by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

“Get away from me,” she yelled through her tears. “Get away;” her words were nearly unintelligible, the tears streaming down her cheeks, and down into her mouth. They tasted really salty. She backed up, until her back touched the metal grid wall of a jungle gym. “Leave me alone.” She picked up a handful of the small pebbles that were the flooring of the playground and threw it at them in a wide arc. Some of the boys jumped away from the projectiles with practiced grace, while others just took the shots with a military stoicism.

They all kept advancing, though. The semi-circle was growing tighter. It was like a nightmare she once had, except in the dream they were pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and big roly-poly clowns.

“Oh, come on, Jamie, we’re just having a little fun.” Josh smiled when he talked, almost reflexively, and his teeth were perfectly white and straight, and when he smiled like that, and spoke in his angelic child’s voice, and said such rational things like, “It’s only a game,” then his smile was terrible. Like it was now. He was the center of the enclosing arc: the keystone. There were about seven of them in front of her, coming in slowly, like it was such a sure thing that they could get her that they could take their time. She threw some more stones at them, and started shoveling great handfuls, as much as her small, pink nine year-old hands could shovel. The stones fell like hard raindrops from the late autumn blue-gray sky. Robbie yelped and held his hands to his left eye.

George went over to Robbie, who’s face was turning red with the effort from holding the tears in. George gently pried open his hands, and looked at his face. “He’s O.K., just hit him in the cheek.” Josh continued the advance.

“You O.K.?” George asked quietly. Robbie felt silly and childish saying that he wasn’t, and he was reasonably O.K., but it stung where she hit him. His tears turned into a snarl, and he growled out, “I’ll kill the bitch.”

David came up to them quietly, and said, in his high-pitched voice, which always sounded like he was that-close to laughing, “That’s for Josh to decide.” He snickered a little, and jumped away before they could respond.

“You’re lucky you didn’t hurt him badly. Then we’d have to hurt you. Badly.” His smile was leering at her, and it seemed there was no way out. Except up. The thought had occurred to Josh also. She turned around and was about to scurry up the grid, when Neil grabbed her hands off the metal, and pulled her towards him, towards the bars, so that she was pressed face-first against the jungle gym. Neil smiled and licked her cheek. His pink tongue was insanely long, but she was screaming now, screaming loudly, a ragged syllable, pausing only long enough to breathe in, and she wasn’t paying attention to anything else, except that she couldn’t move her hands; no matter how much she thrashed about, and she did do quite a lot of that, his grip on her remained iron-hard, his fingers digging into her wrists the more she struggled.

“Oh, whatsa matter, Jamie,” said Jason, mocking her struggling. She spit near him, not able to turn her head all the way. He laughed, and she was crying more and more. The more she cried, the less anything else came to save her. She was surprised that she still had more to cry. Her entire face felt hot and red and puffy, and she just wanted them to stop and leave her alone. Jason moved over to get closer to her. Josh roughly shoved him aside, and just stood there, staring at him. Jason moved away, stepping back not so much to make room for Josh, but to put some room in between them. Alpha male always gets first pick.

Josh still smiled, and brushed his curly brown hair out of his deep brown eyes. His one distinguishing feature was his smile. All the other boys were of the same height, or near enough, and same weight. They were all lean and wiry. Jason, George and Neil had black hair, the deepest, richest, moonless midnight black. Robbie and Chris had blonde hair; David had strawberry blonde hair, hints of red in the flax, and his was the longest, straight to his shoulders. Kenny had a buzz-cut of indeterminate color, which matched his gray-like eyes that sometimes seemed blue, or green, or hazel, or any other number of colors, depending on the way the light hit them. There were nine people in this group, and the ninth called out.

“Why, hello, Misses Jankowski. What brings you out here? To our playground? Walking steadily towards the jungle gym?” he called out in an exaggerated voice, loud enough for everyone to hear him.

Josh grimaced, his upper lip curling up, showing his teeth in something not a smile. Neil had let go of Jamie’s hands and was climbing up the jungle gym’s metal grid wall. Josh leaned in closely, and whispered, “We were just playing a game, Jamie. No one was going to hurt you. O.K.? Just a game.” She nodded slowly, drying her tears quickly on her sleeves, wiping her entire face, which seemed to Josh to just spread the tears and redness all over her face. He kissed her gently on the cheek, and smiled to reassure her. He had decided that she would probably die soon.

“What are you doing Josh?” asked Mrs. Jankowski, her voice tinged with anger, her hands on her hips.

“I was just telling Jamie that I liked her, Mrs. Jankowski.” Josh had stopped smiling here, and instead looked up like a little puppy dog whose favorite treat was just taken away.

“Come over here Jamie.” Jamie meekly walked over to the teacher. Most of the boys were innocently playing with the swings, and slowly walking away, towards the bigger section of playground; a small windowless jut of red-brick school-building separated the two sections. Josh, standing there all by himself, had turned on all of his boyish charm, channeling all of it into looking forlorn, and sad. Not giving in, Mrs. Jankowski took Jamie away, with one final look at Josh, warning him about the consequences if he had lied, or even worse, made another student cry. She couldn’t imagine that some kids could be so casually mean. But still, she thought, it was better than how some of the kids related to each other in city schools. Some of her friends who had worked in those schools told her stories, stories involving guns and knives, and killing. She waited until she got Jamie inside the classroom. Jamie sat down, and dried her eyes with the tissues that Mrs. Jankowski gave her. “Tell me what happened.” Her tone was soothing and confidential, but it was a commanding tone also. Jamie blew her nose, and began to tell her (making it up using what she had overheard her older sister say on the phone) about how Josh had told her that he liked her, and how upset she was because they were such good friends, and she didn’t want to lose him as a friend. Not even this would make her forget her loyalty to the golden playground rule: Never tell a Teacher. Mrs. Jankowski listened to everything she was told, and she knew that some thing in the story wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the way that Jamie told it, or the way she kept biting at her lower lip. The lipstick was smudged mostly off; Mrs. Jankowski was always a little surprised, upset maybe, about how the girls in fifth grade were always trying to act older. The makeup, and the training bras, and sometimes the stuffing of bras, everything which they affected, it all disgusted Mrs. Jankowski, who was feeling every of her thirty-eight years. Jamie, one of the smarter girls when it came to books, had skipped a grade, and so being the youngest, tried the hardest to act and look the oldest. Why were they in such a rush to grow up? Her deep-seated feeling was that kids should be kids. Jamie left the room, and Mrs. Jankowski used the last few minutes of recess to go to the bathroom. Women’s bathrooms, at least to men, always seem better furnished. The faculty women’s bathroom at South Grove Elementary School was an exception to this rule-of-thumb. The walls were grimy and the ceiling was patchy with mold and falling down in places. Mrs. Jankowski was used to this mess so she just went into the first unoccupied stall. She wiped the seat before sitting down. Along with the feeling of relief, the sound of urinating always calmed her. She flushed and walked out of the stall, pausing to look at herself in the mirror, before going back out. She felt old. She didn’t want to deal with children who were rushing to be old, and she couldn’t seem to convince them to be happy the way they were. They always wanted more.

Josh was gathering his group around him, calling them to their playground, now that Mrs. Jankowski had left.

“Fucking A, man,” said Jason, “Why the fuck did she have to come over here?” Jason was on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth and nose, and all before anyone had even seen Josh move. Josh’s hands were still clenched in fists, but he had turned away.

“What the fuck,” with all the emphasis on fuck, “was that for?” Josh looked at Jason for a second, smiling, while wheels turned in his head.

George looked at Josh, waiting for a sign that would tell him that it was safe to help Jason. Josh jumped at Jason, grabbed his shirt front and shook him, his head hitting up and down on the grass, most of which was yellow and dead. After a few minutes he got off him, slapping him once for good measure, and stood up, brushing his shirt down, and brushing the hair out of his eyes. George went over to Jason, holding a tissue to his bleeding face, and whispering about how to make the bleeding stop. George’s parents were both doctors, just like they wanted him to be. George was only ten, like the rest of them, so he didn’t know what he wanted, and wasn’t worrying about it yet. Josh looked at the rest of the group and smiled. Brian, the ninth person in the group, and the second-in-command, like Josh had the same shade of brown hair, but was curly, where Josh’s was straight, and brown eyes, though his mother called them hazel, because it sounded nicer. Brian didn’t smile as much though, and the reason was whenever he did, people invariably noticed how sharp his teeth were, and how much they made him look like some sort of carnivorous dog, a jackal or hyena maybe.

Sometimes, older adults would make comments to his parents about how they should get him braces so he wouldn’t look so much like a dog, like a hyena.

Brian took special pleasure then in telling them that hyenas weren’t real dogs. When he left they usually muttered something under their breath about how it takes one to know one.

Now Brian was looking at his watch and walking over Josh. “Hmmm. Josh, if you want to get something fresh to eat, we should go now, before recess is over.”

Josh nodded his assent. “Let’s go find us some fresh meat.” He started walking away, towards the little forest that bordered one side of the schoolyard. Brian, Chris, Robbie, Neil, Kenny, David, who was running around, back and then forward, side to side, followed him into the woods.

George helped Jason get up and then walked after them. Josh had started jogging, and soon the whole group was running through the woods. Jason started limping in the direction of the forest, his bloody tissue pressed to his nose. He also started running to keep up with the group, the bloody tissue dropped to the forest floor like one of fall’s red leaves. Was it just a trick of the light, the unsure gloom of the sun-dappled forest floor? Or were they running on all fours? Like wolves.

by David Peterson

“You want fries with that? It comes with fries you know.”

“Did I ask for fries?”

“Uh, no. I’m just sayin’ that if you order the pattymelt that it comes with fries”

“I don’t want fries.”

“I still gotta charge ya for ‘em”

“Fine”

With military precision my pattymelt arrived about ten minutes later and she still brought the fries.

“I really don’t want these.” I said pointing to my plate.

“Well the thing is, I gotta charge you for ‘em,” gum snapping as she spoke, so I went ahead and put ‘em on the plate….”

The waitress droned on, I wasn’t surprised though. It had been like this during the entire tour. The van, driven usually by me, would pull into some podunk town, find the worst possible diner and then, zombie like, we four wannabe rockstars would pile out and slouch into the first available naugahyde booth. We had been doing this same routine for about four weeks when I first noticed the pattern. It got to the point where no matter what I ordered, it tasted the same.

Like donuts. Our frontman, Danny said that this was the mark of a fine diner.

Danny had a cast iron stomach and could talk about the most disgusting things imaginable while eating. Once, in a diner in Jersey I saw him kill a cockroach that was making a beeline for his omelet without missing a bite. “Hey, I didn’t order this,” he said while scraping the carcass from the formica table. Then, while still chewing his last bite, he ordered, “hey sister, lemme have a hunk of that pie will ya?”

This was life for us at the time. We took ourselves very seriously and were unified in the notion that at any moment a major label A&R guy would appear at one of our ill-attended shows and make us the stars we thought we were entitled to be. We were living in the crease of society and were able to make enough dough to cover the essentials; beer, cigarettes and guitar strings. The songs were good, or at least our girlfriends thought so, and we really clicked on stage as long as nothing went wrong. Things usually went wrong. There was a long list of things that could go wrong.

Anything that happened at night in a club, any problem that may have arisen while we were on stage was always talked about while we were eating. Strange, but I don’t remember ever sleeping while we were on the road, though I’m sure that I must have.

Once in a diner in El Paso, Texas I sat, staring, bleary eyed and hungover at two grease pools that were allegedly eggs. Though it was clearly a breakfast choice the waitress had still uttered those magic words, much to my chagrin. “Uh, honey, you want fries with that?” She was going too far. I felt the tension mount as the band got ready for another long castigation from me on the sins of french fries. I was too tired to let this one have it. I meekly muttered, “no.”

This place was too much, even for Danny. We all sat there unsure of what to do.

I was sure of one thing, there was no way that I was eating what was in front of me. We all just sat there not saying a word. The smell from these alleged food products was giving me a tremendous headache when all of a sudden, John Locke, our drummer, blurted out “I AM NOT EATING THIS!!” no one even looked up at the normally quiet John Locke. He said this in every other stop that we made. Truth was he only ate about once a week. I would not have believed this fact but I lived with this man in very close quarters for an extended amount of time and I like to think I know what his habits were. John Locke was a first class beer drunk. He would usually start drinking as soon as we got to the club. Before that, if he was awake, he would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in the back of the van. He rarely said more than three words at a time. The only response he got was from Danny. “Good, can I have the rest of your….whatever that is?”

Danny could never admit that a place actually had inedible food. If the sign outside said restaurant’ that meant that whatever they served you inside was fit to eat. John Locke looked at Danny and then contradicted himself by saying

“Nope, I not quite done yet.” He remembered that no matter who ate the food in front of him that he would end up paying for it. Grimly he picked up a fork and started in on his order.

There was actually a space of three full days on the tour where I managed to trick the conspiracy of waitresses. I had taken to eating only pancakes.

Pancakes. I was amazed that it had taken so long for me to figure this out. No one ever ate fries with pancakes. Then one day in Spearfish, South Dakota, I met my match. We decided to eat before retiring for the night rather than in the morning. I ordered pancakes and eggs as it was the special of the day. The waitress was a chubby biker type. She was only thinly disguised by the official polyester waitress uniform. I knew right away that my happiness would be brief…. She actually leered as she said it. It was as if she had been waiting all night, I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Lenny, our guitar player, muttered, “Shit, here we go again.” I immediately started in on my usual diatribe…

“Who the hell eats french fries with pancakes?” I complained.

“Listen, you little shit, I’m not gonna take in crap from you tonight you understand?”

I was slightly shocked but no less determined.

“Did I ask for fries?”

Danny and Lenny tried to get me to stop but it was too late, I was on a roll.

“I don’t give a damn what you asked for you little punk.” She was raising her voice now.

I knew I had her even though I was scared.

“You gotta care, you’re the waitress and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have asked”

She sighed. She was down but not out. I didn’t figure on what she said next though.

“If you’re still in town when I get off I am gonna kick you skinny little ass.

Do you understand me?”

I sat there blinking, bare arms sticking to naugahyde. I had no response.

My mates had abandoned me in my struggle against french fries. They were all doubled over laughing. I wasn’t laughing. I knew she meant it. She had dealt with those like me before. I was beaten and I knew it.

I sat there staring at the fries on my plate. It was a conspiracy. They were all out to get me. The only recourse I still had was not to eat them.

Unfortunately that really wasn’t the point though. The fact that they had to be there at all really burned me. I was so dejected that I volunteered to drive the van through the night rather than stay one unnecessary second in this godforsaken hell-hole in the badlands of South Dakota. We were playing Fargo the next night and by comparative standards the food would be fit for Kings.

Danny walked alongside me as we made our way through the expansive gravel parking lot, the gravel crunched beneath our boots. “I knew she was trouble,” he said. I was silent, he was right. “Cheer up man, the sun’ll come up in Fargo tomorrow and you’ll be able to get even with all of ‘em then. Might want to think about ordering cereal though — just to be on the safe side.”

All in all it was the food that I remember most. I have since moved from the crease of society into the quick. I am older, I drive a station wagon and have a respectable job. But every now and then during the heat of summer I pick a direction at random and hit the highway. The feel of the wind in my face, and the sound of radial tires whining on the asphalt is exhilarating……and sometimes, if I try really hard, I can almost catch the not-so-subtle scent of fried bacon and boiled coffee….and if I press the illusion just a little bit farther, I can hear the rustle of a polyester waitress uniform and am always startled when the amalgamation of all the waitresses in all the dirty cafes utters that beautiful, succinct aside, “honey, you want fries with that?

…comes with fries you know.”

by Carlee Erika Schilk

I felt a strange tingling on my skin and knew I wasn’t alone. It was really late when I opened the front door of my apartment. The door had jammed and I fumbled with the lock for some time before it finally opened. For some reason, I crept through the hallway in the darkness, not wanting to turn on any lights. The tingling was still with me as I hunted for something blunt to protect myself with.

I had gotten my apartment broken into on more than one occasion-which is what you get for living in a lousy neighborhood-so being on my guard wasn’t all that difficult.

Sure, I could have purchased a dead-bolt or some other device to protect my home with-you know, one of those alarm systems you can install yourself?-but I figured he’d just want to steal that. Besides, a ten dollar dead-bolt wouldn’t stop some psycho intent on coming in and raping or killing some poor hapless victim.

There is an oval shaped lamp I can see silhouetted against the window shades and I quietly unplug it, wrapping the cord around my hand. I can hear faint breathing somewhere close and my heart begins to pound in my ears. My antenna is working perfectly tonight I’m going to clobber whoever is in here for sure.

My steps are muffled by good floorboards and thick carpeting. I’ve always hated thick carpeting. First of all, it’s hot in the summer and in winter it feels scratchy-and all year round, you feel like you’re walking on sponge. Stains are hard to get out of them, too.

Now I can hear more movement-coming from the bedroom. The nerve of some people. I grasp the lamp tighter, its smooth edges cool to the touch, raising it above my head.

A man’s large figure steps out from behind a wall and I attack. The lamp comes crashing down on his head-I make sure of that-and he has no idea what hit him. It is a good, solid thump. Out of curiosity, I crouch down and touch the guy’s head. I can feel the warm blood coming from a long gash on his scalp. Bull’s-eye.

“Warren? Are you alright?” a woman’s voice calls worriedly.

Okay. So maybe I fibbed a little.

“Warren?”

Maybe this really isn’t my apartment.

“Warren??”

But I’ve never raped anyone.

“Stop playing around, Warren.”

Yet.

“This isn’t funny.”

by Robert Frerichs

The highway is the path that leads us to tomorrow. The highway is the relentless, uncaring movement of time.

The asphalt tore beneath our wheels. It looked like the belt of an angry sanding machine set on high. Charlie Krogen had held the gas pedal of his 1972 Pontiac Le Mans to the floor for more than three miles of Nebraskan black-top highway.

CHECK IT OUT! Charlie shouted to be heard over the roar of the V8 engine. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel, and his eyes never left the road when I looked at him; he just nodded, ever so slightly at the speedometer.

I didn’t have to lean over far in the small, hard top coupe to see that the needle was pointing straight down, trembling softly between the B and the R of the word BRAKE. Exactly what that meant was open to debate. The round speedometers markings stopped at one hundred forty miles an hour. The one forty mark was located at about five o clock position, the word BRAKE (which was an indicator light for the park brake) was centered at the bottom of the speedometer at the six o clock position. By rights this meant that we were doing somewhere around a hundred and fifty to a hundred and sixty miles per hour. I glanced at Charlie again; he was trying without success to look relaxed.

I looked back out the window, and began to wonder what level of scared I should be. My reason told me I should be demanding we slow down, my mind told me that I should be afraid to breathe, my heart told me that for this brief moment at least, I was truly alive. In the dusty wasteland of northern Nebraska, feeling alive is not a sensation you let go of lightly.

Less than ten minutes ago, Charlie (better known as CK) and I were sitting in history class watching the clock. Our sophomore class in Mason Public High School boasted a grand total of seventy-eight students, many of whom had to travel more than thirty miles each way to get there. This number was down from the all time high of one hundred and twenty-three students who had graduated in nineteen seventy-two, the year this Pontiac was new. Mercifully the bell had finally rung at exactly three forty-five and we made a beeline to CK’s car in the school parking lot. We hadn’t even bothered to stop by our lockers to drop our books off, we just threw them in the back seat. On Monday, after the weekend, we would reclaim them, untouched, and carry them in to restart the drudgery that is a week of high school. CK often gave me a ride home from school, because I had no car of my own. At fifteen years of age I dont know if its right to say that were drinking buddies, but thats what were.

The prairie highway was straight and clear of traffic, so CK eased the car over into the middle of the road. At this speed the car has a tendency to float, and repeated high speed trips had taught CK to allow room for the car to drift some before it hit the ditch. He kept his foot to the floor and the Le Mans was giving us all it had. I could smell the motor, the grease and oil boiling on the manifold, but the main sensory input was the tremendous sound that a gas combustion engine makes when it exceeds the red line on the tachometer. The tachometer measures the amount of times the engine turns in a minute. The General Motors factory recommends never to go beyond four thousand five hundred revolutions per minute, and there is a red line on the gauge at that mark. I knew by the sound that CK was well into the six thousands. The noise was incredible. With the engine working this hard it consumed somewhere around a gallon of gas every two to three miles. You could almost watch the gas gauge drop. If you wanted to take your eyes off the road.

The late afternoon sun was bright and the trees that lined the ditches on the right-hand side of the highway had their fall colors on. I was looking at other side of the road though, watching the telephone poles go by and trying to figure if we left the black top at this speed, could we squeeze between them. I figured we couldn’t.

A half mile ahead was the turn-off on to a dirt road that led to CK’s parents farm house. It was easy to know when CK’s foot came off the gas, because the tone of the engine changed completely. The high pitched, white noise roar of the engine suddenly changed to a low hum that decreased slowly as the motor gave up its fight against the wind. He began carefully slowing the car down, using very little brake. I imagined it was like landing a jet.

Im not sure when it was exactly that I realized that CK and I were living in a world of old machines. It was a thought that had been building slowly along with a certain feeling of doom and hopelessness. CK and I knew everything there was to know about cars. We weren’t old enough to have a real license yet, just a school permit that allowed us to drive to and from school. Still we could tear an engine apart and put it back together without help from anyone. We could listen to a motor without raising the hood and tell you what the problem was with it. We knew, for instance, that the carburetor took in gas and air, mixed it and then sent it to the cylinder to be compressed by the eight pistons and ignited by the spark plugs. We had improved on the standard equipment of CK’s Pontiac engine by taking a larger carburetor we found in the junkyard to get more gas, taller pistons we bought from a catalog to compress the mixture more tightly, and top of the line spark plugs to ignite the whole thing more efficiently.

We also knew that the exploded gas is removed from the cylinder in the form of exhaust by the opening and closing of valves. The amount that these valves open and close is controlled by a camshaft. The exhaust is then transferred to the muffler and out the tail pipe by the exhaust manifold. To make CK’s car even more powerful, meaning faster, we replaced the original camshaft with one that would allow the valves to stay open longer, allowing in more gas and air, then letting out more exhaust. We put a special exhaust manifold on the engine, called a header, that let these greater amounts of exhaust out of the engine. We had created a monster, bursting past its own speedometer into an uncharted realm. We had done it for no reason other than the oldest reason in the world, because we could.

As we rounded the corner and headed down the dirt road to Ck’s house I felt like we were crawling.

CK and I lived our whole short lives in a world of machines. From the tractors on Ck’s farm, to the big, stationary diesel engines that ran the irrigation systems in the fields, the tiny gas engines that powered the lawn mower and the corn auger, to the automatic feeder and watering machines in the cow pens and hog pens, our world was alive with mechanical inventions. I had learned in that history class (the one that CK never paid attention in) that these were the finest fruits of the industrial age. I also knew by looking at computers being installed in Mr. Benson’s class, that the age of machine was coming to an end. The knowledge that CK and I had was no longer valued at our school. We were dorks, gearheads, drunks, and we were dinosaurs. No one cared about the machines, how they worked. All that mattered now was if you could play a game on a computer. No one cared if you could drive a car at over one hundred miles an hour like CK could. You were really only noticed if you could create a game on a computer. It didn’t matter if you could build an engine from the ground up at fifteen like I could. The future was coming, and I could see I was being left behind, watching it drive away.

Its true the computer is also a machine of sorts, but CK and I had learned our mechanics from our fathers, brothers, and relatives. None of them knew anything about computers. Neither did Mr. Benson, I had found out, when I asked him if we could look inside one.

Ck’s house was built from scratch by his father, the son of a Polish immigrant. During its construction he had nearly cut all the fingers off of his right hand with a power saw. The doctor who sewed them back on had saved them, but had not been skilled enough to leave him with any feeling in them. That wouldn’t have been bad except it took away the one thing he had loved the most, playing the piano. Ck’s dad had only made it to the eight grade, but he knew how to run a farm. Thats why he was still barely afloat when all the others around him had been bought out by the corporations. He had loved to play the piano, and was completely self taught. Now it sat in the basement, collecting dust.

We turned on the television to watch the X rated channel off the satellite dish before Ck’s parents got back from checking the fields up north. Unfortunately there was nothing but snow on the screen and try as we might we couldn’t get it to work; so we took a couple of shot guns out of the gun closet and went down to the creek to shoot frogs for a while.

Shooting frogs was seriously business to me and CK. Seriously funny that is. If you angle the shot just right, so that it strikes the sand right beneath his belly; the frog will flip up in the air and land in the water upside down like he’s been hit by a depth charge. We practiced our technique for about an hour, hunting frogs all up and down the river bank. CK and I had been best friends since the third grade, when we met at an Avon party our mothers went to. We did everything together, thats why when he wanted to try breaking the legendary record of Vinny Havelchek I didn’t say I wouldn’t go.

I want to try and break the Bennett to Mason record, CK said while we sat resting on the bridge.

You know thats fifteen miles, CK, I said, and the record is six minutes!

I know I think I can break it. He said with determination. Vinny was the greatest driver ever. He’s racing in the NASCAR circuit now. If Im ever going to get there I have to break his record.

I dont know man, wed have to average around one forty, one fifty. Thats hauling ass! Besides even if we made it who’d believe us?

Id know, CK said.

Yeah, well, it sounds like a good way to get killed. I shot back knowing it was a futile effort.

Maybe, Ck’s voice dropped to a mumble, but it ain’t like we got a future anyway.

All highways lead to the future, except the highways left behind.

CK was my best friend. I guess thats why he didn’t tell me when he tried to make the run. In the twisted metal of the Pontiac they found not only his body, but the body of a small deer, at least thats what they thought it was. From the tremendous impact of the car into the telephone pole and the field beyond, it was difficult to determine anything other than the fact that it was a machine; an old worthless machine.

by Steven J. Frank

Lovely, yes, lovely. All the colors and the furbelow. But can’t we get on with it already?

Bennett was trapped on all sides and he knew it. They’d taken their places now, row after row. Wife and daughter on his left, soulful faces to the right, all lined up like rigid toy soldiers at attention. He could feel the velvet seat cushion pressing at the back of his knees, smell the perfumed mannequin standing just ahead of him in the next file. What did they know? Missy had almost died two days ago from the blood treatments, did they know that? Did they know he’d checked in on her every two hours, all through the night? Did they have any appreciation for the fact that right now he had to piss like a goddamn racehorse, and if he didn’t soon, he might just flood this entire little ritualistic spectacle that had barely begun even though it was two minutes to post? Two minutes!

The robed and hatted speaker began to chant, with the authority of one whose every incantation contained the answer to some profound question. Why not just get right to the point? Assets and liabilities, that’s all it amounted to, any of it. The thought rang oddly in his mind — as if he’d copped out by selecting the most obvious accountant’s metaphor. But so what? None of his partners knew metaphors from interest floors, none could see beyond their spreadsheets. And as his paddock blacksmith always said, if the shoe fits …

Post time!

Got to get out! –Excuse me.– Get just one fucking minute of privacy. –Men’s room– he mouthed to his wife as he slid by. His daughter glared at him, lifted her arm in an elaborate sarcastic gesture as he passed and inspected her wrist. Nice watch. Movado, maybe? Must have cost a ton whatever it was. He’d find out just how much next monthly statement.

Bennett’s daughter certainly knew what time it was. Knew plenty else besides. Made no secret of it.

Talk about unscheduled liabilities! He’d done everything so she’d turn out a boy. Wore a jock strap night and day to raise his testicular temperature and kill off some of those X chromosomes. That annoying diet, the special positions — all wasted, like lost dollars after a failed investment.

At last he could feel the brass plate against his palm, flung the door open and marched in. Couldn’t they afford to retile the moldering floor in this place, replace that cracked window pane? he wondered with irritation. Wasn’t he paying them enough?

The broken window glass focused the incoming sunlight into a raking shaft, so the little dust cloud Bennett unleashed as he fumbled urgently with his fly glowed in front of him like a plume of sparks. Then the hoagie flopped out in a shower of tiny flakes, dried residue from Georgiana’s birth-control cream, which turned the glowing plume into a fireworks festival. Bennett didn’t wait for the blissful stream to subside before extending the antenna on his pocket cellular, which chirped in obedience as he punched the familiar number on those tiny round keys. Beam me up, Scottie, he always thought in response to that chirp. It was a rueful memory. Beam Me Up! What a terrific horse. Never should have let him run in that lousy 15K claimer. Now 15K wouldn’t even pay his stud fee.

Stud. Another association, this one far more pleasant: that was what Georgiana called him. Sometimes.

So where the hell was Shaffer? Six rings, seven rings … Hadn’t he been specific in his instructions? Stay at the goddamn paddock, watch the race on television, I probably won’t be able to get away for more than a minute, see? Just stay put!

Shake off the drip drops, again the fireworks display. His daughter knew. His wife didn’t, or at least so he thought, at least not yet. What a stupid lapse in judgment, protesting so much! And he’d volunteered for the opportunity, no less, before she’d even had a chance to nag him about how he never spent time with his daughter, blah, blah, blah. Took her down to the stables while her mother shopped or whatever, lolled around pressing carrots and sugar cubes between the twisting gummy lips and racks of rock-hard horse teeth, were just getting ready to leave when Jesse, the smartass private groom, decided to offer his uninvited opinion on the upcoming election.

“Never trusted that Clinton dude. Wasn’t right what he done.”

“Come on, who the hell cares who he propositions! Don’t be so eager to stand in judgment of others! Maybe there’s more to it …”

“I’m talkin bout skippin the draft. Can’t lead if you won’t serve, way I see it.”

“Oh, right. Sure. See your point.” But it was too late. She’d caught his furtive sidelong glance, the quavering defensiveness, the guilt in his voice. Women, all of them, harbored deep chthonic sorcery underneath those goosebumped giggles and talk-show chatterings. Not a single one could be trusted.

Silence all the way back to Lawrence.

“Wonder if mom had an excellent shopping adventure,” he’d finally gambled with a smile.

“Wonder if mom knows her husband can’t keep his cock in his pants.” (Stricken look.)

What a mouth on that kid!

Then the charges started rolling in. A ten-thousand dollar Mastercard bill in one month. One month! Mizrahi at Bergdorf’s, Armani uptown, Lulu’s down in SoHo, the statement went on and on for three laser-printed pages. Good thing he’d decided to save thirty-five bucks and forgo adding her as a supp on his American Express Platinum. She’d have bought a Tahitian villa so she could play Gauguin with her flaky art-school pals by now.

And of course he’d paid all the bills. Said nothing to his daughter. What was there to talk about? Was he supposed to negotiate the terms of his own blackmail?

Call Shaffer again. No answer again. Fine. He’d fired trainers before. Just head back to the party like nothing’s up.

Excuse me.– The proceedings hadn’t advanced a goddamn inch. –Sorry.– Christ, it’s a Movado all right. –Thank you.–

Stupid thing was, those credit-card bills barely made a dent in the monthly income. The Big Eight had become the Big Six, and soon it might be five. Mergers produce winners and losers — just like horse races. Bennett had never let a single one of his clients become one of the losers, and damn if he would let his eighteen hundred partners and ten thousand employees walk into a financial disaster. They listened to him, fortunately, and why the hell not? There were exactly two lawyers in the whole country you could trust to save your multinational conglomerate from the claws of a hostile raider or blandishments from an unwelcome corporate suitor. And both of those ultralawyers trusted Lou Bennett before anyone else. He’d been in on every big takeover fight, knew just how to spin the poison pills so a raider’s every false move would cascade into a tangled prison of tax obligations and accounting nightmares.

But mostly it was a matter of jettisoning the right assets, and fast. Sometimes it was amazing how reluctant these big, supposedly impersonal companies could be to divest themselves of the dead weight — the nonperforming dross that consumed resources needed for survival. And the future. In the end, however, they always listened; Bennett knew just where to breach the skin and how deeply.

His partners knew it as well as his clients. Every one of them remembered who had foreseen the bursting of the ’80s bubble and the sharp downturn in corporate dealmaking work. They had agreed to his proposed staff cuts only because his own practice took the brunt of it. And they barely noticed his replacement of those bodies with a small data-processing systems group, then those breathless public-relations consultants, the investment advisers, the venture capitalists … And now the firm’s consulting arms were growing faster than the vast body of green-visored accountants who inhabited partition pigpens in windowless offices spread over 92 countries.

They’d listened all right. Practically swooned when he delivered that speech at the retreat — the sermon Georgiana had penned and watched him rehearse, flushed as she heard her words exit his mouth. Suddenly rushing at him in that empty lecture hall, nearly toppling him with tie-grabbing, crotch-kneading hands, tongue piercing through startled lips. With the video camera still running! Talk about public relations!

Ninety-four percent of the firm’s partners had shown up — a new attendance record even though the retreats always took place in enticing locations, this time Grand Cayman. And even before his echo faded they agreed to decline the merger that now was beginning to drag down two competitor firms (both of which, Bennett loved to point out, had so enthusiastically mimicked his move into consulting services). Then they voted him chairman and toasted his success as the sun set over rows of palm trees and tax-sheltered bank buildings and the distant shoreline where he fucked Georgiana that night, heaving and galloping with her on the creamy sand so explosively he thought he’d pop an axle.

Yet even as his own partners showered Bennett with special-projects funding and turned his consulting groups into units and then into departments, he knew the tide was beginning to turn. Overhead disparities were growing. Specialized, independent outfits were becoming more and more survivable on their own. The cash-flow statements confirmed it. Soon corporations would again prey on one another, and his firm would shed every single one of its consultants to make room for lost bookkeeping and auditing staff. So would the rest of the Big Six. But Bennett would make sure he was the first one out, even as the competition hemorrhaged money in an overdue effort to catch up. There would be no call in his ranks for desperate mergers that merely compound the fat and hasten a fissioning death spiral into bankruptcy. Who knows — in ten years maybe the Big Six would melt into a puddle around the only Big One left.

Once, just once, he wanted to drop a little innuendo about his take. Prying finance gossips whispered the riches of big law firms and positively drooled over investment bankers’ earnings. But Big Six CPA partners? They hardly raised an inquisitive eyebrow with their relatively puny billing rates. The curious simply didn’t appreciate a basic accounting principle that equates profit with revenue minus expenses. Sure accountants’ billings were comparatively low but so was overhead, with many of the bookkeeping grunts working out of their own dens and garages, waiting twelve years for the privilege of being considered for partnership and (usually) shown the door instead. Bennett, like all the rest, firmly suppressed the temptation to boast, knowing the impact revelation could have on revenues. Client resentment was already causing the lawyers’ billing rates to max out.

So for now he could afford to write checks against the liabilities: feeding and upkeep of all the horses that lost, his wife’s idle but pricey decorating fancies, his daughter’s financial tirades. Not even the chairman of a Big Six behemoth could turn liabilities into assets, but at least he could depreciate them.

Now the speechifying was beginning. Bennett was able sit now, thank God, although he knew he would be called up soon. He glanced over at his wife as the voice on the dais intoned its syrupy monolog. She stared straight ahead, stolid as a rock. What a nice change.

The blowjobs had stopped almost immediately after the announcer declared their marriage results official. Bennett, a realist, had half expected that. And while he found himself disappointed at his wife’s rapid devaluation of sex, after the birth of their daughter, from rare delight (like a one fifty-six trotter mile) to satisfying biological imperative (like a starchy feeding) to bothersome chore (like cleaning stables), none of that particularly mattered anymore. Despite his economic sophistication Bennett could never peg an inflation rate with any accuracy, and his wife’s was no exception. First there was the pregnancy. And then the failure of her swollen flanks ever to recede, so now, nineteen years later, she still bulged like the surplus account of a ripe takeover target. (No suitors bidding.)

But it was that unending natter, the coarseness in her voice, that really got to him. Hard to believe how radically perspectives can change. From the teeming, sweaty tenements where he grew up she was like an exotic stranger from far away — a suburban prize that impressed his friends right out of his life, one by one, as they sank quietly into the routines of their parents and resented his modest social ascent. Now far away was Bogota or Kuala Lumpur, and his wife was just another refugee from another same old neighborhood not so different or distant from his own.

Only she didn’t see it that way. She refused to adapt to his success — didn’t change her plain style of dress, still called his partners “mister” this or that no matter how many times he introduced them by their first names. And whenever they would fight over the trim in the new addition or his forgotten social obligations or yet another set of repairs to their daughter’s car, that old vocabulary and cadence would reappear, reminding Bennett of exactly where he came from. Funny the way money affects people. His wife certainly knew how to spend it but without refinement; their affluence had provided her no incentive to cultivate grace, just more excuses to obsess over appointments and detail.

To Georgiana, on the other hand, it was a goddamn aphrodisiac. Sure she was expensive. So were the horses. So were most capital assets.

Bennett looked around. Maybe now he could make a break for it — slip away momentarily before his name was called! The race was definitely over. He would wait until one of the geriatrics in the back got up relieve his prostate pressure and … there! Bennett turned in his seat and began to lean forward but his wife, without so much as glancing his way, clamped his upper arm like a lobster claw and held him down. Her gaze remained forward.

Good thing, as it turned out. Now the speaker was pronouncing his name, slowly, Loooo-is Aaa-lan Benn-nnett. He winced as he heard his brother’s name, the halting syllables and clumsy curlicues from a different world and another day. Before a week ago they hadn’t exchanged a word in at least five years. Was he responsible for his brother’s misfortunes, for business dealings as inept as the family name he stubbornly refused to change? Who told him to have four kids and then decide it’s time to go into retail? Of course Bennett hadn’t invested. The numbers were doomed from the start.

He and his brother climbed onto the dais from opposite sides. Rocking back and forth on his heels, surprised at the size of the audience, Bennett began to imagine they were the claque of racing fans and horse owners who habitually crowd the plush loges at the Pegasus Club. He studied their faces. Quiet at first, sure, but the smoky lull always dissolves when the pacing car’s swinging gates release nine synchronously trotting horses into the first bend. Dragging little chariots behind them, clustering and dispersing as they enter the stretch, the horses tease each other for the lead and draw the crowd’s hush into a raucous din, cigar butts tumble from cheering lips and knees straighten as the hundred-thousand dollar equine princes round the second bend, then down the final straightaway, you can practically feel the precision thunder of thirty-six hooves clubbing the dirt, straining to silence the stinging whips but never breaking out of their prancing strides — and then it’s over. One winner. Eight losers.

Hadn’t Missy improved magnificently over the last month! Her times came down steady as if they’d been straight-line amortized, and Shaffer had managed to get the best harness driver in the business to ride her today. The purse: a million bucks, this was the Hamble-fucking-tonian! Half would belong to Bennett if Missy won. Not that the money was so important — hell, he took home that much every few months — although 500K would certainly cover this year’s expenses and justify last year’s tax deductions. Instead it was the adulation he adored. Georgiana would be watching, along with millions of others tuned into cable across the country, and they would know Lou Bennett had scratched past every obstacle and leaped every fence, never looking back, until he reached the gilded circle with no one else in sight.

And then it hit him.

Shaffer away from the phone. The entire stable deserted — at post time! Something must have happened, something big. But the vet had told him there was nothing to worry about. Just some rapid dehydration from an irritated digestive tract, dangerous for the first couple of hours but easily treated. He promised she’d be ready! Or maybe they’d scratched her, that could be it also. Found evidence of the chemicals and barred her from the race, hauled Shaffer and his staff into that grimy windowless room where they examine the finish photos and now they were interrogating, probing, accusing — he could get barred from racing, have his name splashed in contempt all over the horse sheets. That fucking vet! He’d promised it would be undetectable!

Now Bennett felt the blood draining from his face, like someone was dragging his guts down to his knees, the shivery sweat starting to dribble over his eyebrows. He could hear whispers from the front row.

An eternity of distension and dread grated past until, at last, the speaker finished. Bennett descended the stairs, battling the vertigo, he could finally get away — at least for a couple of minutes. Raced back to the men’s room as the crowd began to mill around, pulled the cellular phone’s antenna so hard he yanked the little black ball off the tip. Punched in the number anyway. The line came to life.

“Shaffer, goddamn it, what the hell …”

The tinny voice kept cutting out, he couldn’t understand it, fought with the flexing, bowing antenna until the stupid ball stayed put on top. He’d caught just one mangled syllable.

“Scratch? You say scratch?” Bennett heard his own weakness, the hoofbeats thumpthumpthumping in his chest. He could taste the acrid terror beginning to nudge the back of his throat.

Now the voice was clear. “Snatch, I said Missy snatched the lead from Europa three lengths in front of finish. We — you won, Mr. Bennett! I hope you wasn’t trying to call before, we all had to hustle out to the winner’s circle toot sweet. They started the race eight minutes early, it’s so hot out here …”

Bennett’s knees almost gave out in a spasm of relief, followed, incredibly, by pure joy. “Oh … no, it’s fine, it’s just fine. You did right.”

“Congratulations!”

Bennett looked at himself in the mirror above the sink. What a mess. How perversely appropriate.

A few minutes later he and his brother, outside in the soupy heat, stooped facing each other across the yawning rectangular cavity recently cut into the grass. With two others he’d never seen before they let out the belts that supported their mother’s casket, lowering it gently, inch by groaning inch, into the chasm. More words were spoken. Then the first spadefulls of dirt sailed through empty vertical space and scattered on the lacquered wood, crashing like surf over the silence of the gathered mourners.

She’d gone downhill so fast. It was hard to believe that twenty years ago she was accepting that industry award for her textile designs, forty years ago he and his brother were fighting for the first of her crunchy little sweetcakes to come out of the oven, even though there were always plenty for everyone. Children bury parents, new replaces the old: as inevitable, as natural and inescapable as FIFO inventory accounting, which declares the first in eternally the first out. It was a stupid, even cruel metaphor, Bennett knew. But if the shoe fits …

by Andie Carpenter

I’m going to be a Subculture Princess
Wear big black eyeshadow with
Too tight pants
Buy a pair of steel toed combat boots
Sign my autograph as me.com
I will put out my own ‘zine and never get glossy
Slicker than Bob Holman and
Deeper than MTV
I’ll write poems on napkins in
Bars in hotels in parts of town you’ve never heard of
I will have web pages and message boards and fan clubs
That will promise I answer each and every letter
I will know everyone who ever died
For art as art with art in bed next to them
You will be sick with jealousy wanting to be me when
You hear my latest album
See my latest concert
Watch my new commercial
Smell my new perfume (it’s really a toilet water, but)
I will wear all black except on special occasions and
Pluck my eyebrows because I’m a supermodel too -
You will call at night and beg me to read your stuff
Try to date me so I will write you into a poem
And I’ll laugh at you and say ‘I am not an open room’ and
Hang up on you while you’re still talking
I will drop names like you shed hair
And I will never recognize you again in public
My press kit will be thick and shallow and full of compliments
Only my best friends may photograph me now
My childhood will be rewritten so
You can talk about my troubled youth in artistic isolation
How I grew up so fast in that greasy trailer park-
No, no, on the Lower East Side, so wise so young-
No, no, it was with gypsies for parents in Paris no Belgium no Rome-
I will be at all those openings that show up in the Times, ’cause
All us artists stick together, you know
Except for you, because we won’t like you anymore because I said so
Now that I’ll be a Subculture Princess
I can do things like that
I’ll be the only person ever to drink for free at the
Nuyorican Poets Cafe’
I’ll be so cool I won’t even pay at the door
In fact, I’ll have my own reading and I’ll make it on Friday nights and no one
Will ever complain about having to come uptown for it because
It’s worth the subway fare to get to see me
The Subculture Princess
I might even do a special documentary on PBS
But my poems will only be printed in those underground poorly bound newspaper
Things
Because I’ll be way above The New Yorker and stuff like that
I would never write about flowers or bunnies or John Ashbery or anything
I will brag that Hal Sirowitz published my first poem which is a lie but only
Because I started writing long before I met him (did I tell you I met him?)
But you won’t know that because he wouldn’t even talk to you now
Because I said so, and Subculture Princesses can say whatever they want
And I hate you
Because way before I was where I’ll be you treated me like crap
And told me my work was too intimate so no one would ever like it and I took
criticism so personal
And you wouldn’t date me since I wasn’t in some fat backed perfect bound
independent press anthology
But now you’ll wish I was still intimate and I will never admit to taking you
in a personal way
Now that I’ll be a Subculture Princess
Just as soon as I finish this poem

by Graham T. Welsh

Mark’s brother had 100 LPs
it seemed the magic number
and we would flick through them when he was out
noting which ones he considered
worthy of keeping in plastic sleeves

and although we snorted at his Rod Stewart and Queen selections
the breadth of vinyl beneath his desk
was something to aim for suggesting
a serious approach to music
that our budget-restricted hauls couldn’t yet match

tempted to bulk up with 50p Oxfam bargains
what’s this? a Roger Daltrey solo album!
there s a couple of really good tracks on it actually

appropriating a Sinatra or two
from our parents’ paltry assortment
affecting appreciation for his craft
when we really wanted to possess
the entire oeuvre of Bob Dylan like grim fetishists

by dj

she cuddles her face into my
chest
on a soft girl bed
surrounded by newness, (are we
gonna kiss?)

i draw a blank on the story
question
hmm, guess i’ll make
something up dumb
a story about Blue Boy
the gay polo player from
Chuckleslavakia
who moved to the south to fit
in-

i kiss her nose
rub her face and belly,
baby soft belly charm ring

that moment hangs in the air,
that first kiss moment- swings
like Santa Claus over us
eyes connect momentarily,
shy eyes, unsure eyes
eyes about to kiss very soft lips

by Mark P.

(”Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person.” Philippians 2:2)

We are dugdeep wells waiting for water,
filled up for purpose-
empty we crumble with cracking drought.

We seek someone to pour their coolness down us,
to fill up our need
to quench our arid anticipation.
If someone will love us we will be full
If someone will only pour their coolness down.

So we wait for someone to buy the water,
pour it down,
sometimes satisfied by passing spit or showers,
our throats thirst for real rain to cure our
capacity.

Oh, my soul, you are springfed!
Oh, my heart, let the spade go deeper
and find the water that bubbles and lives
beneath the surface
beneath the shallow
beneath the cruel comments of
drywell critics.

Spring up, water eternal, and fill
me
till
I fill the soul of each thirsty passerby.
Let each emptiness only find
the spring that supplies each loss
till I’m a dugdeep well running
like a river complete.

by Dweebler A. Cramden

I plan to mourn man’s
neglect of truth and beauty
in a thoroughly boring elegy,
hoping to excite interest,
thinking, in my solipsistic way,
others should love what I love,
like Jerry Lewis and anchovy pizzas.

Then I plan to sell
unfinished poems by industry giants
with a dozen end-scenarios
on scratch-off lottery tickets.
Credit will be provided.
If someone can’t make their marker
I’ll send Milton and Wordsworth out
to bludgeon them with blank verse
until their brains do the goose-step.

Don’t miss my seminar, “Poetry in Sports,”
where pitchers learn that a sonnet
taped inside the glove
concentrates the mind better than chewing tobacco,
where sportscasters practice allusions
as in “Like Lord Jim, the quarterback
must take his punishment to be redeemed,
however questionable his past failures.”

I won’t stop until Professors wear threadbare tweeds
not for style but from necessity.
For practice now, let’s lay odds
on this being published.

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