Another intriguingly mixed collection this month. There are some very touching, emotional pieces here, and also some lighter ones. Hopefully, you’ll agree with me after reading them that every reader’s literary diet really needs both.
A BITE OF THE APPLE
An apple a day couldn’t keep the doctor away. Josh reflected that a full truckload might have done the trick though, if backed up carefully so as to squeeze the bastard against a wall until he went blue in the face, then purple and then…
It would not have brought Mary back, true, but might have prevented her being sent away from hospital to clinics to hospital again, in search of a cure that could not be found. She might have been able to remain home with him and he could have held her hand until the end, far from needle sticking leeches and dubious quacks. He would have fed her dreams and lullabies, spooning her favourite food into her gradually unresponsive mouth, looking at the light fading from her eyes, bringing darkness into his life. They would have shared the bed, he attempting to model his breath on hers in an attempt to notice should she fail in the night.
He might have been able to help her, when she just could not go on and tried to beg for an easier, swifter end. He would have invented Lilly-of-the-valley fritters for her, or oleander tea and held her tight in his arms during that last struggle.
An apple a day had failed to keep the doctor away, but enough arsenic from its pits might have brought peace and a welcomed escape.
’Ello, ’Ello, What’s All This Ear, Then?
Sergeant Constable of the Art Squad stared at the contents of the box. “Remind me again, constable, exactly what this has to do with us?”
“Somefink to do wiv’ an artist?” said his sidekick. Sergeant Constable sighed. Young
Constable Sargent hadn’t been in the squad long, and it showed.
“Exactly what, though?” said Sergeant Constable. “’cos it’s not a bleeding paintbrush, is it?”
“It’s not a bleedin’ easel, either, is it?”
“No, sir, it ain’t. And it ain’t a sodding 8 ml tube of Winsor and Newton Burnt Sienna, either.”
“No. Because what it is, Constable Sargent, is an ear. A human ear. A human ear what has become detached from its owner. Now, explain to me again what this has to do with art?”
“Well, sir, the lads upstairs say it’s ’appened before, like. This ear turns up a few weeks back, just like this one ’ere, and apparently this ’ere prossie says she recognises it as belongin’ to an artist client of ’ers. Chopped it off ’imself, apparently.”
“Rings a bell. Van something, wasn’t it? Or maybe he drove one.” He paused. “Doesn’t help with this one, though, does it? Unless he’s a serial self-mutilator.”
“Nah, we checked. ’e’s still got one left. Although ’e could’ve taken to lopping off other peoples’ ears instead …”
“Bloody hell. What sort of an artist are we dealing with, then? What kind of stuff does ’e do?”
“Fink ’e’s a painter.”
“A painter? Abstract or figurative?”
“Er … fig … figu … figgy …”
“I’ll take that as figurative, then.” The sergeant breathed a sigh of relief. “So chances are this ear is not part of an artwork, which is something at least. For a moment there, I was wondering if he might be some kind of conceptualist. Could have been his entry for the bleeding Turner. Bloody nightmare, conceptualists. This thing might have been worth zillions, and the insurance just won’t cover it. You won’t remember this, but one of them Hirst things turned up in here once. Pickled sheep, it was. Trouble is, we had the charity barbecue that weekend, and one of the lads thought it was supposed to be on the menu. Toughest mutton I’ve eaten in my life, I can tell you. Cost a bleeding fortune to sort out. And I had the shits for weeks.”
Constable Sargent was about to say something, but Sergeant Constable hadn’t quite finished.
“Then, of course, there was that André geezer. Chucked a brick through that window in Hatton Gardens? Loss adjusters had a field day. Claimed the stock had doubled in value when the brick was taken into consideration. And don’t get me started on that Bulgarian tosser Christo. Only wrapped the sodding nick, didn’t he? We were stuck in here for weeks. Nah. Conceptualists. Scum of the earth.” He paused for a moment. “Mind you, it’s not as if your bog-standard painters are the kind of people you’d like to spend too much of your time with, either. The more I think about it, I can almost see a possible pattern emerging here.”
“’Ow d’you mean, sir?”
“The bodily mutilation. First, you chop off your own ear. Then, you chop off someone else’s. And finally, you start on the limbs. Now who was that sculptor? Total psycho. Hacked off his model’s arms. Was he Greek?” The sergeant scratched his head, deep in thought. “Milo! That’s the bunny. Bloody nutter. Mind you, those sculptors are the worst of the lot.”
“So what do we do, Sarge?”
“What do we do?” Sergeant Constable gave a deep sigh and then shook his head. “Nah. We pass it back up to the regulars. Look at the jejeune quality of that cut there. If this geezer’s an artist, I’m a Dutchman.”
Jonathon Pinnock can be found at http://www.jonathanpinnock.com/
Ten years of weather had left no trace of the little cross I made for Bruiser. I probably would not have found the grave at all if it weren’t for the bottle of booze I saw half buried beneath the leaves. At first I felt pretty foolish about being there. I was ashamed of my past—disgusted and terrified by it—yet here I was, walking around in circles with my hand over my mouth as if that would be enough to stop the crying. It didn’t work. I had blocked it out you see, all the days I walked down the interstate with wet clothes sticking to my bony frame. All the nights I spent awake because I couldn’t stop shivering, and all the times flies buzzed in my ears as I stole the food from their mouths.
Bruiser came back to my memory harder than anything else, which makes sense because Bruiser had been the light of my days back then. We were pals that transcended the natural barriers of man and animal or whatever you want to call it. We really were pals. And now here I was standing at his unmarked grave, my hands on his dirty forgotten grave, weeping for times when we fought the world together.
The year was 1988 and I had been a bum for some time. I traveled with my thumb and ate what food people gave me and I always thanked them for it. I slept in truck stop halls and ditches and behind quiet schools. If you drove past a schoolyard and looked far off in the back of your vision, I was that little gray speck moving a little on the ground. The night always brought a blanket of melancholy and a kiss in the morning and my only ambition was for more liquid eraser. I walked and rode and fought and surrendered. I lasted. Merely existing, until I met Bruiser.
Bruiser and I met one chilly afternoon after a hard rain in . . . I don’t know where really. I found him sniffing around a trashcan at a truck stop. He had long curly hair that held all the smells of his travels, like wet fish and toilet bowl water but I didn’t mind. We were pals. I would build fires behind alleys, or in deserted factories, and tell stories while he would lie down and listen.
I cheered up a lot after Bruiser came along. I shared my drink with him once and was amazed at how he wanted more. I’ve never known a dog that liked to drink as much as him, except maybe for me!
I told him all my tales. About the nice house I used to live in, and how the refrigerator always had food in it, and drinks, whenever you wanted. I don’t think he believed me though, because he usually just rolled over onto his back and pretended to be running along with his black jaws flopping open like a smile.
I don’t think it was an accident. That son of a bitch swerved to the curb on purpose. He meant to hit him! How could man be so cruel? Why that should surprise me I can’t explain though, that was after all the very reason I took to the roads in the first place- to escape the world and those cruel things in it. I wanted to buck the system and though my eulogy may not have a fabulous career to boast of or a grand family, I can say it was a life forgotten of society. If only I could have forgotten them.
The life I had lived was not one that lent me the status of being worthy of help in times of crisis. I knew as far back as 1969 that the career I chose would never be found on the high school counselors list when the time came for the boys and girls to determine which direction they would go. No, I was a bum. My father told me so everyday until I finally just never came home.
Funny how in that tragic moment, his words of prophesy seemed to ring in my ears. I noticed the orange sky over the mountains. I noticed white fog curl around the horizon. I almost heard my father say: “Society hates those that don’t do for themselves. You’re a no good bum and one day you’ll see that no one gives a crap about ideals or dreams of some perfect world. You’ll see when you’re eating the garbage of honest hard working folk.”
I felt night coming and not only did I not know what town I was in, I barely knew what state. Tennessee I thought, but couldn’t be sure. The interstate screamed at me in stinging bursts as the tears came. I didn’t cry for myself, I cried for the mangy orange fur that had been my companion for the last six months. If they had hit me, I could understand them not stopping, but what did he ever do? The absurdity of it all broke my spirit hard and quick, like an ant beneath the foot of God.
I picked ol’ Bruiser up into my arms and headed up the six-foot bank into the darker dark of a forest at night while the moon hid her face behind thin high clouds that looked like faded yellow rose pedals. I tried to pretend he was just drunk, but it didn’t work. I knew he was dead.
I carried him away though a small pine thicket and into an enormous colony of oaks about a hundred yards from the edge of the road. The woods there were splendid. That’s about the only thing that has never changed with me-my love of nature. It’s so forgiving and so secure. Although man destroys it as fast as money can be made, it will always survive. If it dies then the hell with us all, we deserve what we get.
I can still remember the cool breeze blowing as I walked to the clear spot beneath the massive oaks. If my imagination hadn’t been so damaged, I would’ve been thinking that place was a land of giants. I would have been inventing some story about it and telling Bruiser about it while he growled and pulled on my jeans like he knew I was lying. But I was in no mood for jokes, my best friend was dead and in a strange way I felt like death was upon me as well.
Having no tools to dig my pup’s last resting place with, I resorted to use my hands. I dug through a shallow layer of leaves and acorns and eventually felt I had created a hole with enough depth to consummate a good burial plot for Bruiser.
I slid him into the dark ground and was only comforted by the coolness of the hole for him. The blackness of the hole swallowed him whole. I’d been noticing one thing about Bruiser every since the accident: his eyes wouldn’t look at me. They were dull and glassy but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that they wouldn’t look at me. It’s as if he was too ashamed at leaving me to look me in the eye. Poor bruiser! What a wonder of a dog he was!
I felt something should be said there so I spoke: “Bruiser, you shared the same life as me. You were the only one I could trust, but I fear I might have been the cause for your death. I seem to breed death to those around me, oh no, it’s not your fault Bruiser, it’s not mine or yours, it’s just the way of things. You were an awesome companion to me in this life and I’m sure your doing much better now than you were when we were rummaging through garbage cans. If you’re not anywhere, but simply forgotten, then I wish to be forgotten with you. If your life meant so little as to be ended upon your death than I only hope that I have the same fate. Still, you’ve gone –through no fault of your own– but I am alone now. The world out here hates me, and I hate it too. How will I make it without you? I’ll be seeing you soon my friend.”
I covered him with the broken pieces of acorns and leaves, grass and dirt. He seemed content to me, but I doubted it in my heart. I made a cross from two branches and a vine held them together. He would have been proud. I sat by his grave and built a small fire. I had no food but didn’t want any anyway.
The next morning I decided to change things. Bruiser‘s death had changed my perspective. I decided to try to use his death as a means to change my life. I wouldn’t be like him. So, as the sun crested in the sky, I raised my thumb and headed south. Eventually I managed to get cleaned up and get rid of the smell of the interstate from my skin. I shaved my red bee’s nest of a beard and with the help of a lot of free services, I got a job, and an education. Most people would think I would work in shelters or with the homeless or something, but not me. I couldn’t stand the memory of it. It would drive me crazy I’m pretty sure.
As I sat looking at his grave, the wind was really starting to blow. I could feel the temperature drop as the approaching storm tumbled closer through the sky. Hearing the interstate traffic mix with distant thunder was almost too surreal for me to keep a grip on my emotions. Terrible images of many long and cold wet nights were flashing in my mind as the lighting began flashing across the yellow sick looking sky.
The wind was really picking up now, and the bushy green leaves and limbs of the giant oaks above Bruisers bones were terrifying me. I felt guilty somehow. My stomach was turning and big cold drops of rain were starting to come down, so I decided it was time to go. I stood above his grave and reached into my pocket. I brought out the shiny gold-plated name tag and blue silk collar I had bought for him. Before I laid it on his grave, I read the inscription: “So long Bruiser. You saved my life.”
BB Gunza teaches middle school english in Texas, U.S.A. He is happily married with two kiddos, and has a short story accepted for publication from cynicmag.com. It is entitled “Ketchup Conspiracy” and will be in their November Issue.
Now the Only Drugs
Now the only drugs are prescription, for Penny’s stomach thing. She devoted a year to it like one of those mind-body disciplines from the East. I’m talking the works – the gourd, the mat, the mail-order cassettes. The smell of the apartment alone sent most of our crew packing. You’re different, though. Like that miniature horse on the shelf, last of the ceramic breed. Now it’s just one more thing in the place held together by tape. Only the first five or six pages of pictures in that album are in chronological order. Yeah, that’s Martin after they kicked him out of the band. He does look like shit. He said for a while everybody still came up to him and said Dude, play Bed of Nails, play Bed of Nails. Then came the famous OD. Which was right here on this futon, by the way. Why else keep it around, it’s not like it’s the world’s most comfortable. Sleep on it and dream of your favorite dead guitar hero. I forgot you weren’t around for all that. It’s different now that Pen’s worked things out with her mom. Foster-mom, I mean. I don’t know why I never got around to fixing that leak in the sink. We keep a plastic jug under the drip and use it to water the plants. Luxuriant, no? Want to know the secret? Baby teeth. You bury one in each. We get ours from her little niece. Foster-niece, whatever, it’s fun being the tooth fairy. That kid— the fruit never falls far from the tree, is that the expression I mean? Anyway at night the vines climb the shelves and open the books, and in the morning we get up and find their leaves tracing the pages. Like with Braille, only they don’t need the print to be raised. To make up for it Pen decided that Western medicine was OK, in its place. “In its place” was how she put it. Which is funny because one of the pills she has to take is a suppository. In her ass, mung-bean. Christ. Look at all that snow. Look at all that pretty pretty pretty snow. Where I grew up there was never any snow, so now when it snows it makes me feel like a kid. I know that doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I’m remembering somebody else’s childhood. It’s like these random memories creep in through the cracks at night. Pen’s noticed it too, with her. Someone forgets something and then it’s up for grabs, it goes wandering the lonely roads, like somebody’s stupid pet. Who knows how many we’ve taken in. Still it beats watching TV twenty-four seven, like Peg’s mom. Pen, I mean. I’m going to try igloo living. Anyway here’re the keys. This one won’t work if it touches the sides before its tip makes contact with the very back, the strike-pad or whatever. It’s like docking a fucking space ship.
Edmond Caldwell awoke one afternoon from uneasy daydreams to find himself transformed at his desk into a writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, Beat the Dust, DIAGRAM, and Sein und Werden. He was last seen in Boston.
Any Good Literature?
In the Sutton branch of Waterstones a 16 year old boy looks lost. From under his peaked cap he looks at the shelves of books like a Victorian explorer staring at the fringe of a jungle. His younger sister offers no advice; she slurps on a drink and blinks a lot.
The boy asks a retail assistant, only a few years older than himself, for advice.
‘You got any good literature, like?’
The young woman is stunned for a second, taking a tiny step back.
There is an awkward pause. The teenage boy thinks what to say, accessing a starved mental vocabulary.
‘Right. What sort?’
‘Umm,’ stunned again, the young woman rallies, thinking back to staff training and how to deal with the Illiterate-But-Willing-To Try types. ‘What do you want?’
‘Like good stuff. Gotta read more for my A.S.’
‘He’s gotta read stuff,’ says the young sister. Her brother nods.
‘Well, umm, what do you read?’
The exchange is now being watched by a short, round man whose entire body is covered by a grey coat which bulges around the middle.
‘Not much,’ says the sister. ‘It’s Christmas money he’s spending.’
‘Well, we can start here,’ says the retail assistant pointing in the general direction of the fiction centre. The books wail and squawk. Somewhere deep in the mass of
pages there is a roar.
‘Try Vanity Fair,’ says the small, rotund man. ‘That’s a good one.’
‘Is that about clowns and stuff?’ asks the teenage boy.
Ten minutes later the teenage boy and his slurping sister are at the till. He is laden down by large blue bricks: Wordsworth edition classics. The retail assistant serves him with an appropriate smile, wishes him no more than a nice day and moves on to the next customer.
Matthew Friday is a professional writer and graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmith College, London. He has had short stories published in Pens on Fire, Brand literary magazine, Dreamcatcher, Gloom Cupboard Print Edition and The Writing Shift. For more information about his varied writing please see www.matthewfriday.com
In The Field
The old man who lived down the road kept to himself. He lived in a two bedroom cottage on a bluff over the ocean. Each morning he went outside to select an orange from the tree by the door. He spent the rest of the day at his desk that faced out a window towards the sea. The old man sat there writing for hours and watching the waves. No laptop or even a typewriter just a pen pressed into a notebook.
The old man liked having a well groomed lawn. He was too old to care for it himself, he hired me and my neighbor, Rye, to mow it. We came over every Friday in the summer.
We took turns pushing the mower and emptying the catch basket. I hated when it was my turn to empty the damn thing. The basket was heavy, it was a long walk to the brush pile and itchy bits of cut grass always found there way into my shirt.
When it was my turn to push the mower Rye took a break and smoked on the bench by the garden. One day last summer we split a cigarette. It was my first smoke and the end of his first pack. Now he was a regular chimney. Three years older than me, he knew all about girls. There was a rumor at school that he went up this girl’s shirt and she gave him a blow job.
Every two weeks the old man gave us forty dollars each, always in cash. He’d dig into his pocket and pull out a clump of bills that I’d help him count. Though he was shy and rarely spoke he was a nice old guy. He tipped us for avoiding his flowers and he would put out iced tea on hot afternoons.
One day we finished early. I wanted to go to the beach but the water was still too cold for swimming. Instead I followed rye to the big field behind the house. We sat in the tall grass. Rye popped his head up to make sure we were alone.
“This is good stuff, I found my mom’s new hiding spot,” he said handing me an open bottle. I hesitated. “What’s the matter, never drank before?”
“I’ve drank. Plenty of times.” I said.
“Oh yeah, when?”
I took a sip. It tasted like water until it hit the back of my throat, then it burned. It was how I imagined gasoline tasting. The drink gave me a chill all through my body and I tried not to let Rye see me shudder. He chuckled and took a long, effortless gulp.
“It’s a little strong.”
“Whiskey’s supposed to be strong. Drink it up, we better enjoy it while we can. Mom kicked my ass last time I stole a bottle, spatula across my face. When I came home with my forty bucks she made me give her twenty for another one..”
“You let your mom beat you up?”
“Shut up. It’s none of your goddamned business.”
Rye lit a cigarette and laid back in the grass. “drink up man,” he said. My vision started to get blurry and the field began to spin.
When I came to Rye was gone. My shirt was covered in puke and the old man was standing over me. I got up. I was uneasy on my feet so he helped back to his cottage. He cleaned me up and gave me a shirt to wear. I passed out again, this time in the old man’s house. I woke up at home, my parents were angry. The old man didn’t call me the next Friday. Rye hadn’t heard from him either. The old man’s lawn grew long that summer and his garden filled with weeds. We never saw him again.
My parents were married for forty eight years, from the time my father was twenty-one and my mother twenty. When they died, it was five months apart. That’s the way marriage used to be. Or so it seems. Maybe a lot of unhappy couples stayed together out of habit or social pressure. I don’t know. It just seems that marriage used to work better in the old days, whenever that was. Most of the guys and gals that I grew up with have been through two or more marriages. I don’t know why my generation is like that. It’s just the way it is. So, I wasn’t that surprised when I learned that another friend of mine had a marriage that had run aground. The reasons, however, were not what I might have expected.
I ran into Jake MacPherson at the mall. I had met him in college. We had stayed in touch after graduation, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time, not since his wedding in fact. I asked him, “How are you and Tammy?”
“We’ve divorced,” he said.
“Why? You seemed so happy together.”
Jake grimaced. “Cruel and unusual punishment.”
“She accused you of that?” I was shocked. Jake had never struck me as the bullying sort.
“No. I accused her.”
“Chinese Opera?” I was puzzled. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Tammy got into Chinese Opera. Saw it on television and fell in love with it. Personally I think it sounds like cats fighting. But she liked it. She liked the singing and the costumes, all the acrobatics and subtle gestures. She started buying CDs, watching operas on the Internet, and then she found a place where they taught it. After that I completely lost her. It was as if she had joined a cult. She was out at practice six hours a week and when she was home there was always Chinese Opera blasting through the house. It didn’t matter what room she was in, you couldn’t get away from the sound. It penetrated the walls and seeped into your ears. It was horrible.”
“Did you try talking to her about it?”
“I did,” Jake assured me, “but her response was that I should give it a try, join the school. Man, I couldn’t. Then we started getting invited to parties thrown by friends she had met through Chinese opera. There would be lots of food and liquor. That was okay, but then they’d start singing. One after another for hours. Made you want to blow your head off.”
“Wasn’t there anyone there you could talk to at these parties?” I asked “Anyone not involved in opera?”
“I told you it was like a cult. They were all into Chinese Opera. They dragged their whole families in. I guess I should have seen it coming from the number of divorces and hollow marriages
I was curious. I asked Jake, “Did they ever actually put on an opera?”
“Quite a few,” he said, “though the my wife and her friends only played minor roles. They brought in professionals from China and New York for the leads. I had to sit through many of them on weekends, the whole time knowing I could be watching a ball game or auto racing. It was a slow killer. That’s why I had to leave. Every man has a breaking point, and my ears could not take any more.”
I told him, “You have my sympathy.”
“How long has it been since the split?”
“Six months,” he said, “but there is still some paper work left.”
I wondered, “Are you seeing anyone?”
“What she like?” I asked.
“Well, she’s blond, a little chunky but not overly so and she’s into country western music.”
“Country western music?” I said. “Man, are you sure you ain’t jumping from one frying pan into another?”
“Maybe,” Jake smiled. “but at least I can understand the lyrics.”
Joseph Farley is the former editor (for 24 years) of Axe Factory