When no one is looking // Peggy Morrison
When no one is looking, I forget about my face.
my face becomes transparent
living in my skin is as a fish swimming
in a river
tingle when they are cold)
When no one is looking
I water the plants,
study each group of seedlings I've planted
notice that three of the peas, near the edge of the bed,
were eaten over night, one tiny leaf remains on the bare stem.
in my ears- wind rustling, wind chimes, distant planes
while my eyes look from my transparent face
at the green sprout
on the black, moist earth
When no one is looking,
cool water sprays from the loosened
hose connector, wetting my sweat pants
near my right shin.
I'm asked to explain.
(I don't mind)
it's not cold. It's weather where
everything wet will dry soon.
October 31, 2020
A classic LA story // Alexandra Naughton
A classic LA story. Everyone seems to either own a historic hotel, work at a historic hotel, or they live in one.
There's a young woman who is perpetually stuck in a funk and copes with her depression by taking adderall and playing video games with her older male friend. If he's not able to have sex with her she'll just lay a towel out on the bed and paint her nails. There's a montage of them playing one of those games where you sing a song and do the dance moves on the screen. They sing a country song together and they look happy. She's played by Julia Garner.
There's a young man whose moms own a hotel and live in a fancy condo that he's not really even allowed to visit. He never made anything in his life and they're frustrated with him. He's played by a young Leonardo DiCaprio. He stops by their place one early evening and uses their hidden spare key to let himself in and is greeted by two modern dancers doing their routine in the kitchen. "We're letting them stay until they figure things out," his more understanding mom says to him, and pours him a glass of milk.
There's another young woman who gets pressured to keep spending the night with different men. One time it's the owner of the hotel where she lives, but she finds a way to get out of it. She sneaks back into his office after he leaves to do some snooping and maybe some stealing. That's when the hotel owner's son comes and wants her to have a sleepover with him. He tells her she can bring her cat. She is played by me. She's even less attracted to the son than she was to his father, but he's pushier and she finds herself giving in and regretting it. Her cat doesn't like him and runs away, getting lost in the penthouse office. She's late to one of those “for fun” work meetings the next day, an art showing inside a train station. The hotel owner's son doesn’t want her to go, he wants her to be with him while he stands around outside the hotel and chats with people he knows. Julia Garner's character is one of them, and she keeps looking the character played by me up and down in a disapproving way. The character played by me leaves and shows up at the train station at the end of the art presentation and no one even notices that she wasn’t there the whole time.
Palm // Natasha Dennerstein
It’s very, very frightening in a world gone mad in a mad, mad world where youngsters have lost the cinema and the silver screen for a digital screen we’ll scream and scream as the world will end in a digital apocalypse in an ending that fits like a glove in hand and top hat and tails have made way for latex microminis cinched at the waist and contoured noses and Kardashian asses plumped with implants and fat transfers from the belly to the butt in the belly of the beast and his number is 666. Six and sticks may break my bones and its an online bully world where my trauma is your trauma and I’m a precious snowflake or I will kill myself and it will be your fault and I can pretend to be dead and organize a go fund me page for the funeral expenses and run away with the funds to Sao Paulo or somewhere exotic where the living is cheap and a human life is worth about fifty dollars US and you can buy a meal for a dollar. Sex is cheap and plentiful and you can get fucked nightly by fit young things who lay their beautiful bodies down in tin roof shanties and hang their disco pants on a bamboo rod of their mother’s huts when she goes off to the sweatshop to sew for designer labels and makes the eight hundred dollar blouses till she’s blowsy and past it at forty-five. Spin me right round baby right round and fill my Western face with Juvaderm and other fillers, make me look forty till I’m sixty cause I move in the circles where eighty is the new sixty and his number is 666. The beast has a belly and she swims the seven seas, the leviathan, and she’s mighty, crying then the salt water spurting out her blow hole is polluted with plastics and loaded with Ambien and hormones, plastic bags and detritus from the floating trash islands of the Pacific, terrific, Atlantic ‘till it rises to the shore and totally swamps Pacific Island nations overnight, drowning the palaces, palm trees and shanties overnight ‘till in the morning there’s nothing left, mourning for a world that’s only ever been there for five minutes in Milky Way time. Time has a way of fugit and blink your eyes and it’s gone, a lifetime channel behind your lashes, a moisturized minute in the grand scheme of things and the Real Housewives of Planet Earth get their beauty products from palm oil from those Pacific Island nations drowned by the rising waters in the swamp time of their lives, slipping like sand through an hourglass, our glass lakes, Great Lakes, Canada geese flying south for the winter and skating over the frozen lakes into Canada and back across the borders in green card freedom of Christian right and the home of the free till the stars and stripes see stars and stripe your bottom with a lash of self-loathing and a handful of pills in the Oxycontin Nations of the Ambien world.
The odyssey for three voices // Linda Ravenswood
A., A., A.
A. man! That’s a lot of dicks under the bridge, and by bridge I mean me. I am the
Man! A lot of dicks under the bridge. And by bridge I mean mirror. The alewives.
Can you see them!? That’s the Interrobang. Little fishes, dozens of infinite, little fishes.
Like memory. Or a prayer.
A. How can this be!?
A. Because of a bridge. It all happened on account of a bridge.
And by bridge I mean woman.
Or a man. It could be a lot of dicks because of a man.
One specific man. One particular kind of man.
A. A man who likes what!? A man who wants what!?
A. Only that kind of man can be a bridge.
A. Under a bridge. Bury him under the bridge.
A. But a woman will fish him out. A woman’s always watching, even for a man like
A. For a man like that!?
A. Man! Especially a man like that. And other men. oh women.
A. Yes, of course. So many other men with women. So many under the bridge.
Man! So much water under the bridge.
A. And over it.
Don’t forget over it.
Don’t forget a lot of water over the bridge. Like trucks on the grapevine, it keeps \
coming and coming and coming.
No amount of tea strainers will ever make a difference.
A. Eye dropper time.
A. It’s billions of Chinese.
A. It’s grains of sand.
It’s the stars.
A. It’s not the stars.
A. Maybe somehow. Maybe somehow they got us where we’re going, but they are
quiet, like the dead.
A. You know they can’t be all dead. Never all dead. But might as well be.
A. Only what about the light.
A. Yes, the light! Yes, Yes. You have to give them that.
A. But what’s the story!?
A. That’s right, follow the rules!
A. Or break them! But give us a story!
By all means.
A. But I’ve given you the story. Every bit of the story. Maybe not the three books
you’re accustomed to, the ones you can hardly carry.
A. But it’s good to know they’re there!
A.Yes, so good to know they’re there.
A. But I gave you every bit of the story,
it’s there for the carrying. Carry it.
A. I want to hear it again.
A. Reporter, read it back!
A. What did she say about the bridge.
A. And the mirror!
A. What did she say about the bridge and the mirror.
A. And all the dicks!
A. Yes. She said it.
A. She said she was a bridge.
A. And a metaphor.
A. Nobody said anything about metaphor.
But there was a burial.
A. Yes, she said go down.
A. Down to the river. The source.
A. She said there was gold there.
A. I don’t know if I heard the same story.
A. Yes, she said it was there.
A. Barium under the bridge.
A. She said there was value
if we knew where to look.
A. If we had friends to help us carry our gold.
A. If we were able. If we could read the signs. If we had time.
A. When did anyone ever say that!?
The Jewel (White Ambition) // Giavanna Ortiz de Candia
On stolen land
He names a mountain after himself
and builds a house on top of it
Now he wants to build a glass deck on the side of the mountain: A jewel
It’s his job to continue until he dies
On the one day he forgot his sunscreen
This will be his magnum opus
It’s all he ever talks about
as if you care to listen
He shrugs at the past
As he admires only what is in front of him
The pines that have fallen
The birds that fly overhead
The snow on top of the mountains
The man likes to feel free
At the expense of others
He changes in the bathroom with you in it
As if you weren’t there
And rarely shuts the door when he takes a shit
His dick is something to be proud of
He likes to swivel his dick around in the same way he enjoys swiveling his prosperity
He doesn’t need to dress up
His skin is enough
Let Me Walk You Home // Ariel Beller
Alex caught a stick in the eye, a long reaching finger of branch, of delicate dead wood that snapped off against his eyelid. His eye watered up, his vision blurred, and the birds went mad in the trees. He checked the area, feeling for blood, then continued his usual walk home. It was the first sunny day he had seen in weeks and he was on the busy side of University Park. His eye had cleared up, but it was in a squint as he stared ahead at a figure coming toward him, into familiarity. He did some quick math and realised he had not seen her in almost five years. Audrey. Audrey something. He had involved himself in an obsession with this girl, an obsession which was, at times, just an un-elaborate desire to possess her. At every other time, his obsession was hopeless, and pathetic. They had lived down the street from each other and she made up games like California Ball, which they played, and she always won. Then one day he had shouted at her, very hurt and melodramatic, ‘You don’t know what real love is!’ and peddled away furiously on his bike. They had attended the same schools until he was 16. Audrey had known him, was never terribly cruel, just far beyond his reach. So, it was funny how the years had been kind to Alex. He had become tall, broad shouldered, and had somehow acquired a pretty face that made girls whisper in corners. She had acquired about 20 pounds, which made her a hefty girl. If you pushed her down the stairs, she might not break her arm. Also, her face was not as delicate as he remembered. She had a bad complexion, caked over with foundation which did not match the skin of her neck. At such close range she seemed to wear a mask. Purple diadems. Even still… she was pretty enough. The daylight was mean.
‘How are you doing!’
‘I’m all right.’
‘This is so funny! How long has it been?’
‘The last time I saw you was math period in high school and then you just disappeared. What happened to you?’
‘I left the country for a while.’
‘Really? How exciting! Where did you go?’
‘I was in Las Vegas for a while… then New Orleans, up the road.’
‘Yeah – and… Denmark for a while.’ he said, rubbing his eye.
‘Denmark? Isn’t that on the east coast?’
‘Not that one – ’
‘Hey! Remember that song we had to sing in the third grade? You remember? Fifty nifty United States from the thirteen original co-lo-nies...’
‘Oh yeah… hey what are you doing in this area – do you go to school here?’
‘Yup. Yeah I’m just taking a couple classes you know. I dunno. Just something to do I guess.’
‘Well… what happened to all those dance trophies? I mean the dancing. Don’t you…’
‘Oh, Alex – I was like 12 years old and that was for my parents more than me. You know my mother was a dancer and she was so into musicals. Why do you think whenever you came over I was watching Fairly Modern Millie?’
‘I don’t know… I guess I thought it was your thing.’
‘No. It was my mother’s thing.’
Here their familiarity broke, and the sounds of the world came splashing around them; the moronic birds and the wind in the trees – the manifold gibberish of students – the traffic – the waterfall in the promenade. Alex felt she might be on her way. He didn’t want her to go. Not yet. So he said,
‘So, what are you doing now? Are you going to class or…’
‘Nope. I’m done with class. I was just going to catch a bus home.’
‘So what are you doing – do you live downtown now?’
‘Yeah – I just live up the street.’
‘Really? Well why don’t you show me your place. I don’t really want to go home yet. It’s such a nice day.’ she said this while squinting her eyes, scrunching up her nose and craning her neck forward.
Well this was something. In trying to hide his excitement Alex became even more deadpan than usual. He did not blink.
‘This way.’ he said. And they walked along. He told her about his job at Old Town Pizza. Told her he liked living downtown and how the suburbs depressed him. Told her he was glad he’d gotten out of Portland for a year. All the while he considered opposing views. He had an old image of her stuck in his head like a ballerina figurine. He wasn’t sure he respected her anymore. She wasn’t so unattainably pretty – the dancing was some bizarre cover – and yet he once fancied her as a talented dance lady – a girl who might have been something. What a waste, he thought. The idea of her – which had swam around quietly in the back of his head for years – had proved false. Now he walked along with an updated version. She seemed to like him and she wanted to see his place. He thought that was awfully slutty of her. What had she become? He felt a strong desire to test her out. They were nearing his house. Depending on which floor he chose to show her. If, for instance, he took her upstairs to the third floor? He knew there’d be goings on up there. But if he just kept her on the ground floor – showed her the kitchen, the living room, said, well, this is where I live… that would be different. Alex was amused by the idea – that he could control, to a degree, Audrey’s perception.
‘Here we are.’ Alex said.
‘Really? This is where you live? It’s so big!’
‘I share it with quite a few people.’
They walked up the steps, into the foyer, and then up three flights of stairs. On the top floor he found the door
marked 666 in black spray paint. He knocked twice. Alex was a little disappointed when Audrey made no reaction. Like this was just any old door – something she saw every day. The door opened and there stood the fat and jovial Johnny Hellfire.
Alex said, ‘How’s life Johnny?’
Johnny had a lisp, ‘It’s all good. I’m frying ballths man. Did you bring a friend?’
‘Johnny this is Audrey James. Audrey, this is Johnny.’
‘Nice to meet you. Come in you two.’
Alex and Audrey walked inside to see two Mexican girls seated on pillows. A tall purple bong stood between them.
‘Look who’s here girls.’ Johnny said.
‘Hey Alex!’ the girls said in unison, then tumbled over on each other in a fit of laughter.
‘Girls, this is Audrey. We grew up together.’
The girls contained themselves just long enough to squeeze out a greeting, then conceded to another giggling fit.
Alex said to Audrey, ‘Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.’
Alex marched himself through two empty and adjacent rooms and paused in front of the door at the end. He knocked twice. A wary voice said,
‘Who is it?’
‘Alex. Let me in.’
The door unlatched and Alex slipped in while keeping the door as close to closed as possible. There were three people in this room. Big Daren, who had a bit of rubber tubing tied around his right arm and a pale empty syringe in his left hand. Stan, with the wary voice, sat cross-legged on an old wooden chair. Macey, on the windowsill, who seemed to stare at nothing, absently scratched the right side of her face.
‘What’s going on Alex?’ said Stan.
‘It’s been a weird day man.’
Daren interjected, ‘Stan, fix a small hit for Alex, I want him to try it again.’
‘I’ve got this girl out front. This girl I went to school with.’
Stan said, ‘Oh yeah? She cute?’
‘I don’t know anymore.’
Stan was fiddling with a cellophane of brown stuff, and becoming frustrated with it.
‘I can’t fucking do this man.’ he said.
Daren uncrossed his giant legs and took over.
‘Don’t you worry Stan. You just lie back and relax.’
‘Yeah I’m just gonna lie back and relax.’
‘Hey Stanley – why don’t you shut the fuck up and relax.’ said Macey. With a beaming smile. Daren was being methodical with the brown stuff, a white piece of fluff he tore from the filter of a Camel, a spoon and water. A lighter flicked.
‘So, what’s this girl like… is she a fucking prude like Macey?’
‘Fuck you Stan-ley. I’m a fucking… busy woman...’
‘I don’t know man. I don’t think she ever learned to breathe.’
‘Have patience my friend…’
‘Um, don’t kick my ass. Just something… I gotta go back out… Hey Fat Daren! Why you so fat?’
‘I ain’t fat I’m big – you skinny fuck… I’ll fucking kill you…’
Stan said, ‘Here we are,’ and flicked the syringe twice.
Alex stood outside the door. He scanned the empty box of a room. It came into focus… a large black and white photograph in a wooden frame. He walked closer to see an old man, with cane and bowler, sitting in a high-back chair. The old man said, ‘Get that bitch outta here.’ Turning from this Alex took one step forward, stumbled, caught his balance on the doorway and left the room. He emerged into the front room amidst a storm of laughter. All four of them were holding their guts in a group convulsion. Alex smiled a distant smile.
‘I’m sorry Alex… we got your girlfriend stoned.’ Johnny said.
‘You’re all so wise and happy.’
Alex sat down on a cushion in the corner. Audrey raised her eyes and stared beyond the ceiling.
‘I should probably get going,’ she said.
‘I’ll walk you out.’ he said.
‘No that’s all right,’ she said, getting herself to her feet.
‘No I’ll walk you.’
With a barely perceptible lack of balance they stood before the door, said goodbye, and left. The three flights of stairs proved to be fun, in their way. Once outside they squinted against the sun, which seemed halted between two skyscrapers.
‘Hey, listen Alex – it’s all right – you don’t have to walk me anywhere.’
‘Well maybe I’ll just walk you to the corner. It was good to see you anyway.’
‘Yeah, it was.’
Then she took off at such a pace that Alex didn’t feel inclined to follow. He took a few steps forward. ‘See ya,’ he mumbled, and she disappeared around the first corner. He turned around and looked down at his feet for quite some time. Suddenly the right one moved. Then the left. He continued this way until he was back in front of the steps. He sat down slowly on the third step – put his elbows on his knees – and stared at the old church across the street.
Ass Blasted into the Fourth Dimension // Jasper Ezekiel
I drift with the mint flavored vape clouds up to the light polluted sky to the barely visible stars, hopping from one to the other like stones in a rushing stream. From up here I can see you praying to a God who has only told you to hurt yourself, a holy figure closer to Satan with the blood He's instructed you to spill. How can we submit to God's Plan if we can't know what He wants? Prayer left me psychotic and lonely, my tongue wrapped tightly around a language only I could understand. Prayer left me blindfolded and trusting, God holding His hand out for me, only inches out of reach.
In the stars I find an uncomfortable isolation. Something I grew up with, unwanted just the same. I learned to expect no response when I speak. I learned my cries receive no soothing touches, no care, no affection. No animals are in the stars to keep me company. Heaven is still so far above me. I can't make out the silhouette of the Gates, only darkness for miles. But I hear the party booming, the pounding beat. Below me, you must hear it too, it's why you pray. I hope you aren't praying for selfish things like people often do, I hope you pray for courage, strength, patience, serenity.
I pray for the stars to fall into your cupped hands, to blaze and burn the flesh to your bone.
I pray for you to ignore the way I look at you, to see nothing behind my eyes, to know I am not a threat.
And most of all I pray for you to be happy, with your human craving and your addict obsession with anything that gives you pleasure.
I would hate you if you wrote about me like this. I don’t have a justification. I have my obsession. I scrape this scum off my soul to make art. I take my dirtiness and I show it to God and He turns the sweat off my hot, embarrassed cheeks into wine and when I offer decadence to you, you turn it down and say, “No thanks, I’ve had enough.”
SAMARA SAMSARA // Richard Loranger
leaves the tit for oblivion, off into
whatever it is, don’t fuck with me
I know your words are fatuous,
how free she feels, unbound
and flowing like life – is it a moment,
is it eternity – breathes all the air
as it breathes her, nothingness mama,
forever ash and seed, winged womb,
matriarch – you sing a well-wrung tithe
that rings us as the elm rings itself,
staying a moment, then leaving, staying, then
we all ask at once: how can we live with vicissitude,
how can we plunge into dark, how can we be
while sliding away, how can we be at all?
Don’t tell me what I am. You’re wrong.
The Racecar // Glen Armstrong
Almost everyone I know
opened a used bookstore
that served scones
and Ethiopian coffee.
Almost everyone I know
auditioned to play
the goblin king’s
Almost everyone I know
wanted to be the racecar.
They are still squared off
around the Monopoly board.
No one is backing down.
Walking Contradiction // Cassandra Dallett
cooking for one is a joke about cereal
as is folding the contoured sheet
if I never see a laundry-mat again
I will think of my father
you live in soup cans
and binge watches
the ashes of dogs
and our walks together
I’ve worn holes in your clothes
I’m not sure why I put them on
in the first place
how many one-night stand-ups
does it take to get to the appellate court
it’s his unavailability isn’t it
makes me want to savor
but I always bite down
buy Sauvitel in the largest bottle size
like his Versace I bathe in it
why do smells cheat on us
pickled like time
like my son
walking into the house and fixing the oven clock
four years and countless guests have tried
at least I was on time six months out of the year
the rest was irregular as always
seems like one of these medical releases
could be you but I know better
tramping into the homes of
bodies crumpled in on themselves
and their minds
today I spent with a brilliant man
in a broken body
tomorrow a fit man
with empty green eyes
I remember little more
than what it looks like
when they keep showing
a man murdered on live tv
knee to neck and a virus
threatening all of us
our loves and the minute
branches of their lungs.
Helping // William Taylor, Jr.
It was a Tuesday evening and I was done with work, riding the escalator down into the bowels of the North Berkeley BART station. The electronic sign said my train was four minutes away. I didn't feel like standing for four minutes, so I sat down on a bench next to a slight, and, for the most part, ordinary looking woman of about forty years. Yet something about her felt a bit off. Her face held a look of vague desperation. She glanced about at seemingly nothing in particular, looking nervous and sad. As I sat down beside her she gave a thin smile and I returned it. We sat in silence until the flashing sign declared that my train was arriving in one minute.
It was then that I had the terrible feeling that she was going to speak to me. It was something I could always sense. I made a quick decision to get up and move on, but she was too quick. Before I cold act, she, just as I had prophesied, spoke.“This train goes to Warm Springs and Millbrae, right?” The woman asked .
My usual approach to such situations is to play dumb, or, if I can get away with it, pretend I didn't hear the question in the first place. As a rule, I avoid talking to strangers, or even those more familiar, unless I am fairly sure that some good could come of it. On my end, I mean. Being in a situation in which I'm forced to speak to people I have nothing in common with has always been to my mind a particularly sinister hell. I've always hated taxicabs, elevators, lines outside of concert venues, anyplace where one might be trapped into dreary and pointless conversation. If it looked like I was going to enter my apartment building at the same moment as my neighbor, I would abruptly turn around, as if I had forgotten something at wherever it was I was coming from.
But the woman's helplessness had an animal quality about it, reminiscent of a lost dog at the side of a freeway. A little wave of compassion momentarily washed over me, and I foolishly answered. “It goes to Warm Springs, but to get to Millbrae you have to transfer at MacArthur,” I replied, slowly putting some distance between us as I spoke.
The woman made a frightened face, as if I had told her that all hope in any conceivable universe was now and forever lost. “I need to go to Millbrae,” she said.
“Then you need to transfer at MacArthur.”
“I don't know how to do that,” she said.
I was already regretting my decision to engage. “You can follow me,” I offered against my better judgment. “I have to transfer as well.”
“You're going to Millbrae, too?” she brightened a bit.
“No,” I said, “San Francisco.”
Her frightened look returned. “I don't want to go to San Francisco,” she said. “Are you sure what you're telling me is right?”
“Yes,” I said, “you can just follow me.”
“I'll follow you,” she said with some wariness, as if she thought I might be some hired agent working against her.
We boarded the train and faced each other from across the aisle. She told me she had to go to Millbrae to see her brother, who had been recently diagnosed with mouth cancer. I told her I was sorry to hear it.
“I don't know much about mouth cancer,” she said, “but they say it's curable.”
I told her I didn't know much about mouth cancer either, but I imagined most things were curable these days.
“I really hope so,” she said, seemingly grateful for my attempt at reassurance, “he's my kid brother.” She went on to tell me that she had dropped her phone in the street three days ago and broken it real good, so if she got lost or something else bad happened, she wouldn't be able to call her ailing brother to let him know. “Are you sure this is right?” she asked again.
“I'm sure,” I said.
She asked me my name, and I said Bill. Her name was Cynthia, and we shook hands.
“I'm glad I met you,” Cynthia said.
I smiled and nodded. She talked more but the train started making loud train noises, and I couldn't understand a word. I nodded and smiled until we made it to MacArthur station. I motioned to Cynthia that it was time to switch trains. She still seemed uncertain, despite the fact that most everyone else was crowding around the exit doors as well, but she followed me out onto the platform. “What now?” she asked, eyeing the train we had vacated with some regret as it closed its doors and pulled away.
I pointed to a flashing sign across the platform that said, “San Francisco/Millbrae 1 Minute.” She looked at the sign and her troubled air softened a bit. “I'm glad I met you,” she said again. The San Francisco/Millbrae train arrived, and we piled on along with the rest of the mob.
Cynthia sat down in the middle of the car and I stood and hovered about as the seats around us were filled by the people pouring onto the train. “This train goes straight to Millbrae,” I said, “I hope your brother will be okay.” I turned in search of a seat that was out of talking range of Cynthia, but the all of the other seats in the car were taken, save for the space next to her.
Cynthia patted the empty seat with her hand. “Bill,” she said, “Bill! Sit here!” There was a desperation in her voice, and a pleading in her big frightened eyes. I awkwardly shook my head and backed away, as if she were a stranger on a corner in a bad part of town offering me weird drugs while a cop watched suspiciously from across the street.
I gave a vague wave as a gesture of good-bye and pushed open the heavy doors I'd been leaning against. I moved into the adjacent car, which also had no available seats. I kept moving through car after car, as if I were being chased by some invisible, unnameable thing, until I ran out of cars. In the last car I found an empty seat next to a red-haired woman who seemed to know where she was going, and was decent enough to keep whatever problems she might have had to herself for the length of our journey.
The sound of Cynthia's fragile voice imploring me to sit next to her ghosted about in my head as we rode into the city. I glanced nervously about as if she might be coming to find me there in the distant car. I pondered the possibility of my being an inferior being for not sitting next to her as she entreated, and making sure she made it to Millbrae without further incident. But the thought of her sad nervous voice and her mouth-cancered brother and her broken phone and the fact of someone having to go to Millbrae felt like a thousand irrevocable dooms. I figured the train was surely filled with any number of caring, talkative citizens who would be more than happy to see her to her destination and lend their ears to her tales of unexceptional woe, in the hopes that they might offer up their own in return. I decided I had already done more than could be reasonably expected of me.
I exited the train at Union Square and walked the downtown blocks to my apartment. The street people with their crutches and wheelchairs accused me with their broken stares. A homeless man I had at some point christened Dirty Santa was swaying unsteadily at the corner of Post and Jones. He asked for money, and though I had a few dollars in my pocket I told him I was sorry. “I'm a good Christian soul,” he insisted, assuming I was partial to such beings. I cursed him beneath my breath and continued on. Being helpful wasn't a thing I wanted to get into the habit of. It made me nervous.
The Google Monster Sets the Handicap / Enjoy Beautiful California's Parks // J de Salvo
Interviewer: What was it like to be trapped up there?
Valeria: Well, it’s a lot of different things, really. First, I guess, you have the realization that you are trapped. That makes you pretty miserable for a while, but you get over it. You start to strategize…to the best of your ability; try to apply logic to the situation. It’s when all your strategies fail, one by one, and you start to get hungry and tired—more hungry and tired than you’ve ever been before—that’s when the real despair sets in. By comparison, the first stage, the initial misery, is like a child’s tantrum. What comes after, when your body and mind start to break down, that's, like...mature grief.
Valeria could hear the kettle whistling from her smoking perch outside of the apartment. Now the noise would wake up Daniel. She ran inside, going through the motion of being able to prevent it. I’m afraid of him, she thought. No, no. I’m not. I’m just afraid.
She stood across from him in the front room, averting her eyes. Occasionally they would meet his, but she was not able to stand it for more than fraction of a second before looking away again. What was she looking at?–nothing. Whatever it was that was happening, it was happening inside of her, behind her field of vision.
I was going to turn it off, she said.
One of these days, Valeria, you’re going to burn the fucking house down. And you’re smoking?
I never stopped. The day came and went. I never really even tried. I’m sorry I lied to you. Can I make my coffee now?
Ok…whatever. Make your coffee. Please try not to drink too much today. No point talking to an addict until they’ve had their fix. Anyhow, it’s 5:30 in the morning. I’m going back to bed, if I can.
She hated him, she thought. Maybe, though…it was true, what his attitude—his entire way of seeming and being—seemed to suggest: that she had no discipline; that she’d fall apart without him and that then there would be no one to hold the fabric of her life together while she was broken, as she would be again. She hated him. She needed him. He was an unfortunate necessity. For now only? she wondered, or for how long? If she could get better, though—really and truly and finally better—make the real progress at the threshold (merely) of which she had sometimes (seldom) found herself, then she could do without him; finally tell him what she thought of his begrudged generosity. She didn’t think of him this way all the time. Oh, but it was often enough, often enough—enough to mean something.
She was pouring the hot water over the coffee, and she felt that the day was already ruined; or perhaps her whole life. Moments of happiness seemed like, simply, moments of forgetfulness.
Interviewer: When you knew you’d lost Daniel…can you tell us what you felt?
Valeria: It’s a feeling that’s very hard to describe. Sometimes you want to blame yourself.
Show us what you can do, says the owner.
Valeria’s thinking that this is all a charade, that there’s no fucking hope, and why bother? Christ almighty, this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality—a real job, anyhow. She knows she can turn out food, to the specifications of whatever recipe anyone can throw at her, perfectly and rapidly. That’s what should count: that the dish is made correctly and gets to the customer before they become impatient.
But, here they are again: these kids who think that they’re all being watched all the time. In a way, they’re more paranoid than her. They’ve got their personal, Williams-Sonoma and internet bought, chef’s knives, and they’ve made a big show of displaying and comparing them. Everyone wants, wants, wants, now. History has hit fast forward on its remote.
Some of the knives cost thousands of dollars—as the chef-hatted, chef-panted, be-smocked, would-be line or prep cooks have stated so succinctly; using as few words as possible to avoid any shade of nuance or interpretation.
Why do they want this low paying job if they can afford such knives? When did being a prep cook become a glamour sport for the higher classes?
It doesn’t work, though, this brevity of theirs. The fewer words you use, she thinks, the more possibility of being misunderstood? Or is that wrong?
Ambiguity. Soundbites. Facebook. Twitter.
She doesn’t know anymore. It depends on the utility of the words in question, she supposes; but it’s too late—she’s rattled, hopelessly rattled. She’s already defeated, but she goes through the motions of making a salad, just as she would with being able to turn off the kettle in time, some months later. Except…what? She hasn’t brought a knife. She looks around for one, but apparently this situation is “BYOK”. The ad for the job didn’t mention anything about this, just as it didn’t say anything about everyone coming at once to make a bid to outdo one another. These kids already hate one another with that quiet, competitive hatred that has become so normal it is able to pass for something less harmful. They’re ready to compete, to narc on one another, to stab each other in the back and suck up to the boss. Jobs didn’t used to be like this. People—most people, anyhow—used to work as a team, more; they used to be more respectful, or at least less openly full of contempt for their co-workers. Didn’t they see? The bosses must love this. It created a whole set of interchangeable pieces for them to play with, when, when…when nobody had anyone else’s back.
Sociopaths: a whole nation, a whole world of them. Fuck the salad. Fuck this.
When Valeria walks out of the so-called “interview”, nearly all of them laugh. It’s part of the show. She’s the first to be eliminated.
Interviewer: Now, I understand you’ve been a victim…or, should I say…you’ve had several traumatic events in your life in the past? In the very recent past, even?
Valeria: I’m really not here to talk about that.
Valeria, can you hear me? Daniel said, squinting down at her.
There was a window behind her bed, and light was streaming in, partly blinding him. Valeria's distorted face was veiled in a blanket of shadow. He wasn’t even sure how long her eyes had been open, and she could see nothing in his. The first thing she remembered thinking, when she played back the memory later, was: why didn’t he move to the side of the bed? Why did he have to tower over her, with that annoyed look on his face, even if it was only because of the harsh brightness of the direct sunlight at that hour, amplified by the whiteness of the room?
Valeria, I’m so sorry.
You’re in the hospital. Valeria, believe me…if I’d known it was getting that bad…
You sound like a soap opera, or a bad movie. Can’t you summon up any real emotion, even now?
Calm down, honey. Here comes the doctor.
Valeria and Daniel went to the mountain. It didn’t have a name, this mountain. It wasn’t special or famous. It was just one of many anonymous mountains in the Angeles Crest National Forest. If you have ever driven South on I-5, on your way to somewhere near the City of Los Angeles, then you have driven through this forest.
The forest was on your right—and left—just before you reached Six Flags Magic Mountain. You probably didn’t notice it, because by that time you probably had one specific agenda, which was finally getting where you were going after your long journey. Besides, the part of the forest that lines the I-5—a singularly boring highway, in general—is not the most noteworthy or beautiful part of the forest; except, that is, for the lakes, which, being their own kind of spectacle, do nothing to contribute to the awareness that one is passing through a forest. In fact, they may even have distracted you from this fact; especially if you make your home in the city, and are (primarily) traveling from one city to another. People who live outside of the city generally associate lakes with forests, but urban people are used to seeing them in the vicinity of downtown financial districts, or appearing out of nowhere in the middle of a suburb.
Whether you noticed it or not, Angeles Crest is one of the largest national forests/parks in America. As you made your way further down the I-5 South towards wherever you were going, you also—most probably—sped past Griffith Park, the 11th largest city park in that same country. The park is named after Griffith J. Griffith, a miner and ostrich farmer, and the original territory of the park was, in fact, an ostrich farm. Griffith donated the original central tract of what originally became the park in the late 19th century. He had planned to help the city develop the park as well, through further donations, but after he went to prison for shooting his wife, the city declined to accept his generosity until after his death some decades later. Due to the American tendency to relate everything to New York, it is sometimes referred to as "L.A.'s Central Park," but it is much bigger, and (being located high up in the Hollywood Hills) feels more rustic and less urban than Central Park in Manhattan, Golden Gate Park in West San Francisco, or Independence Park in Old Philadelphia, for example. There is known to be a lone Mountain Lion living in the park; though of course, as it has no reasonable likelihood of being able to reproduce, that is a situation that will not last forever.
When Valeria was in High School, she liked to play tennis in Griffith Park. Valeria was horrible at tennis, but she had some kind of weird artist’s knack for execution. She almost always lost, but her opponent would confess to being intimidated nonetheless. Valeria would play with anyone who would agree to go up to the park with her. When she made a new acquaintance, it was never long before she inquired as to whether they played. Those who agreed to the experience seldom wished to repeat it. If she asked them again, they would find some excuse. The thing was—and this gossip traveled quickly, as gossip will in High School—she didn’t seem to care about learning the skills and techniques that might have made her a better player, and yet she made you work to beat her, if only through the sheer violence of her style of play. She was like a different person out there, her friends and acquaintances who’d been subjected to matches with her up there on that hillside all agreed. They could all see there was something wrong there, but she seemed fine most of the time. It was easier to make excuses for not playing with her than to confront her about…well, what, exactly?
Oh my god, they would think, as the match progressed. This is a person who seriously does not give a fuck.
…Which was not true at all. Valeria gave ten, twenty, thirty huge fucks, at least. When she was diagnosed, that would have explained it all, but by that time she hadn’t even thought about tennis for years. After a while, as no one had wanted to play with her any more, she had taken the hint and started to channel her mania in more private, less satisfying, ways.
Interviewer: What's it like, now, to be in your home without him?
Valeria stares at the blank canvass. She can't paint anymore. Can't work. She doesn't know if it's the new medication that seems to be working so well. She doesn't feel the violence she needs to attack the canvass. Maybe she's just being paranoid about the medication. It's hard to know, when you're paranoid, whether you're being paranoid, or whether you're just being hypochondriachal about your paranoia. If she could tell the difference, she wouldn't really be paranoid.
The canvass will sit there for seven months, before she finally takes it to the dumpster on the side of the tiny Berkeley apartment she and Daniel used to live in together, and where she still lives. When she returns from the mountain, it is still blank, still accusing her of emptiness. It takes her a couple more weeks to finally throw it away and admit defeat.
The problem gets worse, then, because instead of just the empty canvass--which might, potentially, be filled some day--now there's just an empty easel with nothing on it, like a shelf displaying nothingness, or a room that has nothing but space in it, before you've moved your furniture in, and everything you say echoes just slightly. In another few weeks, she will put the easel out on the curb, but then there will just be an empty space in the room, and out the window she can see the people sizing up the last remnant of her dead creativity. She doesn't have to look to see this. It plays itself out in her head, running through different scenarios in her thoughts and dreams, once she's observed it a couple of times in reality. It feels very important, where this easel eventually goes, but she's become so obssessed that it probably isn't healthy to watch, anymore, and so she sits in front of the TV, flipping through the channel menu and reading the descriptions of the shows instead.
Later on, she will empty out all the tubes of paint, and spread them over her body for an imaginary audience she is certain is watching. She will imagine this to be her greatest creation, and truly, her hands and fingers have never moved with such certainty.
The interviewer passes Valeria a tissue. More people follow her on Twitter than ever before.
On the mountain, Valeria screams: Shut up! Shut up! and Daniel loses his balance and falls backwards over the side. She can hear the gravel crunch under his heel, and she will never really know if it was only his weight making the eroded rock and soil give way, or if he flinched, sort of, because of her, and that was actually what caused it. She walked over to the edge and looked down, and he was gone. She didn't see him anywhere.
She feels bad, mainly because she doesn't feel bad. She doesn't feel anything about it. Like her ability to paint, something has disappeared inside her. There is a hole in her brain, inside of which the proper signals can't find their way out to be sent to make the heart beat faster or to make her eyes tear up. When she cries during the interview, it's for herself, not for him, but no one reads it that way. Her inability to feel, and her feelings about it, are mistaken for great sorrow over the death of her beloved Daniel, an event that no one knows she may have accidentally caused. Something that happened to someone she stopped loving a long time ago, and who became a symbol of her own failure to adapt and evolve into something functional. A man who may or may not have acted the picture of patience and kindness only to assert his superiority over her. Someone who would gladly have died for her, if it made him look better. Or it could be she imagined all that as well. He wanted to be needed, and she didn't want to need anyone, even if she did need someone. Maybe it was just as simple as that. Shut up! Shut up!
The interview is over. It is the last interview. Soon the money will run out, and all Valeria will have is this stolen, empty space.
There's a moment of confusion when what appears to be a monster arrives at the Tennis courts by Lake Merritt. A monster daubed from head to toe in bright, urgent shades of primary color that blend in patches in places. The monster wants to play, but it has stopped the play. The ball remains firmly in hand.
It's ok, Valeria says. I've been watching you. You're much better than him. Him plus me without a racket seems fair.
The tennis players both continue to stare at the scary, the hideous monster. They have no thought of continuing the game, which seems to enrage it.
Hit it, Valeria says, louder now. Come on, just serve the ball!
Valeria is fuming. She's been powerwalking all the way from Berkeley to the lake--the largest natural city lake in, oh, nevermind--at times feeling watched and pursued and spoken about. Which is true, in a sense. She has painted herself and her clothes; to her mind, perfectly, but there's no denying it's quite a spectacle to see. Later she will think, ironically: if only I had smiled more; but by then it's too late. The police have been called, assessments have been made. And she is, on top of it all, nutrient deficient. Her skin falling and stretching off of her bones when she's admitted, and still for days and weeks and months, she looks a bit of a colorful monster except where the V of the hospital shirt shows the top of her pale, cleavageless chest. She's emaciated, and they feed her in the hospital, and that seems to help a little bit.
Can you promise me you will eat? they keep asking her.
Eat what? She keeps saying. I don't have any food.
Minor Adjustments // Gerald Yelle
Now it seems to be working. I don’t know how long it’ll last. We’ll have to take it day to day. Listen for the evidence. Take it on faith that getting through will improve the improving. We have to believe our hearts will hang out in the windows and stairs. The wagging tongues will sing in the box with no one to stop them. And the word some want to shout will not be banned. Others will complain. Others will love it. Either way, everyone agrees: the idea of counting back by threes –a definite drawback when people get hurt. Clocks don’t tick. The smell of fear is loud. It throws its voice like a sick ventriloquist, hoping you alone can hear it. Laziness has to be factored in. And sales that deal in useless knowledge. Ink flows from swindlers’ noses and they swear up and down there’s no poison in their gas. Next time the chime sounds we’ll evacuate and take up safer positions. You can do the arm dance after that. Left over right over left and back. Reverse the order –and do it till you laugh. Laughter is the long-term goal. Laughter in the bathroom. Laughter wiping your ass. The day you get rich you pay a kid to do it for you. But who takes a job like that? Either a fuckup up or someone you have to give so much dough they get rich too and tell you where to go: wipe your own damn self. Or fuck it if you don’t.
Golf // Lee Foust (From "Fake Novel")
Resist golf with everything you’ve got. Even if it’s your only political act: fuck history
Love with everything you’ve got. Even if it seems to have nothing to do with politics:
particularly with those
who’ve yet to understand
that this shit’s fucked up.
and their ignorance
—a form of innocence, after all. Not knowing
they can’t reject it
and be free.
to love the enemy
They might even play golf,
the common enemies:
power, the vice
over the common needs
of human beings.
and go home to your wife:
she loved you once
and chose not to judge you,
even when you were very, very wrong.
Jennifer Blowdryer // "The APAC" from "Kicked Out: the 86 Project"
What I knew of the APAC, Almost Pretty Argentinean Chick, initially, was that seconds after arriving at my spontaneous party she discovered that I had some writing published.
“That’s amazing!” she said drunkenly, awfully. “Because I Always Meet the Right People at the Right Time!”
What she meant was that upon seconds of entering my premises and seeing that I had a marginal capacity to participate in an archaic craft, perhaps I was there to help her. I am so not here to help her. Now, sometimes one is around those with greater power than oneself. “This will surely help me somehow” one thinks silently. Silently.
This woman at my party, aka Anna Banana, thought she could get my friend Jeff. He was kissing her at some point, just like Joel was kissing another pretty and quiet girl he too would never see again. Ah, young Joel. Such alive eyes. I can say that kind of thing, being decades older but still somewhat in the game.
Jeff went off on Anna Banana though, at some point. Too Easy. Kind of Gross. Jeff reeks like months of bad hygiene if he removes his shoes for an instant, I even gave him socks once, so Too Easy for Jeff is not. Good. I still have the picture of Anna with the picnicy looking fabric scrap that decorates my washer/dryer wrapped on her head, a yellow rubber dish glove on her hand, and is poking a can of Easy Off Oven Cleaner at my roommate Dan’s camera. Snap. Click. Crazy ass eyes.
“You need to calm yourself down, and you need to bounce.” I told her, clearly.
“Jennifer, that’s mean!” said Dan, as I recall.
“I am 20 years older than you, I know.” I replied. Accurately, as it turned out.
“20 years younger! 20 years younger!” Dan parroted back, drunkenly, sort of waving a finger at his own chest.
“OK, then, can you handle her? You’re responsible for her.” As an extra measure I tried Jeff. “Jeff, you are responsible for her.” Responsible and Jeff are not two words to use together, so any lingering easy appeal Anna may have had evaporated. She got worse, broke some glass on accident. Wild, but not fun wild. Desperate, almost pretty wild, con man without the right markers or set of wits wild. Drunk, high, dumb and unmoored.
“I am not Leeeeving without my Partner,” she trilled.
“Who’s your partner?” I asked curiously.
“Jeff is not your partner. He’s a tough hick. Stay out of his head,” I warned, having seen her earlier that night trying to bait him by implying she had some kind of inside track on his mind.
“I think we’ll be together for a long time” she added smugly, mystically.
Oh, why has mysticism gone to the jerks in the USA and apparently Argentina? India is not like that. Hinduism, from what I gather, is top notch. I want my mysticism back. Not Kabala or Science of the Mind, real magic. No poorly tipping Pagans, no Gatherings, just Maaaagic.
“Jeff, will you just leave and fuck her now?” I asked in vain. But by now Dan thought he could get her.
“Dan she is interested in Jeff. You can’t get her. She has to go.” Of course, in my version I am entirely correct and rational, whereas of course I was running a busy party and had a lot of other things to take care of. I fried a hamburger patty, busted out the relish, saw who I could get to eat the slightly gristly treat. Jeff. Jeff ate it. Then she ducked into Dan’s room.
Moonshine, on my side basically, pointed out “Well, she’s in his room,” meaning: not my territory. Dan pays rent to live in that room. It’s his. In that room there were also Dan’s two beautiful, slender, female friends, as well as Remy, who is Brooklyn Haitian.
The Argentinean lasted in that room for awhile, but somehow things came to a head and my rage boiled over.
“She has to go! Now!”
It was like 6am. “Jeff, get her out.” Jeff ran into my bedroom and shut the door, hiding. Moonshine grabbed her gently, he is so big he can do that. As he escorted her across the kitchen, past my closed bedroom door, she spit on him. Dan lamely went to stand right outside our apartment door.
“What’s going on?” he demanded. Then he saw, cognizant.Anna Bannana was starting to yell as she got jack knifed down the stairs. By the next floor she was banging on my neighbors doors.
I think by now Dan finally noticed that she was pretty horrible, just as I had predicted from her crazy look of hours earlier. The apartment is my equity, my real estate, my sole property, my life, my plans. The co-op board and a coupla neighbors, well about 6, hated me virulently for about a fifth of my life so I have no margin for error. Moonie clamped a hand on her mouth, he says.
Once she was on the pavement, she took a swing at Moonshine. “I can hit you back, or you can just walk away” he said, logically.
I guess she walked away, but not that far. Ricardo from apartment D found her on the corner at maybe about six a.m. and took her back to his first floor room.
“That kid gets his own room?” I thought, when he told me about it, a couple of months later. “How big is their unit?”
Anyway Ricardo’s sister told Anna she had to go, and so the twice kicked out woman started kicking at their door. “Fucking Mexicans!” she was saying. Interesting to know how different Argentinean and Lower East Side Spanish are, but I guess they can communicate in the international language of slurs.
“My sister wanted to pound her,” said Ricardo. It was the first time we ever talked. I saw him go to being a stoner kid to now having some game and his own style—he’s boss. That’s what my building was founded for. HDFC. Low Income Co-Op. It’s for me too. It’s become for me. I’ve become for it.
NO, VIRGINIA, THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS // Lee Foust
The story of Solomon’s wisdom turns out to be a valueless fairy tale.
During the separation hearing, legal procedure and Catholic habit demanded that they ask my husband and me if there were any chance of a reconciliation. It was merely another moment in the sequence of legal protocols in which my words appeared to have no weight whatsoever. I spoke, but observed the listeners’ eyes boring deeper into the floor to escape hearing me. My impassioned speech became mere filler in a series of prearranged legal formalities carrying events forward, none of which had anything to do with any human relationship I had ever experienced—with my husband least of all. After I finished responding, the judge sighed and announced a new topic: the custody of our only child, ten-year-old Virginia.
While the form-fitting metal scoop of the ward-of-the-court machine held our daughter aloft in the drafty Postmodern-Baroque courtroom, beside the high bench and in front of our table-less, straight-backed chairs, I tried my best to do the right thing. As my soon-to-be ex-husband blustered and blathered about his rights and his job and security and the child’s best interests and blah blah blah, I stepped up, interrupting. “All right,” I said, “rather than see Virginia divided in two, he can have her! Keeping my daughter whole and safe is more important to me than having half of her.”
Virginia lay asleep, tranquilized, in the clutches of the device hovering alongside the bench. I had not been permitted to see her for some weeks—since my husband had posted the bans, driven me from his house, and the Domestic Police had hustled Virginia into their white van as they made the rounds through our neighborhood, collecting the children of the soon to be separated. I had not been allowed a hug, a caress, or even a kiss good-bye. I didn’t know if she had been frightened by the functionaries or how she had fared at the Ward Orphanage, so far away from me through the long waiting period before we could get our separation hearing.
Looking at her limp form suspended above us, I could tell that my daughter had been drugged to make her easier for the mechanism to handle her body and, incidentally, so that she would not have to hear the petty wrangling of her parents during the custody discussion. My noble sacrifice and imitation of the good woman before Solomon’s court had, therefore, gone unnoticed by anyone who was in any position to understand—much less appreciate—the gesture. This was another aspect of the ritualistic shadow play these proceedings were becoming. My husband sat unfazed, the winding sheets of his lies and false scenarios suffocating his humanity. Still, I sensed in the air a fragile glass now enclosing our conventional charade; sensed that everyone in the room—even, perhaps, more than the others, my own ineffectual lawyer—was afraid I would again shatter the crystalline edifice of the legal formalities by speaking my mind, by deviating a third time from the comfortable and familiar courtroom protocol.
I believed that I had done right, though, speaking up as I had. I felt foolishly triumphant, certain that I would be rewarded for having learned the lessons of my childhood teachings. After all, I had right on my side—the Bible, the wisdom of Solomon, all of the exemplary tales ever told about self-sacrifice and justice would back me up. My child would be spared and I would save Virginia from division by having followed the higher road taught to me by the sisters so long ago at school. For heaven’s sake!
But, no. “Child division is standard procedure in such cases,” the judge intoned, “and the computers will outline the logistic details so that neither party need complain of the arbitration.”
An old-fashioned ink printer beside the bench hummed to life and began chattering—as if masticating the sheets of paper before spitting them out—filling two full pages, each with nearly identical copies of instructions for us to follow. Later our lawyers would collect these printed dictates of half-parenthood and distribute them, sending duplicates to filing cabinets in forgotten places where such papers go to await apocalypses of fire, water, or dry rot.
I noted that the judge never raised his head from the bench before him when he spoke. In fact, no one in the room—neither our two lawyers nor we, their clients—ever looked anyone else in the eye. This was a peep show or a visit to the confessional, where all of the looking is done furtively, in shame. The hearing was like folding your underwear at the laundromat, pretending that the bustling, utilitarian space is empty and that no one’s ever imagined our nether regions, or the facts that we all squat and defecate and sweat and stink and sleep awkwardly and wake up with bad breath. It struck me in that moment that this was the purpose of marital separation: to deny the awkwardness of morning breath and to welcome protocol in its place—a kind of radical putting on of clothes so thick and concealing as to make sure that neither you nor your husband will ever have to think of the other again as a human body or a living creature. In this respect the procedure certainly worked out to everyone’s mutual satisfaction, I believe. Pleats, starch, and formal politeness won the day over petty reality.
The overall apparatus of the judge’s chambers—with its creaking and already outmoded machines, piles of consoles dwarfing and semi-burying the civil servant raised in front of us at his bench—was constructed of barriers denying any kind of fellowship between those seated before the official justiciar. He was no doubt on Socialtabs the whole time, hiding behind the room’s official clutter, or browsing adult sites on the computer screen before him on the high desk, or maybe reading the endless march of an Infogab feed. Perhaps he was texting his own wife, or his mistress, on his muted allphone. The furnishings of the room had been designed, even if haphazardly, to instill a metronomic impersonality. Sitting in the judge’s chambers was like being enfolded in a ponderous yet visibly just leviathan of inexhaustible inevitability—the law. Everything had been streamlined for our state’s one-size-fits-all efficiency—and cost effectiveness, of course. As taxpayers, I suppose we should appreciate such gestures.
Against this bulldozing of our humanity, I leaned my shoulder and tried to break through, to look around and to make some sort of contact with the others present. I saw my lawyer, half asleep, his lowered eyelids bent upon the statement we had written together over many costly meetings. Soon the judge would file the statement away, a document to be discounted, the pitiful, lying self-defense of a perfidious Jezebel. I saw my soon-to-be ex-husband, who had, of course, brought the first complaint against me and set the separation proceedings in motion. Having addressed the court before my rebuttal, he now appeared to hold sway over my own meager feminine contradictions of his accusations of infidelity and neglect of our child. (I suppose that, in the court’s eyes, by deigning to respond to these false charges I had succeeded only in proving his lies to be true. Everyone you meet in prison is innocent.) I observed in disbelief that my former husband’s mind, too, seemed to be wandering. He sat immobile, miles away, patiently waiting for his next turn to speak. His face projected a detached yet formal demeanor, only a hint of male camaraderie playing about his good-natured smile. Surely he practiced this look of studied distraction all day long at his office—while doing his accounting, during his endless rounds of phone conversations, as he pretended to be listening to his underlings.
My husband’s own lawyer sat beside him, squat and fat in a blossoming and tacky multicolored dress. She was a rather crass woman, covered in expensive and gaudy jewelry. She had written in her lying complaint in his name that I had run off to live in adulterous sin with another man when actually it had been my husband who—as I would later discover—had vacationed with a group of lesbian bus drivers on a sweaty yacht in sunnier climes as soon as I had been chased from our home. I still don’t understand what kind of sexual relationship that excursion begot, although the affair had, apparently, been torrid enough to put an end to our marriage. Whatever dalliance the holiday cruise had wrought hadn’t lasted even the time it took the courts to get around to dissolving our so-called union.
It became clear to me, as I evaluated the drooping, nearly nodding faces about the solemn chamber, that these calculating individuals—themselves simply plodding down the gravel paths of self-interest and the daily, desperate grasping for money known as “doing one’s job”—were arranging the pieces of my life into some new and unfamiliar mechanism: I was a ramshackle Ford Fiesta being retooled in a Fiat factory. They might perhaps make me fit into their overall designs, but I knew I would never again run as I had in my prime. From now on I would need endless adjustments, tune-ups, and many annoyingly ill-timed trips to a mechanic. It was going to be a long, slow road from here on out.
Still, a car is made of metal, isn’t it? It moves. It goes through the motions and we can always squeeze a little more service out of her—even damaged and jury-rigged—a few more trips to the grocery store, back and forth to work, a couple of pacifying weekend trips to the beach, eh? Even hobbled, a car will last a few more years and then—scrap. There’s always something to be salvaged, even in breakdown and bankruptcy, various pieces left after the motor’s stopped running and been dismantled, spare parts to be sold at a profit by a leverage firm.
The ward-of-the-court machine cradling Virginia’s fragile form whirred to life suddenly and laid her, spread-eagle, upon a dully oxidized, aluminum operating table in an enclosed and shadowed recess of the judge’s chambers. The laser hummed, began to glow, warmed quickly, and, clothes and all, sliced my daughter, from head to foot, in half. Jointed mechanical appendages rushed to pull her ruined clothes away from the two twitching portions of her body, clamping her newly divided selves into immobility, cauterizing the open ends of her split torso, deftly applying the artificial organs necessary to complete each half’s functional needs—in a procedural and just manner.
I remember noticing also that a steel arm lowered to her split mouth with a disposable gag, in order to silence her waking traumatic shriek, now divided phonically between two separate guttural registers. No one wanted to hear that—the machine was therefore seeing to our needs as spectators of the procedure, as well as to the child’s survival through the horrific procedure of separation.
Soon the judge giggled—at some humorous post on the screen before him, I imagine. The legal proceedings were suspended for the time being—although they would continue, ever more costly, for the next four years—and I was ushered out of the room and into a wide hallway with scuffed and stained whitewashed walls, para-plastic oak doors, and actual wooden benches (apparently secular) upon which to sit while waiting for the incremental movements of the legal juggernaut of the state. I had sat on one of these ancient real wood benches before we had been called into the courtroom by the bailiff, trying to ignore my husband, also sitting, across the hall, also pretending that he didn’t know me.
“You can collect your half of your daughter at the receiving window on the second floor when her extensions have been completed and she is deemed stable enough to be released to your care,” the same bailiff now told me.
“Have an ID ready and be sure to have these forms filled out and notarized before you get in line.”
On the top of the papers handed to me lay my lawyer’s first bill. I dropped it, in passing, into a trashcan on my way downstairs.
For some years—starting from the day my husband threw me out of his home, well before the day Virginia was divided—I was hysterical. Not that I screamed or thrashed about noticeably, or that I couldn’t get to my job and function (at least as well as the other economic automatons surrounding me), I was hysterical nonetheless. My madness hid itself from casual observers. Rather it manifested itself as a case of the dreamy distractions, a mild state of shock best described by one of my co-workers when she noted that I had joined the ranks of “the walking wounded.”
In the workplace I displayed an attitude similar enough to our culture’s general social decorum and the usual denial of emotion encouraged there—more or less standard employee behavior. That is to say, my hysteria didn’t stand out in the crowd. Pretty much all of us walk from home to car, from car to workplace and take up our posts and complete our tasks in the time allotted without showing much joy. We repeat the motions in reverse at five p.m. and the whole process again the next day, hardly noticing those who sit beside us, their eyes fixed on mobile screens of many colors. This maddening routine, I soon discovered, is what marriage must have been designed to make bearable. Marriage gives you someone to talk to between shifts in order to break up the repetition and keep you on an even keel, all the while knowing that you’re doing almost nothing worthwhile with your life. Banished from my husband’s house and alone, I had only my nagging hysteria to make me feel special.
Many times over the course of the four years of the separation and divorce proceedings I contemplated suicide. Later, enraged at my humiliation, I switched to thoughts of murder. Luckily, I knew no one—or even anyone who knew anyone—who kills for money. Then, during the days of my hysterical melancholy, I returned to thoughts of suicide. Finally, enraged again over the injustice of my feelings of shame and impotence, I went back to the solace of contemplating murder.
Also I wanted to fuck—oh, God, how I wanted to fuck! To feel a man’s skin against my own and to grind away the rage assailing my battered mind with sweaty, meaty flesh; to fuck away the loneliness, the feelings of worthlessness, of having been cast away like a piece of trash, of having become again, so unexpectedly, a single, detached piece of flotsam in a sea of life-saver-clad couples; to fuck a man raw, and to vanquish hard-on after hard-on after hard-on. To declare my superiority over every tumescent male who had ever dared to look my way was my new desire.
Back in those days, of course, such violent desperation kept any man from looking at me twice—this despite the male’s usual opportunist attitude toward getting an easy lay from a woman on the rebound. I was too old to be much of a conquest really, and the madness they smelled simmering beneath my desires was easily calculated to cost more in trouble and woe than my sagging favors were worth. Besides, I had a half-child to look after and that was no aphrodisiac—only another tedious and tiresome burden adding to my mental instability. For all they knew, I might have been dangerous, out for revenge, a man hater, a peno-phagous vagina dentata. I signed up at dating sites, filled out the modules—but the computer bypassed the Cougar and MILF categories and filed me under Psycho-Bitch. I bought a vibrator and often wept while making use of it. The two acts weren’t all that connected, but one has so little free time when raising a half-child and working a full-time job. I needed to cry and to fuck—it seemed appropriate to multitask.
Although I may well have been dangerous—I was unstable, certainly—I did manage, mostly, to keep my mouth shut during the many long months stretching into years of readjustment, and to do my job. You never know who’s watching. (Turns out no one—we’re all far too self-absorbed to pay any serious attention to anyone else. We keep a watchful eye on ourselves, though, and that’s enough, I suppose, to maintain the status quo.) I continued to satisfy those who mattered—the banks, my employer, the insurance company, my landlord, and the government—by remaining invisible and lucrative for everyone but my half-daughter and myself. Nobody bothered me much.
The years passed.
I got over it eventually. No one noticed that either.
Because I am her mother, I was given Virginia’s left side and I see now how much that made me yearn for the rest of her. I mean, I was fortunate to be a mother rather than the father (who is legally assigned a child’s right half)—everyone told me so. Although uncoordinated and clumsy on her crutch, at least I had the side that could talk. It took some rather fancy neurowiring to connect the left hemisphere of her brain to the nervous system on the left side of her body—I’ll be paying off that service for eternity, I imagine—and then a lot of physical therapy for the brain to get used to the reversal (my insurance covered about sixty percent of that, after the deductible). Her new lack of depth perception didn’t help the process any.
At least my lawyer seems to have given up trying to get anything out of me for his services—apologetic and lackadaisical as they were. A manifestation of conscience perhaps? Seems hard to believe of a lawyer, but maybe his unenthusiastic advocacy in my case had been an unheeded premonition of the kind of worker I, too, would become as a result of the separation: another passive resister. (The government claims they’re looking into it.)
My former husband immediately farmed out his half of our daughter—Virginia’s right side—to a nanny, and later, after the two or three years it took his side to learn how to speak, to a church-run boarding school. Thus Virginia’s right side has been lost not only to me, but to any sense of home or family life other than the formal feast at each holiday celebration. She lives, I imagine, in the personal dream-world of forgotten or sequestered children who only tentatively reach out to their unfamiliar and wholly symbolic family elders during the holiday rituals: the cutting down of the tree, the slaughtering of the animals, the poisoning of the waters, and the whipping of the scapegoats.
While my own half of Virginia could speak from the time I brought her home from the court hospital—that is, from the time of her recovery from the division—to this day, her spoken words remain without nuance or personal intonation. It’s as if they’re coming out of a public address system. The monotone of her statements tends to proceed in a blandly expositional manner. Hers is a patiently narrative voice intent, at all times, on drawing out what is usually called “the big picture” even when it is abundantly clear that there is no “big picture” to see—or one worth seeing anyway. It’s a sometimes amusing and often annoying habit of children her age to lecture you on a banal subject, as if learning any rudimentary thing has made her an authority, ending every declaration with “and that’s why...” or “so you see that...”
My half of Virginia, for example, if she had been conscious during the separation hearing, would have fully understood my gesture of renunciation as a ploy to keep her whole—although I sense that she would not have appreciated the emotion, the desperation, the passion that inspired my self-righteous outburst. She cannot help but believe in the morals of the stories that the sisters teach us at her age. Somehow I don’t believe she identifies with them, however. She seems incapable of joining in much.
Virginia’s voice is seldom still and is usually explaining, even moralizing upon the chaos everywhere demonstrated around her—and I’m at a loss to teach her about subjectivity, about how to forget herself in the personal, in the details that allow us to feel one way or the other about things. At her best, Virginia is thoughtful and perceptive of the generalities that encompass her observations and experiences, of the vague interconnections between the things that her senses perceive; to my half of Virginia everything is “relatable,” reassuring in its proposition that there is something besides life itself to live for. She always gets the point of an allegory, quickly recognizes how things fit together—she’s smart that way.
At her worst, however, my Virginia is intolerably naive, like an unfunny meme based upon a false syllogism, a voice in denial of the great tensions at work in every moment of our lives; she lives without feeling the insecurities created by a fickle reality held at arm’s length by an opportunistic and self-interested human race. Sometimes her words provoke in me a spitting disgust for the exaltation of the pat, regurgitated, and altogether insufficient answers to our meaningless existence constructed around the self-justifying moralities of the ruling class.
Listening to my Virginia’s reassuring and reasonable voice is how I grew discontented with the left side of my daughter. God help me, I broke all of the rules and set out to find her other half.
* * *
My eyeballs see the four-sided moonlight on the floor of our cell. It’s not a square or even a perfect rectangle though—it’s a parallelogram. It moves as long as the night lasts, broken at its edges—stepped, crooked at certain right angles—as it falls into the grooves running between the floor slats when it creeps from one side of our cell to the other.
The floorboards are butted up against one another tightly: light, slat, and a tiny space in-between that is almost no space at all. These spaces are filled with another kind of blackness. The living light crosses the floor, slowly, the whole night long. This is my patience, too, I think.
There are no bars on our windows. The parallelogram of moonlight does not seem to notice me as he creeps across our floor. He has no eyeballs. He’s only a shape going about his nightly slide—like the arc that the moon makes passing through the sky outside of the window. Only living things move, the biology teacher says.
The biology teacher is handsome. We giggle a lot in his class.
Our cell is a rectangular cube, or, more correctly, a prism, since it is not based upon a square and therefore cannot be a proper cube. Air fills spaces, invisibly, between the objects in a room, the science teacher tells us.
The Earth, on the other hand, is round: it is a sphere, like the moon. The moon only looks flat and appears to change shape because of the light shining on it and how we see that light from here. These misperceptions are called “phenomena.”
I sleep in the lower bunk. Maggie is asleep on the top bunk. Maggie McDermott; I envy her musical name. She has large, spherical breasts, the biggest I have ever seen. We should remember to measure them sometime. Maggie wants to be a ballet dancer.
I like music and musical words. And geometry, which is easier for me than it is for the others. Words convey feelings, but not like most people think, not like the language teacher says. To me there are feelings in the sounds more than in the sequence of the words. This sequence is called grammar. It took me a long time to understand the necessary sequences, the way the words are supposed to be put together to mean things. That’s why I am bigger than the other girls in my grade, because I lost so much time. Well, I’m taller than the other girls—I am only half as wide without the machinery and my crutch.
It’s nighttime now and I should be sleeping. They tell me this, and I have memorized it like a truth, but I don’t see what darkness has to do with sleep necessarily. Darkness is a thing too, after all. I would rather sleep with a cat. Cats often sleep. Sheep are usually white, but sometimes black. Black sheep are naughty people. I make a face. I wish I could talk as good and as easily as everyone else. Often they don’t understand me.
I like music but it’s quiet now: only Maggie’s heavy sleep breathing, the shifting parallelogram inching his way across the floor, and me. The parallelogram never says anything, never makes any sound at all. He just slides over the slats and fills in their tiny interstices with white light as he crosses the floor, night after night. That, too, is one of the most musical of geometry words: interstices. Sometimes I say it over and over again to myself and it makes me think of other words: interview, slice, interslice, stymied, dice.
Sometimes I look at the ceiling. It’s just a ceiling.
Outside the window there’s the quad—which really is a quadrangle, like in an old-fashioned monastery. The history teacher is a nun: she tells us that nuns used to live in monasteries like this one with their cubicles arranged around a quad called a cloister. In secret, she told us about the saints; some of them were real, she insists, but many of them were made up too, I guess. I cried to hear about their suffering and that’s what they mostly do in their stories: suffer—especially the girl saints. They’re called “santa,” which means girl saint. In their stories, suffering is called passion, from the Latin verb patire, to suffer. Suffering is how you get to be a saint, I guess. You have your eyeballs torn out—like Santa Lucia—your body turned on a wheel—like Santa Caterina—you get locked up in a tower and starve—like Santa Barbara—or you get your breasts torn off—like Santa Agnese. Maggie better watch out for that one.
Some girls get all the suffering. I only go to school. There is also the house, where I have a room with a sloped ceiling because it’s a kind of attic—Daddy calls it a “mansard.” Mansard is an odd but also musical word. I think it comes from another language. Daddy sleeps downstairs with the others in his room. He has a convex, bulbous stomach and a big, round, double convex behind. Daddy is all convex, even the top of his bald head. “Daddy knows best,” they say. Daddy and his ladies. They give me presents.
Daddy also used to have a lady called mommy but I’m not allowed to see her anymore. I belong to Daddy and my other half belongs to mommy. I remember mommy, though, a little bit, from before. She used to take me to the park after school to play and wait for Daddy to come home from work. We used to watch cartoons together. She gave me presents too. We would stop at the newsstand on our way home from the park and buy little toys that broke all too soon. Toys always break before you want them to. I used to play with the broken pieces sometimes, I remember, when I was little. A piece of a toy can be almost anything in your imagination. But I don’t make up stories anymore. I guess I grew out of that.
Trains take you places. Tunnels are long and arched and sometimes bend, like a snake. Tunnels are made of darkness. The train, too, is like a snake. Except that it’s made out of metal. Metal is shiny, while snakes are dull and smooth and always at room temperature to the touch. (The textbook says so—but I wouldn’t be afraid to touch one. They look pretty stupid actually.)
I guess I’m pretty stupid too. Maybe that’s my suffering. But I don’t think it’s bad enough to make me a santa--
anyway, I’m not the only one.
I’m good at geometry. Perhaps I can be an engineer, or an architect when I grow up. I will make happy buildings. I will draw buildings that smile and sometimes pout. I’m pretty good at drawing too. But between those things there is something missing. What’s in there, between the slats of the floorboards? What am I waiting for? The sun, like the Earth, is a sphere. We will turn on the Earth until we see the sun again—unless we stop. I don’t seem to need to sleep as much as I used to, before I was divided.
Soon it will be Christmastide and I will visit Daddy and Daddy’s family in the country. We will cut down the tree, kill the animals and cook them, pour the poison into the Sieve River, and beat the scapegoat until he bleeds. There will be the three Magi, each from a different far-off land, but each knowing that our God, our religion, is the best one—and then saying so and telling us how bad the religions are in their faraway homelands. I forget what those religions are called—there are too many places and people and religions to remember all of their names. The Magi bring presents too, but I don’t know what those strange words that they bring mean; maybe they are the names of toys from long ago. I guess the baby Jesus will play with them until they break.
Of course Santa Claus will come too. I wonder what her suffering was? (I must remember to ask the history teacher.) She leaves presents under the dying tree, the tree with no dirt or water, the tree inside of the house, the tree weighed down by all of its colorful plastic baubles. The tree suffers too, I guess. Santa tree. The machines will cut her up for firewood after Christmas Day, after we have eaten up all of the dead animals, after I come back to the school to study again until Eastertide. We could paint her holding a plate with her own firewood burning on it, like in the frescoes in the mensa of the santas holding their eyes, their wheel, their tower, or their breasts on their plates. I do not think that they eat these things.
But there can’t really be a Santa Claus because, in order to be a saint, she has to be dead.
Even Steven // Gerald Yelle
This is how it feels being marked out for going home. The anticipation is heavy. We’ve been working it out for decades and the deal finally fell into place. It tore a hole in the ceiling you could have driven a car through. Not a Mack truck though. You certainly wouldn’t have flown a plane out there. That would’ve been hard. Like waiting for the rain is hard. Like waiting for the light to go green. Sometimes switching channels, the picture doesn’t change right away. Like pressing a key on a keyboard and there’s a half second delay. I can feel my heart squeeze. My face get red. I had a plum once that was good for that: sweet and juicy. No wonder you have to skip fruit to lose weight. Think about the tricks you could play if you didn’t. You could plead food poisoning. Or roast hot peppers in the cardboard box and eat them on break. You could totally eat them with music. Music to clean the ears with. It starts with strains that pour like lead or maybe rain, then eventually they attenuate. They count to ten then wait for the light. Not that it has any value. It’s like the way the kids waste time. Of course they have more than they need. They don’t know the first thing about it. And no one respects them. I thought well, if they can do it, it can’t be that tough. Kind of like the famous boxer learning the alphabet wrong and going through life thinking L&M is a mega letter. Like a double U. Or maybe a cigarette. Which it is, or was. At any rate, the gang will be here in ten and you’d better be ready. Don’t go all feverish, waiting for forever. Waiting for the wave. And the shroud. Who would be Laertes? If the boss walks in right now the impression has to be impressive. He’d wipe out the bad feelings. The getting drunk on forever. It’s only day forty-eight but why say only. Collect the rent. Count the cash cows. Make it an even fifty and leave it alone.
Unbreak My Heart // Natasha Dennerstein
Come out of the prison walls
broken, darling, play it backwards
‘till it’s all undone. Rewind
those long nights, lie down
and rewind the long days,
untwirl the telephone cord
in the visitors box,
go back to reception jail,
take off your blue prison outfit,
put on your street-clothes, jeans,
and unarrest yourself.
Take off the handcuffs
and undo your crime.
Speaking the Language of Virtue in the Alternate World of the Street Lamp // Jasper Ezekiel
A moth’s radar disrupted
by what it thinks is the moon is our same panic
that tells us
it is safest to stay in the middle of the borders made of benches,
never on them
where all of the lights overlap but their collected glow is not the brilliance of its source.
We dance in a fever wherever our curious feet take us.
independent, unbound, unfettered, unimpeded, undirty, unstupid, unsad.
as long as the endless road between us
and the lakeside grass doesn't bother us.
We were born into a comfortable entrapment.
But the unobstructed fields beckon.
The dewy morning that can pull us out of hungover sleep
The bleeding tongue cottonmouth that will hurt for days before it's healed.
The black fingernails.
The “no public restroom” sign.
We long to count the spades of grass.
From our far away point of view,
we start with the number one.
To represent the greenness and to leave room
for all of what's inside.
It's easy to lose count.
Ghosts trapped only in routes we walked in waking life,
we find a single chain link on the ground.
We pick it up and pull apart our leightweight steel leash far enough to
add the link to our collection,
anything to make it longer.
We'll get farther this time before we choke
and crawl back.
And again after that.
And again after that
Pedestrian #2 was edited and curated by J de Salvo in rooms and parks in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orinda--California.
Photographs by Suspicious Pedestrian.
Photographs by Suspicious Pedestrian.