Nighttime Isn’t For Lovers

No, nighttime is for pizza boys like you:

  • making deliveries in a rattletrap hatchback that’s older than you are;
  • getting lost between two streets with the same name that jog and split like fighter jets evading Iraqi missiles;
  • putting a pizza box on its side in the back of your car, resulting in the cheese sliding down to one end of the pizza;
  • having customers refuse to pay you;
  • backing your car into a fire hydrant and having the engine stop, only to have the fender magically spring back into shape and the motor cough into life again, meaning you could actually continue to work for your tenth hour in a row;
  • cutting a pizza with strokes so uneven that your boss said he couldn’t sell it to anyone and deducted it from your paycheque even though it would taste the goddamn same, and then warned you that the owner was watching you on closed-circuit TV so you had to be careful, although you weren’t sure what he meant by careful, because you came back from one delivery around 2:30 a.m. and he was telling two hookers (or maybe just twenty-somethings going for pizza after a night on the town – you were too young to know the difference) how while you were away he had punched out some guy who was making a racket – those were his words, making a racket, throwing chairs around and shit – and the cops had come and taken the guy outside and beaten the living shit out of him, colouring the sidewalk outside the pizzeria crimson – which, by the time you arrived, had conveniently been washed away by the rain that was falling so very hard that night – then hauled him off in the squad car, his head resting against that portcullis-type metal grate and, like, obviously dripping;
  • breaking up a drug deal at your boss’s request by wiping the window outside by the participants, two sketchy looking men, one young, one old, one white, one black, and having the old black one get up and come outside and ask if he could kiss you;
  • mixing pizza dough by hand according to what the instructions said, which, sleep-deprived, you thought meant, like, actually by hand, like, dipping your hand in the cauldron and swirling it around, until the sixteen-year-old Mexican kid started laughing at you and asked you if you had a girlfriend, which you couldn’t lie about, and said, no, at eighteen you’d still had nothing but false starts, which you’d settled on as a line because it had a sense of mystery to it, like, maybe you’d had some torrid, sexual affairs that just never coalesced into a real relationship, not just that your false starts included a couple of girls that had seemed to enjoy talking to you, and then got freaked out when you showed any interest in them, and made up excuses for why they couldn’t go to a ska show with you, and when you did actually go on your one and only date of high school, to a movie starring Renée Zellweger, which you’d managed to corral Denise, recently arrived from Cayley, Alberta, into going to with you because she wanted to see it anyway and you thought it looked good, lying through your (now perfectly straight and braces-less) teeth, and you’d offered to pick her up in your shitty hatchback, but she’d said she had to run some errands first so she’d drive herself in her mom’s, like, Mercedes S-class, and so you met at the movie theatre and you sat together and when you sat back she sat forward and when you sat forward she sat back, all this while talking about school, about a certain drama teacher notorious for his attraction to a certain female student, pretty much the only topic of conversation that was universal at your school, and a topic in which you were particularly well-versed – you and your friends having produced a crew show after the end of that year’s musical’s run, a crew show in which you, yourself, had played that certain drama teacher, having stuffed a pillow under the plaid shirt you wore with the cuffs rolled up in his style, and having said Oh Andrea! many times, for Andrea was the girl’s name, the object of his affections, drawing out the A sound so it was more like Aaaaaaaaaaandrea while making vigorous pelvic thrusting motions, while simultaneously in the background, your friends, referencing Gene Wilder’s performance in The Producers, shouted Fat! Fat! Fat!, and after which, the certain drama teacher had come up behind you on the stairs and put his flabby arm around your shoulders and said, smirking, Do you want to live to see tomorrow? – this topic you discussed with Denise, and she laughed, but laughed nervously, and you watched the movie, and afterwards she said Thanks for putting up with seeing that with me, like she knew that you didn’t give a shit about Renée Zellweger’s plump but good-hearted character, wanted only to spend time with her, with Denise, to stroke her always too-red cheeks, to share the enormous pressure of wanting to love, and love selflessly, another person, but when you asked if she wanted to go to a certain Seattle-based coffee shop chain, having heard from her friend Tania, who had a nose like the keel of a ship, that Denise absolutely loved that particular chain’s dairy-based drinks, she had said, no, she had to do errands after as well, and that was that, and then afterwards just stopped talking to you, like, she would go out of her way to avoid you, and her friend Samantha, the one whose black nail polish spiralled down the drain like dark matter into a black hole, had at some point actually said to her (you heard second-hand) that she was ripping your heart right out and stomping on it by ignoring you, and Denise had just changed the subject, in the way your grandmother always did whenever someone brought up a Topic Nice People Didn’t Discuss, like The Way Your Uncle Was Managing Your Departed Grandfather’s Property On Robson Street And Whether It Was Or Wasn’t A Tax Dodge, and then on grad night Denise had given another guy blisters, you heard, a perma-stoned jerkoff from Michigan who happened to have almost the same name as you – not that you wanted blisters, but there was something kind of sweet about the type of earnestness that would result in failing to alter one’s technique despite visibly reddening skin – and then you hadn’t seen her since, high school having been over for a month by the time you got the job at the pizza parlor and your having no reason whatsoever to be anywhere near her person, though you had driven past her house once, being curious about how she lived, her mother owning an S-class she allowed her seventeen-year-old daughter to drive, and then immediately felt guilty, so goddamn guilty, because despite your bottomless self-pity you had never done anything in your life that you truly regretted, and so you had an excess of guilt to go along with your excess of love, straining at the floodgates of your body;
  • not telling the Mexican boy any of this but feeling, deep down, that somehow he could tell that your experience with romance was limited to going to one movie, that the only time a girl had ever touched your junk was when in grade four you were doing, like, sprints in gym class and you ran right into Morgan, who, somehow, in grabbing for purchase to prevent a faceplant, had grabbed a handful of your sweatpants that included your (obviously tiny, nine-year-old) penis;
  • listening to the Mexican boy laugh, laugh at you in your XL powder-blue pizza man shirt, laugh because at sixteen he was a better person than you would ever be, as he was talented at sports and making out with girls at parties.

But nighttime isn’t for lovers. Nighttime is for pizza boys, and now, you and Pablo have a job to do.

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Jeremy Hanson-Finger attended Carleton University, where he co-founded the literary erotica journal The Moose & Pussy and wrote his MA thesis on dirty bits in postmodern American novels. He now lives in Toronto, where he is the co-editor of Dragnet Mag (dragnetmag.net). He is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled Airplanes and Bad Things Happening to Women. Let it be known, however, that he likes women and doesn’t want bad things to happen to them.

Captain Stanley

Captain Stanley was brave, brave enough, anyway. He captained a rowboat with a soaring mast probably meant for a fairly large sailboat, and a tiny cannon he nailed to the very modest prow’s awkwardly carved figurehead, which was meant to resemble Captain Stanley’s mother, in her youth.

Captain Stanley’s fixation on his mother was weird maybe to some people. Yeah. But she was still his quintessence of womanhood, despite what they might think.

The figurehead itself better resembled a hacked at and unpolished block of wood, though.

Captain Stanley was proud of it, nevertheless. Once even, in a fit of pride, he showed off his craftsmanship to his mother, but she was unmoved and shrill. He cursed himself for thinking he had anything to offer the quintessence of womanhood.

***

Captain Stanley wore the curved half trunk of an oak tree. His half-trunk choat (he spelled coat with an ‘h’ for whatever reason) had two armholes out of which his arms managed to wriggle but with considerably shortened range of motion. Captain Stanley didn’t care. He would regale anyone who’d listen with stories of his choat’s great buoyancy.

Captain Stanley’s journeys led him from a local estuary and down the length of the coast of New Hampshire, all the way to Salem — though he made this journey only once. It was an accident that he started on this journey in the first place. He’d Rip Van Winkled himself into a deep slumber; and he awoke with no sense of where precisely he’d drifted. But he made the most of this fateful turn, or that is, until tragedy shivered his timbers.

***

The trouble began when Captain Stanley’s small cannon fired or misfired on a yacht owned and occupied by wealthy New Englanders who wore pompous seafaring attire like white sweater vests and sailing caps with stitched blue anchors set just above their brims.

The trouble continued when Captain Stanley misguidedly attempted to board the besieged yacht. And having already winged the arm of the white-haired, healthy-tanned skipper / owner of the vessel with his mini-cannonball, Captain Stanley was not to be assisted in this endeavor by anyone onboard. Objects were thrown upon him. Naval warships were summoned to sink him.

The odds of a triumphant victory were not very good, then, Captain Stanley surmised. He was sad that it had come to this, but not sad that he was a pirate. He would never be sad for that. And now he would die.

“Kill him, kill him!” the occupants of the yacht seethed, urging the naval vessels to unleash the full brunt of their weaponry.

***

Captain Stanley’s mind wandered, and he remembered a day in his youth when a cousin had complained the apples his mother bought were rotten and terrible. “No!” exclaimed cherubic Captain Stanley, tearfully eating so many apples as fast as he could. But they were rotten and terrible, and – oh shoot – that’s what Captain Stanley soon realized, puking into a washbasin. But now he was a pirate, his own man, and the American Navy and wealthy New Englanders would kill him for it.

“Really terrible apples,” he grimaced proudly, not once thinking of the tragedy about to shiver his timbers.

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Matt Rowan will blog and blog often, here.

A Simple Story

This is a story.  It is not a very good story, but it is not very long, either, so you will not have to endure it for too long a time.  It is a story about a girl, fourteen, and a boy, twelve.  The boy and the girl, as you may guess if you have read any literature written within the past ten years, were lovers.  This may sound disgusting to you, but probably not.  We, in the twenty-first century, are used to it.  The boy falls out of love with the girl, of course, he doesn’t really even know what love is, but he has something of a strong passion, for a twelve year old, and the girl kills herself.  The story is about the girl, really.  The boy only figures in as a kind of foil.  You will see what I mean.  I hope you enjoy the story, although I am sure that you probably won’t.

There once was a girl, as I have said.  I’ll name her now, call her Francine, it’s not such a common name that many will be offended and want to have their own reexamined once it is said, but it is not so uncommon as to seem frivolous or flippant.  Francine, then.  When our story begins Francine has just come back from school, where she met a boy, lets call him Tom, that being a very American, wholesome name, having the effect of causing the reader to reanalyze, perhaps, a portion of his American, or wholesome, values.  Francine liked the boy, thought he was cute.  Although he was younger than her, it was only by a year and a half.  They were at the same middle school, it was nearing the end of the year, and, while Francine had noticed Tom often, she had never spoken to him before.

Let me pause here, to mention the fact that, although the literary style I am employing is a bit trite, it makes the progression of the story flow in an almost uninterruptedly pure and unadulterated style.  There is little to be lost in this method, besides for the obvious.

Francine and Tom share a bit of a romance.  There was sex, because this is an early twenty-first century story, and sex is almost a given.  But the sex does not come for a couple of days.  Tom is young, and unsure of himself.  Francine, though older, is, let’s face it, only fourteen, and while she is no Lolita, she is no Madonna either, if you know what I mean (some of the younger readers of this story might not understand that reference.  Explain it to them, oh children of the nineties).  Francine and Tom had passionate sex at Francine’s house, in her bed, in fact, four days after they began going out.

Going out is what they called it, not going steady or dating, going out.  We’re going out.  Going out for a pizza, going out for a walk in the park, going out to have sex.  That is what it was.  Francine was in love with Tom’s hairless, pure, passionately wonderful body.  Because this is a ‘post-modern’ story, Tom can have passionate sex when he is twelve years old.  Come on, stranger things have happened.  The funniest part, for Francine, is that when she loses her Virginity to a boy almost two years younger than herself (had she lived, she would have always had a thing for younger men), her mother is cooking, downstairs (the passionately interested reader – I am sure there are not many, but there must be one or two – is probably wondering what this homey, nineteenfifties-type woman is doing in the pages of this passionately modern story.  I admit, she is a mistake, but I cannot get rid of her.  She exists.  She will not go away).  They eat dinner, together, afterwards, Mother, Francine, and Tom.  There is no father.  Mother is divorced.  Let us not worry about what mother does for a living; this is only a short story, not a novel, and elements are allowed to be left unexplained.

They have sex, again.  One time is necessary, the second is optional, but is given preferential treatment.  A third time would be overdoing it, so he breaks up with her before they have the chance.

Francine is heartbroken.  She reminds Tom of the passionate sex.  He seems to be engrossed in a video game.  She does not understand.  She reminds Tom of his love for her.  He hangs up the phone.

She decides to shoot herself.  There is no gun.  Instead, she cuts her hands, with scissors, from school, in the bathroom.  It is a slow death.  She watches the blood oozing out of her hands, and thinks of her love for Tom, the young boy who is, just now, almost done with the second to last level of the video game he has been obsessively into, just as he was obsessively into her, for three days.  She loses consciousness, without a thought of her mother.  Her only thought is that Tom will join her, some day.  Tom never does.

If you are surprised at the ending of this story, you shouldn’t be.  All modern stories end in death and despair.  At least the good ones do, and we don’t really care much about the others.  The trashy stories that line the shelves of any reputable book conglomerate may end happily, but, come on, who are they kidding?  The good stuff ends in death.  This trend goes all the way back to Hemingway, who didn’t even know how to end a novel without killing off all his main characters.  It got so real for him that the only thing he knew how to do, in the end, was blow his own head off.

What can I do?  I just want to write good literature.

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Bezalel Stern exists. Follow him @ twitter.com/bezalelstern. Read more at bezalelstern.tumblr.com.

People Always Don’t Think I’ll Box Them But They’re Wrong

People don’t pretty much see it but I’m a pretty tough guy. That’s so, so I basically have gotta prove it a lot of near every day. So I grab guys who think they can get away with not boxing me, when it’s “Hey, I’m ready to box and so should you be.” But they pretty basically never are much of the time ready to box. It’s that they think I won’t be ready, but I always am. And so it’s them that are pretty usually not the ones ready.

So I got an edge, almost always.

Except when pretty basically they’ve got enough balls to be ready later after not being ready from the start. And so I get hit, in my head usually pretty often. So it’s true I won’t stop and I hit them back, but then they hit me back. Then there’s a melee pretty much. And there’s chairs and there’s tables and they get broken with a car which will pretty often drive and hit someone, when I’m not too hurt in the eyes to find my keys to drive basically.

People sometimes especially don’t think I’ll box them, and won’t especially fight back because they’re too lame and are shit out of muscle. I don’t like beating these people basically but I do because they pretty much shouldn’t of have thought I wasn’t gonna hit them. People need to sleep in their beds, know what I mean?

Specially this one night yesterday, when I was boxing and was landing face hits with my boxing hands. Because as I’ll have you know this guy, I think this guy was a guy ‘cause I was boxing so hard I forget, he goes: “Hey buddy, whadda the hell do you gotta be hitting me with your hands so much for?” And every time he asks I say to him, or the lady, you gotta never doubt in me buddy basically because I won’t pretty much be taking it. I basically gotta hit you now so next time you’ll learn something from this time.

But do they ever do? N-O spells that they D-O-N-T, basically, ‘cause some of them guys and ladies do. But usually new ones don’t and so I gotta go boxing again. It’s tough for my hands that I use to do the hitting of the boxing.

And always basically a new problem comes into my life like these assaults they bring to me and say I do. But that ain’t pretty much the whole picture, so the judge will know my side. People honorable judge you got to know that they can’t be let to do that stuff about not respecting and figure that I’ll not have a problem with them disrespecting. I mean, I ain’t ever had to hit a judge so far as I know but if I’m in court soon, which I will be on account of assaults, then what is it left for me then to go to the judge and box because even judges gotta know I won’t be thought as a wussy would be to people.

So now I’m thinking about everybody basically as if they was the judge doing me wrong, and so I’m boxing a lotta days right now and I think some of them were cop boxing matches. I think cops pretty much disrespect me and my boxing worst of all. So now it gets me thinking about boxing cops pretty basically. I ought to, I think so. So that’s true to me.

Saints

When Sletten had finally made the decision to take his own life, he felt such deep calm that he wondered why he hadn’t decided long before.  That profound serenity abided with him until his ex-father-in-law called, about five minutes later.

“How are the birds this year?” he asked as if it mattered to Sletten.

“Yesterday, I saw one sitting on my back fence wishing he were dead.”

“Well, did you help him out?”

“No.  He looked so contented there, I didn’t have the heart to bring him out of it.”

“We’ll be there in four hours.”

“Who’s we?”

“Me and Byron.”  Byron was Sletten’s ex-brother-in-law.

Sletten felt miserable.  He walked through his house that just minutes ago had acquired the grandeur of a mausoleum but had since slipped back into the squalid dwelling of a man who hadn’t quite–and certainly never would–find his proper dimension.  Clothes festooned the furniture.  All flat surfaces had parts of newspapers lying open or refolded so that none of the edges matched leaving tunnels like a kid’s badly rolled spyglass.  In the kitchen, empty boxes of grocery store pizzas and TV dinners, too large for the garbage can, took dominion over everything–over the coffee stains on the counter and the fuscous brown linoleum floor, uniform except where he had made a traffic pattern shuffling his boots.

When Ellen, his wife, had left him, Sletten assumed that he was divorcing her family, too.  In fact, her dad and brother, if anything, found new respect for him after the split–like he had finally wised up.  So he didn’t know if he should feel exonerated or insulted.  He chose both.  Dissatisfied with the level of filth in the place, he poured the remains of a box of Trix on the floor and stomped around the kitchen, taking solemn pleasure in realizing that the first cold snap of the fall was in the forecast, and the furnace showed no evidence whatsoever of kicking in.

He dug around in the hall closet and found his old Mossberg 20-gauge with three-shell clip and poly choke.  Unused for at least fifteen years, it could malfunction, explode and kill him, if the world cared about such justice.  The hunter bags himself.  That reminded him.  He had no hunting license.  He laughed.  Then he laughed some more.  When he came out of it, he opened the front door and looked between the houses across the street where a bank of gray-black cloud approached like doom from the west.  He wanted to work up another fit of laughter there on the front porch, but he couldn’t quite pull it off.  Maybe he should do it now so that Vince and Byron would find his carcass.  He imagined them ringing the doorbell, knocking, peeking through the picture window, seeing his exploded flesh decorating the living room.  It’s a long rainbow to drive for that pot of gold.  No.  A weekend with his ex in laws would make his obliteration all the sweeter when they left.

It was a Saturday morning in late November after a long, beautiful fall–beautiful if there were anything else in his life that remotely fit that adjective.  Sletten had been through all that.  There was nothing.  He started to oil the shotgun, wipe away fifteen years of dust, but that too he stopped.  What the hell for?  That, he decided, was the best answer for every question he could think of: what the hell for?  It was a kernel of wisdom that he carried around with him as he located his long underwear, wool socks and fleece-lined jacket.  And when he got sick of that one, he tried, “Why the hell not?”  He wasn’t sure why he didn’t like that one quite so well, but he suspected that it had a sneaky optimism about it, and he was in no mood for that.

Sletten reflected back on other outdoor adventures, trips that he had planned and executed by himself or with Ellen.  Fishing trips to swollen springtime rivers, when he held a stupid notion that he was following some ancient manly ritual, answering a primeval calling to engage with the natural world.  Yet he never once caught a fish big enough to keep, and it was a great day if he didn’t fall in or at least if he didn’t achieve total immersion–which he nearly always did.  He would climb into the car, soaking wet, turn the heater all the way up and shiver so badly he could hardly stay on the road.  Once he thought he had discovered a hole of huge rainbow trout.  He could see them swimming around beneath him, but for three hours he tried every fly, every lure he had and never got a nibble.  The next day he came down with poison ivy.  So why was he now going out into that outdoor world that had been the source of so much misery–and to go hunting, of all things?  Why the hell not?

By the time Vince and Byron got there, it was noon and the sky looked like the inside of a mailbox.

“Great day for it,” Vince said.  “Won’t be much competition.”  Vince was in his fifties and had a face that looked like it had been constructed out of old pieces of sidewalk.  He had been a dentist but one day gave it up, said it was too dull.  He hunted and fished for a few months and then took a job as a stevedore.  His wife tried to have him committed, and when that didn’t work she left him for a general practitioner, who bought her a Volvo.  In the meantime, Vince worked his way up to foreman, and now he was practically the commissioner down at the dock and was having a hell of a time talking to people who could talk back.

Byron was a man without a purpose.  He had several degrees in subjects that Sletten couldn’t remember or pronounce.  He wrote articles for a weekly newspaper about sanitation–though when he read one, Sletten knew it was all a sham.  Byron didn’t really believe what he was saying.  It was just something to do while he waited for his life’s true calling.  What horseshit!  What it did for him, though, was to keep him in a perpetual readiness for that epiphany, that rapture.  He always seemed to expect that the next thing could be the best thing, and he wanted to be ready.  Byron was in a way the complete opposite of Sletten, who expected the next thing to be the worst yet, and he was seldom disappointed.

He set his shotgun in Vince’s truck canopy and met Byron’s young Springer spaniel.  Liver and white spotted, with eyes sadder than a Bassett’s, he had obviously been whelped yesterday.  “This is his first hunt,” Byron said, “but he’s got good bloodlines.  I got a great deal on him.”

Snow started to fall as they drove out of town toward a waste way that Vince had hunted years ago.  Byron sat in the middle, his gangly body slightly stooped, his eyes scanning the countryside for miracles.  Vince was telling a story about hunting out here with a friend years ago and their Ford wagon broke down.  So they hunted their way back to town and eventually walked into a parts store with three pheasant roosters and a chukar.  They bought a water pump, left the birds as collateral for some borrowed tools, walked back to the Ford, installed the pump and drove back for the birds.  Meanwhile, the clerk at the store had called his wife to come and get the birds and cook them up because there was no way the hunters would come back for them.  He’d write off the tools.  When the clerk saw them walk in he felt so bad he invited them home to supper.

“We stayed in contact for years after that,” Vince said.  “Then he and his wife got divorced and she came over to Seattle.  She called me one night.  Must have been real lonely.  Of course, I’ve always been true to Byron’s mother.”

“Dad, you’ve been divorced for years,” Byron said.

Vince chuckled.  “I send her a package of game every year just to remind her of what she’s missing and to say no hard feelings.  She can’t stand hunting.  Wonder what she does with the meat.”  He glanced at Byron for an answer, but he just shrugged his shoulders.  “Once I sent her some jackrabbit.  G.P. called me and told me to quit harassing his wife.  I said, ‘Harassing, hell, it’s a gift!”  He said, ‘We both know what it is, and I’m warning you to stop it.’  I said, ‘Well, what are you gonna do, give me an injection, you wimp?'”  He chuckled again.  “You see,” he said.  “Even unrequited love can have some levity.”

Snow was falling harder, and the wind had picked up.  By the time they pulled in by the waste way, flakes were blowing horizontal to the ground and stung like birdshot.  They got their guns out of the back and loaded up.  The Springer jumped down, circled around the place for a few seconds and returned to the truck, looking up longingly at the canopy and whining.  The hunters spread out about twenty-five feet apart and started combing the brush.  Byron took the side nearest the water where the going was the hardest.  He had to wind around small stands of scrub willows, red osier dogwoods and occasionally some Russian olive.  So the going was slow.  Every snowflake pinged off of Sletten’s face, and he was beginning to regret that he hadn’t stuck to his original plan and ended it all that morning.  The Springer hung close to Byron and reminded Sletten of the cartoon character that flits from tree to tree being mock sneaky.  It would find the thickest tree and stand behind it downwind until Byron passed by.  Then it would sprint to the next tree.  If the dog had any nose for game birds, it disguised that instinct very well.  Bundled up as he was, with ski gloves on his hands, lifting his old work boots over the clumps of grass and sagebrush, Sletten felt as if he were toting an anvil.  It occurred to him that if they did flush anything, they could save their shells and just let the wind do the killing.

While he was occupied feeling sorry for himself, Sletten got too far ahead of Byron, and when a bird flushed off to his right, he was the only one who had a shot at it.  He got the safety off on the second try and blasted away in what most would agree was the general direction of the bird.  But the pheasant was flying with the wind, and even if Sletten’s aim had been true, he doubted that the BBs could have caught up with the quarry.  In any case, his shot was not entirely wasted, as he had brought down the top branch of a Russian olive.  “Hen,” Vince said.

Their plan was to hunt down one side of the waste way until they came to a road over the canal, then hunt back up the other side.  It was a good plan in theory, but by the time they got back to the truck, Sletten’s clothes were so frozen he couldn’t have raised his gun to fire if a pheasant had charged him.  Meanwhile, Vince had brought down two roosters and Byron one.  Sletten suspected that they were using heat-seeking ammo because the wind, the snow, and the poor visibility made accuracy impossible.  The other answer was luck, so he went with that.  The only mammal happier than Sletten to get back to the truck was the Springer.  Byron fished a couple of dog biscuits out of a bag and gave them to the dog, in what Sletten considered a clear case of rewarding incompetence.

When they got back to the house, they discovered that if they discounted the wind chill, it was about the same temperature inside as out.  Byron, the professor of sanitation, stepped inside the back door, made a quick survey of the kitchen floor and adjacent furnishings and said, “Quaint.”  Vince marched directly over to the furnace, opened a door to some controls and asked, “Got a match?”   Sletten found a book over by a stack of old phone books that he had once intended to use to burn the place down.  Vince struck a match, fiddled with one of the knobs and created a little blue flame.  Then he closed the door to the furnace and said, “In about an hour this place will be too hot for blizzard hunters like us.”  Sletten didn’t know what to say to a man who could so blithely disturb someone else’s well-earned suffering.

Byron carried in a cooler from the truck and took out of it three large steaks, several potatoes and two bottles of red wine.  Vince tested the oven to see if the broiler worked while Byron fed the Springer in the mudroom.  Vince scrubbed off three of the spuds and set them on a plate in the microwave.  When the broiler was heated up, he set steaks on a broiler pan while Byron uncorked one of the bottles.  Sletten hadn’t seen that kind of kitchen coordination since the church Ladies Aid had fixed lunch at the funeral of his Aunt Mavis, whom everyone had hated and whose passing was a cause of general good will for several weeks.  Byron handed him a very drinkable slug of Merlot in a water glass.  “To blizzard hunting,” he said.  Sletten didn’t like the direction all of this was going in, but he took one sip and soon another, and by the time the steaks were done, he was, if not cheery, at least amiable.

When the second bottle was half gone, the temperature was in the sixties and the three had their feet up and were watching the weather forecast for more wind and snow for tomorrow.  “Great!” Vince shouted.  “We’ll have the countryside to ourselves again.”  And he apparently meant it.

Vince half turned toward Sletten and said, “You didn’t want to go hunting with us today.  You probably would have preferred to stay here and freeze to death.  But you didn’t.  Good for you.  You were our good luck today.”  Vince had a set of eyebrows that hung over his ice blue eyes like a couple of lead pipes, and he raised them as if surprised by his own words, and then uttered his signature throaty laugh, the kind that you have to go along with even when you don’t get the joke.  Meanwhile, Byron had fixed on something on the kitchen floor, almost tip-toed over to it, bent down, peering, and then took out his jack knife, opened a blade and scraped something onto a scrap of newspaper.  Byron folded up the paper with a piece of the kitchen floor and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

Vince, apparently finding his son’s behavior entirely normal, said, “Did you know that there is no patron saint of stevedores?”  Sletten’s jaw dropped, either in disbelief or bewilderment or because of gravity.  “That’s right,” Vince continued.  “Dentists have a patron saint.  She refused to acknowledge the pagan deities and had her teeth knocked out.  I don’t quite see how that qualifies her to represent dentists, but at least they have one.  But stevedores?  No sir.  A stevedore is on his own with God.  Now hunters have a saint.  If I could remember his name, we could invoke him right now for a good hunt tomorrow.”  He laughed and Sletten—or the merlot—joined in.  “Who’s the patron saint of divorces?” Sletten asked.  “Ah!”  Vince raised his glass.  “That would be Saint Henry the Eighth.”  Both laughed again, but this time Vince’s laugh was cut off by a sudden groan and his entire body shook with a spasm.  He grabbed at his leg but couldn’t quite reach the right place and his stiffened body slid off the front of the chair.  Byron was there in an instant, and he felt the leg where Vince was pointing.  “Charley horse,” he said.  “Get him comfortable.”  Sletten helped Vince onto the floor and placed a throw pillow under his head while Byron kneaded the knot in his dad’s thigh.  Gradually, the anguished expression on Vince’s face faded and he began to relax.

“Whew!  Must not be drinking enough water,” Vince said, wiping the sweat from his face.  “It’s all that talk about saints,” Byron said.  They helped him back into the chair and he winced again.  The knot had reduced, but the leg was still sore and would be for a while.

“Hate to say it, but it looks like my hunting is done for the weekend.”

No doubt his disappointment was genuine, as was Sletten’s relief.  “Well, all for one and one for all,” he said.  “Byron and I wouldn’t dream of going without you tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” Byron asked, shooting a traitorous glare.  Obviously, true hunters have no such loyalties.

“No.  You two go on without me,” Vince said.  Then he smiled at Sletten.  “You can use my Winchester.  That pop gun of your is hardly worth a tickle.”  Sletten knew how precious that Winchester was to him, rating only behind his children and maybe his ex-wife in importance.  The responsibility lay so heavily on Sletten that he didn’t sleep a wink that night and was the perfect audience for the Springer yodeling non-stop in the mudroom.

By morning, the snow was a foot deep and still falling.  They ate a hearty breakfast of fried potatoes and Trix.  Byron and Sletten loaded the guns and the Springer in the truck, put it in 4-wheel drive, and as far as Sletten could predict, drove off to freeze to death.  Byron drove north until they found a place with lots of cover–mostly snow.  As they were loading their shotguns, the Springer flushed four birds within thirty feet of the truck.  Byron cursed and said they were roosters, too–though he must have determined that from their sound because they couldn’t see past the ends of their guns.

They started across the scrub after them.  Byron was off to the left somewhere calling for his Springer.  Sletten wore an old pair of work boots with soles like a foosball table.  As he started up a knoll, he learned that the snow covered a lot of slippery, flat rocks.  With nearly every other step he had to perform vaudeville dances trying to maintain his balance, all the while holding Vince’s precious Winchester aloft.  Near the top, perhaps from premature celebration, both his feet rocketed to the rear, and with his arms extended above his head dealt one slick rock a punishing blow with his diaphragm.  He lay for several minutes until his breath came back and the pain was tolerable then decided that he’d best travel on all threes until he reached level ground.  He crawled that way over the crest of the hill, his right hand holding the Winchester above the snow, the rest of him lurching along with a severely pronounced hitch.  It would be hard to say who was most surprised when he came upon it, him or the rooster.  But there it sat on the downwind side of some sagebrush.  Both of them froze.

It was a predicament.  In those gloves he needed both hands to flick the safety, but that movement would flush the bird, and it would be gone before he could get a shot off.  It seemed almost a better bet to throw the gun at it, and had it been his old Mossberg, he would have done it.  But not with Vince’s beloved Winchester.  It didn’t take too long for the oddity of the situation to fade and for Sletten to choose his course of action.  He would scare the bird, maybe fire a blind shot into the arctic air and call it another big one that got away.  But he was Sletten the fool, and for him nothing was ever that easy.  Before he could flinch, Byron, still looking for his useless dog, said, “What’s the matter, you on point?”  The pheasant exploded from the sage and flashed downwind through a grove of swamp willows.  Three snap shots from Byron’s automatic riddled some trophy snowflakes.  The misses didn’t seem to bother him at all.  He said nothing, but Sletten didn’t like his grin.

Sletten stood up and Byron helped to brush the snow from him.  “Had enough?” he asked.  Sletten rolled his eyes. “Yeah, me too,” Byron said. “He shook his head, chuckled and wandered back in the general direction of the truck, calling for the Springer.  He needn’t have worried about his dog.  It was right where they should have expected him to be–curled up beneath the warm engine of the truck, whimpering.  Byron opened up the tailgate and hatch of the canopy.  As the dog bounded in, Byron reached into the bag, pulled out a sandstone-looking dog biscuit and offered it to Sletten.  “Here,” he said.  “You’ve earned this.”  Then he gave him a genial slap on the shoulder and said, “Well, let’s not stand around all day.  I’m freezing my ass off out here.”

On the way back to town, the truck moved as if by feel.  They could see very little beyond the hood and crawled along turning away from the tilt as it headed toward a ditch.  But it was a straight road and nobody else was dumb enough to be out there.  “What about Ellen?” Sletten asked.

“You haven’t heard?”  He paused.  “She’s engaged to an investment broker.  Owns a condo on Lake Union.”  He glanced over at Sletten, who was staring at the snow.  “I guess that’s what I lacked,” Sletten said.  “Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” Byron said.  “Nobody’s to blame.  People change.  We’re all changing.  There aren’t many roadmaps.  We mostly get through by feel.  Hope we don’t hit the ditch.”  Sletten guessed that he was supposed to feel better hearing that, but he didn’t.  He was pissed.  Not at losing the woman he had loved, but for feeling miserable about it.  Now that he thought about it, he realized that he had always been somebody’s dog.

A glow appeared ahead of them–the streetlights at the outskirts of town.  From the tight little ball of light in the center, it diffused outward until it blended in with the blowing snow and he couldn’t tell what was light and what was dark.  And then they came to another light, and it faded and was replaced by another and so on until that string of lights, invisibly connected, led them home.  The streets, sidewalks and lawns were all blanketed by white.  They drove down the broadest patches, hoping they were streets.  Byron pulled into the driveway and parked behind Sletten’s old Dodge Neon under the carport he had built himself before Ellen had scrammed.  Snow was building up on the roof.  He would have to come out with a ladder and broom and push some of it off or the roof would collapse.  Approaching the back door, he saw that moisture had seeped between the panes of the kitchen window, its seal broken.

Vince had everything ready to go and was waiting in the doorway.  “We’d better head out before the pass closes,” he said.  They threw it all in the back of the truck.

“It’s about time you guys cleared out,” Sletten said.  “I had a perfectly fine weekend planned, including watching the Army-Navy game, when you showed up.  Now I’m probably going to get pneumonia, and at least one of my ribs is cracked.  Thanks for the miseries.”  Vince closed the hatch to the canopy and walked around to the driver’s side door.  He reached out his hand and Sletten took it.  “And for God’s sake call me when you get home so I know you got there in one piece.”  Vince smiled, winked and crawled behind the wheel.  Sletten walked around to the other side of the truck and shook hands with Byron.  “Tell your mother that I’m glad she found somebody who can provide for her needs.  And tell your sister that when her sugar daddy dumps her she can’t come back here.  I’m done with her.”  Byron nodded and opened the door.  “And one more thing,” Sletten said.  “I saw you scraping something off my kitchen floor last night.”  He pointed at Byron’s shirt pocket.  “Don’t think you can sic the Health Department on me because I won’t stand for it.  I won’t even let them in the door.  I’ll burn the place down first.”

Byron grinned.  “Relax,” he said.  “You have some interesting growth in there.  I want to look at it under the microscope.  Could be some new life form.”

The truck pulled out onto the street, its exhaust swirling, circling above the cab as it eased away before fading into the storm.  The wind had let up a little, but snow was still building up a layer of white on the west side of everything, as if half of the world were whiting out and starting over.

He opened the door to the shed attached to the carport, took out the push broom and a ladder.  He climbed up a few rungs and started clearing the snow off the corrugated tin on top of the carport.  He reached the broom out as far as he could and pulled the snow back toward him where it would fall into a bank beside the carport.  He was careful not to lean on the structure.  Pulling the snow, he felt the posts lean and give.  Probably should have sunk them in cement, he thought.  Then he moved the ladder and repeated the motion, pulling more snow toward him.  Reaching and pulling.  Reaching and pulling.  Each time he pulled he felt a stab of pain in his chest from his earlier fall.  Thinking back to yesterday, he wondered, “Would I have done it?  Could I have sold the farm, blown myself to smithereens?”  Not a chance, he decided.  He would have screwed it up.  Blown off one of his ears.  Mangled the boyish face that Ellen had once loved.

Sletten stepped down from the ladder and moved it around to the west side of the carport so he could broom off what he hadn’t been able to reach.   The snow on the rungs had compacted, and as he stepped up with the broom and reached forward, his bald-soled boots slipped off the rung throwing all of his weight on the port.  At first, he thought it might hold and that he would just roll off the roof and light in some cushy snow.  But as he was trying to roll off, he heard the post creak, and then the tin sagged and the only cross support wavered, and like a bad kids’ rock band the sound just got louder until he and pretty much the whole kaboodle collapsed onto the Neon.  His first impulse was to pick up a sheet of the corrugated tin, combine it with his favorite curse and frisbee it into the street.  His ribs had other plans, so he lay there beside his innocent, assaulted car, snow snapping at his face.

He lay there half in snow and half out of it until something started about at his pitiful ribs and worked its way up and out.  For a moment he thought it was more pain, worse pain, but as it rose it bubbled forth in acute bursts, like shockwaves.  And then he was laughing.  Holding his chest, he laughed and grimaced and laughed some more until the pain couldn’t keep up and the laughter kept coming.  He closed his eyes and laughed.  Then he opened his eyes and squinted through the blinding snow and laughed again.   As if from somewhere else–maybe from across the street or across the mountains–he imagined watching himself there amid the wreckage of his carport and his marriage.  God’s own fool.  He laughed and laughed, and when he thought he was finished, he began again and laughed until the tears ran down his frosty cheeks.  He laughed until he thought he would die laughing.

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Loren Sundlee’s stories have appeared in Raven Chronicles, Crab Creek Review, StringTown and other publications.  He lives with his wife and two children in Yakima County, Washington.

Gaga

Claudio despised Lady Gaga with a passion.

“I’d like to poke her face,” he told his underlings in Inside Sales, between a call. “Poke her eyes out, more like.”

“Mmm,” they replied.

“God, talentless trash,” he said to his huge flatscreen TV whenever her videos came on. “You look like you’re wearing garbage, literally, like you dug through the trash and wore it.”

His ex-girlfriend Mindy left him because of Lady Gaga. Sort of. You sure talk about her a lot, Mindy had said, over a candlelit dinner at the hundred-dollar-a-plate restaurant Claudio had sprung for in surprise celebration of their one-and-a-half month anniversary. She said, we were just having a nice moment here, talking about the possibility of an open relationship, and then you have to rant about what a slut Lady Gaga is.

“But she is a slut!” he said, a bit loudly perhaps, because, one table down, a woman wearing a hat the size and color of an apricot glared at him.

“Who. Cares!” Mindy hissed at Claudio, putting her fork down. Mindy had bright blue eyes – a bit on the small side, like the rest of her. But she was a comfortingly upright person, a kindergarten teacher in fact. Then to balance her out she had kind of an edge to her when she drank. Once she threw a shoe at him. Another time she yelled at him and called him very un-PC names. She was drinking red wine right now.

“Everywhere I go, I hear her music. In the cell phone store today, for example. ‘Whoooooooooooooa,’” he sang. “‘Caught in a bad romance.’”

“You like singing her songs.”

“Seriously don’t say that. You’re going to make me throw up right now if you don’t stop.”

“Fine, whatever you say.” Mindy shook her head and gulped her wine. She took a deep breath. “So – um – I have something –”

“In her new video, she’s wearing nothing,” said Claudio. He reached across the table and grabbed a roasted potato off Mindy’s plate, using his fingers. “There are these, like, Nazi looking guys kissing. Gay stuff. Really weird.” Claudio noticed Mindy’s frown deepening and he smiled at her. “You are so exquisite. Your eyes – it’s like gazing into the ocean.”

Mindy just stared at Claudio and shook her head. “Ugh, I don’t – I don’t want this.”

“What? Italian food? I thought –”

“No, I don’t want a fucking hundred-dollar-a-plate dinner for our – our, what, six week? – anniversary.” She gulped the rest of her wine and started putting her leopard print jacket on.

“But – what’s happening, what are you doing? Is it because I stole a potato from your plate, is it because of Lady Gaga? Talk to me. Is it –”

“Yes, it’s all of those things. It’s you. You weird me out.”

The woman with the tiny hat was watching. The old witch, thought Claudio. Coming here alone, sitting at a table and spying and casting disapproving looks our way.

“Sit down,” Claudio told Mindy calmly. Calm, he knew, worked better than hysterical. He’d tried hysterical, at this very restaurant, in fact, with Suzy three months ago. Ah, Suzy, the nineteen-year-old nanny, how he’d sobbed when she told him she was breaking up with him for a seventeen-year-old rugby player!

Mindy shook her head. “I’m leaving.” She smiled a pained smile, like she felt sorry for him.

“What are you thinking? What is in your head?” Claudio asked, voice climbing. A waiter stopped to look at him before continuing on with a platter of steamy steaks.

“Thanks for dinner,” Mindy said loudly, cordially. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Don’t –”

She did, though. She left him there to finish his, and her, entire meal. He even ordered two desserts and ate them, quietly weeping.

***

“Lady Gaga ruined my relationship,” Claudio said to his boss, Elmo, the morning after. He stood in Elmo’s doorway during a ten-minute break. Claudio had his headset on, dangling unplugged by his side. He swung it around in what might be considered a cool fashion. “Mindy dumped me.”

There was a long pause. Techno music emanated from Elmo’s computer speakers. Elmo, a two hundred pound boxer-turned-CEO, sat behind his giant marble desk and glared at Claudio.

“Is this why you came into my office?” Elmo asked.

Claudio gulped. He had hoped this might be a good opportunity to finally bond and get friendly with his new superior. “Yes.”

“Get the hell out.”

***

At lunchtime, Claudio attempted, unsuccessfully, to penetrate the tight-knit circle that ate at the one and only breakroom table.

“Room for me?” he asked, PB & J in hand.

“You look like shit,” Patty said. Patty was a woman with a sugary Chipmunk voice who was generally known as the Office Bitch.

The rest of the table giggled.

“Growing a beard, man?” asked Kenny, a wiry guy with a ponytail who looked like he would be more comfortable in board shorts and a T-shirt than the snazzy blue-green suit he was wearing.

“No,” Claudio sighed. “I’m just too devastated to shave.”

No one asked why.

“My girlfriend and I called it quits,” Claudio told them.

“That’s too bad,” said the Intern, who everyone just called the Intern.

“Is it because she’s tired of your other girlfriend?” said Patty.

“What?” said Claudio. “I don’t have –”

“Lady Gaga,” she said, and everyone laughed harder. Patty looked pleased with herself and reapplied her orange-red lipstick without a mirror.

“Fuck all of you,” said Claudio. He threw his sandwich at the wall and stormed out.

Everyone was surprised. He was written up for Throwing Sandwich in Breakroom and given the afternoon off.

***

At home, he was hungry, but his fridge was, typically, bare. Instead of ordering out he sat at the black kitchen table and drank a tall glass of expired milk and three shots of expensive tequila. He called Mindy for the fourteenth time that day, but she didn’t answer. He drank another two shots of tequila, vomited foamy alcoholic milk into his trash can, and fell asleep on his couch with the TV on.

He had a super weird dream that night. Nightmare, more like, because Lady Gaga was in it. She was naked, except it was as if her whole body was covered in pantyhose. Undefined, undetailed, body-shaped flesh. She had these glasses on, like wineglasses with no stems.

“Retouch,” she said. But it was Mindy’s voice. “Topmost.”

Claudio awoke the next morning in a cold sweat. “What the fuck, now you’re ruining my sleep? I hate you!” he screamed to the imaginary Ms. Gaga.

***

Elmo called Claudio into his office for a sitdown later on that week.

“I’m worried about you,” Elmo barked. “Worried sick.” He didn’t sound worried. He sounded pissed, and spit when he spoke. “I hired you two months ago, and have watched you spiral into a friggin mess, son.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“You’re our youngest hire ever. I risked my ass hiring you, but I thought, what the hell, kid seems bright. Fresh out of business school. But fresh out of business school doesn’t mean shit if you’re crying in the bathroom at all hours of the day.”

Claudio nodded.

“What is it? Is it the girl?”

Claudio nodded.

“How long were you together?”

“Six weeks.”

“Oh, give me a break,” said Elmo.

“I’m sensitive,” protested Claudio, voice climbing. “I’m a romantic. Once I dated a woman for a week, and it took me an entire year to get over her.”

“I don’t give a shit if you have a broken heart. My cat Sammycakes died last month, and I fucking loved my cat, you know? A dozen joy-filled years we shared. But I came to work and did my goddamned job just the same.”

“Yes sir.”

“So buck up. This is your warning.”

“My warning?” Claudio said.

Elmo pointed to the door.

Claudio held in his tears for the rest of the workday. But after returning from the bathroom (he’d only let himself cry for one minute in the stall, timed on his cell phone) he saw someone had laid out a brand-new glossy Lady Gaga poster on his desk. Perhaps intended as a harmless office prank, it did not go over well.

“I hate you!” Claudio screamed, looking around at the alarmed faces and melting smiles of his coworkers. He picked up the poster and ripped it to tiny confetti pieces and threw it around him like a blizzard. “All of you! None of you understand!”

Elmo sent him home with a “final warning.” Sent him home this time via taxicab, because Elmo thought Claudio was “too batshit crazy to drive right now.”

Claudio told the cabbie everything. About Lady Gaga, Mindy, the Lady Gaga poster, Elmo, the Lady Gaga dream, everything. The cabbie was Shandra, an obese sass-talking woman with a red beehive. She stank like hairspray.

“See a counselor, boy, you are a mess,” she pronounced as she pulled up to his building, a high-rise.

“A counselor?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Shandra said. “No shame in it. People see counselors all the time.”

“Have you?”

“Hell no. But I meditate, you know what I’m saying? I have a personal relationship with Buddha.”

“Thank you Shandra,” he said, and pressed a hundred dollar bill in her hand. He cleared his throat. “For everything. Would you care to come upstairs and join me for a mojita, perhaps a marguerito?”

“I am way too old for you, son,” she laughed.

“But –”

“Lordy Lord.” She wiped her eyes, still laughing. “You have a good night.”

***

Mere days later, Claudio had the Gaga dream again. He woke up screaming into his pillow and hitting his mattress with his fist. How he despised that blonde naked harlot with the cheap melodies and the unspectacular vocals, that godawful siren creeping into his unconscious, speaking nonsense to him in dreams! What could it mean?

He took Shandra’s advice and called a counselor the next week. Not because he thought he needed counseling, but because he was going to lose his mind if he didn’t interpret the dream he’d had now three times. However his counselor Hank, a man with long girly eyelashes and a goatee, seemed to have other ideas.

“Holdon holdon holdon,” Hank said. “Before we delve into the dream, I’d like to get a little more of a sense of you, who you are.”

“Who I am doesn’t matter,” said Claudio. “You’re wasting precious time.”

Hank shook his head. “In order for me to know what something means, I need to contextualize it with personal information. Like, for example, you said you were raised primarily in boarding schools.”

“That has nothing to do with why I’m here.”

“Also, you said that you’d been working for VanGold pharmeceuticals for a few months, running an Inside Sales team. That’s a pretty serious job for someone your age.”

“Stop wasting my time,” said Claudio.

“You said, too, that in the last few months you bought a condo and had two girlfriends, one of which you lost your virginity to –”

“Just tell me about my dream!” Claudio shouted, standing up and pacing. “I’m paying you! I am paying you!”

Hank nodded slowly and gulped. “Okay. Please sit down. I’m sorry – I – I just don’t usually have clients who come in for one single session to – to interpret one single dream.”

Claudio sat in the chair and adjusted his stripy green and purple tie, and repeated the repeating dream.

Hank listened and stared into the air thoughtfully.

“Well?” Claudio demanded.

“Let me preface this by saying all dreams aren’t necessarily symbolic, or meaningful.”

“Why not.”

“They’re just not.”

“What about this one?”

Hank took a deep breath and shifted his legs. “It – it sounds to me like, I don’t know – like maybe you’re attracted to this Gaga person.”

“Don’t make me vomit,” said Claudio. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Maybe you’re just – just a little, you know, lonely for human connection – you said she was naked, in the dream?”

“I would never have sex with Lady Gaga,” Claudio shouted. “Not in a million years, that talentless —”

“Okay,” said Hank, holding up his hands.

“I miss my girlfriend,” Claudio said. His throat hurt and his eyes teared up. “Her name was Mindy. We had sex almost eleven times.”

“Okay,” said Hank again.

Claudio cried for some time. Hank nodded at him and passed him tissues as needed. Then an egg timer went off and their session was over.

***

That night, finally, Mindy picked up the phone. Claudio called her from his bathroom over his nightly teeth-brushing, teeth-flossing, zit-popping rituals.

“Mindy!” he said, so surprised he spit toothpasty saliva all over the mirror. “Mindy, oh, thank you for answering, thank you!”

“This ain’t Mindy, motherfucker,” said a husky male voice. “This’s her boyfriend Sam. And if you ever call her again, I will come over and bitch-slap you so bad you’ll go cryin’ home to momma.” Click.

“Boyfriend?” Claudio said into the phone. “How can this be?”

Claudio called Mindy’s number again.

“What the fuck, you stupid fuck, did you not hear what I just said?” Sam yelled.

“But – what are you saying, she was cheating on me?”

“Stop calling her.”

“Or are you some new boyfriend? Just tell me that much. Is she there? Is she with you?”

“You’re crazy.”

“Could I speak with her for just one moment?”

“I will turn your fucking prettyboy face into hamburger if you ever call here again,” Sam screamed. He hung up.

Claudio sat on his leather couch and drank the last of his tequila. It had been his 21st birthday tequila, a present from Mindy. He felt okay until he saw you-know-who wearing a sequined bra and dancing on some awards show onscreen. Then he got up off the couch and threw the empty tequila bottle into his fancy TV. That somehow didn’t seem enough, so he hit the screen with the remote in his left hand, hit it, hit it, over, over, her face kaleidoscoping into a million flesh-colored pieces like a broken mirror, twenty-one years of hatred annihilating his newly acquired 56” flatscreen. His hand hurt, swollen, pink and cut. The plastic-glass was everywhere. Claudio laughed maniacally, because he knew he could buy another and another; and she would keep “dancing” and “singing” in her wacky garbage outfits on the TV; and he would keep breaking them. He would keep buying things and making things and healing things and loving things and breaking things too.

When all was done, the quiet was deafening. Claudio collapsed on the couch and watched the television’s skeleton. All he could think about was how high up his condo was – twentieth floor – and how he could jump and hit the ground and everything could be over. He thought about it long and hard. Nobody would miss him. His money, and his trust fund, all that, he could write a note saying “Donate to a good cause.” Philanthropic last moments. Mindy would cry to Sam, “I never knew him, I never really knew him, he was so generous.” He could kill himself right now. He really could. Just jump, and fall, and bam – forget. Forgotten by all. Sigh. But no. No he wouldn’t. At least, not today.

————————

Faith Gardner lives in Oakland. Past publications, music she plays and other randomness can be found at faithgardner.com.

Suppose, I ask my friend

nothing has ever happened in this or that or any other or maybe too damn many parallel universes? Or say nothing whatsoever matters but matter? About 5% of the observable universe as it happens — depending on your take or pull on string theory, cosmic bangs, dark matter, exotic matter, or just how many glasses of pinot noir you’ve had with your steak and baked potato physics. Well, afterall, you still eat your dinner, don’t you, give or shag the cosmic (un)surety of things? Even if barbecueded red meat doesn’t kill you (not accounting for the butter/sour-creamed baked potato & waaay too much salt on everything). Ok, the antioxidant steamed broccoli was good for you at least/well/maybe. So, given we all eventually fall into some theo-philosophil black hole larger than a renaissance cathedral what’s to make of alien abductions or other such probings into the universe out there, or even in here (pointing to his head)? My friend, who’s presently a dinner guest, then says, wry-as chunky-blue-cheese-dressing-over-his-arugula-and-anchovy-salad: Hell, it’s all gotta be fine see, because God, He/She/It/The-Holy-Other/Flying-Spaghetti-Monster had to have invented steak & potatoes as well as broccoli way back in the Original Edenic Organic Garden; butter and sour cream being a variant of cow, more or less. The French you’ll recall from your long-ago college language course even call potatoes pomme de terre, ‘apples of the earth.’ Well, pommes definitely must be at least as healthy for you as, say, the Original Organic Garden’s knowledge of good and whatever the apple that snake said to eat, right? Yeah, I say, not quite comforted, but sipping thoughtfully my own 3rd. glass of pinot. Nonetheless-sure-ok, I say finally, reflecting deeply: Only if your cosmology’s a fricking Escher painting. Really, some answers are enough to make you wry yourself to death.

————————

Ed Higgins poems and short fiction have appeared in Commonweal, Monkeybicycle, Otoliths, Duck & Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide, Pindeldyboz, and Bellowing Ark, as well as the online journals CrossConnect, Word Riot, The Hiss Quarterly, Blue Print Review, Tattoo Highway, and The Centrifugal Eye, among others. He and his wife live on a small farm in Yamhill with a menagerie of animals including an emu named To & Fro and a barn cat named Velcro. Ed teaches creative writing and literature at George Fox University, south of Portland, OR.