Woody Eisenstein’s Memphis

Something grand in this city like a kernel beginning to pop. Buttery and unassuming. Steam shoots out from under manhole covers downtown, and midtown Woody sweats in bed. There’s a sun above that roof overhead, and two states away, Debra still doesn’t like the direction of Woody’s project to chronicle the history of Memphis. It’s too personal. But this city is an itch in Woody’s spine, and anyway it’s ticklish to write.

The unhappy third anniversary of his wife (and agent)’s departure, mind you, with tubby rival landlord. So here lies Woody, steaming in his mo[u]rning bed like a petrified phoenix. Out of socks. A cartilaginous string of beef jerky from last night’s snack. Something foul in Woody’s mouth.

***

But Debra dead?
Left or together still?
Have you a ring, Woody?
Woody, a ring?
Searched in dirty tub.
Woody, old octopus: do you?

***

Had something brewed, and then dwelled on Memphis a while from the safety of his studio apartment, he thinks.  Wrote my introduction today, he continues telling himself.  So and so billion years ago, Woody’s life began depending on how you look at it  beautiful, historic Midtown Memphis birthed him, at six pounds nine ounces, in the same woods, Evergreen, a herd of fifty plus triceratops roamed so and so billion plus years prior  Five miles from the Mississippi River, which flooded [spot the driftwood] November 6th, 1937  it will not flood like that again predict engineers and meteorologists (river->swamp->woods->triceraproperty->wild oaks->placenta

***

Evenings, Woody pops Tylenol and twelve other pills. Nutrient uptake, waste elimination, gas exchange. That is all he has as far as introduction goes and the rest of his history. He landlords during the day and writes at night. Scribbling about triceratops, ancient tricepteri, always having fun with plural invention.

***

Whisks through his first name dismissively, short for Woodruff.  He pronounces his last name EI-zen-steen.  Prefers the long e to the long i of the final syllable because in Memphis pronunciation matters, as if a ‘steen’ could “get further” than a ‘stein’ and Woody thought perhaps that was true, (after all look at his accomplishments; call me Eisenstein) even though the Memphis Jews moved East fifty years ago and Woody stayed midtown.  Stop the driftwood.

***

Knock, knock.  Still in bed.

Woody, the door!, feels his head begin to migraine.

That tan booming flash comes curdling back in the midst of yet another massive popping of pills all at once, Mothership Memory—young girl from the college, Woody, wants to know if the house on McLean is still for rent.

Yeah, yeah. Still for rent. Eleven twenty-five. Who is it?

Some kid from the college. Thursday morning.

Christ, says Woody and three minutes later, bit of toothpaste clinging to his collar, door still screaming, he’s down the stairs, crossing arthritic fingers hair brown and flaxen like a lady?, looking through the peephole at his new client. Wild-eyed, cavalier Woody.

Examine the beauty of this girl. Powdery smooth and luscious as a lemon. Waste no time:  Rent you the west wing? introspective Woody wonders. Closer to the uncurtained window. Woody don’t snap old boy. Purple the thighs under Woody’s strong jaws.  Things bursting out of each and every seam and stitch in this girl’s blouse. Do not lie about your age, Woody, or produce a phony birth certificate.  The pantyhose performs particularly well in tightness. Don’t inject her with flunitrazepam, Woody, don’t you even think about it not for one second you pervert you uncontrollable dolt you unshaven teething scoundrel.

Are you Mr. Eiseinstein?

Hair brown and flaxen

Half-baked Woody:  I am.

Proud pink lips

My boyfriend and I would like to move as soon as possible. Before it gets rainy.

She knows!  She can sense it boiling up inside me! Lachrymose Woody, clutching cryogenic crotch, says to try downtown, that they always treat new couples well, that the market is down, but the energy is hot, there’s not a lot of renters, and if you act fast now . . .
We’d like to live in Midtown. This place is close to the school . . .

And Midtown really has so much character, Woody says. It is prag- and prismatic.

Too much chortle in there. Mucusy cough spills Advil chunk.

And you’re probably right about the rain, he desperately continues. You’ve got about, she didn’t notice, another week.

***

Dark forecasty clouds huddle above. Woody waits with bated breath. Bird squeaks, and then rings the cell phone. Bait your breath again, Woody, and take off that rosary who do you think you are. Proud pink puckering lips and my prick. Take it off, Woody. You’re a Jew. You don’t have to think, What Would Jesus Do?, but unwrap that thing from your dick you filthy man. Still, the Jews moved East fifty years ago right so fuck ‘em! You’re a new Jew, Woody, the kind who can say Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and really mean it.

Didn’t that damn phone ring?

***

Too much wood for the morning. That girl living on McLean now, beefy beau in tow. Cross-eyed prick with a dick the size of a kid’s thumb. Flicks the thick, then reaches for the rosary. Dwell awhile on the backside. Next to Woody’s hand hisses some territorial roach. Ruins it.

***

I is not here, Woody types, staring at his inkblot. Debra says I is and that the project will fail but I, sweating less than this city, will not fail. I absorbs. And Woody will hitchhike downtown in the end if he has to.

***

How could he [male triceratops] have imagined that his seed—would grow three horns, yes, but not populate the globe because red sky and flat earth collide and destroy tricepteri and then amoeba crawl from Mississippi (dino-bone driftwood!), no longer afeared of greater beasts, and make Woody—would produce Woody, thematically, and because of chimerical fate.

***

Leaky pipe on McLean.  Bring string and a five gallon bucket should do it.

***

Became stagnant in his work. Woody “in shackles”:  no free will, no incentives! No chance for upward mobility. But shame on you for alluding, for even suggesting a metaphor. Fool me twice.

***

Lispy fat sweaty Mexican gas station attendant!  Holding a cat and petting it with two massive paws of his own!

Give me forty cigarettes! Snarly Woody backs away from the counter, clawing open a pack and jabbing one into his beak.

You can’t smoke in here sir, attendant fat-rasping for breath.

Up yours, you bottomless pit!

***

Woody, too, is prismatic.

***

Ambles Woody upstairs taking two at a time. What wonders wait behind Door #1? Zippo tip still hot. Cigarette a-blazin’, catches quick a cuticle.  Doorbell buzz.

Woody: Ow!

Opens electrically fast, wet in a towel, she’s at the door.

Here about the leak—weak Woody.

Where’s the string and the five gallon bucket? How’d she hear about that.

***

History goes slowly, but Woody’s especially snails. Then, all at once, the lightning bulb attacks. Falls off his high-chair, re-rights himself. Woody stabs at the page with his good hand, pen pulsing like a jackrabbit.

Andrew Jackson came to town,
riding on a pony—
shoved a needle up his ass
and called it Berlusconi!
Andy, yank the needle out;
yank, you fucking pansy.
Stick it in Boss Crump’s IV
and pump him full of tansy!

The style, he knows, ebbs and flows. Could use a bolster, a citation or ten. Woody himself ebbs. No more timesheets, no more deadlines. Papers flowing down the drainpipe. And no word from Debra in seventy-eight fortnights.

***

Hello, Woody?  Hello?

So and so billion years ago

What? Yes. That’s me. I’m Woody. Who are you?

Mrs. Rumbelow, dumb shit. It’s 4:30.

Language, Rumby. Hold on.

Kicks back the sheets, witnesses the devastation of last night’s binge.

O! please let me go from the cocaine dynamo!

Do we have anymore of that fruitcake left over in the fridge, Rumby? I seem to have, uh, I mean, I don’t really know how to say this . . .

You dim motherfucker, croaks Rumbelow. I’ve got a house for you to look at downtown.

Downtown! Woody lights the apple core.

Now don’t go tinkling yourself just yet. There’s a reasonable asking price, but maintenance is going to be a bitch. The whole fucking roof caved in last week because of the rain.

Do you hear what I hear, bud?  Downtown, bud?  Did she say it?

Rain, schmain, Rumby, a pox upon it. I fuck rain for breakfast!

***

A million six packs later, Woody rots in his cellar. What is that on the old sack? A huge fucking nutria beneath a top hat, frowning like a young virgin devoured by Woody! Bends its way out of shadows. Salt-and-pepper gray. Shakes a bony fist at barfing Woody.

***

His penis has poet envy; his pen wags.

***

Rain

Woody: Fuck these particles. Pure acid; adept at mutilation.

Nutria:  The cloudburst.

Woody: I forgot you were here. You’re looking a little too cozy propped up on those haunches.

Nutria: Well.

Woody: Here it’s all pressure and no plummet.

Nutria: You need to hitchhike.

Woody: Who told you to talk?

Beat

Woody: Who gave you that brick? My mother carved her ancient name into that brick!

Beat

Woody: You’re making me sick the way you’re eating that cheese with one swollen cheek.

Nutria wags.

Woody: There’s a whole pack of dogs ahead, and one of them looks exactly like you. How’s that, you rat?

Beat.

You shapeshifter.

————————

Isaiah Swanson lives and writes in Memphis, Tennessee. Some of his work may be found in print and online at The Atticus Review, Digital Americana, 100 Word Story, and MudLuscious Press. He also serves on the chapbook commission for NAP Magazine and may be reached at swanson.isaiah@gmail.com.

Beaver

Beaver

His mother had driven him to school so it wouldn’t get scratched on the bus.

It was heavy, but he’d carried it all the way to the classroom by himself, and now he was carefully explaining everything.  The helmet rested on the desk beside him, freshly polished with the chamois he’d brought for that purpose, and gleaming.

But when he’d slipped the medieval cask over his head and closed the guard over the lower part of the face, they’d laughed.

“This is my beaver,” he announced.  It hinged like a trapdoor over his nose and mouth, vented like a grill.

Their laughter was incomprehensible, muffled by the helmet.

“Is it because of this?” he asked, lifting the doorway then letting it clank shut.  “Is my speech muffled by my beaver?”

The children roared.  The boy’s tears came hot, quick, and hidden.  He felt safe inside the helmet, but he was uncertain whether or not to be grateful for this protection, a protection owed exclusively to the oiled hinges of his beaver.

 

Careless and Lackadaisical

are two words I take as compliments
when they apply to the way I follow institutional rules
but not when they apply to any of my sincere attempts at lovemaking
based on methods I have mostly gleaned from reading certain periodicals.

You might well wonder why I would be inclined
to share the relationship I have with these two words
when it could possibly be construed as casting certain skills in an unflattering light

but I’m banking on the fact that you, too, have had moments
involving a length of garden hose and a remarkably slimming goatskin vest
and the repeated use of certain catch-phrases more commonly associated
with 19th century maritime culture in the whaling holes of Nova Scotia.

 

Postcards of Gratitude, From Your Teenager

1. To my Mother, Who told me “Not to spill”

Thank you so much for that verbal reminder
to not fling this shallow saucer of bean n’ ham
abruptly toward the ceiling in a spastic gesture
because I am a teenager and I am bat-shit crazy
and spilling is exactly what I was contemplating
as I carried this bowl across the plush white shag
so that I could enjoy a warm repast while watching
Alex Trebek read cue cards and wrinkle his slightly
smug yet nonetheless compassionate brow at the folly
of someone a lot smarter than him who just named
Zolá instead of Balzac and lost eight hundred dollars.

 

2. To My Father, Who told me “Don’t be an idiot”

Is the word thanksreally a big enough box to hold all this
gratitude I feel when I realize how close I came to being
an idiot? Whenever I wrestle with the urge to douse my
hair with kerosene or run wind sprints in the summer heat
after putting on nine sweaters and coating myself in a thick
layer of Vaseline, I hear your words echoing inside my head
like a very loud voice echoing inside a tiny head-sized cave,
and I stop and wipe the drool from my mouth and say,
Easy there, Hoss! and I pull the laminated card from my
pocket that you made for me and I read your words aloud
in a John Wayne-imitation voice and I think, Whoa, pardner!

 

3. To My Teacher, Who urged me to “Consider the future”

I have to admit, until you uttered those words
I never considered what I am doing RIGHT NOW
will eventually exist in the past and when it does,
then I am in the FUTURE. Hello! That thought
blew my mind the way the wind blows a plastic bag
across a field using only the tips of its invisible paws.
Since then I have started wearing my home-made
space suit to school, including the jet pack I made
by spray painting a lawnmower engine metallic silver
and duct-taping it to my backpack just in case
I encounter someone else from the future who
is stranded and needs me to give them a ride home.

 

4. To Step-Daddy Paul, Who said “Think before you act”

There I was, running down the interstate, naked
except for this sort-of sling I’d fashioned from tinfoil,
and no idea how I’d gotten there, a side-ache coming on
because God knows how long I’d been sprinting along
that white line, chanting poetry in this obscure language
I made up and that I only use when I’m feeling stressed.
Suddenly I thought: Hey, did you think before doing this?
Well, you can probably guess what the answer was!
So I quit running right then and sidled to the median
where I sat among the dusty gravel and felt the waves
of roiled air rock me back and forth as the trucks passed.

 

5. To the Person who wrote: “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”

After the ninth time I somehow crumpled the hood
of that sedan parked at least forty meters behind me,
when I was pretending to parallel park in front of my
house, I was so mystified I thought to myself, Hey,
Dale Earnhardt, why don’t you check the rear-view
to see if it might have some sort of instructions
that could explain the weird discordance that occurs
whenever you put your go-cart into reverse. Shazam!
As soon as I discovered that useful phrase, I promptly
ripped the mirror from the car and ran to the mall
where I scoped out this really attractive older woman
and put my arm around her shoulder and held up
the mirror so that we were both reflected inside its
little frame and I read the words aloud and after a while
she quit struggling and laughed and now she is my wife.

————————

Michael Bazzett’s poems have appeared in West Branch, Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets, Green Mountains Review, DIAGRAM, and Guernica, among others, and his work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. New poems are forthcoming in Carolina Quarterly, Pleiades, Smartish Pace and The Literary Review. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.

Laundry

I knew this guy who used to shake his pants when he took them out of the washer, before putting them in the dryer. It seemed unnecessary since they were just going to get all tossed around again in the dryer.  His mom told him that shaking the wet pants would keep them from getting wrinkled. I’d see him vigorously shaking a damp pair of jeans and all I could think is what an idiot.

Meanwhile I was balling up my rags and over-stuffing a dryer.  So it could definitely be argued that my system was no good either. I never had a mother to show me anything. But basically I’m a decent human being. I keep clean and all.

Another thing about this guy I knew is that he would always wash his white things first because his mom told him the bleach sanitized the machine. All I could think about that was that is so weak.

I suspected if I kept seeing that guy he would eventually want me to do things the neurotic way his mom told him to do them, so I stopped seeing him. AND I decided no matter what kind of relationship you have with a person you should do your own laundry, because you have your way and they have theirs.

Then one day I had a son of my own and because he was a helpless baby I started doing his laundry. One day he’ll do his own and he’ll probably have a style like mine. He might not always use dryer sheets. He definitely won’t shake his wet pants. He might wait too long before folding the dry stuff and have wrinkles, but basically he’ll be a good person. I think that’s all any mom really wants.

————————

Marie recieved her Master’s degree from Hollins University where she published her first collection of fiction. She currently teaches writing at the University of Delaware.

Meat Talks

Cato scanned the bedroom, wondering if his good judgement had deserted him. Maybe Bobby was right. Outside, he’d said that it didn’t look like much—and now, inside, it looked like even less. In fact, it kind of looked like the place had already been robbed.

Some of the drawers in the tallboy were hanging part way out, revealing the edges of a tangled mass of grubby looking clothes. The bed was sloppily made, a faded maroon paisley bedspread yanked half-arsed over the pillows. And there was clutter and books—a ridiculous, insane number of books—everywhere: falling off the shelves, stacked against walls, jammed into corners between bits of furniture. Old books, with yellowed pages, their spines declaring the owner’s interest in arcane spirituality and obscure cultures. Life with the Ancestors. Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat. Among the Art-loving Cannibals of the South Seas.

Cato called out to Bobby, who was downstairs in the living area.

“How’s it going?”

“Slim pickings. What did I tell you? These people are like, pov-oh. I mean, they’ve got a plasma TV…and they live like pigs. There’s at least a half packet of crushed potato crisps under these cushions…”

Cato wondered why Bobby was looking under there and was about to ask him, but then thought better of it; he was an idiot after all. He turned back to his task.

His task: to make good on his promise. The three had been stationed in the soap-green minivan across the road, scoping out joints to case, when they saw them—the middle aged couple—leaving through the front door of the Edwardian cottage. A real estate agent might have described it as “charming,” meaning that it was actually small, drab and unassuming.

But a couple of years on the hammer had refined Cato’s instincts for easy prey, or so he thought. His laser beam orbs found their targets with ease, guided by lingering insatiability, by the now never ending lean-times, perpetual war and constant rationing.

He watched the man, scruffy-looking with tufts of chalky hair, fumbling in his man-bag as if he had already lost something, or was worried about doing so in the not too distant future. The woman—equally unprepossessing—said something to him and grabbed his arm, led him towards the car, as if to upbraid him for a characteristic of absentmindedness which one might reasonably infer to be a state of being, rather than an occasional lapse.

Cato narrowed his eyelids at the unbarred windows. The car rolled away and disappeared around the corner.

“That’s the one,” he said.

Bobby leaned over to get a better look through the window. He turned to Cato and scrunched up his nose. “Really?

“I’ve got a feeling. Jewellery, for sure.”

Bobby was silent. Hanging in the quiet air was the fact, the awareness they shared, that this was their last chance for the day to get it right. After one job with hardly any takings, another thwarted by an unexpected alarm, this was the final opportunity to bring in enough to soothe the beast of craving that was stirring, inevitably, relentlessly, from its slumber. And the fact that Cato had zeroed in on this—this dumpy little cottage with the dumpy little owners—for the rescue operation spoke volumes of their desperation.

Bobby sighed, drumming his fingers on the dashboard. They were all uneasy—except Schooner, who was sitting in the back, eyes shut, earphones in, seemingly uninterested in the developments. Since last night he had been looking a little green.

Cato turned and locked eyes with Bobby, and his expression said what he could not say out loud, because the day’s events proved him a liar: have I ever been wrong before?

“You’re the boss,” said Bobby.

And Cato was, indeed, the boss. He gave the orders, because that was his job. Nobody quite knew why it had turned out that way, but nobody really questioned it either. Maybe it was because he was smarter than they were. They were born and bred losers—he had come over from the other side. He was worldly, knew the enemy. The most educated junky, the best-looking junky, the junky with an actual hairstyle, who sprinkled his conversation with the word “basically.” Because basically, he knew what he was talking about.

Cato designated the looting zones. Bobby to the downstairs combined living-dining room; himself to the master bedroom, as befitted his status in the pecking order; Schooner, the quiet one, in the downstairs study.

At first their confidence had been boosted by the fact that the window to the living room was not only unbarred, but unlocked. All they had to do was swing it open and climb right in.

They had the big canvas bag. They had their gloves—these days they liked to do things “professionally”. And Cato had his latest acquisition, a pistol with a silencer. They had never needed it yet; perhaps its mere presence was an incitation to unnecessary events. But there was something about the feel of it wedged in his back pocket, something that made life better, made life more like a movie. He was in the lead. You could bring a bit of that old time smacky glamor back, pretend things were like they’d been to start with.

But as Cato yanked out the top drawer of the tallboy and emptied its contents on the bed, his enthusiasm began to dwindle. Everything had been chucked in their unsorted: coins, half rolls of chewing gum, random pieces of paper scrawled with phone numbers and computer passwords, cough lollies, bags of dried fruit. He wondered how he would find anything in such a mess. His hands started rifling through in a frenzy of irritation.

He became aware of a weird feeling, a sense of being observed. He turned and started at the large green eyes that had been boring a hole in his back.

It was a cat. A huge cat—he had never seen a cat as big, except on television, and those weren’t domestic cats, they were wild cats, from deserts and forests. This was a housecat, just very large and fat; almost the size of a guard dog, but with an armor of lard in place of muscle. White, with a grey striped cape. It had a wide, boxy head with a strangely non-feline face. Most cats had small noses. This one’s nose was long and wide, like a baboon, and its eyes were too close together.

Cato puzzled at the soundness of mind of a person who would choose such an ugly cat for a companion. It didn’t seem quite right. Something bubbled up to his memory, from his aesthetics class at university. The lecturer pointed to the feline as an illustration of neoteney or juvenilization: humans ascribed “cuteness” to cats for their small snouts and wide eyes, much as women with wide eyes and small noses are considered superior in beauty, as these are the facial characteristics of babies and children. People like cats because they are dainty and cute and innocent looking.

Perhaps, he mused, this cat had been cute as a kitten, and had only grown hideous later, and so the owners had been deceived.

It crouched in the doorway, batting its tail from side to side, and stared at Cato with the unblinking eyes. Cato shook his head, clearing his mind and refocussing. These strange, disorienting echoes of a former life would creep up on him at the weirdest times, like…well, like when he was doing a job. Briefly he would be reminded of unrecognisable priorities, and behind them, an unrecognisable self that had apparently once existed, and now only offered up random, floating slivers of memory.

He turned around and resumed sorting through the disappointing booty on the bed. In amongst that lot he found a metal canister. Inside there was a thick roll of notes in various foreign denominations. Excellent. He pocketed that and kept looking.

Impatient, he decided to try the next set of drawers down. Emptied all that on the bed and there it was sitting there right there on top, like a cherry crowning a sundae: a small velvet bag. He opened it up and emptied it into his palm: antique gold rings, one set with a ruby, another with an emerald, and another, a large pink diamond. He dumped them back in the bag and put it in his pocket and turned to head back downstairs.

But it was still there, still staring at him. In the same low crouch as before, its enormous tail whipping; but it seemed to have advanced towards him a couple of feet, and now, the black pupils of its strange beady eyes had dilated to the size of hubcaps.

“What the fuck do you want then?” said Cato. “Shoo!” He flung his hand towards it uselessly. The cat did not move.

“Piss off you ugly bastard!”  He grabbed a brown moccasin that was lying next to the bed and hurled it at the creature. It leapt and darted out of the room, down the stairs.

Cato gingerly followed behind.

In the living room, Bobby was examining the contents of a glass display case, scratching his head in confusion.

“Is any of this shit valuable?” he said.

Cato went over to see what he was looking at. Arrayed on the glass shelves were a series of wooden carved statues and masks. The statues were representations of pregnant women and what appeared to be men with extraordinarily large penises. The masks were exaggerated, theatrically expressive faces with hooked, flare-nostril noses and buttressed brows. More weird islander voodoo stuff.

“Hard to say. Might go down well on eBay. Better safe than sorry,” said Cato. “Get it in the bag.”

“Creepy looking things…” said Bobby, opening the glass case. He began systematically sweeping each shelf of ornaments into the canvas bag, seemingly glad to not have to look at them anymore.

Cato pulled the velvet bag from his pocket and waved it in Bobby’s face. “What did I tell you? Jewellery.”

“Nice,” said Bobby, nodding.

“Three gold rings with gems, all antique too.…let’s go see where Schooner is at.”

Cato led the way to the study, with Bobby following behind, clutching the bag. Schooner was there leaning over something, a hint of arse crack poking out over the top of his jeans.

“What’s going on?” said Cato.

Schooner spun around as if caught in some act.

“Well, it’s not what we came for, but…” he trailed off and pointed down into a trundle drawer that slid out from underneath the desk.

Cato and Bobby leaned over Schooner’s shoulder to get a better look.

“I see,” said Cato.

From the magazine on the top of the stack Bethany Bangles stared at them with vacant colorless eyes, and a much more compelling set of orbs arrayed below. Beside her was an extensive collection of DVDs, dating all the way back to the late nineties.

“I wouldn’t have picked it,” said Bobby. “With all the books and spooky statues…”

“Just because the guy reads books, doesn’t make him a fag,” said Cato—somewhat defensively, Bobby thought.

“Let’s just get out of here…” said Cato, scratching the back of his neck.

There was an outdated laptop on top of the desk. Bobby tucked it under one arm and they headed back to the living room. Cato paused, looking at the entryway to the kitchen, realising he hadn’t assigned a plunderer to that quarter. Normally, there wouldn’t be much to find there, but on impulse he walked through the passageway and there it was: an antique sideboard, with the “fine” china for dinner parties. Below the glass display with the nice floral plates were sets of drawers.

He went over and randomly pulled open a couple of drawers.

“Ah-ha!” he called out to the others. “Now this… this is the shit!”

Cato had uncovered a stash of antique silver: sets of cutlery, a candelabra, and a gravy dish, the elaborate engravings of which marked them either as highly sought treasures, or accomplished fakes.

“Doesn’t look like much,” said Bobby.

Bobby knew nothing about design. Bobby never watched Antiques Roadshow.

“This is regency silver you bozo” said Cato. “Come here and help me.”

Bobby and Schooner followed into the kitchen and they all started yanking out the drawers, carrying them into the living room and dumping the contents on the sofa.

Together they were sorting through a bonanza fit for a Christie’s auction when there was a piercing, baleful mewl. Cato twisted around and the cat had reappeared at the bottom of the stairs, its posture erect, standing at attention. It stared at them with its slitty green eyes, head cocked slightly to one side. The tail flicked, left to right.

“That bloody cat” said Cato. “He was upstairs, before…”

“That’s not a cat” said Bobby, letting out a little laugh. “That’s a beast!”

“Yeah,” said Schooner. “Wow. Look at him… he’s huge!”

“None too pretty either,” Bobby pitched in. “Look at that snout!”

“Face like a baboon,” said Cato. “Gives me the creeps. Come on, let’s get this lot bagged and get out of here…”

They started sweeping the good stuff into the sack.

The cat leapt onto the glass coffee table next to the sofa. It crouched and stared, its tail whipping to and fro, a crazed look in its eyes.

“Well, he isn’t scared of you, that’s for sure,” said Schooner.

Cato turned to the cat, got in his face. “What’s your problem, huh? Why can’t you just get lost like a good little kitty?”

The cat did not retreat, but moved closer, hissing. Now Cato could see the nametag dangling from its fat throat. “Jonathon” said the tag, with a mobile phone number scrawled underneath.

“Jonathon!” said Cato, standing up straight, addressing the others. “His name’s Jonathon.” He laughed.  “Fuck off Jonathon!”

Jonathon lunged, clipping Cato’s ear with a claw.

“Oh, you…” Cato put his hand to his ear, examined a small smear of blood that came away with it. “Got a mind to shoot you, you ugly motherfucker.”

“Well, why don’t you?” said Bobby.

“I will…” said Cato, laying his hand on the pistol in his back pocket.

“No, don’t,” said Schooner. “I like cats…”

“It’s not a cat,” said Bobby again. “It’s a beast.”

Jonathon emitted a deep growl.

“It’s an ugly bastard,” said Bobby. “Go on…”

Cato pulled the pistol from his back pocket and aimed it at Jonathon’s head. Jonathon was momentarily confused, pulling back and flattening his ears.

“Cato, don’t,” said Schooner. “We’re here to steal stuff, not kill innocent animals. We’re thieves, not murderers.”

Back in the days when he still cared, Schooner was a vegetarian.

“Pffft” said Cato. “You getting on your moral high horse, that’s a good one. Is there really any difference? You reckon you’re higher up the karmic tally board because you’re a thief? You ask the people we steal their precious antiques, their memories from, they’ll tell you we aren’t much better than murderers.”

“So,” said Bobby “If there’s no difference, do it then,”

Schooner stared at Cato with his rheumy, pallid eyes. It wasn’t something Cato talked about, but Schooner made him uneasy. He wasn’t sure what it was. Sometimes there was a strange look in his eyes, an impression simultaneously of vacancy and intensity. Perhaps he had just been on the hammer so long that the curious state that characterized the sunnier moments of addiction, that sense of being apart and above from everything, had come to permeate his soul: and yet that was the opposite of how it was supposed to go, and there was something off, something slightly fishy about that.

Schooner crossed his arms.  “Your ego creates a lot of problems for you doesn’t it,” he said, a slight smirk dragging up one corner of his mouth.

Cato squinted at him, pissed at his impertinence, and now more determined than ever to do the opposite of what he wanted. “Whatever!”

He put his finger on the trigger and was about to pull back when they heard the sound of chattering voices and the key turning in the front door lock.

“Shit!” he said. “They’re back already?”

The three took what loot they had already siphoned into the bag, and disappeared out the back door and over a fence.

***

George and Aileen came fussing and bickering through their front door.

“I knew I’d forgotten something” said George, as they came down the hall. “And I stopped to get my bearings, but you wouldn’t let me.”

“I asked you if you had the tickets earlier, inside, and you said yes!” She sighed. “If we stopped every time you thought you’d forgotten something, we’d never go anywhere.”

They had arrived at the concert hall ten minutes early, as planned—but without the tickets. George concluded that he had left them in one of three possible locations in the house—and they had agreed, in spite of Aileen’s better judgement, to go back and look.

Entering the living room they were confronted with the scene: the contents of the sideboard and its drawers scattered all over the sofa and living room floor.

Aileen gasped. The house keys fell from her hands.

Next, they saw the glass display case, now empty of George’s Oceanic fertility figures and masks.

“Oh, god no…” George balled his fists at his temples. “No, no, no…”

He turned back to Aileen. Their eyes met, exchanging the same shock, the same unfurling horror and outrage. Aileen raised her hand to her mouth.

“The bastards,” said George.

He looked back at the glass case, not quite able to get his head around it, not quite able to comprehend its emptiness—or their absence. He had collected them over a period of twenty years, during his anthropological fieldwork in Melanesia. Each was associated with a time and place, faces, smells, landscapes; smoke and rotting fruit and pandanas trees, the squish of deep wet grass underfoot. The memories had been rent apart from their symbolic vessels. History was trashed, meaning violated.

He felt himself tremble, sweat forming on his brow. “The bastards” he said again.

He kneeled down, picking scattered items off the floor and sofa one by one. “They’ve taken grandmother’s regency silver. The fucking bastards.”

He began stalking about the house, assessing the damage, the heaps of scattered possessions, the upended drawers, the preliminary evidence of where they had been and what they had taken.  “The bastards” he repeated at intervals, moving from room to room. “The fucking bastards.”

Aileen had collapsed in a chair at the dining room table, the air rushing out of her like a crumpled paper bag. George returned to find her in some kind of trance state, staring at the open living room window.

“This is my fault,” she said quietly, her eyes diverted from his. “They came through there. It wasn’t locked.”

“What!?” said George. “What do you mean it wasn’t locked? That window is always locked!”

Aileen twisted her fingers together and bit her lip. “Yes but…I unlocked it when I cleaned all the windows the other day. And I thought I locked everything again, but now that I think about it, I don’t actually remember locking the window afterwards…”

She put her face in her hands and began to cry.

George rubbed his forehead, fighting an impulse to give expression to his exasperation.

“I’m so sorry dear,” said Aileen, her throat closing around the words. “All those years…all that work…”

She looked up and met his eyes and he realized that she thought he was angry with her, that she was full of fear and shame. But this was no time for that.

“No, no, I’m sorry” he said, taking her hand, giving it a squeeze. It felt cold and limp.

She seemed to be staring inwards at some world of utter desolation.

“I didn’t mean to shout,” he said, lowering his voice, emphasizing each word.

Jonathan emerged from under the sofa, and loudly said: “Meow.”

Aileen was roused from her stupor. “Oh, Jonathon!” she cried, and bent over and picked up the cat, hefting his toddler’s weight with visible effort. “You poor baby! He must have seen the whole thing…” she said glancing at George.

“That must have been very distressing.” George rubbed Jonathon’s crown as the cat nestled in Aileen’s arms. “Poor Jonathon, are you okay? Did the big, bad men scare you? So glad he seems alright…”

Poor Jonathon. Yes, it must have been frightening. Cats like order and quiet. He would have been completely bewildered, all these strangers banging around in the house, throwing everything all over the place. He had been with them for more than a decade, and they loved him to bits, but just at that moment, George found himself having the uncharitable thought that he wished they had got a dog instead.

Jonathon wasn’t in the mood for Aileen’s attentions. He meowed again and wriggled and craned his head over, his signal to let him down on the ground.

She released him and looked at her husband, her eyes widening. “Mother’s rings” she said. “In the drawer in the upstairs bedroom. Maybe they didn’t take them…”

Together they went upstairs to find the room’s contents tossed on top of the bedspread. With everything strewn all over the place, it was hard to tell what was actually missing, and what could simply not yet be found. But soon enough, they established that the thieves had taken her mother’s rings.

This time she did not cry. She was blank faced and frozen. George led her back down the stairs, sat her down at the dining table, and put the kettle on for some tea to calm their nerves.

“I think I need something stronger…” Aileen said as the kettle started whistling.

He had to agree. He took the brandy from the pantry and poured them both a small glass.

“We won’t be able to get the money back on the insurance,” Aileen said, laying her palms flat on the table before her. “Because it was my fault. I left the window unlocked…”

George sat opposite her at the table, pushed the glass of brandy across.

“Don’t worry about that now,” he said, vainly grasping at reassurance. “Could have happened to anybody. What were you saying, just before, about my forgetfulness…” he tried a light hearted chuckle, but it filled the space between them awkwardly, its artificiality too apparent.

“Take some of your brandy,” he said, choosing a more pragmatic angle.

She raised the glass to her lips and took a gulp. Felt the fire hitting her chest, and her hands grow a little steadier.

“They just don’t get it,” she said. “All these things mean nothing to them. It’s just money. As soon as they turn it into cash it’s forgotten. No idea, no respect for the…” she trailed off. “They call it sentimental value. That doesn’t really capture it does it?” Aileen began choking back tears again. “My mother…my mother would turn in her grave to know I had been so careless with her rings!”

“It’s not your fault,” said George. “We all make mistakes. It’s them—they’re just bastards, through and through, and they don’t give a toss about anyone, probably not even themselves…just bastard junkies…”

George felt the familiar rub of fur on his ankles under the table. Jonathon had been under there, listening. He came out and stood up on his haunches next to them at the table.

“Meow” he said.

“What is it, Jonathon?” said Aileen.

Meow

“It must be terribly frustrating for them,” said Aileen. “To not be able to tell us what’s wrong.”

Jonathon swiftly leapt on top the dining table.

“Jonathon!” said Aileen. “Naughty boy! You know you’re not allowed up here.”

Meow!” said Jonathon.

“What’s the matter buddy?” said George.

Jonathon shifted back and forth on his hind legs. “Mrrreow?”

George brought his forefinger to his lips. “Wait a minute!” he said, evidently pleased with his powers of divination. “I know what it is! It’s his dinner time! Just before seven. Right on time. He wants his dinner!”

Jonathon was like a clock: as regular in his habits as an infantryman. If you happened to forget what time it was, he would let you know before too long.

“Oh, of course he does!” Aileen reached across and scratched Jonathon under the chin. “Yes, Jonathon, we understand now, you’re hungry aren’t you?”

“Meow!” said Jonathon.

“Would you mind…?” Aileen said to George.

“Of course not.” George rose from the table.

“Mrrreow” said Jonathon, jumping off the table and following George into the kitchen.

“Better give him two hearts today,” said Aileen. “After everything he’s been through. He deserves it.”

George pulled a baggie with chicken hearts from on top of the fridge, where they had been defrosting. Jonathon flitted around the kitchen, rubbing against his legs, mewling excitedly.

George dropped the hearts in Jonathon’s feeding bowl and Jonathon lunged at his meal with no further remarks.

He returned to his seat at the table. “Well,” he said. “I guess we better notify the police…”

Aileen was resting her chin on her hands, staring absently at the window. “Yes, I guess so.”

Suddenly her eyes sharpened. “George…” she said.” Why don’t you go over to the linen cupboard, get a towel for your hand…and break that window. Maybe we could at least get the money back.”

“Aileen!” said George. “That’s insurance fraud. I’m not sure what I think about that…”

“Upstanding to a fault you are, George,” Aileen said, and drained her glass. “Always have been.”

“It’s not a matter of being especially upstanding. It’s just…normal! If we did that, we wouldn’t be much better than the guys who robbed us.”

“You and I know, it’s not the same thing…”

***

Jonathon appeared to be completely engrossed in the task of feeding, but what the humans did not always appreciate about feline nature—its very evolved, very sophisticated quality—prevented them realising that he was a true multi-tasker, all his senses permanently on the alert, tuned into unfathomable frequencies.

So while George and Aileen thought that he was just gorging himself on offal, Jonathon was in fact missing nothing of his surroundings, from the world-weary crow calls beyond the windows, to the stirring of a distant storm, to the scents of a barbecue down the street, and all the way back to his owner’s complex deliberations about the ethical status of burglary versus insurance fraud.

His lidded eyes watched them, his human companions, over the top of his feeding bowl.

It was true after all, what she said: yes, it was incredibly frustrating to not be able to tell them what was wrong, or even what was right. The constant struggle to communicate via such inept phrases as “meow,” “mrrreow” and “prrrrr,” and the wholly inadequate apparatus of non-verbal signalling encompassed in such constant and tiring activities as leaping on and off of tables, rubbing at ankles and wriggling out of arm locks, left him feeling exhausted and defeated.

Oh, that self-adoring bastard junky with the gun had known what he meant all right, by one swipe of his strong, sharp talons. He had almost paid with his life.

But it was worth it, deep inside, he felt it was worth it. Or was it?

After all, they didn’t know. How could they know? How could they ever know how much they truly meant to him, how he had risen to their defence, how he was full to bursting with love?

The channels were so limited: incomprehensible expletives, tactile overtures and withdrawals. In the end, it always came back to this, the red plastic food bowl. The great mediator. It did an imperfect job, just like everything else, but at least in the end, there was meat. Chewy, gristly and delicious. Meat talks.

Sometimes, there’s nothing else for it but to present in the spirit of reception, of gratitude: to accept their offerings, to tear lovingly at their hearts.

————————-

Obelia Modjeska is primarily an author of short fiction. Her work has appeared in Why Vandalism, Cantaraville and Torpedo. She lives and writes in Sydney, Australia.

Demolition

David and Goliath

My daughter waves the giant longneck clams she’s found, and her new boyfriend and I applaud, laughing. We then gather our pails and return to the beach house, where my husband’s stoking the barbecue. As usual, Harleys crowd the driveway next-door and marijuana smoke and rock music blast across the fence.

“Talk to them,” I urge my husband.

“But it’s Friday night.”

“This has been going on all summer,” my daughter says.

We turn to her boyfriend. Head down, his voice aquiver, he says, “OK, I’ll go.”

Gripping the clams in a sack like grapeshot, he marches across the yard.

 

Demolition 

In a large hotel scheduled for demolition antique fixtures of crystal and stained glass twirl beneath tall tin ceilings while below, along scaffolding and ladders, a disposal crew scrambles, wielding pliers like giant pincers. Wires snap like frayed nerve endings and lamps topple, shattering on the distant parquet floor. The job done, the workers leave.

Years pass, the hotel forgotten, the demolition incomplete. Eventually herds of rhino and wildebeest take residence there: they relish the crackly light, the shards that don’t pierce so much as scour their raw scabrous skin, the itch of centuries slowly discharged like spent lightning bolts.

————————

Joseph E. Lerner’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as 100 Word Story, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Eunoia Review, Feathered Flounder, Gargoyle, Pif, PoetsWest, and Rage Machine. He currently lives near Washington, D.C., where he’s working on a novel as well as poems and short stories. He blogs at FURIOUS FICTIONS:A MAGAZINE OF SHORT-SHORT STORIES.

Mango Summer

Aunty Sharu lives next door to us in one of those old bungalows that always seem to have a veranda, a swing and a perfunctory mango tree. The mango tree has blossomed abundantly this year and the branches are bent with the tart bounty of green mangoes. Her errand boy Ratan stands as a sentinel underneath the tree and glowers at us every time we cycle past greedily eyeing the mangoes.

Yesterday there was a sudden summer thunderstorm that brought the washing lines down and scattered dust and twigs everywhere in a mighty fury. We huddled indoors waiting for the storm to pass but Ratan, he stayed by the tree guarding the mangoes.

Aunty Sharu doesn’t like children – she tells us this whenever she spots us. She lives alone and only has Ratan to talk to. She doesn’t go anywhere or invite people over. She isn’t nice to Ratan either but he doesn’t mind.

She is going to harvest every single mango from her tree this year and sell them to this person in Bombay who will then export them to far-off countries. She is going to make so much money from this, that next year she will have not one but two guards for her tree. She will go on a vacation too, leaving Ratan in charge.  She tells us this every time we loiter around the bungalow. At the mention of the words “in charge”, Ratan puffs up with pride and twirls his mustache.

There is another huge storm predicted for today. The raindrops are coming in plump and thick, the sky is sooty black. Aunty Sharu watches the storm from her window and Ratan from the garden. A bolt of lightning makes me jump and I run to shut the window. Ratan is dashing around in their yard with a basket, picking up the mangoes that have fallen to the ground. Aunty Sharu is admonishing him that he is never vigilant enough, surely he was supposed to have planned for the storm. Her voice is screechy now and she is yelling above the rolling thunder.

As I watch from the window with mounting horror, a massive branch snaps and lands on to the ground with a huge thud, engulfing Ratan and his bounty of bruised fruit. A muffled scream fills the air. Aunty Sharu opens the door and races to the spot even as Ratan’s shrieks from underneath the branches get more painful, more urgent.

The rain is coming down in giant sheets now. The neighbors gather around as someone calls for an ambulance. Aunty Sharu stands drenched to the bone, calling out for Ratan with a shrill urgency to her voice.

“He is going to be fine, the ambulance is on its way,” someone tells her.

“The mangoes,” Aunty Sharu screams, “Oh the mangoes. Get this man out of here, I need to save the mangoes before the ambulance people steal them off me.”

————————

Vaiju Joshi’s fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Global Short Story competition, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Six Sentences and the Five Stop Story Project amongst others. Her fiction also was short-listed for the Best Australian Short Stories 2010 and 2011 anthologies.She is an engineer by profession and is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Adelaide, Australia.

There’s a Million Dead Tilapia Outside My Window, Baby (Everything Reminds Me of You)

Salvatore Pain Everything Reminds Me of YouI rushed over to Big Ed’s as soon as I heard about Bambino Cunningham’s murder. The tiny bar was packed when I arrived. With the six barflies laid off from the mill standing against wood-paneled walls. With Big Ed standing behind the bar tugging at his handlebar mustache. With Jebediah the Conquistador—lead singer of Bambino’s barbershop quartet: the Lovely Lovers who Love—weeping fat tears into his checkered handkerchief. I was barely in the door before Detective Cucamonga dragged the slender body of Bambino shoulders first from the bathroom, his pretty boy face pierced by an arrow right through the kisser. When Jeb saw his corpse he ran in my direction, sniffling, gritting his teeth, and if it wasn’t for the barflies locking him up with their beefy arms I don’t know what he might have done. I just don’t.

“It was Gallo!” He jerked his arm loose and pointed. “Nobody wanted his barbershop quartet once we hit the scene. He murdered the competition!”

Detective Cucamonga set Bambino on the floor and walked real slow over to Jeb. Cucamonga was a big guy with a round belly, a face pock marked with acne scars, a black bowler hat that hid his baldness. He slapped Jeb hard across the face and told him to have some respect, that a man had just been killed. Nobody moved and the only sound came from the broken fan blade above, hissing, hissing, hissing. Then he returned to Bambino and asked Big Ed for help. The two of them heaved the kid’s body into the air and carried him outside.

We followed. Me, the barflies, and a newly calmed Jebediah the Conquistador. Big Ed’s was located right off the Salton Sea. The Detective and Big Ed steered the body toward an old motorboat at water’s edge—the town doctor lived on the other side of our miniature ocean. The beach was littered with the rotting corpses of tilapia, millions of them. Some pecked apart by our dwindling flock of seagulls, some still breathing, their leathery bodies rising and falling, rising and falling, Cucamonga’s crimson Studebaker idling exhaust into their gills. In the distance, I could make out the Bombay Bay skyline: the abandoned rubber factory, textile plant, glue mill, all those hollowed out casinos, skeletons of our former glory. We watched the Detective and Big Ed clear a path through the fish with their boots, a bloody paste left behind in their wake. The smell. Something fierce all right.

That’s when I noticed the fog. Nothing unusual really. Just a gray pastry puff over the center of the sea. It could have been cotton candy. I nudged one of the barflies and nodded in the fog’s direction. The barflies were old friends of my father, the most beloved man our town ever had.

“You know what my old man used to say?” I asked. “He told me that whenever a person dies here their soul is sucked into the fog over the sea.” The other men, and even Jebediah, drew close. “He told me if you stayed quiet enough you could hear their ghost songs.”

We all cupped our hands to our ears and leaned forward. We heard it. We heard. We heard Bambino Cunningham’s ghost song.

It’s gonna get you, baby/

It’s gonna get you too/

But that’s all we got. Just two lines before Detective Cucamonga accidentally dropped the kid’s body in the water, the deadly end of the arrow snapping clean off. He cursed and held it in the sky for us to see.

“Lousy arrow!” he yelled. “Who gets killed with an arrow on the gd commode?”

We couldn’t answer. We stood there in silence and tried to remember Bambino’s ghost melody, like searching for a word on the tip of your tongue. An incantation. Lost.

***

Nights I sang at Big Ed’s with my barbershop quartet—Anthony Gallo the Italian Marvel Jr. and the Zip Zoop Dingleberries—but during the days I worked as the Chief Curator of the Bombay Bay Museum. My father left it to me after he lost his battle with lung cancer. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t see it go under. A son’s duty. But the building’s not much. Just an old house Dad renovated filled with framed photographs and micro exhibits of what the town was like during its heyday. He lived upstairs in the apartment before he died, and I moved in after Kat and Christian left Bombay Bay for good. The day after Bambino Cunningham’s murder, I flipped the neon sign out front to OPEN as if nothing had happened.

As usual, nobody dropped by. Bombay Bay had a population of 274 and they all knew its history as well as I did. Sometimes a group of yuppies would read an article about us on the computer and drive on down and buy a lot of souvenirs—clam shells with googly eyes and little wire arms that held Bombay Bay pennants—and that got me through the month. I stood surrounded by framed newspaper clippings, photographs that showed Bombay Bay and the Salton Seaduring its glory days: the 1940’s. Back when a heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to run wild and break through the headgates at the Alamo Canal. It flooded our dry bed and created a four mile ocean—the Salton Sea—which quickly became a tourist destination: The Ocean in the Middle of the California Desert! First came the factories during the war, then the casinos where Old Blue Eyes performed and nicknamed Bombay Bay “Li’l Vegas.” But there was no outflow for the sea. The accidental ocean’s salt level shot up way higher than the Pacific’s, and before we knew it, the waters were unsafe for human swimming and deadly to fish, accounting for the millions of dead tilapia each and every year. The poor beasts get swept down during the flooding season and die by the boatload every sweltering summer. The casinos and factories folded, and the population dropped from 60,000 to 50, from 30,000 to 10, sinking lower and lower until we realized the dizzying truth: we mostly jobless 274 accounted for the Final Generation of Bombay Bay.

Upstairs in the apartment, I microwaved tomato soup for lunch. Then I walked to the window, pulled back the curtain, and stared out at the Salton Sea. I took a deep breath and picked up the phone, dialed my ex-wife’s number. It was something I promised myself I’d stop doing. It’s a promise I broke about every three weeks.

Kat’s voice sounded warm and effortless when she picked up in the City of Angels. I tried to mimic her tone, to make her think my calling was the most ordinary thing in the world.

“How’s my favorite lady on the entire west coast?”

A long pause. A clicking of the tongue. Recognition.

“Don’t be cute, Anthony.”

“Hard for me not to.” Another pause. “How’s Christian?”

“He’s struggling. He asks about you. He wants you to come out here. He misses you.”

“I’ll see him here in Bombay for Thanksgiving.”

“And how is Bombay? Have you resigned yourself to the idea that there’s nothing you can do to save it?”

“Don’t start, Kat.”

“I’m just saying. You know where I stand. Come to Los Angeles. Be with your son. Be with-”

“The museum. What about the museum? And the Zip Zoop Dingleberries. What abut a benefit concert? Or a museum gala event? I can’t let this town fall apart. Everything’s salvageable.”

“Your father wouldn’t want you there all alone.”

“This has nothing to do with my father.”

The rustling of chords. The muffled voice of someone in the background, someone adult, someone male. “Anthony, we’ve had this talk before. I’m seeing someone. He wants to get engaged. The school wants Christian to see a psychiatrist. You have thoughts on any of these topics?”

I wanted to remind her that she’d been my prom date. I wanted to tell her she belonged here, that this was where her people were from. I wanted to tell her to go easy on Christian, that he’d always been a finicky child and needed his father in his life, needed somebody to steer him in the right direction. I wanted to know if he could sing like me and his grandfather.

“Bambino Cunningham is dead,” I said. “Murdered.”

“Funny thing about decay. It spreads. Watch your back, Italian Marvel Jr..”

Then the dial tone. Then static.

 ***

The show that night didn’t go exactly as planned. My quartet stood on the cracked wooden stage at Big Ed’s and harmonized all our hits. Numbers like “Oh, Baby, Why You’d Take a Hovercraft to Get Away From Me?” and “I Miss You Like I Miss the Abandoned Textile Factory, Baby” and our signature tune, “There’s a Million Dead Tilapia Outside My Window, Baby (Everything Reminds Me of You).” We wore our trademark uniforms: black slacks, white dress shirts, buttoned down red vests, and of course, boater caps with red trim. But nothing stirred Big Ed or the barflies to delight. They sat at the bar with their whiskies and barely moved. How could they get into the music with Jebediah the Conquistador and his two remaining cronies from the Lovely Lovers who Love—humongous German twins with flowing blonde locks—glaring at us from the booth in the corner? Me and the Dingleberries finished our set and joined the barflies. We used to play Big Ed’s five nights a week, but that was before the Lovely Lovers who Love formed. They ate into our revenue, our momentum, and now we were down to two performances a week.

Big Ed poured me a shot and a beer. “I don’t want no trouble tonight, you hear, Anthony? You and Jebediah got beef, you take it outside. Big Ed’s a family establishment. I hear people have been disappearing left and right since Bambino’s murder. I don’t need no murderer here. No sir. I need a murderer like I need a shotgun through the chest.” He stuck his finger at me. “And your father would have been sick with the idea of you brawling. Favorite son of the city he was.”

The Dingleberries all tapped me on the shoulder. “Having a smoke outside,” they said in unison.

“Fine.”

I watched them go and hoped that maybe Big Ed would say something else about my father. Big Ed was my dad’s age. He remembered when my dad went into the museum business and lit Bombay Bay ablaze with his barbershop melodies. I drank my beer and was about to ask him to tell me more about the disappearances or perhaps my father—his call—when I noticed those big, dumb Germans follow the Dingleberries outside.

“Oh boy,” Big Ed said.

Jebediah the Conquistador came over and took the stool on my left. He peeled his tin of chew and scooped a big ol’ chunk. Chew, chew. Chew, chew. He leaned in close.

“I don’t think you murdered Bambino no more.”

I downed my shot. “Yeah? Why’s that, Jeb?”

“The arrow. The singing fog. The disappearances. You hear about them? It don’t add up. Doesn’t seem human. His death I mean. Seems otherworldly. Mystical. I don’t know.” He spat into the golden spit jar at our feet. “You think we doomed here in Bombay Bay, Italian Marvel Jr.?”

“Call me, Anthony.”

“Ok, Anthony.” He kneaded my shoulder with his thumb. “We got to stick together. No jobs. We all we got, capiché?”

He sniffed. And before he could get another word in, the front door slapped open revealing a panting Detective Cucamonga. He bent over and grabbed his knees, then pointed behind him to the night sky and Salton Sea beyond. “Come quick, boys. Gosh, I mean it.”

The same motley crew from when Bambino died followed him. The moment we got outside we discovered just what had Cucamonga so spooked. Corpses littered the street, and these weren’t no tilapia. One of the German twins hung by his snapped neck from the street lamp, his skin yellow under the light. The other lay on the pavement, trampled dead with tire tracks across his chest and shins. Two of the Dingleberries lay on the roof of the abandoned tenement, their bodies riddled with bullet holes. And the other one? Let’s just say I’d never seen that shade of brown before.

“Dios mio!” Jebediah the Conquistador exclaimed.

We kept still, the shadow of the hanged German darkening our faces as we listened to the crash of the Salton Sea, the fog above its center growing, growing, growing. It had the girth of a mac truck now, turning and mutating, a flash of electricity beneath its belly. We watched that ghost fog and listened to the barbershop music of the dead.

It’s gonna get you, Anthony/

And it’s gonna kill you, Jeb/

In fact, we’re gonna take you all/

“Two-Seventy,” Cucamonga whispered. “There’s less than two-seventy of us left.”

***

The deaths came fast then. The next morning, we found old Dr. Church turned inside out alongside the half-destroyed YMCA. A little later, Sister Palmolive popped up drowned in Stinky Weathervain’s busted washing machine. Stinky? Well, he died that very afternoon. His mouth and nose and ears and anus and belly button overflowed with black licorice. Not a pretty sight. Right there on Main Streetand everything in front of the old kindergarten. And did I mention Jebediah the Conquistador? I guess the ghost fog song was right. Big Ed unlocked the bar three days after this whole mess started only to find the entire establishment drenched in blood, a severed arm here, the mush of a crushed eyeball there. Cucamonga only identified him on account of his dental records. A chalky tooth wedged inside the jukebox. No longer could we hit 3B6B to hear the melancholy stylings of the Buffalo Bills. Now we pushed 3 Tooth 6 Tooth.

I drank coffee on the fourth morning. Through the open window of my apartment, I could see Detective Cucamonga and Big Ed perched on the roof of Big Ed’s. The Detective sat on a beach chair and held a megaphone to his lips. Every minute he shouted out the current population of Bombay Bay. “One twenty-four! One twenty-four! One twenty-four!” Big Ed crouched by the edge of the roof, a shotgun cocked above his arm aimed at the now football field-long fog that had rolled itself into town, sweeping over the roofs of the one-story buildings. Something yellow pulsed deep within its center, and every few seconds Big Ed fired a shot into the fog to no effect. Then he reached into the pouch at his side and reloaded. Occasionally, I could hear the screams of another Bombay Bay resident reaching their demise, then Cucamonga’s adjusted count a moment later. But for the most part, all I could hear was the ghost song. Louder and longer than ever before. Powerful with the newly dead.

You can’t shoot me, Big Ed, my darling/

No you can’t stop the birth of decay/

But we appreciate that you are trying/

My baby, baby, sweet bar baby/

When all that became too much, I went down into the museum and flipped the CLOSED sign to OPEN. I found that during extreme trauma, one thing that gives me comfort is routine. It was the same during my father’s cancer. He lay in a hospital bed, oxygen pumping through tubes into his nose and mouth. Sometimes he smoked a plastic pipe that supposedly cleared out his lungs. During all that time I ran the museum on normal business hours. Absolutely powerless to do anything but keep his legacy going. Now, I walked behind the cash register and answered the phone. I hoped the fog hadn’t developed the ability to communicate over telephone wires.

“Ghost fog song?” I asked.

“Dad?”

“Christian! How’s the City of Angels?”

“It’s fine, Dad, but I wish you were here. Mom’s seeing this man. I don’t like him. Come here.”

“I know that, Pugsley.” I called him Pugsley sometimes to tease him, you know, good for a boy. “But I have to keep Bombay Bay afloat. Your grandfather’s museum? I’ll have this place fine as frog hair in no time. Maybe I’ll write the governor? Or the president?”

Silence.

“Dad. If you close your eyes, can you picture me? In your mind’s eye I mean?”

I closed my eyes. I remembered a vacation we all took to a coastal town two hours northwest. I remembered eating fried shrimp in a seaside restaurant. Wooden floors. Sand peeking through. We ate in our sandals. Christian happy as a clam, doodling his little comics on the back of the placemat. Kat leaning her head on my shoulder, giddy after one glass of red, telling us how she’d always dreamed of becoming a painter, of living in a big city next to a coffee shop and just waltzing in and getting one of those fancy drinks with all the foam and such. The smallness of this fantasy, its barely beating heart, well, it was enough to make me love her almost as much as Bombay Bay, the town made flesh in her body.

“Yes, son. I can see you.”

“No. I mean right this second. Can you close your eyes and see me in Mom’s kitchen? What I’m wearing? What I’m doing with my hands?”

“No.”

“Come be with us, Dad.”

“I want to. I do. You don’t know how much I want to, Pugsley.”

A woman’s voice in the background. Hushed. A dial tone.

I hung up and returned to the front door. Stray fog drifted in through the sliver of space between the door and the floor. It billowed up into a tiny mushroom. I ran my fingers through it. It felt like crushed velvet.

***

On the fifth day, I returned to Big Ed’s. It was empty except for the two of us, and I fed a quarter into the jukebox, then punched 9F4 Tooth: “We’ve Come to the End of This Romantic Road, My Baby Darling” by Salvatore the Italian Marvel and the Zip Zoop Dingleberries, my father’s legendary quartet. I sat at the bar and ordered a whiskey neat, then set the telephone on the stool beside me. I had started bringing it everywhere. I’d disconnected it from the wall and carried it around like some kind of mystical talisman. It still worked but only received calls from my wife and son. Not that I left the house much anyway. Even getting to Big Ed’s was a hassle, wading my way through the shuddering fog, three stories strong now, the death count long forgotten but rumored to be close to the entire town. I’d run the short path from the museum to the bar, the barbershop melodies of the damned fuzzing in my ear drums.

“Haven’t heard this in awhile.” Big Ed nodded at the jukebox as he polished his shotgun with a rag.

“No.”

“He would have been proud, you know? Don’t beat yourself up. There was nothing you could’ve done to save the museum, Bombay Bay. Once the factories and casinos left, once all those tilapia washed ashore. We were done for before you were even born, Anthony. Totally fucked.”

We listened to my dead father sing through the speakers.

“How many people left?”

He scratched the underside of his beard. “By Cucamonga’s count? Three. You, me, and him.”

I slugged back the whiskey and ordered another. We could barely hear the harmonies of my father over the fog song outside, taunting us, calling us closer and closer to the void. I went to the bathroom and when I returned, Big Ed lay slumped over the bar, his shotgun plunged deep into his back, lines of blood racing to the floor drain below. I finished my second whiskey and went outside. The fog was everywhere now, all encompassing, and I couldn’t see much in any direction, only a darkened figure running to and fro. I held the telephone close to my heart and walked in his direction. The fog sang to me.

Oh, baby, baby, baby, Bombay Baby, please come home/

A crazed Detective Cucamonga staggered towards me, eyes bulging, his Studebaker a few feet behind. He told me to get on out of there, to leave, to take his vehicle and escape to a city or any place on earth not named Bombay Bay. Then he exploded in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a mound of ashes dotted with the pearly remainders of his bones.

I climbed inside the Studebaker but didn’t turn the engine. I couldn’t see a thing, the road, the buildings, nada, and the wipers didn’t do jack shit. I rolled up the windows to keep the fog out and turned on the radio—the DJ was in the middle of my father’s song from inside Big Ed’s. When it ended, I lowered the volume and called Kat in the City of Angels.

“Italian Marvel Jr.? Is that you?”

“Hi. I think Bombay Bay is done for, honey. I don’t have much time.”

“Just leave. Drive the Studebaker to LA. Be with your family. We can become new and more fully realized versions of ourselves. We can become infinite.”

“I would like that,” I told her. “But I think I’m too stubborn, too loyal.”

“Loyal to whom?”

I hung up the phone. I fastened my seat belt. I rolled down the windows and let the fog roll in, singing me to slumber. What I remember, what I remember most about the whole damn enterprise, is one of my father’s shows at Big Ed’s, sitting in the audience as a boy drinking soda with syrup in it and everything. Watching him sway under the lights. Watching him make our people happy. They loved him, the people of Bombay Bay, they honestly, deep down adored him. Who wouldn’t covet that love for themselves?

————————

Salvatore Pane’s novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is forthcoming this November from Braddock Avenue Books. His chapbook #KanyeWestSavedFromDrowning will be published by NAP Magazine in October. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in PANK, Hobart, Annalemma, and others. This fall he’ll begin work as the new Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis. He can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com.

Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions, What Makes Me Feel Good About Being A Chicagoan

Michael Czyzniejewski’s name is pronounced Chiz-knee-evsky. I have gotten that information from a reliable source, not Czyzniejewski himself, but someone reliable, nonetheless. I mention more to poke fun at my own embarrassment at bungling it for so long than to educate any individual reading this. I was ignorant of how to pronounce it properly for an agonizingly long time, and then, what’s worse, I found ways to get it wrong even after I familiarized myself with the correct, or at least accepted, pronunciation. Regardless, Czyniejewski’s name is probably the least noteworthy thing about his latest collection, Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions. That’s no knock on the interesting, daunting quality of Czyzniejewski, the surname. Instead, it places deserved emphasis on the tremendous talent of Czyzniejewski, the author. So let’s get going.

I might be a little more predisposed to love Chicago Stories, come by way of Curbside Splendor (increasingly an indie publisher to be reckoned with, and fittingly based in Chicago, IL), than some. I wear my affinity for my hometown on my sleeve and I love seeing new takes on some of its most recognizable historical persons and places and so on. Now you know how I could be construed as “biased,” though I’m no more than the next biased person, as sports commentator Joe Buck is to St. Louis.

(I also know who Frankie Machine is. You should, too. And after reading Chicago Stories you’ll at least have a better idea of him.)

To delve further into the substance of the collection itself, Chicago Stories is arranged with much the same austere formatting of a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency article. And while almost always hilarious, these discrete pieces are full of thoughtful and innovative, sometimes emotionally wrenching, prose, too. They’re like Internet Tendency if every piece were hand-selected by Mike Royko, George Saunders and Saul Bellow. And with every selection the triumvirate was forced to arrange it as equal parts hard-nosed, humorous and literary. That’d be “The Chicago Way” in terms of high-minded creative writing. It would be much less violent than “The Chicago Way” that Sean Connery’s character in The Untouchables describes.

As for subjects, Chicago Stories covers a wide range of characters, both fictional and not, who fit somewhere within the context of widely recognizable (Oprah Winfrey, Roger Ebert) to somewhat esoteric and obscure (Rich Koz, Steve Dahl). That said, I don’t think this book would be half as interesting without the many tiers of celebrity. Anyone could take a stab at writing imagined monologues of Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Rahm Emmanuel, The Mayors Daley, Bill Murray, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Caray and / or Bozo the Clown (almost none of whom are featured prominently, if at all, in Chicago Stories). You wouldn’t need to be from around these parts to try, and to do so effectively.

But what would be the point?

Chicago Stories isn’t a collection of characters who are necessarily intended to be recognizable. It’s a series of stories by one of Chicago’s very own, sharing a real glimpse of the culture to be found both at home with, say, our infamous political landscape (e.g. machine politics featuring less notables like Jane Byrne (the first and only, to date, female mayor of Chicago) and the more commercial aspects famous denizens have managed to very successfully export abroad (e.g. Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s and John Hughes’ ‘80s brat pack movies).

One story that comes particularly to mind, evidencing all these qualities that make Chicago Stories special, is: “David Hasselhoff Enlists As An Organ Donor.” Again, a concept like this could easily devolve into the worst sorts of self-referential, jargon-ey dreck. A public figure like Hasselhoff, known for his melodrama and more recently his ability to be caught on camera (and thus viral) at an awkward moment of drunken repast, is primed for the bungling of less expert narrative acuity. But Czyzniejewski nicely distills the actor / singer’s perceptible egotism. Hasselhoff waxes high-minded, finding a kind of comfort in his own mortality and the optimism that his organs, like any other vestige of him, could be used for the greater good, not immodestly noting one use could be, “A math genius at MIT discovering a new formula with my brain.” The narrative quickly devolves into an apology (of sorts) for the precautions that the Hoff is now taking, later in his life. “I can gratify myself that I’m doing my best to save the world, just keeping me intact.”

The strange synthesis Czyzniejewski achieves with a knack for knowing just the right pop cultural ephemera to cross with a great personage (or what have you) of Chicago is probably the aspect of this book I most enjoyed. I loved identifying people and then getting a taste of their variegated worlds inhabited briefly by the author. It made me think about and feel attune to the Chicago I love. The Chicago that is subject to political punchlines because of hapless, corrupt folks like Rod Blagojevich or met with horror because of the atrocities of H.H. Holmes, John Wayne Gacy and Leopold and Loeb. The Chicago with a rich literary tradition because of Nelson Algren, and his ability to perceptively and artfully describe the lives and circumstances of Chicago’s (and the nation’s) underclass, humanizing them in ways few writers of the past or present have so spectacularly achieved. I love thinking of our landmarks and the history attributable to them, not least of which being, from Chicago Stories, a monologue authored by the Great Chicago Fire’s most well-remembered surviving edifice, The Water Tower. Other relatively inanimate objects have their say in Chicago Stories, as well. We’re not limiting things to mere people. The city is alive.

But am I getting away from the point? The point as I see it? Before I do that let’s say it’s an imtangible thing. It’s Studs Terkel and Mike Royko hanging out together following the Daily News post publication twilight hours of late late evening and early morning in the now world-famous Billy Goat Tavern (world famous more as a result of its being founded by William “Billy Goat” Sianis also notable for his “Curse of the Billy Goat” that has long tortured Cubs fans and SNL’s parodying (“Cheeburger, Cheeburger” sketches), but still, STILL!). It’s this weird sort of romance for things that I’ve never felt, and probably wouldn’t be the same if I had felt them (for one thing, Studs Terkel probably never accompanied Royko for late night drinks at The Billy Goat, owing to the fact that he wasn’t a journalist per se, among other contributing reasons). That’s what makes Chicago Stories so pitch perfect. As with any city, size be damned, the so-called experience is as wide ranging as the people who inhabit it, and Michael Czyzniejewski’s fictions capture exactly that Chicago-style range of feeling, those different characters and their realities and their fictions.

There’s no “true” Chicago but there are some damn interesting ones, and you can find a whole lot of that, as I repeat myself, in Chicago Stories. You can be nostalgic for places you’ve never been. It happens everyday, probably. If the feeling’s brought about by Chicago Stories you ought to find it pretty entertaining, too.

Also, not to be ignored or discounted are the wonderful illustrations of Rob Funderburk. I think that’s a good note to end on, leaves said illustrations’ goodness as a lasting image. Right?