then, since there was no machine for folding laundry, I became the robot. And since I was the robot, I felt like I should sing. I hummed while collapsing the bedding into pleats, while fitting fresh blue sheets onto the mattress. Jen would be home in a day and then I’d be back in my non-harmonious, appliance-less shithole of an apartment.

I never could find her fucking cat anywhere.

 

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Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is the editor of HOOT Review and  Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit.  She was a genre editor at Lunch Ticket, as well as a contributing writer at SSG music. In her spare time, she is a candy enthusiast and cat fan. 
She received her BA and M.Ed from Arcadia University, her MFA from Antioch University, and attended Goldsmiths: the University of London and Sarah Lawrence College. When not poorly playing the piano, she chronicles the many ways that she embarrasses herself at the website www.youlifeisnotsogreat.com. Her chapbook of flash/prose-poems, Tiny Thoughts for Tiny Feelings, was published by BA Press, 2002 in 2011 – which she concedes is confusing. 

holes – hillary leftwich

holes

They lay down on the bed, his head inside her chest. He thinks of how a heart is like an engine, if the oil runs out it will seize. He saw a broken engine at his mechanics once, right after their daughter Lily disappeared. See that? The mechanic said, pointing a socket wrench at the hole. If you don’t check your oil, that’s going to be your engine. That’s going to be his heart. Too many cigarettes, too much booze, and love tethered then clipped. She slips him inside of her, asks if he wants it faster. He answers in heavy breaths. When the shaking subsides, she doesn’t touch him. They fall asleep and wake to an Amber Alert on his phone, flashing like a neon sign. He shuts his eyes and dreams of a little girl stolen. The girl is in a car with a man speeding down a curling highway. The trees lean in on either side of the road, straining to see inside. The man tells the girl the engine sounds funny, and if she isn’t careful he’ll bust a hole right through her heart. He hands her a gallon of strawberry milk and she drowns herself in pink, erasing her face. The man whistles to the music on the radio as he drives, the trees in the rearview mirror folding like two dark wings.

When he wakes up, the dog outside is barking, the coffee machine is grumbling, and she’s gone, a hole on the side of the bed where her body used to be.

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Hillary Leftwich currently lives in Denver with her son in The Murder House, a registered historical landmark and notorious 1970’s flophouse. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and curates At the Inkwell Denver. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model. Currently, she freelances as an editor, writing workshop instructor, guest instructor for Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash Workshop, and writer. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in print and online in such journals as Entropy, The Missouri Review, The Review Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Occulum, and others. Her book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms/The Accomplices in October of 2019.  Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com and on Twitter @hillaryleftwich

Photo: Fancycrave

the poet who keeps a stripper pole in her bedroom – michael brockley

to the girl
I am drawn to your poems about women in barfly Nirvana. Your fascination with rattlesnake tattoos on the arms of PCP-stoked men. And your lifelong feud against nuns: Sister Eleanor of the Lash, in particular. I stand in awe of your courage when you challenge her Inquisition zeal. Barbed wire encircles your ankles. A primitive rose winks above your right breast. I have your initials branded on my wrist. When you blow your harp, the blues man Deaf Persimmon Fillmore rasps back. You installed a stripper pole in your bedroom for your lovers. Added a Hohner tat under the Chinese character for paradise across your back. And studied with the masters. In The Lives of the Diva Poets, I read you never wear jewelry anymore. Or perfume. Just biker jackets over tank tops and ripped designer jeans. When Sister Eleanor reappears on Mulholland Drive armed with her ruler and the vengeful God of Revelations, you taunt her into a duel. Her tuning pipe against your Fuego Azul. She doesn’t stand a chance. I met you in your Lucky Strike year over a bacon-and-eggs breakfast in a town renowned for labyrinths. You autographed a book with “last call” on the cover. When you play the harmonica during poetry tours, frat boys sit in the front row. You advise them to deep ink Betty Boop on their biceps. They want to hear you say fuck. I want to hear you recite the poem that tells what women want.

moon

Michael Brockley is a pseudo-retired school psychologist who still works in rural northeast Indiana schools. His poems have appeared in Clementine Unbound, Third Wednesday and 3Elements Review. Poems are forthcoming in The Blue Nib Magazine. In regards to social media, Brockley can be found on Facebook.

Photo: Naomi August

struck horse – ron burch

Struck Horse

Coal-black mare. Solitary in the darkened field, its crooked, broad teeth grasping green strands. Gray clouds heaped upon one another, a thunder inside, one strike, two strikes, the mare on its front knees, slow-motioning as it tilted on its side, thick muscles shaking as the large body smacked the wet earth, mouth open, singed, a thin drift of smoke rising from the trembling haunches, tongue out, eyes wide.

A lone farmer ran through the field toward it, yelling its name. His green hat flew off in the rushing wind that embraced him with arms of rain.

The farmer dropped knees-down, wrapping his long arms around the mare’s head, its eyes all white. Spittle dribbled out of its agonized mouth.

“Please,” he pleaded, “don’t die.”

The horse rested in his arms, breaths like unanswered questions. The eyes returned to their normal state, the eyes of the mare meeting the eyes of the farmer, firmer breaths as the farmer’s hands stroked the dark horse head, until the mare asked, “What the hell just happened?”

The farmer, astonished, stuttering, “You, you, you were struck by lightning.”

The horse, whose name was Mare, leaned back its large head, the nostrils flaring, “Did you just talk to me?’

The farmer, more astonished, “You talked to me first.”

“Holy fuck,” replied Mare. “I guess I did.”

Once the miraculous had been accepted by the farmer, his immediate thought was, naturally, commerce. With this in mind, the farmer approached the mare who declined his offer of public performance.

“I wouldn’t like that at all,” she said.

“It’s no different than the conversation we’re having now,” the farmer protested. “You just have it with other people.”

The mare neighed in response, saying, “Other people may not be as kind as the farmer.” The farmer laughed.

“Nonsense,” he said, “I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Using his phone, the farmer recorded a short video of he and the mare discussing the weather while standing in the farmer’s north pasture. The video lasted less than 30 seconds and the mare completed three complete sentences and expounded on what she believed tomorrow’s weather was going to be like – crappy again. The uploaded video went viral, making the major social media sites, with ongoing arguments from the viewing community as to whether it was really a talking horse or not.

To confirm, the farmer and the mare were invited to one of the national televised morning shows, followed the same day by visits to two late-night shows. One of the late-night shows had on what they were calling a “Talking Horse Expert,” some guy dressed like a country rube with a straw hat and a pitchfork, a joke until Mare unmasked the man as someone knowing nothing about contemporary farming. The actor dropped his pitchfork realizing that the horse was actually talking.

Mare’s fame exploded. Her likeness was put on coffee mugs, t-shirts, plates, and hundreds of other trinkets. Even her own calendar. Crowds greeted her at the events she attended whether it be the opening of the local county fair to television shows. She was even asked to do the play-by-play for the national horse-racing derby, which she turned down, citing that she believed that humans racing horses for money was wrong. The derby representative, a stern, pasty old man who was a local politician, complained to the farmer, who apologized but felt the same way.

She didn’t understand why she had to do a dog-food commercial. “I don’t even eat dog food,” she said. “Do you?”

The farmer shook his head and said that it was just for the money. Mare complained that too many humans only cared about money. The guy holding the boom said she didn’t know any better because she was only a stupid horse. Mare cantered over to the boom operator, backing him up against the wall and said that if it wasn’t for humans and their slaughter of innocent animals to feed their overweight, smelly bodies, that this world would be a much better place.

You could hear the hum of the background lights.

They finished the shoot but the atmosphere was tense. As the farmer led out the mare, she said to him, “I’m only telling the truth.”

The farmer nodded his head. “I know.”

Later, that night, someone leaked a shaky video of Mare’s comments from the commercial. The comments were excoriating, and the farmer didn’t see the need to tell the mare about it. This was bad press and perhaps, the farmer considered, that they had made enough money to live happily for a number of years.

In the living room of the farm house, where Mare was now living, he told her it’s time to retire.

“Thank god,” she replied and nuzzled his neck as she once did when she was much smaller.

They still had one more talk show to do and decided together that it would a great way to say goodbye. The farmer would say that the mare woke up silent again, and she would merely stand there while the camera pushed in on her face.

Minutes before she was to go on live television, the farmer couldn’t find her in her assigned dressing room. He asked a couple of the people backstage if they’d seen a horse but nothing. He heard a shot – he knew it was a shot – he was a hunter, he knew. He ran toward the direction and out an emergency exit. A white car pulled away. She was on the ground behind the building, crumpled across two parking spaces, her body broken on the cement dividers, her mouth bound with white rope, her blood, from a gunshot, pooled around her mane. He held her still head in his arms and even as the grief broke across him, he refused it, so it would feed him for a long time, never letting him forget.

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Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, New World Writing, PANK, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Photo: Erin Dolson

challenger – corwin moore

challenger

In eighth grade I became an addict. I was addicted to masturbating and porno. The addiction really wasn’t in that order, the porno came first, and jerking-off was the cherry on top. I got so good; I was able to jerk-off during my favorite television shows. One time, during an episode of Different Strokes, I beatted-off every commercial break. Before I was addicted to masturbating, I used to wonder if Arnold would get into trouble during the commercial breaks, but during my jerking-off era, I blocked everything out and got down to business.

I had control, Johnson magic, and loved my power. I didn’t need any sex material with me either. I had the ability to look at the porno days before and play back the flick in my mind.

In a porno I watched, there was one white guy that had a special move where he would count down his money shot. Like clockwork, when he got down to 3, 2, 1, 0; he would let the load loose. His move became my move. With this skill I became a master. I could blow loads anywhere at top speed, in my bedroom, in the bathroom, in the basement, even on the roof. I was a like a superhero in disguise, I had great power but I couldn’t tell anyone.

“Craig, you better not be playing with yourself. I ain’t raising no damn whore-mongers.”

“Whore-monger” was some church word my mother heard. The house of the lord told her that sex was bad and then she hit us with the craziness. She was the one with all the kids. She needed to hear the church madness more than me. My mother said the whore-mongering thing all the time but I wasn’t scared. She wasn’t going to get in between me and my superhero powers.

“I ain’t raising no ‘funny boys’! Them ‘boys’ are the only people that be playing with themselves.”

For a while I thought masturbation had something to do with being gay. If there ever was any person that confused me about sex, my mother was the one.

“When I catch your butt I’m going to beat the black off of you.” Then she would cut out my light and close my bedroom door. She said that every night before I went to sleep. I knew I was getting too big for a bedtime story but I didn’t want to hear threats of physical violence; I had so many nightmares of my mother beating me half to death because she caught me in the act, my mother whaling away, while I was whaling away. She worried me even more because she was talking about knocking me down a couple pegs on the color scale, “beat the black off of me,” I’m dark, so that would have been a lot of hitting; well, that was my thinking back in eighth grade.

Looking back, she had to know I was playing with myself. To tell the truth, I gave myself away sometimes. I was never caught in the act but damn I was jumpy. I would hop out of my skin when someone came into my bedroom, I would act like I drank ten cups of coffee. If I wasn’t watching TV, I was laying in bed, stiff as a board with the blanket lumpy in the middle of my body, right in the penis area. Oh, that poor blanket. I think about how many times I hid my hard-ons’ with that blanket. If that cover could talk, I think, “Get the pee-pee off of me,” would be the words. I would do this three o’clock in the afternoon sometimes. Ma had to figure that if I wasn’t jerking-off, or I was doing something I had no business doing. What kid is in the house, in the bed, before the streetlights came on? But I never got caught; I just looked guilty as all hell.

I had a crew. We formed a posse that was held together by porno.

The crew was the other three coolest dudes in my eighth grade homeroom class and me. We used the hottest slang and dared anyone to try to sound like us. We called each other “Duke, Troop, Money,” and put the word “Big” in front of our first names.

Each of us had a part to play in our porno posse. I was the brains of the operation; I thought up the schemes and stunts. In other words, I did most of the talking and didn’t do too much of anything else. Fritz was in charge of the dirty magazines. We didn’t know where he got them from but he had a private collection that was crazy. He had over a hundred and fifty magazines, and we tried to read them all too. He also looked old, real old. He always got looks when he walked with us down the street. “Why is that adult with those eighth graders?” He was damn near a hundred and sixty pounds and 5’l0 in the eighth grade. Whatever little money we got, we sent him to get the newest magazines.

We had a special spot. We went to this newsstand on the other side of the park, where white people lived, the spot was owned by some old Greek man. He was blind as a bat but a mean son of a bitch. He watched everything like a hawk but he couldn’t catch us. We had Fritz. The old fool was more concerned about blacks stealing than checking I.D. We would wait across the street for him. He was so professional and smooth about picking the dirty magazines. He skimmed through them all and took his time. Watching Big Fritz made me so jealous of size. I was four foot nothing then and seventy-pounds wet. I wanted to be big so bad.

Next was Ricardo, Big Rick to the crew. He spoke Spanish but was dark ‘like me’; well, that’s how I saw it when I was an eight-grader. People swore we were brothers, I didn’t mind when people said that we looked alike, Ricardo was cool. He was in charge of the actual porno tapes. He would get up late at night and record the porno that came on the adult channels, W.H.T, H.B.O. They were called soft porn. That’s where they cut up a real porno flick; they showed the tits, butt, and other private parts but not all at the same time. The soft porn got on our nerves, we were eighth graders, and we wanted all the smut. That was what we had mostly in our stash, soft porn. His family had a VCR and cable television. I used to think Ricardo’s family was so rich. They weren’t, they were on welfare like me but his father lived with them in secret. He worked off the books because he sneaked in the country from Panama. The mother got public assistance and took care of crazy people on the side. They were beating the system and had a little extra. Ricardo told me all this one-day at the pizza shop. It was crazy, two young kids talking about being on welfare, not girls or sports, but poverty.

Last was Maurice, Big Moe, the real leader of our crew. I had a better mouthpiece than him but he had more heart than all of us. Whatever thoughts we had in our heads, the dirty deeds were good as done by Maurice. Steal girls’ telephone numbers out of the attendance book, done. He even didn’t have a problem calling them up and talking dirty; no matter who answered the phone. He reminded me of my brother Malcolm but Maurice was a version of Malcolm that I could stand. He was fearless and didn’t doubt himself one bit. He was all the things I wasn’t. I was afraid to be free.

“You trying to tell me Troop that her cootie-cat is hairy then hers. You straight- bugging Money! You could cornrow her cootie-cat hair if you wanted to.”

“You not looking, this lady with the black hair got a lot more hair on her cootie-cat then any of these chicks, Duke.”

Fritz and Ricardo had the same argument everyday. Who had the biggest tits? Biggest butt and hairiest vaginas, the subject really didn’t matter; Fritz and Ricardo just banged heads when we started reading the dirty magazines. Fritz was usually right.

“I know about hairy cootie-cat.”

“Fritz, how you know about hairy cootie-cat, you got one, Money,” asked Ricardo.

“My mother and my sister got hairy ones.”

That was our lunch breaks at school, eating our food at top speed and then sneaking off to the bathroom and laughing at Fritz. All four of us cramming ourselves in a stall and looking at dirty magazines that Fritz would bring to school, hiding them in his science book.

I asked Fritz, “Why you looking at your moms like that. That momma-cootie-cat watching is crazy, Duke!”

“It’s just my sister, my moms and me in the house. They just be walking around the house in their underwear. I could see that they hairy through those cotton draws they be wearing. And let me tell you Troop, my moms is hairy scary.”

“Like Bush Gardens?” asked Maurice.

“My moms cootie-cat hair be like, ‘I feel like busting loose-busting loose,’ trying to jump out of my moms draws”

“And you just be looking, Troop?” asked Ricardo

“My whole house be late in the morning. My moms be rushing to work. My sister be rushing to school. They don’t even know I be in the house sometimes. They don’t know I be looking.”

Then I asked, “And that’s alright with you?”

“Hell yeah! So I know about hairy cootie-cat, Money.”

We all just shook our heads. He looked like he was telling the God’s honest truth about his mother’s vagina, but what he was saying, we knew, had to be a lie. I think that’s why he was so funny to us; he believed what was coming out his mouth more than anybody else. After laughing at Fritz, what usually happened was a whole bunch of ‘sex-with-ya-mothers’ jokes. ‘Snapping’ on one another closed out our dirty magazine reading.

“Yo bust it-yo bust it, I had sex-with-ya- mother Fritz and when I bust off on her head she tasted the bust-off and said, “I can’t believe it’s not butter.” I usually set the ‘sex-with-ya-mothers’ off.

“Yo I had sex-with-ya-mother Cee and I told her to go to the store to get me two heroes, the Bitch came back with Batman and Superman.”

“Rick’s moms, she put her pussy on her hip because she wanted to make some money on the side.”

The sex with each other’s mothers went on until the bell rang and time to go back to class. I loved spending time telling my best friends how much sex I had with their mothers. Snapping with them was so fun because they were. Where we came from, most kids would fight you if you talked about their mothers. Especially the venom we were spitting. We weren’t like most kids in the hood. We were a crew, friends.

Every once in a while we would get a half-a-day at school. This particular half-a-day was for the space shuttle Challenger. A black guy was going up to space with the NASA crew and our principal wanted to celebrate him, honor the brother’s accomplishment. The year was 1986, January, and Ronald E. McNair was his name. He came to speak to our entire school when I was in sixth grade, two years before that half-a-day. “Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them. You’re eagles! Stretch your wings and fly to the sky.” Every teacher at the school made us memorize Mr. McNair’s words. I heard my science instructor tell the gym teacher, “This is the thing these little animals need to hear, a guy like them, that’s doing something, telling them to work hard; for once. Their drug addict parents never will.” It was bad what he said about our parents, but what made what he said worse was he didn’t say ‘guy.’ The word sounded like that ‘word,’ the word us blacks say to each other with so much affection-that word that hurt so much flowing from white lips. He called us Niggers. They were white and cocky, they didn’t think I overheard, but I did. After that, I hated those two white teachers and I hated the space program.

This half-a-day I thought of a plan where we skipped the whole day all together and go somewhere and watch some porno. I kicked the idea to my boys and they loved everything I was laying down but we had one problem, ‘where?’ We couldn’t go to my house, my mother wasn’t working, and she was going to be home. Ricardo’s mom was home during the day because that’s where she took care of the crazy people. Fritz lived too damn far. Fritz was always late for school because he had to take two buses and a train to school, seemed like he lived in Queens or something like that.

That left Maurice, Big Moe, the wild child; Ricardo, Fritz and I knew he was our only shot at porno heaven but was afraid to ask. Maurice was crazy, we weren’t too sure about going to his house, alone. Maurice was the one that stole our homeroom teacher’s pocketbook. Her name was Mrs. Tate but we called her Mrs. Titty Tate. She was a black woman from the south and her breast looked like two duffel bags filled with bowling balls. Sometimes she wore these bras that pushed them up and pointed out. She looked like she had two missiles pinned to her chest. I came up with the name and every time I called her that behind her back, my boys died laughing, so I always made sure to say Mrs. Titty Tate at least twice a day. The joke never got old.

Maurice took her pocketbook one day, without her knowing. The lady was looking all over the school for her pocketbook, and we were in the third floor bathroom, ripping through the damn thing. Big Rick, Big Fritz and me were looking for the report cards and the permanent record book but Maurice was eating a bag of grapes she left in there. The grapes were next to Mrs. Titty Tate’s shoes. She always had two pairs of shoes. A pair she walked to school in and a pair she taught in. She had bad feet; she even told the class one day while she was changing them. “These bunions are on fire.” We all laughed and called her nasty. She had a deep southern accent, so she sounded like one of my mother’s relatives. Our classroom was wild like that, fights, funny routines by students, and Mrs. Titty Tate being ‘down-home’ and talking about her foot problems, we were a little school in the ghetto, nobody cared.

When Maurice started eating her grapes, which were next to the ‘Bunion Shoes’, we went crazy.

“What are you doing, Duke? Them grapes was in this smelly bag next to her fungi kicks!”

“I don’t care! I’m crazy!” If that’s what Maurice wanted us to think about him, well, that’s what we thought; one crazy eighth grader, one thing to steal your homeroom teacher’s pocketbook but a whole other thing to eat her grapes that were in her bag with her smelly shoes.

Another problem with going to Maurice’s house was, we didn’t know where he lived. Everyday after school we would play basketball and when we started to go home, Big Moe would make this mad dash around the corner. “Don’t try to follow me.” Maurice sounded like a bad guy in an action flick. The first couple of times we tried to chase him but he was quick. He could run all day; he loved when people chased him. After a while we just all agreed, “That boy is crazy.”

“Meet me in the school yard at 8:15, we going to my house y’all.” We didn’t even ask him, he just told us.

I guess he knew that he was our only and last chance. He had this crazy look in his eyes too. The three of us was nervous. We didn’t know what to expect. Maurice always had scratches and marks on his arms. That scared us. Maurice had us believing there was a wild beast in his house. I didn’t want whatever got him to get me.
Maurice met us right on time in the schoolyard. He was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” Soon as we saw the t-shirt we laughed. It was January and all he had under his coat was that t-shirt.

“Ain’t you cold Money?”

He didn’t answer me; Big Moe just started walking. We followed him up Franklin Ave. I thought he was taking us to that crazy block next to the Shuttle train. That was the block ma always told me not to walk down. There were abandoned buildings on that block. She told me that there were junkies that took kids off the street from those buildings. I didn’t want to be taken. I was hoping Big Moe didn’t live in one. I couldn’t enjoy my porno in an abandoned building with junkies all around. I looked over to Ricardo and he seemed like he was nervous too. I had asked him to bring his VCR. The machine was in his book bag, he just held on tight; he was scared that someone was going to rob him in Maurice’s crazy house. Getting the VCR out of his house wasn’t any big deal. His parents didn’t speak English, at all. They only knew America through their children’s eyes, so if he told them that ‘that’s what they did here’, they took his word.

We wanted to ask where we were going but as soon as we could think to ask the nut, he stopped in front of Tiffany Towers. The Tiffany Towers was probably the closet thing to Central Park West in the hood. The towers were like skyscrapers, the tallest in the borough. Tiffany Towers had a tiny city surrounding two tall buildings; well, that’s what I thought. They had a dry cleaners and grocery store in there. All this was closed in with giant concrete walls, to keep us out, the poor people; I guessed. We went into building A and there was a security guard. I never saw that before, someone to protect your building while you were gone.

“I don’t want to see you running in the garage today Mr. North.”

That was Maurice’s last name but I never heard his name like that, with mister in front.
“I be having all the security guards in Tiffany Towers chasing me.”

Fritz asked, “What you be doing, Troop?”

He just gave us a devilish grin and said, “I be doing stuff.” We didn’t ask any more than that because ‘I be doing stuff’ could have meant anything with Maurice.

His house was on the fourteenth floor. I never rode up an elevator that high before. “The elevator has a two person bench;” I never saw anything like that, taking a seat while you go up. Tiffany Towers was the richest place in the world to me. When we walked in his house the place had orange and black carpet everywhere. His house didn’t have carpet that was hard and made noise when you dragged your feet. They had soft carpet, like you were walking on a mattress.

The three of us walked in his house hesitantly, we were looking for the dog, the dog that scratched Maurice, giving him the bruises on his arms, the bruises that we saw everyday.

“Yo, you put that dog away, Money?” asked Fritz.

“No, it’s right behind you!”

As soon as Maurice yelled ‘you’, the three of us jumped out of our clothes. We turned around and nothing was there.

“Yo, you ain’t got no dog, Troop!”

“I never told you I did, dummy!” And Maurice was right when said that; he never did tell us he did. We just assumed.

There were framed pictures of Maurice everywhere, pictures at church, at school, when he was a baby. Maurice was the only child, so all the walls were dedicated to him. All the furniture was leather, no plastic, like the couch at my house. Big Moe’s couch was soft and brown.

“If y’all want something to eat, just go for yours, Money.”

I never heard that when I went to somebody’s house. They usually made you a plate or gave you something to drink. They didn’t want you to take all that they had, so they gave you how much they could afford to give.

“Where we watching this Duke?”

“In my room.”

“You got a TV in your room?”

“Yeah,” he said, ‘but of course’ was more how the words came off.

“Word! That’s where mines is in my house.” I was lying.

“Ricardo, why you got a VCR?” asked Maurice.

“To watch the tapes.” Ricardo replied.

“I got a VCR and better tapes, Money.”

I thought to myself, ‘luxury building, sweet elevator, and a badass crib. Who in the hell is Maurice North?’

We got to his room and his area was spotless. The bed was made up and every thing was put in perfect place. My mother would have loved Maurice.

“Wait here y’all.”

“Where you going, Troop?” I asked Maurice.

“To my moms and pops room.”When he went to his parent’s room Fritz, Ricardo and me just looked at each other. We didn’t say anything but if we did, ‘Damn’ would have been the word. Maurice came back to the room with a bottle of Absolute Vodka, some cigarettes and six VHS tapes.

“What’s on the tapes?” asked Ricardo.

“Porno, stupid!”

Fritz said, “In your moms and pops room?”

“Yeah, she don’t think I be knowing but I be knowing.”

We all laughed.

“Where they keep’em at?” I said to him.

“Under the bed, the vodka be out. Fritz go to the kitchen and get some cups.”

Then I asked, “Your pops gonna kill you if he find out.”

“He ain’t here, well, he don’t stay here. He ain’t stay with me and my moms in a long while. The crazy illness be, my moms still be acting like he here or like he coming back.”

I wanted to say how sometimes my mother did the same thing with my father but Fritz came back with the cups. And like that, we were smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka and watching porno owned by the mother of a wild child. My chest was burning from the vodka and my nose was stuffy from the smoke but I was having the greatest time of my life. Maurice’s mother had the hot stuff. She had movies with Black people in them. The Black women had big dark nipples; one lady’s nipples were so long, they looked like Tootsie Rolls. Every time a hairy, nappy, vagina hit the screen Fritz would yell out, “That’s how my moms and my sister be looking, Troop!” he really was funny that day. Taking puffs on Newports and watching hardcore money shots, that was our dream and we were living it.

After every movie we rewound each tape to exactly where Maurice’s mother left off. While rewinding, Fritz wanted to turn to cable TV, he wanted to see if “Back to the Future” was on H.B.O. Fritz and me didn’t have cable; our families couldn’t afford that luxury. So getting to watch cable television and porno was a double treat. He couldn’t find the movie. Something was wrong with Maurice’s channels. Every station had the same thing on.

“What wrong with your TV, Duke? Every channel got weather.”

Each station showed the sky with long white clouds but we didn’t care, we had porno to get to.

“How many movies we got left?” I said.

Maurice answered, “Two more Troop.”

He had his cigarette cocked to the right side of his mouth with his right eye closed, to avoid the smoke. He looked cool. Then he looked at me and gave that devilish Maurice grin. When he did that, I pushed him in the head. Not hard, just a slight push.

“You crazy, Money.”

What I really wanted to say was, “I love you Maurice, you’re my friend” but that would have been too much for us in eighth grade.

Ricardo grabbed his bookbag and said, “You heard that?”

Fritz turned the TV down and we all put up our antennas.

“Yo! That’s your front door, Money!”

“My moms came home early, damn!”

If any people in this world panicked, we were them. As soon as Maurice said “early” all four of us did a mad dash nowhere. All we did was run around in circles. Fritz and Ricardo ran right into each other they were so nervous. Ricardo bumped his forehead into Fritz’s chin. They fell right on their backs. I wanted to laugh but we had to hide. Maurice was running around looking for the cap for the vodka. I passed him the tapes, along with the cap that was under my foot. I helped Ricardo off the floor and Fritz got up on his own. As soon as Fritz got up, he stepped on Ricardo’s bookbag and fell again.

“My VCR Fritz! Got to be broke now, aaah!”

“Be quiet!” said Maurice. “Hide! Don’t come out no matter what.”

Ricardo grabbed his bookbag and hid under the bed. Fritz and me went into the closet. That sweatbox was so tight because Fritz was so big and Maurice had so many clothes.

“Maurice got some nice clothes. I wonder why he don’t wear this.”

“Be quiet Fritz.”

He did have some nice stuff but I didn’t want Fritz talking too loud and getting us caught. Maurice had that kind of closet with two doors with blinds. We watched Maurice run around and open his bedroom window to let all the smoke out. Still holding the tapes he ran out of the room.

“What you doing home! And in my Goddamn room!”

We heard Maurice’s mom from the hallway of the apartment. I was so scared I wanted to pee. I wanted to pee in that closet in front of Fritz and Maurice’s nice Polo shirts. Then we heard a loud smack and what sounded like the tapes falling on the floor.

“Oh God!” said Fritz.

“Come on man! Be quiet.”

I saw Ricardo under the bed, stiff as hell. He looked like a dead body. Then he started to mumble something out of his mouth and shook his head. At first I thought, “Who in the hell Ricardo is talking to.” Then I realized he was praying.

Maurice came back peddling into his room, with his mother walking in front of him.

“You was looking at my tapes! You’s a nasty little boy, ain’t you? Take off all your clothes.”
Fritz looked at me. I didn’t turn to him but I just knew he was looking at me.

“No ma, please. I’m sorry.”

“You going to be sorry in a minute. You’re touching things that don’t belong to you. I got to do this to you all the time, for your Black ass to learn.”

She started taking off Maurice’s belt.

“Take off those damn clothes.”

He did what he was told. As he took off his shirt and pulled of his pants she would let the belt fly and hit his body. By the time he got completely naked she already hit him about five or six times. When he got naked we saw that he already had a bunch of black and blue marks on his chest.

“Everyday I got to whoop you. Everyday-with you!”

I felt bad for Maurice. He was naked in front of his friends and was getting beat by his mother. She didn’t’ stop, she kept on hitting him with that belt. Then she but the belt down and beat him with her fists. I never saw a mother punch like a man, but she did. I kind of wanted her to go back to the belt; the belt seemed less ruthless compared to the fists. She beat him for over an hour. Well, that’s how long his beating felt like. She really beat him for fifteen minutes. I would look over at the clock on the VCR. I didn’t think fifteen minutes could be so long. I think that’s what made the beating so long to me; every hit-every swing hurt just so much. You could just see that blows were hurting Maurice inside and out. She was so ruthless to me. The blows did so much to him and nothing to her. Well, that’s what the sight seemed like to me, in the closet, scared.

The beating got to a point that he didn’t even cry, or yell. Maurice was on the floor, on his side, and he took the beating, and he took the pain. I seen beatings before, I been beat but this was different, this one was more than a whipping, this was more like hate. My mother got on my case and gave me hell but she never seemed like she didn’t like me. The way she was hitting him I thought she didn’t like Maurice. While I was in the closet there was several times I just wanted to step out and say, “Stop hitting him like that.”

Fear was what kept me in that closet. I think that was the same thing that kept Ricardo and Fritz still but what was Maurice’s excuse? Was fear the thing Maurice was scared of, making him the way he was, a bad eighth grader that would steal his homeroom teacher’s pocketbook? For fifteen minutes she punched and whipped, and his closest friends hid and watched.

After she finished she made him take a bath and do his homework. We knew he didn’t have any homework but Maurice sure looked like he had some. He opened up every schoolbook we had. He was flipping through every page.

“My stomach hurt.”

“Be quiet Fritz.”

“We ain’t going to ever get out of this closet!”

“Be quiet Fritz.”

“We been in here for hours!”

“It’s only been forty minutes.”

Then Fritz burped and his breath smelt like that vodka we were drinking.

“I think I’m sick.”

Before I could turn around, Fritz started to throw-up. We both flew out the closet, but way too late. Fritz threw-up all over my back and Maurice’s floor. Then he grabbed one of Maurice’s nice Polo shirts and tried to clean off my neck.

“What you doing Fritz? That’s my shirt,” said Maurice.

“I’m sorry; I needed something to clean this up. You got a sponge or something?”

“Come on, man. You killing me Fritz!”

Then from the other room we heard Maurice’s mom, “Who in the hell are these kids?”

Fritz was so loud Maurice’s mother came back into his room. With a back and neck soaked with vomit, she looked at me. She poked her head under the bed and saw Ricardo sleeping.

“This Nigga is in here sleep! Get the hell from under that bed, boy!”

Once Ricardo saw us he said, “Oh god, that’s nasty. Is that vomit?”

“Anybody else in this damn house,” Maurice shook his head no.

“You got two minutes to get the hell on out of my house before I give you some of the whipping I’m going to give Maurice.”

Then she punched him in his neck. He went down to his knees. His eyes were about to pop out of his head. He looked like he couldn’t see. She hit him really hard that time. The three of us rushed out of the bedroom but I stopped for a second to see his mother cock back her fist again. Before I could see her land the punch, Fritz grabbed me and dragged me to the door. “Let’s go, Craig!” I didn’t see the second punch, but I heard the damage the blow did.

We got outside and everyone was pointing and staring at me. I smelt bad. I smelt like vodka, cigarettes and everything Fritz ate for breakfast. I had too much vomit on me to put on my coat. So I carried my coat in my hand and had Maurice’s nice shirt around my neck. I smelt like vomit and I was freezing, I thought I was going to die. Ricardo started crying, his mother didn’t know English but she knew what broke VCR meant.

When I got home ma wanted to yell but she didn’t. I had vomit all over me and she didn’t believe my story of a wild dog jumping on my back and throwing-up all over me. My story was weak but the smell of Fritz’s vomit was so strong my mother went along with my lie. She cleaned me up and gave me my dinner. I just stretched out in my bed and tried to understand how a person could not like Maurice, I liked Maurice, and I thought he was funny. I couldn’t understand why his mother couldn’t see that too. Then I thought about if my father liked me or if my mother liked me. I didn’t want to not be liked by them, like how Maurice’s mother didn’t seem to like him.

“Watch them crazy dogs and them crazy people in the street. You hear me.” ma said.

“Yes.” I replied.

“ ‘Cause this world is going to end, wild dogs throwing-up on people. Them people dying in that spaceship today.”

“Huh.”

“Child! Where you been. That space…”

“…Space Shuttle Challenger.”

“Yeah, blew up in the sky. Been on the news all day.”

What we thought was the weather report was the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding in the sky seconds after blast off. Seven people died while my friends and I cut school and watched porno.

“You got to watch yourself out in these streets. You got people dying in the sky.”
Then she kissed me, turned out my bedroom light and closed the door. That was the first time in a while that she kissed me good night. Felt good when she did that. For a second I thought if Maurice mother ever kissed him goodnight, she gave him everything else, why not a kiss good night. I didn’t think on Maurice too long. I thought more about my kiss good night, then those people in the sky. Then I fell asleep.

 

When I woke up in the morning Maurice’s shirt was cleaned, ironed, and folded, neatly on top of my book bag.

“Ma, Maurice’s shirt?”

“I washed the thing in the tub. Didn’t take me long either, I put the shirt right on that broken-down fan, dried a couple of hours ago.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was happy.

“Now, you could give that nice shirt back to that boy. Boy, you got a good friend to give you a nice shirt like that when you got dog throw-up all over you.”

I wasn’t surprised that my mother cleaned the shirt. I was glad she did. I felt like Maurice needed something and I wanted to be the one that gave him that something. I owed him that. I felt guilty.

I couldn’t wait until Maurice came to class. I had his shirt, Mrs. Titty Tate and ‘sex-with-ya-mother’ jokes all ready for him when he walked through the door. While we waited, Ricardo talked our heads off.

“Yo, my moms and pops yelled all night. I can’t look at TV or cable for a while. They was cussing so fast in Spanish; I didn’t know what they was saying.”

“You just knew your butt was done.” Fritz added.

“I thought you speak Spanish?” I asked.

“Not the Spanish my moms was saying. Even my father didn’t know what she was saying and he from Panama too. That VCR was what I recorded all her Spanish Soap operas on; she was pissed-off, Duke.”

I laughed as Ricardo talked about his parents but from time to time I would look over at the clock-then at Maurice’s chair-and then at the door. My laughter was with Fritz and Ricardo but my mind was on Maurice. After a while we started to repeat ourselves. The stories were already told and the laughs were all belted out, still no Maurice. School had started and the teachers demanded our attention, so we had to start the day without him. Maurice didn’t come to school that day or the next. He missed ten straight days of school and his empty chair killed us. Nothing was the same. By the third day we gave up our ‘sex-with-ya-mother’ routines. By the fourth day we gave up dirty magazines in the bathroom. We were too afraid to call or go by his house. We knew how his mother could be. He was gone and there was nothing our porno crew could do.

On the fifth day Mrs. Titty Tate started to walk by our table. She knew we were bothered by him being gone, so she would put her hand on our shoulders like we were her children,

“I’m going to call his mother tonight. He’ll be in school soon.”

Then she would smile, but her great grin didn’t help, we still felt bad without him. I guess we felt that way because we saw how he lived and what he had to live with. I carried his shirt with me everyday to school while he was gone. Each day I tried really hard to not let the shirt get dirty or messed up. I wanted what was his to be perfect, for when he did finally come to class.

The tenth day, Maurice still didn’t show but his mother did. She walked in the classroom looking like a robot. She had her hair perfectly pinned back in a bun. She was wearing a business suit, so she was either going to work or coming from work. She had no wrinkles in her suit. Seemed like she didn’t sit down all day. From the back my boys and I watched, as she spoke with Mrs. Titty Tate.

Ricardo pointed and said, “Yo, Duke ain’t that Maurice’s moms.”

“Yeah, you think she came to beat us too, Troop?”

“I don’t know Fritz,” I really didn’t know.

“Crazy nut, I hate that lady.” Fritz started to get mad.

“Yo Money, I think she came to get us in trouble because we messed up her house and watched her porno,” Ricardo looked like he wanted to run under the table and hide when he said that.

“Oh my god, why did I throw-up everywhere?”

Fritz started to get nervous as well. Things got intense when Maurice’s mom and Mrs. Titty Tate started walking towards us, in the back.

“Just be cool y’all,” I damn sure didn’t mean what I said. I was scared too. I couldn’t take my eyes off Mrs. North.

“Boys, this is Maurice’s mother, Mrs. North. Mrs. North, these are the boys your son spends most of his time with, while he’s here at school.”

“Hi boys it’s so nice to meet you.”

“She wanted to know if Maurice left anything back here?”

We all three looked at each other. We were confused. She did meet us. At her house, while she beat the hell out of her son.

We all said, “no.” Mrs. North looked inside his desk anyway.

“And Mrs. Tate you said I can get his transcript through the mail.”

“I believe so, yes.”

I thought, ‘transcript’? What’s that?

“You want me to give you the homework Maurice missed, Mrs. North?” I asked.

“No, that’s alright. Maurice is going to go to a new school. We’re moving.”

My heart just sank when she said that.

“I’m surprised that my son never brought you over to the house. You boys are so well-behaved.”

She was getting on my nerves with the not remembering who we were stuff. Then she patted me on my head. Her smile was big but fake, like grinning was her job. Then I recognized a smell coming from Mrs. North. The funk that came out of her was the same smell when Fritz burped in the closet, the vodka without the throw-up. She was drunk; I just knew that she was; one Christmas I remember my Aunt Sallie being drunk, acting all nice and polite. Mrs. North reminded me of my Aunt Sallie that day, drunk with a smile. That was probably why she couldn’t remember who we were.

“Thank you.”

She was taking away our best boy and I hated her for that. Just like before we ever went to his house, we went back to wondering where he lived and how he lived. I was more in the dark at that moment than I was before. As she walked out of the classroom, I looked and remembered that I had Maurice’s shirt in my bag. I grabbed the shirt quick and said nothing, I stood-up holding the shirt, the last of Maurice for me. For some odd reason, Mrs. North turned and looked my way. Then she walked back to us.

“Did I forget something?” she asked me, looking at Maurice’s shirt in my hand. “Is that my Baby’s shirt.”

“I was in the closet.”

“Excuse me, Darling?”

“Fritz and me was in that closet.”

“I don’t know what you talking about, Boy. What are you talking about?”

I didn’t answer her. I stood strong. I was scared but I didn’t care. She could have hit me if she wanted. I wanted to fight. I was ready to go. If she slapped me, I just would have taken the blow. I told myself that I wouldn’t let her see me tear. Fear was what kept me in that closet for such a long time. And it was love for my friend that made me stand. I wanted to be like Maurice, free and not afraid.

“That shirt looks like my son’s.”

She reached for the shirt. I squeezed the shirt tighter and pulled away. She wasn’t getting that shirt. She took enough from me. She did a lot of hurt. She was getting nothing that day.

“That’s not my boy’s shirt,” she said

“This is mines,” I said.

I could feel Fritz and Ricardo looking at me. They must have thought I lost my mind but I didn’t. I just had enough. I wished I could have seen my own face. So if I ever saw Maurice again. I could do the face for him on cue, like the Mrs. Titty Tate jokes. Her smile got musty, stiff and old; she lost our standoff. That day in class, she got beat.

I let her leave without her having what I had; what was really his. I didn’t think she deserved a son like Maurice or a shirt that would be worn by him. Nobody ever wore that shirt. I took the shirt home and put it in a milk crate, in the bottom of my closet. And that’s where Maurice stayed, for a long time.

ghost january

Corwin Moore was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.  Being the youngest of five, Corwin quickly realized that comedy was his best way to receive attention in his large family.  Corwin first got his taste of the stage by enrolling in a stand-up comedy class in High School.  The top five students were elected to perform at a real comedy club; Corwin was not one of those students.  Still wanting to support his fellow classmates, he went to the comedy club anyway.  Once a real paid comedian failed to show up, Corwin got a chance to perform and shine, which he did, receiving a standing ovation.  Corwin got a manager and agent the very next week.  Corwin later honed his stand-up skills at comedy clubs such as Comic Strip, Improv and Stand-up New York.

He has been featured on “Showtime at the Apollo (Guest performer),” “Family Matters” and a cast member of the sketch variety show, “Uptown Comedy Club.”  Corwin also has film work consisting of “Race,” starring Paul Rodriguez and “Juice,” starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur.

But what makes Corwin a true triple threat is his writing.  Corwin is an Emmy nominated writer, working for such shows as Saturday Night Live, The Tracy Morgan Show (pilot) and VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors.

Corwin currently is an Assistant Professor of English as well as, shooting his project, ‘Brothers on The Phone.’

Photo: Ajeet Mestry

a wink may be the same as a nod to a blind man, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to lend you his credit cards to get a bunch of new spongebob squarepants tattoos unless you’ve got some pretty serious collateral – david s atkinson

raw pixel

“The world ended today,” Carl told me as he sat down to watch TV.

“What?! How?”

“Dunno.” He cracked a beer. “Everybody was talking about it after the staff meeting, but I didn’t listen too close. Didn’t seem important.”

I sat up on the couch. “How could it not be important? It’s the end of the world!”

“Well,” he said, considering, “it doesn’t seem to change anything, does it? We’re still here. Plenty of stuff happens that doesn’t affect my life. Why would I care more about this than any of that?”

“I understand,” I replied, “but particularly in view of that, how are we still here? We couldn’t be if the world ended, right? Maybe it didn’t.”

“Nah, it did. Everyone was pretty sure.” He took a drink. “I’m betting they’d know. They aren’t the sort to get that kind of thing wrong.”

“Hmm.”

So that was that, the world was gone. There was nothing else for it but to watch Will & Grace.

SBGS December

David S. Atkinson is the author of books such as “Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from my Pockets While I Sleep,” “Apocalypse All the Time,” and the Nebraska book award winning “Not Quite so Stories.” He is a Staff Reader for “Digging Through The Fat” and his writing appears in “Spelk,” “Jellyfish Review,” “Thrice Fiction,” “Literary Orphans,” and more. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.

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silence – annette freeman

silence

I was criticised by any number of people for what I did to the old piano. When my sculpture was exhibited at the gallery — all dismantled frames and twisted strings and bereft keys — I was criticised. Oh, yes. People at the Opening drew in shocked breaths and waggled their champagne glasses. The word desecration was used; also destructive and obscene. Obscene? I’ll tell you what’s obscene — having to put up with someone who is supposed to have moved on. My sculpture was large and it used most of the innards of the piano in a constructivist-style thing intended to reference a mound or hill. Like a burial mound. I even included an ironic plastic rose on the top, a dirty pink thing, to reference a wreath, but I don’t think the art lovers at the opening got that. They certainly mourned the piano, though.

“What did you have against that poor piano?” a tipsy art-type in an old-fashioned bow-tie asked me. He’d gone for whisky.

“How long have you got?” I replied, and sipped my champagne, leaving lipstick on the glass, blood red, which is ironic also, since the death of the piano was under discussion. In all truth, it wasn’t the piano itself that had earned my ire, but its former owner. I’ll tell you what happened and you can judge for yourself if I was justified in dismantling the thing.

When I moved in with Simon I kept my studio in the inner city. His place wasn’t far away but it was an upscale building, one of those new apartment blocks. They had CCTV cameras everywhere: didn’t want any undesirables, deplorables, muddying the terrazzo floors or shooting up in the shrubbery. You wouldn’t have thought that such a new build, where a year or so earlier there had been only a depthless mud-hole gouged into the land, could harbour any wraiths from the past. But my theory is — and I have reason to know — that the wraiths preserve their longevity by attaching their icy tendrils to objects, and objects can be moved around, as was this blighted piano. Simon told me that it had been a family piano for decades. In fact, it was an old wooden-framed thing, out of date and untuneable. Were you imagining an elegant baby grand with a rosewood cabinet? No, this was an old upright, scratched from many moves, barely playable. It had candle sconces screwed to its front. Candles! How long ago did people play the piano by candlelight? The dark ages?

I shouldn’t make flippant remarks about the dark. That piano and I were to share some sombre times. Simon and I had been together for about a year when I moved in with him. I was sure he was my soul-mate. I still am, and if he ever forgives me — or, as I prefer to think of it, understands me — I think we could be happy. If you notice an edge to my voice while I’m telling what happened, it’s because of Simon. When he found the piano gone, and I told him what I’d done with it, he went into a funk. He refused to come to the Opening at the gallery and so he hasn’t seen what a far, far better thing it has become. Those critics who could stomach the dismemberment have been raving about it. My agent is fielding offers. I have hopes that it’ll go to Abu Dhabi.

Simon goes away on business trips often, mostly to the US, for a week or two at a time. He packs a couple of his sharp suits into a folding suit bag and jets off to do whatever international-finance-types do. As for me, I’m a night owl and often come home late from my studio to the empty terrazzo-floored lobby of the apartment block. I rarely run across anyone from the other apartments. It’s an echoey lobby; there’s not much in it except a couple of Eames-replica chairs that I’ve never seen anyone sit on. There are security cameras with red cyclonic eyes staring down from the corners of the ceiling.

The old piano was an incongruous piece of furniture in Simon’s place, interior-decoration-wise, so naturally I asked him about it.

“It was Eliza’s,” he said, as if admitting something he’d rather I didn’t know.

Eliza was his ex. They hadn’t been married, exactly, unless you count that hybrid Buddhist-Hindu-hippy ceremony they went through in Kathmandu. Then Eliza was lost on the trail while they were hiking to Tengboche. Lost, as in never found. Almost certainly she went over the edge of a ravine into the Dudh Kosi and her body swept away downstream, though it was never recovered. Simon spent a long time hoping. That whole incident was years ago. He’d had two or three girlfriends between Eliza and me. But still he’d dragged the piano on at least two moves that I knew of. It sat against the wall of the living room, looking across at the Léger print on the opposite wall. It seemed to me to be constantly watching us as we lounged in front of the TV, or drank cocktails on the balcony, or slow-danced on the rug, listening to jazz. It appeared to me to disapprove of jazz.

Simon told me, when I pressed him, that the piano had first belonged to Eliza’s great-aunt, a spinster who’d lived in Melbourne and had gone to India as a missionary. Apparently she was revered in Eliza’s family. That was in the days when proselytizing was applauded. The great-aunt was musical. She played not only the piano but also the violin. That was all that Simon knew about this ephemeral person from the past, the musical missionary, Eliza’s relative. The piano was then bequeathed though Eliza’s relations — aunt, cousin, father — until, as each of them died, it eventually settled on her. She played, quite well. I’ve heard her. She favours eerie things, like Messiaen — at least that’s what I thought it was when I heard her. Yes, I’ve heard that piano play on many nights when I was alone in the apartment. Did I mention that we were on the thirty-fifth floor? An aerie. It was as if angels were malevolently plucking harp strings where they had no right.

All of this sounds fanciful, I know, and to start with I thought so too. The first time I heard the playing it was about 2 AM. I got up and marched out of the bedroom switching on all the lights. But the notes merely faded at my approach and so I assumed that I was imagining the whole thing. But the playing in the wee hours went on, only when Simon wasn’t there, of course. Obviously it was meant for me alone. I was targeted. I took to leaving all the lamps on in the living room but it made no difference. The music still woke me — and the lamps went out.

Naturally I told Simon what was going on. I tried to convince him to get rid of the piano, maybe pass it on to another of Eliza’s relatives. He actually said that he wanted to keep it in case Eliza came back! She has come back, I said grimly. Then he went all solicitous on me. He said I was just having some residual delusions. I wasn’t long out of rehab. When I met Simon I was doing far too much junk for my own good, and it was he, bless him, who’d got me into a program. Now I was clean, off the stuff, and my work was blossoming. I owe Simon so much. He’s the love of my life.

The night-time playing continued sporadically, always when I was alone in the apartment.

“Get rid of it, please!” I was begging him now.

“Sweetheart, it’s in your head. I can’t let it go. It’s my only reminder of Eliza.”

“Can’t you just keep her photo or something?” He laughed.

“Sure, but what if she comes back and I don’t have her piano? It was her most precious possession.”

That was the second time he’d said that about her coming back. If she came back, where would that leave me? This point didn’t seem to concern him as he stared across the room at the piano, and I saw in his gaze some past in which I had no part. My first impulse was to remind him that Eliza was pretty certainly dead, and so not coming back for her piano, but I stopped. Of course she was back, as I’d told him the first time we had this conversation. I couldn’t get through to him.

The playing went on. It was creeping me out. One night I changed tactics and tried spying unseen on the piano. I put my eye up to the gap in the bedroom door, which I’d left ajar. But when I looked the playing stopped abruptly. I thought I saw something slip out the front door. I definitely heard a click as the door closed. This wraith came in the front door? It didn’t happen like that in stories.

After the next night of ghostly playing, I went down to the security booth in the basement carpark. I knew the guys there; I often spoke to them when I parked my VW Beetle — they liked my car. I asked if we could take a look at the CCTV footage of the lobby from the night before. I told them I thought I’d heard noises around 2 AM, which was true. We had to go backwards and forwards a bit, but we found it. It was eerie to watch: a long stretch of silent emptiness, the cameras watching creepily, pointed at the lobby doors, the lift, the fire stairs. Twice, figures of other residents crossed the floor, silent footsteps, silent arrival of the lift, silent opening and closing of the lift doors. Then, finally, a figure emerged just as silently from the fire stairs door. The guys were amazed — “that thing’s alarmed,” they said. But no alarm sounded, there was just the CCTV silent soundtrack. The figure was frustratingly indistinct. I was sure it was female, but the security boys argued about that for a while.

“It’s wearing a cap.”

“That’s a skirt, for sure.”

“Or trousers — can’t tell. It’s not clear enough.”

The footage had been clear enough earlier to recognise the legitimate residents. We stopped and started it but we couldn’t get a better picture. The figure disappeared as silently as it had come. We didn’t see the lift arrive, but we could see the illuminated floor numbers marking its ascent from the lobby, then stopping at Level 35.

After that I dismantled the piano. I took out its guts and moved strings, hammers, felts surreptitiously to my car bit by bit. I prised off all its keys with pliers and took them away, keeping the lid on my work so Simon wouldn’t notice what was going on. It took a while, I can tell you. Of course the playing had to stop then. I thought about leaving the empty thing there, just a carcass with its ridiculous candle sconces. But two things changed my mind. The first was the imperative of the work — as I brought these infused and laden objects together in my studio I saw that they needed more bulk, the bulk of the piano cabinet, the wood, the structure. And more detail: the pedal, the hinges, and those sconces. The second thing that prompted me to completely dismantle the piano was the final occurrence of that eerie Messiaen, playing in the silence of 2 AM, despite the keys and strings being entwined in my studio two suburbs away.

At the Opening, an art agent came over and asked me about the piece. He was wearing a dishdasha and a keffiyeh. I smiled winningly.

“What is the piece entitled?” he asked.

“I call it ’Silence.’

“And what is that strange smell it emits?”

SBGS December

Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. She was born and raised in Tasmania, which she suspects is reflected in her writing in ways too mysterious to analyse. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney, the support of a terrific writing group, and boundless respect for a fine sentence.

hopper house – james h duncan

steeple

Down the hill stood a house beside a set of railroad tracks, a house I always called the Hopper House because it reminded me of those Edward Hopper small town scenes he would paint, quiet and windswept, forlorn. Shades of chipped emerald and hunter green paint, scalloped awnings, spire staircase, slanted chimneys. This house stood on Orient Avenue with dirt for macadam and a green-striped folding chair on the front porch, a radio playing in the window and a dog barking somewhere deep inside, but no one ever sat in the chair or came out when I walked by every day.

I was in a bad way, unemployed aside from some very fortunate writing jobs or some small checks coming in for poetry, $10.00, $5.00, even a few for $2.00. I would walk to the bank and cash them and then take Orient Avenue and a short-cut through the grounds of a dilapidated trolley station to a small tavern by a rock-strewn river where I’d eat an inexpensive meal or just blow the whole shot on two-dollar bottles of beer.

I often stopped at the Hopper House and looked up, wondering what it must have been like to live there during its heyday. All three stories were gorgeous and ornate, though falling apart from years of neglect and agoraphobic hibernation. Save for the dog and the radio I would have called it abandoned. Even haunted maybe, and that green folding chair always gave me an odd feeling like someone I couldn’t see watched from within, waiting for me to leave.

All that summer I wrote letters to a woman in Germany about the house. She wrote back and told me of a similar manse near her father’s summer home outside Bremen. Her haunted mansion was not green but yellow, bleached by the sun and empty, and stood back from the road on a small rise, its black hollow eyes watching their car drive by whenever they went back into town from their seaside cottage. She asked if I named my green house, and I said yes. I told her of Edward Hopper. She knew him and adored his work, most especially Automat.

One afternoon someone at the end of the bar said a car went off the road and had rammed into the house and some of us got up and half-walked, half-ran up the street to the Hopper House. A white Subaru had crumpled into the front porch and paramedics, police officers, and firemen surrounded the car and were climbing onto the porch. We watched for a while but no one came outside, no one sat on the curb with head in hand, not even the driver, who apparently ran off. The dog didn’t even bark.

Soon we all walked back to the bar, but for weeks afterward blue tarpaulins covered the broken portions of the porch and stairs, with no dog, no radio, no green folding chair. I wrote a letter to Germany and told her what happened at the house, and two weeks later her reply said I should avoid it. My story gave her a bad dream, a bad feeling. It was haunted, she said, and a magnet for bad luck. I believed her. I always believed her. She signed her letters Yours, so I did too.

I avoided the house after that, as she specified, but I had dreams of the house as well. I had them then and long after I moved away. In the dream I walked up those porch steps and put my hand on the doorknob. A fear filled my chest about what waited inside, about going up the stairs to the second floor, the third floor, the attic, and then I was there, in that attic space. I heard the radio far below me, the dog barking somewhere. I closed my eyes and a claustrophobic warning in my heart told me that what if I opened my eyes again I’d discover something unbearable. In the dream I would run, painfully slow, and leave the front door open behind me, the green folding chair sideways, the dirt driveway littered with bottle caps and gravel as I raced for the horizon, for that wildfire sky.

And then I’d wake up—somewhere else, far away. But the dream was hard to shake and I wrote to Germany about it, but after three letters with no reply, I stopped writing. Now there is only the dream, wherever I go.

sbgs cowskull

James H Duncan is the editor of Hobo Camp Review and author of such books as Nights Without Rain, What Lies In Wait, and Dead City Jazz, among other collections of fiction and poetry. For more, visit www.jameshduncan.com.

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