Category Archives: Fiction

I sell first serial rights when I sell fiction, so here’s me making the most of retaining all other rights.

5 Ways My Agent Screwed Me

I had a post several months ago where I finally felt free and comfortable enough to talk about the novel (HABITS AND HIJABS) that I’ve been working on for nearly a decade. The novel, once represented by an enthusiastic agent, has fallen completely and utterly through and I am now just as well off as if I had never had an agent to begin with. I am left trying to find a new agent, all while feeling colossally screwed by the last. Let me count the ways:

5: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION

I’ve been thinking about this since receiving THE CALL from my new agent. During the conversation, I was going through a list of questions I meant to ask, and the one that sticks out to this day, three years later, was this: I constantly write short stories between novel projects, is that something you will also be representing or are you sticking just with the novel? 

A simple No, just the novel would have suited me fine. But I didn’t get that. I got a rambling diversion that told me through implication that she wouldn’t be touching my short fiction. For three years I wondered why she wouldn’t just tell me no, why we had to hang up with that still lingering. Agents are supposed to be blunt, no-nonsense people, right? And it’s not like I got the chance to follow up with her. I never spoke to her again. I spoke to her assistant several times, but that brings me to…

4: Who, exactly, is my agent, and what is she doing?

My now-nullified contract clearly states that my agent is the head-honcho in charge of the whole agency. However, my agent never once directly emailed me, it was always relayed through her assistant, and like I said, the only time we spoke one-on-one was that first phone call.

Piddling stuff, yes? Well, sure, except that all my revisions and updates were sent to the assistant, and all the feedback came from the assistant. I recall one particular phone conversation that went along the lines of “I’m afraid I can’t send this along to Victoria, it’s just not where she needs it. I think we need to consult an editor or book doctor.”

Was my agent not reading my work? Were the comments coming from the agent through the assistant, or simply from the assistant? Was I back in the realm of submission and rejection? Seriously, I turned in numerous drafts of the novel, each time crossing my fingers like I’d done so many times with short stories, hoping I’d finally gotten it right…

3. Okay, I need an editor. Wait, they cost HOW MUCH!?

$6500. That’s how much. Now, before you go running around screaming about how this was a scam and I should have checked Predators and Editors and done my homework and all….I did my homework! You can Google the agent’s name and the editor’s name and find zero report of anything remotely scammy. I even had a correspondence with Victoria Strauss from Writer Beware, and she was cautious, but not surprised or overly concerned. No complaints.

So okay, there were two editors. My agent pressed me to pursue one, Benee Knauer (who is actually very awesome), but I avoided her at first because she was close to the agency. I went with an editor via referral from another editor, and I was happy with the work that I put into that rewrite. But. When I resubmitted the novel I was told it still fell flat. After some reconsideration, I decided ultimately to go with Benee Knauer. To do this, my wife and I discussed it and we agreed we could spend our tax return on this edit. It made me sick to do it at first, but again, Benee is awesome and I will never regret working with her. But my agent’s response to this rewrite was…

2. A form letter and vague invitation for future work

I know I’m compressing three years of writing and rewriting and agent correspondence here, but keep in mind that I had a signed contract that said this woman would represent my book. That she would work to sell the book. That she would read the fucking book.

Listen, I’ve been doing this for a long time, since the time when agents and journals preferred paper submissions and SASEs. I’ve received mass-produced rejections in numerous forms: 1-inch strips, half-sheets torn just off-center, and full-page form letters. I know what a form letter is, literally and metaphorically.

When you get a form letter, it means your work wasn’t read. It means you’re being passed over for better, more promising things. My agent sent me a form letter that was quite long but totally lacking in any specifics about my novel. This is crucial to understanding how completely and utterly screwed over I feel. I was supposed to be a represented writer with a work-in-progress, and yet I wound up being rejected just the same as all the other instances in the last 12+ years. When you think about it…

1. Having an agent has been like paying out of my ass to have no agent at all

I can find plenty of people who don’t give a shit about my writing. It isn’t for them, I get it. But your agent isn’t supposed to be one of them. They’re supposed to be the ones who, once you’ve entered into a contractual relationship, go to work for you. I’m not naive, I don’t expect an agent to take a novel that hasn’t been fully realized to an acquisitions editor. But I do expect honest and specific feedback (#2), some sort of common sense approach to editing rather than just telling me repeatedly to pay for an editor (#3), and an open and direct line of communication (#4 and #5).

The truth is that before this agent, the novel was well-liked by the friendly and encouraging readers at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (when it still existed), and probably could have been self-published at any point and generated some modest income that would have netted a profit by default, because I wouldn’t have spent the money or lost time to devoting my attention to this singular pursuit for this specific agent over the course of our shitty relationship.

The absolute worst part is that I am still where I was three years ago, back to querying agents who will hopefully want to read part or all of my novel. So far I have several rejections and one partial request. That’s super. Odds are very high that I will throw up my hands at some point and do what I should have done years ago: saunter up to the old CreateSpace portal and upload the novel to the Amazon marketplace. At this point I have nothing else to lose.

God, this absolutely blows. Writing it out didn’t even help.

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Your Search for the Best Writing Software/Smartphone App is Dumb (and so are you)

I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.

–Wendell Berry, “Why I am NOT Going to Be Buying A                                                                 Computer.” New England Review. 1987.

When your editor asks you to write everything on a typewriter for a week, say no. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. And don’t look back.

–Cory Blair, “My Torturous Week of Writing Only on a                                                                Typewriter.” American Journalism Review. October 29, 2014.

While I doubt Mr. Blair has ever read Mr. Berry’s timeless (and several times reprinted) essay, his attitude certainly suggests he might come across it by accident and roll his eyes.

This animosity between the worlds of typewriter and computer is what I hope to splice myself into today. You see, I live in a world between Cory Blair and Wendell Berry. I was raised on an electric typewriter. Then I was raised on a word processor (with a typewriter function and a yellow/black screen). And then we got a computer. As an adult, I have written several stories on typewriters–some of them rough drafts of eventually published pieces. Some of them just drunken hammerings.

I love the computer. I love the typewriter.

Cory Blair is an idiot for trying to use the typewriter as a computer, for thinking that the laptop of today is used exactly as typewriters were used prior to the rise of the personal computer–of placing our take-it-everywhere mentality on a time-continuum, ad-infinitum, meaning before the typewriter we hauled printing presses and jars of ink and blocks of paper and pieces of charcoal and sticks of dried clay and rolls of sheepskin to their time-appropriate gathering places–cafes, train stations, hitching posts, swamps, etc. He seems to think, somehow, we were dumber sixty years ago. You can see this thought appear on his face in a photograph that accompanies the article. He stands in a hallway, hauling the 40-pound typewriter behind him on a luggage cart. Like a moron.

Now, Wendell Berry, on the other hand (at least the Wendell Berry from 1987), is also an idiot. In his now-historic essay, he preaches of the typewriter as an almost divine creation, something bestowed upon him that, magically, consumed no natural resources during its production. Never mind the hundreds of tiny arms and pivots, all methodically punched out by an assembly line machine producing thousands of identical typewriters in a factory consuming 1.21 gigawatts of electricity per annum, driven from the factory via highway and interstate in a pre-smog-conscious world, packaged in crisp, fresh cardboard straight from the forest. Never mind that the 19th Century device revolutionized record keeping and document making much as the computer did for the 20th Century. And does it matter that Berry’s railing against corporatism and consumerism was stamped out on a machine made in 1956, just a year before Royal Typewriters would manufacture its 10-millionth typewriter? Does it matter that Royal is now Royal Consumer Information Products, Inc., a company that still produces boring office products with the Royal name stamped on it? Yes, I can thank Google for this systematic debunking of one of America’s great sentimentalist grandfather authors–but you know? I could do it without Google, too. And without a computer.

In addition to being brought up using typewriters and word processors and computers whose most awesome feature was MS-DOS, I also grew up using real-life card catalogs and performing real-life library research for written assignments. For crying out loud, I used colored pencils to highlight photocopies of book excerpts. The computer (and its ever-increasing access to scholarly sources), dear new writer, allows me to do all this research far more efficiently, effectively, and get closer to a finished product faster than at any point in my writing history.

So you, dear new writer, are also stupid if you ask me my opinion on the best writing software or application for your computer or smartphone. When I discuss writing with other writers (which I really, truly despise doing, but do so out of courtesy when I hear the words–“Oh, Joseph is a writer, you should talk to him about writing“) it is guaranteed that I will be asked what software I use to write. Word, you dolts. I use Microsoft Word. 2007, 2010, 2013? Uh, I guess. I never thought about what software I used, except that every so often the features on the ribbon change places, and sometimes I long for the simplicity of Office 97. If you don’t have Word, OpenOffice Writer is pretty much the exact same thing.

Now, I’m not saying you’re an idiot for having a preference–if you take nothing away from this rant, take that at least–and in fact what I’m saying hasn’t been said yet. After stammering my way through my answer, I always get the protest-as-clarification–“No, no, I mean what writing program do you use to format your writing and block out distractions?”

OH! My mistake! Microsoft Word. Whatever version is on whatever computer I use. That’s what I use. Word.

“NO! Focuswriter? Storyweaver? Dramatica? WriteitNow? WritewayPro? PowerStructure? Powerwriter? Contour? Writer’s Blocks? Master Writer? Storybase?”

Like you’re asking Mickey Mantle just how he got to be so damn good. What’s your secret? Because you want to have all the same advantages I have. I know, I know, because my name is one you’ve never heard and yet someone just told you I was a writer and you think maybe they know what they’re talking about.

The question doesn’t have to be directed at me. It can be anyone asking a writer for advice. But the advice is inherently garbage, because it doesn’t matter. And you shouldn’t be so worried about software specifically for writers. Don’t you own books? Real life books on a shelf over your writing space that you can reach up and refer to when you need to? Because thumbing through Gray’s Anatomy is way more satisfying than Googling “those awesome looking bones below your neck.” And can’t you format your own Word document like a big kid? And can’t you refer to an actual book for spacing and formatting guides–like, say, Guide to Style? Shouldn’t you be more worried about what written content you prefer to pull inspiration from rather than what computer program you’re going to use to hack your way through a mental catalog of tepid literary ideas?

The search, the struggle to find the perfect writing software that turns off distractions, that helps with formatting, that helps you build characters and stories and plots, is really just you putting off your due diligence as a writer. It is a huge distraction in itself. If you devoted your anxious energy to reading for pleasure–to exploring the depths of your curiosity through the written word–rather than to nitpick the pros and cons of every writing program available for $49.99, you might just realize that you’re the best writing program. You can make up your own rules, you can do anything you want on paper (or, uh, screen). But you have to be generating words to do so, and it doesn’t matter how the words come out.

So, when you ask for writing advice–is that the best you can do? You have the opportunity to ask anything, anything at all of a fellow writer (however well-known or not) and the only detail that matters to you is what the author has downloaded? Are you, dear new writer, a complete imbecile? If that is truly the only curiosity you can muster about craft, there is no software available for you that can help.

The effect of technology on the written word is one of efficiency, and that is aimed specifically at the act of writing itself, not on tasks associated with writing such as formatting, character and plot development, and editing. My take on technology and literature is that we, as writers, will naturally gravitate toward a system where we are most efficient and effective. For me, the computer (and Word) allows me to type at the speed at which I think. I don’t know what the next innovation in the written word will be, but I’m sure my sentiments will echo Mark Twain’s as he reflected on his first typewriter:

…I will now claim–until dispossessed–that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature…The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells…He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.

–“The First Writing Machines,” Hartford, March 10 1875.

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Habits and Hijabs

To date, I’ve been very good at beating around the bush when it comes to being a writer. I don’t like to discuss it when I’m around other writers, regardless of where they are in their careers. I have done so because I felt it was my duty to show great humility when it comes to my accomplishments, talent, and ambition. However, it’s been pointed out to me that the way I approach it is not through humility, but through poor self-esteem and lack of confidence. Am I not proud of the good work I’ve produced? Of the dedication I’ve put into developing that talent? Wouldn’t I rather be writing full time than anything else? Of course, but I’ve stood in my own way.

So here I go, preparing to out myself as prideful, ambitious, and talented.

I have an agent (Victoria Sanders), a novel (Habits and Hijabs), and an editor (Benee Knauer). At present, I’m in the process of editing the novel for perhaps the sixth time with Benee’s guidance, and I’ve been working toward this singular goal since I started playing with the Brother word processor my mother bought when I was in second grade.

I have just shy of a dozen published short stories to my name, a handful of non-fiction articles, and occasionally I write for a Kentucky tourism website.

What’s funny is that I just realized this week that I have a friend who didn’t even know I was a writer. That’s not being modest, that’s just being closed-off.

Let me get weird and personal in an attempt to explore why I am this way. 99% of my life has consisted of me not speaking up when I should have, not having the composure to carry myself in a debate, not having the confidence to stand up for myself. You know how you think of the best comeback when you’re back home all safe and sound? Just imagine that happening every day for as long as you can remember, every time someone talks to you. You never say what you mean, what you need, what you want. You feel guilty for having something to say.

Habits and Hijabs is a beautiful book. I say this not because I want to oversell my new pride and self-confidence, but because I am profoundly connected to the characters, world, and story I wove nearly 6 years ago. When I first wrote it, I titled it The Appalachian, and the only thing beautiful about it was the main character, Maggie, a sixteen year-old runaway. I put it away for a couple of years thinking it was one of those projects that wouldn’t go anywhere. When I got it back out a few years ago, I liked it enough, put some work into it, and entered it into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.

Round 1: From 5,000 to 500 (I think). Made it through. Nice.

Round 2: From 500 to 100 (I think). Made it through. Huh.

Round 3: Semifinals (Top 50…I think): There’s my name. There’s my book. “Honey, come look at this…”

And that’s as far as it went. I was ecstatic. Didn’t care that I didn’t win. Didn’t care that I was so close yet so far. It meant the novel was viable–people would read it and like it…but it needed work.

So with another round of edits, I went the route of submitting to agents (for the umpteenth time in my career) and got the usual round of form letter: Not what we’re looking for, good luck in the future, sorry, we’d like to represent your novel pending structural revisions and editorial development.

Damn, that sucks.

“Honey, come look at this…”

So, this novel has been pending representation for a while as I go through the editorial process. The first attempt with a professional editor was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t what I needed as a writer. You see, I’m a special kind of stupid…

“Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.” --Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I’m not brilliant at the novel but I’m persistent. Now, after hundreds and hundreds of attempts at short story writing, I’ve become semi-brilliant–that is, I can occasionally pump out a stellar story–but that persistence is what gets them published. I’m still submitting stories I wrote years ago because I know they’re good. They just need to hit the screen of the proper editor at the proper publication at the proper time.

Back to novels. Being semi-brilliant at the short story means I have the ability to write, edit, and submit one within a week (or trash it and move on). I don’t have a formula, but I can quickly get in the Short Story Zone (SSZ (c)) and have a rough draft over a weekend. Single story line, single-sentence revelations, characters you only want to be with briefly. I got that. Trying to translate this same skill to the novel is a lot like a gold-medal sprinter deciding to do a marathon in the middle of training for the 50m dash. Vomit. Vomit everywhere.

Or, back to writing, it results in flat storylines, flat characters, and ponderous revelations that absolutely make no sense because you’re 100 pages in and you realize every other page is trying to be too…revelatory…important…significant?

The most common critique I got from Victoria Sanders after several successive revisions was that the storyline and characters were undercooked. Undercooked? I got it. I’ll fix it..I think..I’ll cook it more. I’ll be the grillmaster of literary perseverance.

Enter Gordon Ramsay yelling at the top of his lungs: “It’s fucking raw! Are you trying to kill people? Get your shit together, man!”

See, if you don’t know what undercooked means, then you’ll probably do something stupid like put more salt on your steak or hit it with a hammer and put it in the fridge. I had no idea what Victoria really meant. Whew. It felt really, really bad to admit that. Much worse than I thought it would. I’m glad it’s out in the open.

Enter Benee Knauer–a woman whose name you’ll find in the Acknowledgements section of many books in your local bookstore. Go on and look. You’ll find one. There you go. Benee absolutely knows her shit, and she knew my shit before I even knew there was shit to know. I’ve been working with her for a few months and so far I’m floored by my experience with her. I’d love to go into detail about working with Benee (ie, what working with an editor is actually like and why I love it/need it/crave it) but I’m afraid that has to wait for another entry. The point of this entry was simply to tell you that I’m a writer–no self-deprecating joke about being mediocre and no humility whatsoever–and I’m on this journey that sometimes I forget about because at the same time I have a lot of other things going on…like real life (Dad stuff, work stuff, drinking stuff). Right now, I need to stop procrastinating and actually get to work on Habits and Hijabs. Seriously, I wrote this post instead of working on my book.

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Bone Machine

Don’t mention my sperm and your egg have joined.

Bone Machine first appeared on Pindeldyboz.com on July 9, 2007

The order goes cattle, pig, and at the end of the day the butchers get worn out and hack too much at the pigs’ bodies, leaving them mangled with bone shards and gritty marrow spilled on the tile.  I flood the butcher room to wash out the blood and I watch the animal cells with their mitochondria and golgi bodies gush down the hole in the floor.  Then I pick bone fragments the size of my thumbnail out of the mesh drain.

Today, the butchers twisted an oxtail cut in the band saw, the oval bone blackened and misshaped, and left it on the floor, kicked beneath a stainless steel table.  I pick off most the meat and put the bone in my hip pocket so I can feel it jab my pelvis as I steam the slabs.

When I get home, Anise is asleep on the couch, her shirt shifted so I can see her bellybutton like a plastic valve on a beach ball.  She sweats in her sleep, her dark hair is damp and heavy and matted to the phone.  The antenna nearly stabs her eardrum.  The storm coming in blocks the radio signal, and the mint-green stereo backlight flickers across Anise’s skin as the station fades in and out.  She looks like an aquarium display.  I crouch by her in the dark and green, press my hand to her belly and feel for kicks.  Beneath her skin, our child pats my palm.  The dual heartbeat is its cells growing.

I don’t want Anise to wake, so I head in a lanky, sneaky gait to my closet-studio by the bathroom.  The studio door shuts softly on the felt, leftover from the once-darkroom.  I turn on the white halogen lamp, and put the oxtail in a metal tub where I will dissolve the remaining meat with acid.  I select a new bone shard, the size of two thumbnails, from the margarita glass and clamp it in the silver alligator clip by the magnifying glass.

First, I shape the bone with a rasp, then I take a steel gouge to carve the features.   Today, I carve out gills, scales, and oversized eyes for the Carassius auratus, or goldfish.  When it’s done, Anise will say “Cute,” and I will smooth and polish the piece with a swatch of hard leather.  As I carve the fish’s exaggerated puffy cheeks, he calls.

I keep a list of things Anise is not to mention to my father taped to the phone.  I hear Anise answer in her half-sleep voice.

Don’t mention school.

Don’t mention you’re white.

Don’t mention my sperm and your egg have joined.

God, please don’t mention your mother’s Jewish.

Anise knocks, then opens the door and steps in.  The room shrinks.

“You smell like bleach again,” she says, handing me the phone.

“You smell like bleach?”  Father.

“I was cleaning the kitchen.  Salmonella.  I made curried chicken,” I say.

Anise lifts her shirt and presses her belly against my arm.

“Your mother cleans with just hot water,” Father says.

“Mother grew up in a felt hut,” I pat Anise’s stomach.

“Clay.  She lived in a clay house.  Her parents weren’t nomads.”

“Fine.”

“How are your studies?”

Don’t mention school.

“Are your marks good?”

Anise mouths the word, “Feel.”  The baby kicks my palm.  Hard.

“I have a job.”

Don’t mention the baby.

“Why?  Am I not sending enough?” Father asks.

“You send enough.”

“We don’t have to spend so much.  Your mother loves the shopping, though.  She always tell me about going to the bazaar, ‘Oh at the bazaar I never thought I would be able to afford anything, we were so poor when I was a child.  I thought I would have to barter my life away.’  She—“

“You don’t have to stop shopping.”

“Tell him to send money for a ring,” Anise says, her eyes widen and she clasps her hands over her mouth.

“What did she say?”

“She asked how mother is.  How she likes Dubai.”

“She misses Tehran.  Too much construction here.”

“I read one-fourth of the world’s construction cranes are in Dubai,” I say.

“Probably.  Your mother went shopping last week.”

“As always.”

“The Shopping Festival started a couple of weeks ago.  There are millions of people walking around Dubai with tote bags.”

“Kiss me,” I whisper.

Anise leans down and puts her lips against my cheek.  She smells better than Clorox and is less stuffy than steam.  I palm her belly and the built-up fumes make me feel like I’m floating in cytoplasm.  We can bypass the membrane by osmosis, leave everything else on the outside.  It will just be the three of us, two chromosomes and the nucleus.

“Adel?”

“I’ll tell him,” I think aloud.

“Did I tell you about the Premier?”  Father asks.

My father was a refrigeration mechanic.  He owned the largest refrigeration company in Iran.  The Premier wanted to refrigerate his bedroom with fifty feet of brass tubing.  My father told him to do the job correctly he would need nearly one thousand feet.  Then my father became popular.  He installed refrigeration tubes for representatives, ministers, even the Shah.  Turning a house into a refrigerator was cheaper than air conditioning at the time.  Then he retired and moved to Dubai.

“You always tell me about the Premier,” I say.

“That’s all it takes.  No compromises.  Ingenuity.  I didn’t do anything special, Adel.  I don’t want you feeling incomplete, living off my money.  I want you to be a professional,” I can hear the spit in his mouth like he’s just eaten candy.

Don’t mention the baby because it’s not on Father’s to-do list.

“That’s why I got a job.”

“I see,” he says.

Don’t mention your mother because Father has prejudices.

Anise picks up a finished, polished pig and dances it in front of my face, cooing.

Don’t mention the baby because we are not married.  We are not married because he has not met you.  He has not met you because you are white.  You are a Jew.

“Anise is pregnant.”

“And school?”  Father asks.

School is not pregnant.  I am no longer in the school’s womb.  It won’t pop out a Dr. Adel Shirazi.

“I see.  What is your work?”

“I clean pig blood out of a butcher shop,” I say.

Click.

I ask Anise to sit in my lap, to hand me the small drill.  I put a hole in the fish’s dorsal fin, then run silk thread through the hole.  Anise hands me the hanging mass of silk thread and pig bone, and I tie the new fish onto the baby’s mobile: the driveless mechanism.  The bone machine.

I show Anise the oxtail bone, with the edges singed by the butcher’s band saw.  I’ll hang it by braided silk in the center of the mobile.  The oxtail is going to be the nucleus of the bone machine, and I’m going to carve our child’s initials into it.

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Optimism

Ignacio stopped by a prostitute sleeping in front of his apartment, “Wake up,” he told her, “I want you to stay with me.”

Optimism first appeared alongside Lucky Jack in Happy, issue 20

Ignacio’s thin fingers worked over the pile of moist, crushed tobacco atop a single, perfect leaf.  In a swift movement, his hands manipulated the leaf into a long tube and met his tongue, and as his right hand set the finished cigar in the stack, his left grabbed another full leaf, and as soon as it was on his worn wooden tabletop, his right hand had returned to put a line of tobacco on it again.  The same quick movement turned it from pile to cigar, and he completed his two-hundredth cigar of the day.

His head was wrapped in the elastic band from a pair of underwear, wrapped in a cotton cloth, it was wet as if from swimming in the ocean, the sweat dripped in his eyes.  The sound in the room was the swish and rustle of tobacco leaves, thousands of paper-thin, thick-veined leaves being twisted, licked, and stacked, there was the machine-gun-like taktaktak of the single oscillating fan in the corner of the room, the blades scraping the metal cover, slightly off balance.  At the front of the room sat a man reading a book into a microphone.

“’This is a foolish scheme,’ the King told them.  ‘I am well aware that my country is nothing to write home about; but when you are reasonably happy somewhere, you should stay put.’”

Ignacio stumbled when he heard the last line read aloud.  He dropped his leaf and tobacco scattered across his table.  Around him he heard the twisting and wrapping of dry leaves, the light hollow plops of the finished cigars being stacked together.  As he tried to push the tobacco onto the large leaf, he heard only more cigars being completed.  When he recovered and stacked his cigar, he calculated that he would be short by five cigars by the end of the day.  He tried to hurry once before, but the anticipation of quickening each careful gesture had caused him to crush a leaf, and he had to hide it in his sweatband.  Today, he would be short by five.

On his walk home, Ignacio counted twelve moths as large as his hand clinging to the screen door of a closed tailor’s shop.  He picked one up, its body as thick as two of his fingers, and it spread its orange wings out far past his palms.  Its body was velvety and plump, covered with small antennae-like protrusions.  He wished to see it in flight, so he tossed it, and it fell, like a glider made of cheese.  It waddled in the street, then adjusted its wings and hunched down.  A cab came by, its engine roaring and echoing off the closed-in walls of the dirt street, and crushed the bright moth.  It didn’t flinch and it didn’t twitch.  Ignacio flicked at another moth on the screen and it fell to the sidewalk, stretched its wings, and didn’t flinch or twitch as its green and black body was crushed by Ignacio’s heel.  He shrugged and walked into a bar down the street.

Ignacio ordered a pitcher of beer with Carlos, who worked two tables over from Ignacio.

“I crushed a cigar today,” Carlos said.

Ignacio shrugged, “I crushed a moth.”

Carlos nodded, then removed the two halves of his crushed cigar, still carefully rolled.

Smoke clouds surrounded their heads, their hands glowed bright orange in the haze of smoke and the dim lighting of the bar.   Beyond the smoke, they saw dim streetlamps and a permanent strangling of dust in the air, perpetually hanging, a neon sign somewhere close by attacked puffs of the smoke, turning it red and green.

Ignacio shrugged again, at nothing.

Carlos nodded.

“We are in with the best,” one of them said.

Carlos nodded.

“There are people not nearly as educated as the two of us.”

“They think we are slaves,” Ignacio said.

Carlos nodded, “We are slaves.”

Ignacio shrugged.

“All is well,” Carlos drank from his mug.  “But not necessarily for the best.”

“Good night,” one said.

Carlos nodded; Ignacio shrugged.

Ignacio stopped by a prostitute sleeping in front of his apartment, “Wake up,” he told her, “I want you to stay with me.”

She stood from the dirt lining the sidewalk but didn’t brush it from her clothes.  He held out his hand and she took it, ran her fingers along the layer of tobacco covering his fingerprints. She had a memory of picking cherries from a tree as a girl, feeling the hard, smooth bark of the limb as she balanced on the ladder, then pulling off the fruits and being tickled by the juice running down her arm.  She kissed him and he pulled away.

She fought for his face in the dark, her hands grasping for his cheeks, his heavy jaw she had just felt.  He was gone, opening the door to his apartment for her, he took her by the shoulder and led her to the kitchen.

He poured her a glass of nectar and dropped in ice cubes.  She drank it and sat at his metal table, the yellow paint flaking off to the tile floor.  She set the glass down hard and it startled Ignacio, who was stuffing a cornhusk with figs and honey.  Her eyebrows were raised but she was watching the swirls of water melt away from the ice cubes.  He placed the husk into a steamer.

In the corner of the kitchen, where it opened into a small room with a radio and a couch, by a stained section of the stucco wall, was Ignacio’s dog, which smacked its gums briefly and then yawned.  The two ignored the dog.

“Do you have a wife?”

Ignacio shrugged, “No wife.”

“But you have a dog.”

He nodded, “And chickens.”

She nodded.

“They live in the orchard,” he handed her the steaming husk.

“With the dog?”

Ignacio nodded, “Oranges and lemons, and cherries.”

They walked in the light of a moon sliver, carefully between rows of citrus heavy trees, the thick waxy leaves shooting silver light like flimsy stretched coins across the ground.  He sat her beneath a tree and told her to hold out her skirt like a basket.  In the dark, she heard only the rustling of leaves together, they drew away from her and became quiet, then there was a pelting over her dress.  Cherries fell wildly from above until her arms grew heavy, and then Ignacio was beside her again.  She was crying silently.

“Marry me?”  He asked her.

She nodded, and let the cherries spill into the dirt.

“Then we are married,” he told her, pulling her dress over her head.

She smelled the tobacco on his fingers as they read her body in the dark.

In the morning, Ignacio carried her into his apartment and placed her in his bed, he ate an orange on his way to the shop, and stopped in the road to pick up the dried remains of the moth that had been killed the night before.  He dropped it in the wind and this time it floated away down the street, off into an alley where he was sure it fell back to the road.

Along the roads, Ignacio counted the high soaring billboards with the image of some detached and idealized potentate.  He shrugged and walked into the double-hung doors of the cigar warehouse and sat at his seat and immediately began rolling cigars.

During his break, he ate honey-covered pineapple in the shade of an alley.  Carlos hadn’t arrived and there was confusion with the owner of the shop as to where exactly he could be.  He was fired already, but they wanted to find him so they could beat him.  There was solemnity later in the day as Ignacio wrapped cigars, and it turned out Carlos had been killed in a fight the previous night, after Ignacio had left the bar, over the words, “It is the price we pay for the cigars you smoke in Europe.”

At the end of the road grew flowers, dusty wild flowers choked with aphids.  But they were free, and they were large, and Ignacio collected a handful for his wife.  He stood at the edge of the road, by the wooden sign pointing to some other place on the small island, to some place exactly the same as where he stood, for where he stood all was as well as it could be, and if he walked a block or a mile, it would still be as well.  He wondered if past the water, lying a few hundred yards out from the edge of the road, off the small cliff, if things stayed just as well as they were, if he had the best of everything.

The water lapped quietly at the shore, and the bright orange beams cutting through the surging waves sliced into Ignacio’s vision.  He heard a jet engine far above him, and he wondered if his feeling was of complacency or apathy, and he thought of the world towards which the jet traveled, whether it would be better or worse than the one he knew, and he supposed that if he was curious enough to ask, it might as well be better.

Flowers made his wife sneeze, but she thanked him and put them in water.  He gave her a bottle of wine and two glasses, and asked if she wouldn’t like to sit in the orchard.

Her name was Mariana, she was twenty-seven, and had been a prostitute for most of her life.  She liked fruit, and she liked Ignacio’s orchard.  Beyond this, she did not wish to speak, and beyond this, Ignacio was comfortable not to hear.  Between them, they did not need perfection.

She gathered the cherry pits they had collected between them in the dirt and told him she would make them both matching rings out of them, and for herself she would make a necklace.

When asked if she would still sleep with other men, she replied, “I’m where I want to be,” and Ignacio shrugged.

In the morning, Ignacio dressed in the dark pants and tie that Mariana had set out for him on the kitchen chair.  For her, Ignacio removed the meter-wide skillet from the wall and cooked a large sweet waffle, drizzled with cane syrup heated with blackberries.  She walked into the kitchen naked, tried the waffle, and told Ignacio she wanted him inside her.

Ignacio was late for work, so he was able to notice an older cigar maker now occupied Carlos’ spot.  No one looked up except the man reading from the book into the microphone, who commented with hand gestures that he liked Ignacio’s silk tie, stained now with syrup and blackberries, he then continued to read, “…taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband…”

Mariana stood on the sidewalk outside the cigar shop, holding a sandwich for Ignacio.  The men leaving didn’t notice except that Ignacio now had a wife where once he might not have.  They were smiling at each other in a stream of cold expressions lit by the intense sun.

She kissed him goodbye, her dress flapped in the light breeze like wings, her brown legs ambling away, her body movements fluidlike.  A truck came up the street and slowed for Mariana to pass by, and she disappeared behind it.  The truck lurched forward and stopped in the street in front of the cigar shop.  Cigar makers, ready to resume work, now gathered around the truck.

The man who read the book held a banana in his hand and worked a piece around in his mouth, on his lip was a small moist crumb.

“Back to work,” the shop owner said, and the crowd went back inside the small clay oven to their respective tables.

While the workers rolled cigars, there came from the ceiling the sound of heavy footsteps moving back and forth, and outside was the sound of diesel machinery revving and waning.  The revving turned into a taktaktak louder than the machine-gun-like oscillating fan in the corner.  Finally, there was a cry, an ungodly snapping sound, and a plangent of distress on the ceiling, where a large silver and black box fell from the roof through the ceiling, and into a crate of stacked cigars.  The man reading the book into the microphone stopped, the workers quit rolling cigars, and the men who had been on the roof now peered through the giant hole and into their destruction bed.

The shop closed early and so the workers all went home to sleep instead of to the bars.

Mariana smiled and waved when she saw Ignacio from the balcony, she was reading a magazine.

“They tried to install air conditioning today, they crushed our cigars,” Ignacio said.

That night, the bats came out and swarmed the town, in the morning the smell was like an old coffee bean, acrid and sharp.  At lunch he received notice, from Mariana, that his brother, the alcoholic, had died in a house fire, which was his own fault.  His brother had willed the house to Ignacio, but since there was no house, Ignacio now had an empty lot.  Ignacio asked for two days off.  One day was for his brother’s funeral, the other was to sell the empty lot.

Ignacio gave the eulogy at his brother’s memorial service, there was no body like there was no house.  “Things are now as they should be,” he said, “but this does not mean that things are good.”

The church was being used for a baptism later, so the memorial service was cut short.  Ignacio was the last person in his family, aside from Mariana, still living.  She asked about his brother.

“His name was Kike`,” he said.  “When we were little, he was in the hospital for a long time with tuberculosis.  They finally let him out, and I was so happy that I chased him around town, he tried to hop the church fence,” he pointed to the wrought iron fence surrounding the cemetery.  “He put his hand flat on one of those spires, with all his weight, it went straight through his palm like a crucifix.”

Mariana blinked.

The next day at the bank, Ignacio took the first offer the bank gave him because 1) he was not greedy and 2) it was already a generous sum that did not require being taxed.

When he finished at the bank, he took a bus to the adjacent town, which was the only place to buy a semi-new car.  The majority of the stock was sedans and old American cars that would only be used as taxis.  In the corner, however, was a long car with a small British flag painted on the fender.  The hood said Jensen, and the small badge along the side said Interceptor.

Mariana was making coffee when the walls of their apartment rattled.  A picture of a single cherry, which Mariana had painted and Ignacio had framed, shook off the wall and fell to the floor.

She looked out the window and saw Ignacio waving from the driver’s seat, revving the eight cylinders just outside their apartment.

They drove that night to the highway that ran by the airport, they parked in the grass and watched the jets launch from the flat ground and lift gracefully into the air, soaring away with a racket like a beast.  They were as lumpy and disproportioned as the giant moths.  When they came in to land it looked like a controlled freefall, angled perfectly in order to keep the passengers alive.  It was subdued chaos.  Ignacio asked Mariana if she would like to see what other worlds there were.

“Even if this is the worst of all possible worlds,” she said, “Then no.”

As she said this, a launching airplane erupted in flames, followed by the taktaktak of real machine guns.  A rocket appeared from the darkness and struck the runway, illuminating the interior of the Jensen.  Things are getting worse, Ignacio thought, and that isn’t necessarily good.

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Lucky Jack

White’s heart beat through his fingertips, I felt something heavy in my chest like a fist, but instead of sinking in, it was filling up, and when I breathed I didn’t strain my lungs, like when you sniff mash and it feels like a cheese grater tore open your chest and lungs, I was flooded with air.

Lucky Jack first appeared in Happy, Issue 20

Sheriff knew where Daddy’s still was for the black mold on the tree trunks and the limestone in the creek bed.  You could smell the mash like baking bread from the highway.  Sheriff poured the mash, bloated dead raccoons and all, into the creek and took the tub and the Ford radiator and gave Daddy the twenty-five hundred dollar fine he never paid.

That night, I was in the hall when Daddy come in the kitchen through the back door.  He picked up the enamel pot and smelled the white beans, then tossed them on the floor.

Ma stared at him, her cheeks red and her eyes dry, “Ain’t bought store beans in my life.”  She wet a dishrag in the sink, her splotchy hands shaking.

Daddy hopped around on one foot unlacing his snow-covered boots and tossed them in the corner, dripping with mud.  Then he spit on the baseboard’s flaking paint, nearly slipping on the pine floor in his sock feet.

Ma swirled the icy rag in the bean puddle.  “You ruined the last of our canned beans,” she said, staring at him.

I left to hide in my room, on my bed, trying to breathe without wheezing.  Without letting my chest rise.  I lay in the dark for ten minutes, clutching the quilt and listening to my father pry up the floor planks to get the jugs.  My lungs felt like they were in a vice and I started wheezing.  His cracked palms scratched my door and I gasped but the air was stuck like ice in my mouth.  There was a gaping hole in my chest where all the air fell through.

His white liquor voice slipped in my room through the dark, “Put on your boots,” he said, “we’re going to the Lucky Jack.  See Roy.”

I laced my boots carefully in the dark, I fed the laces slowly, I thought if I took long enough my father would forget he asked me for help, but he didn’t.  When I saw his shadow in the doorframe, I hurried on my double knot and left the laces uneven.  I was glad he didn’t have the strop.

Daddy hitched me up like a donkey with leather belt and shoulder straps to the garden cart with dry rotting tires, half-sunk in brown snow.   I gripped the freezing aluminum hoop in front of my chest and stared at my boots as my father loaded the cart with bottles of liquor, the plywood bottom sagging, nearly scraping the icy ground.  I wanted to lean down and retie my shoe, the inside laces uneven by an inch or more.  I wanted my shoes to be perfect.  Like mornings when you wake up early enough to see the road before anyone’s run it over, making sheets of muddy ice and uglying up the ditches.

Daddy lit a cigarette, “Go on,” he said through his teeth, then I heard him open a beer bottle.  I strained for a foothold but the cart wouldn’t budge.  Daddy grabbed the cart with his red cracked hand and shoved, “When I want to get moving I ain’t got time for you to cry about it!  Move!”  His breath was like motor oil.  I fell to my knee and thought the cart was going to crush me before I could stand, but I scrambled up and got to tugging the cart faster than I should have.  “You’ll wear out quick,” Daddy said.  I didn’t want him coming after me, so I slowed and blew big white clouds in front of my face.

The snow started when we got to the Broad River bridge, a dried up line of limestone and rickety concrete slab with no guardrails, about a quarter of a mile from the house.  Wind come through the trees and knocked ice from the branches, Daddy ducked and I heard his tongue clicking on the neck of his bottle.  The wind got caught in the ridges of my ear and made noise like a waterfall.  My neck, my wrists, the tips of my ears disappeared one after the other.  I felt my toes leaving, though I still felt the plastic end of my shoelaces unevenly tapping the sides of my boots.  I closed my eyes and pressed my boot through the snow and into the mud, the rubber tread sinking without grabbing.  My lungs burned and I heard my father stumbling behind.  The snow came harder and I couldn’t see, the flakes hit my lashes and glued my eyes shut.  I wiped and twisted my head to the woods, saw only white frenzy against the tree trunks.  An engine gunned up the road and Daddy called something to me, but I couldn’t hear for the waterfall in my ears and the uneven clicking of my shoelaces.  My chest was in a knot, I saw the breath leaving my mouth and hanging over the road, but it felt like I wasn’t breathing.  I moved over for the green truck to pass as people I didn’t know stared at me with their bright pink faces against the drippy, foggy windows.  I heard Daddy yell again.

Daddy was in the ditch behind me, his leg twisted, his brown coveralls soaked in mud.  We were almost at the Lucky Jack.

“Want to ride in the cart?”  I asked, shifting my chest in the leather straps.

Daddy tossed his broken bottle into the woods and wiped the mud and snow off his pants.  He limped to the cart and sat on a crate, his legs dangling off, scraping the snow in the road.  I could see through the hole in his pants his knee was swelling, but the store was just up the road, past the curve with the sinkhole.

Lucky Jack was up a hill, so I let go the cart and sat on the frozen aluminum to rest a minute, my father snoring on the crates.  The snow covered my cheek and did not melt.  I lay my head down and thought I could lean over and retie my shoes, but I had no hands, I had no feet, my head was going, too.  I shut my eyes and tried to wiggle my fingers, but they were like slugs.  The leather straps moaned as I lay down, stretching them too far.

I woke up in the small back room of the Lucky Jack.  Roy had put me on a cot in my underwear, my hair was wet and the electric floor heater was buzzing at full blast, the coils blazing orange against the wood paneling.  There was a tray of Twinkies and muffins, cups of coffee, water, and a straw dispenser full of jerky.  I had fingers and feet again, one of my toes was gone forever, black like a shadow, a silhouette reminder.

Long underwear in a plastic bag was piled in Roy’s leather office chair, the calendar over his desk still turned to October.  I put on the long johns and rolled the sleeves and legs up so I wasn’t stomping them all over Roy’s floor and getting them dirty.  He never mopped.  People could die in the aisles and burst pickle jars all over and he’d just throw down a layer of sawdust over the bodies and vinegar.  Probably still sell the pickles, too.

I ate a Twinkie and the filling was hot from the electric heater.  Everything was hot and stuffy, I felt like I was choking on a pillow in my sleep.  I thought I was going to be sick.  I forced all the food down my throat with a mouthful of coffee.  Someone knocked on the door, then it opened and I saw the hazy eyes of The Murderer like I always saw whenever me and Daddy come to sell Roy his liquor.  The Murderer walked in the backroom holding a carving knife and a chunk of white ash.

The Murderer wasn’t much taller than me.  His beard and hair was white, his eyes glazed over with something like milk, but the rest of him was wrinkly charcoal.  I didn’t know if he could see me, but I squatted behind the cot in my long johns, holding the coffee mug like a weapon.

“Roy told me check on you if you come around,” he stuck his carving knife in the doorframe, put the white ash in the chest pocket of his shirt.  His fingernails were bright pink like his palms, both smooth, warm looking.

The Murderer’s head cocked back, he stared at the ceiling.  “Not much of a talker, is you?”

His voice cracked with half a laugh.  I wanted him to talk more, to hear the walls shake.

“Want a grouse?  I’m carving a grouse for anyone who wants it,” he sounded like a radio show.  Like his voice transmitted miles away and came out his mouth.

“No thanks,” I said, putting the coffee mug on the table by the jar of jerky.

“Your name Holiday?” he asked.

“Yessir.”

“Holiday, your Daddy like to froze to death.”  He let a low whistle.  “You was dead, too, I swear.  Roy come hollering for help.  Is a goddam shame the only help you got is a coot what can’t see,” his laughter punctured the wood paneling in the room, I stood, I could smell the Murderer’s sweat despite the snow, sweet and stale.  “I rolled your Daddy up in that busted cart of yours, like to froze my hands off.”

“Daddy all right?”

“Daddy living.  Daddy ain’t all right.  Roy took Daddy to the vet down the road.  Come on up front, we got to wait on the plow,” he turned on his heel and run his shoulder into the doorframe, then danced around it, his arm sliding against the wall, turning off the light and leaving me in the dark.

I took a handful of jerky and a couple of Twinkies up front to where the Murderer was sitting behind the counter on the stool Roy made out of old GM wheels.  I handed him what food I had.

The Murderer waved his hands over the aisles of the Lucky Jack.  “I got the whole buffet,” he laughed.  “Keep it.”

I put the food by the register and hoisted myself on the counter, on top of the laminated cigarette logos.  The parking lot, the gas pumps, even our cart were all covered in snow, white like the Murderer’s beard.  I stared at the whitewash, and where the whitewash had worn away, there was few skeletal trees.

“We’s to be here a long while,” he told me.  “Plow’s got better places to be than the Lucky Jack.”

The Murderer took off his fur-lined coat, his flannel shirt buttoned to his wrists.  He took a cigar from the display behind him and bit off the plastic wrapping.  He lit the cigar with a display lighter by the register.

He took a long draw from the cigar and blew into the ceiling, it smelled like cherries.  The Murderer clamped the cigar in his teeth and unbuttoned his sleeve at the wrist, then folded it up into a neat rectangle at his elbow.  I stared at the tar-black tattoo while he smoked and stared out the window into the whitewash lot.  He hummed an Easter hymn.  Just hummed it over and over, up and down, up and down, the knot on his throat sliding.  I almost felt gold sunshine sitting in the Lucky Jack, like Easter, hiding from the cold wind in the hot sun by the cedar post cross draped in purple cotton.  I traced his tattoo in the in the air by his arm, tried to follow it up his sleeve, tried to imagine how the rest of it looked on his body, whether there were pictures or not.

Still outlining the tattoo, I nodded off a minute and poked the Murderer in the forearm, right on his tattoo.  I didn’t know if it hurt to touch them.  I pulled my hand back and jumped off the counter.

“Don’t you ever do nothing like that,” he said to the white.

“Sorry,” I said, heading to the back room and the cot and the tray of stuffy food.

“Inking up your body’s just about the lowest thing a man can do.”

I stopped.

“Just about,” he said, picking tobacco off his lip, then puffing on the cigar.

“What’s the lowest?”  I asked.

“Doing something that deserves inking,” he said, exhaling.  “Come back here.”

I turned and hoisted myself onto the counter.

The Murderer raised his sleeve past the elbow, just below the shoulder, where the tattoo stopped.  He put the cigar in his mouth, “Back when the sheriff thought he knew something—he don’t know nothing, if you ever talk to him a second you’ll see he don’t—he give the inmates marks.”

“And that’s yours?”

“That’s mine,” he said through the cigar.

“What’s it mean?”  I asked.

“Boy don’t read?”

“Huh?”

The Murderer ran his finger over the thin, curvy ink, over the leaves and vines and birds wrapping his arm with fingerlike feathers.  He inhaled the cigar, “Cal ‘White’ Wright: Wife killer, Incarcerated June 16, 1963 by Sheriff Hiram Polk,” he sighed.  “Folk call me White.”

“It’s pretty, White.”

“Had to make it presentable for church.  Sheriff never thought maybe God don’t like tattoos.  I thought maybe God would prefer them with a bunch of ornamental crap,” he blew cherry cigar smoke above us.  White looked like a shadow evaporating.

I opened a stick of jerky and tore off a piece to put in my mouth.  White stared out into the snow and finished the cigar.  He spit on the end and dropped it in the mint-green pail below his stool.  Daddy always rubbed his cigarette butts between his palms.

“You killed your own wife?”  I asked.

“Been so long ago,” White said, “I don’t know what I done.”

“White?”  I asked.

White turned until he thought he was looking at me, “Holiday.”

“Want to see my mark?”

White laughed, “Ask the blind coot does he want to see your mark.”

I pulled my shirt to my chest with one hand and took hold of White’s hand with the other.  I put his soft, pink palm on my chest, in the dent Daddy made when I was a crying baby.  White’s heart beat through his fingertips, I felt something heavy in my chest like a fist, but instead of sinking in, it was filling up, and when I breathed I didn’t strain my lungs, like when you sniff mash and it feels like a cheese grater tore open your chest and lungs, I was flooded with air.  White’s eyes rolled around like dice in his head, seeing the dent with his hand.

When I woke, the sky was dark and the snow kept coming, I was curled on the counter by the register, a shirt under my head, wrapped in White’s fur-lined coat.  I smelled pee.  White was on the stool breathing heavily.  In the dark I only saw his watery eyes reflecting the white outside.  He looked dead but for his eyes twitching every couple of seconds.  There was a scraping sound, and I could tell in the dark he was carving the grouse again.

We sat at the blue dark counter, wind lifting the rolled steel roof and clapping the layers back together.  The wall heater glowed orange, sunk into the paneled wall, not buzzing like the other, just lighting our corner of the store in neon.  All the creases were black.  We looked like tigers in the dark.

I peed myself while I was asleep, I handed White his coat.  “Sorry if it’s wet,” I said.

He took the coat from me in the dark and handed me another plastic pack of long johns.  “Go change,” he said, not angry, not tired.

I hopped around in the back room like Daddy taking off his boots.  I bumped into the tray and knocked the rest of the muffins and jerky to the floor.  I peeled off the cold wet underwear and threw them in the trashcan by Roy’s desk, my feet freezing on the tile floor.  As I pulled on the fresh long johns, I fell onto the cot and a spring snapped and cut my shin enough to leave a red streak on the underwear.  I felt my pants on the back of the leather chair, they were dry and warm so I put them on, then stuffed the leftover food into my pockets.  I heard the bell on the door ring, a wet shuffling of boots on linoleum and a high pitched voice I knew was Roy.  Everything was muffled, I opened the door and saw Roy and another shadow standing in front of the counter.

“Holiday up?”  Roy asked.

“He in the back room changing,” White said.  “He had an accident.”

“Boy always reeks like piss, you ain’t need give him something else to pee all over,” Daddy’s voice rose from the dark.

“It’s all right,” Roy said.  “Long johns is on the house.”

“Holiday!”  Daddy shouted.  “Come out here, you ain’t changing,” he shouted at me, then told Roy, “He ain’t changing.  Nope.  He’s standing there listening to us.”

I opened the door and walked over to White, lit like a tiger on his stool.

“Come here, Hol,” Daddy said.  I didn’t move.  “I said to come to your Daddy.”

“He been drinking?”  White asked.

“Had to do something for the pain,” Roy shrugged.

“I said get the hell over here, Hol!” Daddy shouted.  His voice shook the cellophane wrappers lining the aisles in the store.

“We’re going to take a nap,” Roy said.  “We going to lay you down and you going to sleep.”

White grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me between him and the wall.  Roy led Daddy into the back room with the cot and turned on the light.

Daddy turned around to face me, to yell.  In the light, I saw his hands and parts of his face were black like asphalt, like my one toe, and his skin was red and chapped.  He’d been through Hell, burned by heat so hot it was ice, by ice so cold it was fire.  Daddy thrust his black hands out, “He’s my goddamned boy, Holiday you my goddamned boy!”  He lunged forward and Roy grabbed for him, “You went to sleep you son of a bitch!  You left me to freeze to death.”  Daddy tried to grab my throat but his hands were dead, his black fists drove into my neck and body but they were limp.  His fight was dead.

He pounded the hole in my chest with his dead hands and I gasped for air, he was punching the air out of my body.  Trying to suck the air back in was like eating through a straw.  A stream of white light flooded the Lucky Jack, and I saw my father’s petrified face, and above that I saw White’s dangling beard, and between the two was White’s fist, clutching the carving knife buried inside Daddy’s chest.  White pushed Daddy off my body and left him gasping on the linoleum.  The lights faded out and I heard the diesel of the plow chugging in the parking lot, as it turned in the lot, the interior of the store lit again.

In the light, I looked at my shirt to see if Daddy’s hands stained my white shirt like charcoal.

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Photons

He tilted the opening into the light and saw a gray chunk of brain tissue in slurry of crushed skull and blood.  He took the helmet home, hidden under his coat as he hurried back to the theater, up the tiled stair, holding onto the slick, black-stained banister and skipping every other step on the way up to his apartment.

Photons first appeared in Happy, issue 19

“It’s twenty brad for the moving picture show.”

“Pardon?”

“Twenty brad.  Picture show.  You’re here for the picture show, right?”

“Across town it isn’t but ten brad.  You’re sure it’s twenty?”

Little sparkling caviar eyes popped behind the Plexiglas window, “Two weeks ago it was twenty brad, two years ago it was twenty brad, and two and twenty years ago it was twenty brad.  The price for the moving picture show has been and always will be twenty brad!”

“Across town…”

“Either here or across town, it’s all twenty brad!”

Under neon overglow of humming signs (green, yellow, red and white, like onions and peppers spreading sweated-Mediterranean-vegetable lightglo around adjacent buildings, the digitized marquee scrolling through times and dates with red LED bulbs flashing on and off splotches of ketchupglo, and below it the white plastic sign with black lettering, surrounded by the rectangular boundary of clear glass orbs with flashing orange filaments fearing and chasing each other, blinkblinkblink all around the sign in light polluted night sky), the young man in heavy brown overcoat and bandaged fingers mumbled something inaudible and fished around his coat pocket until he spilled a pile of imperfectly oblong brads onto the counter.  He spread them out in the tray and felt the blood rushing to his raw fingertips, it oozed a single glinting drop from beneath the bandages.  “Should be about twenty, won’t need a ticket, thanks,” he said, smiling with crooked bastard teeth, the ticket-man thought.  The patron wiped the dot of blood from his dirty bandage in the stainless steel tray.  He hurried past the ticket box and into the door to his right, letting out a slight laugh, his smoke-white breath was stolen away in the velvet sheet night by the scientific theory that warm air rises.

After the man of bandaged fingers had entered the theater (the smell of sodium dichloro-s-triazintrione and artificial butter greeting him), another man stepped up to the ticket booth and put a stiff, shellacked human hand in the tray.  Again, caviar eyes popped behind Plexiglas and the shrill voice called through the metal slits, “We can’t make change for that!  Read the sign!”  He pointed to his relative right, and the man opposite the window deciphered the sign beside him, there were little green circles around brads, digs, and thumbs, and one large, red circle with a broad line through a hand.  He blushed and removed the petrified hand and tossed in a glistening finger.

“Terribly sorry, haven’t been out in so long, forgot.”

“Wouldn’t be caught dead carrying around so much anyway, what are you thinking?”  The tray rattled out a pile of wan brads.

Poor ticket-man, he sat in his booth with tiny space heater and divvied the brads to digs, digs to thumbs, but no thumbs to hands, and definitely no hands for anything.  When the movie had started, he sat bundled in the cramped ticket office and listened to the orchestras playing on the radio, softly, so only he could hear the group of men trapped in the little tin box.  He rubbed the plastic nametag on his auburn lapel with pudgy, grease covered fingers, twirling the slick, round ends over the sharp edges where it read, “LARRY.”  Instruments came to crescendo in the little booth, and the image of the young man in the brown coat and bandaged fingers appeared on the back of Larry’s eyelids.  He cringed, brought the knuckle of his thumb to his mouth, and bit hard, trying to block out the incredible pain that was now flooding his body due to the sight of the young man with the bandaged fingers.

So many years ago, before the cold box with Plexiglas window and brad trays, before orchestras written by dead men were brought to life in tinny tone in metal box to bring a delusional sense of peace and happiness to his life, Larry had turned twenty-one on October 15, and the giant trees looming over the asphalt of his parents’ street let leaves drift downward in an eddy of rich yellows and dead browns, red streaks carving into flat space and spinning down to shrinking blades of thin verdant growth, almost that the shrill singing from within Larry’s childhood home had frightened them from their spiny branches and had sent them on their trip.

Larry’s cake was the shape of a beer bottle.

They sang the song whose tune and sincerity had long been lost on the American people, but the cacophonous blaze of twittering vocal chords still warmed the muscles in Larry’s face that afternoon, and when they had finished, his candles were blown out and the mint-green beer bottle was sliced and served, accordingly, with mugs of Celebrator.  A present was dropped in front of him, plaid satin paper crinkling under heft of the object.  Twenty pounds, at least, hidden inside cardboard walls and tacky festive wrapping.  The exciting moment of the night was that when Larry opened the box containing a re-furbished typewriter-as-novelty.  He had wanted one for so long, had read about them in microfiched magazines and familiarized himself with their wide use so long ago, almost as popular as computers.  He had built a knowledge in his head so vast, so intense, that the campiness of the gift was overshadowed by the surreal presence of the machine in his existence.  In minutes, he had the keys blasting on paper.  His first sentence:  Happy Birhtday to me!

When his face was warm with alcohol and his nose a bit red, and his mind drumming away into sleep, they came for him.  His parents were in the doorway, watching in slow motion through all the commotion with sad, dawdling eyes as the men in heavy black outfits wrestled him from his bed and tied his arms behind him, then lead him away into the back of a van that smelled of moldy paper.  A bee stung his arm and he fell asleep; the final sound of the night was his head bumping the glass.

He woke up to a room of himself.  Dozens of young men like him were stuck in one large concrete container.  Cement on the walls and on the floor and the ceiling, and just one door.  It was metal and had no knobs, windows, or visible hinges.  Four fluorescent lights made the room glow dirty gray, black in the corners, pale sick green all around the perimeter.  Humming boxes above with putrid fluorescence forced Larry to see that the smell of the place emanated from feces smeared on the wall, a makeshift prophecy of digested fruit and cereal which, scrawled almost illegibly, read, “Honor decks the turf that wraps their clay.”  Larry was sick in the floor drain and a random stream of urine washed away his vomit.  It flowed pale yellow over the embellishments in the metal drain, running in and out of tiny pores and crevasses filled with olive carpet moss over brass grate, piss river whispered secret echoed drips from dark of slotted cover to say that the golden stream was being taken to flow away from this miserable place forever.  He was sick again.

The young men were being taken out and brought in by twos.  So many boys, all looked to be twenty-one, Larry thought it doubtful to be taken out and replaced anytime soon.  Minutes lingered on in the constancy of sick light on porous concrete, and Larry felt he hadn’t been awake but a few seconds when the door opened and a voice broadcast though electric current fizzled from a speaker unseen, “Watson, Darrell; Williams, Larry!”  Larry steadied himself to his feet, attempting to find firm footing through the grime of unknown wastes beneath him, which coated the shining concrete.  He made his way through the crowd, his bare, clammy chest popping against the exposed shoulders of other young men with no faces worth looking at, and met up with whom he assumed to be Darrell Watson.  His hair was cut short, causing Larry to fear the possibility for himself, so he laid a hand on his head.  Bristles of stunted hair stroked the palm of his hand with its back and forth movement.  Before he could fully hang his head with a completed sense of despondency, black gloves came out of the doorway and grabbed the necks of both Larry and Darrel and they disappeared into darkness.  They felt only the dragging and winding of their feet along miles of moist, gritty concrete.

It all happened so quickly; Larry had only time to let the tears fall, he’d no time for weeping or sobbing.  His hands were stuck in small metal boxes with leather straps over his fingers and a Plexiglas window on the top.  The boxes were fixed in front of his face so he could see his fingernails, and then he heard a door open, footsteps, a loud metallic clatter and there was a nice looking man standing in front of him wearing a happy yellow and lavender tie.  In his hand was a thin, rounded piece of metal about eight inches in length and a half an inch in width.  He read to Larry information being projected from a box in the ceiling to the wall behind him.

“Your name is still Larry Williams and you will be employed at Big-Starz Tri-Plex in Danvers.  You are overweight, disgruntled, and generally untidy,” he paused, looked the perfectly fit young man in the face and said, “You’ll adapt.”  The man with the happy tie stabbed the metal instrument under the fingernail of Larry’s right index finger.  Twigs of flowing pain, flashing like electricity, shot through his arm and he tasted something like iron in his mouth, he had bit his tongue, and now felt the syrup of life invading his taste buds.  Blood poured slow and steady into the box as the fingernail was left to sway from the flesh.  “The process through which you are going is normal.  Your fingernails will be collected and then sent to the Department of Treasury, where they will be cleaned, painted, embossed, and shellacked so that they may become brads.”  He jabbed the instrument under the nail of the middle finger.  Larry’s tears carved terrible rivers like he had seen where beavers built their homes, but no beaver could build dams, not there in flesh, only burn and rot in the pain of their damless existence.  His head was trying to twist away, but it was blocked by metal strips on either side of his ears, only his eyes could look away.  The pain did not dissolve, and Larry found his eyes rolling back in front of him, focusing on the small metal boxes, looking through the Plexiglas like he had looked through television screens and he wondered if he was really feeling that cold rushing pain.  He watched as the little nails held onto the cuticles and crept slowly back to torn, hemorrhaging flesh.  “If you ever decide to break the law, you will go to jail and all of your fingers will be removed, shipped to the Department of Treasury, dried, embossed and tagged, shellacked and will then be digs and thumbs.  When you retire, your hands will be removed and go through the same process.”  He stabbed and stabbed, continued undaunted, a joke from him: “Didn’t know you were worth so much, did you?”  The man with the happy tie laughed.  Endorphins were piling in Larry’s brain like shit on a lawn, and he laughed, too.  They were laughing together when the happy tie-man continued with straight countenance,  “Now you’re on your own.  You work at the theater until you’re fifty-three where you die of a heart attack.  You won’t be married, or have children.  You’ll be seeing about that in a minute.”  He jabbed under another nail, blood-creating lakes in the boxes.  Larry laughed, Yes!  Take them off!  Leave nothing!  “Any contact between you and your parents is forbidden.  They’ll be retired soon, anyway.  They both drown on vacation.  Hard to swim without hands.”  Happytieman laughed and laughed and disappeared into darkness from which he had originated.

He was wheeled away into another room and was given a shot in the spine.  His legs disappeared and a lady came in and sat in front of him with a small pair of scissors and a bucket.  Larry’s boxes flowed blood in the bucket as they were removed and the raw flesh was cleaned with alcohol, a sheet of ice struck his face and lasted one dying second, then grew warm and his cheeks were heavy with pain and pumping blood.  Again!  Again!  With blue latex gloves, she grasped his hands and removed all ten nails with the small scissors.  Then, delicately, she wrapped the fingertips in gauze and tape and Larry almost laughed when she gave the bandaged digits a cheerful tap before she stood.  She left with the nails in a bag and another woman entered.  Larry smiled when he saw her.  She took off his pants and underwear and he was upset he couldn’t feel anything down there.  A Plexiglas shield was placed over his lap, then a knife appeared in her hand and tears exploded from the dam in his eyes.  Tiny metal blade ripped through his scrotum and then with her other hand, just as fast, the wound was cauterized with a little red laser, the Plexiglas was stained with little dots of blood and charred flesh.  The smell of burning tissue filled the room, and this time, Larry’s tears were falling from vanity rather than pain.

He was put on a plane that night, in a wheelchair, and flown to Danvers.  An old woman showed him his apartment above the movie theater, which at that time had just installed the digital marquee above the big white sign with yellow bulbs that chased each other at night around the rectangle entrapping movie titles in lasso of light and pattern, and here, too, he would cry, but this time it was from the cold and loneliness, and the longing for the innocent happiness from what felt like so long ago when he was eating beer-bottle cake and the leaves on his street had been so beautiful in their decay.  Larry seized the woman by the arm, her loose, fatty flesh almost melted in his hands, the fingertips of which were still very sore, and he knew he was holding her by the bone and marrow.  “Excuse me?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Can I drink?”

“I beg your pardon?”  Her voice was crackly and sweet, reminded him of his grandmother, she sat in a chair that rose up and down with a little black remote control; she had always worn a dingy white dress with gray-blue flowers blooming across her breast for eternity.

“Can I go drink?  Go to bars?”

“Son, that’s up to you and your conscience, God willing you have one.  Lord knows there’s enough as young as you don’t have God in ‘em ‘tall, let alone that voice of reason upstairs that say ‘Good’ or ‘Bad.’  You do what you like, but use your head about it.”  She waved her hand in front of both their faces, adding, “Oh, your boxes are in the bedroom.  And you start downstairs at seven in the evening.  Tonight.”  She left, but the smell of corroded linen lingered.

Her words rang sarcastic sweetness, “Whatever you’d like.”  He’d thought of a jazzman improvising on stage.

Larry left to have a Grölsch, but he wound up drinking right through his shift at the theater.  It didn’t matter.  Years later, there he would be, and he knew it, on time in the cold Plexiglas box with the radio playing beautiful things.  Time catches up with everything, he thought, it moves as fast as light and we are in it, experiencing it is inevitable.

A few summers before, the owners of the restaurant across the street decided to give the building a new façade.  Trucks and dumpsters were parked outside for weeks, then the scaffolding went up and on it they kept a constant supply of dark red bricks, but all Larry could think, looking across the gutters and the slick tar street from the Plexiglas window to the sign of “Maggie’s,” was, I hope they tightened all the bolts.

There was a short man who ran back and forth in front of the construction site everyday, shoveling gravel and picking up debris.  All the days Larry watched him, the little man never stepped inside the Port-A-John, just ran around it all day until he left for the day.  Larry’s days had become consumed with waiting for the Hispanic man to use the bathroom.

Larry had flicked his tongue at the roof of his mouth while watching the Hispanic man run around, and had wondered what brain tissue tasted like.  He knew well the metallic taste of blood, and he’d known the salty taste of scabs from when he was a child.  Perhaps something like that, he’d mused.

Customers became upset in Larry’s obsessed weeks of watching the Hispanic man run around, ignoring the essential elements that made him a ticket-man.  A day came that found Larry busy watching the Hispanic man run from the cab of a dump truck across the front of the building, he sprinted frantically with his hands at the seat of his pants.  Larry was sure this was his moment.  Blue plastic door swung open and clapped against the outside of the Port-A-John, then slammed shut and the little green square by the handle turned over to red, and Larry was going to time the man with the clock by the register.

An older gentleman yelled for Larry to take his dig and give him his ticket.  Larry snatched the shellacked digit and printed out the movie tickets, not looking at the man through the Plexiglas, still staring at the large blue plastic outhouse.  When Larry watched monster movies, the fake monsters used to roar like metal being distorted.  He knew then that the sounds were identical, for the scaffolding collapsed on itself, falling to the right enough to roar with bending metal and snap and shoot off bolts to land itself and its brick payload directly on the Port-A-John.  A mist of blue formaldehyde and red plasma sprayed onto the street and sidewalk, and dust evaporated to heaven and drifted away to the roofs of buildings.  The Hispanic man’s bright yellow hardhat skittered down the street through the wreckage and stopped under a parked car.  Larry turned his attention back to his customers, he handed back to a patron ten brads.

When Larry’s shift had finished that night, he’d tied the electric cord around the radio and had ventured out into the street, the scaffolding still in a wreck around the Port-A-John, and buttoned up his coat to his neck to fend off the quick, biting wind.  Under the sedan, with dull orange spots from streetlight in the paint, Larry found the bright yellow hardhat, though up close it was scratched and chipped with many discolorations.  He tilted the opening into the light and saw a gray chunk of brain tissue in slurry of crushed skull and blood.  He took the helmet home, hidden under his coat as he hurried back to the theater, up the tiled stair, holding onto the slick, black-stained banister and skipping every other step on the way up to his apartment.

At first, he was unsure, just stared at the little soup before him in now dull-yellow bowl.  It sat in its own glow for half an hour as Larry tried to figure out what exactly he was planning on doing with part of the poor Hispanic man’s brain.  Fuzz came out of the radio first, then Larry turned the dial a bit and a section of violas tromped in his room.  Yes, yes!  He thought, Now brass!  Yes!  Wind!  Percussion!  Yes!  The light bulb in the kitchen exploded blue when he turned it on, leaving black streaks of dead filament on the smoky white glass.  His hand searched blindly in the drawer and he dropped a ladle on his foot, danced a bit, but then rejoiced upon the discovery of a fork.  They were all at it, now, he thought.  Higher, higher, the voice in his head cried, Strings!  Strings!  Yes!  Larry’s feet pounded the meager carpet with thick heels marching across cheap brown carpet and he stood over the hardhat, fork in hand, and as the orchestra exploded he stabbed the purple and gray bit of brain (All together now!  Higher, Yes!  Octaves upon octaves!  To light speed, Percussion!  Faster than light itself, mass increasing infinitely the closer it comes.  Brass!) and forced it in his mouth.  Tofu, he thought, just like soy.  It bounced around his teeth and he heard the soft wrinkled sections collapsing on each other, he swallowed, the clump sliding down his throat slowly, felt the leftover bits in the back of his mouth and around his teeth.  His radio cut out, orchestra died and the sound was static noise of billions of plastic bags being rustled around the entire room.  Larry tasted Hispanic sweat and blood, brain and a sliver of skull, the walls shrieked with scattered noise.  His throat heaved into the helmet.  When he had finished, he wiped his mouth and searched his room through thousands of sheets of paper with the line: Happy Birthday to me! written at least once on all of them, and, eventually, found a blank sheet.  Larry clamped it in place in the typewriter and wrote:  When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.  He tore off the sentence and placed the scrap of his own stolen makeshift prophecy in the helmet with his vomit and the Hispanic man’s brain.  Fluids soaked slowly into dried wood pulp and the ink began to melt away.  The radio came back on.  Captain Brahms, he had thought, Warp speed, we’ve photons to catch.

Larry stopped biting the knuckle of his thumb when he heard the rapping at his Plexiglas window.

“Two tickets, please,” the man smiled, his arm bent around a healthy blonde.  Larry’s left hand rubbed where his testicles should have been.

“Of course.  Forty brad.”

A thumb dropped into the tray.

“Right, here you are, four digs, ten brad, enjoy the show,” he remembered the way a young girl had laughed at the hair combed over his bald spot one night.  He patted his head, which he now kept shaved.  His belly folding over on itself was suddenly very apparent to him.  Used to be a runner, he thought.  How in the hell?

He saw the young man with bandaged fingers leaving the theater, fumbling with the buttons on his brown coat.  Larry left the box and grabbed him.

“I know what you think, kid, I know, I had to do the same damn thing.”

“And just what the hell are you talking about, you old porker?”

“Listen!”  Caviar eyes flashed gold and white in street lamps now, “You don’t want what they’ve given you, I know.  I know!  Where are you supposed to be?”

“Listen fatass…”

“Where is the man who doesn’t need a ticket supposed to be?” It was flat and loud in the street lined with brick buildings and solid blocks of prism light.

“Right here, ass, what’s it to you?”

“What do you mean right here?”  Their breath joined and made large cloud against twinkling night, and with the neon light shooting through, it resembled cotton candy.

“I’m a movie critic is what I mean I’m supposed to be here.”

The scaffolding fell in Larry’s brain, people like machines were being ordered, “Live” and “Die.”  And where they install you, put the bolts on your soul and tighten them enough so you can’t go anywhere, that’s where you stay, he thought, to rust, to corrode; to soak in rain water and dust particles floating through space fabric, to age in relentless surroundings that only fade in time but do not go away themselves, always being built back up and improved upon, but it is the machine to be replaced, to be taken out and a new one added, no better than the last, but new, fresh.  And wherever they put you, he knew, was uncontestable.  Millionaires pulled from a hat alongside coal miners and garbage men.  Movie critics and ticket-men.  Orchestra exploded in his brain.  Larry wrapped his fingers in his palm and swung sweaty meat through ice air, the young man’s face exploded blood from the eye, Percussion! but the edge of his hand took flight and connected with Larry’s nose, Strings! cracked cartilage and now they both bled.  Cold air filled Larry’s lungs, they burned, and he knelt down, sucking in air, the tempo lowered, began rebuilding intensity.  He felt a blow to the middle of his back and fell to his face, all that was left was the lonely drummer, boom, boom, then heard rubber-soled feet slapping asphalt away from him.  Larry lay in the street, which was aglow with blue, red, and orange from neon and extended streetlight, in the distance he saw the front of the movie theater, the clear bulbs flashing yellow light, chasing each other forever around the white face.  His cheek was freezing to the ground, but his chest burned and beat to the drum, his left arm felt like it was asleep.  Blood bubbles popped in his nostrils as he let his eyes twitch backwards into the soy of his brain.  He remembered the twigs, now thinking of them more like branches.  Now more like stumps, yes, the stumps of pain running through his arms from each finger, and the happy tie-man almost mocking him in his memory.   “Didn’t know you were worth so much, did you?” and it echoed like drummers and soloists and brass and rhythm.  Now, percussion, now!  His fingertips throbbed against the wet street, and he remembered bending over to tie his shoes so many years ago with the bandages, his digits feeling fat with the blood coursing in and out of distended flesh.  Larry’s tongue lolled like a slug onto the asphalt, tasting the dryness of metal, of earth, of soil, of flesh, it was all the same, the tar in the asphalt, time passing as quick as light, always beating the melodies of life in sprints and decaying all things into thick black paste, and it seemed that he really had been told thirty two years ago, “Lonely, untidy, fifty-three of a heart attack.”  A tiny river of blood ran into the side of his mouth and he tasted the iron-rich, life-giving, brackish fluid, a taste he’d become most attached to; a final bubble of blood like tom-blast exploded in his nostril.

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