2018 Spring Poetry Winner “Study of Grief” by Brook J. Sadler Ph.D

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Study of Grief

(I)
A rip.
A block of wood axe-split.
A heavy pelt of rain.
The sentence that strikes,

then makes itself a constant refrain:
He is dead.
Or, He is gone.
I know these lines by heart.

But new to me is this fresh, rude thought:
This is it.
The peak of my life is past.
There is left only the decline

into old age.
I stand before a bush of wild
roses, small and steeped in pink,
deep ruby pink like well-kept secrets,

like small hearts flush with blood.
They bloom, a hundred promises
along this mountain trail.

(II)

It is late, and I cannot
keep my eyes open,
but I do not want to
go to bed because I know
I will lie down
and begin to weep.

Even with my back turned,
even in my sleep,
long purple shadows
seep from the mountains.

(III)

A single rose petal
falls to the table.

Along its rim
encroaches brown—

like a paper burned
at the edges.

I am advised to grieve
the passing of my youthful

promise, the dreams
that did not come true.

It seems an arduous
assignment: to grieve

my self.
But I can feel the relief

it would bring, the relief
that comes at the end

of grief—the soft and quiet
sigh, the shearing off

of that striving self,
my striving self.

I ask and ask again,
How do I know

that grieving isn’t just
capitulating, giving up?

In the morning,
the mountains are pink,

their contours a hazy blur.
By afternoon, they are brown

and etched with ridgelines
in the sun. They resemble

the dark umber of burnt paper
or the delicate border

of a decaying rose petal.
My life is burning

toward the center.
I fear the white space

will too soon disappear.

(IV)

White roses unhanded themselves
slowly
over many days
in a small vase
on my kitchen table.

The petals loosened—
each silken swatch
slackened—
pried open

by fingers of light—
by light alone—
until

with a silent sigh
they completely gave up

their shape.

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2017 Fall Poetry Winner “Deployed” by David Colodney

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Before becoming a writer, David Colodney was a fetus and, prior to that, an embryo. David realized at an early age that he had no athletic ability whatsoever, so he turned his attention to writing about sports instead of playing them, covering everything from high school flag football to major league baseball for The Tampa Tribune and The Miami Herald. David holds an MA from Nova Southeastern University and an MFA from Converse College, where he served as poetry editor of the South 85 literary magazine. He was recently nominated for Best New Poets and was a finalist for the 2017 DISQUIET International Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared or will appear in St. Petersburg Review, South Carolina Review, California Quarterly, Shot Glass Journal, and Gyroscope Review, among others. David lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his wife, three sons, and golden retriever.

Deployed
Your bedroom clock scatters us in minutes.
You rattle off random tasks                  chores
before departure:         physicals           basic
training               storage           lease-breaking.
You already speak staccato
like your drill sergeant, hollow
broken syllables.           Standing at attention
we survey these blank walls
pretending:      diminished breaths
an open window.           A lonely cloud burst
blurs your orders         clutched in spastic hands
tearstains         drain white paper gray.
I see through the folded print                an x-ray.
If I touch that letter, it means you’re leaving,
so I let angular words                dangle.
In this minute, there’s no changing you.
In this room, we live a moment
we don’t understand:                your bedroom clock
spins time faster            as you ship out to serve
               decaying America.
Young soldier, if your country loomed as large as your heart
beating under camouflage       last name         embroidered,
flag emblazoned                         if only                your country
                            appreciated.
In this minute, I don’t know:                  salute you
or hug you so tight
you never go.

“The Voice of Hatred” by N.J. Linnehan, Winner of the 2018 Fall Fiction Contest

I sit within my sound-proof cubicle inside the Tai-lonian Social Services Department.  The light of my glass-top computer pulsates, the notifications for my messages never ceasing.  I swipe the user-interface, and the monitor goes black.  I turn to a single piece of decoration on an adjacent wall.  The details of the aged landscape painting have long since been etched into my subconsciousness.  The artist of this pre-Collapse piece is awful, so I’m told by the experts who prefer the realism of today’s holographic depictions.  My late parents had hopes that it would be an investment towards a Master’s certificate.  Real Union Credits don’t depreciate so harshly.  My stomach churns over this valueless reminder of a pitiful excuse for a legacy.  I will be tasked with assisting these dirty creatures until I’ve aged too far to use my earnings toward a better education.  I close my eyes and contemplate the cushiness of my station, grateful that I’m not a door-to-door representative entering the hovels of these animals.  I look to the clock and exhale.  Another day of dealing with the never-ending line of degenerates.  As expected, there’s a firm knock on my office door.  I breathe this morning’s last solitary breath before calling out, “Come in.”

The door slides open with a gentle hiss.  Into the space steps Santrodel.  Like me, he dresses in the professional manner of solid black slacks and a tie over a white button-down shirt.  The only difference is the quality of his exquisite, tailored clothing.  He’s twelve years my junior, with enthusiasm and an expectation for certain future success.  I’m his superior, but I’m not the one he needs to impress.  He stands there with a hearty smile.  “Good morning, sir.  I have your first appointment with me.  Shall I send him in?”

His bubbly personality gets under my skin.  This station is just a stepping-stone for him, as his family’s lineage has been well-educated for decades.  He knows that this is my station for life, and I see it on his smug face as he tortures me every day with the sincerity of his niceties.  I beckon to him with my hand, which he acknowledges with small head-bow.  “Very good, sir.  Can I get you some coffee?”

He calls me sir for now, but that will certainly change with time.  I point out a black, ceramic mug to my right.  A continuous wisp of steam rises from it.

“Right.  I’ll send him in now.”  He steps out before I hear him on the other side.  “Kel Swoon?  You may go in.”

Santrodel whispers a confident “good luck” to the thing as it steps in.  The being stops above the threshold and stands there like an obedient child awaiting instruction.  He’s smaller than average five-foot Tai-rat, but he’s well into his prime.  His disgusting, ashen-grey skin reminds me of those elephants portrayed in the city museum.  They’ve been deemed humanoid, although their anatomy resembles nothing of humanity.  He wears the appropriate interview attire that is properly cleaned but probably stolen.  My father always insisted that you can’t trust these rats, especially one in a suit. They’ll do anything to get ahead.   I pass the time by making a game out of guessing their problems.  I’m betting foundry worker, so yet another uneducated upstart intent on finding an easy way up.  It’s because of degenerates like this that my parents suffered premature deaths in the foundries.  My ancestors spent a century and a half rebuilding this world from the rubble.  The Tai-rats arrived on our Earth ninety years ago on that craft of amalgamated garbage, and yet they expect the benefits of a deserving human.  I motion to the plastic and metal chair opposite my desk.  The infernal thing squeaks with every movement.  “Please sit,” I say as I have many times.

The Tai-lonian sits himself into the squeaking chair.  As he does, I shudder at the thick, tentacle-like appendage that protrudes from the back of his head.   The thin end of it flitters around tastelessly.

“Thank you, sir.”  His dictation is clear, unlike the mumbling garble I’m usually subjected to.  His posture is straight, which is a good attempt at least.

I tilt my computer to hide it from his view before grazing a finger across the surface.  I make my way to the documents folder at a lethargic pace.  An incessant squeaking persists as I feel his leg bounce against the desk.  “Please stop.”

The whining ceases.  “I apologize, sir.”

I access my daily schedule before finding to find the client file.  A twitch develops in my cheek when I see that my guess is wrong.  He’s a secretary for someone in the Lower Business Sector and lives close to my own apartment.  These creatures fill the streets of my city and take more human jobs by the day.  I calm myself before starting with a good time-waster.  “No history of crime and a respectable education percentile.  Are you a third generation Earth-born, Swoon?”  Questions like these are of no consequence, but they’re everything to them.

“Fourth, sir, proudly.”

I stretch a smile.  “Certainly what we like to hear.  Pride is very important.”

His eyes widen.  “Yes!  Of course, sir!  I come from a long line of–”

“Excellent.  Please give me one moment.”  I squint at the file’s particulars with a feigned interest.  “So, I understand that you’re seeking an administrative station within World Union.  Our splendid government is always eager to employ qualified individuals.  So, tell me.  What makes you a qualified potential?”  They’re convincing sometimes, and on occasion I’ll listen, but mostly I take this time to just nod and agree.  His voice fades as I think about the beach. The warm sun casts so many sparkling reflections off the rippling Atlantic.  He stops speaking, and I bob my head.  “I see that you’ve done a lot for your society.  You’ve shown a lot of potential in your studies and have stayed away from illegal elements.  World Union is always searching for upstanding individuals like yourself to fill positions, especially in the Tower.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I leave no time for an interjection.  I cover him with my gaze.  He’s already sweating.

“Unfortunately, you haven’t developed enough yet to procure an administrative station under World Union.  That being said, I can assure you that you’re proceeding in the correct direction, and at your current trajectory you will be a very competitive candidate within a couple of years.”

The pain on his face remains obvious despite his attempts to suppress it.  “Thank you, sir.  I am sorry that I have not yet fulfilled the requirements.”  He offers what would be a prolonged and pitiful bow had I not raised a hand to stop it.

“There’s certainly no need to apologize.  Keep striving to better yourself, and great opportunities will be available to you and your family,” I say.  There haven’t been opportunities in months.  Those with the positions that he wants aren’t keen on giving them up, besides the fact that I would never allow a non-human to surpass me.

He bows before straightening himself.  “I will, sir.  I intend to perform to the best of my abilities as a citizen.  I desire only to make World Union proud of me.”

He speaks Basic well.  He must be the adopted understudy of another one of the many generous human soft-hearts, but perhaps not a respectable one as there are no references in his file.  “Well, Swoon, we must never forget that society can function only when all citizens perform their part for the community, and not just themselves.  As our nation’s creed states, we must not forget our brothers and sisters who share the equal burden.”  I love to see them crack.

“Of course, sir!  It is selfish of me to procure status for my own benefit!  I strive to better myself in order to aid in the elevation of those around me!  Together we make society better, stronger, sir!”

He’s certainly the understudy of a human and a smart one to boot.  But it won’t change my decision.  I glance at the clock.  Any further and I’m sure to be written up again.  I’ll let him off easy.  “It’s truly fantastic that you feel that way.  Citizens such as yourselves are the foundation of our great society.  Your enthusiasm is quite commendable, and your level of dedication should be a paradigm of reference.”

His face lights up like the sky on Unification Day before he rambles out another sentence.  “Thank you, sir!  I do not deserve such praise, sir!”

His modesty is just another tactic.  I raise my hand to settle him down.  “Okay, okay.  I understand your passion, and it will certainly not go unnoticed.  I’m going to make note of all of your positive progress in your file,” I assure him.

It seems a sure thing that his face will tear from the intensity of his smile.  He struggles to remain still as the chair emanates an irregular array of squeaks.  “Of course, sir!  Thank you, sir!”

I fiddle about the main screen before I access my messages folder and reply to a coworker’s client transfer request.  I tell him I’m not currently capable of taking on another client, as my daily schedule is already at capacity.  I eye the clock, then the Tai-lonian with a great, accepting smile.  “That should about do it.  I’m terribly sorry that you’re not able to procure a position with World Union today, but please keep improving yourself and feel free to apply again.  You’re guaranteed to be selected when the time is right.”

The Tai-lonian stands, barely exceeding my height despite my sedentary position.  He delivers one last bow with excessive showmanship.  “I deeply respect the time that you have provided me, sir.”

I relay to him a warm smile, staring back into the black chasm of his unnatural iris’.  He exits the room and I’m given no time before the next client drifts in like an apparition.  My heart jumps at the skin-and-bones Tai-lonian who stares blankly at me from across the desk.  A female, distinguishable by the way she hangs her Tai-be tentacle over her shoulder like the tail of a dirty scarf.  Her blemished skin matches her torn and soiled harlequin clothing.  I already know the story; another tunnel-rat.  “Please sit,”

She hesitates before slinking herself into the chair with near-weightlessness.  It still squeaks.  “Thank you, sir.”  Her voice is soft, which could be frustrating.

I locate her file.  8:45, Landa-Len Wen.  A merged family name is a sure sign of a deteriorating line.  It appears as though she’ll pass out at any moment.  I received this client as a transfer from one of my coworkers, and her file contains detailed information regarding her living situation in the pre-Collapse network of tunnels beneath the city that they have subsequently coined, “The Under”.  “Good morning, Wen.  How can I assist you today?”

Her face contorts as she attempts to form her next string of words.  “Y-you should have, sir.  My need,” she mutters, trembling in the presence of my limited, governmental power.

I turn to the file and bounce my eyes around the document in no particular direction.  “I don’t seem to have it.  Who was your representative before?”  I stare at her.

Her eyes dart around the room in search of the answer as her breathing intensifies.  “I-I don’t know, sir.  They say I have new one.”  She shakes despite the room’s warmth.

“Well, it could have been Ito.  He became careless with his work and had to be let go.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had purposefully lost a lot of his records in his disgruntled exit.  I apologize, but I have to ask you to re-state the purpose for your visit so that we can restart the process.”

She stares back at me with eyes as wide as ceramic saucers.  “But I–”

“I’m afraid I can’t extend the duration of our meeting, as you’ve selected a follow-up appointment.  I’ll need you to tell me as much about your situation as possible so that I can fill out your file for your next visit.

She emits fractions of letters before forming a cohesive thought.  “I live…  Under.  They tell me move, but I live there my life!”

“I’m sorry about that, but I need you to not raise your voice, please.” I say, wincing at her horrid grammar.

She breathes a shuddering exhale.  “I sorry, sir.  I-I don’t know what do.  They kick me out, but I not on way, and I have nowhere go.”

I lean back in my chair to examine the ceiling before turning back to her.  “Have you taken your case up with the zoning department?”

Her eyes well up into a glossy sheen.  She struggles to articulate her thoughts now.  “They tell me come here.  I come many time.  My last tells me he close, that I don’t need move.”

That damn chair continues to squeak.  I’ll scare her out of her shivering.  “For Union’s sake!”

She flinches before stiffening.

“I can’t apologize enough for the disaster that you’ve been subjected to.  Wen, I will make certain that you don’t have to move.”

She shows a weak smile.  “You true nice, true nice.”  She emotes several small bows in my direction.

I raise a declarative hand.  “Please.  There’s no need for such praise.  I’m merely acting within the means of my station.”  At this point, I’m just glad that she hasn’t tried to bribe me with a sexual proposition as some of the more abhorrent females do.  My skin crawls at the thought.

She shakes her head.  “No, you true good, true honor.”

I leak a dual-edged smile.  “I do appreciate that.  Please give me a moment to reverse this bureaucratic wreck.”

She nods as she dries a tear from her greasy face.

I glide my finger across the computer’s interface to press the file-delete button.  “Alright, let’s get this paperwork started!”  I barely manage to fill out the standard information before 9:00 rolls around.  I send the thing away, and my next appointment stands before me within seconds.  Another story, another problem.  Sometimes it’s all just too much.

My lunch hour is during the most beautiful time of the day.  For five years I’ve made a pleasant habit out of strolling down to the boardwalk.  Outstretched before me is a network of smooth concrete sidewalks connecting all paths in the city.  I pass many administrative workers like myself, but in the five years that I’ve taken this path, I’ve certainly noticed the increasing Tai-lonian infection that walks about freely.  The air is cleaner by the ocean, and smiling faces radiate all around the beach’s shifting sand.  Their joyous laughter calms me until I lay eyes on a family of Tai-lonians.  I latch onto a red painted railing and close my eyes as I breathe in deep the crisp air.  Although only for a short time, it feels good to be free of that office.  My daily visit re-energizes me, and I’m ready for the rest of my day.

The rusted orange sun begins its descent behind the horizon every evening in the Autumn.  The walk home is long, but my forehead soaked with September sweat is kissed by a refreshing, gentle breeze.  I would find the walk more enjoyable if it were not for my aging back which entices me to expedite my speed.

It’s not long before I’m at the cracked-pavement courtyard of my apartment building; another bland concrete and glass structure packed with miniscule apartments unlike the elaborate structures with granite decorations around the tower.  I ascend the stairs as I brush past groups of chattering human and Tai-lonian manufacturing laborers.  Their bellowing laughter fills the breezeway between units.  As I approach the third landing, I press myself against the wall to avoid an especially greasy Tai-rat.  The spiraling staircase of chipped ceramic stones is a simple ascent, and I’m soon within the comfort of my small, organized apartment.  Many of my coworkers reside in the business sector, and they pay a third more of what I do for nicer accommodations.  I don’t blame them for their lack of frugality, but after my generation is gone, then it will be apparent whose legacy is lacking.  My living arrangements serve all of my necessities, and at a price that modestly fits into my plan.

It’s here where I spend my evenings, obsessing over the future of my legacy as I gaze at the sun’s last minutes of light, determined to push my unborn child to new heights.  A giddiness rises in me when I imagine the far-off possibility of my child performing amazing feats of heroism in the Fourth World as a contractor, the highest echelon of World Union’s militant strength.  I intend to willingly forgo my own life’s passions to pour the fruits of my life’s labor into my legacy in the hopes that they will be more integral to society than their ancestors.  Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a woman of a respectable station who shares my particular views with which to help start that legacy.

Relative normalcy has continued for months, but an exception occurred this morning after I examined my messages folder.  The details of one outlines that a big push is to be made in regards to the increasing Tai-lonian plague under Sector West-5, a recently cleared section of Union City outskirts.  With the land cleared of ancient scraps, the next step is to re-locate the Tai-lonian presence in the Under.  The Tai-lonian Social Services Department is to initiate World Union’s plan to move them several hundred kilometers away to a work colony.  My initial reaction to this news was ecstatic glee, as I’ve always dreamed that they would be sent away to clean the Fourth World.  But when I heard the same stories circulate about how extraordinarily beautiful the colonies were, it made me contemplate incessantly on why World Union would go to such lengths to care for degenerate, non-humans.  I refused to believe it until I learned that many humans would also be moving there for work.  Regardless, I’m over-joyed that a large majority of them and their soft-heart human companions will be leaving this city for good.  I’ve been tasked with serving the Under residents of Sector West-5 with eviction notices, escorted by a handful of city defense officers to act as a precautionary force.  Although I normally regard days like these to be a fantastic break from the normal routine, traveling to the Under is something I’ve never desired to do, but this is a big opportunity for me to personally rid them from my city.

We’re instructed to take a shuttle from the office, so I wait outside the Tai-lonian Social Services Department with my briefcase alongside my coworkers who exchange small-talk.  A familiar, young voice comes from behind.

“Such a virtuous thing we’re about to do!  Are you excited, sir?”  Santrodel swoops around to stand before me.  He stares with a jovial smile.

I do all I can not to roll my eyes directly at him.  “I’ll be glad to see them off.”

“Haha!” he exclaims, giving me a heavy thump on the back.  “I think we all will, sir!  I’ve considered moving to the new outpost as well!”

I can’t help but scoff.  “Such a shame.”

Before another word slides from his mouth, I’m saved by two Union City defense cruisers that come to a gentle stop before us.  The early morning sun shimmers against the pearlescent black automobiles.

“Glamourous!” Santrodel shouts as he rushes to enter the first automobile.  The rest board without hesitation.  I enter the car that Santrodel is not in, and the automobile makes its way forward.  Affording an automobile is a luxury that I could never hope to obtain in my lifetime.  This one is nice, and my fists tighten from the jealousy of not having a higher-level degree.  I shake the thought by observing the passing scenery.  It’s still early, but the streets are filled with citizens.  Our path takes us through the Center, but only close enough to get a peek at Union Tower.  The people of Sector Center, and subsequently the Tower residents, are the highest educated, the most skilled, and the most influential.  Many here walk without a day’s purpose, instead acting on a whim of impulse, dressing not for functionality, but for leisure.

A few miles through and our path takes us passed the heart of Union City and into a dirty place populated by workers of manufacturing.  The buildings here are short but numerous and vast in length, all of which emanate a wide spectrum of mechanical noises.  This entire sector is a remnant from The Reconstruction, but it’s still highly operational.  It’s a place littered with many Tai-lonians and humans alike below my station who walk their path to work in sad masses.  I can’t imagine it, every day they don their greasy coveralls and congregate in sweltering factories to produce our necessities.  If there’s one thing that I can thank my parents for, it’s working just hard enough to pay for my Associate’s certificate.

We pass the city’s defensive net, which is an array of armed guard towers that span the flat and arid outskirts.  Plumes of smoke in the distance emanate from smoldering mounds of gathered pre-Collapse detritus.  The automobile comes to a sudden stop amidst an area with no distinguishable landmarks.  The officer instructs us to disembark, which we sheepishly do.  Five of us step out onto the dry earth.  A dry breeze carries hot dust which assaults our attire.  A thought of agitation is shared amongst my coworkers as we brush away the staining dust.  The distant horizon is crisscrossed with paths for utility vehicles that extend for kilometers in multiple directions.  At a young age, we were told that The Collapse was caused by a worldwide struggle for Earth’s resources, but that it was ultimately due to the inevitable consequence of nuclear proliferation in an era of ceaseless intolerance.  There’s no place on this planet that was not touched by the damage caused by our racist ancestors.  The chills are shaken from my body as one of my coworkers speaks out.

“Hey!  Where are they going?”

Both cruisers accelerate back towards the city.  My composure remains frozen despite my rising heart-rate.

“For Union’s sake!  Are they leaving us here?” squeaks another.

Before a panic can set in, a figure emerges from the dust a short distance away.  The group quiets as we turn to it.  The figure is hazy, but it clearly beckons to us.  We come upon the figure to find it disappear into meter-wide hole in the ground with a set of crumbling stairs descending into darkness.  My coworkers worry amongst each other.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“They’re coming back, right?”

“Why aren’t they escorting us?”

They squawk like chickens as a dim light shines from the depths.  Their jabbering fades as we stare down the pit.  I’m hesitant but eager to complete this assignment.  I force my feet forward to be the first to make the frightful descent.  A string of work lights hangs from the ceiling, which illuminates infrequent patches of darkness.  I’m several meters down before I hear the hurried thumping of heels behind me.  The harsh wasteland air is replaced by the stench of a damp rot as the passageway narrows with every step.  A network of rusted rebar covered by centuries of a thick, green moss lines the cracked walls on both sides.  I’m cautious as I lead the way, mindful of my steps across sunken-in concrete.  My coworkers resume their irritating banter.

“How much further?”

“Something just dripped on me!”

“My clothes!  Why are we here?”

I share similar sentiments, but only the completion of this assignment will allow us to leave this horrid place.  We near the passage’s end; a fissure in a wall just wide enough for an individual to slip through.  A bright light shines from the other side.  My button-down shirt snags on a bit of mangled rebar and tears as I step through.  My heart lightens at the sight.  A more elaborate string of lights adorns a massive tunnel structure that stretches far out of sight in opposite directions.  Fastened to the soiled, curved walls is an array of ancient wires and tubes which hang disconnected from each other in many places.  At my feet, two parallel beams of rusted steel run the tunnel’s length, and a cold draft brings with it a low whining howl.  A collective of awes and gasps reverberate throughout as my coworkers file in behind me.

“For the Union!  We should have gotten them out years ago!”

“I never imagined it was like this… The colonies will be a much safer place for them!”

“Those poor creatures!  How could they live like this?”

An outstretched shadow covers us as we gaze.  The figure’s boorish voice calls out to us.  “This way.”  He disappears through a side corridor when we approach.  My coworkers continue to complain.

“Why are they treating us like this?!”

“This is NOT a proper escort!”

“I’m filing a complaint when we get back!  This is ridiculous!”

We shuffle around the corner and move through a tight passageway before entering a small room littered with primeval garbage.  I stop dumbfounded in my tracks as my coworkers enter in behind me.  They breathe audible sighs of relief.

“I told you there was nothing to be afraid of!”

“Thank the Union!”

“Look who we have to protect us!  There’s no way anything can happen!”

A group of four men and one woman, all of great stature, stand conversing in a huddle at the dilapidated room’s center.  They’re not Union City defense officers as promised in the memorandum, but contractors, and I’ve never heard of a contractor performing duties within the city’s perimeter.  The obligations of a contractor always take them thousands of kilometers into Fourth World wasteland.  Without ceasing their whispering conversation, one of them turns to us and motions a signal to wait.  They wear form-fitting combat fatigues laden with slits and pockets, and they cradle assault rifles in their arms.  As my coworkers continue with a happy chattering amongst themselves, my intuition beckons me closer to the contractors.  I offer a generous bow.  “Excuse me, honored gentlemen and lady.”

They cease their muffled conference and turn to me with an unwarranted display of disgust.  The woman leans out.   “Is there something you require?”

Her impatient tone turns my face hot.  “I-I don’t mean to interfere, but we were expecting a city defense patrol.  As much as I appreciate your honorable service to our fine city, I feel as though your presence here may be…excessive.  We’re just distributing eviction notices, ma’am.”

She glares back with beady brown eyes.  “Hey guy, why don’t you stay in line with your own station!”

I recoil under her vocal power. “Yes, ma’am, I deeply apologize.  I was just concerned.”

One of her male counterparts speaks up, “You should be concerned with your assignment and not ours!” he barks.

“Of course, sir.  I apologize, sir.”

I shrink back into my group whose hatred of my insubordination I feel like a scorching heat.  They whisper loud enough for me to hear their insults.

Santrodel leans in.  “What would possess you to say such things, sir?”

I shake my head, unable to give him an answer.  Before this situation becomes too much to bear, the woman steps out of the huddle as her male companions fall in behind her.  “Listen up!  We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.  We’re going to make this quick and painless.  Our duty is to clear this place by week’s end.  It’s your job to distribute the eviction material, it’s our job to make sure everything stays copesetic.  Affirmative?”

We nod.

“I can’t hear you!”

We speak up in collective agreement.  “Yes, ma’am!”

A hideous smirk curls out from the woman’s mouth.  “That’s what I like to hear!  At this point, we’re going to split up and canvas this entire pit.  Each Rep gets protection.”  She points a stiff finger in our direction, distributing us individually amongst her squad mates.  She looks to me with a pensive stare.  “Masafid, you get the curious one.  Make sure he does his job.”

The largest of the squad steps forward to glare at me with contempt.  “Yes, ma’am.  Let’s go, desk-boy.”

He turns down a connecting passageway.  I follow close behind as the temporary string of lights dims away behind us.  He activates a bright light on his vest which casts all surroundings in a ghastly radiance.  My mind continues to race with questions, but I dare not speak up to this gargantuan.  The contractor stops to analyze a heads-up-display map which emanates as a holographic light from his wrist.   As he does so, I’m drawn to a large plaque which hangs above.  I pull a handkerchief from my pocket to wipe away centuries of dust.  Though faded, I’m able to make out a network of intercrossing colored lines over an indistinguishable map.  In large letters it reads MBTA across the top.

“You a historian now?  Do you require assistance carrying your degree along with your case of brushes?”

A chill crawls down my neck as I cast my eyes to the grimy floor.  “I apologize, sir.  Please continue.”

He rolls his eyes before turning down another corridor.  We spend several minutes weaving through this decrepit place before coming to a sealed entryway that blocks our path. He reaches into one of his vest pockets and removes a couple of spherical devices before pressing himself against the rusted entryway.  “Stay right here.  Don’t move from that spot,” he commands with a stiff finger.

I nod, and he breathes a great exhale before throwing his weight onto the door.  The act produces a horrendous screech from the grinding metal.  He throws the devices into the room before storming in. Two great flashes of radiating light fill the room beyond, followed by a collective of screaming.

His voice booms.  “Stay right there, rats!  Sit down, NOW.”

I drop my briefcase at the deafening reverberation of sporadic gunfire.  A high-pitched wailing pierces the air before being cut short by a muffled impact.

“Get in here, desk-boy!”

I rush to collect my briefcase.

“NOW.” he howls.

Overwhelming fear forces my feet forward.  I jump through the concrete and metal passageway.  The contractor stands over a dozen huddling Tai-lonians who wear tattered rags which barely cover their dirty, grey skin.  A female nurses a fresh bruise on her cheek with her palm.  The two thrown balls that sit at the end of the room illuminate the many phantom figures. Their shallow faces turn to me with frightened confusion as they squirm on bent knees.

“Quit gawking and distribute the material!”

I fumble with my briefcase before it bursts open, scattering my papers amongst the grime.  I feel the contractor’s condescending stare.

“You can’t be serious. Get it together, desk-boy!”

I scramble to collect the papers, gathering them into a hastily unorganized stack in my arms.  “I apologize, sir.  I’ve just never–”

“I don’t care!  Distribute the material so that I can get out this wretched place!”

I approach the shivering Tai-lonians and pass out single sheets of paper to the group.  Those in my immediate view scan the page aimlessly before those in the back step forward to assist them, pointing at it and speaking in their native tongue.  With my task complete, I step back beside the contractor who pierces the group with a sentry-like stare.  He holds his assault rifle tightly to his chest with his finger hovering about the trigger.  Within moments the room becomes a buzz with foreign syllables growing louder.  An older female steps up to the contractor with paper in hand, pointing to it furiously and screeching in tonal clicks and guttural syllables.  She looks familiar.

The contractor raises his assault rifle like a shield as the female inches forward.  “Stay in line!”

Several Tai-lonians reach out to her but fail in their attempt to restrain her.

The contractor raises his weapon to aim down its length as the female takes another step.  “You’re out of line!  Get back, or I put you down, tunnel-rat!  Desk-boy, do your job and keep them calm!”

Before I’m given the opportunity, the room erupts into a blaze of foreign pleas.  My heart beats faster as I absorb the situation.  “What are you doing?  She can’t understand you!  This isn’t necessary!”

He glares down the barrel.  “I’ll tell you what’s necessary, and you’ll agree without question!”

I step forward to place a hand on the barrel of the gun, but the contractor rams the butt of it into my chest, forcing me down into a pile of rancid refuse.  I collect myself in time to witness the hysterical Tai-lonian reach out to the contractor.  He pulls the trigger, but all I hear is an intense ringing as the weapon emits a bright flash.  She is thrust back as a rush of black fluid showers the other Tai-lonians.

“FOR THE UNION,” I scream, my stomach churning as her body collapses to the floor.  I scramble to my feet as a few other Tai-lonians do the same.  The foreign shouting intensifies as a few of them jump forward to the fallen female.  Several flashes fill the room as more of them to crumble to the ground, their ink-black blood painting the adjacent wall as they fall.  Those remaining attempt to scatter, prompting the contractor to continue his volley.  A wrenching mass rises in my throat as I look on at the writhing bodies.  My only thought in this moment is to stop this harrowing scene.  I lunge forward and push the contractor to the floor.  His rifle falls and lands at my feet.  Regret floods my veins over my suicidal decision.

His surprised demeanor immediately turns to a heated rage.  “Disrupting a contractor’s duty?  You’re dead, desk-boy!”

I hoist the assault rifle from the floor and aim it at him haphazardly before he jumps to his feet.  It’s heavier than I could have imagined, and I can hardly manage to keep it trained on him.

His face twitches, and he doesn’t try to defend himself.  He speaks back as if to a child.  “You have no idea what you’re doing.  You don’t realize the mistake you’re making right now.”

I struggle to hear his words over the ringing and my own heartbeat.  The time for reasoning is over, but words continue to spill from my mouth.  “You killed them.  For the Union, how do you not feel such abhorrence in your heart right now?  Such a repugnant–”

“It’s better this way,” he claims with a calm voice.

The remaining few Tai-lonians watch in silence.  My body sweats as I hesitate, searching for any rationale with which to diffuse this situation.  He’s clearly not fazed by taking lives.  “What about World Union?  What about your obligation to The People’s Decision?  What about the colonies?  If anything, they’re still useful to us.”

His cheeks tighten.  “The colonies are just another lifeline for these insects, another hope for survival.  My obligation to the soft-heart opinions of this city died in the Fourth World years ago.  The People could never understand.  You could never understand true pain.  You will never understand the reality of things, shielded from the reality of the Fourth World behind those guarded walls.”

I scrunch my face in doubt.  “Understand what?”

He breathes an exaggerated sigh before showing a crooked smile.  They grow in number by the day, and for every Tai-lonian that rises in station, a human must fall in station.  No human will fall if there is no one to fall to.”

I scan his figure with an erratic gaze.  He stands confident in his convictions as zealously as my parents did.  But unlike my parents who never raised a hand to anyone, this mad man has a lust for blood that I have never seen.  “No… That can’t be right…” I whisper, my stomach tightening.

“You would take the side of these animals over your own kind?” he barks.

My vision blurs.  I rattle my head around to restore my senses.  “No!” I yell with an adamant resolve.  “But, but–”

His head jerks in tiny spastic movements as he takes a step forward.  “I don’t have the patience for politics.  Drop the gun.  You have one chance to comply,” he snarled in a low voice.

I step back.  “I can’t!”  My grip hardens around the rifle as he approaches.  A surge of power courses through my body just by holding the thing.

He articulates his next sentence slowly.  “You don’t have a choice.”

Our eyes remain locked as a trail of dirty sweat runs down my face.  A moment of difficult silence covers us as I summon the strength to reply.  Through that strength, my voice emits as a hushed whisper.  “We all have a choice.”

His patience deteriorates before me, and saliva spews from his mouth as he roars.  “It’s over for you, soft-heart!  You just don’t realize it!”  He raises his arm and shoves a finger in his ear.  “My Rep’s a sympathizer!  Converge on my–”

I squeeze the trigger.  His body is jerked back and blood rains down as a light mist.  His body falls with a tremendous thud.  The fresh corpse twitches, a stream of blood flowing from the exposed arteries.  I avert my gaze but find the twisted forms that had been Tai-lonians.  The mass in my throat rises beyond the point of control, and I lean over to expel my lunch over an already soiled metal floor.  I clean the acidic vomit from my face before the Tai-lonians shuffle in their spots.  I whip the rifle towards them with shaking arms.  They stand statuesque in my presence, staring with such innocently wide eyes.  I cover them with my vision, observant of any slight movement.

“Don’t move!  I mean it!” I shout in a panic.  They whisper in tongues before holding each other in tight embraces, whimpering and sobbing.  The battle cry of the contractor’s approaching squad echoes throughout the passageways.  My heart batters itself against my ribs.  I contemplate my utterly foolish actions as the heat in my chest rises further to consume me.  I grip the rifle tighter.

“It’s your fault!” I scream, stepping forward to threaten them with the rifle.  They crouch further in fear, shedding tears as they wail.  One falls to his knees and throws his hands up to beg relentlessly.

“Stop it!  Shut up!”  The room falls silent save their shaking and whimpering.  In all my years of dealing with them, I’ve never seen them in such a light.  I consider the contractor’s words, and I only now realize that he was correct in a way.  I’ve never witnessed such intense pain, human or Tai-lonian.  But despite my hatred, I don’t think I’ve ever imagined myself capable of killing a Tai-lonian.  I quiver at the sight of my own frightful behavior.  I keep the rifle trained on them as a searing pain develops in my head.  “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!  I just wanted you to leave!  You stupid rats!”

The sobbing of a younger female intensifies as she cradles a bleeding thigh.

“It’s over for me because of you!”

A small voice speaks out from the group.  “Please…”

I glare through hate-filled eyes as my arms quiver under the weight of the rifle.  “No!” I cry, lowing the weapon and backing away to pace about the small space.  “No!” I scream to the ceiling.  “Is this what you wanted of me!?”

I stop with my back facing the Tai-lonians to take deep breathes.  My labored breathing calms me, and in a brief moment clarity, a sensation of tranquility washes over me.  With one last exhale, the pain diminishes.  All tension in my body releases, and I drop the gun, which clangs against the floor.  I hang my head down, and utter my final words, “Just go.”

Those Basic-speaking Tai-lonians pull along the others, ripping them from the room and disappearing into a hidden crevice.  I collapse to my knees as I let my imagination take me away from this awful world.  My thoughts bring me back to the beach where I lean against that familiar red railing, holding a faceless woman in a close embrace.  I breathe in my last moments as the distant sound of hurried boot-steps becomes louder.  A single tear falls from my cheek.  For the first time in my life I’ve decided for myself, but it’s much too late.

“Ghost Images” by Karen Collier, 2018 Non-Fiction Fall Contest Winner

“Mama, why does Daddy get his name in the Bible twice, and mine’s in there just once?” I was five when I confronted my mother as she stood at the kitchen counter, barefoot in her sleeveless blouse and pedal pushers, dipping a wet chicken leg into flour.

My mother dropped the chicken back onto the plate and reached over to turn off the electric skillet, milk dripping from her hands and making the hot grease pop.

“Let me see.” She rinsed her hands under the faucet, dried them on a sackcloth towel, and joined me as I hoisted the family Bible with its white faux leather cover and gold-edged pages onto the table.

My mother sat down and I climbed onto her lap.

“See, Mama, it says Richard Lavon Evans at the top and again there.” I pointed to the family tree inside the back cover.

“That’s not your daddy, honey. That was your brother. See, there’s a ‘Jr.’ after his name.” The corners of her mouth turned up slightly but her lips stayed pressed together, refusing to reveal her gap-toothed smile. Her hazel eyes turned from their usual green to brown.

“Where is he?” There was nothing I wanted more than a brother.

“He was older than you, but he died right after he was born.” My mother rubbed my back gently, as I reached up to wind my fingers through her wavy black hair.

She expected me to take the news hard, but because she had two brothers and a sister, she was unaware that a dead brother was better than no brother at all. She was prepared for the questions about the color of his eyes and hair and what his life had been like in those few hours before he died, but I was more interested in what he might have become. Would he have preferred The Beverly Hillbillies or The Red Skelton Show? Where would he have sat at the dinner table? What kind of ice cream would he have gotten from the truck that rolled through our neighborhood every afternoon?

“I need to finish dinner before Daddy gets home.” She shooed me off her lap.

My mother never spoke of Richard Jr. again, but I often ran my finger over his name in the Bible and daydreamed about him as my defender and confidant.

I knew I wasn’t alone in wanting siblings.  One Christmas my aunt entertained all the adults sitting around the dinner table with a story about my cousin, Susie, going door to door on the Air Force base trying to trade toys for babies.  As I sat at the kids’ table eavesdropping, I then heard my mother regale the family with the story about my pediatrician saying I needed a little brother or sister and I had thought we were going to stop at the drug store on the way home to pick one up.

My mother and aunt laughed along with everyone else, but what I didn’t understand was that having only children wasn’t their choice. My mother’s one   desire in life was to be a mother, and if toys could have been traded for babies or if babies could have been bought in drug stores, she would have had a passel of children. Instead she had only one—me—and one was better than none, and so she did her best with what she was given.

My early childhood came straight out of a 1960s television show where the parents were infinitely patient and wise. My father worked as the manager of a grocery store, bringing home all the leftover holiday candy and stuffed animals from the potato chip displays. My mother was a homemaker who filled our kitchen with the smells of pot roast and peanut butter cookies and filled my closet with rickrack-trimmed rompers. Of course I got a spanking now and then for drawing a picture of a naked boy on the back of an offering envelope in church or stealing a keychain with a dangling skull at the dime store, but mostly I was indulged.

Just as it never occurred to me that my mother wanted more children, it also never occurred to me that my mother’s childhood might have been different from mine. On Mothers and Fathers days, she scoured the racks of greeting cards at the grocery store looking for those that said, “the world’s greatest,” and I never questioned whether they were deserved. I thought my grandparents must have indulged her just as they did me. Every time we visited, my grandmother took me to Kresge’s, gave me a dollar bill, and then waited patiently while I decided how to spend it. If it was summer my grandfather hand cranked ice cream in the back yard, and just as the cream began to thicken, he would ask if we wanted him to add anything.

“Strawberries,” pleaded my mother.

“No. Plain vanilla,” I insisted.

“Plain vanilla it is.” He finished the cranking and threw an old towel on top to hold in the cold air.

My first inkling that things might not be as perfect as they seemed came shortly after my grandfather died. I was in my mid-20s, and we were gathered at my mother’s house for Christmas. My mother was only in her forties, but already her wavy black hair had turned to fine gray curls, and her body had grown soft despite vigilant exercise and constant dieting. On the day before Christmas, my mother was stirring chocolate pie filling on the stove while I played dominoes with my grandmother at the kitchen table, already covered with a tablecloth decorated with bright red poinsettias.

“Granny, remember when you used to take us to Kresge’s and give us a dollar to buy anything we wanted?” I was already fondly recalling some of the things I’d bought: a Slinky, a magic card trick, a fake Barbie.

“I just did that to get you kids out of the house so you wouldn’t drive Pa nuts.” She played the double-five.

I glanced at my mother.  She stirred faster but never looked up from the pan.

I laid the three-four on the table.

“Did you mark my ten points?” My grandmother stared at the notebook paper where I was keeping score, waiting for me to add another x to her column.

“Pa couldn’t stand all the noise, and it was the cheapest way to entertain you kids. Every one of you would take an hour trying to decide how to spend a dollar.” She laughed as she looked down at the row of dominoes in front of her.

“I thought you did it because you loved us so much.” I was genuinely hurt.

“That’s another fifteen.” She played the three-five.

A few years later, in the toy aisles of a Wal-Mart, the inkling that my family was not as perfect as I imagined became irrefutably clear.

My mother was visiting for the weekend and had insisted on taking my four-year-old son, Mitch, to buy a toy. As we wandered through the store, I closely followed Mitch up and down the toy aisles until he found the Thomas the Tank Engine section. As he rummaged through the packages, I realized my mother was no longer behind us.  When Mitch finally found the train he was looking for, we doubled back through the aisles until we found my mother standing frozen in the middle of the baby dolls.

“Where did you go?” Her breathing was quick and shallow, and tears rolled down her cheeks, dripping on her t-shirt.

“We were in the boys’ toys.”

“I couldn’t find you.” She began shaking.

“We’re right here.”

Fortunately Mitch was focused on his one-way conversation with Percy the train and never noticed his grandmother’s panic.

Later that night, after dinner, my husband took Mitch upstairs for a bath and bedtime reading, and my mother and I burrowed into the ruffled pillows on the living room couch.

“Did I ever tell you I had scarlet fever as a kid?” she asked.

“Don’t think so.”

And then she told me how she had come down with scarlet fever and when the doctor in Snyder had been unsuccessful in treating her, he told Both of her parents worked, so her father put her in his patrol car and drove her to Dallas where he checked her into the hospital and then told her he’d come back to pick her up when she was better. She spent six weeks in the hospital alone. She was seven.

“Are you kidding me?”

I couldn’t imagine leaving my son alone for even one night.

“I’ve been afraid of being left behind. That’s why I got so upset when I lost you in the store.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know.”

A year later my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Maybe it was the fact that she’d let the genie out of the bottle by telling me about the hospital or maybe she was afraid that if she didn’t share her stories, they would be lost, but time and time again, she would ask, “Did I ever tell you…”

And my answer was always. “No,” as she knew it would be.

Her stories became increasingly painful until she reached the last one.

“Did I ever tell you about the night Jim attacked me?” Jim was her older brother, disabled not only by an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck but also from the excuses my grandparents made for him.

“No.” I held my breath.

“You were a baby. Your daddy had an overnight work thing, and we were spending the night at Aunt Betty’s.”

I nodded for her to go on even though I didn’t want to hear anymore.

“Granny and Pawpaw and Jim were there too, and it was the middle of the night when I woke up because someone was touching me.” She paused.  “When I realized it was Jim, I started screaming. It woke everybody up.”

“Then what happened?”

“Well the next morning, Daddy took Jim to Big Springs.” We both understood that by “Big Springs,” she didn’t mean the dusty West Texas town but instead the mental hospital there.

“I was so surprised. I didn’t think Daddy’d do that for me.”

I started to cry, and my mother rubbed my back, just as she had done when I was a child.

My mother died a few months later. Along with her most painful memories, she also left me a box of photos. They document my mother’s life as she wanted it to be, but I see the reality.

One photo shows my mother as a freckle-faced little girl with barrettes holding back her wild hair, and I imagine her lying under the white sheets of a hospital bed, her face buried in the pillow as she cries, believing no one will ever return for her.

In another, she is a young woman with porcelain skin—her freckles now so faint, they’re barely noticeable—and she holds me as a swaddled newborn. I imagine her holding another swaddled baby, once again in a cold and antiseptic hospital room, and she sings softly to my baby brother who has only hours to live.

Then there’s the photo of my mother standing in the front yard of my grandparents’ house with her adult siblings. They mug for the camera, but I see my mother’s unease, and I know this was taken shortly after my uncle was released from Big Springs.  I leave this photo at the bottom of the box because it reminds me of my mother’s final story, the one that haunts me less because my mother was attacked by her own brother and more because she was surprised that her father chose to protect her. Her father, my grandfather who made me vanilla ice cream.

I wish, just once, he had made strawberry.

“Peach Jam” by Sara Eddy, Fall Poetry Winner 2018

Sometimes after all the work,
after cutting the cling from the stone
and excising the bruises,
after measuring the pectin
and balancing the tart
lemon with a mountain of sugar–
sometimes still something
goes bad.  The pectin fails
or the peaches turn brown,
or in the final instance
a jar cracks in the boil
and the sweet peaches
swirl out with broken glass
into the canning water.
The peach jam was always
yours; I did the raspberries
with their bright tiny pips
and the dilly beans pickled
with garlic and cayenne and
frustration. I wish
I could have seen it, then:
the swirl of sweetness
and danger, yellow flash
and sticky waste has
its own beauty, its own
polyphony, even if in the end
we pick out the glass,
scrub out the pot,
and start over.

Interview with Tyler Gillespie, Author of “Florida Man: Poems”

“Florida Man stories often go viral for their weirdness such as “Florida Man Arrested for Drunk Dialing 911 When He Wanted Vodka,” but there’s more to him than a punchline, which Tyler Gillespie breaks down through an exploration of his home state’s history, landscape, and his own recovery from substance abuse.
In the tradition of C.D. Wright, Gillespie — a reporter for national publications — utilizes journalistic techniques in an innovative nonfiction hybrid that merges poetic sound and form in pieces that range from alligator anatomy to Southern heritage to growing up gay in a Christian school. As Gillespie writes, Florida is not only a vacation spot or a retirement destination but an ideal state for “A country full of people // who would spend their last / chance on a dream & a plot / their happy ending.”
Tyler Gillespie is an award-winning journalist who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, VICE, GQ, Playboy, and Salon. His poems recently appeared in Hobart, Prelude, Tahoma Literary Review, Cleaver, and Exposition Review.
He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and is in-progress for an MA in Journalism & Media Studies from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. He currently lives in Largo, FL.”
– Press Release by Red Flag Poetry

 

Interview:

1. So, Tyler, your book is coming out soon – what should potential readers know when they see Florida Man: Poems?

 The book uses the virality of the Florida Man meme — someone who’s gotten arrested for doing something bone-headed — to look at the state’s history, environment, and economics to see how they affect the country as a whole. Also, there’s partying, drag queens, and a lot about alligators in there — from anatomy to mating habits to the process of how their heads are sold in gas stations.

2. Your book has an interesting form, not only does it merge the Non-fiction and Poetry genres, but it also is constructing the picture of this entity, “Florida Man,” can you tell us a little bit about the decisions you made and the inspiration behind crafting your book using these elements?

The form came from wanting to mix actual stories from different points of view to get a fuller picture. I didn’t write any persona poems. Anything from someone else’s point of view is in that person’s words. I’ve been a journalist for about eight years. I kind of have a slow-burn style in interviews where it’s a conversation more than an interview. I like doing these long interviews, because I’m often surprised by what people tell me. They’ll tell me these really beautiful or ugly or illegal stories and for an article or essay I’d condense a quote or write around it. In a poem I can let all their words speak for themselves. It’s contained. The poem’s its own complete thing.

3. Why did you choose to write this book?

 I think in some ways writers are writing their way back home. I wanted to contextualize my experience and give a perspective on Florida. There’s a lot of interest in the state because of our environment, politics, vacations, and crimes. People spend their lives elsewhere and end up here, too. They want to know what’s up.

4. What do you want your readers to take away from reading your book?

 Florida is so many different things to so many different people. To me, it’s like a python: dangerously beautiful, misunderstood, pretty chill, can be deadly but it’s usually not. There’s no one Florida or one Florida Man. He’s a composite of a bunch of different people who have committed a crime. These poems, when put together, make up a version of the Florida Man narrative that I understand right now. His history is complicated just like ours.

5. Were you inspired by any other authors or any specific works?

A book that changed how I think about poetry is C.D. Wright’s One Big Self. Sheshe mixes in interviews — or conversations — she had with prisoners in Louisiana throughout it. That book, wow. I hadn’t read anyone that did this blend before, so the form helped me see a new path.

6. Tell us about the work you put into interviewing the people in your book.

One of my favorite interviews included in the book happened down in the Everglades. There’s this place where people wrestle rescued gators — the nuisance gators over four foot long have to be either killed or rescued. I went down to the Everglades, rode around on an airboat for a while, and talked to a second-generation alligator wrestler turned businessman. There’s a method to the madness. He told me about how he’d done it as a kid, how it had helped him become who he is. Then, I watched someone wrestle a gator. It was fun.

7. What’s the next project you’re working on?

I’m working on a book of poems about climate change and romantic relationships, which, you know, for some people are both major disasters. I’m also working on a collection of reported-but-humorous essays on Florida. It’s in the same vein as this book but follows a different thread, more focused on the environment and culture. So far, I’ve talked to a notorious pet smuggler and python hunters among a bunch of other people.

Confessions of a Spook by Michael Washburn

Let me tell you just how enjoyable the scrutiny of strangers can be.

Today I am a hard, bitter man with little use for boyish fantasy. But my younger self craved the adventure, the romance, the thrill that the impressionable associate with the life of an agent in the service of Australia’s government. Having done research on the way of life of agents on sensitive missions, I thought I had an idea of the secrecy and the training that go with one’s induction into the service. Even so, a lot of what went on at the beginning came as a shock.

When I joined up, my supervisors told me that they needed to put together a detailed psychological profile of their new spy. If I was going to serve them in far-flung locales, they needed to know not just of my qualifications and skills, but of all the people I’d alienated, all the enemies I’d made, all the traumas I’d endured, all the phobias that grew like mold across my psyche. They needed to be aware of all my foibles and vulnerabilities, so that they could anticipate any scenarios where I might cave to pressure, forget my training, and act or talk irresponsibly. In the event that something happened to me, the profile might help them pinpoint who’d done it and why.

I had no choice but to cooperate. It’s routine, anyway, they assured me. A formality. Just take clipboard, pen, and paper, fill in a few pages for us, forget all about it, and move on to the substance of your elite role. Ever the obedient operative, I began to orient myself in my distant past. But the past in question was not really all that distant. I was thirty at the time they took me on, and I had to furnish an account of my relationship with my parents. I revisited the past, the life of a young man in a state of arrested development, living at home, in a two-story brick house in a suburb of Canberra, long after his friends had gotten married, started families, and become homeowners.

With respect to my mother, there isn’t all that much to tell. It is impossible for me to recall that woman without a cigarette in her hand. She began smoking when she was nineteen, evolved into a three-pack-a-day lady in grad school, and never let up. It was grotesque how much she smoked. She never—I mean literally never—exercised or saw a doctor. When my mother died of a heart attack in her sleep, at fifty-six, the question in my mind was not why she died so young, but how she’d made it that far. The last year and a half of her life were not pretty, let me tell you. It was as if she knew what she’d done to her body. She knew quite well what was coming, and needed someone to scream at and accuse of various things, to take her mind off herself. I was there and I came in handy. You wouldn’t believe what she said to me, or I to her. My own mother.

After her death, the clinical depression that had cramped my father’s existence for many years grew ever more severe. I got used to walking through the door of our modest brick house to find a man with wispy white hair lolling in front of the TV, with a look that kept just a bit of the educated, refined mien people had known him for before he stepped down from the chairmanship of the math department of one of the local universities. It might have been better if he’d just gone to hell altogether. No matter how far he wasted away, he kept just a hint of urbanity about him, and that made his inertia and dysfunction hideous to behold.

My father had a weird paranoid streak, manifesting itself in a hundred little panic attacks a week. That may not sound like much, but try to imagine what it was like for me. If he happened to see a bill from my car insurance provider on the living room table, with the words “24-hour claims service” in the top left portion of the envelope, something odd happened in my father’s mind. He didn’t think it was just a monthly bill from an ordinary service provider, but rather, a letter from a collection agency, seeking to recoup a huge debt I owed to someone. I must not be living within my means, I must be doing reckless, insane things.

Another example: If my father happened to come downstairs in his bathrobe on a Monday morning and see a week’s worth of empty bottles gathered in the pantry before I took them out to the curb, bang! He assumed I’d drunk the contents of all those bottles the night before. Ergo, I was fifty times over the legal blood-alcohol limit this morning and would get fired upon arriving at work. Some might dismiss these reactions as trivial, but they fed an atmosphere where at times I found myself wanting to kill my father. Oh, it got infinitely worse over time. My mother’s death, after decades of neglecting her health, made him solicitous about my health. The fellow was always peering at me, as if trying to look into me, to hone his view of the pockets of flab roiling inside me, the shifting fat in my body putting me at risk of a heart attack. To be quite honest, I was a little out of shape, even if no one would have described me as fat. All it took was a bit of bulge at the waist to push my father into frenzied imaginings. As fevered as his delusions were, he kept up his aloof academic air a good deal of the time. He said astounding things, but in a dry monotone. Once he and I were standing with thirty others in the courtyard of a hotel where a second cousin of mine was going to get married. People were milling around, talking of jobs and mortgages, paying special attention to my father because they didn’t want him to feel any alienation or loneliness. Every time he spoke, he commanded the attention of virtually everybody. Quite without preamble, he turned to me and said, “You know, Richard, there is a scale in the restroom right over there. You could weigh yourself.”

“Excuse me?” I asked in disbelief, in front of dozens of attentive ears and eyes. He thought I’d said it because I hadn’t heard him, not that I was unable to believe what I’d heard quite clearly. He repeated his suggestion, in that same academic monotone.

“You could weigh yourself.”

I felt the gazes of my relatives all around me as I stood there in the warm air of the courtyard. I thought of breaking his jaw. To this day, I believe that he spoke without malice or spite, he honestly did not know why someone might not react well to his suggestion. That didn’t make me feel too much better. Oh, dad. Here was the aloof academic with whom I’d grown up. In the months that followed, his unwanted scrutiny of my body and  his panic attacks over my health or over a bill grew ever more frequent and acute. On occasion, he woke up at night in the throes of a panic attack so severe that he grabbed the phone beside his bed and called the police or paramedics, leaving me with a lot of explaining to do.

In describing my father’s solicitude for my health, and his alarm over empty beer bottles, I may have given the impression that he was an exceedingly proper gentleman who would not tolerate sloth or excess. For the record, I’ve always felt quite humiliated at my father’s deportment. There are certain stereotypes about mathematicians being nerdy and unable to interact socially with the ease that comes naturally to others. I’ve always thought my father was aware of that stereotype and tried to overcompensate. He saw nothing wrong with open expressions of sexual longing. He installed a little program on his desktop that made a three-inch woman walk across the screen, pause midway, strip, and ogle the viewer in the most lascivious way, pushing her bare breasts forward, sliding her palms across her buttocks and pulling them wide apart. It made me queasy to watch these things or to hear him talk quite openly about what he’d like to do to the teen waitress in the bar on the corner. If you ever confronted him about this, you got something between a grin and a smirk. How amusing that someone should grow alarmed over the stash of porn mags and DVDs in his bedroom, or his putting the internet at the service of his urges. He thought he was being cute!

I wanted to put my father out of my mind forever. I requested duty overseas, under the auspice of the South Asian intelligence bureau run by an official who had taken a liking to me and had voiced the highest regard for my abilities.

We were all weary of the interminable chasing and hunting of terrorists, but the public was understandably furious about intelligence failures. We were eager to nab a pair of guys who knew about the origins of the plot to blow up the nightclub in Bali in 2002, a particularly horrific event in which eighty-eight Australians lost their lives, and maybe knew about other plots as well. The status of this operation was, as they say, “ultra top secret.” The terrorists love to mix it up with the law-abiding civilians. Give them any warning, and the populace scatters like an avalanche of pebbles down a mountainside. Good luck finding anyone in particular. ASIS had invested so much into covert ops in Indonesia over the years, and we thought we had some pretty good intelligence from an operative who had sat down in a café with Prendy Gunawan, whom we knew as a member of a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah, the most widely feared terrorist organization on the archipelago. Whatever else you might say about Prendy, he was a personable guy who liked Fleetwood Mac and gave this almost embarrassingly broad grin when you met with him in person. Our operative asked him about this tic once and Prendy said the expression meant something to the effect of “Paradise is at hand.” In other words, tourism may have waned severely thanks to the bombings in 2002 and 2005, but we’re on the cusp of rooting out the terrorists and making the island a place where tourists in straw hats love to recline in chairs on the beach, sipping sangria. Our operative, alias Abdul Iskandar, worked for my ASIS colleagues Scott Gibson and Nick Talbot. He met with Prendy in a café in Kuta at the southern end of the island and gained some fairly reliable intelligence about a meeting of the higher-ups within the cell in the village. So, we were going in.

Suspicions were afoot now that our man Abdul might not have been the honest concerned citizen we imagined. Let me take this opportunity to clarify the matter. As far as I know, Abdul was quite honest and dependable. He did not share Prendy’s views. The trouble arose when a crusading online news agency, Transparent Authority, received a leak from a disgruntled Darwin-based member of ASIS, Bruce Owens, whose purview included all counterterrorism ops in Indonesia. The agency quickly distributed a list of operatives working there, including one Abdul Iskandar. It didn’t publish the information on its home page, for there were people even Transparent Authority did not wish to alienate, but on surrogate sites with text in the Indonesian language. Members of Jemaah Islamiyah quickly got hold of the information; that explains why our men in the field had a bit of trouble locating or speaking with Abdul after such a long, if covert, association.

But the mission went ahead. I, for one, acted on the assumption that Abdul Iskandar had not been privy to any dates for operations in the planning phase. We were aware of the possibility of disloyalty. We had given Abdul a certain amount of “decoy info” to mislead the jihadists into preparing for ASIS actions in cities barely on our radar at all, and we asked Abdul to gather data about people we didn’t really consider a threat. A certain number of my colleagues in the agency thought themselves exceedingly clever.

The night of the operation arrived.

I won’t forget remember the sights, noises, and odors of this night. We could not entirely avoid making noise as we moved down the road on the outskirts of the village of Sayan in the moonlight. We thought it was shrewd, deploying a mélange of ASIS men and Indonesian security operatives. all in civilian clothes. This was neither a mission launched by white “imperialists,” nor one for which we had to give Indonesia all the credit, you see. There weren’t many white faces in our team, mind you, just Scott Gibson, Nick Talbot, and myself, and we were on the inside of the cluster. Anyone who happened to glimpse us in the moonlight from one of the farms on either side of the road would probably not have made out any alarming Caucasian features. We had avoided at least one of the errors that allowed no fewer than six fugitives to slip away in the preceding ten months.

The village was coming up. I scanned the strip of bare road between the façade of a restaurant and the dark windows of a garage. I watched as things began happening nearly exactly according to plan. I started to think that the planning of the operation had been a stroke of genius. Three men wearing trousers and button-down shirts, with almost a prim appearance, passed from the mouth of the restaurant onto the moonlit road. I recognized two of them immediately. One of them was Rahman Taslim, one of the most wanted suspects on the island, and the other was Prendy Gunawan. The third fellow wasn’t obviously a match with anyone on our list of suspects but was worth questioning if he knew the other two. I was already thinking about the PR upshot of a victory.

I watched as more bodies flowed through the double doors of the restaurant out onto the road. We were closing the distance fast. The moonlight was particularly strong tonight and it threw into relief the beards and thick dark hair of the twenty or so men who had filled the street. Among them were a handful of women.

Now Prendy was looking in our direction and I had the impression, unlikely though it seemed, that he was making eye contact with me as a grin I knew all too well spread over his features. He wasn’t thinking about Fleetwood Mac right now; he had another kind of sublimity in mind. Another way to enter paradise. I guessed that Prendy and Abdul had a slightly different relationship from what we’d supposed. Either that, or Abdul’s outing by Transparent Authority had enabled the enemy to get top-secret info. At exactly this point, a bit of fluttering motion in my peripheral vision gave me a hint of the presence of maybe three people on the roof of the garage. In the crowd on the road, figures were reaching and groping as the moonlight reflected off long sleek cylinders. My colleagues noticed these developments immediately, but not what was happening atop the garage.

Scott, who had warned me innumerable times about the perils of hair-trigger reactions, gave the order to fire. His eyes told me not to argue. So what if there were noncombatants over there? The rules of engagement as he interpreted them at this moment said fire! Nick and I raised the barrels of our Beretta 93R machine pistols. The local operatives were even faster. We began firing even as a cacophony of shouts and flashes arose amid the crowd outside the restaurant. More fluttering motions atop the garage left no doubt our presence had registered up there. I heard a WHUMP! on the ground behind me, as if a giant canvas had toppled onto its face, and then it felt as if a thousand vicious insects were biting my back. My body pitched forward. I was aware of inexorable horizontal movement and I remember thinking I was going the wrong way, toward the flashing muzzles of the enemy. But then it was as if my bones turned to water, I was crumpling, I felt a round graze my right ear, and my face smacked the dirt so hard I blacked out.

I woke up in a cage in a bright room. I blinked incessantly for a couple of minutes. Outside the cage, men in crisp green uniforms, which were a little short by Western standards, moved around talking in the language I had only just begun to master. The cage was stationary but the room was moving. I was in the back of a truck. Before long, they parked and moved the cage out of the truck, through a courtyard, and into what resembled a factory. Then I was inside another bright room. This was where I first heard people say the name Dr. Fraser. The doctor was Australian, but most people here were locals. The cage was to be my home save for when a few of the captors escorted me to a dingy cement room with a toilet, a sink, and a curtainless stall. There was also the occasion where they led me in cuffs to a plain room where an officer sat at a desk and gazed at me with eyes as cold and lucid as a pond on the hills of Jindabyne. In precise, faintly labored English, he informed me that eighteen civilians had died in the botched operation along with Gibson, Talbot, and five members of the indigenous security forces. Now wasn’t the time to weep for my colleagues. When I tried to speak, a raspy moan came out.

“You have to give me a lawyer.”

“No.”

Please!

He shook his head impatiently. I told him it was most unfortunate that civilians had perished, but the enemy’s longstanding modus operandi was to mingle with innocents so as to complicate our efforts to fight back, and collateral damage wasn’t all that unusual. The officer retorted that that was what he’d expected me to say, but I must know that apart from the criminal conviction looming over me, the authorities on the archipelago had a use for me. I was the bearer of intelligence they had run after in the dark for years and years. Australia had refused to cooperate with them and it was a tense relationship at best. Nearly every time the ASIS tried to do anything here on the archipelago, it proved a catastrophe for the Indonesian authorities. They had to assuage many citizens outraged over their failure to control what a foreign power did in Indonesia in the name of Western interests. Now, at last, the officials had a live, conscious, articulate Western operative in captivity.

I begged for a lawyer. He shook his head with the same impatience. I feigned bewilderment at what this stern little man behind the desk had disclosed. I knew exactly what he meant. Now, these officials and their friends hoped and expected, they would be able to locate Western operatives the world over, no matter how cleverly or elaborately disguised. Well, I wondered, if they did find out an agent’s identity, and his or her role in sensitive operations, what exactly would that mean for the agent?

In the tentative spirit of collaboration that made the joint operation possible, the government on the archipelago had shared files with the government in Canberra. Of course I am using shared in a broad sense. Whether by request or through subterfuge, the officials who held me were privy to certain personal information.

So, if you want to situate yourself within my experience, what can I tell you?

Imagine a wall in your house is an eye that never blinks.

They took me out of the cage and put me in yet another bright room, 12’ by 12’. Here is the reality to which I awoke every morning. Contrary to what you might assume after having watched lots of interrogation scenes in films, the window forming one of the four walls enclosing me was not one-way but fully transparent. The managers of this facility wanted me to know exactly who was peering at me with the most prurient interest. I slept on a bunk at the wall opposite the window. In the morning Dr. Fraser entered the room. He was a prim middle-aged man with a bald scalp and a horseshoe of dark hair, who wore thick glasses and a white jacket.

“Good morning, mate,” the doctor said in an unmistakable Aussie accent.

Accompanying Dr. Fraser were a couple of guards. They placed me, naked, in the center of the room. Clamps joined to chains went around my ankles and wrists, then the chains tautened until I felt I was going to split apart. I saw everyone who stepped into the rectangular room on the far side of the window, and people spent many hours a day scrutinizing me. Officials, guards, doctors, twenty-one-year-old female interns in business casual attire stepped into that room to have a look. My attire was the most casual of all. I never had a stitch of clothing and my cock hung there like a burst balloon. The young female interns kept looking at it, beginning to laugh, giving each other looks. They studied me, sometimes asking questions, sometimes jotting notes down on pads. When they spoke to me at all, they said the issue of overriding concern was my health. The depth of their concern and their alarm about my health required them to examine me so thoroughly, or so they said. Surely I had not forgotten my history of health problems, my unwillingness to weigh myself, or my disregard for the concern of elders with more mature attitudes.

Mercifully, the chains loosened so I could use my limbs a bit. A couple of young guys, Amat and Lemah, took turns coming in a few times a day to deliver meals on plastic trays and clean up my waste. Amat was fit and handsome and had a brash demeanor. Lemah, by contrast, had a big ungainly figure and was quite slow. At times he seemed to struggle to recall what he was supposed to do next. Their shifts alternated at times but I was able to begin to figure out how often I could expect to see either of them. One thing I noted was that Lemah didn’t appear to resent me. He was pretty lax about letting me take as long as I wanted to eat.

People kept coming to the window and staring at me. On the rolling metal table to my left there was a towel. One day I realized that I could move my leg just far enough to give the table a weak little kick. By doing this repeatedly, I was able to make the towel fall to the floor. I got it between two of my toes and thence into my left hand. I was able to cover my cock with the towel. When the space behind the window filled up, people saw a man with sweat all over his face, naked except for that scrap of cloth over his groin. A few of them giggled at the sight. It had the negative virtue of not being interesting enough to keep them around.

The stratagem might have worked if not for Dr. Fraser. He looked at me through the window, then came in with a grin running practically from one end of his spectacles to the other.

“Clever, aren’t we?”

He swiped the towel, folded it with distaste, placed it back on the table, and left. The observers could watch me and my shriveled penis for as long as they pleased.

All of the observers took an active interest in me, but I remember that one of the young interns, in particular, an Indonesian girl with straight dark hair and glasses, liked to watch at those times of the day when my muscles writhed and tensed and slackened and tensed again and I shat uncontrollably. She maintained her maturity as she watched this happen. I imagined her thought process. Surely we are not so immature that we cannot watch a natural function of an adult male’s body. Several times a week, the official who had interviewed me during the intake moved into that rectangle of space. His questions were always pointed. He wanted the names and locations of operatives, the lowdown on planned operations. It was agents, in the employ of or on friendly terms with ASIS who most interested him. He wanted to know who they were, what online footprint they might have, what aliases they might blog or post under. Of course I knew quite a few agents, in the employ of many governments, but I thought of what it would mean for them if I sang.

My days—or nights?—were largely the same but at times, I recall, there were problems with the lights in the room and they had to send in technicians who got hastily to work. On rare occasions the whole room had problems. The chains got looser, they didn’t function properly as pulleys controlling my movements and position within the room. The technicians moved me, still naked, to the cage in the bright room where I’d been before. Outside that cage, officers milled around or sat at desks shuffling papers and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. There weren’t many such occasions, but enough for certain people to grow quite frustrated.

On the third occasion of the room’s general malfunctioning, I sat out in the cage witnessing the most remarkable thing. A couple of the officers I observed through the bars had white skin and wore Australian uniforms. I began to wonder just how furtive the local officials had had to be in order to gain access to my file. Here I think it is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. The authorities on the archipelago were furious at Canberra for the incident in which I’d played a role, for other botched missions, and for the general high-handedness with which a Western government treated a non-white regime. At the same time, even in the face of those failures, the Indonesians knew quite well they’d be harming themselves if they refused to let seasoned Aussies, with lots of sensitive information available to them, help out as advisors in the intelligence-gathering and missions. Australia had loads of technology and manpower to commit to the efforts, at no cost to Indonesia, no monetary cost anyway. So, after the third episode where the room in which they kept me malfunctioned, I saw an Australian officer berating one of his Indonesian counterparts, who sulked like a Vichy policeman at the harangue of an SS commander. The locals had to do a better job of cleaning and maintaining the restraints in that room, he yelled, for nothing less than brand integrity was at stake! That’s exactly the phrase he used. Brand integrity. The systems of restraints and pulleys, as well as the concept of the exposed cell itself, were components of a brand developed and put to use by secret governmental organizations going back to the Vietnam War. Fuck up brand integrity in a corporate civilian context, and people will literally come after you with guns, so just imagine the possible reactions when the same happened in clandestine operations undertaken in the name of national security and counterterrorism.

Neither the Australian officer nor his counterpart appeared to notice me. Lemah’s attentions were bumbling, but he didn’t appear to hate me. As for Dr. Fraser, well, he was a different case. The doctor came and went, came and went, laughing at me, chiding me, mocking me whenever I tried to use the towel to cover my limp appendage. I spent countless more hours in front of the audiences at the window. At one point, their interest seemed to wane ever so faintly. I recall one afternoon when I hung there, unsure of whether my status as a prisoner was the same as the day before. I amused myself by making my toes dance. Where were the observers? Perhaps they weren’t quite so taken with me, perhaps they had downgraded my status a bit. I dared to hope until the door in the wall running perpendicular to the observation window swished open, and the young Indonesian intern who’d observed me before  came in. The intern moved up to a position a few feet from me and scanned me from head to foot.

“I hope you have a mature attitude to the scrutiny you’re undergoing,” she said.

My, her English was flawless. I didn’t say anything.

“Dr. Fraser has explained to all of us why this is part of an enlightened, twenty-first-century penal program,” she added.

My chains had tightened. I looked down. Her gaze had alighted on something so puny, one would hardly dare to call it a cock. Her cool professional manner implied that she, at least, had a mature attitude about her training, about all it entailed. So scholarly was her air as she stared at what was down there, mentally processing and filing away data. I tried to move my arms, but only made parts of them really red. I felt a tautening of my muscles, realizing she was just close enough for me to snap her neck if I could make one quick decisive move. She stared for maybe forty minutes before she lifted her eyes to meet mine and answered an unspoken question.

“We’re only at the beginning. You know how concerned we are about your health,” she said.

Only now did I realize that the area behind the observation window had filled up. As the intern pronounced the word health, with such peculiar emphasis, twelve heads behind that long sheet of glass nodded solemnly. The eye had not really even blinked.

On the following morning, Lemah came in to give me my breakfast. There was a roll with butter, a bit of granola, and a pitcher full of orange juice. I ate and slurped as he moved about the room, cleaning and arranging things. As usual, any distaste over my body’s functions failed to register in Lemah’s dull features. Soon he was done and reached for the tray. I signaled that I needed a bit more time. He stood there, silent, looking as if he were struggling to recall something. He then turned and walked out of the room. My sense of the ebb and flow of people on the other side of the glass was so acute that I knew exactly when to get the plastic pitcher in my hands and tear a strip from it. Within seconds, I had a shiv with a sharp point, the possession of which would get any normal prisoner a long spell in solitary.

I’d just gotten the towel into place over my groin, and the other instrument, when Dr. Fraser came in holding a clipboard.

“How are you enjoying the scrutiny, mate?”

I didn’t respond.

“The observers have given your health careful consideration and we think it’s about time to weigh you.”

Still I stared at him.

“Of course, you’re an adult, you’re perfectly capable of weighing yourself. I’m sure you’ve developed a mature, enlightened attitude.”

Dr. Fraser bent forward and yanked the towel off me. With a movement too fast for him to see, I thrust the shiv upward and cut his forehead from end to end. He danced around the room screaming for a full minute, blood shooting everywhere, before the Indonesians rushed in. When they carried him from the room, a huge bloody flap of skin dangled from his forehead like banana skin.

They put me back in the cage in the bright room to which they had moved me once every few weeks. They could hardly move me to a worse place than where I’d been, and at this point it didn’t matter. One of the Australian officers, a young lieutenant with fringes of blond hair just visible under the edges of his cap, came up and viewed the gibbering naked man. He came up to the cage and talked with me through the bars for an hour. The sensitive intelligence in his eyes responded to what I was whispering. My next meeting was with three Indonesian officials and a pair of high-ranking ASIS men. The latter had grown interested in my case after hearing about me from a colleague and were now leaning toward the view that if I’d had anything to share with the local authorities, I would have done so long, long ago.

I was going to be free. I was going home to the house my father still owned in the suburbs of Canberra. He no longer lived there, but in a nursing home where seniors went to scarf Jell-O and watch game shows in grimy rooms for a few months or weeks before they kicked off. Moreover, in recognition of my experience being a tad unpleasant at times, they were coming through with a monetary settlement. A nice one, to be quite honest. On many afternoons during the six months after my release, I pulled into the driveway of the house in Canberra, got out, stretched, walked up the drive to my front door, and noticed something rather odd in my peripheral vision. Yes, it was quite odd. A young dog, practically a puppy, white with black and brown splotches, was poking its head over the top of the knoll forming the western perimeter of my block. The dog wore a little red plastic collar with a bell on it, had an eager look, and held something in its mouth. I stood there on my doorstep making eye contact with the dog until it mounted the knoll and galloped down the edge of it and up the drive. The creature was so eager, so friendly. I knelt, plucked the envelope from the dog’s mouth, patted it on the head, then watched it race back up to the crest of the knoll and disappear. Inside the envelope was enough to live well for a long, long time. I received regular visits from that little dog until I was almost ready to say, Hey, I’m not a victim, misunderstandings happen even between friendly governments.

            But every time I tried to take a cab from the office where I worked to a doctor’s office for a routine checkup, I experienced such severe panic and hyperventilation that the driver ended up taking me to a hospital. Once we got to the hospital, I refused to get out of the cab, and the poor Pakistani man behind the wheel of the cab ended up calling the police. I have come to the realization that this syndrome isn’t going away until I bring it before the world. I need the world to listen. I’ve come to understand what lies in wait for operatives when somebody outs them. All candidates for high office, in every country in every corner of this hideous terrifying world, must understand their obligations to keep secret what must never, ever come to light. Imagine a wall in your house is an eye that never blinks.

Non-Fiction Spring 2018 Winner

Tuna Melt with a Side of Grief
by L.D. Zane

“Twenty-three-ninety-five for the buffet! Are they kidding?” I asked Grace.

“That’s what the sign says, Lewis. And that’s the senior price!” she responded with despair.

“For a Christmas Day buffet at the West End Family Restaurant?” I turned toward Grace and asked, “Did they say anything about the price online?”

“Nope,” responded Grace. “Just said they would be open Christmas Day and would have a special buffet. I figured that was good enough for us.”

“Well, they’d better be serving caviar for this price.”

“I suppose they’re just catering to their normal clientele, Lewis. They obviously can afford these prices.”

So could we, but it was the principle of the matter. We both stood in the cold staring at that sign as others walked around us to enter.

Finally, I capitulated. “Well… We’re here, and there’s no other place open.”

“There’s always Antonio’s,” Grace offered up.

Despondent, I replied, “Yeah, but that’s on the other side of town and you needed reservations—which we don’t have.” With a resigned sigh and slumped shoulders, I said, “Not the way I wanted us to spend our first Christmas together, Grace.” Grace reached out and held my hand. Then I said, “Let’s just do this.”

 

The waitress showed us to our booth. After she took our beverage order, we perused the menu.

“What the hell!” I spouted off, and not quietly. There was a couple in the booth across from us who appeared to be about our age. They looked up from their meals.  “Sorry,” I said sheepishly.

I lowered my voice and said to Grace, “The only thing different on the buffet is they added chopped steak. And for this they more than doubled the usual buffet price? Well, that’s absurd. I’m not getting the buffet. For the price of the buffet, we could have had a great dinner at Antonio’s. I’m just going to order off the menu.”

“I don’t want to add insult to injury,” Grace said nonchalantly, “but it looks as if they raised the prices on all the menu items by about fifty percent. They know when they have a captive audience of helpless saps with no other place to go on Christmas—other than Antonio’s or some Chinese restaurant.”

The waitress came back with our coffee and water. “Have you decided on your order?”

“I can tell you it’s not going to be the buffet,” I said with righteous indignation.

The waitress whispered, “That’s what most of the other customers decided as well. You’re better off ordering from the menu.”

“And that’s still a rip-off!” Grace chimed in.

The waitress ignored that sling and again asked, “Ma’am. What are you having?”

Without looking up from the menu, Grace said, with sarcasm dripping from the corners of her mouth, “I’ll have the tuna melt with a side of grief.”

The waitress responded with equal pithiness, “I’m sorry, but that side is not on the menu. You can either have mashed rustic potatoes, french fries, baked potato, cole slaw or mixed veggies.” And then she asked with a wry smile, “Which one would you like to replace the grief?”

Grace looked up, mirrored her smile and answered, “Just give me the fries, and please make sure they’re crispy.”

There was no response from our waitress other than, “And for you, sir?”

“I’ll have the open-faced, hot roast beef sandwich with a baked potato as my side. I’m in a better mood.”

“Absolutely.” She collected the menus and said, “Your orders will be out shortly.” My only thought was, with certain smugness, I wonder whose food they’ll spit on? Shouldn’t be mine. I was nice to her.

Grace was now staring into her coffee. So I sucked it up and asked, “What’s wrong, Grace? Is it Joel’s decision to disinvite you for Christmas?”

 

About a week and a half before Christmas, Grace received a text from her daughter-in-law, Bernadette, Joel’s wife. Without saying a word, Grace showed it to me when I came home from work and after I had settled into my favorite chair. It read like a telegram: “No need to come here for Christmas. We’re just hanging out. Going to my parents Christmas Eve. That’s all. See you at Alicia’s next week.” No “Merry Christmas.” No real explanation. But we both knew it was in retaliation for a text spat Grace had had with Joel the week before Thanksgiving about not being invited to any of Joel’s son’s football games.

For the eight years between Grace’s husband’s death and our recent marriage, she had spent every Christmas at Joel’s. It was her last tradition. And now it was gone. That text broke Grace’s heart, and mine. It also lit her fuse.

Then I read Grace’s reply text to Bernadette: “I understand. But I have to be honest, I’m very disappointed. For the first time I won’t be with any of my family on Christmas. I’ll hold yours and the boys’ gifts until we see you at Alicia’s. Enjoy the visit with your parents. Merry Christmas.”

Grace’s text was akin to a declaration of war. It might as well have said, “I hope you choke on the food at your parents’, and that you and Joel get paper cuts from opening up your gifts! My misery is on your hands.”

Foolish me. I thought only Jewish mothers knew how to dish out guilt. They may have invented it, but Catholic mothers have obviously learned well from their mentors over the millennia.

The night after Grace sent her reply, she received a call from Joel. Mercifully, I was at work. I learned that Joel started off by saying to Grace that Bernadette told him, after she showed him Grace’s response, “You had better call your mother.” And that he did.

He proceeded to rip into Grace about everything that had been gnawing at him about his mother. She returned fire. There didn’t appear to be any winners. In fact, I’m surprised there were any survivors. Grace didn’t convey to me the gory details, and I thought it best not to press her for any.

 

Grace narrowed her gaze at me and raised her voice. “Disinvite us, Lewis! And he didn’t have the balls to call or text me first. Instead he had Bernadette do his dirty work.” A melancholy shadowed her eyes. “And did you notice they didn’t even send us a card or call us today? Alicia, Albert, and their boys did.”

I did notice, but didn’t feel the need to concur with the obvious.

She paused momentarily, then said, “But that’s not what’s really bothering me.”

“Then what’s really bothering you, Grace?”

She took a deep breath and sighed. “Joel said, during that nasty call I had with him, that since he was seeing me at Alicia’s the weekend after Christmas, there was no need to see me twice in a week.” She grabbed her napkin, dabbed her eyes, and then grabbed mine and blew her nose. I made a mental note to have the waitress bring us more napkins.

“What did you say back to him?”

“Nothing. That’s when I hung up.”

Now I was pissed. I like Joel. He’s an affable guy with a good sense of humor. And from what I’ve personally seen, he appears to be a good father, husband, and provider. I pondered how I would have reacted had one of my children laid that at my feet.

I reached over, held Grace’s hands, and said, “You know it’s not my style to interfere on matters with your kids, sweetheart. But do you want to know how I would have responded?”

“Yes, please.”

“I would have calmly said, ‘I’m sorry, Joel, but I didn’t know there was a FUCKING QUOTA!’”

That got the attention, again, of the couple across from us, along with some of the other customers within earshot. This time, however, I didn’t apologize.

Grace burst out laughing. “That was good, Lewis. I wish I had thought of that.” But quickly, she once again turned gloomy.

I made an attempt at being jolly and asked, “Hey, what about all that Christmas spirit you’ve been lecturing me about?”

Grace snapped back, “Shut up! This is the most depressing time of the year.”

Hanukkah was never like this. My only retort was, “Here comes our delicious, overpriced meal.”

 

The next morning at eight I took my usual mile-plus walk. I returned around eight-thirty. Grace was already up, sitting on the couch, and nursing her first cup of coffee and a cigarette. I grabbed a cup of coffee, plunked myself into my favorite chair, and slipped off my sneakers.

Something seemed different as I scanned the room. And then in a flash of brilliance, I figured out what it was. Grace had taken down all of the Christmas cards and put away our fake, ornament-laden, assembly-required Christmas tree. I cautiously asked, “Grace, where are all the Christmas cards and the tree?”

“Christmas is over, Lewis. Christmas is over.”

THE END