Brooklyn Bound Q
She enters, takes a seat on the crowded bench opposite him, meets his gaze distractedly, and then peers into her handbag.
He looks down and then across the car to the left and the right of her. He lets his eyes roam and return to settle upon her glossy paperback. Is he brave enough to read the title? Sure, he is. He’s interested in the book, in books, in what people are reading… Not in her.
She adjusts her glasses, scans the car quickly for another open seat as if to say, I don’t want your attention.
He averts his eyes as if to say: Don’t flatter yourself. Now, he’s interested in footwear. He smiles approvingly at the feet, of an old man in purple high-top sneakers as if to say, I have many interests. I value novelty, surprise, and risk.
She is amused by her book, lets out a sigh and briefly smiles as if to say, I don’t even know you’re here.
The train stops. Two men in suits depart and two teens, a girl and a boy with backpacks and hoodies and baggy black denims shuffle into the space between him and her and take hold of the overhead railings. The teens commence a conversation.
“I read it,” the boy says.
“All right. Who Nick?”
“He the one that telling the story.”
“Who Daisy then?
“She the white chick that the other one is all hot for.”
“All right. Who that other one and where he from?”
He looks up.
She looks up. She smiles briefly, as if to say, I remember the book. Or I remember high school. Or Doesn’t this seem ironic? These kids, in this time, speaking in those terms about that time.
He smiles too as if to say, Isn’t the subway a magnificent experience? Or Isn’t it better when we don’t hide from one another? As if to say, you and I – we – are of the same background, the same class. We understand each other.
The boy answers, “His name Jay. Just like my man, Jay Z.”
“You don’t know shit,” the girl says.
The train stops, and the teens depart.
Her eyes revisit her book, dart back to him, and back again to the pages in front of her.
He permits his smile to linger and allows his gaze to settle on her, in an unfocused way, as if to say, I’m at ease. I’m pleased. You’re safe. I’m interested.
She brushes her bangs with the back of her wrist as if to say, I know you’re watching. As if to say, I’m not uncomfortable. As if to say, I don’t know what to say. She closes her paperback, and with unusual care, she puts it back into her handbag. She is saying that her stop is next.
He bends to pull up his socks as if to say, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Or Now you can look at me. Or This is my stop too. Maybe?
She stands, turns to face the front of the train, turns her hips towards him, and pulls down the hem of her skirt. She looks down and up and back to the bench where she had been sitting. Then she finally risks a glance in his direction as if to say: Are you going to follow me, you creep? Or It’s now or never. Or simply Goodbye.
He sets his hands on the bench beside him as if to steady himself for when the train slows down. Or perhaps to say, I’m getting up. Give me a sign, his face pleads. His eyes implore. Eight and a half million people here, and I won’t likely see you again. I’m not a creep, but…
The train comes to a full stop. People exit; people enter. A crackling sound comes, and then a weary voice fills the car. “Next stop is Times Square. This is a Q train bound for Brooklyn. Change here for the N, R, S, 1, 2, 3, and 7 trains. Stand clear of the closing doors.” As if to say, Stand clear. The doors are closing.
WHO CAN IMAGINE being in the saddle? Its soft leather contours, the supportive rump, the smooth horn you can hold onto. The vast security that almost contrasts with the random stains to white cotton, as if you’d been splashing through mud, or battling branches and upsetting the yolks of newly laid eggs with the reinforced supports.
That the underwear lets you breathe is the claim, and so you imagine riding breakneck on an unshorn heath, but once in the woods air is trapped.
And the hemorrhoids the underwear absorbs with a double thickness of cotton at the crotch almost allows you to bleed with freedom and no longer worry about your clothing. You are naturally sedentary, so being up in the saddle should be natural.
The mount beneath you takes all this in stride. You pull the reins on her when you feel too much bleeding, as if the bit in her mouth, the bridle, acts as a ligation on your own backside that hugs the saddle as you squat rounding the bend.
And your other body processes are squeezed off as you get deeper into the heat of the race. In fact, you forget the staining and imagine instead the prize. The beautiful girl at the end with her horseshoe of roses to drape round you in the winner’s circle.
You feel beads of sweat forming as the elastic band hugs your waist. You bend lower on her, hug her neck, clasp her belly with your thighs, spur her on to keep up with the rest.
So proud of her are you, the blond mane blowing in your face, the rich chestnuts, the stainless white teeth when she whinnies, pleased at her morning sugar cube she noses for in your pocket. You try not to notice the green bubbles, the alfalfa stains, and concentrate on the pink beauty of her lips and the gray of her velvety nostrils, those hot air vents that raise the temperature all around her.
In fact, you are even half-attracted to the comforting warmth of her manure as the steam rises in the peaceful atmosphere of the stable. It makes you think of your white underwear, and her teeth playfully pulling at them, pacifying the fears you have about yourself. You always marveled at the continent types who could wear white pants. Though you’d have to admit you never got a close look at them, since the brightness always kept you away.
How the whitest teeth and underwear come together always bemused you as you hug her. But the next moment you are being passed on the outside!
“No one is going to pass us, girl!”
She’s the prettiest, the fastest, you think, ever since you began wearing Jockey underwear, ever since you’ve starved yourself to settle atop of her, light as a feather, as if no one were there, only someone light-boned, barely attaining puberty, a wisp of a lad to give her all the added power she needs to keep up with the rest and surpass them down the stretch.
She is being passed on the turn and you “giddyup” for all you are worth, lean into her, become one with her powerful withers, her haunches. Like the most beautiful suspension bridge her vertebrae enables you finally to travel to yourself. You don’t want to use your switch, but know she likes it from time to time to show that you are the master.
She’s being passed and so you, bloody hemorrhoids aside, yellow stains aside, embrace her and kick her, dig down into her fur, putting out of your mind all thoughts of alfalfa gasses; your rowels prick her distended belly, her forelegs kick faster and her haunches pound the track numbing her to the pain in her sides. You don’t know if you are getting through to her, for she’s not yet making headway. Both horses for a moment seem at a standstill.
The horse on the outside is now nosing further ahead. You kick her for dear life. You can feel the skin being scraped raw, breaking, the fissures deepening. The blood in your own backside is oozing through the cotton shorts. You can feel the stain spreading. Your shoes seem slippery, your legs wet with her body fluids. She too must be bleeding, yet you keep kicking her, hugging her closer.
“Come on, girl, come on!” burying your face in her mane, like a tight fistful of lice you cling to her, hug her neck, her belly, until you are one magnificent galloping unit.
“Flee, girl, flee,” you yell to her, champing down through her fur to her skin to draw blood. Love bites that’ll get you both to the finish line pop into mind! You’ll be embarrassed for her neck.
Suddenly the strain, the tension atop her causes you to start to bleed faster, staining beyond your underwear. You imagine the saddle darkening, a pool of blood.
She must only be a filly, so why are you putting her through all of this? Why does she have to win each time, why do you have to hug her so for your personal victory? What’s won? Why a jockey anyway? For another day of imaginary protection in soft white underwear?
There is something lost about you in this underwear business, like Magritte and his jockey miles from a track racing through the woods. Why do you always have to end up with people cheering, nosing out the competition? Why can’t there be something grazing about wearing stainless white underwear? Something boll weevil, at least. Or a flower print instead of sordid stains on pure white, the fascist yellows, browns, reds that plague most all of us throughout the day with an unspeakable authority all their own.
But the alternative travels in your blood and has you going into training, hidden in a camp in the Catskills in upstate New York with a whole entourage just when you are walking around on the street alone. You clench your fists over it, think of the lost protection of Jockey underwear. You are already sparring, worrying about the freedom between the legs, the dangling between jabs and uppercuts, the enormous vulnerability to low blows, not to mention the escaping body fluids. Where will they go when they trickle unhindered down your legs and are not absorbed by the soft cotton from Egypt? There will be no leather saddle to hide in for support, no belly to hug or kick to stabilize your own bloody backside. You will be alone on your own two feet before all those people. Not on a race track, but in a ring having to rely on your clenched fists and the lard on your chin, cheeks, and forehead to deflect blows, on the desperate whisperings of your trainer.
At least you won’t be sitting, except for spells between rounds, and so the strain of bleeding should not affect you. The cuts on the opponent’s face will draw attention away from the stains. But you know the tight fists can’t be good. The sphincters will suffer after all, and you’ll have to relax eventually, continue the leaking yellow incontinence you’ve had all your life, the bubbly gases that escape from the foods you’ve eaten, so demonstrably visible underwater. In the end you prefer the saddle, even if Jockey underwear doesn’t let your anatomy breathe.
Boxer shorts you fear will give you entirely too much freedom, not to mention the added strain from always having to duck to avoid punches.
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DAD’S SITTING NAKED at the kitchen table, covered only by a white lacy shawl. His forehead glistens with sweat and he stares out the window, pouting. He has the old floor vents on full blast, and I’m surprised he’s not dead from the heat. It’s a typical Santa Fé summer evening, still well into the eighties. I shut off the furnace and throw open a couple of windows.
“Heater’s on again, Dad. It’s August. Remember?”
“Get out of here, you bastard,” he says.
“Dad, it’s me. Reynold. Your son.”
He grabs the ends of the shawl and wraps it tighter around himself. He turns away from me and sticks up his nose. Today he’s Mercedes Madrid. She’s the mean one.
“Come on, Dad, take that damn thing off.”
“I’m waiting for José,” he says.
“I’m not sure he’s coming. Now get up. Let’s get some pants on.”
His gut has grown in the last year, rounder and lower, but his legs and arms are still skinny as ever. His years spent in tanning beds and under the high desert sun have kept him brown, though it’s turning grayish now. Ashy.
“José said he’d be here at twelve noon. Damn him all to hell.”
“There’s no José, Dad. Come on.” I reach for him. “What’s burning? And why does it smell like piss?”
He has the Magic Chef cranked to 450. Inside, a pair of his white undershorts—one of the men’s garments he still wears—lies flat on the top rack, placed with care, the ends stretched out. They’re yellowed and just starting to smoke.
“Why’d you put your damn shorts in the oven, Dad? Has Marjorie been here?”
I twist the dial back, grab some tongs, and pull out the shorts. They smolder under cold water, and I fling open the window above the sink to let the stink out. Weeds poke up from the flower box that hangs on the windowsill where Steve’s petunias used to grow and where a spider has taken over. Dad hasn’t been outside in a while. It’s better if he stays indoors.
His smug face makes me want to hurt him. It’s the same face he wore in court for his and Mom’s divorce. Steve, who back then we thought was only his best friend, waited outside the courtroom and turned away when Rob and I walked out, holding Mom. The way Steve went for Dad, helped him out of the building, everything made sense.
“I’m drying my lingerie,” he says. “For my date.”
“God damn it, Dad, this isn’t lingerie. You’re roasting your fucking underwear.”
“Who are you?”
I grab his shoulders and turn him toward me. His nakedness always shocks me. Marjorie calls more these days, needing my help. She can’t seem to do it alone, especially since he’s abandoned clothes. He’s slipped further since I was here last week. He’s more eight-year-old boy than eighty-two-year-old man.
“Okay, Mercedes. Listen: there is no José, you are not going on a date, and you do not put your shorts in the oven to dry them.”
He hums a tune I remember him singing when I was little. The words are something like, Johnny he’s a joker, he’s a bird.
He doesn’t budge. I leave him there to find a robe and decide it’s time to fire Marjorie. I dial Rob. He’s never in the mood to talk about Dad, but maybe today he’ll have some sympathy.
“It’s getting worse. Maybe we should put him in a facility.” I grab Dad’s robe from the hallway bathroom.
“Whatever you say,” Rob says.
“You do have a say in the matter.”
“No, not really. You’re the executor,” Rob says.
Rob holds onto the idea Dad loved me more. He teases me to this day about it, says I’m in charge because I was our fairy father’s favorite. Really, it was the state. Three years ago, APS called me after Mrs. Rogers next door called them. Steve had passed away the year before from a battle with lymphoma, and it wasn’t too long before Dad started to slip. The day I got the call, Dad had wrecked his shopping cart into Mrs. Rogers at Albertsons. He was in heels and screamed at her. The state later named me executor.
That’s what I get for being four minutes older.
“Why do you go through all the trouble, anyway? You’re not getting a dime of his money,” Rob says.
“His money’s going to his care. He needs someone, Rob.”
“Like I said: whatever you want to do is fine.”
In the late part of the summer after Rob and I finished college, we sat for the last time as a family at the dinner table, but we didn’t eat. Mom and Dad told us they were getting a divorce. Mom’s face was a permanent purple from all the crying, and Rob was the only one who addressed the issue head on. He said he never wanted to speak to Dad again and had no love for a cheater, even though they hadn’t told us why, or if there was any cheating going on at all. Rob wished Dad a long lonely life, then he got up and left. That very second, everything fell on me.
“Thanks for your input,” I say. “I’ll remember not to ask you again.”
“You’re welcome,” Rob says. “How’s Barbara? The kids?”
After Dad and Steve moved in together later that same year, I put up a wall. I hated the situation for at least ten years and talked to Dad maybe three times. Mom’s heart disease accelerated and my attention went to her. When she died and we had to let everyone know, I finally figured it took too much energy to hold in all that anger. Dad showed up at the services. He hugged me. We cried.
I began to visit him and Steve off and on after that. They got to know my wife, Barbara, and Dad was there when Trace was born. We felt something like a family again. In those rebuilding years, though, I still clutched to a tiny bit of rage—one last brick in my wall—for the new life Dad so easily took on. As I watch him slip away now, I can’t help but feel that brick still there—the interminable heaviness of it—and wonder if Rob hasn’t had the right idea all along.
Dad’s still at the table looking out the window with the stupid shawl on and now he’s crying. I drape the robe around him. I debate roughing him up, or maybe just toying with him. When exactly does it cross over into abuse?
“So, José stood you up again?”
“Yes. Second time this week,” he says.
His eyes have caved in and his cheeks sag more these days. From the side, he reminds me of Grandma Vásquez, his mother, when she was on her way out. She always had this combination of worry and apprehension in her eyes, as though someone was going to burst in and scare her. I never noticed how wide her forehead was until I saw it in her open casket. Dad’s forehead looks almost identical, but instead of the frizz job Hansen’s Mortuary did with Grandma’s hair, Dad’s bald.
“Well, we’ll have to just call him and see what the holdup is.”
“Don’t bother,” Dad says. “He’s a dog, anyway.”
“What do you mean? A dog?”
Dad looks at me with the Grandma face, and for a second I think he knows me again.
“Who did you say you are?”
“I’m Earl. Dr. Earl. Are you feeling okay, Mr. Madrid? Or is it Mrs. Madrid?”
“I don’t need a doctor.”
“Dad, it’s me. Your son.”
“I don’t have a son.”
“You have two. Twins. Let’s get up and get you to bed.”
He shifts around in the chair and he leans forward, giving in. I lift him up, close his robe, and lead him down the hall. The place sparkles thanks to Marjorie, but every time I visit, something changes. Perfect rectangles of un-sun-bleached paint on blank walls mean he’s taken another picture down. Books end up in the bathtub; plates go tucked under the couch cushions. I found a set of forks in his old cowboy boots. In his room, a suit’s laid out on the bed.
“Is this what you meant to wear today?”
“That’s for José.”
“Here, sit down. Where were you two headed?”
Mr. Steak’s been closed for decades. It’s now a yoga studio.
I remember the suit from a picture where he and Steve were dressed up for some formal event. They matched.
“Let’s put it away until tomorrow, okay?”
I hang the suit in his closet next to a row of dresses, closest to a maroon one. I slide the door shut, and his reflection in the mirrored panel stares back with the same pout. I want to push him, maybe slap him. I face him, feel that weight again, and tap the top of his shoulder instead.
There’s an old yearbook open on his nightstand. Boys in white dinner jackets and black bow ties and girls with low black drapes from shoulder to shoulder, all of them with big hair, smile up at the ceiling. In the left margin, an autograph from a young man with a deep brow and slick hair says, “To Bird Dog: Don’t ever change. Keep in touch. —José.”
I slam the book shut.
Dad cries. “Why didn’t he come?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t love you anymore.”
“What? Why?” Dad whimpers.
“We’re going to have to take you somewhere soon, Dad. To a home.”
“This is my home.”
He looks around the room with the Grandma Vásquez face again, this time more lost. He pats around on the bed for something; looks back at me, eyes still damp. “Why did you stop loving me?”
I know the man we used to call Dad is in there. The man that ran behind us, training wheels off. Same guy that talked to us about sex and girls and using our heads. My shoulders tense and his eyes dart away from mine. I look where he looks and see his reflection in the mirror again, and for just a second, I catch him. He hums the tune again.
“Stop, Mercedes. Please.”
“Get out of here.” He swats at me and I grab his wrist. I could break it with one twist. I lie his hand on his lap and turn toward his closet. I slide open the door and pull out the maroon dress and put it next to him.
“Here. We need to get you ready. For José.”
“Is he coming?”
“Yes. He’s going to meet us at Mr. Steak.”
BLACK ANGUS IS the closest thing to what Mr. Steak was. Probably a little brighter and cleaner. The hostess takes us to a quiet corner—my request—and I shake my head each time a staffer passes by and gives me the look.
Our server, Manny, stutters on drink orders he’s so distracted.
“He’ll have a Coke,” I say. “Water’s fine for me.”
I cut Dad’s steak and feed him a few bites. He loves the mashed potatoes. Always has. For our sixteenth birthday, Mom and Dad dragged Rob and me to Mr. Steak. We really just wanted to be dropped off somewhere, like Pizza Hut or the mall, but they refused. When Rob’s steak ca
me out, he cut into it like he was killing it. He tipped his plate on accident and the filet fell in his lap. We laughed so hard that Mom threw up a little bit in her mouth.
After our dinner, Manny sets the Sky-High Mud Pie on the table and Dad looks right past it. He has forgotten he ordered it, the same way he forgot about José. Hasn’t mentioned him once since we sat down. Maybe I’ll take the dessert to go and put it in Dad’s Frigidaire, where he’ll find it the next day. Or not at all. I think today will be the last day he’ll use his kitchen appliances.
He takes a sip of his soda on his own and leans back, resting his head on the high-backed, cushioned booth. He clasps his white-gloved hands over his protruding belly covered in satiny red fabric. He rests his eyes. I consider yanking off the matching pillbox hat tilting jauntily on his bald head. But I leave it. I’m the one who dressed him. It’s best to keep him—and me—calm as long as possible. I’ll never see him like this again. At a restaurant, on a date, dressed to kill.
C. M. Chapman
The Captain of the Night Watch awoke drenched and terrified. It took a long minute to pull himself together, only to find he was still shaking. Of all the nightmares that had plagued him every night over the last few weeks, last night’s was the worst.
Last night, of course, was technically a misnomer since he had retired to bed in the early dawn, but the captain was still having some trouble with that distinction. Sleeping was properly a night-time activity in his mind. But the promotion to Captain of the Night Watch had come with the change in shift. Night was his day and day was his night now.
He stayed in bed for several minutes, trying to slow his heartbeat, trying to fool himself into believing that waking life would bring relief, and failing on both counts. He stared at the ceiling and wished that he could blame all of this on his change in work pattern. After all, he was coming off twenty years of humping a daytime beat through the Shell Heights market district, breaking up arguments, keeping disreputable merchants in check, and chasing pickpockets or children with stolen bread. It would be so much easier to think that the change in lifestyle had unhinged him and that none of it was real.
But that was not the case. Doom wasn’t just in his dreams. It awaited him, tonight, on the watch.
He had deserved that promotion, by the gods he had. And he’d needed it badly, with three children now to feed. Things were just starting to get easier and then-- this. He looked at the empty side of the down mattress. Mary would have been up for several hours now. The sky must have been overcast because the usual shadows of time were absent from the walls. He guessed it was well before midday, hardly a rest for a man on the edge. He sighed and rolled himself from the bed. There would be no more sleeping after that dream. As he slipped into his britches he wondered which was worse, the impending horror of his shift tonight, slowly creeping toward him like some putrid, carnivorous worm, or the impending horror of his dreams, ready to spring on him like a wolf to his throat.
After last night, he figured it was a toss-up.
He shuffled into the house’s living area. This home was much nicer than their previous one, thanks to his promotion. The walls were of smooth clay and stone and the roof was nicely thatched. They still had to live with a dirt floor but at least it was level and didn’t get wet when it rained.
Mary had already fetched the water, effectively ruining the captain’s plan to make himself useful. She was nowhere to be seen, which meant she was probably at the market. The captain altered his plan and decided to go out for some extra firewood instead. Jonah Simms and his boys regularly cut in the forest beyond the city walls and sold the wood on this side of the city.
The forest. He shuddered. He didn’t think there was a promotion in the world that could make him go in there.
That was where it began. It was from those woods, or at least the space once occupied by those woods, that he first heard the three accursed words which now plagued his existence. If only it had ended there. If only he hadn’t seen anything.
The King’s High Necromancer would be waiting for him tonight as he had been every night since the first incident. The wizened old man would be lurking at the entrance to the tunnel stairs as he passed through the garrison muster hall.
“Good evening, Captain,” he would say with that disconcerting lick of the lips, “Did you dream again?”
The thought of it made him uneasy. Would he confess his dream of this morning? He didn’t know. His willingness to share them had diminished as they’d become increasingly more bizarre and disturbing.
In the beginning, he would have talked to anyone, anyone, who would have displayed the tiniest amount of empathy. The shock of that first encounter had left him shaken and shattered. His men had looked at him like he was crazy. The Garrison Commander had even threatened to demote him. The High Necromancer had intervened, pulled him aside, and spoken to him in soft, reassuring tones.
“What did you see?” the ashen-skinned, wraith of a man had asked.
“I don’t know,” the captain had said, still blubbering, “It was as if the forest suddenly melted into one thing- or part of a thing- and that thing- oh gods- it reached into me--.”
“Try to calm yourself, Captain. What sort of thing? What did you see?”
And so the Captain had related, for the first time, how the forest morphed into sinister, seemingly formless black in front of his eyes, emitting waves of what could only be called sickness, seeping from it like heat, making him want to vomit, sucking the life from his soul, and robbing his legs of their ability to stand. He told the necromancer of the slow comprehension that the massive thing in front of him was only part of something vastly bigger, and how after what seemed like eternity transfixed by the thing, he’d finally understood that he was staring into a monstrous, pitch-black eye, unblinking, stretching nearly the entire length of the southern forest.
Once it began spilling from him, it all came. The eye was unfeeling, uncaring, detached from human concerns and obliviously destructive. It seemed like the eye of a giant bird, no bird of beautiful plumage, but one ancient and flightless, lying in a festering heap just behind the illusion of the forest, its consciousness probing the captain’s mind like the tentacles of a man-o-war. He told the necromancer about the three words, unbidden, forced like rape, words which he knew were not just for him, but for the whole world.
The necromancer had smiled, a kind smile that seemed completely alien. “Don’t worry, Captain,” he said softly, “Open yourself. You are the herald of a new age. Soon, all of King Humphrey’s enemies shall fall and we will enter a golden age of unparalleled knowledge. This is a good thing. Rejoice in your heart.”
But it did not feel like a good thing. It felt about as far away from good as possible, farther even, than the laws of nature allowed.
One step out of his door informed him of why it was so difficult to judge the time. The world had obviously changed and, from the looks of it, not for the better. The captain found Jonah Simms in his usual spot but not his usual mood, which was hardly surprising under the circumstances. Simms looked at the captain like the harbinger of death, not the look of a man who is afraid of it, but one who recognizes an inevitability. There were no words spoken. The captain handed over his money and took his small stack of wood, conscious of the fact that these actions seemed futile and meaningless. He turned to go home. It was true, then. They were all going to die. If not tonight, then very, very soon.
“Planning to burn down the city?”
He turned toward Mary’s voice to find her behind him, their wooden cart in tow, loaded down with firewood, turnips, onions, and several loaves of bread. Even in the fluorescing light of doom she was caring for her family, planning for a future, if only in the form of next week’s meals. There was humor in her eyes attached to the question, but it was a dark joke. He was overwhelmed by his feelings for her.
“Well,” he said, smiling, “I guess it’s an option.” He added his stack of firewood to the cart and leaned over to kiss his wife. He hadn’t been able to see her enough lately. She had a lovely face that touched him as deeply as ever, and even though three births had left her with an egg-like figure, in his mind she was still the slender beauty he had wed many years ago. He wished (hoped) that the strength of his love for her could be enough to turn back whatever was coming, but he wasn’t strong enough to believe it.
The captain took the handles of the cart from her and they walked in silence toward home.
“You didn’t sleep well again,” she said after a few moments.
“Anything you want to share?”
“No.” He smiled and kissed her on the forehead.
She knew. Just like Jonah Simms. Just like everyone by now. It was no secret. The morbid nature of the royal family had been public knowledge for generations. The necromancer order was the most powerful order in the city, more powerful than the City Watch, by far. It was even said the elaborate and massive city walls, which encompassed all the disparate districts of the city, were constructed in the shape of some arcane symbol.
And more and more people had seen the thing as time went on. Not all perceived it as an eye. Two of his men had perceived a great, black egg, seeping putrescence from many cracks, about to hatch.
His duty-honed observational skills told him everything he needed to know as they walked. Everyone knew death was near. It was obvious, if only in the unnaturally pale green sky laced with slender, silken tendrils of silent lightning that pulsed above them. The captain walked along with his wife, conscious of the fact that there were things he should probably be saying to her, thankful to her and loving her more for not having to say them.
At home, Mary fried some sweetbread for lunch. Her husband helped her by brewing some mint tea, not something he would have usually done. A couple times they got in each other’s way and those were times of lingering touches, sad smiles.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” she asked at the table, “I would share your burden.”
“I am sure,” he said, “and I know. You are too good to me.”
“I am your wife.”
He had not burdened her with any of the dreams. The first time that he’d been able to sleep after seeing the eye, he dreamed of floating, suspended in blackness, the same three words he’d heard earlier, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Those three words were never to stop. They would be present from then on, except during those waking hours when he wasn’t on duty and could shut them out. But even then, they echoed.
The dreams escalated in horror, both physical and existential, and each one, he knew, was a message from that abomination outside of the city. Some were incredibly bizarre, including one where he looked down at himself to find he was fat, with legs not big enough for his body. He was dressed in a strange outfit with half-pants and suspenders, the words swirling around him like a whirlwind of sound, making the world spin out from under him.
In another, a slobbering demon peeled his hardened skin from him in chunks and ate him. They grew stranger and stranger, worse and worse, but the dream of that morning had an air of finality to it that seemed incontrovertible.
In it, he was being ripped to shreds. He was in pieces, lying upon the blackness that he now knew to be the eye, like he was held by gravity. Over and over, the three words bombarded, pierced him, in all inflections and dialects, all languages, none of which the captain knew and yet which he understood clearly. He heard them from without and within, even in languages dead for millennia. A thin silver strand held his disparate pieces from floating away from each other but it was being gnawed upon by greasy flightless, shambling birds and each peck was an agony to his scrambled soul. In the dream, he knew the end had come at last.
He was not going to share that with his wife.
In time, the children were home. Too soon, he thought, or not soon enough. Time seemed to have slipped loose of its moors. In what seemed only a brief moment, Mary was setting the table for dinner. His shift was approaching.
He helped his wife get the children ready for bed, lingering to touch each child’s face a moment longer and exacting a kiss from each. As his youngest, Tessa, kissed him gently on the cheek, an involuntary spasm of breath forced its way through his nostrils. He held it at bay.
Part of him wanted to stay, but the captain was, in the end, a man of duty.
So he left home with the fleeing daylight, such as it was, knowing deep in his heart that tonight would be the end of all things. There was no sound of frog or cricket in the air, no evening swallows diving and swooping above the rooftops. All nature seemed to have fled this place. Nevertheless, the captain kept a slow pace. He was in no hurry and, in fact, was fighting a primordial urge to flee blindly in any direction. An easy enough urge to fight. No direction held safety.
In the muster hall it appeared that many of his men had not come tonight. The garrison commander was still there, at his table in the side chamber off the main hall. He glared as the captain passed his view. Those men who had shown up were gathered in a corner of the hall. All had the look of the woodcutter. He passed them, avoiding contact.
The necromancer was waiting with his hungry smile.
“Good evening, Captain,” he said, bowing, “Do you dream still?”
The captain had decided not to tell him. Let him be surprised.
“I try to remember, Holiness, but they are hidden from me.”
“Ah, so it is, then.” He bowed again and the captain returned the bow as he slipped past him into the wall’s inner passageways. He followed the torchlit tunnel until he came to the stairway to the southern guard tower.
At the top of the stairs, the Captain of the Day Watch was waiting, looking most relieved to see him.
“Captain Ernst, I present myself as your relief,” he said, with a crisp salute.
“Captain Dumpty,” Ernst replied, returning the salute, “the wall is yours.” And then he was gone.
The captain stepped out onto the ramparts and looked toward the forest. There was the ancient, avian eye, locking on to him, sucking at his very essence. He thought maybe he was beginning to perceive the rest of the thing, or at least the potential of its existence. The air around the eye was shimmering as if it were ready to dissolve into form. The words, unheard during the time he’d been able to concentrate on his wife and children, renewed their assault on his mind.
“You. Will. Fall.”
Perhaps, tonight, he would.
Larry D. Thacker
Wilma didn’t think. She acted.
It was a reaction driven by pure adrenaline.
She would have defended herself with a rolled up Sunday newspaper if she’d been on the front porch reading one when Jake came after her, not that it would have done her any good. Lucky for Wilma though, come to find out a frozen roll of chocolate chip cookie dough is about the same size and striking strength as a wooden rolling pin. She’d just pulled the package out of the freezer to let it thaw a bit when Jake stumbled from the living room for another beer, bumped into the kitchen table, and knocked the fresh lemonade Wilma’d been squeezing on all over his clean, pressed jeans.
“I was gonna preach in these tomorrow night, woman!”
The accident was somehow Wilma’s fault, which meant she’d get it upside the head at least once if he could catch her, which he did, but not as hard as it could have been and not as lightly as she might have hoped, but on this occasion something deep in her head clicked in a different direction than usual, she saw red, and she swung back. Again, it could have been a frozen bean burrito or a hot iron. The iron skillet Jake’s momma gave her or the six-pound, three-generation family Bible they kept on the coffee table. But it was a rock solid, thirteen-inch-long, two-inch-thick roll of cookie dough that might as well have been cast iron. His fist grazed her cheek. She countered with a two-fisted swing that would have put his head across the street into the neighbor’s lot if it hadn’t been connected to his neck. He crumpled like a winter sack of potatoes, his temple split wide open. He started bleeding in such a way as Wilma’d never seen anyone bleed, like the water hose was left on and it was the bloody Nile during the plagues running from her husband’s ear and the long dark gash across the left side of his head. Jake loved preaching about Moses and children of Israel and the Great Exodus into the wilderness for forty long years.
There was a little lemonade left in the pitcher. She turned it upright and poured what was left into the morning’s coffee cup and sipped it. Her cheek hurt a little. He’d mostly missed, but it might still bruise. She hoped not.
When life got tough, whether with him and Wilma, or at the Copper Creek Temple, Jake laid it at the Lord’s feet, as he’d say.
Lay it at the Lord’s feet. God’s will’s got a plan for everything. If he didn’t want something to happen, it wouldn’t now, would it?
It was one of those catch-all phrases that fit most any bad situation. While most church members took solace in that sentiment and it even helped Wilma feel better most of the time, she wasn’t convinced when “Preacher” Jake started beating on her after a six-pack and some shots on a Friday night. She’d asked him once if God wanted him hitting her all the time and he’d threatened to send her to heaven to ask the Lord in person.
And now there Jake was, piled up on the kitchen floor, having breathed his last, a pool of blood growing like a scarlet halo around his two-faced, drunk-assed head.
“Shame he fell and hit his head on the countertop like that,” she muttered out loud, sipping the last of the lemonade. “I swear, he must have slipped. He’d been drinking, again. He fell all the time.”
God’s will and all. Lay it at the Lord’s feet.
Wilma looked around the kitchen, the one room of the house she felt safest, though that obviously wasn’t always the case all the time. She still held the roll of dough. There was the slightest dent toward the end. A spot of red marking the spot. Her hands still trembled. The area under her intense grip was thawing now. Her whole arm throbbed up into her arthritic shoulder.
She set the dough roll down, at about where she was rehearsing in her mind the side of Jake’s head smacked the gray and white streaked marble countertop, sort of near the corner. She practiced the sound in her head. What it sounded like from the back porch pantry where she’d say she was at that terrible moment, when she was head first in the deepfreeze digging for frozen catfish fillets for supper. Would it have been more of a whack or a thump or a sort of wet smack? Would he have let out a holler? A moan or groan? Yes, more like a ka-thwack and a yelp. Then the thump of his heavy body.
She lifted the hems of her denim skirt and stepped quietly over the dark pool setting up on the linoleum, reaching for an oven dial. She’d made these cookies so often for the grandkids she knew the proper temperature – 350-degrees. She prepped a baking sheet with some wax paper. She could have done it blindfolded, this act of baking love for the young’uns. Pulled a knife from the utensils drawer and split the spine of the package open exposing the tannish and speckled dough. It felt like cutting through flesh. A bit tough, but giving with enough pressure, the plastic snapping through. She cut little rounds off the roll just as if she were slicing up an apple, filling the sheet up. Her hands were still shaking. She had to be careful. But what about blood on the plastic?
She eyed the end of her thumb as the knife swept by with each slice. Another. Another. Then an icy pain hit. Her own blood rushed forth. Like water from the rock. The sin of Moses. It dripped on the countertop. She turned, letting some drip to the floor to mingle with Jake’s dying lifeblood. She wondered if his blood was still flowing. If there was any life at all left in the body. She thought of Lazarus coming back to life and wondered if even the Lord had been surprised.
The oven dinged, signaling it was preheated and ready. The blast of superheated air shocked her when it struck her face and neck and upper chest. The twisting elements glowed, always reminding her of what the tiniest percent of damnation must be like. Is that just the smallest inkling of the devil’s hell? The lake of fire? A sinner’s destination for the ultimate transgression? Even if they were defending themself?
She shoved the pan of cookies in with a metallic rattle and slammed the door and set the timer for fifteen minutes and went to the living room to think. Jake not laying stretched back in his beat-up recliner was awfully odd. That he wouldn’t ever be there again seemed odder. Five empty beer cans set around the chair. Another one on the edge of the coffee table leaving a circle. She couldn’t wait to drag that chair out back to the burn pile.
Things would change, wouldn’t they? Right quick like. What would the church do? Would the Temple keep on going? Find another preacher? He’d started Copper Creek, hadn’t he? Would they want someone else? Too many questions. Did any of it matter? It’d work out.
God’s will and all.
The oven dinged. Cookies. Didn’t they smell good.
Wilma got up from the couch and went back to the kitchen. Something hung in the kitchen air besides the thick aroma of warm cookies and melted chocolate. The essence of aging, coagulating blood. Like someone had left hamburger out all day. Along with the rancidness of urine. Jake had pissed himself come to find out. But thank goodness it was mostly cookies she smelled now. She’d had bouts of a weak stomach in the past and now wasn’t the time for a relapse.
She grabbed the sheet of cookies from the oven with her best oven mitt, the one she kept hanging on the wall for special occasions, the one that said: Lord, Bless This Mess. She slid the cookies onto the countertop, wishing the grandchildren were around to enjoy them.
The cookies made a perfect little pyramid on the large plate she chose from the cabinet. The Dollywood one with Dolly singing into an old style microphone and playing a big guitar. She didn’t want to be alone eating all of these cookies.
God’s will and all.
She grabbed her diabetes meds and swallowed one down. Maybe that would balance out the task ahead. There were twenty-five good sized cookies. At least they were warm. They melted in your mouth when they were fresh out of the oven.
She poured herself a cold glass of whole milk. She walked out to the porch with the plate of cookies, grabbing the cordless phone along the way, and sat on the metal sled rocker with the plate on her lap. It looked like it might rain. The grass needed cutting.
She picked a single cookie from the top of the pile, pushed it full into her mouth and chewed the sugary warmth with a smile and swallowed.
Then she dialed 911.
Master of the Flying Guillotine
that each violence must be art-
poet as warrior
as bawd goating
around until clamoring
for a butting of heads
some pretty name
worth mating over
animal noises exacting
to cleave skulls
to dance steps
The Ariana Principle → The Ariana Solution, reasons Larry
Self-referencing a convex mirror, turns out she had two lilies after all, her bridesmaids all asleep in the bungalow. She played a part-time chef who inspired an axe-murdering chanteuse & this is how transparent all Billy Collins’s poems are, perhaps too easy a poet to dislike. I had to try harder to hate Frost. But back to these flower girls asleep in the blue snow. I remember reading Vikings were really just nice guys, pick up your bar tab, then blood-eagle. The principle is this: the poem’s political dimension plays Candyland like a pampered baby. All entrance, the poem asks no exiting.
The Sound of Surprise
When those cheeks expand and he exhales
his breath within notes, as his horn blows,
I almost explode, Dizzy with enlightenment.
There’s something about the rhythm, the heir
of his playing, speaking with his mouth
and expressing such beauty on his canvas
of air, gripping his golden trumpet,
and all of the treasures he gifts us, even
when the vinyl is crackling back to the
Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac eyes closed
ears open, feeling the wind alone
as Gillespie takes us, each slight return
so adventurous, while reaching inside
his melody lingers resounding this cheeky
giant from his distance, sonically appearing
even as the needle uplifts us,
we feel closer to home.
Off the eastern coast of Ireland near the mouth of Galway Bay lay three small islands. Of these three, called the Aran Islands, the island of Inishmore is the largest. On Inishmore, at the edge of the sea atop, a sheer cliff one hundred meters high sits an Iron Age, semi-circular stone fort. The inland-facing fortifications of Dun Aengus guard nothing but a small slab of limestone ground. Some say the walls were once circular, but erosion long ago dropped half into the sea.
POSTER ART NIGHTS
There is a ring beyond the ring around the moon.
It has the clarity of glass and contains nothing.
Not everyone can see it. But later
There will be other reproductions,
Other nights when we will watch where cars
Like beetles in the dark
Follow their twitching cones of light
Across the ridges where the river bends
Around Elk Island Farm.
But the burning spirals of my digital self
Are never just the same old song,
Each track is shorter, but contains more information,
Until the final spiral disappears untraced,
Heard only by my friend, who claims to hear
The silent ‘h’ in ghost.
It makes an invisible sound, he says,
Not everyone can hear it.
As on a winter night years ago we stopped here,
Angrily pulling off the road,
While the queenly moon
Assumed her listening pose across the river.
And so our words, cruel and obvious then,
Are invisible now to me,
And of the many things we said that night,
Or meant to say,
I can remember almost nothing.
Yet I still can feel
The roughness of your coat across my hands,
Still see the water drops
That streaked the steaming windows,
Drops that glittered
In the same cold light that shone
Upon the frosted blades of grass outside the car,
Both then and now.
Where in the park we stood each day
By that rude philosopher with lantern thrusted high,
Who stared with his stone eyes at those who passed unheeding,
A companion girl bends now, head down, face turned away,
And gathering close her granite robes
As if his searching question had found her in a lie.
What is it that he always doesn’t say
In hermetic language none of us can hear?
Like traveling without a map, you say, of dreams
That nightly took you to a silent land
Whose hieroglyphs gave meaning, instant and complete,
Which waking, you could never seem to understand.
AND THINKING TO ESCAPE
Why do we say this can’t go on,
When vanishing each day at five
Through doors that open on dark streets
Impossibly we leave our spaces empty
And move cleanly westward toward the light.
Later, fumbling at the winding sheets
Sounds move past us in the night.
Though in the dark, we cannot be alone.
Something is always with us, invisible, like air
That pushes gently on an outspread sail.
It knows we must be going
And will take us anywhere,
Even to those places that ‘just might have been.’
Some friends have gone before us,
We see them moving there
Like shadows in a mirror where symmetry has failed.
Awkwardly they stumble, then stare and look surprised,
As if discovered reading dead men’s mail.
PROMENADE IN THE BACK YARD
The girl in brown stood by the door
Where the bats inquired in the dusky air,
While in the yard the unwashed Poltroon
Hacked and spit in the booted sand.
“Come out, come out, and play in the dark,”
He plunked out a tune on his comb.
The dogs howled, and near the porch
The cats made infrequent rushes.
But still she leaned against the door
And made no stir. Would
That the moon had called to her,
The moon, and the honeysuckle’s drift...
Only the essence in their names
Lives after them, vibrating
In the air of lonely rooms
Where once they lived.
They are reduced to signs,
Or random noises that go unexplained.
Someone sits reading in the chair.
The summer day
Draws its strength together for the afternoon.
In the hall a floorboard creaks.
The curtains flutter
But the leaves outside are still.
In this one moment, when the reader’s eyes
Lift uneasily from the page,
The mind clear but not focused anywhere,
All that is needed to bring them forth
In buzzing clarity
Is the simple murmuring of their names.
But we forget! Or quickly distracted,
We flip the page, annoyed,
And shifting in the chair
We fumble for our matches
And another cigarette.
Who will be the last to say their names?
The very last to say
“Why, this was Great Aunt Harriet’s vase,
Who lived here long ago.”
Then, smiling sadly,
“But of course, you don’t remember her.”
And what of Harriet, then?
Will she hover forever in these rooms
Like an echo,
Waiting for the one lifted sound
No traveler now on earth can make.
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