summer 2013

I borrowed a plastic bowl 
In college. Pinkish-red. 

I learned that water doesn’t  
Clean things all the way. 

I’d wash the bowl out after use .
And baby it was still slick, the  

Water filled the bowl 
With spider’s eyes. 

Jeremy Flynn

I had never seen anything like it before, it felt as though the Ringling Bros. had invaded the atrium. My boss Miles had tipped me off to the event, and even though I wasn’t due to be in at work until 2 p.m., I trekked in early with my coffee to see if this would live up to the hype.

Miles had voice mailed us producers about this new promotional campaign that Marketing VP Johnny Wake was kicking off on Friday at noon. We all loved Johnny Wake. I remember chatting with Buke one time about Johnny’s antics.

Buke said to me, “Dottie, that Johnny Wake is crazy.”

I replied, “Yeah, but you know what? He is a good kind of crazy.”

Buke just nodded and laughed at the truth of it. Some VPs at the United Shopping Network were evil, and others were dopes. They couldn’t draw up a business plan to sell their way out of a paper bag. Sorry, I digress.

Anyway, in this voice mail on Wednesday, Miles explained the whole God Bless America hoopla, and how Johnny Wake wanted to “kick it up a notch” with our on-air presentations. Miles asked a rhetorical question, “How do we represent America during the live show?”

Well, to me it felt like we were trying to be Eagle Scout wannabes, sucking up to big government, but whatever. As I deleted the voice mail, it struck me that we were launching an all-American product on Friday night at 6 p.m.. Coney Island Hot Dogs. That’s pretty damn American, am I right? So I voice mailed Miles back with one of my hair-brained ideas, and of course he ate it up.

This is how I found myself standing in the atrium on Friday morning, waiting for the hoopla to begin. Office workers had emerged from their cloistered cubicles and stood in small clusters. The atrium at our world headquarters was shaped like a giant egg, with a skywalk splicing across the second level. Two barbershop chairs had been set up by the wall, and an American flag had been draped over the skywalk. As folks streamed in from the four corners of the building, the atrium filled and anticipation grew. A sets and props guy checked the rope pull, which led up to a black billowing curtain. The sun streamed in from the skylights as if God himself was watching over our efforts.

Precisely at 11:55 a.m., we heard a rumble from the cafeteria hallway that grew persistently intense, until four denim and leather clad goateed bikers riding Harley Davidson motorcycles emerged slowly. An American flag wavered on the back of each bike. A shout of cheers erupted, and the bikers responded by revving their engines.

Just as they cut their engines, Johnny Wake appeared at the microphone, which stood at the base of the stairs. The crowd swiveled from the bikers to our illustrious Marketing VP and roared with delight. Johnny wore a pure white leather Evel Knievel style jumpsuit, complete with red and blue stars down his sleeves and pants legs. Aviator sun glasses sat perched on his face, his grin so broad that we were all instantly captivated. Johnny raised his arms in the air as if trying to calm the thunderous hooting crowd, and then he slowly took his glasses off and leaned towards the mic.

“Today, we are launching a new campaign. We are the United Shopping Network. We are the only shopping network wholly owned by Americans, so when the President of our United States spoke about the need to reignite the economy, we listened closely. When the President explained that it is America’s duty to shop, we realized the United Shopping Network needed to show our stripes. Our stars and stripes that is.” Johnny held out his arms again and admired his own suit. The crowd laughed and applauded. “Now I know what some of you are saying, we don’t want to get all political about this, and I hear you. I hear you. But no matter what party we are in – Republican, Democrat, Green Party, or…” Johnny smiled down at the bikers, “even anarchists, we all know we need to do our part to bring this great country out of this rut. Are you ready to do it?”

The crowd cheered loudly. During my occasional trips to cubicle land, I often wondered if the office staff had their water laced with Ambien, but on this day, they had exploded with patriotic fervor. Everyone had smiles, laughs, giggles. Someone in the crowd began chanting, USA! USA! USA!

Watching this, the whole absurdity of it, I couldn’t help but laugh, and that appeared to be the consensus. Johnny raised his arms again to calm the crowd. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more captivating, Johnny asked everyone to hush, and as the atrium quieted, he continued.

“Okay now, so let’s kick this party off with one very special guest – a true American hero. A man who is the living embodiment of our country’s resiliency and a man with a big heart. Ladies and gentleman, let’s hear it for Mr. T!”

And in he strolled, the Mr. T, looking smaller than expected, but dripping in more gold than we had featured in the 4-hour hour Gold Rush Special. The legend’s mohawk glistened as he passed through the sun’s rays and hopped up on-stage. He hugged Johnny as if they were long lost brothers. Mr. T raised Johnny’s hand in the air, and together they struck a championship pose. Two photographers stepped in and snapped a stream of photos, and then Mr. T stepped to the mic.

“Hello great Americans! I don’t have a speech prepared, except you should all be watching the one o’clock show, because I have some great hair clippers for sale. Pity the fool who passes up this great bargain!” He ran his fingers along his mohawk. The crowd chuckled. “I just want you all to get behind this campaign. America needs you. I just want to say that all of you,” and he raised his hands and pointed both index fingers all around the atrium as the place grew silent, “all of you are the real A-team!”

The whole space swelled with laughter and applause. Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” echoed throughout the arena. After a few moments, the noise abated and Mr. T humbly concluded, “God Bless America,” and stepped back, making a motion for the hero in white to take the mic again.

Johnny smiled as he looked over the crowd. “If I could ask you to turn your attention to the monitor above.” Heads tilted up. “Ladies and gentlemen, here is the new United Shopping Network logo.” The screen went white, and a few squiggly blue and red lines inched across and formed a United States flag. After a moment, two strings sprouted out to form handles, transforming the flag into a pocketbook. Underneath, a phrase faded on screen, United We Shop.

Immediately, Johnny Wake called out, “Drop the tarp!”

Heads swiveled again as the black drape fell. The new logo hung from the rafters like a basketball team championship banner.

“We are the United Shopping Network, and starting today, on the air and behind the scenes, we are showing our pride. Wait until you see some of the things we have planned, like in tonight’s 6 p.m. show. Is Dottie here?”

A warm rush ran through my chest when he called my name, and I meekly raised my hand. Fingers pointed my way. Voices shouted, “here she is.”

Johnny finally spotted me, grinned and pointed, acknowledging he was putting me on the spot. “Dottie is one of our coordinating producers and she has some plans for tonight’s 6 p.m. show. If you are near a TV, you want to check it out, it is sure to be an All-American moment!”

Everyone stared at me and started applauding. It was kind of embarrassing, but thank God Johnny diverted them quickly. “Warren, step up here. Show us your guns.”

A manager stepped up to the mic and rolled up the sleeve of his polo shirt. “If you look closely at Warren’s arm here, you might have seen he has been inked. He is wearing our new logo proudly.” Johnny pointed over towards the two barbershop chairs. “We have tattooing stations over there so you can get inked yourself. So step up and secure your own United We Shop tattoos!”

A murmur of confusion shot through the crowd. For a brief second, Johnny look dismayed, but then his lips parted.

“Don’t worry, everyone,” he announced. “These are Cracker Jack style tattoos. We’re not asking you to get permanently branded. Though if you would like a permanent tattoo, if you are that committed, come see me. And, that’s not all! We have free t-shirts for you, and you, and you!” Models emerged from the four hallways and strutted through the crowd, taking the stage next to the daredevil VP. It was all too much.

After watching this spectacle, I have to admit I was a bit stunned. I’d never seen so many employees of the company laugh so much, enjoying the moment. I felt quite privileged to be working at this place, at this specific time. When I checked voice mail, Johnny had even left me a quick message. “Miles told me your plan. There’s nothing that represents America like little leaguers eating hot dogs. Excellent idea, Dottie. Good luck!”

Having a few extra hours before my shift turned out to be a blessing, since my production plans for the Coney Island Hot Dogs were not quite finalized, and I had six other shows to prepare for. Back in the kitchen, our chef assured me he had more than enough frankfurters, buns and mustard, and that the grill on the patio had been cleaned, tested, and confirmed to be in operational order.

The food buyer, a surly, overbearing, dimwitted nobbin I’ll only refer to as G, was a bit of a nag during food shows. Hired only three months ago, G’s previous job as the buyer for a chain of auto goods retailers throughout Arkansas had not trained him well for the lightning speed of our digital business. G continually marveled at our sales tools, scratching his head at this feedback loop we had established with customers. This was a man who had to wait for quarterly reports to learn that five mufflers sold in Birdsong and seven brake pads sold in Pine Grove, now he watched sales of the Sirloin and Crab Cake combo click upwards at clips of 200 boxes a minute. Our technology, our pace, and our direct connection with the customer, overwhelmed G like an Amish man dropped in Times Square on New Year’s eve.

At precisely 5:30, our esteemed guests arrived. The ten-year old boys poured out of mini-vans and giant SUVs, looking resplendent in their red and white baseball uniforms with the logo of their sponsor, American Trust Co., emblazoned in blue on their chests. I rounded the young ballplayers up and lined them along the wall. My son Zach was tickled at the commotion. As a kid who only played the mandated minimum three innings each game–stuck in right field and only getting one at bat–this night gave him a type of street cred among his peers.

Standing next to my Zach was Sammy, a kid with an all-American smile who was nearly as wide as he was tall, providing the requisite girth to stop any pitch, a backstop more than a catcher, though this kid possessed an eagle’s eye and such muscle that he continually stroked the ball like a bull. Alongside Sammy, Mitchell looked like he needed a sandwich, a lanky kid with bright red hair and freckles, who hurled pitches three quarter arm, and continually chewed wads of bubble gum, blowing out pink bubbles until they burst across his face. The boys watched the production scene intently for about ten seconds, before their behavior degenerated into fart noises and tapping the ear of the player next to them. I left them in the capable hands of our floor manager and ran inside to check in at the producer’s desk and escort the official spokesman for Coney Island Hot Dogs out to the set.

Stan the Man Russell had played in the major leagues for fourteen years, mostly with the New York Yankees during their dry spell in the later sixties, before being bumped around the league for the final five lackluster years of his career. He had played ball in the era before free agency, before the big money, so he and his peers were left to squeeze a living out of their semi-celebrity status–signing autographs at card shows and pitching local car dealerships and law firms during late night commercials which aired during re-runs of B movies.

I happened to be at the producer’s desk when Stan hobbled in on arthritic knees with the jumpy food buyer known as G. Stan had a white mop of hair and a red bubbling nose from which protruded a few flecks of white hair that were overdue for a snip with a razor. The old-timer had just autographed a baseball and handed it back to Dylan, who thanked him. Stan studied my face as he shook my hand with a strong grip, and he held it just long enough to give me a lingering case of the heebie jeebies. When he asked, “do you serve beer in the green room?” I smelled bourbon on his breath.

“No Stan, we don’t.”

Stan twisted around and asked nobody in particular, “So who decides how much airtime I get?”

Dylan replied, “That would be me.”

“Do you have anything else you want me to sign?”

It was my job to march Stan into place on the outdoor set. The chef stood over the grill, tending to his craft, the smell of hot dogs wafted through the air.

Through headsets, I overheard Dylan chatting with G, who nervously noted that only a few dozen boxes of the hot dogs had sold from the promotion.

As the presentation began, our host Henry held up the package of forty hot dogs. “These will last you the entire summer,” he said admiringly. “Just think, you will always have some in the freezer ready for your grill when you get home from the pool. Just pop ‘em on the grill and dinner is ready ten minutes later. You can also get this 40-pack on auto-renewal, meaning 40 hot dogs are shipped to your house every month. Mmmmmm…..”

A voice from the control room asked, “who the hell eats forty hot dogs a month?”

Oblivious to the comments, Henry continued. “Now we are so fortunate to have the American Trust Co. baseball team here to show you how awesome these hot dogs are.” He turned to the team, the kids all lined up in their adorable uniforms. The boys looked as happy as if they were on the first base line at Shea Stadium, except Mitchell flipped Sammy’s hat off and Sammy responded by thwacking Mitchell in the crotch. Zach giggled and covered his mouth. Mitchell buckled over laughing, all on live television.

“The kids are up to their antics already, I think these boys are hungry. Boys, are you hungry?”

A shout of cheers emanated from behind and one kid threw his cap in the air, followed by two more.

“Okay,” Henry laughed. “As we serve up some hot dogs, let me introduce you to the legendary baseball player who once wore the Yankee pinstripes. He’s known as the Man with the plan, Stan Russell. Stan, as a ball player who spent his 14-year career in stadiums across this great land of ours, is there anything that complements baseball like a good Cony Island hot dog?”

“No, there isn’t Henry.” Stan the Man looked into the wrong camera and held up a hot dog. I had to point the drunkard to the right camera, you know, the one with the big frickin’ red light on it. Stan shuffled his feet as though he was in the batter’s box. “I’ve eaten hot dogs in every stadium from Boston to San Diego, and I have to tell you that Coney Island hot dogs are the best of the bunch.”

Dylan cracked into headsets, “Stan looks as though he has downed a few dogs since retiring, eh?”

“Yeah, and a few bottles of Bud too.”

After a few moments of listening to Stan drone on, Dylan sighed, “let’s tag him often when he is up. Nobody remembers this old-timer. We need to show the kids anyway. Are you ready with the kids?”

Each boy now nervously held a hot dog with both hands, waiting for their cue. I clicked my box on. “Kids are armed and ready.”

As Henry and Stan discussed the misconception that hot dogs are fattening, the cameraman slowly worked his way down the row of ball players, briefly stopping to watch each freckle face take a bite. Each kid closed their eyes after their bite, as if in some type of pork induced ecstasy. The melodrama was a bit much, but they were so damned cute I let it go. Stepping carefully behind the cameraman, I held my fingers up to my cheeks, miming a reminder for each kid to smile, and to just take one bite.

Through headsets, Dylan exclaimed customers were responding. “They’re eating this up,” he quipped. The sales screen jumped. These adorable faces were driving the presentation, causing a tremendous spike in sales. Apparently, America loves little leaguers chowing down.

“That was great. Dottie, let us know when you are ready for round two,” Dylan called out. “I think the less we see of Stan the better.”

When I stepped in to reload, half the kids had already eaten their whole hot dog and were now restless. I motioned to the chef who lovingly prodded another round onto fresh rolls and drizzled mustard on each one. I tapped our production assistant, Jake, on the shoulder.

“What’s up?”

“I have to chat with Dylan. Give the kids another round, but don’t let them eat unless they are on camera.”

Jake nodded. “No problem.” The chef handed him a full plate.

Inside at the producer’s desk, G had just approached Dylan and bent over the desk. I knew this must be riling Dylan, so I stopped over to run interference.

“How’s it looking?”

G stared intently at the monitor as the camera showed the kids gorging on another round of hot dogs. The sales had spiked and hundreds of customers were waiting to chat with a live operator.

“They are loving the kids, aren’t they?” G stated with the joy of a child who has just found cash in his birthday card.

“They seem to be.” The truth is, there were more orders coming in than the operators could handle. Customers were starting to experience a wait, and Dylan had to give folks time to place their orders. “We’ll ride the queue here, I don’t want folks waiting too long.”

“Can we just keep the camera on the kids the whole show?” G asked.

“Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered,” Dylan replied.

“Dude, we’ve slaughtered everything on the farm for this inventory. Stuff it down their throats. Let’s pack the till, baby!”

Dylan looked up at the buyer with dismay. G was sweating and his hand kept tapping the desktop, like an addict just about to score. Dylan’s stare finally sunk in and G realized he had outworn his welcome. He patted Dylan on the back and hightailed it back to the green room.

When Dylan was on his game, nobody surfed the queue like he did. He was like a baseball pitcher in the middle of a shutout or a cello player performing a solo at Radio City Music Hall. He showed the kids and the calls spiked, he’d return to Stan and give the operators time to catch up, before returning to the kids. At one point, Dylan stood, twisted around and peered out over the operators. For a second, I thought he might take a bow. All heads were down though, intently taking orders. As he worked through the inventory, Dylan threw up a quantity counter, 1807 orders taken. He wanted to go for the sell out, and I could see he was going to be close.

“I’m heading back out there,” I told him.

Halfway down the hall towards the outdoor set, I heard Dylan say, “I want another pass at the kids.”

“Dylan. I don’t know about this.”

“I’m gonna try. Come on Dottie, one more pass. We’re going to sell enough hot dogs tonight to feed a poor third world country.”

Out on the set, the kids ate their hot dogs more slowly. A few faces seemed pained. As the camera passed down the row, Zach cringed and held his stomach. The camera passed to Sammy, who had proven to be a beast. “If anyone can pack it in, this kid can,” A voice from the control room declared.

Henry smiled, turned and asked Sammy, “How many hot dogs is that for you, son?”

Sammy stuffed the final few inches of a hot dog into his pie hole with his right hand, and he wasn’t stopping to audibly answer this dumb man’s question. Instead, he raised his left hand and lifted one finger, then two, three, four. He slowly flexed out his thumb. At the same time, Sammy’s right hand finished inserting a nub of a casing into his mouth, his cheeks puffed out like a foraging squirrel. The boy’s jaws hinged with the torque of a trash truck crusher and he stuck his index finger in the air to signal this was indeed his sixth foot long hot dog.

Henry marveled at the thought. “Six hot dogs, do you see how good these are?”

At that moment, Sammy’s mouth locked shut and his face colored into a tint of eggshell green, and then Sammy spewed on live television. It was a tremendous sight. A fountain of muddy brick colored beef chunks swirled with a yellow tempura and soggy chunks of white dough. The ensuing splatter on the flagstone echoed like the stream of an opened fire hydrant on a hot summer day. Years later, the clip of Sammy’s projectile vomiting would be studied by Hollywood special effects experts to improve their craft in the making of the Exorcist 7.

“Holy crap!”

“Get off him!”

“Oh the poor kid!”

Dylan just declared, “Oh, shit.”

As I cleaned Sammy’s face off with a wet paper towel, Dylan exclaimed, “those t-calls dropped faster than a mobster in cement shoes.”

“Is that poor kid okay?”

“I think we just killed the goose.”

The presentation wrapped quickly after that fiasco, our floor manager escorted Henry inside, leaving me and the crew to clean up. Jake squirted the slate flagstones clean with the hose. The sun set behind our colossal building. As I lifted the cardboard lid off of a box of brand new baseballs, the boys closed in. Once each fresh, young face had a baseball in hand, we approached Stan. “The boys here would like to get autographs.”

Stan stared blankly, first at me, and then at the kids scattered around. Sammy stood in their midst, a giant wet spot across the front of his chest from being blotted with paper towels. Despite his public purging, the boy appeared to be resilient, laughing with his friends as they patted him on the back, as though his act was a badge of courage or an American rite of passage.

“I’d like to get to a TV,” Stan replied. “Do you know who’s winning the Yankees game? I have some money riding on that game, and I’m ready for a beer.”

Much to his dismay, the ball players closed in on the old timer. Some boys smiled in anticipation, their eyes sparkling with wonder, while others looked skeptical, unsure whether they believed this old man had really ever worn the pinstripes.

There wasn’t much nice to be said at that moment, so I bit my tongue, uncapped the Sharpie and held it out until he had no choice but to take it.

Jim Breslin

I

From the time I was ten, I was aware of the strong possibility I would have to incinerate my father.

His brown hair fell below his ears, and his mustache often seemed green to me, blades of grass turning his flesh into soft soil.

He came from the old country, one of those jagged, sparse masses now erased from most maps.

According to him, it possessed the smell of tulips, and the night sky would reach down and touch every rooftop, straw evaporating into clouds of glistening dust.

When he was twelve, he fell in love with a girl named Audra.

She was a child of sand, he would say, glowing amber grains molding to the seasons and emotions around her.

They loved the touch of glass, and would often steal window panes, bringing them out to the fields of wild strawberries and pressing their hands and faces against it, feeling the cold splotches of red dripping upon them.

But he was not the only one who loved Audra.

Adomas lived three doors down from him.

A scar ran the length of his back from when he fell down a mountainside, leaving permanent purple bruises, leading the old women to exclaim that the mountain had crept in and buried itself deep within him.

He and Audra enjoyed time together too, jumping into the swirling warm springs, and allowing their bodies to be tossed and tumbled by the slender arms of glowing light.

My father and Adomas were in constant competition, and often spent hours staring into each others eyes, dwelling in the glistening orbs of sweat hanging from their cheeks.

But one day, Audra was sent to live with a relative across the mountains, leaving the boys to wonder which one of them would be allowed to pursue her.

After much debate, the two decided the most sensible option was a duel, with the winner being allowed to cross the mountains in pursuit of Audra.

Because of the sacred traditions the old country had carried for centuries, the two would meet on the last day of April in the blue tipped fields at the base of the mountains when they both had reached the age of 50.

Neither was allowed to die before that.

Years passed, their boots drank water and steaming concrete and the wrinkles in their hands absorbed the breaths of trains, crying children and the mirage-like wonder of daily hallucinations.

And finally last week, as a pot of lentil soup boiled on the kitchen stove, my father opened a letter from the old country.

The steam from the bubbling liquid battered the edges of the worn brown envelope, and as the distant black specs of sparrows streaked across his eyes, he turned to me and said to pack a bag.

II

It would take three days on a boat to reach the old country, which meant plenty of time for us to talk about the situation.

Men and women stood by the rails, their faces in sync with the movement of the sea.

My father explained that there was a good chance he would be killed in the duel, and if so, would need me to bury him in a shaded region at the base of the mountains.

If on the other hand he was able to kill Adomas, he would need me to help carry his body to the middle of the red forest, where we would burn him, and stuff his ashes into the jagged holes of the birch trees.

We watched as children ran along the deck, holding hands and leaping through patches of pulsating mist, their eyes closed and drooping, pulled downward by the crashing waves.

As we looked towards the side of the boat, we noticed a school of what appeared to be large fish following us.

Silver electricity made up their bodies, and they rose and dove with the exploding white crests, until blue sparks crackled upwards, staining and cutting dark gashes into the overcast sky.

I asked my father why this, any of this, was necessary.

He looked at me without looking at me, focusing his gaze on a blurred horizon that reflected onto my face as if everything were a series of mirrors.

He told a story of how in the old country, the men of the local village would gather every Sunday around a large pit, where they would shout and sing into it.

The local language mixed with nonsense, instruments of bone chattering away, creating a humming curtain of static draping itself across the rolling plains.

On occasion, one of the men would jump into the pit, tearing through layers of darkness in a speeding current of silence.

The singing would continue, hot breaths padding and covering the silky grains of blackness.

The boat shook violently, producing laughter from the nearby children, and coughing from my father.

This was becoming more common for him, and he suggested we sit down on a couple of mangled and rotting deckchairs.

His watch had stopped years ago, frozen not with a time but rather a series of half faded green digital lines, pointing in all directions.

He would turn the inside of his wrist over every half hour or so and stare at the nicked face, taking in several small breaths and whispering quietly to himself, remembering when time was told in fragments of electricity.

We continued to stare off into the sea, a harmonica player’s clapping conducting the now soaring waves.

III

We rented a Buick in the port city of Err, and began driving east, along a road dotted with a large number of frayed and weather-beaten scarecrows.

The sky possessed a pinkish hue, and up from the local village fires would arise plumes of shimmering smoke, seeming to scoop large chunks of the pink and drop them into the cavernous slits of the horizon.

The scent of winter was all over the Buick, and I remembered my father driving us in the black caravan down the snow-filled streets of the new country, his cigarette breath writing the lyrics to familiar 60’s pop songs along the windshield.

I suspected my father had killed in the past, even though he never confirmed this.

He had spent two years in the war, the one that for most of us existed in a land of white static, blurred faces and arms carrying the dead and repairing tanks, the weeping, melting faces of women and children lying like puddles in the muddy roads.

He told us soldiers would take things, souvenirs from their kills.

The only thing he took were photographs of the dead. Sun reflecting on the chrome Yaschica, a shutter clawing past humid, lingering sweat to the open eyes caked with brown grease and flaking blood.

He kept slides of these for months, until one day they were hit by a roadside bomb, destroying the tank they were in and sending him flying into a rice field.

He spoke of the moistness of the moment, distant nude bodies aflame, running across the road and the blades of a helicopter now cutting through the black sun.

They gave him a silver star for his tour, but it made him sick to look at it, and he allowed my sister and I to run around our backyard with it, pinning it to one another as our bare feet sank deeper into the cool grass.

For the longest time after the war he slept with two guns, one on his chest and one under his pillow.

The night melted over him, streetlights floating in his pupils and the cracks in the walls like fence post stakes, a string of severed heads grinning as fallen constellations.

I wondered what Adomas would look like.

For some reason I pictured him as slightly overweight, glasses and a gray mustache and the scent of polished linoleum exuding from his fingers.

I imagined he had a family. Maybe even a son who would help him with the burial of my father if need be.

But what if he had no son and killed my father? Would I then employ this stranger’s help to bury him?

I saw us carrying my father together into the red forest, dousing him with gasoline and watching his clothes expand into twisting embers of orange, his hands now dust, disappearing into the surrounding sap-stained bark.

I watched Adomas’ truck barrel down the road, crunching gravel like the mating calls of insects, leaving me crouched low in the yellow wild flowers as the crescent moon descended from the clouds.

My father said he was in the mood for coffee and knew of a town on the way where we could get some; if it was still there.

 

IV

Birds sat atop a sign featuring the torso of a woman holding a pie, their beaks picking at a crumbling circle of brittle wood above it.

Blue chairs sat behind faded brown tables inside the restaurant, the steam of coffee wrapping around flickering light bulbs.

My father and I took a seat at the counter.

Soon a man in a grease-stained apron emerged from the back, his eyes moist and sagging, as if his pupils would slide through his cheeks and splash on the tiled floor.

Briefly glancing at the menu, my father turned towards the man.

“Do you still serve that mint coffee,” my father asked.

“It’s about the only thing we serve any more,” the man replied.

“Let’s get two cups of that then.”

The man turned and began pouring coffee into two cups, occasionally directing his eyes towards a television sticking out of a wall, the image somehow switching back and forth between a sports game and a soap opera.

He laid two porcelain cups before us and we began to drink.

“Just like I remember,” my father said.

“You got a northern accent, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before,” the man replied.

“Been away awhile. Years actually.”

“Well, what brings you back?”

“I wanted my son to see the old country.”

“She looks pretty good for her age don’t she.”

“Tell me, what happened to the horses? I haven’t seen one along the roads.”

“Afraid they’re gone.”

“How’s that even possible?”

“There was something with the earth.”

“The earth?”

The man began to twist his neck back and forth, his skin like fabric, flapping across thick pointy bones.

“We see a light. This was, well, I guess maybe couple of years ago. There’s this light, right in the middle of the day, and it comes down like fire smashing into the fields, leaving big, I mean real big clouds of dust, so there’s not even a sun anymore.”

I tried to imagine this, plumes of thick brownness spiraling upwards, creating a sun and planets that orbited through the bare branches of trees.

“And it’s maybe a couple of days later that we notice the horses can’t walk. They crawl around in circles in the stables, sounding like we ain’t never heard before, dying with their eyes wide open.”

My father seemed to look past the man’s eyes and over to one of his ears that was now strangely pink.

“We tried bringing other horses in, but none of them would take. To the west they still got horses. A good number actually. But it’s something in the earth here. The sun hasn’t been the same since.”

My father nodded and I caught a glimpse of a woman outside of one of the windows, carrying a pair of black shoes and kicking tiny pebbles with her bare feet.

“Well, thank you,” my father said, reaching into his pocket and laying some money on the counter.

The man nodded, and we rose and made our way back out to the Buick.

We watched for a moment as the birds continued to peck at the sign, flakes of flesh sailing and scattering along the gravel, inspected and carried away by a large mound of ants.

V

Night fell, and at the current speed we would be at the base of the mountains by morning.

I had never seen stars so low and I found myself touching the glass of the window, watching as my fingers slid through blurred countryside, breaking the serenity of light and causing the sky to ripple.

My father turned the nobs of the radio, and found a scratchy Sam Cooke song playing.

I then heard my father sing.

It was soft yet forceful, a shouting whisper always a second or so behind Sam, that would sometimes deviate from the lyrics, becoming instead a soothing buzz warming us in the cold air.

I started to doze off, and intermittedly found myself lying beneath a leafless tree.

Although I remained in a lying position, I soon began floating over smoothed pieces of glass, clouds moving through them and lightning igniting gleaming patches of inverted hilltops.

Through a couple of blinks I stood in the center of a small house, water rising from the floorboards, and random shoes and pieces of luggage floating towards the ceiling.

Again I heard singing, and looked out the window to find a woman pinning a man’s shirt to a clothesline.

Dirt and grime stained the sleeves, and the rays of a distant sun seeped through it.

As the woman paused and turned her head, I found my cheek pressed against the Buick window, a warm map of anxious breath etched on its surface.

My father continued to sing, his words now invisible, a language descending into the paint of mile markers.

VI

There were wolves.

A pack scurrying in the mist, paws made of cloud and yellow eyes swirling over the whiteness.

We had reached the base of the mountains a few hours earlier.

I hadn’t realized rock could be so blue, and the snow-capped tops seemed to breathe heavily at the morning’s rising light.

We ate biscuits and gravy, and my father smoked a cigarette, his smoke and breath intertwining in the cold air so that there was a constant rush of soaking steam. 

Can’t keep my soul in this morning, he said. 

We finished our breakfast and loaded our packs, making our way down a path into the red forest.

The trees seemed to speak in shadow, crunching branches beneath our feet laughing and wailing, desperate for a glimpse of the sun.

We watched as quails emerged from burrows, hiding behind brown grasses and shaking off the dirt that had gathered upon their wings.

My father pointed to what looked like straw and mud wedged into various holes on many of the trees.

He told me that’s where the ashes were stored, and that once a year the local villages would travel through the forest, finding the trees containing their loved ones and would kiss the mud and offer up their prayers.

I imagined scores of women, no men for some reason, nude and moving in and out of the mist, their fingers fitting perfectly into the contours of the bark and placing their lips along the moist soil so that for an instant everything was one, flesh falling from bone and becoming grass once again.

As we entered a clearing, we came upon a giant tree almost completely carved up with lettering and initials. 

My father explained this marked the middle ground of the forest, and that for centuries the villagers would carve their names and initials into the tree, praying for safe passage.

We made our way to the foot of the tree, and taking out a long knife, my father began to carve his name into the rotting wood.

Mist seeped through the dark tears in the bark, carrying with it pellets of loose moss and creating a green overcast.

My father always had terrible handwriting, but here the letters were easily discernible, even elegant, tiny flecks of dust swimming slowly away from the glistening blade. 

He then handed the knife to me, and I went to work right below his name. 

The wood seemed to moan, not from pain but rather pleasure, ecstatic prolonged sighs echoing through the treetops.

I liked that for a moment our initials touched, producing a language only the two of us would understand.

I handed the knife back to him, and we made our way into another patch of woods, tall grey splinters rubbing against our arms and shoulders.

 

VII

Everything was yellow now.

A large, crater-like field containing mounds of tall wild grasses and flowers.

It was like a glowing pool, and I imagined lying on my back, the bottom of my shirt being nibbled on by prairie sea creatures, and moving slowly under gathered shape-shifting clouds as the waters of grass rested warmly in the palms of my hands.

We spotted two dark specks in the distance, stray shadows that had been hardened into stone.

For the first time my father took me by the shoulder as we walked, occasionally using his thumb to massage the edges of a hole in the jacket.

Upon reaching the figures, we came face to face with an older man and a young girl.

Adomas was different than I had imagined.

He was a sculpture of the land, the barren grooves and crags of dirt rich depression containing moist and darkened eyes reflecting an inverted portrait of roofless houses.

His overalls were a faded blue, and he wore a necklace seemingly made out of mounds of hair shaped into a sort of cross.

The girl seemed older than she was, her blonde hair blowing in the breeze and brushing against her face, leaving a few loose strands to cling and crawl across her cheeks.

No words were exchanged, and instead Adomas pointed towards two small tables each containing a water basin and a white towel.

Taking me once again by the shoulder, my father led me over to the table and began washing his hands and face.

I looked over and noticed Adomas doing the same thing at the opposite table, the little girl focused on the splashing water slowly dripping onto the grass below.

My father soon finished, and folding the towel neatly and placing it to the side, brought forth his bag and began unloading and assembling his revolver.

The sounds of the field burrowed deep into the ground, leaving only the click and pop of metal to exist.

When the revolver was assembled, my father handed me the clip, asking if I would insert it into the weapon.

I took the piece in my hands, its cold body ready to sink through me, and pressed the clip until it clicked into place.

We then turned towards Adomas who was already facing us, revolver assembled and resting in his hand.

Without much hesitation, my father and Adomas approached each other, standing a few steps apart and staring deeply into each other’s eyes.

I imagined the little girl and I finding ourselves in a world without faces, only the backs of gray splattered heads to greet and influence us.

Finally turning around, my father and Adomas stood with their backs towards one another and after a few moments began taking large steps in opposite directions counting off in unison.

Their words slowly inserted themselves into the slits of the open air, echoing in the dark cavernous world lying under the skin of the one we were used to.

I noticed that the little girl was not watching the scene, but instead crouched low to the ground, playing with a long stalk of grass and mumbling something I could not hear.

They finally shouted off the last number, and turning around in almost a choreographed manner aimed their weapons at one another and fired.

Two muffled pops emerged, like hammers beating on mounds of dirt.

Ravenous black shadows crawled from the sky, slithering around their bodies, and turning them into cardboard silhouettes causing them to float and flutter towards the ground like oversized crumbling leaves.

Their weapons laid by their heads, still smoking, giving the impression of an escaping spirit.

I turned towards the little girl, who had discarded the stalk of grass, and was now gently brushing dirt from the front of her pants.

 

VIII

The sun was having difficulty breathing.

Every intake was strained as it pulsated and sent clouds scattering into greyness.

I watched as the little girl walked up to Adomas, folded his arms across his chest, and began pulling out bits of grass and placing them in mounds around his body. 

Against the horizon, they seemed like one animal to me, a creature eating and surveying the land.

I turned and looked at my own father.

Blood ran from his chest, jagged and zigzagging across his body, roots holding onto dirt-stained cheeks and open eyes.

I smelled coffee, and remembered how my father would sip from his favorite mug in the winter, looking out his bedroom window at the snow falling, flakes caught in the orangeness of the streetlights.

I heard the little girl still pulling at grass.

I felt myself leave my body for a moment, and with little hesitation, found myself grabbing a bottle of lighter fluid from my father’s bag and walking over to the little girl.

For the first time she took notice of me, and I saw the deep blue of her eyes, the shadows of birds causing them to ripple.

As if by instinct, I began dousing Adomas with lighter fluid until a shimmering bubble enveloped him.

I then struck a match and tossed it near the base of his neck.

There was a great gasp, frightened ribbons of flame thrown into a panic, scurrying over Adomas’ body and taking shelter in the marrow of his bones, flesh melting with every nod and blink of their being.

The little girl placed her face in the thick smoke trailing from the fireball, her eyes watering, and her head becoming a field of vapor swaying with the breeze.

We waited out the afternoon, performing the same ritual with my father, and finally placing the ashes of both men in a couple of old pickle jars.

The day had grown pink, and as we stared off towards the red forest, we could see the sun now hiding beneath a grove of dead branches.

We fastened our bags, and began slipping through the tall grass, the distant woods bathing in a light haze, and me jangling the keys to the Buick in my pocket. 

– Matthew Vasiliauskas

 

Rustlings, rumbling voices, a ledge where we teeter, quite the drop, then a picnic blanket in the sun. Statues of horse, cow, an art gallery around us, a slug on the carpet, at first it felt like cat shit – still alarming, plus there’s the slime-line. Telling, I’m saying. Old factory floor of lined-up bricks, not laid flat but on their sides. Thin bricks slowly melded by janitors sweeping cleaning compound across. Before long handcarts roll smoothly. Now you pant, frantic to be getting somewhere. I am not playing around, you think I’m trying to mess with you and back away, yet still remain, otherwise you’d never savor flavors like the ones I was peppering this morning, before I started in on the okra. That is ahead of us, perhaps beyond us, actually we’ll never get that far this time. It’s not tragic to say so. Here I am thinking about food, now you’re the one flirting, we’ll have to hope for a restaurant, not this old treadmill, so much for my nap. A glove of papier-måché crinkling around the ribcage may indicate hunger, if not hunger, another neediness, a cobra, who ordered the cobra. Cartons on handcarts, heading to the dock. Trucks. A light rain to ignore, whether on foot or bicycle, soon enough it ends, other openings will offer alternate amusements – children coming home for lunch, talking – a shop opening and closing many times during the day, because the only employee’s the owner, meandering like a human. Soon stairs will repay their invention. Soon you will come back, as I have yearned and predicted. Even the serifs play their part, using their inside voices, and will not apologize.

David McAleavey

Linear birdflight, haze in the hazelnut, some fumbling in a bag, pressed heated air rear of the jet engine: actual people in that house over there swinging their bats, nursing their babies on our yard: they’re us, we say, we shrug, when does that become a problem? Ask Mario, maybe, nicknamed “Wasabi” (for his gentleness), not to say he’s not thorough. He’s a very large man with a high voice. After the hash marks, scan the other scannables. A woman wearing a skirt holds it to pee, is how you know she’s no fictive flutterthing. An actual SUV hits the light just so, not the green light, the afternoon light reflecting dumbfoundingly on the other actuals. Dissemination works; so do underground runners. The former dancer’s translucent skirt reveals her thong, revealing her shapely buttock. A shuffler shifts right foot beckett, left bunion, sullenly. I was nosing around the closet when I found notes revealing their conspiracy, yet I still find them both very attractive. With all the static it has been easy to feel lost in a grand, symphony-like overlooking, just one more soldier on the parade ground, wait, this sounds like it’s only me in all my diversionary appearances, gabbing along in the corner, occasionally more emphatic, like the big warts a-growing on the cheek and chin of a sweet-eating grandma who happens to have left her belt off today. As for your trance electronica, it’s a good thing the lyrics challenge discernment, since when you get them they lack a how-you-say “crispiness.” Then I was in a forest, though each tree was a human statue, some adjusting their hair with their crinkled fingers, whispering into their phones. I lay down on moss by a brook. The moss curled around me like a field of pubic hair, the warm stream widened, and I went in, like a baby in reverse. Ed reminded me the self isn’t as solid as it’s cracked up to be, whoever “Ed” is, wherever I have gone, whether I have returned to tell you, whatever part of your body I am scratching now, if that is you I have found, under the table.

David McAleavey

One day’s up, another’s not. 
Unexpected outcomes 
like shadow, no shadow –
meaningless to most. 
Happenstance socks my body 
like a fierce summer storm. 
Departs without a goodbye. 

Having left stuck 
grievances from yesterday –
postage-stamp-sticky –
behind last night’s gray clouds –
backdrop for a moonless night, 
the sun, like a red-bindi dot 
on the forehead of the sky, 
welcomes me today. 

– Connie Beresin

It always drove me and Matthew crazy
when Daddy and Bennet stopped in the still-dark 
for coffee at the diner lit
like Hopper’s Nighthawks.
We’d twirl on our stools as my plumber uncle
rasped his stubbled, Lincoln face 
with rough hands, so delicate 
and patient unsnarling monofilament,
my father wearing his blue captain’s hat
the only week of the year not out 
saving souls, bringing in the sheaves.

We were on our way to water, either
blue-green surf or brown tidal river
to catch mostly hardheads, whiting, perch,
thrilled to be breathing salt air in sight 
of palms, over sharks and stingrays,
under pink-piled clouds instead 
of back in red-dirt-dusty Georgia.
My mother’s only week of  happiness,
with beer, and sex at sunrise on the beach
those mornings we kids slept in.

All dead.

Now I fish alone, stop in my own darkness
at the fluorescent 7-11 for coffee and doughnut,
drive through pastel dawns past palms
and signs with silhouettes
of the little varmints to watch out for
so we don’t kill anything on the way
to the time we have left
as we stand on bridge or beach
and try to catch any happiness we can
before we let it go.

William Greenway

because it’s 6 a.m. and not even a plastic 
fork in this plasticized motel room, 
and I need all my strength to fish
this last day because a “front” has come 
down from the north and roughed up the surf.
Besides, fish are such crotchety critters: 
just because it’s November
it’s like they’ve put away their
golf clubs and moved indoors
for the winter.

But instead of sitting through sessions
of the conference I’m being paid to attend, 
life being short, I succumb again 
to an irresistible impulse (as the serial killer 
likes to plead) to indulge in unapproved
and unproductive piscatorial activities, 
a sort of addiction of this seaside casino 
where the neon is the arc-light orange 
and crime-scene yellow of dawn, 
or the pink side of a speckled trout 
pulled fresh from the surf,
or the red disk of after-image in the eyes 
of an angler who’s just cast 
her line toward the rising Sunday.

But this may be the last trip for this 
sprung chicken, who was no oil painting
to start with, more of a gouache whose colors 
have started to bleed, and the gulls, 
pipers, terns, and pelicans seem to be 
finding their own repast, and the lightening
east is straight from central casting.

No one lives forever, they say,
but who is this they anyway, always
cawing can’t, like the crow carping
at me as I walk past to the beach

already peopled with sleepy, stumbling, 
dawn-of-the-dead shellers.
Maybe it’s time to teach all of they
a lesson in living forever.

As soon, that is, as I finish this pie,
sucking every bit of the sweet-sour limes
from the fish-bone tines.

William Greenway