Written For The Man Behind Me Growling

Rust Belt Recipes.

Fit for fuller entities than me
whose bellies rage but
dichotomous.  In rags, too.

Rust belt, iron belt, steel belt
it’s me and you, Cleveland
and if you want to get fat

try this, recipes to fatten
put fries on everything
put mayonaisses on lovers

you dipping and licking
and the carbon on the sheets now
somehow explainable



If you can’t write about tits, what can you write about?
Seriously. Help me out with this.
Tits are the most universal thing there
is. Women having them, and men
wanting them in handfuls. Wanting them
in boatloads, wheelbarrows, on or
off screen.

Even if you’re a vegan, don’t tell
me that you see a face first.
Maybe you do. But you see tits too.
Or if you like legs, or arms, or ass,
or the space between ankle and calf,

All that means is you regret never
fucking a girl with really nice tits.
I mean, really, really nice tits.
Really good beautiful
tits. Really, really, really
wonderful tits. The kind
that are really nice. The nicest of
tits. Really amazing tits. Tits
really worth talking about, real
woman tits. Tits by the handful.
I mean really, really nice tits.
I know you know
the kind I mean.
Even if you know they
look better in a bra, at least
the real ones, and not at all
in the dark.

So please,
don’t tell me I can’t write about tits.
So nice.


Written for the Man Behind Me Growling

A dog made its nest in your throat.  I will like to give it a bone.  Or better yet wet food.  You gain five minutes of life every time you pet a dog and I wonder how much longer you’ve got and how much I get petting the inside of your throat.


Shawn Maddey is a person responsible for Barge Press. He often wears a beard and the beard is a powerful beard that is easy to admire, so say its admirers (of which there are many). He and his beard live in Pittsburgh, PA. 

Silver Slippers

Somewhere still you’re streaming through a girl in silver slippers, and it saddens you, the slippers, how they shimmer only certain things.

Like her silvery legs in the mid morning light or the smell of her pale pink lipstick but never the sound of her name or the creak of her feet on the floorboards.

Her body is like pooling from her words like water falls. She’s draining something from your memories of other girls. She isn’t special but she has a way of doing so and that is why you think you’re learning to resent her.

She was scooping a teaspoon of sugar and stirring it up when she looked up and said,
how many minutes would it take for you to think you really knew me?

She was stirring her toes in the sand when you looked up and noticed the gleam in her eye. You said, how should I fuck you now that you are leaving? Please give me an adjective.

Like roughly softly smoothly sweetly? Slowly, you suggested. She corrected you. She said, let’s try abruptly.

You decided you would try to fuck her coldly. You are not unfeeling but this was your compromise.


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

We Walk By Night

That old lady wanted those dogs to leave her alone, both the ugly one and the retarded one. She wanted me to leave her alone too, and she wanted to hate us all.

But we’d noticed danger; an open garage door, wide open at night. So we’d rung her bell, and she’d lit the porch lamp. Then we’d waited under that billion watt bulb, in that violent light, smelling her house… garlic and ginger, cigarettes, and furniture polish, seeping out at us. But she wouldn’t answer the bell, wouldn’t open her door.

Finally, looking frightened, she peeked out her blinds and shook a fat finger at us to shoo us away as if disgusted, as if we were thugs… home invaders. She pursed her mouth in contempt, despising us, and would have told us so in her own tongue had she not been too afraid to open that door.

Walking those damned dogs is a pain… a PAIN every night. If it’s not urban skunks, it’s Mormons on bikes… the bastards. You never know who’s who, and it’s always chilly; sheets of cold wind and fog rage in off the North Pacific. You can’t pop out in a t-shirt like back in Council Bluffs; you want jeans, a warm jacket; sometimes you want gloves.

Cretin idiot dogs… my wife rescued them both, fostered them. Otherwise the little black one… the ugly one with the underbite… would be at the bottom of a landfill in Stockton or Los Baños. That’s where those banker thieves ruined the mortgages and where families abandoned their houses leaving pets chained up in weedy back gardens, howling for kibble, biting cockleburs from bloody paws.

On walks, she strains ahead chocking herself while the other one, the retarded one, stalls behind to sniff out canine urine or street garbage. He’s also a rescue from a litter of multiple daddies. His mamma wanted to run around, had lost her soul running around. So she didn’t nurse him properly, and he suffers dog retardation… what happens when your mama is a running around whore.

That old hag didn’t keep a dog; if she did, my dogs would have known. Although if she had kept a dog, the dog could ward off the bandits after her treasures. See, these little old dragon ladies usually keep cash on hand, lots of if, gold too and other stuff. But hell, a home invader’d just as soon move on rather than mess with even a little dog; there’s another old granny down the street somewhere close.

If you do keep a dog though, you have to walk it, and in our neighborhood, that means you’ll run into Walco. And when you cross Walco dog walking at night, he wants to be all up in your business, wants to know what you paid for this and what you gave for that. Say you’ve been on vacation… it’s, you get cheap ticket? how much for rental car; you get bargain hotel? You eat at restaurant or take sandwich? He’d take sandwiches.

I call him Walco because he manages something or other at Walco. He thinks those warehouse stores are a friggin’ Shangri-La instead of the badlands of detritus, junk, and trash that they really are. Like damned Vegas casinos… no widows, no clock in sight, they maze you in so you can’t find your way out, and time bends back on itself, evaporates in there. You travel through a continuum of wanting and desire, a bad diet of junk and more of it.

Cheaper and cheaper and cheaper… 70 inch flat screen TVs blaring banjo music; twenty pound buckets of frozen chicken breasts… unwholesome, shot through with steroids and antibiotics; smelly leather sectionals from Shanghai; SafeArms Brand firearm safes to safe keep revolvers and shotguns for protecting all that crap from home invaders. Sating the wanting is Walco’s vocation I suppose, but where’s the grace in it?

Still, you can’t judge… no not really. Because Walco knows first hand those ancient desires from places in the world where there’s nothing but material poverty and no junk to sate it. Besides, we all want crap, and after the cheap Walco crap, we want better crap… single malt whiskey and Gucci bags and German automobiles. We want satisfaction, sanctification, here, on the western edge of the western world. But it’s the void of that insatiable wanting that generates our frosty wind and blustery sheets of fog.

It was cold and foggy when Walco caught me up for a god damned dog walking stop and chat. His idiot cur, HiHo, was yapping at our retarded dog and our ugly dog. Did that cretin have a runaround mama too? I asked, but Walco only answered, Ahhhhh, HiHo so cute. He want to play. HiHo only want to play. Then something caught Walco’s attention… down the street, strangers on bikes. God damned Mormons… They want your soul, I tried to warn him, but Walco and HiHo were already gone.

When you walk dogs, you want to watch out for Mormons and for Walco and for strangers, and you want to watch out for urban skunks. For urban skunks want to visit our neighborhood and want to be bold in our neighborhood. They want to walk right up to you and dare you to threaten them so they can spin around and squirt you a measure of skunk juice.

But our stupid dogs, the ugly one and the retarded one, don’t know a kitty hiding under a car from a damned urban skunk. They only want to chase small animals. They don’t care about what skunks can do, as if their noses, which work fine for dog pee and rotting garbage, are broken for skunks, as if running around whores broke their skunk noses too. So I watch out for skunks, but I do not hate them.

You never hear of skunks wanting Walco trash or being run around whores or Mormons or retarded or ugly. A skunk has soul and will root out a bastard rat and eat its rat pups. Sometimes I see a friggin’ rat when I walk those dogs at night. Rats are filthy; their teeth never stop growing. So I want a skunk over a rat any day. Go skunks! Kill rats; kill their wives and rat children, and stuff what you can’t eat down their holes for their cannibal brethren. Then go kill more of the bastards.

What I’d wanted when I saw that damned open door in the first place, that open garage calling out to skunks and rats, was to ignore it; just blow it off; I mean this is not Council Bluffs. Do onto others does not hold here, does it?

If home invaders storm up screaming with their jet black hair and cigarettes to rob that old lady of all her Walco crap and cash, and humiliate her for forgetting the SafeArms arms safe combination, and pistol whip her to ginger mash, is that my concern? No… She wouldn’t even open the door for us.

At least it shouldn’t have been my concern… shouldn’t… But then god damn it all to hell, I was from Council friggin’ Bluffs. And do the fuck unto others did hold, and if the shoe’d been on the other foot, I’d have wanted the old bitch to fight through the fog and the wind to tell me something was wrong so I could protect my crap and my dogs.

So there we were, in the white blue glare of that porch light, wanting her only to close the damned garage. We rang the bell anew and beat on her door over and over, until she peeked out again, and I pointed and signed and mimed the state of her garage friggin’ door that some damned fool had left open in the night.

But nothing happened. And there was quiet and more quiet until that billion watt light bulb extinguished with a click, and the porch went black. Our eyes didn’t adjust immediately, but while blind, we felt vibration through our feet. Something on rails scooted and hummed.

After a moment in the silence and the new darkness, the ugly dog and the retarded dog and I moved away from the door and onto the sidewalk. We walked to the driveway. The big panel door was down, closed tight. The old woman and her cash and gold and junk were safe again; neither rat nor skunk nor home invader would enter through her garage that night.

And in the street, HiHo began yapping while Walco grilled the Mormons… Where you buy those bike? How much you give for bikes?


Steven Gowin lives in San Francisco on the western edge of the Western World. Having claimed to be an atheist for some time, he now worships Sauna as god. His fiction has appeared in The Bacon Review, Dark Sky Magazine, The Fiddleback Magazine, and Emprise Review.

Untoward Stories: Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden / Eudora Welty

Speaking about her career in the preface to her ‘Collected Stories’, Eudora Welty wrote that “without the love and belief my family gave me, I could not have become a writer to begin with.” Considered in light of what is probably her most anthologized story, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, the comment takes on an interesting irony.

As supportive as the writer’s real family was, that unsupportive is the family of the narrator of her most popular story, who finally gathers her belongings, leaves home and goes to live in the ‘next to smallest’ rural Mississippi post office where she works because she can no longer stand the antics of her dysfunctional family. Like many of the characters in Welty’s stories, this narrator is a complex mixture of human traits, not all of them good. She is put upon by her `million years old’ grandfather, Poppa-Daddy, who calls her a hussy and accuses her of trying to make him cut off his beard, a lie he got from her Mama by way of her slippery sister, Stella-Rondo, who stole the narrator’s beau (Mr. Whitaker) and skipped town, only to return with an ‘adopted child’, abandoned by the fickle Mr. Whitaker; all making the P.O. look like a solid living choice over her actual home.

Another frequently anthologized piece, ‘The Death of a Travelling Salesman’, like the P.O. story, pretty much says up front what it’s `about’. We can certainly understand the P.O. girl’s spiteful decision to vacate when we see the comical dysfunction and the snide enmity she faces from her family, but the travelling salesman, Bowman, of Ms. Welty’s first published story, which is written in third person, has a far more dark internal landscape than the P.O. girl. Bowman, as we gather from the title, is about to die, so suspense is maintained by the anticipation of how and when. He’s beset from all sides, lost in the back country, continuing down increasingly inhospitable and desolate gravel roads even as his heart is beginning to act up. Confused, he manages to put his car into a ditch, all the while feeling that his heart’s about to explode in his chest while the sun pushes his head down. In truth, opportunities for a lonely ignoble death abound in the dark landscape of the shoe salesman story and this is what keeps up the tension of the piece. When Sonny, the ‘strong’ backwoods farmer with the ‘hot red face’ takes Bowman out back to fetch his own fire (i.e. firewater), having wondered if Bowman was some `revenuer come sneakin’ here’, suddenly ordering Bowman, “Down on your knees”, we fear the promise of the title is about to be fulfilled.

`A nearly dreamlike lapse into death,’ one anthology calls the story, ‘with its orchestral overtones of pathos and loss, isolation and pain, pity and terror . . .’ (Mark Schorer / The Literature of 20th Century America)

While she is identified with Jackson, Mississippi and spent much of her life there. Eudora Welty took her undergraduate degree in Wisconsin, and spent time studying advertizing at Columbia University in New York City. In an interview for public radio, she allowed that of all her stories, there was only one specifically relating to Jackson: ‘The Worn Path’.

She recalled watching an old lady make her slow way across the Jackson landscape, and it put a story in her mind, about an old woman who was bound on going somewhere. The woman wore a red rag tied around her head, and her name was Phoenix Jackson. Young Eudora went out into the field to `watch them painting’ (local landscape painters), and saw the woman walking the path, bent on going somewhere, and that became the basis for her story ‘The Worn Path,’ which is made edgy and untoward by the revelation that the old woman, Phoenix Jackson, who is confused and has no money, has come seeking medicine for her grandson who’s eaten lye, desperately needs medication and is in constant danger of dying from suffocation.

Eudora Welty ‘concentrates upon portraying individuals, —their thoughts and feelings, their inner life. Gothic elements, as a rule, do not loom large in her fiction. Often her attitude is buoyant rather than tragic, and some of her most memorable fiction embodies fantasy, humor or satire.’ (Literature of the United States / 3rd Ed. / Blair et al)

There’s an edginess imbedded in Welty’s work that is often subtle and elusive, sometimes a mood of vague foreboding, lending tension and a sense of ‘reality’ to the narratives. No story better illustrates this than Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.

We are confronted from the onset by an unsettling revelation: Keela, the carnival geek, was really Little Lee Roy: ‘They dressed it . . . in a red dress, and it ate chickens alive,’ Steve tells Max. ‘I sold tickets and I thought it was worth a dime. Honest.’

‘Hee! hee!’ says Little Lee Roy `softly’.

 Steve’s `Honest’, says a lot about him. He honestly thought that the Keela show was worth the dime admission, but he’s come to see it differently in the two years since. He leads Max (and the reader) through his three months with the show, and we soon understand that the abuse of chickens for the gaping amusement of county fair bumpkins is only the beginning of the debasement. Little Lee Roy (`whose sons and daughters were off packing plums’ while he was `sitting on the porch’) had been given an `iron bat this long. And tole it if anybody come near, to shake the bar good at em, like this.’ Steve wants to make amends but has nothing to give Little Lee Roy. He punches Max because Max doesn’t even care about the terrible wrong that’s been done. Still, after all that, there’s a dark, untoward truth buried at the bottom of this story, a truth that gives basis to Steve’s self-loathing: as much as we profess to care about others, we’ll often stand by and watch them being abused without ever lifting a finger or even caring.

Paint By Numbers

Dear Sirs,

In September I placed an order from your company, a gift for my mother’s 80th birthday. She was, at the time, recovering from a stroke and beginning to suffer effects of elder depression, the likes of which we’d expected long before that and, as I am sure you can imagine, were prepared to deal with as a practical matter of family business. All this to say we wanted to do it up a little for the old gal’s birthday this year, there can’t be many better ones left.

I myself am an old man. I follow the prevailing wisdom of the postwar period — that creative hobbies enhance life, that they make it worth living. Even Winston Churchill, even President Eisenhower for Christ’s sake, were Sunday painters, and as my father, God rest his soul, always said, if it’s good enough for Ike, who the hell are you to want any goddamn better?

And while my mother is by no means an art enthusiast, your ad, boasting “Every man a Rembrandt” was very convincing. Why should the joys of artistic expression be relegated to the trained and talented? We’re Americans, we’ve got idle hands. I want my art like a tv dinner — everything you need in one goddamn box.

This is all besides the point, of course. Just to say that I appreciate what you at Paint by Numbers do. It’s downright American. You are true patriots. After a thorough review of your catalog I settled on the Apprentice Series, featuring bigger, easier to open paint pots and a handy no-mess workstation. I filled out your order form, and sent in a check for one beginner level classic “Cocker Spaniel Pair in Pastoral Repose,” lot number 4534, reportedly bursting with color and imagery and promising to offer a rewarding but achievable challenge for artists looking for something extra in their finished paintings.

Something extra indeed, sirs. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I am sure you can appreciate the trust I demonstrated in your company, having the kit sent directly to my mother’s home. I will admit that the giftwrap was lovely — the nicest in the pile, even according to my sisters, who are very unlikely to exaggerate for my benefit, I can assure you of that. And while my mother seemed less than thrilled upon pulling off the paper, mumbling something about a Whitman’s Sampler she’d asked for, she took the box to the garage to give it the old O’Connell try.

But unfortunately, there was a problem with your product. From the moment your kit arrived my mother scarce left the garage. She could be heard shuffling around, singing Danny Boy, working on the painting for hours at a time, her cheeks not so ruddied since she’d disappeared to the bathroom for a mysterious thirty minutes after Dick Clark’s cameo on Perry Mason in 1966, her complexion no less flushed than when my father, God rest his soul, accidentally touched her rear when she reached to place the tree topper in the scandal of Christmas ’59. She refused to come to meals or settle down her singing, even when asked repeatedly. She dug out an old stick of rouge and applied it in a thin line around her lips. She asked Marjory to curl her hair and put on nylons. At a certain point she locked the door and refused even her own daughters entry. After the third day they called me to come and break the door down, no easy feat at my age, let me tell you.

What we found on the other side of the door, my faith prohibits me from describing in plain words. My father, God rest his soul, should block his ears in heaven, should I try to convey to you, despite my Catholic sensibilities, the perverse display presented in your painting, the shameless pagan naturism of man in the most engorged depravity. I cannot even begin to describe to you the glut of body, the excess of skin. Rather, I am enclosing some photographs. I think you will agree the finished product depicts a very different Spaniel than the one on your box.

My sisters were screaming, my mother clung to the canvas — it was left to me to get the goddamn thing out of the house. I had to wait until nightfall so the neighbors wouldn’t see, had to carry the goddamn thing in my own goddamn hands — not facing me, of course, but still, I knew the whole time what was on the other side of the canvas. And if you think the thought of your ailing mother painting what amounts to an abomination of God in your childhood garage, and singing Danny Boy while she did it, well, if you’ve got a goddamn heart in your chest, I trust you know having to explain why great-grammy painted a man with an Easter ham between his legs to an 8-year-old, well it just about goddamn destroyed me.

To resolve the problem, I would appreciate it, well hell, I would appreciate it if you’d burn my goddamn eyes out of their sockets — but barring that as a possibility, maybe you wanna check your goddamn inventory.

I look forward to your reply and a resolution to my problem and will wait until after the holidays before seeking help from a consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau. In the meantime I have brought the painting someplace dark, without a lot of traffic, until it can be disposed of properly.


Padriac O’Connell



Jill Summers writes short stories, puppet shows, and once, a play. Her fiction has been featured internationally by Chicago Public Radio and has been published or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Knee-Jerk, Ninth Letter, Annalemma, The2ndHand, and Make Magazine, among others. She is a past recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and was Chicago’s reigning Opium Magazine Literary Death Match Champ for a short, glorious period in late 2009.

May The Force Be With You

I awake in a start. I am burning up, soaked from night sweats and fear, haunted by dreams of bubbling, azure lava fields and lost worlds. I lie in bed contemplating my mortality and the idea that I will never die, that no one ever truly does, not when the force remains strong and endlessly reverberating across time infinitum.

Moments like these should serve to energize me, but instead they just leave me drained and morose. I know this is because I feel unwanted and lacking in direction. And I wish it meant less to me, that I was above feeling pain and sadness, but it does not, and I am not, and waking-up just serves to remind me of how little purpose my life now holds.

There was a moment when I considered the possibility of trying to rehabilitate my image, appearances on talk shows possibly, maybe even a memoir, but ultimately it all just felt like wishful thinking, a fantasy about what might be and not my making peace with what is. I am trying to be at peace now though, day by day, and moment by moment.

The fact is, great men are asked to do great things, and we do them because it is expected of us, and necessary. We also do them knowing that we have very little control over how history will choose to remember us and the decisions we were compelled to make.

I say leave that to the historians, however, and while it is hurtful to me that my counsel is somehow of no use to anyone any more, I do have more pressing concerns. For example, how to entertain myself until breakfast begins and I can have my oatmeal. Or more immediately, how to get out of bed when the brain is willing and my old man legs are not.

Frankly, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly it all goes. When you’re young, getting old and the physical limitations contained therein is impossible to comprehend. And then one day you wake-up and it is all too self-evident. Still, once a warrior, always a warrior, and fight I will until the end. With this in mind, I push myself to place my feet on the floor and complete my morning exercise regime, seven squat thrusts, three push-ups and ten crunches.

I get back up, and linger by the window for a moment taking-in the mass expanse of desert that looms just feet away. There is a great temptation to make a run for it, but I don’t have that kind of energy anymore, much less the desire to actually do so. And yet, this doesn’t mean that my mind isn’t as vibrant as it ever was, or that I do not see the world for what it truly is, something that can sometimes be taken by hard fought negotiation, but mostly, and inevitably, needs to be taken by force.

I lose myself in this thinking for a moment, awash in nostalgia and possibility, but I am snapped back to reality by the creeping realization that my heart is suddenly pounding, my shoulder blades tightening and beads of sweat have burst loose across my brow and are now flooding the scars that mark my face like the tributaries of Dagobah’s swamplands.

In a panic, I quickly look around for my nitroglycerine tablets. I spy them on my nightstand. I struggle to raise my hand into the air, beckon them to come to me, and watch as they hurtle across the room before shakily landing in my palm. I take a moment to regain my strength. I wipe my brow, then fight the childproof cap and take my pill. I drink some water. And I am calm again.

I close my eyes and I focus on my breathing, in and out, in and out, and soon find myself taken back to another time and another place. I am in Panna and I am in love, and while my whole life still lies before me, I can see it so clearly, family, partnership, happiness, all of it, right there, and just within my grasp.

Instead there is none of that and none of it is remotely within my grasp anymore. No one visits, no one calls. And it’s not a surprise really. Nor even a regret, exactly. It is a loss however. I always saw my mission for intergalactic domination as a family venture. But I never could convince any of them that whatever it was they desired, the dark side could offer them more of it. Then again, maybe I never did understand what it was they actually desired.

I suppose it’s true that we raise our children to be independent, to break away from us, and at times metaphorically, if not literally, kill us, so that they can assume their rightful place in the world. But does that mean it doesn’t hurt when they reject you, or that you don’t want them to ultimately return as you age and are no longer a threat to their sense of self.

At times like this I wonder what I might have done differently. I am not above admitting my mistakes, as a parent, nor as a man, but relationships are a two-way street. There is give and take, deposits and withdrawals, and the carving out of common ground. It’s how relationships work.

I imagine my children would say that inviting them to be part of something so much greater than ourselves is not ultimately the same as parenting, sitting down and talking, listening, being there for them. And even as I concede that they would be right, I also believe that we could be better now, couldn’t we?

I look in the mirror and know though that it cannot be, will not be. There is no reconciliation or closure in this story, no going back and fixing that which is broken.

Which also means that this is enough looking back for today, it is time to look forward and focus anew on taking it one day at a time. This is not the life I imagined for myself, but it is a life none-the-less. It is also breakfast time and I want my oatmeal. I put on my cape, gloves and helmet. My breathing grows deep and regular. The aches and pains begin to fade. And I head out the door with a small skip in my step.


Ben Tanzer is the author of the books You Can Make Him Like You, My Father’s House, So Different Now and This American Life among others. Ben also oversees day to day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life the center of his vast, albeit faux media empire.

Blowing Up While Fading Away

77 Words About Nothing 
2.21.2012 [1]

I always thought we belonged in some gutter –
Trading punches and clinking bottles.
Shooters, mostly.
Tiny vessels of strawberry wine. Or maybe something peach flavored.
Something breezy to kill the sting of the harder stuff.
Remember that time the bus driver didn’t let me on?
Said the Greyhound was no place for drunkards.
That was Memphis.
She hated my face, my stale smile.
She said it made her miserable.
More miserable than the smell of the river.

77 Words About Nothing
2.21.2012 [2]

We met up with Slow Slim while he was taking the trash down to the curb.
His hair was messed and blood was gushing from the web between his thumb and index finger.
He paused a little to look at us while globs pattered and melted the fresh snow behind his bare feet.
We never talked to Slim.
We’d just walk by to catch glimpses and see if he’d smile.
Give us a toothless grin –
Or maybe wink.

77 Words About Nothing

When you’ve spent as much time as I have cleaning up spilled coffee and steak sauce, it’s the little things that you really begin to appreciate.
Stuffing shells, smelling empty bourbon bottles, buying books,
and burying your blues.
It’s the easy things like these that begin to define your time when you don’t know what else to do with it.
Filling notebooks with jibberish because empty pages are depressing;
and people seem to like gibberish.
Don’t they?

Blowing Up While Fading Away

As a kid,
we blew up a fish.
We shoved a bottle rocket into its respiring mouth and lit it.

When it didn’t die,
one of us flicked it back into its habitat
while it slowly descended,

its wiggles fading –

we watched it bury itself.
Later that day I set off M80s and more bottle rockets with a lit Newport
while secretly hoping I’d blow my fingers off for the fish.

But I only got grounded.
And told there must be a black cloud hanging over me.
It was the last night of summer.
The breeze danced through the screen and past the shade in my room,
calming the guilt in my heart
while kids reveled, laughed, and “made time” with the neighborhood girls on that final night of freedom.

No one would talk to those girls again until next year.
Or winter break.
They were summer specific.
I can still smell the cool night air and hear the conversations that lived vibrantly without me while the moon rose and my eyes flickered until it faded away.


Tony Van Hart is a writer living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His work has been featured on WUWM’s Flash Fiction Friday. He blogs at Blondeonblog.

Ghastly Dislocation

I arrived at the hospital early with the intention of slipping into Harker’s chamber whilst he still slept.  My plan was to then soundlessly creep across his bare floor, and with the utmost stealth, ease open his closet door, insert my arm into that dark space and obtain, in short order and with no more trouble than I have already mentioned, “his” cream colored suit, white leather shoes, canary yellow tie, socks (but he had no socks), and rakish Panama hat without rousing the wretched man from his slumbers.  The point of this stealth was not, of course, to avoid disturbing Harker, and certainly not to avoid “getting caught” by him (but what an absurd reversal in our relations that would be!) but rather, and very strictly—indeed, exclusively—to obtain the clothes with the absolute minimal exposure to Harker himself.

To this end then, I parked my car at the very far end of the supplementary unpaved lot, crossed the lot on foot but then, instead of entering the hospital by the front door, skirted right past it around to the side and entered via the service entrance, the one usually reserved for the delivery of bulk commodities. I did this to avoid encountering any members of the secretarial or custodial staff who had made it their habit to congregate in the airy vestibule attached to the main entrance at that time to take their communal breakfast (rolls, coffee etc…) and with whom I would have been obliged, as administrator in chief, to exchange hale good morning greetings, which no doubt in short order would have alerted Harker to my precise location within the building.

He waited for me, you see.  He waited for me every morning. Even though I hadn’t been to see him for several months (could it have been a year?), he still waited for me to arrive every morning, and, though his movements were wholly circumscribed within a single chamber in a rather peripheral ward (a good distance I might add from the front entrance, indeed, any of the hospital’s entrances), he had his own peculiar methods for divining not only when, where and how I had arrived at the hospital but also for following my movements throughout the day.

That was his most infernal trick! Omniscience. He seemed to know everything about me from where I’ve been in the morning before beginning my rounds, to what patients I visit regularly, to the contents of my files, to every minute interaction I’d had with any member of the staff no matter how insignificant; in a word, to all the comings and goings of my days—he knew it all!  Or so it seemed. Of course he didn’t really know.  He could not. He exclusively inhabited, as I have mentioned, a single and somewhat narrow room in one of the most peripheral wards of the hospital whilst I was free to wander—and I do wander, I’ll have you know, I’ve always allowed myself the widest possible leeway—the quite extensive grounds of this entire establishment (not to mention the even larger world beyond). However, he did know enough about me to project the impression that he knew everything.

You see he was very clever. I have to hand it to Harker there; the wretch is clever. He was very clever with whatever bits of information fell his way.  He was so clever that even after I had managed to pierce this particularly inciting ruse (the Ruse of Omniscience) but before I had become wise enough to leave off intercourse with him altogether, I never could clearly discern, in the smashed mosaic of his insidious conversation, which cracks separated known fact from fair deduction, deduction from plausible supposition, supposition from speculation and speculation from out and out guess.

Just take all that business about parking spaces, for example. For the first several weeks of the “promising” phase, the weeks in which I had lavished so much unmerited therapeutic attention on him, Harker tortured me daily (I was visiting him every day; can you imagine?) with his unerring and yet (at the time) wholly inexplicable knowledge of the precise space in which I had parked my car. Our sessions invariably and for quite some time (until that is—in the fourth or fifth week, I believe—when I could no longer bear to enter the room and was forced to resort instead to questions shouted through the crack under the door) began like this:


Before we get into what he had to say, please note: he spoke first. He ought not to have spoken first. I was the therapist after all. It was up to me to speak first, or better yet sustain a preliminary (long and unbroken) therapeutic silence. But, evidently, protocol, even that derived exclusively for his own long term benefit, was not among Harker’s concerns. He spoke first. He always spoke first.  I would stride into his fetid chamber—in white lab coat, nondescript (but sharply creased) trousers, black ward-walking shoes, clipboard under my arm, stethoscope around my neck (rarely used, but as an ornament, I believed, it had the intended effect)—cast over his pitiful form my cool, clinical but not entirely unsympathetic gaze (what sympathy there was, feigned, of course, in the interests of professionalism) clear my throat and part my lips in preparation to opening the session with a greeting precisely calibrated to optimize the therapeutic trajectory of all further discourse when Harker (the patient) would blurt out:

Harker: You parked in the third lot on the right side today, didn’t you? You took the space furthest from the berm and closest to the beach, I believe. Is that not so?

To which I was forced to reply, absently, in a daze actually, and already drifting across the room—

Doctor (me): Yess…s…s, thaaaatttsss…  riiiiiiiight…

toward Harker’s window, not the head-sized window Lucy and I used to look in on him but the other full-sized window that he used to look out on—I was drifting and dazed of course because he was absolutely right, I had parked exactly in the spot he named! I was amazed then, as they say, by his evident clairvoyance—absolutely nothing, or rather, a dark column of air. For this particular window was set in an interior wall and “looked out on” only the central ventilation shaft of the building, or rather the pillar of dark air within that shaft, illumined—and this I confirmed as I reached the window and, with two fingers of my right hand,  parted its superfluously thick, vinyl blackout curtains to peep out through the gap—only by what cloudy drips of radiance might dribble in through the milky surface of the sky light far, far above, and more to the point—as far as confirmation goes—it afforded no vantage from which the parking lot in question, or indeed any exterior location whatsoever, could be observed, prompting me to further voice my incredulity thus:

Doctor (me):  But…but… How could you?

To which, Harker responded with luminous complaisance:

Harker:  I heard you drive in, and then I counted your footsteps across the lot.

Bosh, of course! Utter nonsense! Harker was as completely insulated audially from any point at which I might have parked my car as he was visually. His chamber itself was  sound-proofed for one thing. (How could it be otherwise? We had lunatics practically living on top of each other in that ward—the Hopeless Ward, as it was known, truth be told, as it housed exclusively those “patients” for whom no positive prognosis could be formulated. And a good portion of these “patients” naturally (at least initially, and by that I mean, at least for the first several weeks, months (sometimes years) of their confinement—it’s the fresh ones I am speaking of here) were of the consistently noise emitting variety (chattering, screaming, ranting, sobbing, moaning etc…) Why, without near perfect sound proofing on each and every chamber, Pandemonium must ensue!) But even had that not been the case, the parking lot in question lay on the other side (across a diagonal) of the institution itself, which thereby interposed all its muffling bulk (exterior and interior walls, echoing courtyards and cul-de-sacs, not to mention the distracting noises of the infinitely various coming and goings of innumerable inmates and attendants alike) between that lot, my car, the sound of my footsteps, and Harker’s tiny sealed chamber. But even if that had not been the case (Erase the hospital building and all it contained! Erase it completely! Merely place Harker, hand cupped to ear, naked and exposed on a bit of sand where his chamber would have been!) there was still the sea, whose incessant crashing surf blanketed the coast with a low din much more than sufficient to smother the footsteps of multitudes!

He was lying of course! I did not believe him, and yet he somehow managed to open session after session (in spite of increasingly elaborate counter measures on my part) with this astonishing bit of parlor magic. For quite some time I found myself both mystified and confused. Of course I did figure it out eventually. He had a confederate. He had a co-conspirator among the custodial staff who had made it his business to ascertain where I had parked my car each morning (or whether I had taken the bus; or even hiked in) and then duly report this intelligence to Harker in some fashion, often with great alacrity, for it was not at all unusual, at that time, for me to proceed directly to my “session” with Harker the very moment I arrived at the building, before even stopping in my office to take off my coat and hat, and even in those instances somehow the information unfailingly reached Harker before I did.  But I see I have digressed.)

This morning then, in quest of the suit, and having avoided the front entrance, I proceeded from the service entrance through a long zig-zag of intersecting corridors until I reached a stairwell in the environs of Harker’s ward. I ascended to the second floor on which the aforementioned ward was located, and approaching the far end of  “his” hall (by that I mean only the hallway in which his chamber was located),  I removed my shoes so as to avoid waking him should he be asleep and padded down the hall toward his chamber door, before which I dropped silently into a crouch such that I could listen at the crack without exposing any part of my person to view from the inside through the head-sized window (set at about head height in the door.)

(You see they loved him. (I digress again.) I am speaking here of the custodial staff. They were crazy about him. I think it was because he was such a shameless gossip and busybody. No member of the custodial staff managed to pass through, or even by, his chamber without being both grilled and informed. They loved that. How much more entertaining was he than the other more tractable but less gregarious inmates (of the Hopeless Ward, no less!) What’s more, he directed most of his queries and gossip at yours truly—the staff’s much maligned boss and lightning rod of discontent! That was how he managed to gather all the bits and pieces of information about me that he needed to project the Ruse of Omniscience. (And it was truly amazing. That business with the parking space was only the beginning.) Where is the doctor now? he would ask, say, the room cleaner. What is the doctor doing today? Or even, How is the doctor? To which the staff good naturedly responded with sufficient information for him to build up an extraordinarily complete and detailed account of my comings and goings which he duly presented as the most tantalizing clairvoyance during our morning sessions. To make matters worse, the staff seemed to look upon Harker’s inordinate interest in me as a sign of affection, which–without, I assure you, any encouragement on my part–they assumed I reciprocated.  It wasn’t long (into the “promising” phase) before they began to refer to Harker (to me) as “your favorite patient” and to me (to Harker) as “your favorite doctor.”  This, of course, vexed me deeply. But back to this morning.)

I heard nothing.

This indicated to me that Harker was indeed still asleep (as I had hoped) or at least motionless on his cot perhaps feigning sleep (almost as good). Gripping the door knob firmly in one hand to steady myself, I rose oh so very slowly with the intention of taking one long and precautionary peep into the room through the head-sized window, hoping in this way to confirm the above supposition(s) with the oh-so-gratifying sight of Harker’s semi-supine and insensible form curled up against the wall, utterly motionless, on his cot in the corner, as was his wont. Unfortunately, to my horror, instead I confronted—perfectly framed in the glass, peering back at me with—I must confess—a nauseatingly mixed expression of imperfectly suppressed fear, lurid curiosity and intense disdain—my own face!

For several long moments I suffered a paroxysm of ghastly dislocation.

And that was it! That was his trick! How long had the scheme taken to geminate in his brain? How much careful and patient manipulation of the staff had gone into acquiring the necessary materials? And most of all, how long had he waited in perpetual readiness for me not only to appear but to approach in such a way that he could “spring it” on me, so to speak, with maximum effect? And there it was! All over in moments! He had without a doubt created a shock, but I soon recovered myself. Surprise turned quickly to indignation.

With some vehemence, if not violence, I shoved open the door with my shoulder (it opened inward), knocking Harker, who had been crouching against it on the other side, listening no doubt for the sounds of my distress, to the floor. I stepped commandingly into the room. Harker slid, rolled and scrambled to the far side of the chamber, where he adopted a posture positively canine in its servility, cringing on his knees by the foot of his cot, shielding his face from my disapproving gaze with one hand whilst, with the other, holding out to me—to brandish or surrender? I could not say—a shiny, silver framed rectangular mirror of the type and size as might have adorned a vacant corner on a lady’s otherwise crowded vanity. I think he was brandishing the mirror actually. There was no real submission in his posture. In the midst of that theatrical cringe, I could clearly make out, in the slight panting movements of his wasted and hairy sides (he wore no clothes as was his habit), the ragged palpitations of imperfectly suppressed laughter.

I ignored that.

“That’s quite enough for today, Mr. Harker,“ I said, stepping across the room and smartly relieving him of the mirror, as if, I might add, I had come to his room expressly for that purpose. ”Have you been trading favors with the chambermaid?” (A little joke. Of course, there were no chamber maids in the hospital and the cleaner assigned to Harker’s room was a particularly large and masculine member of the custodial staff.)

Harker did not respond but merely gibbered and spat unintelligibly.

“Glass is strictly forbidden as you well know,” I continued to admonish him but got no response. Or was that twitch about the waist the aborted beginning of a sarcastically elaborate (and elaborately sarcastic) curtsey? Could he have been thumbing his nose at me, figuratively speaking, even then?  No matter. I’d wasted enough time on him. I had better things to do. Indeed my entire morning in the hospital still awaited me.

And so, I got the trick but no clothes. I obtained no suit.

Instead I walked back along the hall empty-handed, put my shoes back on in front of the stairwell, returned to my car, crossed the parking lot once again (for the third time that morning) and re-entered the hospital through the main entrance as is customary. I offered hale good morning greetings to the staff, whom I encountered breakfasting (as was their habit) in the airy reception area, and made my way from there to the administrative floor where I took refuge in my “office” (not actually an office, as I may have mentioned but more of a rectangular space partitioned off in glass from the rest of the floor, made cozy (somewhat) by the artful placement of vertical blinds and potted plants around the perimeter.) Safely inside, I turned the blinds closed, settled myself behind my desk, withdrew Harker’s mirror from under my lab coat, and placed it carefully (that is to say, face down) inside the vacant drawer second from the bottom on the left side of my desk. It was not long after that that the intercom began to buzz, and, after I opened the circuit with a deft flip of the switch, my secretary’s voice (she is a totally unremarkable and yet unfailingly reliable person) emerged to report that Harker’s personal attendant, Lucy, had phoned a little while earlier to announce that from that moment forward she had decided to unilaterally terminate her employment at our institution and thus would never be seen again.

I put my face in my hands and wept.

James Lewelling’s first novel, This Guy, was published in 2005 by Spuyten Duyvil, his second, Tortoise, by Calamari Press in 2008. Over the years, his short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary venues ranging from The Cream City Review to The Stranger to The Evergreen Review to Fence. He has been writing fiction since 1988 while at the same time teaching and working abroad in Morocco (as a Peace Corps volunteer), Turkey and for the last ten years in the U.A.E. At present, he is writing fiction and taking care of his family as a stay at home dad in Abu Dhabi.