2004


By Crissa-Jean Chappell

The first thing the old guy does is make me clean his guns. He’s got old western draw holsters and belts, silver bullets like the Lone Ranger, a rifle called The Peacemaker. I’ve never seen so many guns in one place. Mr. Zoubek wasn’t keen on girls touching his collection, but he taught me how to pump gunk out of the barrel with a toothbrush soaked in Nitro solvent. Who knew Czechs were mad about the Wild West?

“It’s like fairy tales,” he says. “You know we got from these cowboys? We got fairy tales about angels and devils.”

“How do you tell them apart?” I ask.

“It’s never-ending, really. It’s this kind of battle, you know, and that’s it,” Mr. Zoubek says. I get the feeling I’m losing something in the translation.

He says cowboys used to carry spare cash in the empty chamber. Bet he read this in a book. Right now I’m passing myself off as a maid in Mr. Zoubek’s tacky hotel. When an ad ran in The Prague Post for a maid at the Boar’s Head, I tossed some Fuji film in my purse and trimmed my fingernails. I’ve got the right credentials-short, stubby hands good for mopping floors and making beds.

Mr. Zoubek jots my duties on a grocery receipt. I know he’ll be spying on me. He’ll find out I flunked the TOEFL certificate to teach English as a foreign language. I got into cameras and communists. Maybe he’ll spot one of my pictures in the free press: the one with a hippie chick handing daisies to a cop.

On the eve of the big protest—Anarchists vs. The New World Order—I shot pictures of the riot police hosing the hippies with water canons. Standing outside a McDonald’s with a mass of glass spider webs etched in the windows, I watched streams of armored buses barrel down the cobble-stoned streets. The only undamaged target was the IMF. After knocking off twelve rolls of slides, I found a pub on the edge of the riot zone, oblivious to the tear gas explosions and chanting crowds. As I sipped my Budvar, a British man stumbled in, wearing a green hat decorated with dollar signs. He slapped my back and said, “I eat children for lunch.”

Mr. Zoubek’s hotel, the Boar’s Head, is my new project. It’s located in the Lesser Town, across from the American Embassy. Every night, a straggly line of expatriates camp on the sidewalk, snoozing under a star-spangled flag. They’ll get soaked by gangs of drunken teenagers who whiz on the wall as a form of protest.

Rumor says the hotel is crawling with Natashas. I figure I’ll get some good shots of them working the stretch of highway E55 on northern Bohemia’s Czech-German border, known for the girls and garden gnomes lining its streets. If Mr. Zoubek knows anything about this hooker business, he doesn’t show it. He just warns me to avoid unmarked taxis.

“Can I borrow one of these rifles for protection?” I ask.

Mr. Zoubek squeezes his eyes at me. He has a thin, sucked-in face and shoulders you could crack eggs on. Not bad in a suit, but he’s missing a molar, which I see when he laughs.

“Protection from what?” he says.

I think about the cabs in Wenceslas Square. A lot have rigged their seats with electric wiring, supposedly to discourage robberies. The zap works on customers as well. One irate cabbie locked me in his car because I realized he had doctored the fare-counting machine. He had bolted a big letter “C” to the top of his decomposing Mercedes, which smelled like pea soup. I assumed that crooked drivers were required, as a matter of public safety, to wear this “C,” which seemed like a good idea.

I hope Mr. Zoubek will get drunk by lunchtime and nod off watching TV in the lobby, all those badly-dubbed re-runs of 90210 and commercials featuring blonde, ecstatic women in sports cars. Even better if he doesn’t show up, which should happen more and more often.

* * *
“There’s this place down the street. I hear they restore old guns with a buffing wheel,” I tell him.

The solvent fumes remind me of the time I tried to perm my hair. Mr. Zoubek tilts his head a few degrees, giving me the once-over. His blanked-out gaze tunnels through the shadow cast by his cap.

“Some people like to be sheeps in the mass, actually,” he says. “Like, everybody buy hamburgers, everybody go vacation on Florida.” I watch him roll back the cap shadow from one eye and try not to cringe.

He goes on, saying my laziness is typical for someone who didn’t live under communism. Nobody understands. Americans think a few freaky leaders took power and made a dictatorship, which isn’t true. The most important thing for them, for most people, is having something to eat, a place to stay, some decent work.

Mr. Zoubek’s voice drops to an exhausted croak. His radio, sporting a coat hanger for an antenna, squirts out a few sharp-edged timbres of Abbey Road. The phrase, “juju eyeball,” dangles in the air. I think the guns are some kind of test to see if I’ll quit. At 12,000 crowns a month, it’s practically slave labor. Next, he’ll have me peeling potatoes and boiling knedliky.

“Got anything else you need done? I’m pretty good with a needle, if you have any shirts that need mending,” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “But no pay extra.”

* * *
In the elevator, Mr. Zoubek rattles off a list of chores. The mounds of laundry that require washing make my joints crackle. Carpets to vacuum, towels to fold, twenty rooms and a handful of suites, a parrot named Gorby who sings Christmas carols and lunges at me through the poop-spattered bars of his cage. Although it’s high season, hardly anyone has checked in.

On the way up, the elevator squeaks and clatters. Since it lacks a door, I see pine-paneled walls and buzzing tubes of neon roll past like a slide show on housing behind the Iron Curtain. This creates the illusion that by pressing a button, I have caused the entire building to sink into the ground while we stay still. We land on the top floor with a thunk. Fluorescent bulbs leak a swampy light. As Mr. Zoubek jiggles a key in the lock, I get a whiff of something metallic. Holding my breath, I lug my duffle bag into my new digs. Two pillowless cots are bolted to the floor. Long curls of leaded paint bubble off the walls. A functionless desk slumps in the corner, containing only mineral water and an impressive selection of condoms.

Mr. Zoubek putters around, checking for dust. He crosses the dirt-permeated window and glares at the line of sleeping bags, curled like snails outside the American Embassy. “How stupid are they,” he says, “that they believe in this kind of fake world. And if they don’t have it by their own, they want to see it on the Hollywood screen.” He waves his hands like an orchestra conductor. I wonder if Mr. Zoubek ever had a wife. I picture them meeting through a personals ad. He fell for her because she had nice grammar.

He scrunches his eyebrows. “What about you…?”

“Nico,” I remind him.

“You know, your name means something in Czech?”

“Like what?”

Mr. Zoubek laughs so hard, I can hear froth in his lungs.

“You have boyfriend?”

“Yeah, back in the States.” This is a flat-out lie. My last date was a fellow ex-patriot named Gabriel who spent all his daddy’s money in hash bars, pitched a fit when his knapsack got ripped off, and went home. I never heard from him again.

“Well, he can’t stay with you. Understand?”

I nod. Whatever.

Hours later, I’m scrubbing guns in the sweltering storage room again. Mr. Zoubek thinks I did a poor job on the blunderbuss rifle. All those damned curlicues. The Silvermate polish gives me a lightheaded, spacesuit feeling. Bright, swimming specks maze the air. My eyes won’t stop watering. I wipe them across my sleeve and find an inky, amoeba-shaped stain on my shirt. I could use this stuff to unclog toilets.

I set the gun aside. It looks so harmless, lying on the table like an extravagant candlestick. I can’t imagine who would own such a weapon. Just pull the trigger and the resulting explosion could hit a target within a 160-degree range or nothing at all. Mr. Zoubek says it could fire anything from birdseed to pebbles.

Out of habit, I spin the radio dial through a haze of static, finally settling on BBC news. The door bangs open. Out pop a couple of Czech girls, talking loud and illegally smoking. So the Boar’s Head actually has a few guests. They don’t seem to realize they’ve made a wrong turn. I take stock of them—contraband jeans hanging off their hips, sharp faces exuding the usual downbeat gusto. The rounder, more wide-eyed girl offers me a drag, but I pass.

“Water closet?” she says in a squeak of a voice.

“Not in here.”

The girl glances at the gun, then at me. “You have a spot on your shirt,” she says.

* * *
Working at the hotel has its perks. Josef, the cook, has a crush on me. Once I caught him checking me out while I scrubbed the kitchen tiles with vinegar. I don’t consider this a complement. He’s desperate in that teenage, I-will-screw-anything-in-a-skirt kind of way.

Every evening, I toss and turn, unable to sleep on account of all the noise-odd spasms of conversation and laughter, cars throbbing with amplified bass lines. If I crack my shutters to catch a breeze, a flood of lamplight and street racket keeps me up until the garbage trucks rumble around the curb. I keep reminding myself, it’s just a job. I can quit anytime.

On my day off I take the number twenty-two tram to the outskirts of failed utopian socialism: the “panelak.” I take pictures of the square, bloated buildings constructed under the previous regime. I might’ve landed on the moon. People live in concrete blocks so identical that even residents get lost. The rest of Prague is in a slow-motion state of collapse, thanks to “asphalt cancer,” a mix of bird dung and smog that has decayed the ancient churches. Only the gray slabs of high-density housing seem immune to it.

Walking back over the Charles Bridge, I drift through a tide of tourists, Young Americans in Prague, commonly known as “yappies,” sipping Absinthe in riverside cafes and quoting Kafka. Half of them are ditched in black turtlenecks or “Czech it out” T-shirts. Others have the sunbaked look of drifters, carrying paper-bagged bottles of beer and playing Rolling Stones covers on their tuneless guitars for loose change. Last time the Stones toured the city, after knocking back a few brewskis with their buddy President Havel, the band donated their entire lighting set to help illuminate Prague castle. Now the structure appears to float in the nighttime air.

I recognize one of the leather-jacketed yappies from the hotel. The stubble-faced backpacker from the second floor hid his weed in a videocassette called Hidden Agencies of the Bible. Room Seventeen hates my guts because I refused to run down to the market and buy a basket of apricots for them. I’m a maid, not a go-fer. I feel like a missing piece in a variety of possible stories. There’s nothing solid separating me from them.

* * *
A week later Mr. Zoubek still hasn’t paid me. I can’t afford to buy more film and my camera batteries keep burning out. In the prints, the panelak looks like an artificial canyon stretching in all directions. I’d like to make larger copies, but Mr. Zoubek has me running around, helping set up for some big-wig convention. Now the lobby resembles an overblown bar mitzvah, with bobbing Mylar balloons and carnivorous-looking fake flowers.

After decorating, I help Josef carry platters of flabby omelets into the dining hall. He’s probably just out of school and dreaming about skipping town because I catch him watching travel shows on the lobby TV. He calls me “American girl” but I don’t care. I like the way he sings opera into the spatula, pretending it’s a microphone. Josef used to live next to the Stavovske Theater. From his box seat in the bathroom window, he got a glimpse of the backstage strip show: all those droopy-chested women strapping themselves into corsets.

“So what do you do for fun?” says Josef.

“Fun? What’s that?”

He makes a glass-lifting motion.

“Ah. The national pastime.” I trail him back to the kitchen. “What goes with this soup?”

“A bowl.” He tosses salt in a pot so big, he could stir it with an oar. The soup’s surface ripples underneath by a snarl of cabbage. Josef ladles up the cloudy broth and offers me a taste. Claws of vapor scrape my throat. I spit the pungent roughage into the sink.

“You don’t like,” he says.

“Sorry.”

I try to sneak out, but he closes his arms around me. “Are you emancipated?” he asks.

“Emancipated? What’s that supposed to mean?”

I feel his skin heating up the air. He has a boy’s body, slim and unmuscled, balanced on thin legs. His flat, square chest nudges me against the counter top.

“Come here, pretty,” he says. I’ve heard him say the same to Gorby, the parrot.

Mr. Zoubek finds us laying waste to the kitchen. We’ve knocked over the soup, which splattered in great, plopping bubbles on the floor. I’m pitching a bottle of Colon dish soap at Josef, who won’t let go of me. Mr. Zoubek has put on his professional getup, the tweedy suit and too-long tie. He jabs his finger at me.

“You,” he says. “No more games.”

Mr. Zoubek herds me through the dining hall. Weak light floats in through the single yellow-paned window. It’s one of those non-weather kind of days when only my watch tells the time. Crackles of conversation hover around us. The convention-goers have already arrived, a bunch of lardish men roosting like hens at the bar. The lack of air-conditioning makes my head sizzle.

“See these men?” says Mr. Zoubek. “Some old, very fat guy, in his inside, he really wants to be, I don’t know, some nice man walking, dancing, whatever. He wants to be dancer. And of course, he can’t…objectively, he can’t, but it doesn’t mean he can’t dream about that here.”

He licks his finger and wipes something off my face. Then he slips a dirty apron over me and says, “Go serve.”

“I’m not a cocktail waitress,” I say.

Clots of dust windmill between us and the door. For a moment I want to follow them out of this hotel.

“It’s about communication, about listening,” he says. “I was really thinking deeply about these things.”

I stare at his stingy, curled-up ears. I can feel my wages evaporating around me.

A few hours pass and I’m hustling among the dark colors in the dining hall, fetching beers from the bartender, who speaks little and pours light. Some of the convention-goers try to chat with me in stunted sentences. I shrug like I’m rude or missing a neural connection or both. They all seem the same: rumpled men in suits, pumped full of drink and hiding from their jobs. I’m stealing sips from their leftovers when I notice another pint-chugging loser with a shelf of bristly hair. He drains his mug and flags me to his table. His large, heavily-veined hands remind me of the gypsies I’ve seen pick pocketing on the trams.

“American?” he says, pointing at my sneakers.

I say “huh” and hope he leaves me alone. No such luck.

“What are you doing here?” he says. He holds a toothpick steady in the right corner of his mouth and keeps his gaze fixed on the table top.

“I was just wondering the same thing.”

He laughs. “My friends say you have a gun. An antique firearm,” he says.

I follow his gaze to the bar, where two Czech girls are sucking on cigarettes, expelling plumes of smoke. Suddenly I want to be back in the kitchen helping Josef cook goulash.

“No comprende,” I say.

He snatches my hand and squeezes so tight, I hear things popping inside it. “I asked you a question.”

“I didn’t hear.”

He clamps harder. “I thought you and me could make a trade.”

“Listen. The gun’s in bad condition. I doubt it’s worth anything.”

“Your choice,” he says.

When he finally lets go, my fingers won’t stop tingling. At the bar, I make out the Czech girls, slim but big-boned, with deep-indented lips. They dangle their stockinged legs over the stools and play cards with another motion-impaired stoner. They’re pretty in a way that has nothing to do with fashion magazines. I wedge my way between them.

“Do you have a room at the hotel?” I ask.

“She’s seen all the rooms,” says the bartender.

The smaller girl watches me, the cigarette glowing between her fingers. “You come to party tonight?”

“Party?” I repeat.

“Yes, party. Tonight. You come?”

“Where should we meet?”

“Bridge,” she says.

“The Charles Bridge? Sure.”

She keeps quiet. Finally, I ask, “When?”

“Yes, ten,” the tall girl mutters. I don’t know if she’s talking about the cards or the hour. I decide it’s the latter. Across the bar, her buddy has blended into the swarm of suits. I think how easily I could slip out with the gun, which Mr. Zoubek left in the storage room for me to finish. It would serve him right if I sold it. I’d take the money and buy a new flash for my camera, the kind that won’t dissolve a mob into dots. The girls look at me, their mascara hardened into gluey clumps, and I recognize something in them. Maybe this is what they need and they don’t care what happens afterward.

* * *
When I finish my rounds, the nocturnal rumble has begun on the bridge. I stand under the statue of Saint Vitus, the dancer’s patron, and watch the pushcart venders pack their marionettes and fake crystal toe-rings. On my back is the blunderbuss rifle, wrapped in towels and crammed in a laundry sack. It bounces against me as I pace, keeping my gaze anchored on the masses. I could almost crowd-surf from one side to the next. A dog yaps as I walk past the Devil Man, who wears horns and hollers until you buy his self-portraits. I search for the girls in their flesh-packed jeans and it’s as if they’ve disappeared.

I start thinking about Mr. Zoubek and begin jogging. By the time I hit the venders again I am running. I circle around to the Stare Mesto side and still no girls. Just as I’m about to head back to the hotel, I catch sight of them lagging behind a bunch of teenagers in Dr. Seuss hats. They are standing under the Old Town tower at the foot of the bridge, their pale hair visible against the dark stones. I plow my way through the battery of tourists and see the girls waving. I can tell they’re drunk by the way they wobble. The crowd noise trickles away like I’m floating above it. I close my eyes and when I open them I see the girls talking, their words splitting into choppy waves.

“That’s her,” the smaller girl says when I reach them. The girls reek of beer and sweat. They grab my arm and drag me down the stone steps leading to Kampa island, where the fluted roofs seem to rise out of the dark, agitated water.

“Where’s your friend?” I ask. This makes the tall girl wince.

“He’s busy. You come with us, okay?”

I don’t know what to say, so I just follow them. It’s like that old Czech tale about Lucifer and the country woman named Kate. He came after her soul, but she made so many demands that he eventually begged for mercy. The girls ask a lot questions. They want to know how long I’ve been here and when I’ll return to the States.

“I feel so exciting asking you things,” says the tall girl. “You know life here changes from good mood to bad.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

We reach the John Lennon Wall, with its pacifist graffiti. During the Communist era, when western pop songs were a crime, kids waged war with the police who kept painting over their manifestos. The wall’s original plaster was picked off in chunks by souvenir-hunting tourists. Beside a peeling sketch of Lennon, someone scribbled, “People don’t die, they turn into flowers.”

The girls want me to take out the gun. When I refuse, the tall girl, Tereza, says, “You want money, yes?”

“Who doesn’t?”

Tereza nods like she knows what I’m talking about. For a moment everything seems wrong. I know she’s putting on an act, trying to scam me, and I begin to think about my options again and how summer is ending and all those sleepless nights staring out my window at an American flag.

I drop the sack on the ground. The weakest portions of my lower back are burning. I bend down, unwrap the towels, and brandish the short, heavy barrel. Tereza yanks it away from me. She turns it around, inspecting every angle. She holds the barrel so close, she could lick it.

“Let me see,” says the other girl. She strokes the bell-mouthed rifle.

I wait. It’s as if the girls have transformed into antique dealers at the Collectable Arms Show. They make a big deal about the maker’s name on the lock, W W & I Mason, the deeply chiseled breech, and serpent motif. Tereza aims the muzzle at my chest. Neither of us moves.

“Boom,” she says.

Her friend giggles. I glare at them both.

“Do you have any idea what it’s worth?” I ask.

“I have the exact idea,” says Tereza.

She gives the gun back to me.

“Are you kidding?”

Funny to think of a two-hundred-year-old shooter—one of the guns used during the Lewis and Clark expedition—as nothing special. The girls turn to leave. I shove the gun in the laundry sack, minus the towels, and take off after them. Tereza scoots backward, tripping on a pile of mummified bouquets, landing in the dirt before regaining her balance and scrambling toward the bridge.

We race through the cramped, twisting streets until I lose them. There are no hippies dozing in the grass or couples out for walks. Just swans dipping in the rain-swollen river. I crash into an elderly woman with a sheet of plastic draped over her head, babushka-style, and ask if she’s seen the girls. Fear skates across her eyes. As the old Babi shuffles off, I remember the gun. I glance over my shoulder and see the muzzle sticking up like a salute. I keep running, thinking everything will be okay if I make it to the hotel-that I’ll stop trying to pawn my boss’s antique gun because he’s a jerk and I’m broke and I want to anyway.

When I get back to the Boar’s Head, I finish polishing the gun and leave it in the storage room. I think of the girls and see them laughing at me, the American bandit, and I realize that I will have to face Mr. Zoubek and he can’t know what I’ve done.

* * *
The next morning, I mop the lobby and tear down the decorations. I tell myself that I must behave as if nothing has happened. I am the hotel’s maid. I will tug dozens of flowered bedsheets into tight hospital corners and Mr. Zoubek will check on me and I won’t mind unless I have to talk to him.

On my way to the elevator, Josef steps out of the kitchen. He belts out a few arias from The Magic Flute and swings me around in a lopsided waltz. He’s always in a good mood, which grates my nerves. I tell him it’s a wonder he hasn’t been fired.

“Who, me?” Josef says. “You are a troublemaker.”

I flinch.

“You did it,” he says, jabbing a finger at me. “You destroy my kitchen. But next time you will clean it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Josef grabs my hand and laces his fingers through mine. He gives me a squeeze. That’s how I leave him, thinking what a sweet girl I am.

In the elevator, I smooth my hair and put on some lipstick. I get off on the second floor. A little boy is whacking a paper airplane against the wall and making explosive sounds. His mother drags him into their hotel room. She doesn’t seem much older than me.

I get to work on the dull-haired carpet. Mr. Zoubek wants it salted with Borax. He refuses to buy regular cleaning products, just the useless home remedies you’d find in a farmer’s almanac. Soon he’s in the hallway, hovering over me, and I can’t stop looking at him, wondering if he knows about the girls tricking at his hotel or the fact that I almost sold them a nineteenth-century rifle.

“Can you make a favor of me?” he asks, coming closer. I can feel sweat popping out of my face. I just nod and look busy.

Mr. Zoubek wants me to photograph his gun collection. I half expect him to tell me about the missing blunderbuss. But he doesn’t and his tone sounds cheery and he keeps whistling. I grab my gear. The storage room isn’t lit well, so I load some high-speed film into my Nikon and rig it to the tripod with rubber bands.

Before I take the picture, Mr. Zoubek lines up his beauties, almost lovingly arranging them from smallest to largest. He fiddles with the blunderbuss and I’m not sure if he noticed it was missing yesterday.

“There was these guns in Russia,” he says, “some really stupid and ugly guns, just unbelievable. So we send them to Cuba where they suffered much abuse. I would not trade ten korunas for it.”

I know the gun he just described has nothing to do with the antique rifle and before I can ask him what he knows, he passes it to me. I stand there, pretending like everything is okay and Mr. Zoubek has told me the truth.

“Maybe it belongs to somebody famous in history,” I say.

He shrugs. “I’m kind of skeptic even of that. It only means that people years ago hated each other, exactly the same like now.”

I watch him remove my camera from the tripod. I can’t understand why he would take a picture of me holding an antique rifle in front of a table heaped with guns. He aims the Nikon at me.

“Make sure the light meter is in the middle,” I say.

“I know,” says Mr. Zoubek.

For a minute I’m not sure if he means the film exposure or my sneaking off with his gun. I’m about to ask what he knows when he drops the camera. It hits the hardwood floor with a clatter I can sense before I hear it. I start thinking of what he’s going to tell me. I look at the camera, figuring the lens cover has jammed, the flash control has stopped working and I won’t get the roll of film out without breaking the cover. All my shots are ruined and it doesn’t matter. I scoop up the broken pieces and wait for Mr. Zoubek to tell me it’s an accident, he didn’t mean to do it.

David Rimmer’s NEW YORK is a 21 scene play depicting the reactions of 17 characters to the events of 9/11. Most of the characters speak to a central psychiatrist character (DOCTOR in the script), as shown in scene 12, which is reprinted here.

Rimmer, the Pulitzer-finalist author of ALBUM and other plays, originally wrote NEW YORK to raise funds for volunteer psychiatrists dedicated to helping the overwhelming number of patients psychologically affected by 9/11. The play has since been performed at theaters, schools and colleges throughout New York and the Northeast. If you’re interested in putting this play on in your community, or reading the rest of it, please contact the author at: rimmersandhaus@aol.com.

TIME: Fall 2001

SCENE: A psychiatrist’s office.
STAGE PICTURE Two armchairs in an area of LIGHT. One for the Central Psychiatric Character– the DOCTOR, a warm, welcoming woman who listens and reacts with great compassion and understanding, but also keeps a professional demeanor. PATIENTS of the DOCTOR use the other chair. Other areas of DOWNSTAGE LEFT, RIGHT and CENTER for scenes not involving DOCTOR or PATIENTS. No set pieces; minimal props.

12. CAREGIVER

The CAREGIVER, middle-aged guy, and the DOCTOR, listening to him.

CAREGIVER
So I get to the office. There’s a manic depressive, two paranoid schizophrenics, a delusional, a denial, a psychotic episode, two unresolved Oedipal complexes, father and son–an anal retentive, an anal explosive, an anal compulsive, an anal confused. A little syndrome, a little deficit, a little this, a little that. Post-traumatic stress disorder–big on that these days. Socially-challenged, erotically-challenged, appetite-challenged, hetero-challenged, homo-challenged, challenge-challenged.

Just another day at the orifice. Dreams, fantasies– low self-esteem, high penis envy, fear of phobia. Obsessive- compulsive disorder, compulsive-obsessive disorder, rejection, projection, protection, detection, confection, which direction?

“Help! I need help! Help!” So do I! Jeez! D’you have any idea?

Nightmares, hallucinations, fear of interpersonal relationships, a partridge in a pear tree. A guy who keeps asking, “Do babies get boners? Do babies get boners?” The acid flashback that never ends–take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’! Transference! Triskadeskaphobia–fear of Triscuits. The screaming meemees–Nature-Nurture! Nurture-Nature! Ying yang, walla walla bing bang! –Yes, babies get boners!

…I have that dream where you go back to college and you don’t know the course and you take the final exam? Except I go back to med school. I know the course, I ace the final exam, I take everybody in the class’s final exam, I take everybody in the school’s final exam, I go before all the teacher’s review boards and I ace them– and I end up ruling the world but I have to abdicate because of insomnia. If I could get some sleep, I could have that other dream that I like so much, the one where the ham sandwich eats me.

Jeez, who do you go to when you get burned out? And who does he go to? And him and him and him and her and her and her, all the way down the the last guy– and who does he go to? Me?… Cause that’s scary.

I haven’t messed up my job… yet. I’m fine, aren’t I? I’m fine. You know what I need? More patients. You know any? –Bipolar, bisexual, biennial, bicentennial, buy American!

I had a girlfriend somewhere along the line. Infantile sexuality– God, I would’ve killed for some infantile sexuality when I was a kid.
(Sad and tired.)

Grief. Despair. Loss. Loneliness. Fear. Anxiety. The shakes. Just an old-fashioned case of the blues. Whatever you call it, they got it. John. Judy. Miguel. Heather. Dennis. Dov. Tommy, Jenny, Rashid, Angie, Guiseppe, Fred. Tasha, Kelly. Sid and Elaine. Bob. Poor Bob. Stress. Jack. Stress. Alexandra. Manny.
(Takes a breath.)

And that was Tuesday. Before lunch.
(Glances at his watch–)

Gotta go–
(Exits in a hurry–

The DOCTOR sits there, taking it in.
DOCTOR
Whew.

FADE TO BLACK

Tom Brennan

I didn’t know Bloch was an artist. I mean, he looked like a regular guy. Well, not regular; a little weird, you know? For thirty years he’d lived in the same rooms, and nobody except him ever saw the inside. So I thought.

My uncle bought the building back in fifty-two, when the area went to shit, and started renting out rooms. He never had any kids and I got the place three years ago when he died. Everywhere is controlled now, so I’m not making much out of the rents, but it’s a good investment. Since Bloch died, a hell of a good investment.

I got the call one Saturday morning: Bloch’s neighbor in number thirty-four said he could smell something rotten and he hadn’t seen Bloch for weeks. Oh, and by the way, Bloch’s mailbox was full of uncollected envelopes.

So I thought, great, one decomposing corpse, thank you so much. I took my keys down there and opened Bloch’s apartment up and sure enough there’s a hell of a stink. Sickly sweet, like a garbage truck hit a dog full of candy.

But the smell wasn’t coming from Bloch; it was coming from a big saucepan of stew left on the stove. Good thing we had a cold winter or the whole place would’ve been crawling.

I found Bloch lying on the bedroom floor, blue and maybe a little bloated. Four or five days, tops, I guessed. There was blood crusted around his mouth and a dark stain on the floor under his body, and I just know that piss is a bitch to get out of carpet.

I took a quick look around but there’s no sign of break-in or robbery. So I called nine-one-one and waited. That’s when I really looked at the stuff in his rooms. There were stacks of books all around me, some almost touching the ceiling.

Most of the books were maybe eighteen inches by ten, something like that. I opened one up and the first thing that hit me was the color, like an acid rainbow across the paper. I mean, there were shades in there I didn’t even have a name for.

And the scenes just blew me away: screaming devils and foxy naked angels, imps and demons, the flames of hell and purgatory, just like the priests said. The devils and imps were feeding people into these big shiny metal machines that chewed them up and spat them out. You could see a pile of hands here, legs there, you name it.

I found the title of the book scrawled across the inside cover: Scenes of Hell and Beatific Order.

Then the cops came in and I shut the book; I didn’t want them thinking I’m a freak or something. I told them who I was and what happened and they started looking around, but you could tell their heart wasn’t in it. The bored ambulance guys took Bloch away and pretty soon I’m all alone with the books.

Later, I asked the neighbors and they told me that Bloch had no visitors, no friends, nothing as far as they knew. Not that they’d hear much anyway, with the TVs turned so high you could hear them out on the street.

My uncle told me once that Bloch worked for one of the museums as a porter or caretaker. I figured he must have come home every night and worked on the books, under that single bare bulb in the living room. Some life, right?

Then I wondered if maybe it was someone else who painted them, so I took down another one to check. A few scenes of hell, this time, after these peaceful country landscapes showing farms and hills and children. And every sheet signed by Bloch. I should have gone home and looked through my uncle’s stuff, seen if Bloch had any relatives to contact, but I had to take another look at the pictures.

He had been good at faces and bodies: the skin looked real, though some of the arms and legs looked weird, stretched, even in the country scenes. He hadn’t been much good at trees and mountains and rivers, but he could paint flames and torture like nothing else I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff in the museums since that day.

I wrapped one of the books in newspaper and took it home. I checked my uncle’s papers, and the phone directory, but I couldn’t trace any of Bloch’s relatives. Not that I tried that hard.

So, after a week I say to myself, this is a big city and someone out there will pay good money for the books. Hell, you can sell anything here.

I tried a few of the big art galleries but they just shook their heads; some places didn’t even let me through the door. Then I tried some of the smaller shops and galleries down near the new developments, you know, by the old factories they’ve turned into lofts? Now it’s all restaurants and coffee shops, and slick looking stores.

“A thousand dollars,” the gallery guy said. He looked like he’d dressed in the seventies, with the lights out, and never got changed; I threw out better clothes than he was wearing. But he’s offering me a thousand dollars after looking at the first few pages in the book.

“A thousand?” I looked around. The gallery was an old warehouse painted white, with sculptures and black and white photos on the walls. Leather couches. I guessed the guy was doing okay. “I’ll think about it.”

“Two thousand,” he called out as I’m at the door. “That’s the best I can do.”

That’s when I knew I had something. “I’ll be in touch,” I said. Yeah, right.

Ten thousand. I got ten thousand dollars for that first book. Looking back, I know I got ripped off because the gallery owner put it in a sale a few months later and got thirty, but what the hell. I know the value now, and I can bargain, haggle.

After that first one, I trickled a few books through each month. I found a couple of other places that were into the paintings and they welcomed me with open arms. You should’ve heard some of the crap they came out with: “A vivid allegory of post-modern society,” and, “A working-through of the classic myth systems.”

I just smiled and took the money.

About four months into it, I realize I’m not the only one in the apartment; some of the books had been moved, and a couple were missing. One of Bloch’s first ones, dated from fifty-five, had gone. I knew because I’d left it open on the table. So I brought my uncle’s Colt and waited in the kitchen. The rooms didn’t smell so bad by then, after I got the cleaners in.

Then I heard a key in the lock and I picked up the gun. I looked around the door and there was this young guy picking through the books. He wore a black leather jacket, black jeans and new boots. He looked like he didn’t belong around this neighborhood. He had white cotton gloves on, and he turned each page like it was worth a million dollars.

I stepped forward and he jumped maybe two feet in the air. I thought he’d have a heart attack.

“Who are you?” he asked me, once he got his breath back.

I told him I’m Bloch’s family, but the kid’s face froze up.

“He didn’t have any family,” he said.

Well, he was right there, but he wasn’t the one with the gun. I got him to sit down and tell me the story.

“He was a genius,” the kid said. “He’d use a brush with only two or three hairs to paint these scenes. They were his life’s work.”

“How did you know?”

“I was in the museum,” he said. “I’d been copying out some of the paintings; Bloch saw my sketches and, after a few months, we started talking. Eventually, after a long wait, he invited me around here and I saw all these paintings. I couldn’t believe it.”

I looked around at the books. “You think these are good?”

He nodded. “He was one of the best Outsider artists. Totally focussed; he painted every minute he could. He said that sometimes he forgot to eat.”

“But what about hell? And all the torture stuff, and purgatory? You can’t tell me that’s normal.”

The kid shrugged. “Painters have been producing visions like these for centuries. But they were classically trained, whereas Bloch was a natural, an idiot savant. He really believed he was a conduit of messages from God.”

I laughed. “There’s plenty of people in this city think they got a direct line to God.”

“Maybe so, but how many painted like Bloch?”

I let that one go. To me, Bloch painted like a nut, but what do I know?

“Have you seen the twins?” the kid asks. “That’s Bloch and his sister. She died when they were young.”

“That explains a lot,” I said. “So, what are we gonna do about you?”

We started talking, and I told the kid that Bloch left me all the books, and the kid said Bloch never mentioned me, but I offered to bring the last will and testament over, in the expensive presence of my lawyers, and would the kid like to talk to them?

Now the only lawyers I know are the ones who handled my divorces, and the stuff on the building regs, but I guess the kid never played poker. I could see him thinking, chewing his options over. I figured he had at least three or four books that he’d taken, and he wanted to hold on to them.

So he gave me the key to Bloch’s apartment and I said we’d let it go. The kid took a last look around, at the books, before he left. Then I called my cousin and he brought his truck around. We moved all the books in one load, and stashed them in my garage.

I’m letting them go at one a month. I had to throw a couple of books out after they got soaked when the rain came through the garage door (that was some storm we had last July, right?) That makes sixty-three books left.

At thirty thousand, minimum, for each book, I figure I’m in for around one and a half mill. Maybe a lot more. If I dump them all now the price will go down, laws of supply and demand.

So, yeah, things are looking pretty good. I rented the apartment out to an old couple, and I’m looking at investing my money after I visit Vegas for a few days. What do you think? Day trading or Nasdaq?

I stopped looking through the books. It’s like the old horror films, you know? Where the eyes in the picture follow you around the room? That’s the feeling I get.

Guilty conscience? No way. It’s just that Bloch could really paint realistic faces.

I thought about keeping one of the books, but what’s the point? The only ‘art’ in the house are the prints my ex-wife left, and a few centerfolds in the den. I don’t even know if Bloch’s paintings are art. I don’t much care. So long as there’s someone out there to buy the books.

Like I said, you can sell anything in this city.

By Linda Boroff

It was time. Obediently, Marketing assembled in front of Human Resources and counted noses, then filed out through the vast, slick-floored maroon-and-silver lobby. Job-seekers, huddled like troglodytes in cavernous velour armchairs, glanced up from incomprehensible computer journals as the troupe passed.

“Hasta la Vista!” called out blonde Annabelle Hopf from the reception desk, waving gaily.

Nobody waved back. Silently, Marketing crowded through the front door into the parking lot to distribute itself—grunting, squeezing, joints popping-among three cars. The dutiful caravan wended a short, cramped distance to downtown, parking on River Street to avoid the noon traffic jam.

Then they shuffled—like so many ducklings or kindergartners, Sue thought irritably, behind Al Cooke, their Director, all the way down Pacific Avenue to the Palomar Restaurant. Sue noticed that she was dragging her feet, just as she had on field trips back in elementary school. And she felt an insistent, annoying urge to hold Bill Pinkney’s hand as he trudged along at her side.

A full year after the earthquake, Pacific Avenue still lay strewn about in raw asphalt chunks, as if ripped by an angry behemoth: post-Godzilla Santa Cruz. Deep, refuse-littered canyons that were the graves of buildings yawned on either side. Sue felt vaguely ashamed peeping down into them, their broken rusty girders and moldy blockite foundations helplessly exposed like the underwear of dead old ladies.

Overdressed and overemployed, Marketing edged self-consciously along cyclone fencing and across broken pavement, past irreverent youth of all styles and commitments, past blowsy older shoppers and Gabby Hayes homeless. The sun glared down unobstructed on the ruined street, startlingly hot. The March of the Toy Soldiers. No, The Procession of the Damned, Sue continued bitterly. And guiltily too. Because it was really very nice of the company to buy them all Mexican lunch every other Thursday, just Marketing, a chummy little claque, no interlopers from Admin or MIS. Our Tradition, Al termed it.

Of course, the cold steel of corporate coercion glinted out from the velvet glove dealing enchiladas. And for some, fear was the “especiale” on the menu, since Al often chose this occasion to call someone aside and mention in his offhand way that someone was “under evaluation”—that gut-piercing, margarita-negating corrida, the guacamole curdling beneath a stinging salsa reflux, the beans hitting the stomach floor like a jai a’lai serve. Poor Mac Morgan had gone positively verde on hearing his summons. Or was it only the restaurant’s green-tinted skylight that made them all look as if they were lunching in the Gulag? Sue caught her own reflection in one of the few storefront windows left unboarded: limp, she thought. Her hair drooped from its center part, too dismayed to curl. The mouth was petulant, impotent. Even her large brown eyes retreated, peering back at her accusingly like those of a war orphan.

Mac was history now, Sue thought bitterly. No more Gary Larsen cartoons on her chair in the mornings, no more Star-Trek festival fliers. “Morgan’s problem was, he thought like an engineer, not a marketing pro,” had eulogized Al, Mac’s unrepentant executioner, punctuating his remark with an analytical pursing of the lips that lifted his jowls a good inch and caused him to resemble something that lurks in a coral reef.

Only an hour, Sue told herself. This will soon be over. The hardhats, rulers of the rubble, bestrode their ‘dozers like cowboys, lazy-hipped, their proud torsos gleaming with honest sweat. Beneath them, the marketing group, children yet again, gaped at serrated iron shovels and mighty saurian pincers groaning and roaring as they gnashed at massive slabs of concrete and masonry. Sue became disoriented, as she always did now when downtown, all illusions demolished forever that afternoon. No stability. No shelter. No safety. Not on this deceptive, faulted earth that could suddenly lurch into animistic life and sway like a hula dancer’s hips. Not in the treacherous ocean either, with its hidden riptide pythons. Not in the universe itself, only a big balloon after all, heedlessly inflating toward some cosmic pop. Or worse, dribbling back over the eons to a flaccid little virtual particle, all grandeur mummified.

Certainly not in love. The sudden indoor cool, and the remote vaulted ceiling of the Palomar made Sue want to kneel and pray, as she had done once before in Notre Dame (and during the earthquake too), her atheism expediently discarded in the face of God’s indisputable hegemony. Kneeling beside her in the church had been a Sorbonne student nicknamed Du-Du. On the wall of his Rue de L’Harpe garret had hung a Roy Orbison poster. He had serenaded her in fractured English with “Running Scared”

Scared. Some fifteen years later, the earthquake had caught Sue and her ex-husband Tod bickering over the Visa bill. He didn’t give a damn what her lawyer said, why should he have to pay for half of her psychotherapy (that his own infidelity had made necessary)?

“You punished me by seeing the most expensive shrink in the county.” Tod’s blue eyes were as cold as freon. She would not give him the satisfaction of admitting that he had broken her heart, that on learning of his perfidy she had dashed to the telephone directory and dialed the only therapist whose ad was big enough to read through her tears.

“And what about these charges for that cozy little hideaway in Calistoga?” She counterattacked, waving the bill. “You took her to our honeymoon resort? I’m supposed to pay half of that?”

And suddenly, as if fed up to here, the earth had shrugged, shuddered with disgust. The house groaned, rocking back and forth; massive cracks clove the walls. Sue and Tod froze, stupefied: What manner of divine retribution had their squabbling called down? Sue suddenly recalled reading of a woman during World War II convinced that her own turds were torpedoes sinking allied ships. Had they been?

Desperately, Sue and Tod grabbed for each other, swaying, praying aloud as the house danced like a Max Fleischer cartoon. With a cry, they toppled together and rolled across the floor, sheltering one another’s heads. So must Sodom have collapsed, amid wails of terror and remorse. I didn’t mean it, Sue prayed desperately, that seventh grade cussing contest, that high school debate, Resolved: God is Dead.

And then it was over. The earth convulsed one last time and lay still, as if spent, handing them back their lives, a miracle. Sue and Tod wept with relief. Bursting with gratitude, they apologized, gushed concessions. How selfish they had been, how misguided. Everything was so clear now. Life was too precious, too uncertain to squander in trivial conflict. Yes, yes, cherish the moment, the priceless gift. Chastened and a little smug, they swept up glass, nipping from a bottle of brandy, tsking in sympathy as news poured from the radio.

But late that night, Tod had left again after all, dressed silently in the dark and let himself out. Sue had awakened alone at five a.m. to the wail of sirens, sitting glumly amid the aftershocks, indifferent to doom. Let it all end in rubble then. Let the whole rotten world come down on her.

“Hey Sue, what’s your pleasure?” Bill nudged her arm

“Ondalay, ondalay,” prompted Al from the head of the table.

“I’ll have the chile verde burrito,” Sue responded, her appetite gone.

“To your left,” whispered plump Aimee Landsman, “don’t look now, is the man who broke my old boss Sally’s heart.” The heartbreaker was battling for control of an elongating cheese string. Maddeningly elastic, it resisted his efforts, dangling stubbornly from his lips across his fork, stretching toward his tie. He looked up, and his eyes met Sue’s. She made a scissors motion with her fingers. He grinned and winked.

“Watch out,” said Aimee.

“When the worst has already occurred,” answered Sue lightly, “one has nothing left to fear. Or to put it another way, you can’t fall off the floor.”

“I fell off the floor,” said Aimee. “During the earthquake my house broke into four pieces, and I fell off the kitchen floor.”

“Onto what?”

“The kitchen floor. But it was five feet lower.”

“I’m sure there’s some fundamental insight to be gained from that.” Sue grinned and tossed her hair, a coquette, fearless.

“So we figured that pricing was the key.” Bill hoisted a chip trembling with salsa.

“No way, Jose,” shouted Al. “You’re off base as usual. Think about the margins, sonny. Where have you been for the past six months?” Salsa dropped like tears onto Bill’s menu. “No way, Jose,” Al said again, this time to the waiter. “I’ve got the wrong burrito filling.” He pouted. “Where’s the beef?”

“Speaking of the worst, I saw Tod yesterday,” said Aimee. “He pulled a sad face, said he’ll always love you.” Sue rolled her eyes.

“A talent for deception.” But he had loved her once, hadn’t he, rhapsodizing over her dark eyes, her mouth, the way the stem of her back curved beneath his hands. In bed, their contours had fitted perfectly, notched in all the right places, a solid marital foundation if ever there was one. Yet, even then she had been preparing for the cataclysm (not if, but when), bolting her love firmly, warily to the (unreliable) earth, holding herself apart. Needing him the more for that.

The beige flanks of Sue’s burrito split and eroded under her indifferent fork. Entrails of green rice and pork spilled out. The meal was ending, she noted with relief, those about her rising with conspicuous grunts and groans of satiety. Sue tossed her napkin gratefully onto the table

“I miss Mac,” she said. “Nothing’s the same.”

“That’s for sure,” said Bill. “The Mac’s working in Sunnyvale now. He hates the commute, but he’s holding up.” And what else could one wish for after all, Sue decided, but to hold up? To hold up was enough. It was everything.

Like a bad dream, Al Cooke materialized at her side and Bill melted away. “Sue,” said Al, “Would you step into the bar with me please? I’m afraid we’re due for a chat.” His face was so close that she could easily distinguish the graphite-colored bristles on his jaw, the frijole smear beside his mouth. His eyes were a colorless glaze. Such must be the last human image afforded a condemned man: a close-up of his own executioner, all details in place for one final, eternal impression. Al took Sue’s elbow and steered her toward the bar, away from the others.

No reliable way to predict: Deep in Sue’s molten core, a cauldron of magma heaved and lurched. A plate shifted and suddenly gave way, rupturing swiftly along the fault. Fissures wrenched open like rosy gashes. Her mantle shuddered as seismic waves, amplified by loose upper sediment, made their way toward the unsuspecting crust. Her legs began to tremble, her head swayed as the inner momentum grew. Tremors reverberated along her skin. Al ordered two coffees from the bartender, and Sue took her seat beside him. In her ears was a roaring, and a tinkling not unlike that of breaking glass.

By Christin Shumaker

I.
i was late for the dinner party.
it took longer to walk than i thought and
you were letting the sweet and sour vegetables
go cold.
i didn’t know
that everyone was waiting
all slack around the coffee table, drinking
whiskey out of wine glasses and reading
extinct words out of a dictionary from 1902.

like anti-irishism
which kate with the dreads took offense to,
even though she was from scoot-land.

but she could identify with them,
being a minority and seemingly unwanted,
like the time she went to the rasta festival
when the jamaica lady came over and asked

“little white girl, where are the rest of your
dreads?”

for kate’s dreads chose to hide in the safety
that was the nape of her neck
as though afraid of heights.

and when kate responded
that they hadn’t grown in yet
the Jamaica lady, stepping forward, grasped
kate’s hands and proclaimed that she would pray
for her dreads.

although, from that tale,
kate didn’t seem very unwanted,
but looks from other festival goers
would reveal otherwise.

II.
asleep on the couch,
i forget to watch the thunderstorm
and missed out on waves of thunder
that shook the house
bottles of wine crashing to the floor

a flood of grapes and glass formed a river
upon the landscape of the kitchen.

tonight we will drink
and have pre-dawn epiphanies,
heaven being a glass of whiskey
during an indian summer heat wave
and if it isn’t heaven
it will at least be a path to the gates.

By Jonathan Walker

So what should we do
with the old one
here in tatters
stinking up the shadows?
I think we should kill it
stand in a circle
kicking, pinching
making faces
throw rocks at it
like in the bible
or on Second Avenue.

Give it pocket money
take it out to the dust
on the edge of town
rub it with rosemary
hug it
squeeze it
ask it questions
in a whisper
so no one else hears
then tell it to go away
in a loud and ringing shout
ready for tears.
And don’t come back here
any more.

By Estill Pollock

The first look counts for nothing. A loose
fit of fabric rustles as she walks
this way, this way to own me. How lush,
how contoured each animal hide, eyes
a bowstring to the look, where the welts
she raises rise pleasing to the lash.

When my army took Valerian
at the gates, and I slit him gut to
gullet, and salted the skin, and stuffed
it with his own Imperial gown,
Rome shook. The whip instructs the reign. I know
its bright touch, her pleasure in its gift.

By Seth Cason

And so, that summer I brought back with me
from the Pacific splendor a balance of nerves,
another story: my frail feet neglecting the paths
of unraveling hours, and then the war started.
Between my thumb and index finger now
another squalor of steroids– the variety fashioned
to ravage super-abundant immunities. Imagine
my first love swallowing on the sunrise subway
his sixth shot of espresso as he imagines me
scratching my own name into a layer of moist
sidewalk cement, grinning, and the southern sun
tending to the skin of my bare shoulders bleached
by the northwest winter. Anyway, no one that I love
knows where I am anymore.

By Donna Bamford

The water is indigo today
and bronze and green
but where it is glistening
the colours are northern
and the colours in the leaves,
saffron, and russet and olive,
the sunlight brilliant,
all coolness, purity and light

Give thanks
for glistening things, iridescent
luminescent,
like ripples in the wind,
incandescent things
like so many sequins on velvet
like chips of diamond
thrown up by the wind.

By Clyde Kessler

We played old albums in a storm,
heard Mathis croon across the thunder,
and Chuck Berry’s piano rocking the hail.
The beer was cold then gone, and a siren
blared. We laughed since we were still
the boys who rode tornadoes, kicking clouds
across the valley like rags. We played Haley’s
stuff, and opened the door to the back porch,
could hear devils whispering their prayers
in the weeds. A wet moth flew in the house.
Then a big mama wind tore by like a sharp knife
thrown at heaven. And the electricity went off,
and you could see the first pull of Billy’s joint
winking one time, then nothing but a mean, dark
midnight that tooled the whole world with silence.

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