The Fourth Quarter of this Fiscal Year

In the fourth quarter of this fiscal year things really went downhill for you.

You cut ties with everyone in your life and decided to live in the rafters of the place where you work.  You wanted to become The Phantom Of The place where you work.  That, I think, is where things started to really go downhill.

You started out dropping staplers into empty waste cans from holes in the ceiling when people weren’t looking but that was before the employee lounge fridge ran out of food and you had to start eating mice.

Things really started to go downhill once you started eating mice.

You tried to keep up the pranks, revenge, you called it.  That was before your skin started to change color.

Things really started to go downhill once your skin started to change color.  Sure, before you were pale, but consistently so.  But now your fingertips were the color of army fatigues, and you couldn’t feel them anymore.

You thought there might have been some sort of mold up there in the rafters. But it didn’t come off no matter how much you scrubbed. That was before you tried amputation. In the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, things really went downhill for you.

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Sara June Woods is overly infatuated with her dog.  A surprising amount of her poetry (which has been or will be published in PANK, LIES/ISLE, trnsfr, Housefire and Everyday Genius) is about her dog, and frankly we’re a little worried about her.

First He Must Smile

The little boy is dying and we are making the most of the life he has left.  The doctors say months so we rally resources and hold benefits and tap into funding to make things happen.

There are schedules and contracts and riders to navigate, and no time to waste. We bring the staff and the banners and the high-end cameras. We have the release forms and pens.

“He’ll beat the odds,” his grey mother whispers as we hoist him out of the special van on the special day when all his dreams will come true. “Someone has to; why not him? I have a good feeling, I really do. Don’t you?”

Nothing will ruin this day. Just shove the wheelchair over there and get him on the pony. We don’t have much time.

“Smile for the camera!” we tell him as he clings to the pony’s mane and stares at the sky. We need new photos for the website, ones with children who are still alive.

“Why him?” his mother implores us, one by one. There is no avoiding her. She is slowing us down. “There are terrible children, children with no manners. Children who sass their parents. Children who hurt animals. They should die instead. They should die instead!”

Why the hell isn’t the ballplayer here? He was supposed to be here. He has a reputation to fix, and it’s not going to fix itself, and we’re on a goddamn schedule here.

The little boy droops in the chair, and we tell him to sit up straight; he must have good posture. Doesn’t he know that The Ballplayer is coming? He will be here any moment. He’s not taking time out of his busy schedule for just any little boy. The Ballplayer is tall, and we’ll need both faces in the tight shot, so stop the fucking slouching. You can sleep when you’re dead.

“But I like hockey,” he pipes up, and we shush him quickly and roll our eyes. We wonder if the mother taught him manners after all.

At the amusement park, the mother brightens. “He always wanted to go on the big roller coasters,” she tells us as we sail through the lines.

“I feel sick,” the little boy says, hanging tight to his chair as we shove it over the bumpy path.

“We’ll give you a dollar if you go on the ride,” we pat and prod. “Ten dollars. A hundred. A million!”  He bounces and smiles, talks about what he might could buy with so much money. A big-boy bike. A real house with a yard. A pool!

We buckle him into the ride and ready the zoom lens.

“Raise your arms, stretch higher,” the mother shouts toward him as the car churns uphill, away, bumping and scraping, metal in the air. “If you touch heaven from the peak, God might make you better.”

The concert starts soon. We’ll have to skip the funnel cake. Call ahead and tell them to clear a path through the park. Tell them it’s a dying child.

“Don’t forget to say please!” the mother screams. We watch his head lurching, squint at the splash of wet brown arcing from the peak.

We send the mother for towels. She shouldn’t have dressed him in white.

The coaster makes a hard stop, and we rush in to dab his cheeks and smooth his hair.

It’s getting too late. We’re losing natural light. If he isn’t ready soon, we can’t use these pictures on the website. It will all be for nothing.

“We still have the concert,” we tell him. “You’ll get to go on stage, remember? Isn’t this exciting? All your wishes, come true.”

But the boy is crying, and he won’t stop crying and he has to stop crying because we don’t have much time.

“I don’t like country music,” he blubbers.

The mother is here with the towels, but she’s weepy, she’s sad, she’s too depressed to continue so we have someone take her away.

We will go to the concert. They will go to the concert, and the boy will go on stage and balance a cowboy hat on his bald little head, and we take pictures and then this will end.

“It’s going to be okay,” we tell the boy, clutching the towels hard, keeping our voices even. “Just look at the little red light and smile. We’ll get you a funnel cake if you do,” though we won’t.

“I want my mommy,” he sobs, and we tell him that of course he can see his mommy, his mommy’s right over there, we’ll take him to his mommy, but first he must smile.

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Vanessa Weibler Paris lives, works, writes and does some other stuff (like eating hot peppers and mulling the Oxford comma) in Erie, Pa.

The Thing with the Clothes

The Thing With the Clothes by John ThurgoodThe thing with the clothes developed after a game of bowling, and, naturally, it took place at the alley with the best potential for playing and not paying. The old Gully Lanes on the South Side was a smoke-filled emporium of misused grandparents prone to ignoring everyone (and thing) outside their immediate sphere of competition. They lined the plastic, form-fitting booths, waiting for the brief thrill of hurling an 8lb ball at ten pins poised in a perfect triangle at the other end of the wide hall with low ceilings. The proprietor never set foot in the establishment—considered the place low-class. So, in his place at the front desk, sat idly, a twenty-something with a homemade haircut and an attitude, who didn’t lift a brow when three fourteen-year-olds came in asking for a lane and shoes.

If the three of them had to look back and assess the main event that led to the thing with the clothes, it would be that first visit, right around the time they were deciding to leave, in that five to ten minutes of delay—before sifting through crumpled bills but after the last half-ass pin toss—which didn’t feel too much different from buyer’s remorse but without the complete dissatisfaction of the full transaction. Hence the delay.  And in that delay the idea boiled over. It seemed to appear from somewhere in their combined guts, truly a group effort. And as it emerged, they were quick to grab on to it, mold it, give it a name: Ditching the Bill, Free Bowling. (They weren’t clever kids; it was mainly about the spirit, anyway.)

They changed shoes quickly, somewhat reluctant but willing, using the tangle of laces as an excuse to buy time, looking to one another, jeering for sympathy, feigning mischief. It was Chuck who first set the bar, discovered the bar really. (There was no bar before something from the collective-gut made him create a bar to be set.) Chuck, still wearing the chunky red and blue suede bowling shoes, just up and walked out, his own dirty C. Taylors forked in one hand at his side, one foot in front of the other, up the two steps to the upper level—a spectator’s area of sorts with clusters of chairs and circular tables, all scattered and empty—and up into the haze of cigarette smoke hugging the low ceiling. The upper level was somewhere between a stage and bleachers, half spectacle, half spectator, but it didn’t matter, because everyone in the place was somewhere else to begin with. The grandparents at the other end were involved in last chance vendettas, much too engaging for Chuck to even know about, even if he chanced a glance over his shoulder, which he didn’t dare—just one foot over the other, the smoke burning his eyes slightly, the faint smell of baby powder in the air as he leaned against the swivel glass doors, heavily tinted, and stepped into the light of day.

This was their first time bowling just the three of them, and they only went a handful of times all summer. There were other moments, spectacles, too many to account for individually, but combined, impossible to ignore. Summer was and is the main season for young people to develop as individuals. They come in off the end of a school year, scholastically numb, unwilling to think or compose or comprehend rationally because it’s almost righteous to declare thought in such pure terms. Days and weeks go by with the disjointed transition of late-night infomercials, at the end of which is a young person who has steadily depreciated for three months. This leads to a certain school of thought that with each passing summer a child doesn’t so much gain age as it does lessen in value.

The thing about that day at the bowling alley, however, the definitive moment, or in this case object, was the bowling shoes, because for some reason or another Chuck took to wearing those shoes everywhere. They began to set a definition. He became the kid who wore the bowling shoes, and as eye witnesses to the christening, Sean and Dennis were included in Chuck’s odd brand of fashion. They felt entitled, really, because at fourteen, Chuck had conjured the interest of girls. This conjuring had mainly to do with his long stringy hair, originally blonde but stained with greens and blues and reds from various hair dying attempts and his thick-rimmed specks of Kurt Money fame and his lazy smile that seemed to cry self-deprecation (not to mention the guidance of two older brothers, which wasn’t so much an asset as an incentive); but for whatever reason, these charms were over-looked by Sean and Dennis, who insisted the newly developed interest was based solely on the newly acquired bowling shoes, which made more sense to Sean and Dennis anyway, because bowling shoes stood out in a crowd and were therefore more noticeable and therefore more attractive to girls—because girls certainly couldn’t be interesting in something they couldn’t see.

They soon began experimenting with strange accessories. Funny-looking hats were an easy way in. The three of them took to thrift stores, combing discount bins for strange fedoras and bowlers. It was Dennis who discovered the full-potential of the thing with the clothes, when he wore a foam helmet for little over a week until a woman at a pharmacy yelled at him for making fun of the handicapped.

The experience was a bit melodramatic, but the woman in question was obviously dealing with some pretty heavy issues of her own. She was sitting near the pharmacist’s window in the back, most likely waiting for her medications when Dennis walked by, heading toward the coolers to get a soda. The woman gave him a disapproving look, but more than a week in, he was well accustomed to those. He was even to a point where he gained a certain amount of satisfaction from the exchange, so much so that after grabbing his soda of choice, Sunkist in a can (because the cans really do taste better), he walked back by the woman and smiled. It was a quick gesture, which to anyone else would have come across as asinine or at the very least submissive, but to the woman in question, it was all she needed to unload her burden of life lessons, which she regurgitated from her beak-like mouth intact and unchewed, whole nuggets of over-processed and deep-fried nonsequitures. As she raised her impish frame from the chair, something deep in Dennis’s gut tightened. His insides crowded near his throat. He felt top heavy and, for some reason, giggly. She asked Dennis repeatedly if he found it funny. The question came at him like a blitzkrieg, a succession of syllables riddled with question marks, to which he insisted that he did not in any way find it funny, but his muffled chuckles seemed to prove otherwise. He stumbled into an aisle and she followed, telling him the differences between right and wrong, and then asking him if he found it funny.

At one point he used an elderly man in the diaper section as a human shield to deflect the woman, but she was spry, much more nimble than Dennis had first thought.

She had yellow eyes and didn’t blink. “My son wears a helmet,” she told him, and asked if he thought that was funny.

He didn’t.

He edged out of the aisle not turning his back to the woman. There was a man at the check-out and a young lady behind the register, running a bottle of Armor All over the scanner. They each stopped what they were doing to watch.

The woman was now yelling, reciting verses from the Bible. She shoved Dennis, and he knocked over a display of suntan lotion and fell over the cardboard shelving. In the commotion a man in a blue smock stepped in to calm the woman down. Dennis scrambled to his feet, and dashed out of the pharmacy. He scurried through the sliding doors, sneakers hissing on the sidewalk as he cut around the building and down the street, not noticing the soda still in his hand until he was halfway down the block. It was hard to believe that that had all happened because of the helmet. He adjusted it on his head and fingered the strap. He took a long pull of soda. It tasted good, probably better than if he had stolen it on purpose.

From the very beginning, thievery played a kind of supporting role to the thing with the clothes, giving it depth, a background of sorts, like a thin primer of attitude underneath the stretched-out collars of worn-sheer t-shirts and the frayed stubs of cut-off polyester slacks. The clothes never quite fit, and that was part of it too. They made do with new acquisitions, altering them in the simplest ways, resorting to needle and thread only when absolutely necessary. It was a kind of Survival Of The Fittest that gave purpose to the whole thing with the clothes. Chuck took to it naturally with an almost preternatural instinct for surveillance diversion. That first summer, he had walked out of Wal-Mart wearing three pairs of pants, two Dickies short-sleeve button-ups, a Carhartt jacket, and one of the most ridiculous looking cowboy hats that Sean and Dennis had ever seen. He ended up selling the pants, shirts, and jacket at the second-hand store in the South Side mall for a decent profit. (They wouldn’t take the hat.)

Dennis came to stealing slowly over a few years, first starting small with accessories like rings and weird necklaces, then later bumping it up to clothes and CDs, and eventually, with Chuck and Sean’s help, minor B and E. But it was Sean who really seemed to revel in the five-finger discount. Not because he was necessarily good at it, but because he got a certain amount of satisfaction out of staring down a loss prevention officer or security guard for whom he, Sean, was a dead ringer for a shoplifter: under-aged, un-chaperoned in the liquor aisle—and he was black.

From the very beginning he understood the bias LPs had against him. He noticed quickly the shadow following him around, asking if he needed assistance, reminding him that he only need to ask for help. It was the passive aggression that he really found racist—patronizing the young Negro. It was condescending and rude, and for those reasons he gained the most pleasure from staring down an LP hovering nearby, pretending to straighten something on the endcap, changing a sign or facing wine coolers. He liked to gaze into their cheap smiles, their polo shirts and pleated khakis, their loafers or sometimes black safety shoes; and poke at their shallow, petty stereotypes. They were a sorry lot. He pitied them in a way, but pity wasn’t the same as compassion. So, he stared them down just the same, striking in them the fear of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, demanding his rights, demanding equality through the brilliance of eye contact—eye-to-mind contact—just before tucking a handle of Johnny Walkers Red into the waist of his cut-off slacks and jetting out the door. Granted, he only had to grab and dash a few times, isolated incidents, with special circumstances.

What he really enjoyed was the psychological sport of it, changing their minds, showing them how racist they were with an intimidating stare (and sometimes a few choice words)—basically reconstructing their outlook on modern society, changing their reality. In short, it was a real confidence booster.

The security guards, however, were a different breed, more volatile. With them it was more a test of wills, mano-a-mano, boy versus beast, like a matador waving a red cape as the bull lowers its horns, the white moist heat puffing from its nostrils, unable to control itself, restrained by man’s conventions and contained, isolated, driven to hatred out of fear and desperation. Sean liked to idle near the evangelical spirits of Jim Beam and the Captain, hands in the pockets of his cut-off slacks, shoulders forward, head slung low, reading labels from the middle of the aisle, as if he were luring the beast in with submissive and hesitant pheromones.

The first time he tried this, it wasn’t really planned. He was just wandering in the liquor aisle plotting an escape, when the SG strolled into the same aisle, a tall white guy with a flattop and a bullet-proof vest under his white button-up that seemed to be made to keep his gut in rather than keep bullets out. He did the whole LP routine: he hovered down the aisle, checking labels, then, when he was close enough, asked Sean if he needed any help. His approach was different though. It didn’t have the same condescension as the LPs. The SG was cocky. He lacked finesse. With his thumbs tugging down on the edge of his thick leather utility belt, he leaned over and asked if Sean needed any help, as if to say, “I’ve got you, you little black bastard. Now, get out.” And Sean’s immediate reaction was to answer no and tell the racist bigot off, but he stopped himself—that was just what the SG wanted, to reconfirm his racist stereotypes.

So, Sean lied.

He asked for the SG’s help, told him he was doing research on the distribution of alcoholic beverages to better understand the ratio of liquor stores to the mean annual income of area households. He wanted to see if there was any correlation between the economic status of a neighborhood based on the number of liquor stores in that area. He wanted the exact numbers, and he was counting every bottle of liquor within a ten-mile radius, by hand.

Sean lied through his teeth, then waited for the SG to call his bluff, daring him really, just so he could call him a racist to his face.

The SG cocked his head, the way a dog might when waiting for its owner to throw a tennis ball or Frisbee, then, finally, said, “Alright then,” and even invited Sean to count the backstock in the small warehouse behind the thick metal door labeled Employees Only.

Sean’s head nearly exploded. His mind was blown, and he stumbled a little as he followed the SG to the warehouse. The SG even told him to take his time, a smile of genuine American-Middle manners glazed over his face, a friendly suggestion before spinning on one well-polished heel and sliding back down the hall and out the same door they had come in. Sean walked out of there that day with three handles jammed in his tiny JanSport backpack, slightly chiming as he stepped passed the SG with a smile and a thanks for the help. He would have gotten more but it was all he could manage to smuggle without blowing his cover. And anyway, those handles ended up lasting until school started again in August.

So really, it was the thing with the clothes that blew the door open on this phenomena that Chuck termed “mind manipulation.” In a way it kind of forced them to recognize their effect on other people. Sean had his thing with security guards, Chuck was really getting into the heads of the opposite sex, and Dennis, from the age of fourteen on, battled with the physiological effects of shit-talking.

They had always drawn a healthy amount of criticism from pretty much everyone around them, as three dirty kids from the South Side are wont to do, but it wasn’t until they started wearing a lot of sherbet-toned cut-offs and thermal-lined vests that the smatterings of vitriol came pouring in, and Dennis, as a personal initiative, seemed to attract the brunt of most critiques. At fourteen his ability to intimidate was limited, but it didn’t keep him from trying. He learned quickly the legal implications of an eighteen-year-old beating the life out of a minor, and used the system as if it were a posse silhouetted at his back, arms crossed over the bulging pectorals of the courts. It was always the high school kids that were willing to dish out the most punishment, boys not much older than Dennis, and it didn’t take long for him, Dennis, to realize these little skirmishes were more satisfying in well-populated areas, most often the mall.

It was the North Side mall that would prove most satisfying, where their approval rating, as it would turn out, was very low among the hoards of shoppers that washed across the food court in half-hour tides of ebb-and-flow consumerism. It was clear that the moms and aunts with shopping bags from L. Claiborne and E. Bauer did not wish to sit anywhere near them and wouldn’t hesitate to change seating if Chuck or Dennis or Sean pulled a chair up to a neighboring table, dirty C. Taylors propped in clear view, legs crossed, possibly lounging with hands behind their heads just to emphasize the level of comfort they were currently experiencing and would continue to experience for no telling how long, which was technically a kind of dip-of-the-toe-to-test-the-waters double-m. The day they metaphorically dove head-first was when Chuck left Dennis and Sean at the table to approach two girls in line at Edwardo’s Spiceria, the combination Italian-Mexican fast-foodery.

The line was long, and the two girls were somewhere in the low-teens on the waiting list, which meant they were well into the aisle designated for times of high-traffic, when the lines extending from the wall of eateries converged in the large aisle dividing the open atrium of tables and chairs. The lines sort of dangled from their respective Order Here signs in links of middle-aged and older-type shoppers, curly-headed and/or balding, wearing blouses and pocket-bearing t-shirts tucked into high-waisted stone-washed denim. Teal and fuchsia seemed to be a recurring theme, as well as high-top Reeboks.

The two girls stood out mostly because they weren’t hideously old but also because they were wearing bleached jeans with the blossoming fray of freshly made knee-holes. When Chuck lurched forward in his seat, lowered his hands from behind is head, and dropped his feet to the ground, there was no need to explain, no eye signal to save his seat, no call to dibbs of any kind. Sean and Dennis only watched as Chuck moseyed over to the two girls and asked who they were and what they thought they were doing. Composing one-liner come-ons was beyond Chuck at this point. It made more sense just ask someone he didn’t know who they were and what they thought they were doing, which was usually received with an extreme like or dislike and was, in a way, a really effective compatibility test. The girls on this particular day in July answered with a smile and a few giggles.

Chuck smiled. “No seriously…”

“Gail—“

“Kelly—“

“We’re here with our, uh, parents.”

Kelly jammed her elbow in Gail’s ribs, and Gail smiled. She had a huge mouth and dimples. Kelly scanned the food court, peering from the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t very sly. She had a blue bandana over her short curly hair tied in front like Rosie the Riveter.

Chuck said, “Okay?”

“No, there.” Gail pointed. “That’s them over there. The one with the pink polo is Kelly’s dad. He’s a bit of a pansy.”

“What the hell, Gail?” Kelly yanked at Gail’s bicep and stepped in front of her. “She’s only joking. That’s not my dad.”

“I know—” Gail shoved Kelly aside “— it’s mine. I’m just a little ashamed of him, that’s all.” She glanced over her shoulder, then lowered her head and shook it.

“Cool.” Chuck smiled and touched his glasses. “So what are you doing later?”

Gail glanced up and smiled. Her hair was straight and had a deep almost violet hue. She had a compulsion with tucking it behind her ears. “Why would you like to know?”

“Gail, quit it. C’mon the line is moving. Quit messing with the little boy.”

“But he’s a little gentleman. Look, he wants to play.” She tousled his hair. “Don’t you? Don’t you want to play?”

“Uh, yes. I do want to play.”

“It’s just that, Gail, I don’t want your father to see.”

“Fuck father. Like he cares anyway.”

“Yeah,” Chuck said, “fuck father. Come sit with us.” Chuck pointed to Sean and Dennis sitting back at the table. Sean lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave. Dennis looked when Sean waved, and he added a mild nod and smile.

Kelly said, “How charming.”

“You broads are pretty classy, huh? Where do you go to school?”

“Sophomores at McNamara Bishop. And you?”

“Washington Heights.”

They stood for a moment, silent, and they each stepped forward with the line.

“Man,” Chuck said, “this sure is a good time, huh? You two should come over and sit with us.”

“You should ask Gail’s dad. She can’t go without his permission.”

“Okay, sure. You can introduce me, and we’ll like, ask together or whatever.”

“Oh well, we can’t go,” Kelly told him. “We’ll lose our spot in line.”

“So you hold the spot, and Gail, you come with me. Introduce me to your pops.”

“Seriously—” Kelly shifted her weight and rested a hand on her hip “—it’ll just be easier if you go alone.”

Gail sighed and gave Kelly a look. “Yeah, we’ll have a better chance if you ask alone. He’ll think you’re like, a real straight-shooter or something.”

Chuck looked over at the man in the pink polo shirt. His mouth was full, and he was laughing at something someone at the table had said.

“Alright. I’ll be right back.”

The girls smiled.

“We’ll be waiting,” Kelly told him.

Gail’s smile faded to a pucker, and she followed the shoes of the people in line before her.

Chuck made eye contact with Gail’s dad as he walked over, and a variety of emotions washed over his face: confusion, mistaken identity, defensiveness, confusion again. When Chuck reached the table the man was already asking him to leave.

“No, hear me out. Your daughter was just wondering—“

“Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want it.”

“What? No. Sir, your daughter—” Chuck pointed over to Gail and Kelly.

“What daughter?”

“Sir, your daughter, Gail?”

“Honey,” the woman sitting across from Gail’s dad said and placed a hand on Chuck’s forearm, “we’re non-breeders. He doesn’t have a daughter.”

“Okay, well, I don’t know what that means, but I was just talking to a girl and I’m pretty sure she would know if she had a dad or not. And over there—” Chuck pointed over to Gail and Kelly. Kelly was laughing pretty hard. Gail grinned and rolled her eyes.

Chuck stopped himself. The man in the pink polo sighed and gave him a look that seemed to say, “Look kid, you’ve obviously made a mistake. So, probably your best bet here is to just walk away. Make a clean break. Not a word, just slowly back away from the table….”

But then the man spoke: “Gather some evidence and get a clue; your little miss thing over there is playing you like a board game.”

Chuck looked back over at Gail and Kelly. There was a tall red-headed boy with them now. He had his arm around Kelly and seemed to find the situation just as funny as she.

Chuck turned back to Gail’s fake dad, and sighed. He was eating some kind of glazed chicken with greasy chow mein noodles. “You gonna finish that?”

“Will you leave if I give it to you?”

“Uh, yeah. That and the soda.”

Chuck carried his plate in one hand and his soda in the other as he walked back over to Gail and Kelly still standing in line. They were now third.

“Hey, you guys, I really don’t think that was your dad over there. They said they were in some kind of cult or something and so they can’t breed. It’s like forbidden or something. Who’s this?” He pointed to the tall red-head and sipped from his soda.

The boy slapped Chuck’s drink out of his hand and announced his name: “Jacob.”

“Well Jacob, did anyone ever tell you that hitting drinks out of people’s hands is not a good way to go around making friends? You know, and actually, it’s probably the stupidest way to make friends.”

“What the fuck are you wearing?”

“Dude, it’s a leather vest with a crying Indian on the back. It’s ceremonial garb; you wouldn’t understand. So Gail, you want some chicken chow mein? I only have the one fork, but it works pretty good.”

Dennis and Sean watched from the table as things began to escalate. When the tall red-headed boy knocked Chuck’s soda out of his hand, Dennis lurched forward out of his chair and started over. He didn’t have a plan or anything clever to say. It was important to have something clever to say. Stupid jagoffs like this tall red-headed kid hated that kind of word play at their expense. It exposed their hollow, empty husk of a soul. Dennis wove through the tables of older folks sitting and eating happily. He wanted to get the jump on carrot top, sneak around and catch him off guard with something scathing, just really painful. The atrium was wide enough for him to cross over and double back near the wall of eateries, cutting through the lines, until finally, he was right behind the red head. The boy was taller than Dennis had first thought from seeing him across the atrium. He was probably a Senior, at least a Junior. He wore a long-sleeve t-shirt with a Gaelic crest outlined on the back. It showed a lion mauling a unicorn, which didn’t quite seem like a fair fight. As Dennis walked up behind him, he was really hoping that something witty would reveal itself, but when it didn’t, something else in him clicked. It could have been the picture of the lion tearing into the unicorn or the dense smell of sautéed beef and pork in the air, but whatever it was, it inspired Dennis to leap on the back of the kid with red hair and lock an arm around his throat and another across the back of his head. The technique seemed to come to him naturally, and he kicked his legs wildly to force carrot top to the ground. After they fell, Dennis jumped to his feet and, jogging in-place, pumped his fists in the air, victoriously, at which point the red-haired kid charged Dennis, knocked him to the ground, and started bludgeoning his face and torso.

The unspoken agreement of order in the food court is a delicate treaty of communal living that once broken is very difficult to re-sanction. A ruckus unfolds and immediately disrupts the single-file doldrums. Conversations about herniated discs and ingrown toenails are all but forgotten when the main focus is a fourteen-year-old in mint green shorts, being attacked by a ginger. Strangers are compelled to speak to one another, to share critiques on the ginger’s form or trade possible suggestions for the one on the ground getting hell beaten out of him. Even after the crisis is well over, it still hangs there, trailing conversations, reappearing during sore topics and empty silences. What was once an isolated afternoon had become a universal experience, and therefore ruined forever.

“You’re sure you don’t want to try some of this chicken? It’s got like a spicy kick to it, some kind of Asian spice. Do you cook?”

For a second it looked like Gail was thinking the question over, a brief flash of cognitive thought, then she turned back to Jacob and Dennis on the ground.

Sean was the first to notice the security guards, three of them: two coming from the restrooms and one across the atrium from Wussup Records. He lurched out of his seat and followed the one through the tables. Most shoppers had stopped eating and were standing, trying to peer over the heads of others to get a better view. The SG took his time ambling through, announcing casually that everything was okay and that he would handle it, please just finish your meals.

In all the commotion Jacob landed maybe six solid blows before a heavy-headed Lutheran pulled him from his much smaller adversary, huddled in the fetal position on the floor. The SGs were on the scene soon after, making snap-decisions, placing everyone in one of two categories, which raised, really, only one question. It was for Gail:

“Are you with them?”

Sean gestured to Dennis and Chuck. “What makes you think we’re together?”

“Oh come on,” another SG said, “you three come in here all the time dressed like rag-a-muffins.”

“Man, you guys are racist.” Sean crossed his arms and leaned back against Edwardo’s sneeze guard.

One of the SGs eased toward Sean, and another toward Dennis.

“So what’s it going to be, miss?” the third SG asked, stepping closer.

Gail stood under the Order Here sign, clinging to the deep silence that followed. The blonde boy held up the plate of chicken chow mein; the offer was still open. Kelly was consoling Jacob, which she would no doubt be doing the rest of the day. The boy that Jacob beat up was sitting on the floor with his arms on his knees, doubled over. Their black friend waited patiently, leaning on the glass, eyeing the three security guards and her. The line behind her was growing restless, and the overall atmosphere of the food court was turning sour. Behind her, manning the register at Edwardo’s Spiceria was a heavy-set man in a white chef’s hat, a goatee, and stubble on his joules. He could have been Edwardo himself. She looked to the menu. It had only more choices. She turned to the blonde boy. He touched his glasses and smiled.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Chuck.” And with that, he lobbed the plate of chicken chow mein at the looming SG.

Chuck and Gail locked hands and dashed through the crowd, shouldering strangers and checking small children. Sean and Dennis could be heard but not seen as they made their respective getaways, and when the four of them were outside, they did not stop running.

————————

John Thurgood received his BA in fiction writing from a state university in San Francisco. His stories and essays have appeared in The Logan Square Literary Review, The Music Underground, and City Works.

Dame, Extra Spicy

You’re three shits to the wind — or however that saying goes — when that silly bird walks through your door. It’s late and rain beats down on the window, making the same sound as the piss that misses your leg and hits the porcelain of your girlfriend’s bath tub after she asks if she can urinate on you. “I’ll try anything once,” you’d said — the last time you ever said that. That was the day everything changed. But that dame was long gone now, washed away by a stream of golden showers. You shook her out of your head; concentrated on the lady who’d just walked through the door of your detective office.

“Are you Dick Charles?” she asks innocently enough.

“What it says on the door, don’t it?”

“No…”

You tilt to the side and concentrate real hard to see what the glass on your door says. It ain’t easy, you’ve been hittin’ the Jack real hard. You don’t even like whiskey all that much, you just know it’s what PIs are expected to drink, so you drink it, cause you want to fit in. Just like your whole life, always tryin’ to fit in, growin’ up the only boy in a family with five older sisters, gettin’ slapped by your dad when you wore a sun dress to look like them, gettin’ befuddled looks from your ma when you tried to stick a tampon up your urethra. It wouldn’t go in though, it was too much like you, it just didn’t fit in.

“What’s it say?” you ask the pair a legs in front of you. Boy, was she somethin’ to look at. Stubby legs that led to child-bearing hips. You wanted to lay next to her, naked, rubbin’ a palm up and down her nude side, pretendin’ your hand was on a roller coaster. Roller coasters made you throw up, but you didn’t care, you liked the dips and dives of this dames roller coaster hips. You’d do anything to prove it to her. You’d even vomit, right there in front of her. But dames, they never appreciated heart-felt sentiments like that.

“It um… It says… Poop head,” she says.

That ain’t what it says, you think to yourself. Focusing harder you read it, slowly, the letters backwards through the glass. It says “shithead.” This dame couldn’t even swear. She was crazy. Nutso. A real space cadet, this crazy, nutso bird.

“Yeah, sure, that’s what it says, lady.”

You tilt your head upright and stare her down, “I’m Dick. Who the hell are you?”

“Chesney Appleton.”

You still can’t take your eyes off them hips. They’ve pushed out kids, you just know it. You want to kiss your way from her lips down to her navel, then etch out the shape of her cesarean scar with your tongue.

“What do ya need?” you ask.

“I heard you were familiar with Shifty’s Chili. That you’ve helped people who have… crossed their path.”

“That fast food joint?” you ask as if you have no idea what Shifty’s Chili is. Nothing could be further from the truth. You’ve stared into the dark, anus-like depths of that horrid company. Had thought you’d never be the same after. But lookin’ at this dame in front of you, her vagina probably loose and flappy like a wind-breaker, you think maybe the damage Shifty’s Chili has done to your soul could be undone. That there’s hope for you yet, right between that dame’s legs.

“Yes. Them. I have a problem–” you cut her off.

“You got kids?” you ask.

“Yes,” she says. “Two.”

Her vagina can’t be that floppy, you realize. Still, you hope she does kegels.

She continues: “Shifty’s Chili. They’ve threatened me. They gave me the wrong order one month ago. I complained, but the girl behind the counter, one of those girls with the long finger nails, they had these little bird shapes on them, black silhouettes with a yellow background, she told me they never mess up. That I was wrong”

You can’t stop thinkin’ about your ex. You remember her nails, bright yellow, long… sharp. “No handies,” you had to tell her. You’d insisted it wasn’t because you were a prude. You knew she’d slice your prick open like a plantain with them nails.

But a less tasty plantain.

That was also smaller.

She called you a prude anyways.

The bird in front of you went on: “I wrote a letter to their corporate office demanding they reimburse my meal, or at least send my kids a free hat. My two kids, they love the Fargo Finch — the mascot of Fargo’s baseball team. The one based off Shifty’s Chili’s mascot — they’re the Fargo Finches main sponsor. The only reply I got was a postcard. ‘Be the Mascot for the Fargo Finches,’ it said. I threw it out. The next day I got two more. Three the day after that. Then, today, I got this.”

The dame throws a tiny postcard on your desk. You look down at it. You see somebody dressed up as the yellow Fargo Finch on a green baseball field. On this postcard, written in what is clearly menstrual blood, it reads “tomorrow.” You bet the blood is from a virgin. You know that Shifty’s Chili don’t skimp on blood. You know a lot about this evil corporation that holds an iron fist around the throats of America, but you don’t tell this hot-to-trot bird none a that.

“I’m afraid,” the dame says, trembling.

“Mam,” you say, real polite-like. “You’ve made some powerful enemies. I’m surprised your still alive.”

Her mouth opens wide with fear, “Oh my God… really?”

You break out laughing.

“No,” you lie. “They’re just a company, like any other. They ain’t gonna do nothin’ to ya.”

You get up and walk around your desk to her, putting a hand on her lower back and leading those hips outta your office.

“These post cards. It’s probably just some teens messin’ with ya. That’s all.”

She turns at the door, her eyes down at the floor. “I’m so sorry to have wasted your time.”

Then she power walks outta your life, leaving the scent of baby powder, or as you call it, erection killer, behind.

It’s two days later. You get a call from the chief of Police and the next thing you know you’re walkin’ into that crazy dame’s house. The place is sparse; rookies walk around tryin’ to make themselves useful. Detective Shit-For-Brains writes in a little notebook. You kneel down on the shag carpet in front of a round, blue kiddy pool that would look outta place in any living room. Inside the pool is chili. Chili and Chesney, her wrists slit, her body as curvy as ever. Now you’ll never know if you were tall enough to ride her roller coaster hips. On either side of her are two boys, both drowned in the chili.

“The chief said you might know something about the vic,” Detective Shit-For-Brains says to ya.

“Yeah,” you say, dipping your finger in the chili, sticking the finger in your mouth. It’s Shifty’s Chili, alright. Extra hot. You turn around and start to walk outta the house.

“Well, what do ya know?” Shit-For-Brains is practically begging.

“That dame there,” you say, turning, pointing. “She’s extra spicy.”

And then you leave. Another case comes to an end. Another job well done by detective Dick Charles. Pat yourself on the Goddamn back why dontchya.

————————

Mason Johnson is from Chicago and wrote this piece for Ray’s Tap Reading Series, the best damn reading series around. Check Mason out at his reading series, P. Fanatics, the second best damn reading series around.

2 Poems

Déja Vu

Clichés can be chances to speak to your usually hazy sense of déjà vu.
It’s like a séance. Everyone wants to summon the same ghost.

Like driving to the funeral. We saw a water tower that said
Boswell: Home of the Universe.
And suddenly the tower looked not like a tower
But a giant metal jellyfish of secrets.

Or how right now I’m eating soda-flavored jellybeans.
I am in a frame of mind that changes the experience.
I could be eating with the goal of mixing certain flavors
Like, does Sprite go best with Grape Crush
Or with something weird like Dr. Pepper.
Or I could be thinking how they taste like jellybeans
And not like soda which is not a solid.

Instead, I’m looking out on the horizon
Watching trucks run past the endless seeming fields
And all the jellybeans are tasteless tips of sugar on my tongue
Punctuated sometimes by the hint of occasional orange.

Every funeral reminds me of a movie.
I can’t look at a coffin without hearing Cat Stevens’ voice.
I almost expect to run into Bud Cort or his uncle with the fake arm
Or a portrait of Nathan Hale between posters of game birds and flowers and dogs.

Aside from these clichés, the days are blurring altogether
Which itself is a cliché. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.
I’m eating so much fucking sugar. Now all of the scalloped potatoes are gone.
I am living on oatmeal cookies and coffee with non-dairy creamer.

We wander into strip malls. Suddenly, the shelves of TJ Maxx
Are filled with ceaseless wonder. I can see myself using that hair dryer
That jacket or that pair of what were once expensive shoes.
I would use these things every day of my still living life.

Sometimes I even pass a lacey bra or some new underwear and think
I would look sexy if I wore that. Before you died, I never saw myself
As someone who would dress in discount lingerie.
Apparently that’s who I am or who I have become.

Everyone keeps asking if I want to have kids.
I say no, they ask me why, and I don’t know.
I pick up their children, aware of the way that their
Pudgy hands push down the top of my dress
And reveal a hint of the bra with its discount lace trim.
I am expected to be motherly but still be sexy too.
Right now I am still focused on the sexy.

We’re watching The X Factor, eating the rest of the brownies.
These kids are all talented, going somewhere someday.
They are going to be the same someone. They’re all the same thing.
They look really nice in their oversized scarves
And their short shorts and thin drapey sweaters.
I wonder if they shop at TJ Maxx.

 

A Fine Piece of
Machinery

I get into my friend’s daddy’s car and I slam the door shut
Like I’m slamming his face like I want to but can’t cuz my Mom says
My friend’s daddy glares at me, teeth white and smelling like church water
He says, look here, son, like I am his son, not his son’s friend

He says, this here is a Volvo
It’s a fine piece of machinery
You don’t have to slam on the door
Like it’s your daddy’s Buick

I say oh and he looks down at me like I’m his son
My best friend in the back has become some anonymous bad kid
And I am like his son if he were like a man possessed
Like the manifestation of all of his deepest worst unspoken thoughts

I say oh, that’s too bad cuz my daddy, he don’t drive no Buick
My daddy drives a big black Cadillac
My daddy drives a Cadillac with shiny silver wheels
Spinning round and round and round and round and round

He looks at me like I’m the devil himself
But I am no longer looking up at him
I’m staring dead into a nearby graveyard filled with crosses
That says I’m your child. I was not your choice.

I say yeah, my daddy drives a shiny Cadillac
You’ll know it when you see it out your window
Late at night, when no one’s gonna hear you scream
Over the sound of me slamming your car door as much
And as hard as I damn well want to

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Meghan Lamb lives on the south side of Chicago. She has published in Pank, Bluestem, elimae, Nano Fiction, and Pear Noir!. Her hair is not naturally red. Her hair is also not red.

Ramone

It’s going to be a hundred degrees today. Everyone has planned for it and they are either deep inside their air-conditioned homes or sitting in a long line of cars trying to get into a beach parking lot. What is normally a bustling down town has gone silent. I know because we can’t afford an air conditioner and instead our windows are opened as far as they will go, desperately trying to coax a non-existent breeze into our apartment. My boyfriend is gone for the hottest hours of the day, working in a cool basement lab somewhere. I will hate him later when he comes home crisp and clean while I am limp in our bed, which has turned into a giant sponge for my sweat. But for now it’s just me, suffering through the midday heat. Well, me and Ramone.

Ramone showed up yesterday morning. We’d had a fruit fly infestation earlier in the summer, but those little guys are gone now, drowned in a vinegar solution my boyfriend bought at the drug store. Ramone is fifty times their size. His tiny translucent wings make a noise like a food processor or a lawn mower. They miraculously hold up his fat black body. Yesterday he was desperate to be inside my ear.

“Ramone, fuck off,” I yelled after his third attempt to dive bomb into my ear canal. “I’m not sure what you think is in there, but if you succeed in your mission I will lose my hearing.”

Ramone didn’t move from his perch on the bedside table.

“It’s just not that special. It’s filled with wax and I’m always sticking Q-tips in there farther than I should. You’d get poked all the time.”

That deterred him. He left the nightstand and after the buzzing faded away I lost track of him. It wasn’t until my regular 3 a.m. bathroom break that I encountered him again. He was sitting on the lip of the sink, staring at the toilet.

“I have to be honest with you, Ramone. I’m not really comfortable with you watching me pee. I don’t know you that well.”

Ramone jumped and angled himself away from where I was standing in front of the toilet.

“I don’t know, Ramone, I think you can still see me. I’m not sure what kind of sick satisfaction you might get from watching a human pee, but it disturbs me that you are making such an effort.”

Offended by the slander of his character, Ramone loudly left the room.

Today it is too hot to be clothed, so I tell Ramone I don’t mind him seeing me naked.

“Just no flying in the crotch area, okay Ramone? And I’d rather not be napping and have you land on my tit. Just saying.”

He has recovered from our fight last night and now he is flying about the room in circles. When I get up to go to the kitchen for some ice cream, Ramone follows.

“I don’t know what you eat, Ramone. You’re not like the fruit flies. I hope you survive on dead skin or dust or something, because then you’ll never go hungry in this house.”

Ramone paces back and forth on our counter, waiting for me to scoop the hard ice cream with a teaspoon. Eventually he gets impatient and starts buzzing around my head.

“You know, Ramone, just because you don’t like ice cream doesn’t mean other people can’t have it.”

He buzzes around the pint container and lands on the spoon.

“Ramone, if you would like to craft me a magical free ice cream scoop, be my guest. Otherwise you’ll just have to deal. This is important. It’s fucking hot.”

Ramone does not appreciate this. He does not feel the heat the way we do. All he knows is the bedroom has more interesting places to land and he likes my breasts better when I am lying on my back in bed and gravity is flattening them out.

“Do you like the Beatles, Ramone?” I ask after I’m done with my ice cream. “I thought everyone liked the Beatles. But then I met a whole bunch of people who don’t. It doesn’t matter. They weren’t nice people anyway.”

Ramone isn’t listening. He’s already flying around the room again, trying to fly in synch with the music I put on. It’s not working very well. His rhythm is all off.

The afternoon is wearing on and the relentless heat makes me immobile. I lie with all my limbs as far apart as possible, forming a star shape with my body. Ramone rests on the windowsill.

“I’m tired,” I say. Silence from Ramone. “Bored too.”

I look at him and he is gazing out the window at the empty park next door. The fountain is running but no one is playing in it. On a day like today the fountain is not enough water. I start to miss the children’s screams and the less frequent but equally high-pitched parent’s screams. I feel like I am the only person left in town.

“I’m lonely,” I say.

“Me too,” says Ramone.

The next day he is gone. At first I don’t worry because there are lots of hiding places and I wouldn’t blame him for being sick of me. But then the thought occurs that my boyfriend might have killed Ramone in the night out of jealousy or annoyance and I spend the rest of the day in a panic.

When my boyfriend gets home I jump on him.

“Did you kill a fly?”

“What?”

“Did you kill a fly? A big fly? In this apartment?”

“No, of course not. He was keeping me awake. I lifted the screen window and let him go. He was happy to get out.”

“Oh,” I say.

At first I’m sad. How could Ramone just leave without saying goodbye? I worry I imagined the special nature of our connection. But at the end of the week the heat lets up and everyone comes back to town. It’s finally a good temperature to move about and leave the house. I step outside and immediately a passing woman pushing a stroller says, “Hello.” Her child manages to throw ice cream on my shins as he rolls by. Then I understand Ramone. I am happy to get out too.

————————

Victoria Jakes is slowly but surely finishing her degree in film, writing, and women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is an assistant editor for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian where she also writes for the Editorial/Opinion page. In her free time, Victoria is a bus driver.

Shoo Fly

Shoo Fly Illustration by Sheri Mau“Did you just eat that fly?” asked Liz, Stanley’s wife of fifteen years.

“What fly?” said Stanley, trying to look innocent as he threw dirty paper plates and napkins in the garbage.  A low thrum of laughter and music filtered in through the kitchen door.

“You did eat it, didn’t you?” Liz narrowed her eyes and and pursed her lips,  storm warnings Stanley recognized all too well. His wife had invited her high-end friends and their perfect husbands over for a night of drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and she’d made Stanley swear to behave–or else. The fly had been buzzing in Stanley’s face when his tongue, seemingly of its own accord, flicked out and nailed it.

“It flew in my mouth,” said Stanley, “and I just swallowed reflexively.” Didn’t taste half-bad, he thought. Kinda nutty.

Liz huffed and looked to the heavens for guidance. “Take this tray of Swedish meatballs out there and lay off the goddamn insects,” she said. “The Joneses are here.”

Bill and Tammy Jones were the wealthiest, handsomest, most in-demand couple in the neighborhood and Liz was constantly trying to keep up with them. She glared at Stanley, held open the kitchen door, and waved him out.

Tonight the living room seemed especially bright to Stanley as he passed around the meatballs. It’s not the lighting, he thought, no, it’s the colors, they’re deeper, more intense. Not only did his guests exhibit rich skin tones, he could also see colored auras surrounding them, especially the women. There was an orange aura encircling Nancy Moore, light blue around Sarah Timmons.

“Hey, Stanley,” purred Tammy Jones.

Tammy was a hundred pounds of silicone, peroxide, and sex in a little black dress. A bright pink aura emanated from her and Stanley realized she was ovulating: prime time for procreation. When she leaned in to peck him on the cheek, he caught a whiff of her estrogenic musk and bit her neck, hard. She screamed and flailed her arms, knocking the tray of meatballs to the floor.

Flustered, Stanley knelt to retrieve the meatballs while Tammy rubbed her neck and hyperventilated.

A concerned Bill Jones appeared. “Are you all right, honey?”

“No, I’m not,” she said, glaring at Stanley. “I think we should go.” Tammy stormed out the front door, her bewildered husband trailing in her wake.

As he corralled the last meatball, Stanley sensed Liz’s presence. He looked up and saw a distinct black halo around her head. Whether it was due to the stained rug or the missing Joneses, Stanley was unsure, but black was the color of hate.

“It was an accident,” he said.

***

Great, I have a brain tumor, thought Stanley. It was well past midnight and Stanley was hunched over the computer in his home office, looking at MRI’s of brain tumors. The office was on the second floor of their garage and Stanley was probably going to be sleeping there for some time although it wasn’t official since Liz wasn’t talking to him. He’d spent the past hour researching “strange appetites”, “colored auras”, and “loss of impulse control”, and all roads led to “brain tumor”.

Probably frontal lobe and likely malignant, thought Stanley, an accountant by day, a cyber-doc by night, and a ’round-the-clock hypochondriac.

I guess I’m ready to die, he thought. I’ve got no kids, my clients certainly won’t miss me, and the neighbors all think I’m a loser. There was a time when Liz would’ve been devastated by my death, but now? She’ll get over it soon enough and thanks to my life insurance, she’ll be wealthy. There’s really nothing to keep me here except . . . who’s gonna feed Fred?

Fred was a rose-haired tarantula who’d been left to them by an odd, miserly uncle. The fist-sized spider was nestled comfortably between two rocks in a terrarium on the bookcase, dreaming spider dreams. Stanley could tell they were happy dreams by the spider’s golden aura. He found himself imagining just how scrumptious Fred would taste: nice and crunchy on the outside, sweet and gooey within. Stanley strolled over to the bookcase and was sliding open the top of the terrarium when his cell phone burst into Beethoven’s Fifth.

Jones, Tammy. 694-769-4695. Uh-oh.

“Tammy, I’m so sorry about what happened earlier tonight, I have a brain tumor you see, probably a glioblastoma, and—”

“I need to see you,” she interrupted.

“Um . . . O.K., I’m in the office, let me look in my book.” Stanley began paging through his appointment book.

“No, I need to see you now!” Click.

Stanley heard a car door slam followed by footsteps on the stairs and an urgent knock on the door. He opened the door a crack and Tammy barged in wearing a full-length fur coat.

Stanley closed the door behind her and said, “What can I do for you, Ta—”

Tammy had shrugged off the fur and stood there, wearing just pearls and high heels. “Bite me,” she said.

***

Early the next morning, Stanley sat in Dr. Goldhorn’s waiting room reading Cosmopolitan, “7 Ways To Blow Your Man’s Mind in Bed”, and feeling rather well for a man who probably had a brain tumor. Tammy had known more than seven ways and none had involved his mind, come to think of it. She’d left at sunrise with a green aura, contentment, and a black-and-blue neck.

“Mr. Weiner?” said a grim, square-shouldered nurse standing in the doorway. A teenaged girl sitting in the corner snickered. Stanley got up and followed the nurse, wondering how different his life would have been as a Kowalski, or a Snyder, yet thankful he hadn’t been named after his father, Wally. The nurse led him into a chilly examination room, asked him to undress and put on a paper gown, and said, “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

An hour later, Dr. Goldhorn breezed in and said, “Hey, how’s my favorite accountant? Did you ever find out if I can deduct my Montauk trips?” Dr. Goldhorn had been traveling to Montauk to shtup his tennis instructor and wanted to expense it as continuing education.

“I don’t think so, Dr. Bob,” said Stanley. “Perhaps if you were a gynecologist.”

Dr. Goldhorn’s favorite accountant rubbed his double chin which felt swollen and irritated. “I’m very worried,” he said and launched into a long, extensive, and alphabetized list of his symptoms, starting with auras and ending with zerostomia, and conveniently leaving out all mention of Tammy Jones.

Dr. Goldhorn glanced at his watch and said, “Let’s do some tests.”

***

Stanley sat alone in Dr. Goldhorn’s private office and looked around the room. On the doctor’s desk was a framed photo of his wife and three children and a brandy snifter filled with golf tees. Lurking in the corner was a half-dead ficus and hanging on the wood-paneled walls were diplomas, licenses, and glossies of famous patients. A few of Dr. Goldhorn’s girlfriends were interspersed among the celebrities.

Stanley wondered if he could get a picture of Tammy for his office wall. After all, Liz never visited; she always called his cell when she wanted something.

Presently Dr. Goldhorn strolled in, resplendent in plaid pants and a crimson  shirt, and leaned his golf clubs against the wall. Stanley noticed his furrowed brow and wondered if he was upset by the test results or peeved that he’d missed his tee time.

“All the tests came back negative, Stanley. Everything looks good except for the rash on your double chin.” Dr. Goldhorn took a practice swing with an imaginary club. “I’m gonna prescribe you some hydrocortisone cream and perhaps you could lay off the carbs a little. Any questions?”

“Well what about my eating flies?”

“They’re not so bad, mostly protein and very little fat. Better than potato chips certainly.” Dr. Goldhorn winked, grabbed his clubs, and hurried out of the room. Stanley was both surprised and disappointed to find there was no brain tumor. A rash on his neck would not get him back in his own bed. Perhaps he’d tell Liz it was lupus. Scratching his neck, he got up and left.

***

It was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday morning and Stanley was in fine fettle as he and Fred shared a dozen crickets. They were much tastier than flies but their legs tended to get stuck in Stanley’s teeth. When the last cricket was gone, Stanley broke out the dental floss and reviewed the whirlwind events of the prior week. The week had begun miserably enough with Stanley enduring the silent treatment from Liz, secretly gnoshing on the occasional insect, and sleeping poorly on the office couch. He’d tried several times to apologize but Liz was having none of it.

On Thursday, however, he’d come in for lunch and found Liz and Tammy Jones in the kitchen, laughing and sipping Chablis. Tammy, who was wearing a turtleneck top despite the hot day, gave him a big hug and a kiss—right in front of his wife—but her aura was weak and Stanley wasn’t turned on. Liz, on the other hand, must have been aroused by Tammy’s display of affection, or perhaps her re-appearance in the Weiner home, for later that night she invited Stanley back to their bed. She went a solid if unspectacular nine innings under the covers and even allowed a few mild neck bites. There was the faintest green glow around her head when she fell asleep.

Late the following night, Tammy interrupted Stanley’s research on auras, this time wearing just a raincoat and rubber boots, and last night after dinner, Liz bit Stanley’s ear and took him upstairs for a rousing double-header.

So all was well in Stanley’s world on this glorious morning, all except for a worrisome new bump just above his butt. He finished flossing, checking with his tongue that all the cricket legs were gone, and walked over to the tiny office bathroom. In the mirror he saw that his double-chin had gotten bigger and redder, despite the cream, but he didn’t really mind the look, it seemed to fit with his new life of sex, insects, and more sex.  With great difficulty he turned around, dropped his drawers, and took a look at his behind. It was visible, the bump: a hard little knob right where his spine ended, like the beginnings of a tail.

Stanley got on his favorite medical website and researched whether brain tumors could migrate down the spinal cord and exit out the bottom. But he found nothing except the case history of a boy in Indiana who grew a small tail and began barking at people. After reconstructive surgery and years of psychotherapy, the boy had recovered and eventually become a successful liability lawyer.

I’d better call Dr. Bob tomorrow, thought Stanley, before I start barking at people, or worse, start suing them. He jumped when a car horn blared from below, and then rushed out of his office and down the steps to where Liz was waiting in the car, the engine running. Liz and Stanley had dinner every Sunday at her sister Rose’s house. Stanley had to admit, he enjoyed spending time with Rose, her husband, Joe, and their little boy, Danny. But he dreaded every minute spent with Liz’s mom, Conchita, a sharp-tongued harpy who’d worn black ever since her husband died. She’d sit at the head of the table and critique the food, her doctors, the weather, the United States government, and the entire known universe, her ill-fitting, absurdly-white dentures clack-clack-clacking all the while. She saved her best barbs, however, for Stanley who in addition to being an unworthy husband and an ingrate of a son-in-law, had committed the ultimate sin of not siring a grandchild. Picturing his mother-in-law, Stanley made a sour face and backed the car out of the driveway too fast, almost causing an accident.

An hour later, he sat at his in-laws’ dinner table, picking at his pasta. The  crickets, apparently, had filled him up.

“Sorry, Rose,” he said as she took his plate away, “I don’t seem to have much of an appetite.”

“You’d never know (clack) by your double chin,” said Conchita, who was finishing off her second helping. She grinned, revealing smudges of red lipstick on her teeth.

“Be nice, Mom,” said Liz, “Stanley’s just been diagnosed with lupus.”

Stanley was stunned to hear his wife defending him, the double-header must have really agreed with her. She glowed a deep sea-green and had a good-sized hickey on her neck.

“Uncle Stanley, guess what?” said five-year old Danny.

“Your grandmother’s moving to Florida?”

“No, silly! I just got a hamster named Bucky,” said the boy. “Wanna see him?”

“Sure, Danny, I’d love to,” said Stanley, getting up from the table.

“It certainly beats helping with the dishes (clack),” said Conchita.

Stanley strode towards his mother-in-law, the reptilian portion of his hind-brain determined to throttle her, but then he caught a glimpse of her aura. It was gray: she was dying. Fists clenched, Stanley passed her by and went upstairs with his nephew.

Bucky the hamster was sleek and beautiful, with shiny black eyes and the cutest little pink toes. Stanley and Danny took turns holding him, then put him in an exercise ball and watched him motor around the bedroom. While Danny went to fill up his water bottle, Stanley held Bucky close and sniffed him: he smelled absolutely delicious! Danny returned, put Bucky back in his cage, and held Stanley’s hand as they walked downstairs to rejoin the family.

The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully as Stanley pretended to watch baseball with Joe while basking in the warm sunlight from the picture window. He swallowed a small spider when Joe wasn’t looking, but it was bitter, a discovery that certainly improved Fred’s long-term prospects.

It was dessert time now and Stanley was ravenous. But he found the cookies and cake unappetizing and the coffee undrinkable. He sat there, smiling vapidly and fiddling with a spoon, until finally, it was time to go. He handed Liz the car keys, said, “Start the car, honey, I have to use the bathroom,” and went upstairs.

As Liz and Stanley were pulling into their driveway, her cell phone went off.

“Hello? . . . Oh no, poor Danny! . . . that’s just terrible . . . please tell Danny we love him . . . yes, I will, bye, Rose.”

“What’s up?” said Stanley, turning off the engine.

“Poor Danny, his hamster escaped and they can’t find him!”

Stanley covered a burp and said, “That’s too bad.”

***

That night, Stanley tossed and turned in his sleep. In his dream, he and Conchita were alone at the dining room table.

“You’re even a crappy uncle (clack), you broke Danny’s heart!” said Conchita.

“I was starving,” said Stanley, “I just did what lizards do.”

“Well you’re not a lizard (clack),” said his mother-in-law, “You’re just a loser.”

Stanley’s double chin turned bright red and puffed out threateningly.

“Spare me the dewlap display,” said Conchita, “I’m not impressed.

Stanley lunged across the table and sank his teeth into Conchita’s throat, and she spit out her dentures and made gurgling noises as he savaged her. Expecting warm mammalian blood, Stanley was surprised to find his mother-in-law was full of feathers and he began choking on them.

“Wake up!” cried Liz, shaking him, “Stanley, wake up!”

Aaack,” said Stanley, sitting up and spitting out feathers. He blinked a few times and noticed he was covered with the remains of his pillow. He felt his double chin and it was still irritated but seemed to be about normal size.

“You were screaming and biting your pillow,” said Liz. “What on Earth were you dreaming about?”

“Um . . . I dreamed I was a lizard,” said Stanley, “and I was trying to kill this annoying old bat.”

Liz laughed and kissed his forehead, then went to get the vacuum. She was so sweet and kind lately, not one cross word about the ruined pillow. As she vacuumed up the goose down, Stanley stared at the bruises all over her neck, ranging from deep purple to faded yellow. She’d be devastated to know that her new best friend, Tammy, had the very same bruises. They’d been spending a lot of time together recently, shopping, shooting the breeze, and drinking Chablis, both of them wearing turtlenecks in the middle of July. Some of their more impressionable girlfriends had even started wearing them.

This has got to stop, thought Stanley, I need help.

***

“Did your father ever touch your privates?” asked Dr. Sigfried, stroking his gray goatee and sucking on an unlit pipe.

“Never,” said Stanley quickly. Dr. Sigfried’s rate was five-hundred-dollars an hour and Stanley was trying to move things along.

Hmmm,” said Dr. Sigfried, stroking and sucking, “Veh-ry in-teresting,” He languidly crossed his legs as the second-hand sped around the old-fashioned clock on the wall. “And did you ever think you were a snake?”

“No, doctor. No other animals, just a lizard.”

Hmmm, I see. Fah-scinating.” The psychiatrist steepled his fingers and stared  at them. Stanley was becoming increasingly impatient, especially when he saw the doctor sneak a peek at his pocket watch.

“Do you enjoy sushi?” asked Dr. Sigfried.

“No!” said Stanley, a little louder than he intended. “Listen, Doc, all I want is to stop acting like a horny lizard and go back to being who I was.”

“The desire to go back in time is quite common,” said the shrink, putting his briarwood pipe back in its stand. “Speaking of time, ours is up. I’m going to write you a couple of prescriptions and I’d like to see you again in a week. Helga, my nurse, will set you up.”        Dr. Sigfried stood up, smoothed his gabardine trousers, and said, “Sorry to run but I’m late for a lunch date with my mother.” And with that, he flew out the door.

Stanley stared at the prescriptions and wondered whether they were written sloppily or in Mandarin. He loathed taking medicine but truly wanted to get well and besides, the pharmacy was right next door to the pet store. A dozen crickets would taste awfully good about now, and if the medicine worked, it would be his last bug lunch.

An hour later, Stanley sat on a park bench, contentedly soaking up the sun.

He was full of crickets and anti-psychotics and nicely tanned from his recent love affair with the sun. Sunlight seemed to calm him, unlike his love affair with Tammy Jones. He’d begun to hate all the lying and sneaking around, and he had no idea how Tammy hid the bite-marks on her neck from her husband. On the other hand, Tammy’s constant presence in the Weiner home seemed to stimulate both Stanley and Liz, they were like newlyweds again.

I feel like a wild and sexy animal, thought Stanley, and my wife and my girlfriend love it when I bite them. Am I ready to give all that up?

A cute little chipmunk scurried by the bench, saw Stanley and froze. As Stanley looked it in the eye, he sensed the creature’s abject terror and his mouth began to water. He was about to pounce on the chipmunk when two of Liz’s friends came walking around the corner and said, “Hi, Stan-ley, in unison. They both wore sleeveless turtlenecks, the newest rage about town.

“Hey, ladies,” said Stanley, “lookin’ good!” He feigned a friendly smile and when he looked down, the chipmunk was gone. Yeah, I’m ready to give all this up, thought Stanley, I’ve got to.

Stanley began to feel dizzy and now the sun seemed much too bright. There were rainbows around the trees and the buildings, and an odd buzzing sound in his ears. Stanley stood up, somewhat unsteadily, and wishing he’d remembered to bring his sunglasses, he trudged to the parking lot.

***

After a couple of aspirin and a glass of Cabernet, Stanley felt much better and had a nice, relaxing dinner with Liz. But later that night, he had the mother of all headaches and the lump above his rump ached like the devil. He tiptoed up to his office and looked up all the possible side effects of his new medicines. Stanley was shocked at all the dangerous conditions the drugs could cause, however, “mother of all headaches” and “achy rump lump” were not on the otherwise impressive list. Now there were powerful auras pulsating around everything, even his lamp and his desk, as well as strange, putrid odors in the air. Just then there was a familiar knock on the door. Jeez, not now, he thought.

Tammy burst into the room but stopped before dropping her bathrobe. “God, Stanley, you look like shit!” she said.

Stanley limped to the bathroom to see for himself and sure enough, Tammy was right. He barely recognized the pale swollen face in the mirror and worse yet, there was a thick gray aura swirling around his head as an invisible jackhammer tried to crack open his skull. I’m dying, thought Stanley, and he stepped out of the bathroom and collapsed at Tammy’s bunny-slippered feet.

***

Stanley saw a bright light but couldn’t remember exactly what to do. Are you supposed to go towards the light or away from it? It seemed like a critically important decision. And now the light was turning green. Green  . . . of course, that means proceed safely through the intersection. Stanley went to step on the gas but there was no gas pedal and there was no car, he was in a hospital bed surrounded by banks of blinking, beeping medical equipment.

“How’s my favorite accountant?” said Dr. Goldhorn, wearing green surgical  scrubs.

“H—, H—” Stanley licked his lips. “H-hi, Dr. Bob. What happened?”

“You’re a lucky man, my friend. You had a cerebral aneurysm, a blood vessel that was rapidly expanding in your brain. As it expanded it pressed against portions of your frontal lobe, causing your strange symptoms. It finally ruptured and you would have died,” said Dr. Bob, smirking, “if Tammy Jones hadn’t happened to drop by.”

A tall, bespectacled nurse entered the room and asked Stanley if he needed a pain pill or something cold to drink. Stanley said yes to both and added, “I’d like some ginger ale if you have it.” The nurse nodded and left.

“Um, what were we talking about?” asked Stanley.

“I was saying, you had an acute dissecting aneurysm but an old golfing buddy of mine, Dr. Wong, just happened to be in the hospital and he took you right up to the O.R. and did a magnificent job of stopping the bleeding and resecting the damaged artery. He expects you to have a speedy and complete recovery.” Dr. Bob glanced at his watch and added, “And while they had you under, they removed an infected cyst from the base of your spine.”

Stanley reached up and touched the thick swath of bandages surrounding his head. Odd that his head didn’t hurt although his butt sure was sore. At that moment he heard footsteps in the hall and turned to see Liz enter the room, followed by her mother and Danny. Liz rushed over and hugged Stanley tightly, her warm tears anointing his cheek. After a minute, her sobbing subsided and she stood up and dabbed at her eyes with some tissues.

“I’m glad (clack) you’re alive, Son,” said Conchita from the other side of the bed. “I prayed all night to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and (clack) she answered my prayers.”

Maybe she doesn’t hate me, thought Stanley, she called me “Son”. He could no longer see her gray aura, in fact no one in the room had an aura. Stanley noticed Danny peeking out from behind his grandmother.

“Hey, buddy,” said Stanley weakly raising his hand towards Danny. The boy stepped forward and gave Stanley a tentative high-five.

“Are you gonna be O.K., Uncle Stanley?” he said.

“Sure, Danny, I’m fine,” Stanley lied. He was dying of thirst and his behind was on fire. “Do you know what we’re gonna do as soon as I get out of here?”

Danny shook his head.

“We’re gonna buy you a new hamster, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

The boy brightened and gave Stanley a big, gap-toothed smile.

The no-nonsense nurse returned with Stanley’s medicine and ginger ale and asked everyone to say their goodbyes so her patient could rest. As she exited the room, Dr. Goldhorn leaned over and said, “Gotta run, Stanley, I’ve got an important  tennis lesson.” The good doctor winked and departed.

“I hope you feel better, Son,” said Conchita, taking Danny by the hand, “We’ll be back to visit you tomorrow.”

“Thanks”—Stanley gulped hard—“Mom. See you tomorrow, Danny.” The old lady and the little boy slowly made their way into the hall, the boy waving goodbye as he disappeared.

Liz smiled and caressed her husband’s face. “I love you so much, Stanley,” she said, her dark eyes glistening, “I swear I’ll never take you for granted again.” She kissed him softly on the lips, brushed away a tear, and left.

Stanley was left alone with his thoughts and his soda, which he sipped on to relieve his parched throat. Despite his wounds and near brush with death, Stanley felt pretty darn good and best of all, he felt like himself again. He had no desire to ever screw Tammy again, nor did he feel like killing Conchita. In fact, he might even get used to calling her “Mom”.

Stanley realized that he loved his life, and more importantly, he loved his wife. Still, when Liz had leaned in to kiss him, he’d felt an almost overwhelming urge to bite her neck. This was most disturbing and as Stanley was obsessing over whether he had a “biting problem”, a big black fly flew by and landed near his ginger ale. He whacked the fly with his hand, killing it, and picked it up.

Stanley inspected the fly closely and waited to see if he felt hunger or revulsion for the lifeless insect. Strangely enough, he felt nothing—perhaps he was still a little fuzzy from the anesthesia.

Only one way to be sure, he thought, and opened his mouth.

————————

Pete McArdle is a bipedal, carbon-based life-form who thinks he can write, and worse yet, thinks he’s funny. A recent spate of published stories has not helped any with his delusions of literary grandeur.