Temporary Insanity

When it was over—all of it, not just the shouting—Lulu had no regrets. “Girl can only take so much,” she’d shrug, prodding her updo with a long lacquered nail, “And I had had enough.” Enough of the endless forms, the calculations, the Excel spread sheets, the constantly blinking phone, the humming shredder. The glitz of temporary office work had flaked off quicker than the electroplate on her former fiancé Trevor’s engagement ring.

A shame, really—the interview had gone so well. Lulu had worn her Blue Lagoon garters—under a sensible skirt, of course—and her future boss had seemed pleased. “Here at Alamance Community College,” he’d quipped, eyeing her décolletage, “We encourage our employees to be cheerful, flexible, and enthusiastic.”

“Well, gimme a pole,” said Lulu, “and I can be all three.”

Who wouldn’t have admired such spunk? The bustier hadn’t hurt, either. And she’d been so ready for a change! Answer phones, fill out a few forms, scribble her name—how hard could it be? No sweaty horny patrons, no haze of cigarette smoke, no Trevor hulking by the stage door, cracking his knuckles over his near-beer.

Mornings, though—mornings had been the worst. Mornings were for beauty sleep, not tending to endless forms that clamored like brats from a two-tiered inbox. She’d triage them quickly, scanning for what her boss liked to call “VIPs”—Very Important Papers. Keywords like “Urgent!” “Immediate Response!” and “Deadline!” warranted prompt attention, alright—straight  to the bottom of the inbox.

As for the rest—this student was not enrolled, this student was enrolled, but only part-time, this student was receiving additional need-based financial aid which would negatively impact his Rotary Club-Optimist Club-High School Math Club-Evangelist Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Club-scholarship. Blah blah blah, thought Lulu; Who gives a fuck? It wasn’t real, not like Mr. Goolsby in the front row with a hard-on and a C-note. This was some giant word problem, like the ones that used to scramble her brain in algebra. Only, these problems weren’t worth extra credit. There were no answers at the back of the book. And she couldn’t ask Trevor for help. “Does that suck,” she heard his familiar sneer in her head, “or does it fucking suck?” Her life was a wadded up mess of red tape, and she’d somehow misplaced the scissors.

On the morning of what turned out to be her last day, Lulu moved a week-old VIP— “Compliance Mandatory!”—to her boss’s inbox, and bent to catch a check that fluttered free. A five thousand dollar check. From The Blue Lagoon Lounge.  For a Miss Laverne “Tiara” White. Tiara! That skanky ho! After she—! What about, “Downsizing?What about, “Sorry, Lulu, no severance package?” What about—no. Too soon to be thinking about Dewey. Damn, she missed that snake. Lulu’s fist clenched. Beside her, the shredder hummed in anticipation. The check crumpled, wadded up and helpless in her hand. Her fist clenched again, briefly but fiercely, and she smiled.

————————–

Agnieszka Stachura is a former baker whose fresh master’s degree (Liberal Studies at Duke) has not yet freed her from the 7th level hell that is temporary office work. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Funny Times, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and The Sun, among other publications. 

Amateur Night

When Miriam called about a trip she had won, Lisa was sitting on the kitchen counter.

“It will be great. It’s already all paid for,” Miriam insisted. There was a rustle of static on the other end of the phone. There was never a good connection between Idaho and New York.

“What about the kids?” Lisa stared at her bare feet against the granite countertop. Earlier, she had been trying to reach a cobweb floating from the fan above the table, but as she swatted it away and it disappeared below, she was struck by the sight of the apartment from a point of elevation. She still had trouble believing that Nathan had let her keep the entire thing in their divorce settlement, so to view it all at once was like living in a space station orbiting Earth.

“Rob said he could work from home for a few days. And don’t you still have miles left?” Miriam asked. “It will be great, Lis,” she added in a whining plea, a tone that brought Lisa right back to the backyards and bunk beds of their childhood.

“Yeah.” Lisa trailed off, resting the phone against her shoulder. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to spend four days in New Mexico with her little sister that was causing her to hesitate; it was the fact that she wanted to so badly.

“Fine, I’ll go. I guess I’m not really doing anything else.”

“You just made my week! Want to say hi to Simon. Simon? Come say hi to aunt Lisa.”

Lisa heard movement and a pause, and then the sound of a raspberry being blown into the receiver.

 ***

On the way to Albuquerque, Lisa sat next to an older couple that insisted on paying for her headset and then proceeded to ask her questions about her life. She took a double dose of Dramamine and woke up as the plane was skidding into the airport, with drool running down her shoulder.

Walking through the terminal, looking for the baggage claim, Lisa rubbed her thumb along the inside of her ring finger. The ring itself was somewhere in the depths of the apartment that somehow now belonged explicitly to her, but she could still feel it snug around her finger. She often found herself going to touch it in new situations and when she realized it wasn’t there, it took a moment to calm the panic she had lost a ten thousand dollar engagement ring.

Nathan had been a gentleman when Lisa first met him. He reminded her of the eighteenth century men she read about while studying literature in college. He always wore a suit – only once did Lisa see him in anything casual, and then it was in neatly pressed jeans and a button down shirt so perfectly white her eyes hurt when she looked at it. He was polite and kind and always pulled her chair out at restaurants. He never spoke out of turn and his talent at investing in the right places was respected in every social circle they seemed to encounter. Lisa was enamored with him.

Lisa waited at the baggage claim until she saw her black suitcase coming towards her on the belt. She grabbed it by the handle and went to sit in the lobby by the windows. The dusty orange glow of the sunlight outside was so like what she had seen in pictures of New Mexico that she had to look around to make sure she still wasn’t asleep on the plane. She looked at her watch: Miriam had flown out of Boise and caught another flight in Salt Lake City. They had planned it so Lisa would only have to wait for a half hour before Miriam’s flight arrived in Albuquerque, and looking for the baggage terminal had taken up most of that time. Lisa sat on one of the plastic seats by the windows and reclined her head against the glass. She hadn’t seen her sister since the wedding, and then only briefly because Nathan had lots of colleagues and lots of former bosses Lisa had been obligated to dance with. Miriam had been her maid of honor, and had done everything in her power to plan a New York bridal shower and not an Idaho one. But when Lisa walked into the banquet hall the day of the party, and saw white and blue crepe streamers dangling from the ceiling, she couldn’t help feeling angry and disappointed. Don’t you know who I’m becoming? she had wanted to ask.

“Can you believe this!” The shout came from across the lobby and Lisa looked up to see her sister stumbling towards her. She was wearing sweatpants and a Michigan sweatshirt, her hair pulled back in a loose bun and sunglasses on top of her head. She had lost weight, and the sight of her sweats hanging off of her hips made Lisa want to cry. She looked beautiful.

Lisa stood and met her halfway, leaving her suitcase by her chair. “God, I missed you Miriam.” Lisa wrapped her arms around Miriam, feeling the weight of another person beside her. Her sister smelled faintly of lilac, and something sickly-sweet, like a melted lollipop. She always seemed to carry the smell of kids with her wherever she went, even hundreds of miles from home.

“Can you believe I won this? I never win anything!” Miriam said. Lisa thought of how, when she and Miriam were on the same soccer team in elementary school, Miriam got the medal for Most Improved Player.

Miriam slapped Lisa’s butt like she always used to do when they were kids, Lisa running around the house or through the backyard until Miriam caught up to her and they both collapsed in shrieks.

“It only takes a raffle to make a queen,” Lisa said.

“Ha ha. I see your sense of humor hasn’t changed.”

“My humor stays the same and my marriage falls to pieces.” Lisa stopped abruptly and went to grab her suitcase; she hadn’t meant to say anything yet, and now Miriam looked as if she wanted to ask her something, if she was okay or if she needed a drink. But Lisa came back pulling her suitcase and reached forward to touch Miriam’s arm. She smiled, and Miriam seemed to forget what Lisa had just said.

Together, they stepped out into the dry heat of New Mexico. Even right outside of the airport, the air smelled so different Lisa thought she was on another planet. Reddish brown dirt swirled around gray bushes across the one-way street in front of them. Miriam sighed beside her. “God. This is beautiful.”

A van from the spa picked them up and Lisa and Miriam squeezed down the narrow aisle to two open seats at the back. It was another hour to Santa Fe, and as soon as the van began to move forward, Miriam reached down and slipped her sneakers off her feet. She rolled her socks down her heels and stuffed them into her discarded shoes, pulling strappy leather sandals from her purse and sliding them over her feet. Lisa saw that her sister’s toenails were a bright shade of turquoise.

“Your toes are blue,” she said.

Miriam was leafing through the spa’s pamphlet and looked, startled, down at her toes. “What? Oh, no I painted them last night. It’s very ‘Navajo,’ don’t you think?”

“Hmmm.” Out the window, the swirling dirt seemed to move at an even greater speed, which was weird because when they had been standing outside, Lisa had not felt any wind. It felt like they were moving forth on a bullet, so fast as to be felt but not seen until much later.

“God I’m starving,” Miriam said, her nose still in the folds of the pamphlet. “Do you know what I was thinking about on the plane? Those raspberry tarts Nathan made for your rehearsal dinner. A man that can cook like that?” Miriam let out a low whistle and turned a page of the pamphlet.

“They were alright.” Lisa remembered trays and trays of flaky pastry covering the island in their kitchen the night before the rehearsal. Nathan insisted on baking something even though the dinner was going to be held at a fancy restaurant downtown. His attachment to the kitchen never wavered; even the private chef they had cook for them twice a week had to step aside so Nathan could demonstrate the proper way to clean a copper pot. Lisa remembered she ate so many of his raspberry tarts before the actual dinner that when one was set on her plate the next night, she felt sick just looking at it.

“They were delicious.” Miriam waved the pamphlet in front of Lisa’s face. Lisa saw a photograph of two women wrapped in white towels, with a green cream smeared on their faces. Miriam tapped the picture. “I want to get a clay facial. I’ve heard it’s great for your pores. I mean, when else to I have time to worry about my pores?”

“How are my lovely niece and nephew, by the way?”

“Loud.”

“Better than stupid.”

Miriam set the pamphlet in her lap and looked at Lisa. Here comes the pity, Lisa thought.

“How are you? Really, Lisa. I haven’t heard from you much about anything.”

Lisa sat back in her seat as the van hit a bump in the road. Her knees jerked up towards the ceiling and she felt the sensation of her heart leaping into her throat. I’m great, she wanted to say, I get to start over. But instead, she answered:

“I’m sad. I mean, of course, right?”

Miriam pulled Lisa’s head to her shoulder and pushed her hair behind her ear with her fingers. “Hey, look at that.”

With her other hand, she pointed to a building outside the window. It was two stories, made of dark brick and full of blacked-out windows. There was a neon beer sign in the bottom left window and a paper sign on the door that advertised Amateur Night in large black letters. It looked like a building that belonged in New York.

“Maybe I’ll find my next husband in there,” Lisa said.

Miriam slapped her hand, sighing so that Lisa’s head fell up and down with her breath.

 ***

When Lisa first met Nathan, he held her attention like no other person she had ever met. He didn’t even have to speak, or touch her hand across the table at dinner; just the sight of his collar folded crisply against his smooth neck was enough to show her something real before her, something she could pick out of the crowd and see as her own. He had a control over her that was intoxicating.

The spa was the same type of thing, something not built by humans. It was set against the dusty orange mountains, and its sleek white peeks cut swaths like wings into the sky.

“Where are we? Mars?” Lisa asked as they stepped out of the van.

“I have to call Rob, let him know we got here. I’ll meet you upstairs?”

Lisa nodded and watched Miriam walk off into the lobby, her leather sandals scuffing against the red dirt and mosaic tiles covering the ground. Lisa decided to walk the perimeter of the spa, hopefully ending up by the pool where she could kick off her sneakers and sit with her feet dangling in the turquoise water. She started towards the left, walking down a cobbled path through overhanging trees. There were women lounging in chairs in a courtyard to her right, their eyes closed. Lisa thought spas were places where you put slices of cucumber over your eyes and she was a bit perplexed to see the bare eyelids of the people beside her. She rounded a corner and found herself at the back of the spa. Beyond a white gate, she could see for miles over desert and dry grass to misty forms of mountains in the distance. It was so open out here, and she felt her throat constrict.

Back in New York, when she was married, she gave up any sense of making her own money. She always told herself in college that she would never be one of those women who gave up her own ambitions because her husband brought in the cash. She used to be a great public speaker: she had a strong, unwavering voice and a good sense of what the public wanted to hear through words. In her sorority, she was always the one who addressed the new pledges, stating the rules for their little group in crisp sentences that transformed into muscled serpents, hypnotizing the girls in the crowd.

But it was just easier, when it actually came to pass, to allow herself to be free of all ties to responsibility. Marrying Nathan was what she thought excitement would be like. She thought she would get to be one of those wives who addressed her husband’s colleagues at corporate events, raising a glass to the room and opening her mouth in a glittering, comforting smile.

Wandering around the city during the day while Nathan was at the office, Lisa would think about the beautiful outfits she would wear to whatever gala they had to attend that evening – silky blouses and tailored pants; skirts that skimmed her hips; and gowns, dozens of gowns with shining clasps and shimmering hems. Lisa would wind her way through sidewalks and imagine what the city looked like from above – a maze of gravel and the squares of the tops of buildings. While moving and thinking, she was happy. This was what she had always wanted – to have so much time to think and so much to look forward to when it was done. It turned out all the parties were the same, and no one there ever wanted to talk to her.

Lisa entered the spa from the back door and found the front desk. The woman at the check-in counter was dressed in a neat black blazer, her hair piled on top of her head. She handed Lisa a key and she climbed the stairs to the second floor. The hallways were open, and as she wandered down the tiled ways, she could see out into the courtyard she had only moments before passed through. This time, she could see the women from above, and from a few stories up, they looked like flattened tissues on the ground.

Miriam was already wrapped in a white robe when Lisa entered their room.

“How’s Rob?” Lisa asked, tossing her purse onto the bed and setting her suitcase against the wall.

“Seriously, I think he must have a screw loose. He spent the goddamn morning working on his car out in the garage and for a good two hours Simon and Ginny colored the living room walls with crayon. Jesus.”

“Maybe they are stupid then.”

“Where have you been, anyway?”

“Walking around, exploring. There’s no cucumbers.”

Miriam dug through her bag and pulled out a pair of flip-flops. She exchanged her leather sandals for the plastic ones. “I’m going to get a clay facial.”

“Right now? We’re here for three days.” Lisa collapsed back onto the bed. The ceiling was stucco, and it looked like plaster would drip onto her face.

“I want to shrink my pores. You can come.”

“That’s alright. I think I might take a nap.”

Lisa could here Miriam sigh. She propped herself on her elbows and looked over at her sister. “What?”

“You need to do something, Lisa.”

Lisa knew Miriam wasn’t just talking about some health treatment at the spa. She sat up and rolled off the bed. “Maybe I’ll get a massage. I’ve never had one before.”

“Yes! Great! A massage! You get your kinks worked out and I’ll get my pores squared away.”

 ***

Walking through the spa in her white robe, Lisa felt more naked than if she’d been wearing nothing. She stopped by a marble-topped table in the hallway with a bucket, bottles of wine chilling on ice. There was wine everywhere, which Lisa found odd because she had a vague notion that spas were places of cleansing. She poured herself a glass and went looking for the masseuse’s room. Whenever she saw movies or television shows where one of the characters was getting a massage, she thought it looked so nice, like a complete stranger smoothing out the clumps of tangled nerves and making roads of loose muscle across their backs.

She opened a door that advertised Masseuse in gold letters and stepped into a white room with gray leather tables. They each had a hole at one end, big enough for someone to stick her face through and stare down at the floor. She pulled her robe tighter around her naked body and hopped up onto the chair furthest from the door. She felt like she was in a doctor’s office, waiting to hear the results of some invasive test. She was wondering if Miriam was in the midst of having clay rubbed on her face when a man in a tight white t-shirt and loose-fitting white pants walked in through a door in the back.

“Afternoon. Here for a full body massage?”

Lisa looked at the man’s dark skin showing through the whiteness of his t-shirt. She could see the small round knobs of his nipples. She looked down at her hands in her lap. “Yes,” she said.

“Alright, well take off your robe and lie down on the table there and cover up with the sheet, if you want. I’ll be right back.”

He left the room, easing the door closed behind him. Lisa quickly slid the robe down her shoulders and set it behind her on the table. She crawled up onto the table the masseuse had indicated, almost laughing out loud at how ridiculous she must have looked, naked and pale and on all fours. She pulled the thin sheet over her ass and shivered. The material was cheap, which surprised her; the turquoise tiles and the colorful vases and bottles of wine throughout the spa made her think of elegance and clear, blue water. To have something so institutional inside this beautiful building was almost insulting to her. She propped herself up on her elbows and reached over for her glass of wine. She took a sip and tried to balance it on the gray leather material, where it promptly tipped over and shattered on the floor. She sighed. Looking down at the broken pieces of glass, she thought of the women she had seen outside an hour before, glittering in the sun.

The door opened and the masseuse entered, carrying a tray laden with bottles of various creams.

“I dropped my wine glass. I’m sorry,” Lisa said.

He set his tray down and crouched to the floor, gathering the broken pieces into the darkness of his palm. “No big deal. I’d say it happens all the time…but it really doesn’t.” He looked up at her and grinned. Lisa smiled back, her chin resting on her hands.

He threw the pieces away, and suddenly his hands were on her shoulders, pressing down and kneading the muscles at the base of her neck. Lisa could feel herself tense; for some reason, she had expected to feel the broken pieces of glass he had just put into the trashcan, slicing her skin and smearing blood onto her back.

“Okay? The pressure good?” he asked.

Lisa mumbled assent and tried to relax. She had never been good at relaxing. It was partially why she had been so reluctant to come here with Miriam in the first place. If Lisa wasn’t doing something, she felt useless, like a blob of atoms dropped from the ceiling. When she and Miriam were younger, their father used to take them to the river behind the elementary school to go fishing. Miriam was always stoic, sitting on her rock by the edge and waiting for something to bite her line. Lisa bounced around: chasing butterflies in the tall grass, looking for turtles hidden in the algae at the edge of the water, setting her hands on her father’s shoulders and watching his line bob in the water. Her favorite part was digging her fingers into the cool, packed dirt in the Styrofoam cups of worms her father purchased at a gas station on the way, and twisting them onto the hooks dangling in front of her face. Miriam refused to touch them.

“How long have you been a masseuse?” Lisa asked. She felt his fingers along her spine, imaging what her bones and tendons looked like beneath the surface.

“About five years now. My brother is, too. But he’s got another job back in Albuquerque.”

“Oh?” Lisa propped herself up again. The hands on her back felt too heavy and the table too stiff beneath her.

“Lay down, relax,” the masseuse said.

Lisa obeyed, turning her head to the side. “Where does your brother work?” she asked.

“He’s a bartender.”

Lisa thought of the sign in the window of the building they had passed on the way in. She felt the masseuse’s fingers making trenches in her back and she realized she hated this; she hated lying here and being molded like a mound of raw meat. It was boring, and underneath this cheap sheet – naked and spreading onto the table – it was humiliating.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

She heard him sigh, and his fingers pressed harder into her shoulder blades. “Darnell.”

“You have nice hands, Darnell.”

 ***

Lisa found Miriam out by the pool, a speck of clay smeared beneath her eyebrow. She was drinking a glass of wine and flipping through the same pamphlet she had been looking at in the van from the airport.

“How was the massage?” she asked as Lisa sat down beside her.

“Uncomfortable.”

“Well my face feels amazing. Like someone took a vacuum to it and sucked everything out.”

“That’s disgusting.”

Lisa took a sip of Miriam’s wine. The sun was setting in the distance, a purple and red haze behind the black shadows of the flat-topped mountains. “Do you remember going fishing with dad?” she asked.

Miriam took her wine from Lisa’s hand. “Of course. You loved impaling those worms.”

Miriam turned to face her and Lisa saw in her sister’s eyes both the reflection of the sun on the pool water and the hazy sunset colors in the distance. Miriam sighed and set a hand on her knee. “Lisa,” she began.

“Please. Don’t patronize me, Miriam.”

“We haven’t even talked about you and Nathan. Are you doing anything about it? Therapy?”

“I sit on my kitchen table. The therapy’s the sound my breathing makes when it echoes off the walls.”

“You can be such a control freak, Lisa.”

Lisa stood and realized they were alone on the pool deck. “I want to go out for a beer. I’m already sick of wine.”

“Shut up and talk to me.”

Lisa laughed and bent down. She stuck her hand in the water, shaking off the sparkling droplets and touching the wet tips of her fingers to Miriam’s face, wiping off the smudge of clay.

“Come on. I know somewhere we can go for dinner.”

 ***

They took one of the spa vans back out through Albuquerque. Miriam had been sure to check three times that the vans made the trip every thirty minutes so that they would not be stuck, “in some hell hole that doesn’t even have a pay phone.”

When she saw the dark-windowed building appear, Lisa asked the driver to drop them off.

“Here?” Miriam got out of the van behind her and dusted off her knees, as if she had already fallen on the disgusting floor she was expecting to find inside.

“I told you I want a beer.”

The bar was dark and smoky, low music playing overhead and bottles of liquor glinting from shelves behind the counter. There was a stage that spanned the length of one wall and a runway that stretched almost halfway through the bar, chairs and round tables surrounding it from either end. There was a purple curtain that billowed in the dank air and three gold poles that shined through the darkness.

“I haven’t been in a place like this since college,” Miriam said. She had changed out of her robe back into her Michigan sweatshirt, her turquoise toenails covered once again by her sneakers.

Lisa took a seat at the bar and ordered them two lagers. As they sipped, Miriam kept looking over her shoulder, back at the stage with the billowing curtain.

“I can’t believe you dragged me here when we’ve got three all-paid-for days back at the spa.”

“Will you just relax? Maybe we’ll get to catch a show.”

As she smiled into her beer, Lisa heard the low beats of music coming to life from somewhere in the ceiling, and the curtains parted to reveal a woman wrapped in leather and feathers. Her dancing and twirling around the center pole brought the few men scattered throughout the bar to the round tables along the runway. Lisa thought she could hear the faint patter of coins hitting the stage.

“Well, she’s obviously not an amateur.” Miriam pushed her beer from her and checked her cell phone. “I told Rob to have the kids call me before they went to sleep.”

Lisa finished her beer and leaned in closer to her sister. “You’re a good mom. Just wish you were a better bar partner.”

“Hey, the mom part kind of erases any of the bargirl part. How was Nathan with going out?”

Lisa remembered sitting on a leather couch in the center of a new club uptown. Nathan stood beside her with one hand on her shoulder and the other around his gin and tonic. “He was polite,” Lisa said. Over Miriam’s shoulder, the stripper was upside down, the feathers of her outfit stroking the gold pole.

 ***

The next night, Miriam insisted they stay at the spa for dinner. In the line for the buffet, Lisa pinched some of the thick material of Miriam’s robe between her fingers. “What, do people not bring any other clothes with them?” she asked.

“Make sure you get some greens. They’re good for your skin,” Miriam said.

They both loaded their plates with food. Lisa choked back a laugh at the weight of the plate in her hands, how the heaviness did not coincide with the lightness of the brown rice and steamed vegetables heaped before her. She poured herself a glass of wine at the end of the table. “They don’t even have red here,” she said, but Miriam was already on her way to a candlelit table in the far corner of the room. As Lisa weaved her way between tables of women picking at health food, she thought of how she used to weave through the parks and boutiques and fur-clad women of the Upper East Side to find her way back to her favorite bagel shop. She would buy a salt bagel bigger than her fist and slather it in strawberry cream cheese, eating the entire thing before she finished walking two blocks back to her clean, impressive apartment. She always worried Nathan would notice the smell of empty carbohydrates on her breath, but he never did. He always gave her a quick kiss on the lips when he came home from the office, and then collapsed onto the couch where he promptly fell asleep. Lisa looked down at her plate of food now and thought how strange it was that she was eating the things she always imagined she would have to consume in the company of Nathan and his friends, the food she would have to pretend to enjoy and eventually learn to appreciate.

Lisa sat down beside Miriam with her plate of halibut and sautéed spinach. She watched Miriam shove forkfuls of limp leaves into her mouth and grimace as she chewed.

“What kind of fish did we catch with dad?” Lisa asked.

Miriam finished chewing and took a sip of wine. “Sunfish, I think. Not the kind you eat.”

“Why not?”

“Jesus, I don’t know. Because they swim in ponds full of sewage and cigarette butts maybe?”

Lisa shrugged and took a bite of fish. As she chewed, she felt the tiny snap of pin bones between her teeth.

“Fuck!” Lisa’s fork clattered against her plate. She shoved her fingers into her mouth and pulled broken fish bones from the crevices of her teeth. Some of the smaller pieces stabbed her gums, and she took a sip of wine to loosen them. “What kind of spa doesn’t clean their goddamn fish?” she said.

“Jesus, Lis!” Miriam looked over her shoulder and back at Lisa quickly. “There’s other people in here!”

Lisa gulped more wine and felt a small piece of bone lodge in her throat. She had a flash of Nathan standing at the marble island in their apartment and cleaning fish to cook for dinner. He used tweezers to grasp the little bones and pull them out in one whole piece. Lisa remembered holding a glass of wine and standing beside him as he held the fan of bones before his face. It looked like a feather, thin and white, twirling between the arms of the silver instrument. They both stood there, side by side, staring at it in the light of the setting sun.

Lisa’s eyes streamed, and she reached for her napkin. She pawed the tablecloth and her hand hit the spoon and knife by her plate, but she couldn’t find a napkin anywhere.

“There aren’t even goddamn napkins at this place! We really are on a different planet! Planet bullshit! Where there aren’t even any napkins!”

“Is there a problem over here?” Lisa turned to see a hand on the back of her chair. Darnell the masseuse stood between her and Miriam’s chairs, looking down at them curiously.

“Darnell!” Lisa said, patting his hand. “Welcome to the comedy hour!”

“Lis,” Miriam hissed again.

“You need to keep your voice down,” Darnell said at the same time.

“Darnell, there were bones in my halibut, and there aren’t any napkins at the table. What do you want me to do? You saw me spill my wine the other day. I’m a mess!”

“Goddamn it Lisa! Here!” Miriam threw a white cloth napkin into Lisa’s lap and left the dining room. Darnell looked after her and then back down at Lisa.

Lisa fingered the napkin in her hands. “I swallowed a bone,” she said into her lap.

“Come on.” Darnell slid a hand beneath her armpit and brought her to her feet. Outside of the dining room, in the empty and tiled hallway that seemed to stretch on forever and ever in a sea of palatial wonderment, Darnell steered her into a chair against the wall, beside a carafe of wine. Lisa reached for the pitcher.

“Uh uh,” Darnell said, grabbing her wrist and taking the still-full glass of wine from her hand. “Why don’t you go find your sister and set things right?”

“Darnell, you have a brother, don’t you?”

Darnell set her glass on a table behind him and then set his hands against his hips, looking down at her. “Why are you so concerned about my brother?”

“I really want a beer,” she said.

There was the sound of flip-flops coming down the hallway and Lisa turned to see Miriam emerge from the restroom, a used paper towel crumpled in her fist. “Thank you, sir. I can take it from here.”

Darnell backed away and headed down the hallway. Miriam leaned against the wine table beside Lisa.

“You know why I invited you along to this?”

Lisa shook her head.

“My first thought when I found out I won this trip was ‘Lisa could really use this. She could really use a break.’ You’re always doing something.”

“I haven’t done anything for months.”

Miriam sighed. “You got married.”

Lisa snorted and stood up. Looking down the hallway, she saw a woman cross from the dining room to the bathroom. She looked down the other direction and saw nothing. “You know those raspberry tarts?” she asked, turning towards Miriam.

Miriam nodded.

“Nathan made me try six batches of those fucking things the night before the rehearsal. I couldn’t fit into my goddamn dress without three safety pins.”

“You didn’t have to eat them.”

The sentence seemed to ring off every wall around them, and Lisa suddenly wished she, too, were encased in a fluffy white robe.

“Jesus Christ,” Lisa said. Looking down at the blue and orange tiles, she felt she was above that maze of a city she imagined months ago.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about everything because I’ve been trying to come up with the best way to tell you that what you did is right. He made good tarts. So what?”

Lisa laughed and couldn’t stop. She laughed so hard that Miriam tightened the belt around her robe, as if the tremors of Lisa’s body would loosen the fabric and cause it to slip off her shoulders.

“Darnell!” Lisa called. “Darnell, come back!”

She saw his head poke around the corner. “Are you serious?” he said.

“Darnell, do you have a car?”

 ***

They drove out of Santa Fe and back through Albuquerque. Darnell claimed he only agreed to take them because he had been planning on going to have a drink with his brother once his shift was over anyway. During the car ride, Lisa sat beside him up front and Miriam sat in the back, and when someone said something, no one else answered. It was like their words were sucked out the open window as they drove through the desert and Lisa felt right. Happy and sad and a little bit sorry, but right.

When they entered the bar, Lisa felt full, as if she had just eaten a large and satisfying meal and was now sitting on the couch watching television.

“I’m going to find Jerome,” Darnell said, disappearing into the darkness.

Lisa led Miriam to one of the shaky little tables by the runway. When the waitress came over, she ordered them two beers and then leaned back in her chair, relishing the stickiness on the floor that caused a bit of resistance.

Their beers came and Lisa took a gulp, and then another. She set her glass on the table as Miriam sipped her beer as if through a straw. She shrugged when Lisa grinned at her.

“I never said I liked beer.”

“Do you and Rob go out much?” Lisa asked.

Miriam took another sip from her glass and then set it down an arm’s length away from her. “We have date night on Thursdays. We usually just go to the steakhouse and then park somewhere to have sex.”

Lisa started laughing again and the table between them shook, rocking the beer back and forth and causing amber droplets to sprinkle the table.

“What?” Miriam said. “When else are we supposed to do it with two kids running around?”

“You’re just perfect,” Lisa said. “That’s all.”

Darnell found them and brought his brother with him. The beer had made Lisa feel calm like the wine at the spa had not been able to. She stood and shook hands with Jerome, a tall and thin man wearing ripped jeans and a flannel shirt with a threadbare t-shirt beneath it.

“I hear you like to talk,” he said when Lisa sat back down and the men pulled over extra chairs to join them.

“I do,” Lisa said, draining her beer. “I really do.”

Miriam’s face was flushed from the half a beer she had consumed. She was shaking her head as if someone had just said something very funny. “You should’ve heard her when she was little. She ran around like a crazy person all the time – her legs were so skinny you could barely see them – and she was always talking about things. Birds or Africa or the Civil War.”

“She just wanted to know all about me,” Darnell said, smiling over at Lisa.

Lisa examined the crowd before her, her audience, and stood. “So Jerome. What’s this Amateur Night all about?”

He led her into a back room where there were cardboard boxes full of feather boas and stiletto heels, a clothing rack of silk robes and barely-there lingerie. Lisa shook Jerome away and ripped off her jeans and tank top, pulling on a metallic bra and matching panties and a red robe over that. She wrapped a yellow boa around her neck and examined herself in the mirror on the back of the door. She looked like the New Mexico sun, bright and orange, falling over mountains that she would never climb.

A slow and sexy song began and Lisa parted the curtains with her leg. She heard cheers from her table and a few that were occupied by men from farther out west, bringing beers to their lips and wiping sweat from their brows. She strutted out onto the runway, twirling the boa around her wrist and dipping down low to reveal the curves hidden beneath her robe.

“You are insane!” she heard Miriam yell. She bent towards their table and grabbed Miriam’s hand, pulling her up onto the stage and back to the poles glowing in the spotlights. They were like kids again, laughing and galloping and only concerned with what game they would play next. Together they twirled, around and around, clothes rippling in the applause and the wind they created, effortlessly, by their moving bodies.

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Joellyn Powers is an MFA candidate at American University in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Bluestem and Twelve Stories, among others, and she is the books editor at Used Furniture Review. You can follow her on Twitter @hipsternonsense, or read her blog about nothing, especiallyfreeing.tumblr.com.

Toothache

The sex itself only lasted two minutes. Victor was warned that the first time could go like that, had worried about it all afternoon, expected it. He hated himself for that.

Susan’s arched and naked body seemed to hoover just above the sheets. Skin and bone, her bleached form took up one whole side of the bed and then some, elbows bent, hands folded beneath her head. She exhaled toward the ceiling, already lost in thought.
Victor scissored the blankets, shook a cigarette out of his pack and lit it.

“How long have you been smoking?” Susan asked. “You seem so old.”

“A few years. I started in ninth grade,” Victor said. He sucked sharply, let the smoke come swooping out his nose.

“See, that’s an old trick,” she said. “You don’t even see that anymore outside the movies.”

Victor smiled. The window was open, and he could hear the distant rattling of the Red Line train climbing the tracks north toward Fullerton. A crisp breeze sailed through the room, raised the hair on both their legs. Fall was coming. This was a good moment, Victor thought. His virginity was gone, lost in the sweet smelling room of a pretty girl. Freshman summer was over in a week too, he thought. Classes started in September. The soothing sound of the train faded and disappeared. In a matter of seconds the most meaningful cigarette of his life would burn out.

“Ouch!” Victor yelled. He doubled over, clamped a hand over his mouth.

“What is it?” Susan asked. “You okay?”

“My tooth,” Victor said. His voice came low and muffled through his fingers.

“You have tooth problems?” Susan said. “My dad has those.”

“It’s been popping up for weeks… Ahhhhh!” he moaned. “The pain never ends.”

“You could get it fixed,” she said.

“Doubt it,” Victor said. “I’ll have to live with it.”

“That’s silly,” she said.

“It’s not. Look,” he said. Victor uncupped his jaw.

Susan leaned in tight, squinted hard. “I don’t see anything,” she said.

“You’re nice for saying that, but I know it’s permanent. These sorts of things always are.”

Very slowly he turned away from her and moved to the edge of the bed. He put his feet on the floor and stared down at them for some time, waiting, before he plucked his underwear from the carpet and slid into them one inch at a time. She didn’t argue.

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Simon A. Smith writes and teaches English in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and a murderous orange tabby named Cheever. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Quick Fiction, Keyhole, Monkeybicycle, Whiskey Island, PANK and more. He likes it here.

A Win-Win Day For The Bureaucracy

The offices of the Handhold Program (for the Employment-Challenged) were situated in Suite B190 of the Jimmy Carter Federal Building on N. Summit Avenue. The “B” designated basement-level, so you’d know to press “B” on the elevator control panel. Roger Hempstead exited the elevator at three minutes to one in the afternoon on a Thursday and, concentrating on the surface density of his fingertips, adjusted the knot of his paisley tie. He was also wearing a navy blue sport coat and black wingtips. Roger Hempstead was six feet tall, of moderate build, full of workaholic tendencies, and looked, from a distance, in dim lighting, like Harrison Ford in “Witness”. Roger was forty-two years old. Or would have been, had he not died of a brain aneurism the previous year, so the very fact that he was there applying for assistance from the Handhold Program was proof of one thing—Roger Hempstead was no slacker.

***

The motto of the Handhold Program was “Replacing Problems with Solutions”. Beverly Craggmeier had it blown up and framed on her office wall, just because she could. It was a fact that, for the first time in her career, Beverly had walls. The current Democratic administration had first funded the program three years before, and as soon as she heard the news, Beverly had sensed opportunity and applied for the open position, abandoning her old cubicle and her old lecherous boss (Mr. Vernon J. Dawkins) at the Veterans Administration Benefits Department. When she packed up, all her belongings left their empty outlines traced in dust. Before the VA, she had languished in the IRS Personnel Office’s cubicles. Before that, there was no Jimmy Carter Federal Building, mostly because Jimmy Carter was still president. Another fact: Beverly Craggmeier’s federal employee number was five digits long. She was in charge of the entire Handhold office, and that included hiring newbies and assigning them eight-digit employee numbers.

Beverly finished her ham sandwich and cleaned the dirty lenses of her cat-eye glasses and opened the file for her first afternoon appointment. She got out the checklist she had to now fill out and submit after each interview. That was because Beverly was on disciplinary probation, thanks to some incompetency bullshit Vernon Dawkins cooked up right after she had left the VA. Vernon was a minimally-useful asshole who looked a lot like Walter Mathau in “The Bad News Bears”, except that Walter Mathau had manners and wouldn’t have hit on her nearly as much. She complained once, to the higher-ups, and all they did was make a big show of signing Vernon up for mandatory sensitivity training. Two days later, Vernon asked Beverly if she would help him with the training. Then he suggested that sensitivity training might work better if they were both naked over at his place, i.e. directly training the sensitive areas. That same week, the notice was posted for the open position at Handhold, and that was it for Beverly at the VA. Vernon Dawkins would have to train his own sensitive areas.

***

Roger Hempstead entered the waiting room and stated his name at the counter. A bored young Latino woman handed him a clipboard full of forms and a ballpoint pen on a leash. Roger took them. Or tried to. In his nervous state, Roger had forgotten to focus on fingertip density, and the clipboard fell right through his hand and clattered against the counter. He made a point of saying Oops, greasy pizza! and made a wiping motion against his pants before picking up the clipboard. For Roger, clothing always had a welcome weight and pull to it, and it was a constant reminder to him to concentrate on the surface tension of his perimeter beneath it, but the hands were a different story—they remained free and required constant mental attention. Gloves were not an appropriate accessory for the serious job-seeker.

The walls of the waiting area were a particularly surrendered shade of gray. Roger chose a seat against the far wall. There was a potted ficus in one corner, barely containing its misery, like a child sitting for portrait photography. There were three other people in the waiting area. Roger, in a prior trip to the Unemployment Office, had decided this much: that the unemployed often cultivated an aura of distinct unemployability, and he would use that insight to gain an edge—a sport coat and tie, shining like a beacon of possibility in a depressing sea of hoodies and sweatpants. He would need it, too, because despite their state of dress he knew that the others, at a minimum, had a pulse.

At ten minutes after one, the bored Latino woman showed Roger to Beverly’s office. Beverly wasted no time.

“So, Mr. Hempstead, the Unemployment Office was unable to help you. And why was that?”

“Because I don’t have a Social Security number” answered Roger.

“If you’re an illegal, sir, you need to start with Immigration and Naturalization” said Beverly, starting to close the file.

“I did have a number, it’s just that it’s no good anymore” said Roger.

Beverly eyed him over the tops of her eyeglass frames. She kept the file open.

She handed him one of the government forms he had already filled out. “You failed to check a box in Part Two of the 1026” she said.

“None of the choices apply to me” answered Roger.

Beverly didn’t have to look at her copy of the form; she closed her eyes and recounted the list from memory. “Part Two asks you for your particular employment challenge: vision, hearing, mobility, motor coordination / manual dexterity, mental impairment, emotional instability, psychiatric impairment, felony conviction, or substance abuse. Indicate at least one.”

“Exactly” said Roger.

Beverly sighed. She opened her eyes and glanced at the motto framed on her wall. Then she said, “Sir, just what is your problem?”, and she knew there were two ways to interpret that question, and she was sure she meant both of them.

“I’m not alive” answered Roger, sheepishly, as if “drug-addicted” would have been a more preferable answer.

Beverly, having worked for the government for decades, had a survivor’s toolbox of instincts, and they were unanimous in telling Beverly that this was a gimmick. It reeked of a set-up. Of Vernon J. Dawkins. She would play along, at first, until she could root through her drawer for the mini-recorder.

“So, as in dead” said Beverly.

Roger nodded. “Matter-challenged, density-deficient, whatever you prefer.”

“Mr. Hempstead, you are applying to be a Handhold customer. We call our clients “customers” because we are here to serve them, and sometimes the best thing you can serve someone is a tough-love sandwich. We demand that our customers not define themselves by their challenges. Challenges are just temporary barricades, and you have to decide right now whether or not your barricade looks more like an eight-foot barbed-wire fence or a flimsy track hurdle. If you feel like a hurdler, welcome to the Handhold program. If you’re a fence type of guy, there is nothing I can do for you.”

Roger did not hesitate. He said, “I’m a hurdler, Ms. Craggmeier, definitely.”

It was not the response Beverly was hoping for, but she played along. “Are you ready to redefine your challenge as a unique and atypical giftedness?”

“Yes ma’am” said Roger.

“In that case,” said Beverly, “I may have something for you. Hell, maybe you could even work for me. But you need to understand, even if I manage to find you a position, you can only remain in the program for 1.5 years per federal mandate. We are here to provide handholds, not to hold hands. Understand? Eighteen months, tops. Then you’ll need to go walk into the light or something.”

“Agreed” said Roger.

Beverly closed the file. “Mr. Hempstead, I am going to give you a test. If you are the mainly-deceased go-getter that you say you are, it should be no trouble for you”. She explained it to Roger, then drew him a simple map, and never expected to see him again.

After Roger Hempstead had left her office, Beverly buzzed the front desk and told the bored Latino receptionist to hold her calls. Beverly needed a moment. Whenever she was reminded of the VA, all the scabbed hurts tore fresh again, and even years later, she could never decide which was worse, the feeling of Vernon’s hands groping her breasts, or the feeling you get when no one believes your truth. In the end, she figured, they were the same—your insides, the stuff that matters, leaves, and the thin shell that’s left behind drifts through the day somehow, barely enough to inflate your clothing.

***

Roger Hempstead entered the building prior to four-thirty in the afternoon, when the government workers streamed from their cubicles and out through the main lobby, into the waiting arms of public transportation. He took up temporary residence in a toilet stall until after five, at which point he made his way to the sixth floor. The outer door to Suite 600 was locked, as expected. Roger set the digital camera on the floor, stripped naked, and let his mind drift, enough to lower his density and pass through the maple veneer and hollow-core door, where he stopped and proceeded to concentrate on hand density again so he could turn the door latch and retrieve the camera and his clothes.

Beverly had told him that Vernon Dawkins liked to stay in his office, within the locked office suite, enjoying his own private happy hour from five to six each afternoon, at which time the cleaning crew arrived with their squeaky cartfuls of cleaning gear. During that hour, Vernon would sit at his desk and drink Black Label from a flask and link his private laptop to the office’s wireless network, visiting verboten websites like “Admin Assistants in Heat” while furiously throttling his genitalia.

Roger waited outside the office until the moans started to grow, then strolled in and introduced himself. Vernon shouted and fell backwards out of his swivel chair, banging the back of his head against the credenza. He was out cold. Roger snapped quite a few shots of Vernon, pants around the ankles, lots of visible pale skin in the midsection, made sure that some had a clear facial angle, and took a few more pictures of the laptop screen image as well, which featured a busty blonde peeling off a pinstriped camisole while straddling a copier.

It was almost five-thirty, and Roger considered sticking around to enjoy the cleaning crew’s discovery, but he had things to do, and a good night’s sleep was crucial. Based on the photos he had, tomorrow would be the first day of his new job, and his boss, a career bureaucrat with cat-eye glasses, probably valued punctuality as much as she valued the retirement of old debts.

————————

Joe Kapitan lives a day’s forced march south of Cleveland. The Witness Protection Program made him an architect. His fiction has been published e-version (Annalemma, PANK, elimae, SmokeLong Quarterly, Emprise Review, etc.) and tree-version (The Cincinnati Review, A cappella Zoo, Bluestem, Midwestern Gothic). He blogs erratically here

A Few Minutes With The Housekeeper At My Hotel, Which Happens To Be On The Moon

No, it’s not that different here. A dirty toilet is still a dirty toilet. The design isn’t the same, of course, because we can’t waste water here, but they still have to be cleaned every day. It all goes out to the surface, did you know that? They showed us the waste treatment plant as part of the orientation. They expose it to vacuum, and that kills all the bugs, and then it gets turned into fertilizer.

The low gravity makes it a bit easier. The cart weighs a lot less, for one thing, and it isn’t anywhere near as hard to do all the stooping and bending that you have to do. But it works against you, too. When you change the sheets, you toss the top sheet over the bed, like so, and see? It can take forever to drift down. But you get used to it. You can get used to anything. That’s the lesson about living here.

I don’t have to clean windows, so that’s a plus. The original design had windows in every room, but they were concerned about pressure leaks and radiation. So they sealed up the rooms and put all the windows in the rooftop lounge. There’s radiation shielding up there; it’s not supposed to be any worse to work in there than it is to be an airline flight attendant, or so they say. All I know is that I don’t have to clean windows or futz around with curtains, so that’s something nice.

And of course there aren’t TV sets in here, so one less thing to dust. You brought your iPad, same as I did, so who needs to watch TV? TVs are big and heavy and expensive to ship up here, despite all the advances in rocket science. That’s why all the furniture in here is aluminum, because that’s something we can mine and manufacture right here. It’s a lot cheaper to do that than it is to bring up wooden furniture from Sweden or wherever. Maybe one day they’ll have trees growing here but I kind of doubt it.

Some people miss the trees. I don’t. I’m allergic to all that stuff. Before I came here I worked at a resort in the Bahamas, which was great, because palm trees don’t give off the same kind of pollen you get back home. And there was water everywhere you looked. I miss water. I mean, I miss having it cheap and available. I would give a lot to be able to go swimming, just for awhile, or even to take a long, hot shower. But all I have to do is wait two more years until I can leave. I can wait that long, I think.

It’s a five-year contract. The way it works, if you get picked, you spend six weeks doing training. How to work the airlocks, what to do if there’s an emergency, that kind of thing. Then they send you up on the rocket, and you stay here for five years. When they send you back home, they have to put you through six months of rehab. But it’s nice. It’s set up like a spa, and you get to eat pretty much whatever you want and get massages and spend your time working out to build up your strength. Once you’re cleared, you can get a transfer anywhere in the company where there’s a job open.

I need to get to the next room.  If you want to follow me, you can, but I can’t stay here and talk all day. I have to finish this pod up before lunch, and then get to the next pod before I can get out of here.

They do the contracts for five years because they figured out that’s the most you can stay up here and still be able to function once you get home. If they rotate staff in and out of here any faster than that, they start to lose money. If you fall down and break your leg and they have to send you home, that’s a loss on the books. So they want you to stay for as long as you can because it costs so much to train your replacement and put them on the rocket.

You can make money here, though. Part of that is because there isn’t anything to buy, but the pay is good. I’m going to get out of here not owing any money on my college loans. I was at the University of Memphis, but I didn’t graduate. I was working on my degree in hotel management when my mom got sick. I dropped out, and I was able to support her and my little sister, but not make enough money to pay back the loans.

Once my contract is over, and I get paid, I am not coming back. Nobody wants to stay up here full-time, not even the scientists. Outside of them, we have three industries here; mining, manufacturing, and tourism. You don’t want to work in any of those jobs long-term if you can avoid it.

My friend Neil works here as a bartender.  He has an economics degree, and he was telling me that the Moon is a Third World country. Did you know that? We’re like an island in the Caribbean. We import nearly everything and export raw materials, and then use the tourist trade to make the trade balance more even. Neil says there are exploitation colonies and settlement colonies, and this is an exploitation colony because nobody wants to settle here.

The problem with exploitation colonies is that everyone is trying to make money and nobody is trying to build a stable society or develop institutions. We don’t have anything close to an institution. There isn’t a government because nobody wants to stay up here long enough to run it. There aren’t any laws because they can’t pay people enough to come here and enforce them. So gambling is legal here, that, and prostitution.

They didn’t tell you about that? It’s true. Two of my suitemates are prostitutes. They’re nice people; they just got into debt back on Earth and this was the best way they had to get out of it. They work for the mining company. Technically, they’re support staff, but they don’t do anything but go over to the miners’ R&R compound–it’s the next set of pods over from here–and have sex with them three days a week.

The miners have it worse than anyone. They’re all single guys. A lot of them are Chinese who couldn’t get wives back home. They have to be single because they can’t have kids–you have to agree to get a vasectomy in that kind of job because of the radiation and the kind of long-term exposure you get from being on the surface all that time. They have the same five-year contract we have, and you can’t expect them to go without for five years. So they brought up women. Paula and Ashley–those are my suitemates–they make good money from the mining company, but they also freelance over here in the tourist area on their days off. It’s very lucrative, or so they say. I wouldn’t know.

Not that I don’t have sex or anything. I have a boyfriend. His name is Tom. He’s a sous-chef, and he works nights, so I hardly ever get to see him, but when we do get around to it, it’s something. Acrobatic, almost. You can do positions in the low gravity that you’d have to be a gymnast to do back home.

Look. This is my suitemate’s card. If you’re really that hard up, send her a text if you want. I’m not interested, thank you very much.

No, I don’t think you’re weird. I don’t blame you for being curious. It’s a new experience. The whole thing is weird, when you think about it, having sex on the moon. Think about it. Up until ten years ago, when they figured out how to build the advanced rockets, there had been just ten people on the moon, total, and they were dying off. I never thought I would make it to the Moon, and here I am.  My sister’s kid thinks I’m some kind of hero, an astronaut or something. And maybe I am. But here I am, on the Moon, and here you are, on the Moon, and all either one of us is thinking about is sex. I think that’s amazing. We haven’t advanced all that much as people, or I don’t think so.

Sure, the sex here is great, but it’s not what you’d call romantic. It’s not a romantic place, the Moon. You’d think it would be, but it isn’t. It was my birthday last month, and Tom took me up to the rooftop lounge for dinner. I borrowed a dress from Paula, and all I could think about the whole time I was wearing it was how many times it had been wadded up on the same floors that I clean every day.

But it was a nice dinner. The whole time, we sat there, staring at the Earth. It’s beautiful. And you get to see it the way the astronauts saw it, the original explorers. We danced for awhile, and then Tom showed me some of the other stars. One of them he said was Jupiter, but I kind of had to take his word for it. He said that was where we’ll be going next, to the moons of Jupiter. I don’t know about that, but if we get there, not too long after, there’ll be somebody like me that has to clean up after them. I don’t know what that says about humanity, but to be honest with you, I think it’s kind of comforting. We need each other, even out here.

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Curtis Edmonds is an attorney living in New Jersey and has heard all the jokes. He is a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and his work has also appeared in The Big Jewel, Yankee Pot Roast, and the Tulane Maritime Law Journal. He recently completed a novel, RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, and is seeking representation.

This Song Sucks

I was sitting at Jimmy John’s by myself eating a hunter’s club. I was thinking about an idea for a screenplay. It would be for a zombie movie where all the zombies are brought into court for a class action lawsuit, because that’s how it would really happen. Then I thought about my latest idea for an invention: the cock necklace. I figured there are cock rings. Why not a cock necklace?

Then it happened. A song came on the radio at Jimmy John’s. It had melodic synthesizers, a driving beat, and catchy female vocals. After listening to the song for about a minute or two I decided that I liked it. I really liked it. The song reminded me of something Devo would make in their prime. Then the hook came in. “L-U-V Madonna/ Y-O-U You wanna?” I was in shock. Shivers ran all over my body as I realized what this meant. I was listening to the new Madonna song. I liked the new Madonna song. Therefore, I had to suck a dick.

But whose dick should I suck? And how long do I have to suck it? Questions like these ran through my mind as I left Jimmy John’s and headed to the nearest gay bar. I never thought I was gay until I realized that I liked the new Madonna song. I thought about dicks sometimes, but only in relation to my latest invention: the cock necklace. I thought I might have had a crush on a guy friend in high school. But then as is now whenever I thought about even kissing a guy I would wince and think, ‘Ew! Ew! Gross!’ ‘I must have been in denial,’ I thought.

The gay bar was full of gay guys. I was able to force myself to ask to buy some of them drinks. But they all turned me down for one reason or another. It must have been because I was so sweaty from running all the way from Jimmy John’s to the gay bar . Finally a guy named Buck accepted my offer, and we got ourselves a table at the corner of the bar. He was a big guy like me. We made small talk. We talked about sports and movies. Eventually he asked me when I first realized that I was gay. I said, “Ever since this afternoon when I realized that I liked the new Madonna song.

Buck laughed. “I love a guy with a sense of humor,” he said. After some more drinks and chitchat Buck took me back to his place. His apartment was clean and welcoming. It was the opposite of mine.

“Okay,” I said, “I need to suck your dick now.”

“You’re in a hurry,” said Buck.

“I’m just making up for lost time,” I said. Buck said he understood. I got down on my knees and pulled down Buck’s pants and underwear. My whole body was shaking with fear and revulsion. As I looked at Buck’s average dick my feelings of fear and revulsion were replaced by feelings of anger and indignity. Encircled around the base of Buck’s shaft and balls was a string of shiny diamonds. I stood up and looked Buck in the eyes. “Take off your cock necklace,” I said.

“You don’t like it?” asked Buck.

“Like it? I invented it! Take it off now!”

Buck seemed to understand, and he took off his cock necklace. So I knelt back down and started to suck Buck’s dick. I remember thinking, ‘Ew! Gross! This is fucking gross! This is not you!’ After a minute I stopped sucking Buck’s dick and wiped my eyes. I looked at my hand. It was blood red. My eyelids had become little pools of blood, and my tear ducts had become little rivulets of blood. Buck looked down at me sweetly and said, “Maybe we should stop. What with your eyes bleeding and all.”

I could no longer see because of the blood in my eyes. “No, I’m fine,” I said, “Really.” I wondered to myself whether all gay guys experience bleeding from the eyes their first time. And then I got my period. Liking the new Madonna song caused me to start to get my period. But that’s a whole other story.

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Dan Shapiro is a writer/comedian from Wichita, KS. He currently lives in Chicago. He is actually a very nice guy by all accounts. Sometimes he does stand up at open mics. He is a regular at Ray’s Tap and Piss Fanatics reading series. He’s sorry if this story offended you.

This Is An Area Code

Tread

I tap my left ankle bone with a green Chuck when Matt Berninger baritones How close am I to losing you? Morning isn’t breakfast it’s over easy. We’re sinks under sleeping. How isn’t a relationship a menu? Hardwood floors wet for piranhas; eyes are rhetorical hearts. None of that means I know you; none of this does, too.

 

This Is An Area Code

Slugs aren’t slow they’re goddamn cautious with excellent bone structure.  I locker biology, pass bubblegum to physics. You’re somewhere that does this still. We don’t give a shit about the morning. I’m picking me up nothing. You’ll remember this some other time.

 

Hives Drip Honey Not Honest

So you feel this I begin there’s nothing like imagination; who says such silly shit? Putting the I in me’s a blowjob. One way is another more than less fucked, new as breathe, fluff as a cinder block epiphany. Do not mean you mean I’m inside usually.

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Parker Tettleton’s work is featured in &/or forthcoming from Gargoyle, trnsfr, Spittoon, ILK, & The Conium Review, among others. His second collection, GREENS, is since-Memorial-Day available from Thunderclap! Press. More or less is here.