Sinclair

The dinosaur is depressed. He’s been lying on my couch for hours, stinking like a freshly laid road. Every few seconds he asks me in this voice like decayed science nerds if I think he’s a good guy.

“Of course,” I say. “You’re great.”

“Even after the cat?”

That makes me wince, each time. He crushed my cat, Mr. Whiskers, under his slimy tail. They say dinosaurs aren’t slimy, but he is. His tail is. Like old lunchmeat.

“He was old,” I say. That just sets him off again.

***

The dinosaur is my cousin’s husband. I met him one time at a cookout or something, and he followed me around half the day, laughing at everything I said, even though I wasn’t telling any jokes.

“We should be buddies,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s something you have to plan out,” I said. “It just happens.” He laughed, so I added, “We’re grownups, aren’t we? Grownups don’t have buddies.” He thought that was the height of humor. I got up from my seat to get a drink, and when I came back, my plate was gone. He smiled, and there were bits of paper in his teeth. I just sat down and didn’t say a word.

***

He showed up on my couch a couple weeks later. My cousin dumped him for a mammal.

“Plenty of fish,” I say. That makes him hungry, and his saliva stains the carpet a dark green which doesn’t go with the décor one bit. “Got to walk it off,” I say.

“That’s impossible,” he says, “when your legs fossilized and got burned in some math teacher’s Prius.”

“But you have legs.” I point.

“Yeah,” he grumbles, “but you get what I’m saying.” He inhales on his cigarettes and drops ashes all over my carpet. “Buddy,” he says, “you don’t know how it was. Fast cars. Women like you wouldn’t believe. Those were the days.” He’s talking about his days in the racing circuit, before he met my cousin.

“You should go back,” I say.

He laughs. “An old lizard like me?” He laughs again and flicks his tail at a lamp which shatters, spreading glass and debris on the floor.

***

I don’t want to kill him. I just want him to not be on my couch anymore, which I’m sure I’ll have to totally replace. I’ve never been a bad person, before; I’ve never had the opportunity. He tells me about his family, long since buried under ash.

“Do you miss them?” I ask as the image stirs something in my mind.

“No. They were bastards.”

“Well, at least they’re gone,” I say but that sets him off crying again.

I tell him I’m going to work, but really I go to my cousin’s house. I hear the moaning from down the street, the steady bovine whoo-haa. I’m not sure if she’s having sex or giving birth, but when I knock on the door, she answers, out of breath, her udders hanging free.

“Take him back,” I say.

“He smells.”

“I know. Take him back.”

Her eyes go red and she lowers her head.

“I thought cows didn’t have horns,” I say and stand my ground. She starts crying and invites me in, and I discover that she’s alone; she was just exercising. We chat for what seems like hours on her couch. I tell her about the ash-covered parents, the racing days.

“He never opened up to me,” she says. “He was all stone-hearted and masculine.”

“But isn’t that what you loved about him? Who wants some whiny guy always talking about his feelings?”

She shakes her head. I stab her in the throat with a tranquilizer. It takes a long time to drag her out to my car, and I can’t fit all of her legs in my trunk. She starts to wake up so I dose her again, even though the guy at the feed store said that might be dangerous. But what does he know about what my couch is going through?

***

The dinosaur is sleeping on the couch, stinking of old glue when I  get home. I push my cousin inside and wait for her to wake up. They’re awkward, at first. Whenever things get too heated, I shoot them both with tranquilizers (I bought six cases) and when they wake up, they’re so groggy they’ve forgotten what they were arguing about. After several hours, their memories are so shot from the side effects, that they can’t remember anything but the good times (every so often, I go in and remind them about the good times. I make most of them up, because, frankly, they were a very boring couple). Finally, they fall in love again. I buy them a one-way ticket to Madagascar. They leave. The cleaning crew is already waiting. The movers are right behind them with a new couch.

***

Sometimes, my cousin and the dinosaur send me postcards, usually asking for money so they can come home. That’s never going to happen. They’re happy, in Madagascar. I’m happy. On my couch.

————————

CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online here. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at here. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011, and he’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.

Oasis

A bioengineer, shortly after a stunning breakthrough, despaired. A dozen test subjects, following several rounds of unprecedented gene therapy, no longer ne­eded to urinate or defecate, having digestive tracts that now operated at 100% efficiency. But rather than celebrate this simplification, or enjoy the precious minutes it saved, his patients grew cagey and irritable. The scientist, studying their tired faces, assumed they were in a fleeting state of evolutionary shock, and was mystified as their symptoms worsened. Not till he broke down and brought in a stuffy old psychoanalyst was it learned that for many individuals, a rare and necessary isolation is found on the toilet.

————————

Miles Klee is the author of IVYLAND (OR Books 2012). He writes for Vanity Fair, The Awl and others.

Here’s One Way To Stay Cool And Well-Read Simultaneously — Paul Kavanagh’s Iceberg

Paul Kavanagh’s latest novella, Iceberg, has been available to the reading public for a while now. I’ve been reading it much longer than some would argue is needed for a book that clocks in at just under 120 pages. Disregard that. There’s a lot to soak up here. But before saying anything more of its written content, I want to briefly praise the illustrator for some really spectacular work. Alex Chilvers smartly complements this truly enjoyable read with some accompanying images well placed amid the novella’s transitions. Kudos, too, to Honest Publishing for putting this whole thing together in one neat, nice package.

I want stories that keep me planted unsoundly both in and out of reality, which is why I’m so glad for the existence of Iceberg. Kavanagh, in the highest compliment I can give to anyone who’s ever succeeded at publishing a story, has both a voice all his own and an original take on things. So in what manner does this then play out in Iceberg? Primarily in how the world Kavanagh’s created is just a little bit off, like a framed portrait that’s nailed to a wall and which at first seems to be crooked but then you realize it’s the picture itself that’s crooked. The frame is perfectly level. And maybe you begrudge that person for seeing things in a way you didn’t and thinking it a good idea to tilt the camera slightly, purposefully when they took said picture. But then you realize how much you like what they’ve done; you like its look and feel. They’ve done something you hadn’t thought of, and they’ve done it very well.

(Briefly, since I can’t recall what order I may reveal potential spoilers, consider this review rife with them and consider yourself spoiler alerted.)

Meet Don and Phoebe, two plebeians in a world seem cut from parts  A Clockwork Orange and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a dash of 1984 just to make their plight extra hopeless. They live in fear of their cruel landlord, who imposes himself on them and forces them to buy cable at an ala carte (which is to say exorbitant) rate. TV specializes in programming “that delighed in showing the nadirs society had to offer.” It’s a nightmare world in which they’re forced to run from roaming street gangs of violent youths. So little, if anything, truly belongs to them — similar to the world inhabited by the the Proles of 1984. Everything is in disrepair, or as Kavanagh keenly describes, “violence and thievery were as common as dog excrement on the uneven pavements.”

An even earlier paragraph really sets a ton for the wasteland that follows:

The lived in a grim Northern town.

It had been shaped by the wind and the rain, by the screams, the cries, the punches and the kicks, the shattered glass that covered the roads, the vandalized shutters, the bars on shop windows and pubs, the flashing lights and sirens, the fear, the paranoia, the hatred, the abuse, the abandonment, the mildew, the mold, the moss, the smell of verdigris that soiled, by the nodes of wasteland that housed the homeless, by the failures and the diseased, by the imprisoned and the unemployed.

There is nothing for the people of this Northern town. Nothing to hope for. Any sliver of a dream is met with immediate resistance from any of a dozen or quadrillion forces. It’s as if the collective consciousness has decided there can be no good in the world, then proceeded to let that world take shape. And despite this, good finds a way to happen. Happiness finds a way to be achieved. Or at least that was my own takeaway.

Phoebe says, “We live in a world where anything can happen.”

And this singular line might encapsulate the entire spirit of Kavanagh’s story, ironical as it seems at the time of its delivery. Despite the obstacles, amazing things can happen. His protagonists can go on an adventure very similar to the one of James in his giant peach. They can make their own luck, as is the case with “winning” the lottery. So leads to inheritance of a giant iceberg all their own.

The truth is they didn’t actually win anything, not by the standards of anyone handing it out to them. It’s quite the opposite, we see, at the end of part 1. Another of the many fraudulent internet scams preying on people who are as desperate as Phoebe and Don.

The powers that be don’t give things away. Or so it would seem is Kavanagh’s estimation. But that doesn’t mean you too can’t have them. And it doesn’t equate to stealing. There are peaceful means to your own ends, too. In Iceberg, they get their start with a long and fateful journey. That Phoebe was scammed becomes tangential, an afterthought. Important as a way of understanding that the lottery is less a part of their mission than what they actually find. The happines there to be found.

To me, Iceberg is one of the truly perceptive stories of our present times. Kavanagh identifies the spectacular incongruities found in the so-called free world. Yes, good things are to be had, but so many forces in society seem dead set against your obtaining them. So much so, that a little delusion seems to be a good thing. Believing you’ve won something, anything, can be a great blessing. And going out to retrieve said prize is the true place in which redemption can be found.

Ignore the naysayers. To cherry-pick an apt line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.” The distinction between today and Thoreau’s day, the one Kavanagh seems to be hitting on, is that it is no longer simply the old guard that tells you what there is to be achieved and the way in which you must go about achieving. It is any number of other embodiments, institutions, the negative purveyors of culture we’re often unwittingly exposed to via, for one example, the nightly news. Why is it that if it bleeds it therefore must lead? Are we really so debauched? So fascinated by the macabre? Or is it, at least partly, that people crave seeing others with problems far worse than their own, as a mode of assurance that things a.) REALLY are that bad and b.) that of course others are the ones with the real problems, and my lot while bad doesn’t even compare to how much worse it COULD be.

We should be thankful. Really. And contented.

But maybe not. Maybe we can rightfully aspire to more, without infringing on others’ right to do the same. And maybe that would improve society as a whole.

My favorite part of the novel is the final segment. There’s a moment where the issue is abstractly in doubt. Death becomes the the term around which the narrative gravitates. And then, suddenly, the iceberg becomes real. It’s lambent. It’s tactile. It’s a place where they can have what they’ve always wanted. Antithetical as an iceberg might seem to the notion of abundance, at least at first blush, we find it’s capable of providing everything the couple needs. As one previous companion of theirs had noted “…the sea like a loving wife will produce babies lots and lots of beautiful babies.” “The sea always provides.” But it isn’t just the sea that provides, unless of course you deem the iceberg itself to be a provision of the sea. Soon they’ve carved out a fantastical dwelling, and a garden grows on their iceberg.

The iceberg, meanwhile, is not stationary, and Don and Phoebe are sent along on a new adventure.

I would say happy ever afterly, but in that deeply human way anyone should be allowed to hope for and aspire to.

The Boy With No Face

They lived on an island in the only house there. Everyone told them, Don’t move to that island. But they moved there anyway.

This is why everyone warned them away from the island: The Boy With No Face.

Sooner or later, everybody who moves to the island sees him there, they said. Sometimes he’s crouched down in the bramble, picking at something underneath it. Sometimes he’s by the craggly rocks near the edge of the cliff. Sometimes he’s just off the path that goes from the house to the beach, standing behind one of the pine trees.

The point is you’ll see him, they said. And when you do, you’ll start screaming and running back to the house and you’ll lock the door and you’ll pick up the phone and there won’t be any dial tone. And then you’ll start looking around, the phone still clutched in your hand, panting, and you’ll start seeing his faceless face in all of the mirrors of the house. Then all of the windows will fly open like God Himself commanded a hurricane to attack all sides of your house at once. And then the old upright piano that came with the house will start playing by itself. Atonally.

The dishes will come crashing down from the cabinets onto the kitchen floor. An old tricycle that you didn’t even know was in the attic from 90-something years ago will fly down the stairs and then will circle around the Oriental rug in the living room, pedaling by itself. You’ll just barely get the whole family together, screaming for them like a maniac, and then you’ll push your way out the front door against the winds blowing in all directions. And the ancient weathervane from the top gable will hurl down so close to the youngest one that you’ll stop believing in a God or a world with anything good in it at all.

You’ll get down to the dock and watch the planks being torn up from the North-Sou’-East-wester that has come up out of nowhere. You’ll jump into the dinghy that’s violently sloshing in a Biblical sea, because even being at the bottom of that sea would be a better fate than just one more minute on this cursed island.

You’ll look back at the island and see The Boy With No Face, his hands on his hips, watching you from the rocks at the edge of the beach. You’ll see that he’s laughing—not with the mouth that he doesn’t have but with his shoulders, which are shaking in that telltale way, a mocking laughter.

You’ll notice that he’s wearing the same clothes as your youngest, the one who was nearly impaled with the weathervane, the one now crouched at the bottom of the dinghy, his body wracked with sobs bigger than the swells of the sea, his forehead pressed hard to the bottom of the boat.

Your hand will go to his shoulder, to console him. And then he’ll turn his head to look at you.

That’s right. No face.

Ha, they said, the new island people. That’s a good one. And then they moved to the island anyway.

 ***

We’re really lucky, you know that? she said to him on the dinghy ride over, that first day.

Why is that? he asked. The youngest one was sitting on his lap as he nudged the outboard motor in the direction of the island.

This house was sooo cheap, she smiled, almost cooing as she said it.

And it comes with an old piano, he added brightly, so this little guy can finally practice.

He mussed the youngest’s hair, which was long and already tangled with the wind. He smiled down at him, and the boy might have smiled back, but the sun came through a dark cloud and emblazoned the sea with sudden light. For an instant, all of the detail was wiped from their vision, and the boy’s face appeared as blank as a sail.

They looked at each other and laughed as the dinghy nosed up to the dock of their new island home. They noticed it was missing a few planks, and they resolved to fix that soon.

————————

Michael Depp’s writing has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and in Poets & Writers, The Chronicle of Higher Education, McSweeney’s, Reuters and other places. He is the editor of NetNewsCheck, which covers the world of digital media, and he is working on a children’s book about the underpark, a place that will frighten even the strongest-hearted.

CCLaP’s The New York Stories: Kick Assedly Illustrated by Laura Szumowski

The Chicago Center for Literature & Photography (CCLaP) has been making the rounds of these internets for a good while recently and will continue to do so for a good while yet. Why? To sound the trumpet for their wonderfully conceived The New York Stories, a compendium of two previously published ebooks by longtime friend of Untoward, Ben Tanzer.

But forget all that.

I mean, sure, as I say we love Ben. But there’s also the pictures! The pictures are something we here at Untoward love. We enjoy looking at things. And Ben’s not responsible for those. Laura Szumowski is!

The cover is made of faux-suede and bound with external Coptic stitching. That’s right, COPTIC. But most important of all is the pictures, one of which, as you can see, graces the front cover.

Here, see it up much closer:

No! We can do even bigger than that! Bigger and more seeable here:

There. Now you can really SEE. This is upper New York state, much the same as the one that author Ben Tanzer grew up in. Or so I’m told. It’s also as rendered through the eyes Laura Szumowski, a native Chicagoan, who’s maybe never seen even pictures of New York! Or something similar to Kafka’s situation in relation to Amerika, a country he’d never in his lifetime visit. Except, of course, Kafka had no Ben Tanzer, and he stopped writing Amerika, an unfinished novel, some twelve years before he died. It’s entirely possible Szumowski has been to upper New York, certainly at the least seen pictures.  But that becomes a pretty considerable digression, so perhaps we’ll just move on.

Unless you wanted to keep talking about Kafka…no, no of course not.

OK.

Here’s a few members of the cast of one of the stories:

If you’re a betting person I’d go with a young Ben Tanzer being the one on the far left there. Even if it’s a known fact Tanzer is a diehard Deadhead and less interested in the psychedelic stylings of  Pink Floyd.

Though we could speculate all day about who in the above illustration is intended to be based on a young Ben Tanzer. I like to think they all are, in some way, a young Ben Tanzer. And do you know who allowed me to think these things? Laura Szumowski! So don’t fight it, speculate away. And there are almost certainly many other things to appreciate about this fantastic collaboration between two of Chicago’s best people, especially in terms of what they do really spectacularly well.

Go, go now!

I Bought Twelve Pairs of Socks at a Swap Meet in Tucson

They were great socks too! The white, low-cut kind. Sporty. Cotton. First Quality. Made inPakistan. And cheap! My Lord, you’d say I stole them! But that happens later in the story. Let me tell you about Seth and me.

We rented a car, a Dodge Stratus, to drive fromPhoenixtoTucson. I was thinking about all the Mexican food I was going to eat, and the fast food places I would dine at that we didn’t have back home – Whataburger, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr. – when Seth hit a coyote. Going 75 mph on I-10 at 11:30 at night, Seth hits a coyote in the ass with the rental car.

“Holy shit!” Seth said, pulling over immediately. “Did you see that?”

“No,” I said. “Missed it. Why are you pulling over?”

“We just hit a dog, Derek.”

“No, you hit a coyote. What are you gonna do, exchange information?”

“I can’t just go.”

“Dude, people hit coyotes out here like we do squirrels and skunks. It’s not a big deal.”

“They do?”

“Yes. You’ve seen the Road Runner cartoons. That damn Wile E. got off light. It’s Death Race 2000 for coyotes on this highway.”

“Well, we should see if the car is damaged.”

“It’s a rental. We bought insurance. I told it would come in handy.”

“So, you want me to just continue on?”

“Yes!”

“Fine,” Seth said, pulling back onto the highway. He kept going on and on about the coyote. We didn’t have time for this nonsense. We had a job to do: fly into Phoenix, drive to Tucson, kill a dominatrix, drive back to Phoenix, and fly home.

Why kill a dominatrix?

We never ask those questions.

It was mid-October. We usually only did jobs inArizonain the winter when the weather is normal and the rattlesnakes are hibernating. I say “usually.” There was no usually about it. This was only Seth’s second time in AZ. Seth was a Nervous Nancy about Arizona, whatever the season. He feared everything about it: the heat, snakes, fires, cactus, killer bees. The first time we were here he swore to me that he saw an owl snatch a little puppy dog right from someone’s backyard. But here we were in October heading to Tucson with coyote remnants on our foot bumper.

We knew a few things about this dominatrix: her name was Megan, she was a student at the University, and she had really pissed someone off. We had a picture, her address, and the location of a swap meet she sold trinkets at every other weekend. She had a real pretty face. You couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to have her whacked.

When we got into Tucson we found a spot where we could sleep in the car for the rest of the night. I woke up at six to discover that Seth likes to sleep in the nude.

“Hey,” I said, nudging him slightly. “Wake up, you freak.”

He stirred a little, but didn’t wake up. So I slapped him hard across the face.

“Ow!” he shouted. “What the hell!”

“Dude,” I said. “You’re naked.”

“That’s how I sleep.”

“Nice,” I said. “Good to know. Our current situation might have called for an adjustment to this nightmare-inducing habit, don’t you think?”

“Whatever, man,” Seth said. He then stepped out of the car, stretching naked in  the Arizona morning air. He had a real good stretch, scratched himself a little, and was mauled by three coyotes. I could do nothing but sit in the safety of the Stratus and watch in stunned silence. They ravaged him and then came after me, but I started the car and got the hell out of there.

I regrouped at a Jack in the Box, consuming two breakfast sandwiches and an absurd amount of coffee. Seth always feared some creature in the desert would get him, be it a rattler, a javelina, or a coyote. I chalked it up to revenge for their slain brother on I-10 and journeyed to the swap meet by myself to complete our mission.

There’s nothing like countless Mexicans selling everything from stereo equipment to guns to bottles of shampoo, all of which may or may not be stolen. Several booths were selling Lucha Libre masks, the kind Mexican professional wrestlers wear, cheap. I bought one and walked around incognito, looking like my childhood hero Mil Mascaras. Children pointed at me like I was a famous Luchador.

This is when I bought those amazing socks. I needed them. They cheered me up after the Seth-coyote unpleasantness. So I was carrying a bag of socks and wearing a real dandy mask when I spotted Megan. She and some other guy were selling books. A lot of them were stories about murderers and World War II. There were several books about Hitler. I started to wonder if this Megan was a Nazi. Oh, I would enjoy killing this one.

“Excuse me,” I said upon approaching the both. “How much are you asking for these Hitler books?”

“Fifty cents each,” Megan said.

“Ooh, splendid,” I replied. “So you’re a fan of the Fuhrer, are you?”

“No,” she said. “What are you, stupid? My husband is a World War II buff. That’s all.”

“I see.” Call me stupid, will she? “Holy shit, look at that.”

And that’s when a Tyrannosaurus Rex appeared somehow instantly from the desert and trampled Megan’s entire booth, killing her and her husband instantly. I ran like hell and caught my plane back home. Mission accomplished.

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Michael Frissore is the author of two poetry chapbooks, including “Long Blue Boomerang” (Heavy Hands Ink Press, 2011). Currently, he is looking for a publisher for “Puppet Shows,” his hilarious collection of short stories, and penning a novel about professional wrestling.