Brant Lyon ~ Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Beauty

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I am now your daughter, she wrote home
from Copenhagen, avowedly un-sonned
in size 9 AA pumps, and hair stylishly coifed,
unmistakably feminine; deplaned at Idlewild
to a blizzard of flashbulbs, “the convertible blonde”
smiled graciously, signed autographs, amid cheers
and jeers, freak or heroine. In size 9 AA pumps,
smoky-voiced, but unmistakably feminine,
in the Cold War world that greeted her
she could have been too stunned to smile
graciously signing autographs, freak or heroine,
out-blasting H-bomb testing on Eniwetok Atoll
front page headlines had shunned;
but in the cold war she met it was she,
instead, that stunned and bewildered –
with her incendiary alchemy: castration and estrogen.

Joe Blow unacquainted with a reassigned ex-G.I.
George, rechristened Christine.
Bewildered by vaginoplasty that corrected
the mistake she believed nature had made
(at last, manhood undone!)
John Q. Public became acquainted with ex-G.I.
Christine and sent mountains of fan mail
(and poison-penned letters) addressed to Miss Jorgenson
that decried the mistake science shouldn’t
have made. Now woman, redone, she crooned, “I Enjoy
Being a Girl” in testosterone-charged nightclubs;
cover girl for Look magazine, fans sent more and more
mail addressed to Miss Jorgenson
c/o her parent’s home in the Bronx.
Unvexed, transsexed, serene,
she cooed, “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, lectured,
was televised, graced the pages of more glossy magazines.

Heading home to her parents in the Bronx, unencumbered,
eugendered, serene, she deplaned at Idlewild
to a blizzard of flashbulbs, “the convertible blonde.”
Yes, I am now your daughter. She flew home from Copenhagen un-sonned.

Arlene Greene ~ Johnnie 1954

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Johnnie thought going into the Marines would help. Thought that it would help him and help out at home as well. He knew now that you could never completely run away from home, no matter how far you ran. Aggie wrote to him weekly, and beneath all the supportive words he felt her loneliness for him and her struggle to keep her head above water and to keep afloat with her as much as she could of the drowning family. And that’s how Johnnie saw them, even down to baby Looie, slowly but surely being sucked down into some barely discernible whirlpool. Ever since he could remember he had the feeling he was not one of the family but was with them for some reason. There was some reason his twin Jake died and he didn’t. His Mama told him that Jake was buried on top of her brother James, who’d died when he was twelve. Jake’s coffin was placed just an inch of earth above James so they wouldn’t have to take up a whole plot with such a tiny coffin. It didn’t seem right Aggie always said, people were supposed to be buried ‘six feet under’ she said, and she vowed to have him moved just as soon as she could save up the money to buy a plot.

Johnnie felt he was supposed to have died along with Jake, but he didn’t, and he felt that he was left behind because there was something he could/would/should do that would take the family up and out of the day to day bullshit and into a better life, but the way to do it was never clear. He didn’t even know how he even knew there was a better life. But he’d always known it; before he ever left the house for kindergarten he knew it. And now he could see that Looie knew it too. Maybe seeing that in her made it possible for him to leave. He saw his leaving as helping out, or he told himself that it would help. One less mouth to feed and all that. New opportunities, a chance for College, a way to make something of himself. Besides, the recruiter said all the right things. His mother seemed relieved. It would be better than having him on the streets doing who knew what, and it was the what that scared him. The stealing was wrong, he knew that, but somehow it never seemed wrong at the time, only afterwards. There was more than enough out there for everybody, so who was he hurting by taking his share? Whenever he stole he gave most of the money to his mother anyway. But the fires worried him. Setting the fires had been reckless and dangerous and stupid and he had no idea why he set them. And it was something that he didn’t seem to be in control of at all. Even though he had to have bought (siphoned?) the gasoline and set the fires, it wasn’t until he found himself staring at the blazing flames and listening to the piercing sirens that he realized what he’d done. And he never knew why. At least no one was ever hurt; they were all abandoned buildings.

And then there was Edward. He thought about Edward and wondered if he was the real reason he’d joined the Marines. He couldn’t possibly be a Marine and be attracted to Edward at the same time. Not in that way, not in the way he was afraid he might be feeling as he’d lie on his cot in the kitchen and stare at the ceiling after being at Edward’s house all evening. All they ever did was sit and talk (just talk,) and listen to classical records on the stereo, and drink wine out of thin fluted glasses. And then Edward would drive him home in his new turquoise and black Plymouth with the shiny tailfins, and they’d sit out in front for a while and talk (just talk,) and then after he drove away Johnnie’d think “What a nice guy.” But by the time he got up to the apartment a feeling of disquiet began settling in. He sometimes wanted to wake Aggie up and tell her where he’d been and what he’d done and explain to her how Edward was “really just a nice guy, you know?”

Johnnie was seventeen and Edward was thirty-six. They met in Bughouse Square, were part of the small crowd gathered to listen to the orators of the night, and they’d gone off to a coffee shop after the speech, excited to find they had similar ideas on the topic of the evening: “Personal vs. Societal Morality.” They sat together and talked and drank coffee until two in the morning that first time, and made plans to meet the following week to listen to the speech on “Socialism in a Democratic Society”

The following week Edward suggested they go his place to talk and listen to music. Edward’s place was a large studio on the Near North Side, just off Lake Shore Drive. Decorated in muted tones of green and brown, and neatly littered with plants, glossy magazines, hard cover books, and record albums, the studio seemed to Johnnie like something cut out of one of the magazines he’d seen in Doctor’s offices. Edward laughed when Johnnie asked him if he was rich and said he’d always heard everyone who lived on the North side was rich. “Comfortable maybe,” he said, “but rich, no, nowhere near rich.” And Johnnie instantly understood “comfortable,” for being with Edward, and being in Edward’s place was the most comfortable he’d ever been in his life. There was none of the usual self-consciousness or awkwardness of being in someone else’s house. He felt as if Edward and his ‘place’ had always been there and always been waiting for him. He’d always felt there were people who could talk about ideas instead of merely what was right before their eyes, people who thought through the now and into the future instead of digging their heels into the present and refusing to budge forward an inch. And he’d always felt that home could be a place where you felt warm and relaxed instead of cold and apprehensive, and thank God Edward and his ‘place’ confirmed this for him at last. And these differences excited Johnnie in a way that he’d never been excited before. It wasn’t until their sixth meeting that Johnnie realized Edward was different in yet another way. It was when he suggested Edward call a girl and ask if she had a friend so they could double date. Take in a show or something. Edward, who up to then had always known what to say, faltered and stumbled on his words, made excuses and turned red in the face, tried to change the subject and seemed sad and troubled when Johnnie wouldn’t let him do so. He didn’t like to date, he said, he didn’t really know many girls, he said, he didn’t especially like the movies, he said. But that night, after Edward dropped him off at home, Johnnie sat, and thought, and he knew Edward was a homosexual, or as everyone he knew might say: a fag, a queer.

He didn’t see Edward for a month after that. Stopped going to Bughouse Square and didn’t answer any of the notes Edward sent. And then, without having planned it at all, one night he found himself ringing the bell at Edward’s apartment.

There was never any discussion of his discovery. They picked up where they’d left off, and when sex slipped into their lives, it happened so naturally and without fanfare it went relatively unnoticed. Edward had fallen so deeply in love with Johnnie, that if Johnnie had insisted they never have sex, he’d have gone along with it simply to be near him.

Johnnie told himself he didn’t feel the same way toward Edward that Edward did toward him. He liked him well enough, and even came to feel he needed him, but it had nothing to do with anything so messy as love or sex. He needed Edward for the sanity he brought to his life. For the peace of mind and feeling of security he felt when he was with him, for sanctuary of his studio, for the music and wine and conversation and books, for the trips to the art galleries and the museums. For the access he provided to the life Johnnie always knew was there waiting for him. But telling himself this and believing it was sometimes nearly impossible. And this is what would happen as he lay on his cot at night, staring up at the peeling plaster on the kitchen ceiling. He kept his eyes open, for when he closed them he would smell Edward and taste Edward and feel Edward on him and in him until the ache became unbearable, and then he’d jerk his head back and forth as though he were being slapped and his eyes would snap open and he’d flush red and hot all over and begin the mental process of erasing the frightening feelings from his body and the thoughts from his mind. It became more and more difficult to snap out of it.

But he was finding out that being a Marine was not the answer. Being a Marine was a form of access too, he’d found that out the first night he went out on a pass, in a small town in North Carolina. He met girls, lots of girls. Girls who had as much or more to offer him than Edward had. But somehow they all ended up reminding him of Aggie. He remembered the first time it happened. He was with Julia, in the middle of a passionate petting session, in the backseat of her car, when she pulled back from him for a moment, and gazed moonily at him as she stroked the hair back away from his forehead. His passion took an immediate wilting nose dive, and he straightened himself up and mumbled something about curfew and having to get back to the base. He didn’t identify the feeling until the third or fourth time it happened. All of them, each and every one of them had some motherly something or other that turned him off like a switch and made him pull back and away immediately. With some it was merely something they’d say, such as “You look cold, are you sure that jacket is warm enough?” or “Here, let me sew that button on tighter for you.”, or even something as innocuous as “How’s your salad?” And suddenly they’d turn into Aggie, and at that moment any chance for romance flew right out the window.

He was quite happy with one discovery. He was not in the least attracted to any of the guys. They were to him what males had always been to him before Edward. Friends, buddies, cohorts. He wrote to Aggie and he wrote to Edward. He lied to Aggie and he told Edward the truth. And the truth was that he was miserable. He wanted out. He couldn’t bear it. He knew the military was not for him from the first moment at boot camp.

He’d been in the Marines less than a year when he went AWOL. Aggie’s letters scared him, but he was more scared for Louise than anybody.

The old man had never come back and she was living with Maw back in Englewood. His father had left again and now she was moving into some housing project down on South State Street and he couldn’t believe there was nothing he could do about it. He felt responsible. If he’d been there he could’ve talked her out of it. Could’ve gotten a job and helped out until Sam came home again. She’d told him how Maw and Gus wouldn’t even talk to her since she’d made the decision, and he knew how much she needed them.

There was nothing else to do.

 

Arlene Greene is Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. The above excerpt is taken from Quicksand, a novel from Hammer & Anvil Books available exclusively on Amazon.com.

Quicksand2

Rebecca Howe ~ Poe was Right to be Scared

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She says the clock doesn’t strike
the way it used to.
Old hands and rusted gears
used to ring like church bells
calling in the darkness.

She says the wind yells
keeps her up at night.
Crickets speak to her in broken words
they haunt ghosts in the graveyard of her mind.
She says the darkness haunts her.

Blackbirds wait on her doorstep,
noiseless.
Cleaning their oily wings
and sharpening their claws on the door
slowly scraping away the wood
chipping away at her life.

She says, in the morning
they are gone.
And one day
the door will be gone
and anything that wants to can come in
and nothing go out.

Illustration by Jeffrey Littleton. All rights reserved.

Aaron Simon ~ Rocks and Hot Dogs

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Douglas Roth hadn’t written a decent word in over three months. Pages and pages of overly dramatic narration, self-serious commentaries on the human condition, concerned paragraphs dealing with failed relationships and various types of cancer were easy: Everyone on the planet Earth at one point or another suffers from an existential funk or has the extreme misfortune to experience or know someone who is diagnosed with a terrible disease—that’s why his four stories from the past three months had been snatched up almost immediately after he put them in their envelopes. Douglas, though, had always strived to write about something Rare. These Rare things came in a flash of inspiration, usually in disjointed phrases that made no sense and took either a tremendous amount of coffee, tremendous lack of sleep, or tremendous amount of booze to make sense of. Generally, these Rare things were nonsense or had no relevance to anything going on in the modern world and were thus called trite or nonsensical by literatis, but Douglas loved each of them like children and was continuously surprised when someone came up to him in a bar expounding a theory about one of his stories. It seemed that his readers were much, much more intelligent than he was.

The last Rare thing he came up with was a story that belonged in the Twilight Zone. It was about a man who continuously saw another man walking in windows and mirrors. Eventually the first man was driven mad and inadvertently caused the death of his pregnant wife.

Reviewers tended to call it, and other similar stories, pulp material. Douglas, however, was quite pleased with the response that came from it. The check was small—as they tended to be—but Roth had long ago received a generous inheritance from an aunt. Combined with an almost unfailing ability to invest, Roth wasn’t generally concerned with income from stories.

But that was three months ago. After a quarter of a year spent dredging incredibly depressing stories from his childhood and friends, Douglas was ready to spend a grand on an airplane ticket to Dublin and then a train ticket and then a tour bus pass in order to go to a secret place he’d heard about that happened to be located on the Cliffs.

It was in a pub in Knoxville, Tennessee. Douglas had just given an author talk at the university and was feeling the depths of depression. He convinced himself that he sold out for writing something that wasn’t Rare and bowed to the Real, and, despite the royalty checks, he felt like he’d sold out his muse. The pub was dimly lit and he opted for the dark wood-finished bar instead of the comfortable red seats lining the walls. He sat at the bar and let out a deep sigh, looking at the taps on the wall, but not paying much attention to what they were.

The bartender, a tall, lanky man with a head of brown hair, brown eyes, and the evidence of a few days’ worth of ignoring a razor, saw him and poured a pint of stout. Douglas was a bit surprised at the sudden appearance of black liquid with a white head. “Er,” he said.

“Wid a sigh like that,” said the bartender, “yeh need something a bit, eh, fuller, than a Budweiser, am I right?”

Douglas let the stout settle and took a sip. Warmth ran through him. “You’d be right on that.”

“Man comes in wid a sigh like that, it’ll be a woman or he went and got fired.”

“Nothing that drastic,” said Douglas, “more like I sold out.”

“Ah, you don’t say. I sold out once. Worst day of me life was when I got a job instead of bumming round Cork.” He swung the towel in his hands onto his left shoulder and reached out to Douglas. “Name’s Cassidy.”

Douglas shook his hand. “Douglas Roth.”

Cassidy’s eyes widened. “Roth? The author? Jaysis, imagine that, an author here in the Crying Shamrock. Usually we just get the college kids and local waiters. What’re you talking about, selling out?”

“You write at all, Cassidy?”

“Used to write a bit back in Ireland. Prose mainly. Didn’t have enough time on my hands for poetry.”

Douglas nodded. “I’ll assume you ran into writer’s block a few times.” He took another sip. “Well, I’ve been lucky. Haven’t run into that as of late, but I have had the extreme misfortune of running out of subjects that aren’t my usual fare—”

“You mean stuff like that weird bit about the talking stones?”

“Yup.”

“Aye, that was the dog’s bollocks, it was.”

“Thanks. So recently I’ve been writing more realistic stuff. Things I don’t like writing about. Turns out, though, that this stuff gives me the most respect. I’ve sold out.”

Cassidy took a sip from Douglas’s pint glass. “So you want to get back to writing for yourself.”

“That’s right,” Douglas took a sip from the glass in retaliation.

Cassidy nodded and scratched the stubble on his chin. “I know a place on the Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland, about an hour north of Galway—you ever been out that way, Roth?”

Roth shook his head. “Only been to Dublin.”

Cassidy snorted. “Dublin. Dublin isn’t Ireland, it’s Europe. Ireland’s in the west. The soul lives in places where you can have country pubs and sheep. You won’t get that in Dublin. Anyway, the place on the Cliffs, that’s where I am, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Kay. Up on the cliffs, about a mile south of O’Brien’s Tower, there’s a little—how should I put this?—outpost. It’s set up in the middle of a ring of stones—I’ll get to them in a second—in turn surrounded by grazing sheep. Now, the Cliffs are the most lovely things you’ll ever see, but you probably won’t get to look at them that long. When you get to this place, you’ll get your first glimpse of the Muse station. Looks like an old cottage, but it’s a bit longer and better whitewashed. This is one of those places you can still find in Ireland where there’s legitimate magic—leprechauns and all that shit. Fact is, it’s so magical that only people who know it’s there can see it. Everyone else sees a ring of useless stones with old Gaelic written on them. It’s a place the bards used to go before Connemara was taken over by the English. It is, in fact, a place where the Muses reside.”

Roth arched an eyebrow. “I’m a bit old to believe in stories about fairy rings.”

“Aye, and I’m a bit old to be told that I’m a feckin’ wanker by a sell-out.” Cassidy took a swig from the nearly-empty pint glass. “I’m trying to help yeh here, boy. One of the problems you Yanks have is this mentality that you’ve seen everything, that you’ve got everything figured out. Well listen, yeh cut out this jaded bullshit point of view yeh got and yeh see what there is in life.”

“Shakespeare and Hamlet.”

“Horatio. Aye. That’s right, then.”

Douglas drank the rest of the glass and looked at Cassidy for a few seconds. “Why should I believe you?”

Cassidy jabbed the bar top with a finger. “That’s another reason there’re problems with yer country: no trust. Everyone has ulterior motives.” Cassidy poured himself a scotch. “Bollocks to that.” He drank the scotch.

The worrisome question about the management of the pub allowing its staff to consume what appeared to be vast quantities of product flitted through Douglas’s mind. “Just trust you, then.”

“Aye. Yeh can always trust a Paddy. It’s the Brits you gotta watch out for. They’re animals. Sides mate, it’s not a question of belief or trust with these rings. It’s a question of knowing that there’s something out there just beyond yer field of vision, orchestrating all sorts’ve things. You can slap whatever label you want on these things, but I’ve seen em. Big lads, full black beards and sloppy t-shirts, stained with coffee and liquor. Not the nicest lads you’ll meet, but inspiration tends to come at the worst times of the day, yeah?”

Douglas nodded.

“Right,” Cassidy said, taking out two half pint glasses. “Tell you what, Roth. I’ll pour you a half-pint now, and a half-pint when you get back to Knoxville, brimming with stories to tell and a giant grin on your face.”
It was at that moment that Roth realized he had the choice of two paths: The one was financial success, awards, and a severe hole in his soul. The other was poverty and spiritual fulfillment. At this moment, Roth chose the latter. “Fuck it. I like those terms.”

Cassidy grinned. “Fuckin-a.” He raised one of the half-pints in a toast.

Douglas returned the action. “Slàinte!”

After Douglas left the pub, Cassidy wiped the rings from the glasses off the bar, put the glasses in the washer, and turned around to see his supervisor grinning from ear to ear. “Cassidy,” the man said. He was short and portly, with hair obnoxiously gelled and parted to the right. “I know that accent brings in the tips, but you could cut it out, you know.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“The Irish. All the ‘yeh’ and ‘Jaysis.’ Come on, I know Irish guys, no one’s that Irish.”

Cassidy bit his tongue, grinned, and faked a slightly more American accent. “You’re right Mr. Sinclair. I’ll try to cut it down.”

“No worries, pal.” He clapped his hand on Cassidy’s shoulder and went to the back to harangue the kitchen staff about not making the fish and chips bland enough.

“Prick,” Cassidy said as the supervizor waddled back to the kitchen.

On the plane ride from London Gatwick to Dublin (Douglas had the extreme misfortune of being unable to find a direct-to-Dublin flight), Douglas experienced a taste of things to come.

Anyone who has flown on an airline knows that there are, generally speaking, no sounds over the PA system save for the cabin crew and the pilot. On this airline, though, Douglas found that electronica was the standard fare—momentarily broken for the airline safety speech given by the cabin crew. Towards the end of the speech, the crewmember in charge of leading his flock through the knowledge of what to do in case the plane suffered something horrible (“Might as well resign yourselves to death,” he thought as he read what was actually written on the script) said, “And will Douglas Roth please note that the Irish Guild of Magical Entities Inc., welcomes him to Eire and requests that he fill out Form 42-B upon landing. Thank you.”

Douglas blinked. This was unusual. He reached up and pressed the call button as the plane began to back up.

The crewmember walked over to Douglas’s aisle. “Sir, the plane is about to take off.”

“Yes, I know. What did you just say about the Guild of Magical Entities?”

The crewmember sighed and shook his head. “Look sir, it’s against Ryan Air policy to give out free liquor. I’ll ask you to please note that we have buy one get one free vodka, whiskey, and rum.”

Douglas nodded. “Yes, I know. You said something addressed solely to me, and I’d like clarification.”

The seatbelt light dinged twice and the crewmember ignored Douglas and walked to the front of the cabin to buckle himself in.

An hour and a half later, Douglas was woken up by another crewmember and had a blue form shoved in his face. On the top of the form, there was a header reading: ‘FORM 42-B – TO BE GIVEN TO THE CUSTOMS AGENT AT PASSPORT CONTROL.’ Below that, there was only one item on the form. It was a question asking what sort of magical entity Douglas had business with. Douglas circled ‘MUSE’ and waited for the plane to land.

At passport control in Dublin Airport, Douglas walked through the nearly-empty Non-EU resident line and presented his passport and form to the agent. The agent’s green eyes glazed over and she stamped the form, tossed it into a wastebasket, and then stamped Douglas’s passport. The writer thanked her, walked away, and opened it to see that he had been given a four-month long stay in Ireland. Apparently, the Irish Guild of Magical Beings, Inc. held a significant amount of sway in passport control.

There were two important events on the train ride from Dublin to Galway. The first was that the train did not explode, crash, or any other bad thing like that. It was an old relic of a train, still running on petrol and seemingly the last train in the Irish rail system that hadn’t made it to diesel. The insides of the carriages looked a bit like a nightmare from the 1970s: they were full of red, yellow, and green-colored seats, speakers that jutted out from the walls and announced impossible-to-understand things, and made more noise than any vehicle Roth had rode in—including an old truck his grandfather used to have that lacked both a muffler and a hood.

Roth sat in a part of the train where all of the seats were set up like booths, forcing people to either have a conversation or stare at each other in awkward silence. The man with the scraggly white beard and twelve one-pint bottles of liquor opted for the latter. The carriage was completely empty save for the two of them, and Roth didn’t understand what would prompt a human being to choose the seat in a booth across from someone only to stare and drink liquor in utter silence. Roth would occasionally try to make conversation with the man, trying to bring up topics like politics, the EU, or favorite brands of whiskey, but all the time, the man sat across from him. Staring. It was a three hour ride. Towards the end of the journey, ten minutes out of Galway’s station, the man belched and spat up bile, projecting it so that it landed on Roth’s side of the table. Judging from this, Roth guessed that the man didn’t like Americans.

The second important event (the interaction with the silent man being more of an interesting event, which is not necessarily the same thing) happened throughout the journey. As the train continued westward, passing countless sheep and cows, Roth started feeling much like he had when he first started writing in college. It was like he was thinking in a way that sounded like a Samuel Beckett play. Everything he thought came out in bursts and didn’t make much sense, but it sent a wave of joy through his mind and down his spine. As the train rolled on and the nonsense bursts became more frequent, Roth began to sincerely believe the Irish bartender. He became so enraptured with the possibility that there was a shack on some cliffs that held the key to his writing malaise, that he didn’t react to the bile-spit in anywhere near the disgusted way he should have. While it was still a quite disgusting act and Roth had dearly wished the train managers would walk down the aisles more often, Roth looked at the semi-solid hunk of spit with a sort of amused grin. The Rare felt like it was ready to show itself.

The next day, Roth was on the cliffs. He ignored the obscenely green grass as well as the sea foam crashing against the rocks quite a ways below. He also ignored the gulls that, for some reason, were diving at a family of tourists who were scrambling to get under cover in the overhang jutting out from O’Brien’s Tower. The only thing that was in his mind was what the Muse station would look like. While he knew it was there, Roth believed that since it was a place for Muses, it would have to be different for everyone. For Cassidy, it was an old country cottage, but what would it be for Roth? Would it be small like a drive-up coffee stand? Would it be like an information building in public park? Would it be a trailer? Would it be an amphitheater?

As he approached the mile mark south of the Tower, Roth saw a glint in the distance and he sped up to a run. The bumpy path worn by tourist feet didn’t slow him down, nor did the possibility that if he made a false step he’d go tumbling off of the more than hundred meter-high cliffs. He drew closer and he realized that the Muse station was completely unlike anything he’d considered.

It was centered in the middle of a small ring of stones, about thirty feet in diameter. It stood about seven feet tall and was made of stainless steel, hooked up to a generator. The Muse station he’d wished for, he’d known existed, was a hot dog stand. On the front of this stand there was a painting of a drunk Dionysus, clutching a hot dog with a pipe in his mouth. Manning the station was a man about five foot five inches tall wearing a Dublin Bohemians football jersey, dirty and torn jeans, and a Houston Astros baseball cap. He had a big, bushy black beard and was chewing pink bubblegum. Roth skidded to a halt in front of the stand, clutched the top, and panted, staring at the Muse.

The Muse popped his gum and said, “Hot dog?”

Roth, out of breath, said, “You a Muse?”

The man nodded. “You want a hot dog?”

“Why would I want a hot dog?”

The Muse shrugged. “It’s a hot dog stand. People like hot dogs, so they come to a hot dog stand.”

Roth shook his head, open mouthed. “But, you’re the Muse! You give inspiration!”

The Muse cocked an eyebrow. “We also do hot dogs. You should take one. Best hot dogs this side of the Atlantic.”

Roth shook his head again. “I came for inspiration!”

“You want inspiration? I jam a hot dog down your throat, you get inspired to write about the time you almost died in Ireland. How’s that stroke you?”
Roth gulped. “Not well.”

The Muse nodded. He opened the top of the stand and picked out a hot dog with a pair of tongs. With great care, he held the dog as his other hand reached in the back of the stand and pulled out a bun. He placed the hot dog in the bun, gently laid down the tongs, closed the top, and squirted ketchup and mustard on the dog in smooth, practiced, wavy lines. Then he opened another compartment and, bare-handed, took a handful of pickle relish and dumped it on the dog. He then placed the hot dog on a white porcelain plate from behind the stand and gave it to Roth. “Bon appetite.”

Roth took a bite out of the dog. His eyes widened and his eyebrows raised. It was the best damn hot dog he’d ever had. “That is good.”

The Muse nodded. “Damn right it is. Now. What do you want?”

Roth took another bite and belched. Yes, it was the best dog he’d ever had. “I want to get back to writing what I’m good at.”

The Muse laughed. “You’re Douglas Roth, right?”

“How’d you know?”

“I’m a fucking Muse, don’t ask questions. You just made shittons of money off of a movie deal based on a book you wrote when you were a senior in college. Have to be good at something in order to pull that off.”

“But that’s not what I’m doing now.”

The Muse snorted. “Let me tell you about a guy named Homer. Homer was a blind bastard. Smart as hell, brilliant poet, and humble as a chastised dog. Back when Homer wrote, one of us showed up, he’d write what we said without whining about not writing what he liked. He realized that his profession didn’t allow for the luxury of choosing what story to write.”

“But the stuff I’ve written, it’s generic!”

“What kind of an asshole are you, Roth?” The Muse asked, slapping the hot dog out of the writer’s hands. Roth looked at the delightful hunk of goodness on the dirty ground and the unbroken plate to the side. “Only reason it’s ‘generic’ is because life is a bitch and everyone has the extreme misfortune of knowing death personally. Calling it ‘generic’ like you do dehumanizes death and everything that just paid for your trip over here.”

“But I’ve been called to write the Rare!”

The Muse turned red in the face, took a hot dog out of the stand and slapped Roth in the face with it. “You are an ass! Called to write something? You’re just as pretentious as everyone you hate. Jee-zus! You writers and poets are the worst, always coming here complaining about not having access to us Muses but never willing to do the work yourselves aside from tripping on drugs, drinkin’ booze, and complaining about your sensitivity as artists. You know what the painters who come here do?”

Roth, thinking this was a rhetorical question, didn’t respond until the Muse hit him in the face with a hot dog again. “No.”

“They come here, make the hike, eat a hot dog, and walk away happy. Yeah, they’re pretentious, but all of you creative schmucks are. You come here thinking that you deserve special treatment or something. You know how many Muses there are?”

Roth shook his head.

“There are now eight of us. All the times you get inspiration, that’s just you working your magic, Roth. Only time we come along is once a decade or so, sprinkle some coffee grounds on you during the night, maybe hit you once or twice for kicks and then fly off to do the same thing for the other guy down the street who thinks he can write.”

“Huh. So that’s where the bruises come from.”

“Sometimes. Other times it’s the banshees.”

“Banshees.”

The Muse nodded. “They’re jerks. Scores of scores of scores of them, flying around, screwing with people, screaming people’s names just out of their field of vision.” The Muse stopped, spit on the ground, and took a drink from a water bottle behind the stand.

Roth looked out at the water smashing into the Cliffs. “So it’s all just an excuse.”

“About right. You’re still humans. You still want an excuse to not do work when you don’t particularly feel like it. You still do things you may not like. You think of something, though: You think the best writers always wrote what they wanted to? No.

“First thing you have to do is cut out this bull about the Rare versus the Real. Both of them are real, just as real as these rocks we’re on and the hot dogs you just ate. Everything’s got an iota of real in it, or people would reject it all outright. Just because you can write a story about talking rocks in a cave doesn’t mean it’s any more out there than anything else.”

“But it was a commentary on—”

“You ripped it off of Plato and Aristotle and we both know it.

“Second thing you gotta realize is simple. Stories change. Mentalities change. Sometimes you write sci-fi, sometimes magical realism, sometimes naturalism, sometimes you write slash fiction about a hobbit screwing an alien rabbit.”

“That was only one time in high school,” Douglas said. It was only once. It was the one time in high school that his work had an audience—it just so happened that the audience was his entire sophomore class. Laughing at him.

“Doesn’t matter. Still happened, Roth. Look: I know you’re not proud of those stories you wrote in the past three months and you’re concerned that you may be thought of as a sell-out by your fans. Thing you gotta realize though is that everything you write is just a story. Nothing you write will alter the fundamental nature of humans. It’s not because of what you like to write, it’s just because everything you write is just a story.” The Muse then paused and thought for a moment. He started to speak, then stopped again.

It was a few minutes before he spoke. “Course, you could always try to make a religion out of your writing, but that takes either extreme dedication to radically screwing over a large group of people or the balls to deal with some incredibly stupid people. You want to deal with that, Roth?”

“Not really.”

“Good, didn’t think so. Now—”

“Wait. You mean religion screwed people over?”

The Muse hit him in the face with a hot dog again. “Now’s not the time for that. Now listen. You’ve got my sympathy for the problem you’re having about struggling to write, but that’s all I can give you. I can’t assign you special treatment to come up with something ‘Rare’ as you put it. The last time we gave that treatment was to a guy in Patmos and he wrote some stuff that really messed up Western society. Something I can do is offer you another hot dog.”

A week or so later, Roth walked back in through the black front of the Crying Shamrock at noon. As a Pogues song started to quietly play over the speakers, he took the barstool he sat in before going to Ireland and tapped the bar top in time with the song. From the other side of the wraparound bar, Cassidy the bartender walked over and grinned. “Half pint of the black stuff, yeah?”

Roth grinned and nodded. “You know what the thing about the Irish train system is?”

“Ah,” said Cassidy. “Railing on the Iarnród Éireann, eh? Well, this’ll be a full-pint story.”

“Cassidy!” Mr. Sinclair yelled from the kitchen. “Cut out the Irish.”

Cassidy slipped into his fake American accent. “Sorry boss!” He went back to his natural voice: “Prick.”

mexicanjumpingskeleton

R.A. Lafferty ~ Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas

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a danse macabre supplémentaires classique
The place called Sodom was bad enough.
But right down the road was the other town
—and that was even worse!

Manuel shouldn’t have been employed as a census taker. He wasn’t
qualified. He couldn’t read a map. He didn’t know what a map was. He
only grinned when they told him that North was at the top.

He knew better.

But he did write a nice round hand, like a boy’s hand. He knew Spanish,
and enough English. For the sector that was assigned to him he would not
need a map. He knew it better than anyone else, certainly better than
any mapmaker. Besides, he was poor and needed the money.

They instructed him and sent him out. Or they thought that they had
instructed him. They couldn’t be sure.

“Count everyone? All right. Fill in everyone? I need more papers.”

“We will give you more if you need more. But there aren’t so many in
your sector.”

“Lots of them. _Lobos_, _tejones_, _zorros_, even people.”

“Only the _people_, Manuel! Do not take the animals. How would you write
up the animals? They have no names.”

“Oh, yes. All have names. Might as well take them all.”

“Only people, Manuel.”

“_Mulos?_”

“No.”

“_Conejos?_”

“No, Manuel, no. Only the people.”

“No trouble. Might as well take them all.”

“Only people–God give me strength!–only people, Manuel.”

“How about little people?”

“Children, yes. That has been explained to you.”

“_Little_ people. Not children, little people.”

“If they are people, take them.”

“How big they have to be?”

“It doesn’t make any difference how big they are. If they are people,
take them.”

That is where the damage was done.

The official had given a snap judgement, and it led to disaster. It was
not his fault. The instructions are not clear. Nowhere in all the
verbiage does it say how big they have to be to be counted as people.

Manuel took Mula and went to work. His sector was the Santa Magdalena, a
scrap of bald-headed and desolate mountains, steep but not high, and so
torrid in the afternoons that it was said that the old lava sometimes
began to writhe and flow again from the sun’s heat alone.

In the center valley there were five thousand acres of slag and
vitrified rock from some forgotten old blast that had melted the hills
and destroyed their mantle, reducing all to a terrible flatness. This
was called Sodom. It was strewn with low-lying ghosts as of people and
objects, formed when the granite bubbled like water.

Away from the dead center the ravines were body-deep in chaparral, and
the hillsides stood gray-green with old cactus. The stunted trees were
lower than the giant bushes and yucca.

Manuel went with Mula, a round easy man and a sparse gaunt mule. Mula
was a mule, but there were other inhabitants of the Santa Magdalena of a
genus less certain.

Yet even about Mula there was an oddity in her ancestry. Her paternal
grandfather had been a goat. Manuel once told Mr. Marshal about this,
but Mr. Marshal had not accepted it.

“She is a mule. Therefore, her father was a jack. Therefore his father
was also a jack, a donkey. It could not be any other way.”

Manuel often wondered about that, for he had raised the whole strain of
animals, and he remembered who had been with whom.

“A donkey! A jack! Two feet tall and with a beard and horns. I always
thought that he was a goat.”

Manuel and Mula stopped at noon on Lost Soul Creek. There would be no
travel in the hot afternoon. But Manuel had a job to do, and he did it.
He took the forms from one of the packs that he had unslung from Mula,
and counted out nine of them. He wrote down all the data on nine people.
He knew all there was to know about them, their nativities and their
antecedents. He knew that there were only nine regular people in the
nine hundred square miles of the Santa Magdalena.

But he was systematic, so he checked the list over again and again.
There seemed to be somebody missing. Oh, yes, himself. He got another
form and filled out all the data on himself.

Now, in one way of looking at it, his part in the census was finished.
If only he had looked at it that way, he would have saved worry and
trouble for everyone, and also ten thousand lives. But the instructions
they had given him were ambiguous, for all that they had tried to make
them clear.

So very early the next morning he rose and cooked beans, and said,
“Might as well take them all.”

He called Mula from the thorn patch where she was grazing, gave her salt
and loaded her again. Then they went to take the rest of the census, but
in fear. There was a clear duty to get the job done, but there was also
a dread of it that his superiors did not understand. There was reason
also why Mula was loaded so she could hardly walk with packs of census
forms.

Manuel prayed out loud as they climbed the purgatorial scarp above Lost
Souls Creek, “_ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora_–” the very gulches
stood angry and stark in the early morning–“_y en la hora de neustra
muerte._”

Three days later an incredible dwarf staggered into the outskirts of
High Plains, Texas, followed by a dying wolf-sized animal that did not
look like a wolf.

A lady called the police to save the pair from rock-throwing kids who
might have killed them, and the two as yet unclassified things were
taken to the station house.

The dwarf was three foot high, a skeleton stretched over with
brown-burnt leather. The other was an un-canine looking dog-sized beast,
so full of burrs and thorns that it might have been a porcupine. It was
a nightmare replica of a shrunken mule.

The midget was mad. The animal had more presence of mind: she lay down
quietly and died, which was the best she could do, considering the state
that she was in.

“Who is census chief now?” asked the mad midget. “Is Mr. Marshal’s boy
the census chief?”

“Mr. Marshal is, yes. Who are you? How do you know Marshal? And what is
that which you are pulling out of your pants, if they are pants?”

“Census list. Names of everybody in the Santa Magdalena. I had to steal
it.”

“It looks like microfilm, the writing is so small. And the roll goes on
and on. There must be a million names here.”

“Little bit more, little bit more. I get two bits a name.”

They got Marshal there. He was very busy, but he came. He had been given
a deadline by the mayor and the citizen’s group. He had to produce a
population of ten thousand people for High Plains, Texas; and this was
difficult, for there weren’t that many people in the town. He had been
working hard on it, though; but he came when the police called him.

“You Marshal’s little boy? You look just like your father,” said the
midget.

“That voice, I should know that voice even if it’s cracked to pieces.
That has to be Manuel’s voice.”

“Sure, I’m Manuel. Just like I left, thirty-five years ago.”

“You can’t be Manuel, shrunk three feet and two hundred pounds and aged
a million.”

“You look here at my census slip. It says I’m Manuel. And here are nine
more of the regular people, and one million of the little people. I
couldn’t get them on the right forms, though. I had to steal their
list.”

“You can’t be Manuel,” said Marshal.

“He can’t be Manuel,” said the big policemen and the little policeman.

“Maybe not, then,” the dwarf conceded. “I thought I was, but I wasn’t
sure. Who am I then? Let’s look at the other papers and see which one I
am.”

“No, you can’t be any of them either, Manuel. And you surely can’t be
Manuel.”

“Give him a name anyhow and get him counted. We got to get to that ten
thousand mark.”

“Tell us what happened, Manuel–if you are. Which you aren’t. But tell
us.”

“After I counted the regular people I went to count the little people. I
took a spade and spaded off the top of their town to get in. But they
put an _encanto_ on me, and made me and Mula run a treadmill for
thirty-five years.”

“Where was this?”

“At the little people town. Nuevo Danae. But after thirty-five years the
_encanto_ wore off and Mula and I stole the list of names and ran away.”

“But where did you really get this list of so many names written so
small?”

“Suffering saddle sores, Marshal, don’t ask the little bug so many
questions. You got a million names in your hand. Certify them! Send them
in! There’s enough of us here right now. We declare that place annexed
forthwith. This will make High Plains the biggest town in the whole
state of Texas.”

So Marshal certified them and sent them into Washington. This gave High
Plains the largest percentage increase of any city in the nation, but it
was challenged. There were some soreheads in Houston who said that it
wasn’t possible. They said High Plains had nowhere near that many people
and there must have been a miscount.

And in the days that the argument was going on, they cleaned up and fed
Manuel, if it were he, and tried to get from him a cogent story.

“How do you know it was thirty-five years you were on the treadmill,
Manuel?”

“Well, it seemed like thirty-five years.”

“It could have only been about three days.”

“Then how come I’m so old?”

“We don’t know that, Manuel, we sure don’t know that. How big were these
people?”

“Who knows? A finger long, maybe two?”

“And what is their town?”

“It is an old prairie-dog town that they fixed up. You have to dig down
with a spade to get to the streets.”

“Maybe they were really all prairie dogs, Manuel. Maybe the heat got you
and you only dreamed that they were little people.”

“Prairie dogs can’t write as good as on that list. Prairie dogs can’t
write hardly at all.”

“That’s true. The list is hard to explain. And such odd names on it
too.”

“Where is Mula? I don’t see Mula since I came back.”

“Mula just lay down and died, Manuel.”

“Gave me the slip. Why didn’t I think of that? Well, I’ll do it too. I’m
too worn out for anything else.”

“Before you do, Manuel, just a couple of last questions.”

“Make them real fast then. I’m on my way.”

“Did you know these little people were there before?”

“Oh, sure. There a long time.”

“Did anybody else ever see them?”

“Oh, sure. Everybody in the Santa Magdalena see them. Eight, nine people
see them.”

“And Manuel, how do we get to the place? Can you show us on a map?”

Manuel made a grimace, and died quietly as Mula had done. He didn’t
understand those maps at all, and took the easy way out.

They buried him, not knowing for sure whether he was Manuel come back,
or what he was.

There wasn’t much of him to bury.

It was the same night, very late and after he had been asleep, that
Marshal was awakened by the ring of an authoritative voice. He was being
harangued by a four-inch tall man on his bedside table, a man of
dominating presence and acid voice.

“Come out of that cot, you clown! Give me your name and station!”

“I’m Marshal, and I suspect that you are a late pig sandwich, or caused
by one. I shouldn’t eat so late.”

“Say ‘sir’ when you reply to me. I am no pig sandwich and I do not
commonly call on fools. Get on your feet, you clod.”

And wonderingly Marshal did.

“I want the list that was stolen. Don’t gape! Get it!”

“What list?”

“Don’t stall, don’t stutter. Get me our tax list that was stolen. It
isn’t words that I want from you.”

“Listen, you cicada, I’ll take you and–”

“You will not. You will notice that you are paralyzed from the neck
down. I suspect that you were always so from there up. Where is the
list?”

“S-sent it to Washington.”

“You bug-eyed behemoth! Do you realize what a trip that will be? You
grandfather of inanities, it will be a pleasure to destroy you!”

“I don’t know what you are, or if you are really. I don’t believe that
you even belong on the world.”

“Not belong on the world! We own the world. We can show written title to
the world. Can you?”

“I doubt it. Where did you get the title?”

“None of your business. I’d rather not say. Oh, well, we got it from a
promoter of sorts. A con man, really. I’ll have to admit that we were
taken, but we were in a spot and needed a world. He said that the larger
bifurcates were too stupid to be a nuisance. We should have known that
the stupider a creature, the more of a nuisance it is.”

“I had about decided the same thing about the smaller a creature. We may
have to fumigate that old mountain mess.”

“Oh, you can’t harm us. We’re too powerful. But we can obliterate you in
an instant.”

“Hah!”

“Say ‘Hah, _sir_’ when you address me. Do you know the place in the
mountain that is called Sodom?”

“I know the place. It was caused by a large meteor.”

“It was caused by one of these.”

What he held up was the size of a grain of sand. Marshal could not see
it in detail.

“There was another city of you bug-eyed beasts there,” said the small
martinet. “You wouldn’t know about it. It’s been a few hundred years. We
decided it was too close. Now I have decided that you are too close.”

“A thing that size couldn’t crack a walnut.”

“You floundering fop, it will blast this town flat!”

“What will happen to you?”

“Nothing. I don’t even blink for things like that.”

“How do you trigger it off.”

“You gaping goof, I don’t have time to explain that to you. I have to
get to Washington.”

It may be that Marshal did not believe himself quite awake. He certainly
did not take the threat seriously enough. For the little man did trigger
it off.

When the final count was in, High Plains did not have the highest
percentage gain in population in the nation. Actually it showed the
sharpest decline, from 7313 to nothing.

They were going to make a forest preserve out of the place, except that
it has no trees worthy of the name. Now it is proposed to make it the
Sodom and Gomorrah State Park from the two mysterious scenes of
desolation there, just seven miles apart.

It is an interesting place, as wild a region as you will ever find, and
is recommended for the man who has seen everything.

second_version_of_triptych_1944-_2

 

Two by Richard Shelton

Standard

ORIGIN AND ESSENCE

I love the night
The black ample evening
When all things cheap-
The paltry, the trivial, the gratuitous-
Sleep blanketed beneath
The moth-colored lace
Of silenced days decline
Leaving the mind open
Free to roam
Vacancies of inactivity
Beyond the cluttered wealth of working day,
Diving deep
Deep into depths of self
Deep past echoes of industry and obligation.
Plunged into absence and emptiness
Where idle reflection
Mirrors origin and essence.

 

SEVERED SELF

Severed from my expansive self,
I sift through slivers of being
Defecating fright
At the reckless sight
Of this breathing thing
This vegetable growth,
This vacuum of functioning atoms
So ordered and unknown
Through which the seeds of tedious life
Are gathered and needlessly sown.

 

Richard Shelton is a painter, whose writings include poems and commentary on art history. His writing appears in publications such as Willard & Maple, The Chaffin Journal, and The Eclectic Muse. His artwork appears in the Smithsonian Art Institutes, Hirshhorn Museum, and as well as other museums in the U.S.

scream

Audrey Isabella ~ Summer Suite

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Warming

The sky blackens and forests roar,
ash clouds above scalding ground
concrete snaps underfoot.
Fires travel: the land is everchanging
growing hotter and hotter.
what does not melt, will burn

While grown men across the desert plain
cream themselves over the cricket;

“This is for the ashes, for the ashes,
only one more wicket,
then we shall inherit the earth.”

Oblivious in the knowledge proven that the
world is dying
in their hands.

A dead world, emptied of riches, left
to them in their
sticky, white hands.

Mango

Mango juice, crisp and fresh drips from sunshine flesh,
clutched in hands a precious treasure, down my thighs.
You lick me clean for the first time,
and catch my breath in your throat.

Crickets chirp and croak,
squeal and sing: they give away
the sound of sweltering heat on a summer night.
This sweet nectar will sustain me for hours, stain
my skin golden, a kiss from Apollo.

A loose shirt, meant to flow like water
sticks to my belly wet with sweat, that drips
from my scalp down long red curls.
Like a mermaid, I learn to walk again;
take my first steps after your kisses,
I stumble over.

Joint in hand, a real rocknrolla on a pineapple express
whisks me away to witness the rebirth
of a once nymphet child, now goddess grown.
Hear our oral bildungsroman, the age
of an enlightened mortality has begun:
we haven’t time for innocent play anymore.

Mango juice drips down my thighs,
I cast my voice and drown out the crickets
while the memory of your kiss still burns my mind.
I will forever remember that summer, that night.

 

Audrey El-Osta is a Melbourne based emerging writer. She studies a BA in linguistics at Monash University, is the Vice President of the Creative Writers Club, and has loved language passionately since childhood. She recently won the Youth Incentive Award for her poem Persephone, in the Poetry D’Amour Competition run by WA Poets, and has had two other poems published in their annual anthology. She aims to soon publish a collection of poetry, exploring sexuality, femininity, memories, and mental illness, all with some comic elements.
Read more of Audrey’s poetry in DM 89

悪夢

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