Can Literary LEO matter?
Experimental, weird, offbeat, gonzo, iconoclastic, socially just, giving voice to those most often voiceless, silenced and oppressed.
The first measure in determining whether a people and its government are civilized is how they treat and care for those who can’t fully help themselves. And the second measure of a civilization is the extent to which its ruling class encourages the flame bright vision of the arts.
As Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin examines (attacks, dismantles) every social, environmental and arts program, as every Republican Presidential Candidate pledges to do the same, the time has come for social, environmental and arts advocates, of all genres and persuasions, to take action. How? Through our Art!
What place does Literary LEO have in the ever more polarized threatened and violent world? Power mongers have control. Power mongers want activists and artists to shut up. Matt Bevin and his ilk are annihilating social, environmental and arts programs. It’s going to get worse. What difference can we make? I suggest we look Matt Bevin, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and all the power mongers of every declared and secret party in the greedy corporatized eyes and say NO! No, I don’t agree with you! Here is my voice, here is my vision. I won’t go away. I won’t bow down.
As Guest Editor of Literary LEO I challenge each and every LEO reader to submit poems and stories and photos. Through Literary LEO we can stand up against unreasoning power’s delusion that the Mighty Dollar is top prize and to hell with beauty, hope, compassion and faith. Let us be a new generation of truth speakers, far see-ers.
Through Art let us protest, raise a revolution of hope for present and future generations. Let us breathe new life into experimental, weird, offbeat, gonzo, iconoclastic. We are social justice. We are the oppressed finding voice in poem, story, song and image.
As social, environmental and arts programs are dismantled across Kentucky, Literary LEO matters.
Kentucky outlaw poet
hey kentucky governor matt bevin
By ron whitehead
the new creationist museum ark ain’t gonna save us now
gimme back my wig
the hound dog taylor hunter s. thompson i gotta get outta this town blues
gimme back my wig
cause i’m thumbin a ride after midnight on
the hound dog taylor hunter s. thompson
alligator new orleans memphis chicago 61
blues highway yes i gotta get outta this town before
somebody does me in
gimme back my wig
the blonde crew cut is the only one that’ll work now cause
it’s already late maybe too late in these last days final
hours of this matt bevin mitch mcconnell rand paul ted cruz
donald trump rush limbaugh jesse helms ronald reagan bush family
richard nixon joseph mccarthy j. edgar hoover
nsa cia fbi homeland security big brother
the new kentucky creationist museum ark ain’t gonna save us now
conservative christian coalition moral majority american renaissance
new dark ages kkk neonazi religious fascists
corporate industrial military complex takeover of america
the land of the free home of the brave we killed the indians
why not the decadent poets artists musicians blacks jews
hispanics asians middle easterners homo lesbians beat generation x
smart women smart women outsiders the sad downtrodden
stepped on walked on kicked and killed all the morally
yes please gimme back my wig
i don’t think the red afro gonna work need that skinhead
look tonight slippin left to right and over the fence outta
this hellhole backstreet underground alley i been crowded
into by american brown shirt arm band schoolyard bully
gimme back my wig
i’m climbing out the back window paint brushes and pens
old canvases crumpled papers peanut butter sandwich
hanging from my back all my possessions as the swat
team breaks down the front door cause i’m behind on my
rent and the land lord come to pay me a visit
yes i’m evicted convicted of being on the wrong side and i’m
convinced that this new state is taxation without
representation and i’ve watched this new state force the
1st amendment to disappear and i’ve experienced the
protection of this new omnipotent police state of by and
for the rich
yes i say it’s high time
to put on my wig
and finally say
cause i got a lethal dose of the hound dog taylor
hunter s. thompson gimme back my wig
i gotta get outta this town
Poetry First Place
Local Mechanic Performs Successful Neurosurgery
(The Weekly Rag, Moleville, Alabama)
By Mary O’Dell
I couldn’t hardly believe it—Davey Harley
dissecting some fella’s brain
right there on the counter in Big O Tires.
I was just in last week to get my brakes looked at,
and Dave didn’t say nothin.
But then the guy always was modest.
He musta known, though, it would get out,
a thing like that in a Podunk like this.
The paper said some out-of-towner
stopped to get his engine checked
and somethin blew up and threw shit all over,
just like a homemade bomb.
A piece of metal poked right in the guy’s temple,
and Dave grabbed his tools and went to work.
No mess on the counter afterward.
But Dave always keeps a neat shop.
I been thinkin—next time I get my oil changed
I’ll have him take a look at my ingrown toenails.
Poetry Second Place
By Carol Griffin
You get to the station
But your train came too early
And now you have no way home.
You sit. You wait.
You start to peel an orange and find
A small beating heart beneath the rind.
You stare at the people rushing by
But none of them stares back.
It gets cold. And the cold
Seeps into your bones.
You cannot move.
The Station clock says Now
But you are not ready. Your life
Has been packed into three small bags
And sent off on a journey without you.
You fall asleep, then wake up to see
That all of the doors have been closed
And locked, and now you have no way out.
Poetry Third Place
By Robert L. Penick
Listen for it, Myrra.
Listen really hard.
It sounds like ice cubes
falling into an empty glass
on the other side of the pool.
It sounds like sand blowing
100 meters down the beach.
It makes the noise
of tattoo ink fading
over the course
of thirty years.
You can hear it
in your popping ankles
and in the puddles
after a storm
It was always there
like tinnitus or
the refrigerator’s hum.
We never notice the Sirens
until the chorus stops.
Poetry Honorable Mention
wake up calling
By rAmu Aki
black lives matter is
not a threat but a wake
up call of all too obvious
fact which frustrates &
embarrasses that it need
be said & having been said,
that it be met with anger,
hostility instead of a “feelin’
u/can do/how to/together…”
attitude by so many here in the
1st quarter of the great 21st
century game, back to the
future & here we came is
what i would call a
sin & a shame. black
life matters ignores
no one when we recall
both mitochondrial eve &
adam are ancient africans
from whom all the earth
born rest of us descended,
evolving over years of increasingly
more extreme environmental
difference as we walked out our
generational questing paths to
circumnavigate this blue green planet so
hold up a minute & check your
self on how you feelin’ it if you
negatin’ like that maybe it’s
because you’re ashamed to admit
that your ancestors’ ancestors’
ancestors were black? since
it proposes no behavior, i would
suggest the phrase signifies
a necessity to visualize through
imagination’s eye & thus
begin to actualize via
emotion & thought into life which
will create the experience through
direct understanding that black
life & your life & all our lives
matter & life is not colors but
divinity reflected as each
all of us which we must
not forsake. imagine
what difference such radical personal
perception could make. black lives
matter, certainly & what could be
more important than that we who self
identify as black life take this to heart
to mind to soul to flow to what
& who & how we roll to how we goal
& what our lives in this world have
evolved & the with i of what is
wrong & the with i of what is strong
& what choice lifts every voice & what
choice casts each soul down as we
all learn truly to allow
life to matter.
Poetry Honorable Mention
My Mother’s Garden Is On Fire
By Carol Griffin
My mother’s garden is on fire—
The greens already gone—
Burnt black— and flames are rising
From the strawberries now—
The smoke above them
Into the acrid air—
The scent of burning berries
Sharp but sweet,
Strong, growing stronger,
Poetry Honorable Mention
Ghosts in the Garden
By Sonja Farah-de Vries
Planting below thunder and clouds
In April, I throw aside my spade,
Sift through the dirt with my fingers.
Plump worms and roots fine as hair
Fall back to the earth and I think
Of Rachel Corrie, the strands of
her hair coated in blood and dirt,
The Caterpillar bulldozer that moved
Slowly forward, the driver
And Rachel, eye to eye as she
Stood atop the dirt he pushed
Closer, closer. Her belief that he would
Stop. The house behind her targeted
The only weapon in sight.
Flash Fiction First Place
By L. Elder
How could things have gone so wrong? She was the girl who could move things with her mind.
She was only five the first time. Her mother held her sleeve and dragged her from aisle to aisle in the discount store like a puppy on a leash. But once, when they stopped, she saw a little purse, just out of reach. It was sequined silver with a gold clasp. She reached out her hand. She willed it towards her. And it moved. It moved and her fingers lightly brushed the sequins.
After that, she used her powers sparingly. She jingled the wind chimes on still, summer nights. She held back the elevator doors that extra second for the old woman with the shopping bags. She stayed the flight of a butterfly for a moment to the delight of a toddler in the park. But, in the pain and loneliness of adolescence and young adulthood, her powers lay dormant.
And now this.
“Hurry up!” he yelled.
It was happening again. Against all the resources of her mind and the powers of her will, she was complying. Her shaking hand applied a last stroke of mascara and she rushed out to him.
“Aw,” he grunted. “That’s the best you could do? All that time, and look at you? I’m trying to make an impression tonight, you know. It’s a wonder I put up with you.”
He grabbed her wrist.
“Come on,” he barked.
She felt herself turning with him, her legs walking beside his — step, step, step — like a mindless, mechanical doll.
Just before the threshold, her body stiffened and froze.
He jerked around to face her, his eyes burning.
“What the … ?”
“No,” she said, pulling free of his grasp. “No.”
“I just remembered my purse.’
Flash Fiction Second Place
Shoot Out the Lights
By Robert L. Penick
On the last day of his life he drank a dozen beers and drove thirty miles to La Grange, where his parents were buried. On the way, his car radio played a Schoenberg string concerto and a piano sonata by Grieg. The wind whipped down through the sun roof and dried the sweat from his brow. The sky shone a perfect shade of blue, dotted with white clouds like the cover of a greeting card or a commercial from a travel agency.
His pills sat, untouched, in his courier bag. There was also a vial of liquid morphine, unopened, in the glove compartment. Beneath the driver’s seat lay a Glock Model 23, a .40 caliber handgun. The pancreatic cancer had already metastasized to his lungs and liver before his diagnosis. There was a good chance his brain would be next.
At the cemetery he laid down flowers, paid his respects. On the adjoining farm a dilapidated barn had partially collapsed. It had been upright on his last visit.
Back on the road he headed down Highway 126 toward Louisville. Walking into a mini mart, he reached into the beer cooler and grabbed two oil cans of Foster’s Lager. The girl at the register looked at him twice but didn’t question his sobriety. Behind the wheel, he uncapped the morphine and put three drops into the opened beer. Then he headed for New Albany and The Empire Club. Pretty girls dancing nude. One last hurrah. Buy a couple of rounds, observe some beauty, then shoot out the lights.
Flash Fiction Third Place
By Peter Stavros
Elvis in the parking lot of that sad motel in Pigeon Forge draped a pink nylon scarf over your neck and kissed you on the lips when we told him it was our anniversary, which I thought was bull shit but you motioned not to say anything, as if that old fart in the bedazzled polyester pant suit and oversized rhinestone-rimmed sunglasses and dyed black pompadour that probably wasn’t even his real hair, this dime store wig pulled out of a cellophane package, would do something, but you were always “you don’t know for some people sometimes” and you were right. All I said was “c’mon buddy, ease up there with the lips” and he flipped like a switch to enraged and deranged and tried to go all Chuck Norris on my ass, those goddamn kicks and chops and slaps, and where’d he get that knife. Crazy fuck. Who knew? You. And you were right, as usual, as we ran for our lives, not really for our lives because there was no chance in hell he would ever catch us, that old fart, platform shoes, yet white knuckles nonetheless, until we got a few blocks away, blended in amongst the meandering extended families with their mall walking and gargantuan dripping ice creams, cracking up and breathing heavy, hands on hips, my hands on your hips, my lips on yours, that after ten years together, ten years in all, I should have learned by now to trust you. Ah, memories.
Something Different First Place
Something Different Second Place
Something Different Third Place
By Jennifer Wagley
Some people dream of traveling the world, exploring remote cultures. Me? I just want to go to bed.
When I was young, I wanted to be a pale woman in a Victorian novel who had to “take to her bed”. But after a number of titles, I realized those ladies usually died.
Then I thought I’d be a nun, because it would be quiet in the convent and there’d be plenty of time for reading. Later it occurred to me, it’d mainly be that one book, the Bible. A snoozy show-off with all its gold and secret code of red and black words interrupted with rude numbers.
I could hope for a difficult pregnancy, because I’d heard doctors sometimes ordered bed rest. But then there’d be a baby, and I wanted no part of that. I finally decided I’d have to wait until I grew up, so I could read in bed whenever I wanted, whatever I wanted.
“You have terrible sleep hygiene,” said my sister. “Everything you do is wrong.”
“Sleep hygiene? I change my sheets more often than you do, Joc.”
“It’s not funny. You’ve got the TV, you read in bed. The books are bad enough — they get your mind going — but the Kindle and your phone? They just did a study that shows electronics put off a glow that messes with your body and slows down the release of, I can’t remember the name but, whatever it is, it helps you sleep.”
“Reading helps me sleep.”
“Then why are you always complaining about insomnia?”
Wires run rigid and loop through my heated mattress pad like the spine of some creature with severe scoliosis. Hot blooded, its puts off a woozy warmth. My degenerate neck demands a certain pillow for its discs, posturing itself perfectly in the form of foam. There is also the body pillow, which takes precedence, even when there is another body in bed. And sheets will not spread unless they are cotton and 600-count thread. My skin has become haughty, fancying itself too fine for anything with less weave.
I must carry a certain burden, even in sleep, and through all seasons. There must be a prescribed amount of weight bearing down on me. A blanket, quilted cotton, colorless so as not to distract. Most important, there is the feathered down comforter: cool in summer, warm in winter. But it is the sound I cannot do without, the crinkle crackle of cotton casing, a lullaby of luxury.
The Mayo Clinic website includes the following information:
Bedsores are injuries to skin and underlying tissue resulting from prolonged pressure on the skin. Bedsores most often develop on skin that covers bony areas of the body.
People most at risk of bedsores are those with a medical condition that limits their ability to change positions, requires them to use a wheelchair or confines them to a bed for a long time.
You can’t see my bedsores. They haven’t developed on my skin from staying too long in one position. No, these ulcers have blistered and settled on the bony rut of my existence, the festering people, places and projects I should most certainly turn out of my life. But I jaw clench the pain because it is easier to anesthetize myself with thoughts, than mobilize myself with intention.
My bed is my bomb shelter. It’s where I go when my throat swells with hurt I won’t share with anyone else, it’s where tears tickle my neck and then my breasts on their way to my wet center, it’s where I go when I need to sleep off a day with the help of a Xanax and the hope of a heavy dreamless night.
When I bought my first mattress and box spring set, my mother said, “You only need a twin, Jennifer. It’s just you, you don’t need a double. A twin, that’s all you need.”
As if the size of my mattress could serve as birth control, keeping men out of my bed until I was married.
When I can’t sleep, I need white noise. Or wife noise. I reach for my phone and pull up a podcast, the one whose host has a voice similar to my ex-husband’s. Then I hit the volume button until his words are just loud enough that I can hear them, but not quite understand them. Until they’re a drone in the darkness, one I can tune out. Just as I did my ex-husband’s static channeling of academic monologues.
My mattress is bookended by two nightstands. One serves as home for my “titles in waiting,” those books next up on my reading list. The other holds and hides sex toys and socks. I need two of these three to fall asleep. Words to rock my lids closed or an orgasm to shudder me to sleep.
Socks, however, are mandatory no matter what the weather. My circulation lacks a certain motivation and my toes tend to go cold with a yellow numbness. I prefer wool on my feet and a battery of vibrators at hand, with a sea of sentences looking on.
Fucking a man in my bed is easy. But sleeping with him? No. It doesn’t get more naked than that.
Note to self
Next time Joc starts in on me, tell her about the Google search I did. “My thing” is more popular than “her thing”.
“Reading in bed” 417,000 results
“Sleep hygiene” 413,000 results
I have taken dolls to bed; stuffed animals to bed; teeth for the tooth fairy to bed; dogs to bed; cats to bed; books, Kindles and magazines to bed; computers to bed; journals to bed; Sudoku to bed; homework to bed; a heating pad and cramps to bed; phones to bed; remote controls to bed; knitting to bed; mending to bed; anger, hurt and depression to bed; water to bed; hot chocolate to bed; wine to bed; coffee to bed: popcorn to bed; Chinese food to bed; cigarettes to bed; nail polish to bed; colds, sinus infections and the flu to bed; ice packs to bed; a thermometer to bed; vibrators to bed; lube to bed; hot fudge and whipped cream to bed; butt plugs to bed; nipple clips to bed; handcuffs to bed; porn to bed; a camera to bed; men and one woman to bed.
If I get lucky, I’ll take death to bed, or perhaps I should say, it will take me. •
Short Fiction First Place
Specks of Dust
By Andrea Ghooray
One step. Two step. Three, four, five. Thank all the stars for core strength, to stay upright, quiet, and steady in the dark. As if one loud footstep will wake the world and my disheveled state will be apparent to everyone. Open for judgement and reprimand. No don’t think like that. This is different. Well for me it’s different. Ugh, shut up. Yuck. I make it out of the garage. The night feels amazing. Steeped in a mischievous aliveness. A good night to run away forever. 81 degrees, after so many days of 101 degrees. Cruel July mugginess. Humidity is an atrocious bitch when one is in a bad mood. Not just dealing with provoking thoughts, but long ruthless Indian hair compels the neck to sweat. Full, shamefully large tits make everything sweat. Sweat around all the curves, dips and folds serves as a reminder that I am not thin. Not being thin reminds me that I am inadequate. Or in this case, too adequate. And now I’m reminded of the various reasons I am a terror. Tonight I want to forget. I think about my meditation that I just finished. A full 20 minutes at this late hour. Something can be said about the changes of thought patterns after midnight. A madness. Contain and train the madness. It is quite beautiful when it’s in its cage. Meditation is the leash that leads madness to its cage. Sit in that cage you beautiful destructive creature. Let me admire you from a safe distance.
Quietly I start the car. Blue LED lights fill the small dark space along the dash. My jaws are clenched. Tight. As if I’m summoning everything to be still and quiet with the whole of my being. Jaws stay clenched as I gingerly put the car in reverse and pull out of the driveway. On the road, and everything sheds from me. Lana Del Ray is on the stereo. Just like bubble wrap being let out of an unforgiving small box, I come loose. My breath is deep. Low and deep in the belly. Isn’t that what I tell my clients? Breathe low and deep ladies. It calms the senses. Those women, in their Lululemon yoga pants and their Target brand yoga mats come to class to breathe from their lives of children, increasingly unattractive husbands, and that terror of being pushed by society to be the good little women we need to be. Three days a week, I preach breathe breathe breathe! Am I full of shit? They come to class and allow me to guide them in their practice, they breathe, they relax and then they allow themselves to be pushed. Good wives. Good fucking wives. My breathing continues to be deep, my decompression continues as I drive through the quiet, sleepy, innocent subdivision. Rich people. Sleeping so they can get up and be rich tomorrow. Only to go to sleep to be rich again tomorrow in the same humdrum way. This is not me tonight. I am awake. I am alive. For this thought I start to feel incredibly grateful. I roll down the windows. Lana continues to lament as I sing along in my head I’m a bad girl, I’m a sad girl, I’m a bad bad girl. Like an adrenal rush after a janky, rough, rollercoaster ride. My arm hangs lazily out the window. One foot on the seat, half lotus, one foot on the peddle. Be steady. Breathe. I finger the cool mischievous air as my stealthy car zips out of the neighborhood. Grocery stores, gas stations, bright lights that promise a satiating midnight snack zip past me. It’s all so meaningless. Newness. Everything is always new, bright, and promising in a nouvaeu riche neighborhood. I secretly welcome the inevitable collapse of it all.
Lana’s voice is melancholy and indifferent. She sings of being the other woman, of beauty and rage. I am terribly jealous of the other woman she is singing about. No one sings about girls like me. It’s not cute and endearing. A feeling of shame comes over me, but in the wickedness of this purposeful night I laugh it off, I see it to its seat. Driving, driving, driving, half way motivated half way apathetic. Just driving. It feels so goddamn good. I think about panic attacks. All I want to do is drive when I have a panic attack late in the night. Is there something soothing about the motion of the car? I grew up pondering life in the back of a car, 12 hours at a time. Daddy checking on me every so often. Rich culture and history at the end of each drive. Have I been conditioned to seek rewards at the end of each drive? Am I no better than a well-trained dog? I laugh this one to his seat as well.
Buzz buzz. My phone lights up. My heart takes a double beat. Instantly sweaty palms reach for the phone. “I’m heading home now,” it reads. I’m almost there I secretly reply. Looks like I need to kill some time, I don’t want to appear too eager. Too foolish. Too late for all of that, you eager fool. I drive into the congested avenue. A man in a long white T-shirt and sagging jeans with buzzed blonde hair and a washed out face stumbles down past the recently shut down bar. No one is up to anything admirable at this hour. I’m here with all the deviants. My people. More bars, on either side. All the Bros in their Ralph Lauren shirts and nauseatingly distracting cologne lean dominantly onto their giggling ladies and chatter away, stumbling here and there. Basic-ness at its highest expression. Everyone is taking full advantage of the Wednesday night specials. $10 pitchers, $3 wells, $2 shots. Drink away thoughts of this world, of our inadequacies, of our failures. Fuck tomorrow, here’s to now. I passed the bro’ bars to the more seedy bars. One in particular, always packed full of deviant, lackluster sardines is especially packed on this night. Something is in the air for everyone tonight. Are we all feeling it? Is this only for the deviant and wicked? I like it. I slowly pass the bar up, making sure not to run into the absent-minded drunks that stagger across the street. People are hanging out at their cars, lingering, not wanting to leave this night. Two tall black ladies lean over their car. Eating chicken wings, no doubt from that seedy bar where they are .50 a pop. A block up there is a heavily congested gas station. Full of people having an amazing drunk time yet equally full of people who are lost and hopeless. Where do I fit in this scene? Trashy, dull, and inadequate. Where are those people at? I pull into the gas station.
I’m hesitant to park in the front. Two guys in undershirts and sagging pants look in my direction. One guy’s pants are so far down I can see his pitiful grey boxers and the shape of his behind. I am immediately not attracted to him. I park farther away. I step out the car and into the bustling life of this corner of town. Laughter, yelling, stumbling, bumbling, existing. All around. I then become acutely aware of my attire. Greasy face, hair wild. It just doesn’t matter at this point. I walk towards the door. Wait, what am I here to get? Oh yeah, kill time. I need some gum. Smells like lamb curry. I reflect on my mother’s lamb curry from early in the evening. A comfort dinner. A please-stop-talking-about-morphine-drip-suicide-and-eat dinner. A guilt dinner. And the guilty ate it with much glee and guilt and gluttony. But now I smell like curried lamb. A typical plight of Indian women with guilting moms and famished hearts.
I open the door to the store. The excessive florescent lights are unwelcoming to the senses. It doesn’t flow nicely with this night. It’s crowded. The line is long. I feel several eyes on me. Drunk eyes. I notice the girl in the front checking out. Her ass was incredibly nice. I feel bad for noticing it so intensely. I am no better than the drunk eyes. I want to reach around and feel my own to gage a comparison. I don’t do it. I walk over to the gum section. High fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sugar, more words I can’t pronounce…it’s all crap. Grab the nostalgic one. Taste the past. Spearmint, this should calm the senses. I walk over to the haphazard line. Two guys are leaning against a rack of magazines. I cannot tell if they are in line. The shorter blonde guy in the red shirt appears a lot drunker than his buddy in the white shirt. Good ol’ boys, probably from south of the city, looking to have a good time. Looking to sloppily ejaculate in a trashy girl and go to sleep. Leaving the trashy girl to tend to her own pulsating organs. Poor hypothetical trashy girl. The good ol’ boys are leaning in and mumbling to each other about something. Their friend is in line about to check out. “Are you all in line?” I ask ever so politely. The short drunker one stares at me with a sad drunk face. He’s too obvious about it. Eyes move from my face to my chest and they stay there a bit before he answers in a little flustered fashion, “Uh, yea, but no. Please go ahead of us, sweetie. It’s fine. Please go ahead.” Thick country accent. I’m annoyed at his presence. I’m not your goddamn sweetie. I take my place in line. He continues to talk loudly with his friend behind me. I feel their eyes on me. I don’t like it. Yep, I have tits, pervert. No you don’t get to be with a colored girl tonight.
I hear him say to his friend “I’d love to screw someone tonight.” As if inviting all vaginas in the room to hear his roar and flock to him. Pitiful. They then get into some drunk play wrestle and white shirt gets red shirt in a head lock. Red shirt gets out of it and yells. “Aw man, don’t fuck with my hair now. Don’t fuck with it. My hair is my money. My hair is my money.” He sounds incredibly foolish. I am even more annoyed by his presence. I look in his direction, I don’t know why. He asks “Honey, is my hair messed up?” “No it looks fine,” I reply softly. Be kind to the foolish ones, they don’t deserve your rage. Save that for the cruel ones. He asks again. He is fishing for compliments. Softly and gently I reply again. “No it’s fine, you don’t have to worry about your hair.” His expression changes. That stupid feverish look that all foolish men get comes across his face. It’s a mix of cockiness and childishness. An ugly combination. His eye gaze is back at my chest.
“Where you from,” he demands to know. “Here.” He doesn’t know how to reply. He stares at me for a bit. Thinking some awful thought. Never mind, be mean to the foolish ones. They deserve it just as much. “Where are you going tonight? Looks like you’re just hanging out.” I feel incredibly irritated that this annoying stranger is making assumptions about my night. He better not ruin my nighttime high. I begin to look unfriendly. “Oh, you don’t know English now?” “No.” I hope that gets his blood boiling. More condescending remarks were about to spill from my mouth. I paused. You meditated earlier, be kind to this devolved being. I wasn’t sure what to say next. I look up next to me and a familiar face appears around the rack of magazines.
A familiar grin, a familiar greasy head of long hair in a bun. Dark skin, skinny, but incredibly nonchalant. The kind of nonchalance that makes one feel comfortable and at ease. A fellow Indian. We had been friends many years ago. A friendship based solely on the premise that we were Indian deviants and it was alright with us. A cocaine dealer. I smile big, relieved to be distracted from the pompous asses in front of me. “Hey man, how are you?” His eyes light up. “Long time no see.” “Yeah it’s been a while. Have you been in India?” He laughs. I wanted to ask for cocaine. That’s not appropriate. Don’t go down that road tonight. It’s an ugly one. ”No I haven’t been in India. You just never come out late anymore. I’ve been around here.” He is so nonchalant. I like it. “Yeah man, I don’t come at as much. I still live in this part of town though. Just usually sleeping.” Yeah I live in this part of town now, but who knows for how much longer. A great deal of sorrow washes over me. “Oh that’s cool. What else have you been up to?” Mischief. I don’t know how to reply. I don’t want to elaborate on my life. “Oh, I just finished my master’s degree and working now.” He looks at me amused. I continue. “Yeah I got my masters and now I’m a therapist. Been counseling people with chronic illness.” The guy in front of us in line turns around to look at me. To see if I look worthy of the role. I am most certain that I do not look like I fit the mold tonight. The guy takes a look at me up and down and turns back towards the register. I ask my friend what he has been up to. Had he been running any businesses lately? “No way. It’s too stressful. I needed a break. Running a restaurant is hard work.” He laughs at his own thoughts. “Yeah I can tell. I’ve been working at a restaurant on the weekends. The owner always seems stressed.” He looks at me with curiosity. The guy in front of us turns around again to look at me. Yes, I wear many hats. Stop judging me. I decided not to elaborate on the topic. I decided not to mention that I got married. I don’t want to explain why I’m here without him at this hour. It’s not a cute feeling. And God forbid that fucker, with the judgement of a thousand righteous gods, turns around one more time to size me up.
I realize the two good ol’ boys are still chatting away and have been talking in my direction the entire time. I feel okay though. Indians. We have so much distain and judgement for one another. We are all reminders to each other of the things we are taught not to like about ourselves. Yet when in situations like this, there is comfort in another Desi’s presence. An unspoken understanding of having each other’s back. I am grateful for my brownness in this moment. He quietly reads the Sanskrit tattooed down my arm. He understands without translation and smiles at me. Knowingly. I am comforted by this. It’s my turn to check out. Quickly whip out the cash, pay and walk to the door. I turn around and say goodbye to him. I am grateful that in a world as vast as this, one can feel connected by a simple common understanding. I feel gratitude for the ones who understand without explanation. I am grateful for the encounter. Grateful for the distraction from what is to come.
I open the door and head back into the beauty of this night. Back to the hustle and bustle of the drunk and damned. God, that air feels so good tonight. I exhale deeply. My decompression continues. I check the time. Time to head over there. You want this. You’re terrified but you want this. I slowly unwrap the gum as I walk to my car. “Hello, Lady!” A thick Punjabi accent bellows out. I look up around the lot and see my jovial cab driver from the other night. Windows down, checking his phone for his next customer’s pick up. My feeling of gratitude continues. I walk up to his car. I feel the need to apologize. “How are you tonight darling?” Every word he speaks bounces up and down. W’s are v’s and all a’s are long. “I’m much better tonight thank you.” I pause for a moment. I vaguely remember the other night. I look towards the back seat. Memories peak back up. Oh yes, I was a crying mess on this man’s seat the other night. A crying eager fool with foolish feelings and a throat full of vodka. I hope I didn’t say anything outrageous. “I’m sorry about the other night.” “It’s okay Beta. You had a lot to drink.” I find an incredible amount of comfort in his paternal affection. That Indian understanding. “I know. I was just a mess.” I laugh as though it’s nothing. I practice nonchalance. It’s hard. “I didn’t want you to drive home in your condition. I would have taken you back to your home. But you insisted.” I think back to that night. To hurtful words. To hot tears and tremors. I remember feeling completely alone. It was terrifying. I walked up and down past old Victorian homes. Wondering how I ended up here. Wondering how I was getting home. Wondering just how dull, inadequate and charmless I had become. I had attempted to walk to the bar I soberly parked my car at hours before. I was alone and alive. But it wasn’t a vitalizing aliveness. It was a regretful aliveness. I couldn’t dare call my husband to pick me up at 5am with no explanation. I could not dare call my father and break his heart at that hour. Who could I expose my chaotic broken self to? A kind stranger. That is who I called. “Thank you for your kindness. I appreciate it.” “Of course, you’re Indian right?” He asks with much excitement. “Yes, I am. You know Indian fathers. I couldn’t have you drop me off at his home without a car and explanation.” I didn’t mention my American husband. I didn’t mention that I live with my American husband only two blocks down from my car that night. I didn’t want to tell this man that I hate being a married woman. That the world was crushing me to pieces with its cruel expectations of what a woman should be. And as a result I’ve been hiding out at Daddy’s house, pretending to be a little girl again. That was too much. “Yes, I knew that beta. I figured you were in a hard spot.” I vaguely remember him handing me water. I thank him again. I feel like crying. Crying because people like him exist around lost and confused idiots such as myself. Maybe he was lost and confused once. I like that thought.
He gave me his card. Sunil Ajeet Kumar. I put it in my purse. I hope to never be in a situation to call him again. I hope this is the last time I see this good man. “Goodbye, Sunil Uncle.” His face lights up at my formal Desi manner. Giving him a glimpse of the respect and understanding of his motherland. A speck of love in a cruel city. It was the least I can do. I feel good about it. “Goodbye, Beta! Please call me if you are ever in trouble again.” I smile sadly and walk to my car. I’m perpetually in trouble Unclejii.
I sit in the car and I deeply exhale again. The effects of the meditation are apparent. Thoughts are slow and transparent. I pull out of the gas station, wary of the absent-minded drunks all about. Ms. Del Ray is still serenading me with her heartfelt sadness. I am driving towards him. Towards lust. Towards his thick beard between my legs. Towards orgasms that unravel my spine like silk from a spool. I know he is using me. Another notch on the belt. Somehow I just don’t care. I will play naïve girl all night. I accept the wrongness of this. I accept the sadness of my life. I will vanish from him in the early morning. He will brag about his rendezvous with a married woman and I will pretend it never hurt. He will never know the difference. I am safe this way. And in the morning I will have all the numerous credentials behind my name, all the accolades on my wall. I will sit in my office and pretend I am good like the rest of them. A well behaved human. Doing what society dictates. I will let go of the madness in the cage.
As I turn down the quiet street with all the sleepy lovers entwined in their beds above me, I feel calm. I exhale deeply once again and I park the car. I sit and reflect on the past 30 minutes. I feel amazing that in this vast universe, a speck of dust such as myself can find immense comfort from a familiar face, a kind stranger, and a displaced culture that helps us feel connected. I am in awe that even in the most chaotic moments, pockets of light can be found. Suddenly I feel beautiful and ready. Fierce and brave. And out of the crevices of my devious thoughts slips out some light. I feel like I am enough. Adequate. Yes, something can be said about the change of thought patterns after the hours of midnight. The madness is beautiful. I restart my quiet engine like a harsh whisper amongst the mugginess of the trees around me. I drive away towards the familiarity of my own bed. And if only for just this fleeting moment in time, I feel blissfully apathetic. •
Short Fiction Second Place
by Dawn Douthat
The soft curve of my mother’s hips strikes me as attractive, and I immediately find myself unsettled. I can’t get a boy to look at me, but soon she’ll be bringing home some road-weary stranger with beer breath and glassy eyes. She has twenty years on my 13-year-old spaghetti legs and, for no good reason, tells strangers at the Texaco that I’m her sister.
“I’m lonely,” she says, as her shoulders pump and release with a heavy puff of air. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
But, I already get it. My dad’s working out of town, and she won’t be lonely tonight.
She sways to some 70’s tune on AM radio — lyrics about a long cool woman in a black dress — the soles of her high heels unzipping across our sticky, tar-stained linoleum in my direction. “You won’t say anything, will ya?”
I shake my head, looking down at my flat chest, wondering if I’ll act like her when I get boobs.
She catches me watching her and shuts down her smile while smoothing her tossed-salad hair into someone else’s idea of cool. She’s frosted her exhausted eyelids pink to match her sharp nails and reckless lips.
Gripping an invisible thread in her hand, its unseen end slithering upward, she holds her fist aloft while she shifts her hips, practicing her dance moves. I whistle, flattening the notes a little, hoping she’ll look up. Maybe she’ll remember me and the brat love her and stay.
I circle all the best Friday night shows in the TV Guide but decide I’ll let her pick. “Mom.” I wait for her to gulp down the rest of her gin-and-Pine Sol. “MO-OHM!”
I wave the guide in the air. “If you show me how, I’ll make us popcorn? You can —”
“Where’s my watch?”
Something thick sticks in my throat. “Bub dropped it and,” I hesitate, “it broke.” Pulling on the knob to the junk drawer, I show her the cracked glass from the brat’s latest kill.
“Well, why were you letting him play with it? I can’t have nothin’ nice!”
Her eyes narrow into tiny slits just inches from my nose, and I want to scream back at her: That’s just a junky watch. I’m your daughter! Am I not nice?
But, I keep my mouth shut. We’re already two scabs ripped loose and never healing.
A commercial for used tires replaces the fuzzy guitar licks. The melody now plays only in her mind, but her feet dance anyway, dissonant. She picks up her brown suede purse, stained and faded with too much life, and rakes through it for her Zippo.
As she tunes the radio, I say nothing, content to let the dial land in a groove that satisfies. She twists the knob again, and static fills the hollows of the kitchen while she ignites a menthol. The fluorescent light catches in her eyes, a flash of anger under a cloud of carcinogens before she turns to the glass of the storm door and gazes at her reflection.
In the glass, I can see through her, into the darkest parts. Even now, behind her waxy, muted lips, her secrets are scorching a hole inside of her, blackening her guts.
Late tonight, when she’s alone again, she’ll crawl into bed, her makeup smeared and runny, and cry herself to sleep.
Maybe, in her dreams, there’s no Dad or me or Bub. Maybe there’s no song or static or dance either.
Jingling her keys, she gets my attention. “I saaid, if the phone rings, let the machine pick up.”
“What if Dad calls?”
“I’ll call him back.” Her eyes shift to her feet. “In the morning.”
“Mom, you haven’t even watched the new cable yet. There’s, like, a hundred channels.”
“I love you, honey. Don’t stay up too late.” The door slams, and I hear her drive away.
Picking up the remote, I hold down the button and strobe through each channel, pausing long enough to glimpse the screen.
Just when I settle on something, the phone rings.
“Hello?” At the sound of the voice on the other end, my chest tightens into a big, fat knot. “Hi, Daddy.” •
Short Fiction Third Place
She Doesn’t Say Anything
by Connor Pierce
It was a girl’s room.
I was never much for keeping track of them but the catalogue doesn’t, or I mean it hasn’t really been all that — I mean, they’ve all been pretty much the same room in my experience. The soft lights, 60 watt, poking out from shimmy-stopped tendrils always made me feel like I was underwater and slugging my way back to air. The shag rug and the table that screams the careful afternoon-long assembly of multiple third-growth trees. Another Audrey Hepburn saying hey from the wall over the dresser. The underwear she’s too lazy to pick up when she has company over next to the underwear she’d been wearing. And even before we got back to her place, even back when we were sitting outside Yellowbar bullshitting, it was pretty fucking clear to both of us that we hated each other on a structural, fundamental level.
So all that I really want to know is, may I smoke in here?
Carolyn on my chest is all chin and hair as she reaches over for her nightstand and grabs the beer she’d given me from her fridge before she’d sucked down her own in a flash on the way to her bed. I tell her I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
She looks me in the eye while she’s taking another drink and she tells me I’m an adult but she doesn’t say anything.
It’s not quite six in the morning and beyond the curtain the day’s starting to perk up into the sort of day it’s going to be. It’s dim and wet looking and the sort of day you stay inside and curl up in a ball and don’t do a damn thing besides maybe hitting the whiskey and sitting in the bathtub without running the water listening to talk radio.
She bites my shoulder hard enough I think she’s going to draw blood and then she gets up to go to the bathroom. I’m lying a second in my nest of smoke before I sit up and put my face in my hands and I’m staring at the wall like it’s a wall I’ve seen before but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I hear the fan and then the faucet. The way out is all the way at the other end of the hall and there’s a minute there where I really thought I would end up going, when I was thinking like I could get my underwear and jeans on and abandon my poor socks there by her panties as ambassadors to the nation but then I hear the toilet flush. The cigarette is making me nauseous but I have three left and I know I’m going to smoke them all before I get a chance to get the hell out of there.
She comes back in the room and hits the television on the way so it comes on but it’s just idling and the sound is all the way down. She flops down on her side of the bed and stretches and she looks at me but not so much at me as about me and that’s when I notice the rocking horse peeking out of the closet at us.
“Nice rocking horse,” I stumble up the flagpole.
She looks at it ’til she says thanks and sits up with her back to me. Her hair is wavier than I’d thought it was when one of us fumbled about breaking the butterfly clip on the way down. She asks me if I want to help tie her hair up and I tell her I’m not really sure how to do that. The sigh is breathier than it is frustrated and she says she’ll walk me through it. So I sit up and she starts telling me how to rope her hair up and around and which direction it needs to be going and I’m one hundred percent sure she could do this by herself but I don’t say that aloud despite the little jolt of electricity I get from my shoulder every once in awhile.
I haven’t quite managed to finish when she starts talking about the damn rocking horse. Turned out it hadn’t been hers, not originally, but it belonged to her friend Sam and she’d had it since they were little but that Sam had given it to her or it had ended up in her possession. Not knowing what I’m walking into, I ask her about who Sam was.
Sam was first girl who’d ever kissed her, back when they were eight. They’d been neighbors for years and years and they would go out biking the neighborhood and playing video games and they’d make up little stories. Sam was about her age, but she had a brother who was a little bit older than both of them and he’d come around all the time, too. They lived across the street and it was always funny to her how the house was a little too clean all the time. Their mother had owned a flower shop for a few years but around the time Sam kissed her she’d lost the shop and had been working up at the Kroger a few days a week while her husband was doing his thing, selling houses and whatever else he happened to be doing before what happened happened.
What had happened to him was he’d lost the job about a month or two before the first time Carolyn was kissed. He wasn’t bringing home clients the way he was supposed to or he’d gotten angry with one of those shitty young couples back in the ’90s or something like that. Carolyn wasn’t so sure what had happened, just that he was around the place a whole lot more. Sam had been coming over and staying over more and more all the time and she didn’t think anything of it because her best friend in the whole wide world was right there with her all the time and it was getting hot outside so they’d dance around in Carolyn’s air-conditioned bedroom and watch the little television she had and talk about the few experiences they’d ever had in life up to that point.
It was one of the rare days they were over at Sam’s and Sam was showing her the rocking horse her grandmother gave her when she turned five and how much fun it was to rock on it that Sam brought up that her dad was dressing up in a khaki uniform he’d been putting together and he was starting to get a bit weirded out by everybody who came over, speaking in some other language or trying desperately to learn it, watching too much of the History Channel. Sam said all this, in her little orange bikini and rubbing back and forth on the rocking horse and Carolyn said there’d been a sort of hotdog smell in the room and she had gotten dizzy watching her. She went home that night and had a hard time sleeping but Sam had helped carry over that rocking horse and there it sat in the corner of her room without notice from Carolyn’s mother but a sideways question about where she’d gotten it from her father. She laid in bed and counted the slats of her blinds she could see.
Sam had to be home at eight in the evening all the sudden and just as suddenly she couldn’t stay over at Carolyn’s anymore and nobody would tell her anything about what was happening and some of it, she told me, she just plain old didn’t really notice even though she’d heard her own parents talking about how Kevin Loduca had said something in particular to Mr. Evans down the way — really, about him being black — and had gotten his ass kicked right out there in the middle of everything. But for the most part it was all something of a dream to her and mostly she just noticed Sam going to the bathroom for longer and wanting to dance more and trying out dancing the way they’d seen on those hallowed VHS tapes Carolyn’s mother said she couldn’t watch until she was older.
The day Sam kissed Carolyn was in the dead of summer and they’d been outside rolling down the hill in front of their little suburban house in their little suburb out on the beltway and their knees were itching from the grass and they’d probably ruined their shorts. She stopped and took a drink of her beer and I think she was waiting for me to ask what had happened but at this point I was just kneading her shoulders and she went on ahead.
They’d ended up next to each other on the grass and Sam asked her if she’d ever kissed a boy before. Carolyn said she hadn’t, but she told me later she had been a late bloomer and thought boys were gross until she was nine or ten. Sam had rolled over and smiled and crawled atop her and her hair was in Carolyn’s face and she’d put her left hand on Carolyn’s thigh and Carolyn asked her what she was doing or was about to when Sam kissed her.
She told me she didn’t really remember what happened until Sam’s dad started shouting and pulling her off Carolyn, there in the middle of the front yard, and had carried her kicking and shouting all the way back to the house and that for a minute or two she’d just lain there with her shorts down to her knees and her whole body throbbing from her crotch, but less and less until finally she got up and pulled her shorts up and went inside. Nobody said anything about it.
That was the night Kevin Loduca shot his wife and his son and himself and he would have shot Sam too if Sam hadn’t snuck out, some way, somehow, and ended up over at Carolyn’s. It had been Carolyn’s dad who found Kevin sitting on the corner of his bed in his daughter’s room with his rifle in his mouth and wearing an Iron Cross he’d bought at some antique store and she said her dad wouldn’t tell her what happened but that he never really smiled around roses and after that night had never bought Carolyn’s mom flowers ever again.
She said Sam was around for a few hours but most of it was with Carolyn’s mom in the kitchen and that she’d had to stay in her room the whole time and she’d been laying there with Sam downstairs when she felt the throbbing come back and she felt blood all over her and she’d figured out why Sam liked rubbing up on that rocking horse so much. Then Sam had gone away to live with her grandmother in Illinois and though she’d get the occasional slice of information from her parents along the lines of Sam had graduated top of her class at St. Aloysius High School or that she’d gone on a mission trip or something along those lines. She’d found her Facebook and looked through her photos but she didn’t dare sending her a friend request. She’d thought about writing her sometimes when she got drunk but she never did. So in the end it was just her and that damned rocking horse, which she’d named Clyde, and the rest of it was the sort of thing, she said, you don’t really think happened but that one day you dreamed into existence while you kept waking up from one of those Autumn naps you just kinda fall into after you’ve been laying on your side long enough.
And then she was done and she said it was almost six thirty and that she’d thought about having another beer. She didn’t have work today and she had a thirty rack in the fridge and she was fine with the idea of drinking until we fucked again or passed out or whatever if I was. And I was. She asked me if I wanted one too and I said that’d be fine. She finally turned back around and she put her hand on my arm and she kissed me on my forehead and she had this thin little smile with no teeth and I could see her whole life, even the parts she hadn’t lived, flashing through her eyes for a moment and I saw myself holding her hair while she was vomiting and carrying boxes and a house we would have and then it was over and she pressed her head against mine. She tells me she didn’t mean to make me cry and it doesn’t mean that much to her anymore, but it means everything to her and she doesn’t say anything.
When she went into the kitchen to get the beer I sat up again. The fog was starting to kick up to the window and smoke was still clinging to the ceiling even with the fan turning lazy. I looked at the wall again and I looked at that fucking rocking horse and somewhere inside me there was somebody screaming but then she was back in the room again and her head was on my chest and for just a few seconds, I knew where I’d seen that wall before. •