Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

The Dialectic of Rock Music

By Bill Whitten

Rock songs have their origin in the wound. 

Rock songs are born in the songwriter’s head and hands but then die. 

On stage or in a recording studio a rock band will bring them back to life like cut flowers in water.

Every guitar player is a historian.

Rock music is formed by a history that remains alive even in its decay.

Rock music is a territory that possesses no reality or connections other than those of a shared ecstasy.

The compulsion that drives the formation of any rock band is always the same: an impulsive, anarchic flight from society, propelled by something like romantic love.

A rock band is, of course, not like a family, but instead is like a religious order or a military unit or an urban guerilla.

Accordingly, the belief in something greater than itself is the glue that ties a band together. Instead of a god there is Keith Richards, the Beatles, Johnny Thunders, Lou Reed, Chuck Berry. Like divinities they can be worshipped or defied. 

Rock music is a military art; prepare for a performance or an album like a battle.

Refuse to choose between the beautiful and the unbeautiful.

In the recording studio the rock musician operates on himself and projects his suffering onto his songs. 

Contagion is both the lifeblood and the poison of rock music.

A rock musician is a being with no shell, open to pain, tormented by light, shaken by every sound.

Surrounded and controlled by machines, there is a compulsion to sing, talk and act like machines. It must be resisted.

Beethoven often played the piano with the lid closed.

Rock and roll when practiced correctly is never a reproduction of the past, but instead a present that is continually renewed. 

Devotion to rock music reinforces the worst traits of one’s character. 

The burning streets, the fuzzy horizon, the clouds, the river and fire, the cold, the suffering, the sadness, the vanished women. 

A man can never really know a woman, he can only pursue her indefinitely. It is the same with rock music.

Each rock song creates an infinite space.

Before the mutation took place that allowed homo sapien to speak, archaic humans had a signature, recognizable cry like that of the blue jay, the horse or the wolf.

Rock music is the color of black hair.

Bill Whitten is a musician and writer.  He is the founding member of St. Johnny, Grand Mal and currently records under the nom de guerre William Carlos Whitten. His latest recording *The Third Interval* was released in February 2024. His book BRUTES, a collection of short fiction was released in January 2022.

Categories
Crayon Barn Chris

V

By Dylan Smith

And so stumbling out through that bookstore drunk I had only the vaguest idea of where I might have left my bag. The grounds of the city’s biggest cemetery rose up on a hill across the street, with its gas lamps lit and its tall stone graves and these ancient trees edged in light as the path doubled back down along the hill, and I could see all the CitiBike baskets empty in a line. No bag. The bells above the bookstore door jingled as it shut and I worked to manifest my bag’s place inside my head. To envision it shimmering there behind our empty bottles in the Square—but I was also immediately suspicious of that motherfucker Chris.

Every bender we’d ever endured together had ended in me losing something like this. Whether it be my keys or shoes or pants or my bag, it never mattered—it always drove Chris crazy. Yet there he was, so perfectly serene. Stopping in the poetry section, even. So cooly detached. I watched him through the glass door with increasing suspicion. Flipping through some tiny pink book. Taking a wallet out of his tote bag to pay. I may not have known exactly how yet, but I knew. Chris was up to something—hiding something—and that something had something to do with my bag.

My Chris Book.

My journal. My secrets.

I walked across the street.

Chris came out of the bookstore smiling. Bells. I stood beneath a streetlamp in the lowly lit night. The cemetery’s perimeter wall was behind me and Chris had his tote bag open. He placed the new pink book inside it with the wallet, then his hand came out with a small point and shoot camera with a flash.

“Stay just like that,” Chris said.

He stood there behind the parked cars. A bright flash of light with a click.

Upstate it was pianos, I thought. Chris’s constant music. Now pictures. He squeezed between two parked cars coming closer. I rolled my eyes. Chris took another picture.

Click.

The flash was blindingly bright.

Click.

“That’s great, Bill. You really look like shit. That one’s going to be great.”

Click.

That horrible high-pitched sound after each flash.

Click.

I hit the camera out of his hand and went for his bag, thinking I’d run with whatever money was still inside it with his books, but I couldn’t see much because of the flash and before I could get my hands up to protect myself Chris slapped my face hard and hit me in the chest and then I was on my back with his palm on my head against the stone. Chris got right up on top of my body and now he was on me with his knee down hard against my upper rib, the rib right above my heart. I heard the rib go pop and I lost my air to the weight of him. I spit up at him and growled and told him to Fuck off man stop it come on man stop, and I was wheezing. Chris stared down at me cold and calculated and quiet. The sidewalk felt cold too and as hard as the frozen path up to my shack in winter. A moment’s pause while Chris figured out what to do, his palm in my face. If there’d been a rock nearby I think he might’ve done it. He shushed me. I wriggled around. Then his phone rang.

Hallelujah. Haha. Church bells. I laughed into the palm of his hand.

Chris got up and spit into the roots of a sycamore tree. Took out his phone. The little bells inside there rang and rang and he took in a full breath. It hurt me to laugh, but I was laughing.

“Sarah—Wow—Hey, man. What’s up?”

Chris stepped over me. Walked up the street.

I had hit the back of my head pretty hard and so I just lay there some more trying to think. Up high in the sycamore tree I saw a blue tarp caught in the tree’s lamplit canopy of leaves. I tried to concentrate but I couldn’t. I gently elbowed myself back up against the stone wall of the cemetery and dragged my way back down toward the tree. Still wheezing. The roots of the tree had really wrecked the bluestone slabs of the sidewalk and the slabs rose and fell in the shadows like a prank. Art once told me how the city’s sidewalks had all come from bluestone quarries in the mountains around Alma’s farm. A hundred and thirty years ago. Each slab of bluestone seemed so heavy, I thought. The incredible slow strength of that sycamore tree and its roots. I wondered how many people it took to lift the slab I lay on. The blue tarp must have blown up into the tree in winter, I thought. Some poor bastard’s blue shelter. I could hear Chris speaking lowly into his phone up the street. Some poor bastard’s blue tarp house. The maple looking leaves of the sycamore tree had grown and greened all around the blue tarp but I pictured the sycamore bare of its leaves in winter. I closed my eyes. The night was hot and still and the air was wet and heavy. I could barely breathe. I imagined the tarp flapping up there in the wind in winter and the thin trembling branches. It was a cold blue wind and the tarp flapped and flapped up high and the flapping was the sound of my fate, my defeat.

Chris came back down the street nodding and listening to whatever Sarah said. He stood over me looking crazy. All wild-eyed and high. He walked over to the camera and picked it up. Looked it over. Put it back in his bag.  In the sky I saw isolated stars, distant and apart. Not a single constellation. We were down there way below the graves. I hadn’t noticed before, but Chris was wearing these fancy reddish brown leather shoes.

“Right,” Chis said. “I know—Yeah he’s right here. Right. We’re having a blast. Bill’s little birthday party. I know. Yeah. Right. Exactly.”

That’s when I finally got up. My breath had come back a bit but not fully because of the rib and I started to walk up the hill toward I didn’t even know where. The subway, maybe. The Square. Chris followed a little ways down the hill until he hung up and then I heard him running up the hill behind me in those shoes.

I stopped and turned and pointed at him.

“Get away from me you crazy piece of shit.”

“Oh come on, man. You’re who came after me. We overreacted. We were high. Let me buy you a drink.”

I kept on walking. Chris followed, but not too close. The shoes made him sound like a horse trotting up along on the stone. I wheezed a little as I laughed and walked and I was still pretty high and then a beer started to sound pretty good. The bar was a dive we’d never been to together. A place with ripped red leather booths and a jukebox and mirrors. Chris ordered two cans of cheap beer with shots and then he told me, “Put out your hand.” Four blue pills fell into it. I kept my hand out. “Fine,” he said, and then it was five pills and then six and I said, “Hand me that pink book.”

The bathroom was as dark as a cave and the walls were thick with language. I smashed two pills on the hardcover book and there were layers and layers of stickers on the wall, stickers thick as stalactites, and a big green tag above the toilet looked like this:

visual of the green tag above the toilet. Crayon Barn Chris Chapter V by Dylan Smith

Which forced me back into contact with my dilemma. Which was that Alma had made me whole. Before her I hadn’t even known I wasn’t. I’d fallen in love with her wildly, madly, and I’d lied about it all to Chris. I cut two blue lines on the tiny pink book. Love poems by like Neruda or somebody. Alma with that film guy and all my own poems gone missing. My Chris Book. My secrets. I snorted up the lines off that tiny pink book and when I came back out Chris had scribbled an address for me on a napkin. “Sarah’s,” Chris said. I could barely read it. The ink was pinkish red and his camera and wallet were there on the bar and his tote bag hung below him from a hook.

I stared at Chris’s scar.

“You’re who came after me.”

“I know, Chris. Go fuck yourself.”

“I have to be at work in the morning.”

“Okay.”

“You left it in the Square right?”

“That’s what I thought too. But by now somebody probably took it.”

“Where’s your car key?”

“My pocket.’

“What about a phone?”

“It’s been dead a long time in the duffle bag.”

“Well I’ll be asleep by the time you get back. Just ring the buzzer until I wake up. We’re meeting up with Sarah tomorrow, man. Uptown at this address when I get off from work—it’s where your Volvo’s parked. I figured you can drive it back upstate from there. Just please come back to my place tonight to shower before you meet her, Bill. I’ll have the couch made up for you. Some clean clothes set out. You need to try to get some sleep.”

“Okay.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No. Just my rib.”

“What about your head?”

“That’s fine.”

“Alright.”

“Okay.”

We took the shots without a cheers and I handed Chris the book and then he wobbled his way back past the jukebox toward the bathroom. The bar music blared yellow white red and the bar itself felt hot and wet and red. Chris had taken his tote bag with him but he left the bottle of pills on the bar with his wallet and camera like an idiot. I folded Sarah’s address and stuffed it into my pocket. I thought about the green tag in the bathroom again and about the blue tarp flapping in the wind—and then I thought about the first load of firewood I ever helped Art deliver to Alma’s farm. A big blue truck bed full of red and white oak. I helped Art unload it into a pile in the autumn grass and we covered the pile with a big blue tarp. I heard Art tell Chris we should stack it all in the woodshed, but nobody ever did. Every morning all winter long I’d wake up at dawn and walk out hungover through the frozen field toward the small stable barn where Chris once kept his chickens. Four roosters and fifty spent hens from some guy Chris found on Craigslist—I had to feed them as one of my chores. Usually I’d find only two or three eggs and on the hike back up I’d fill the blue wheelbarrow with wood from under the tarp and wheel it all up toward Alma’s farmhouse to make a fire. I’d put on a pot of coffee and sit at the kitchen table alone by the window writing poems. Alma would wake up. Come out with a cute wave and make herself some tea. We’d sit together by the fire in the bright silence and she’d be reading. One morning I watched her paint the wood pile. A small abstract kind of thing on a piece of scrap cardboard I’d ripped up for kindling. Four or five woody red wiggles and a blue line up above like a wave of water for the tarp. I loved that picture. I hung it up in the attic above my cot. But that winter one of Chris’s heat lamps got knocked into the hay because of the wind and when I walked out into the field at dawn the stable barn was burning. Hundred year old chestnut. Ancient hand hewn beams. All fifty of Chris’s chickens in it, and nothing to be done. The frost had thawed in a ring around the fire and the flames rose up with the sun like a silent red hand and I just stood there by the wood pile watching the morning burn.

At the very last second I decided I should leave. Fuck Chris. I grabbed the bottle of pills and Chris’s camera and the wallet and I ran out into the heat—I ran and ran and ran into the night and I didn’t want the bastard to catch me so I held my busted rib and I ignored my throbbing head and I was in love and I ran and ran and then I was underground, and at the far end of the platform hidden under the stairs I waited for the train in that long white yellow blinding miserable airless summer heat.

A little time passed.

A lot of shallow breaths.

The subway tile pulsed with my throbbing head and glistened. Red rust trickled between the tracks in a little creek and everywhere the trash and stink and the rats. This kid came down the stairs in a paper birthday hat tugging at a big bouquet of rainbowy balloons. I stepped out from under the stairs and yelled, “It’s my birthday too,” but I must have scared the kid’s mom because they rushed away and down to the other end of the station.

That’s when I saw this guy standing alone and staring up into the light. He looked as if he’d just seen something horrific, or maybe holy. The guy was draped in white robes which time had darkened with grime and in that underground air he held out a Dunk’n Donuts cup as if it were filling with the light. I took out Chris’s wallet. Almost a hundred bucks. I removed two twenties, balled them up as I approached, and I dropped them into the guy’s holy cup. Unmoved. I put Chris’s driver’s license in the cup and one of his credit cards in there too. The guy’s dry lips quivered. He muttered something under his breath—not a thank you, but more of like an underground prayer. A manifestation of everything dirty and divine. The fluorescent light filled him as it flickered but the man remained true. Unmoved. Then the train came and I got on it and it was like the gates of hell clanged shut behind me. The gates opened and shut and they opened again and opened and opened and opened again and it was like that all the way until the bridge—and then soaring through the air again clanging and clanging and there was the city and the dark black water and the night again, and the Statue of Liberty like some holy golden light out there in her money-colored robes and the city pulsed and sparked and each window replaced a star in the night, and then I was up in the Square and I was searching for my bag alone in the dark and broken.

It wasn’t there. Simple as that. I checked under the chiseled rock bench and kicked around at the empty bottles Chris and I had left behind—but nothing. I checked trash cans and inside tree holes. No bag. No bag anywhere. By now it was getting late and the Square had emptied except for the people who lived in there under tarps and a dozen or so drunk college kids stumbled around being idiots. Anybody could’ve taken it. I couldn’t even find the moon. I walked around the fountain looking for the guy who’d been painted to look like a statue but I didn’t see him. I sat back down on my bench to think and listened to the sound of the fountain. I had a little moonshine left, but not much. I drank it down. A drunk piano player played sloppy drunk songs in the bottom left corner of the Square but I could barely hear him over the water. A newspaper blew by like tumbleweed. Moved by some mysterious gust in the strangeness. There was the red chalk again. CURRENT. I chewed on one of Chris’s pills.

And that’s when I saw the Tarot Guy sitting there crosslegged under the Arch. He’d set up a squat foldable table at knee height. He sat there shirtless and he was staring at me in this tall gray wizard’s hat. I waved, but he didn’t move. He really freaked me out. We eyed each other. The wizard hat was the size of a traffic cone on his tiny bald super-tan head but there was a lot of calm air around him as I approached. He seemed to be looking out at me from within a deep meditation.

A hand drawn sign taped to the table read: FORTUNE TELLER. CALDER. TAROT. TEN DOLLARS.

I waved again. Nothing.

“Hey man—you know that statue guy? That guy painted silver and gold who stands over there like a statue?”

“The man you speak of has a name. It is Gary. Gary is a good friend of mine. So yes, I have seen him, but he is gone.”

“Well have you seen a duffle bag? I’m looking for my duffle bag. I left it over there under the bench.”

“Oh. Ha. Yes. It’s you. Of course. I’ve been waiting.”

Calder pulled my duffle bag out from underneath his tiny table.

Holy shit. I dropped to my knees and held my busted rib. Magic. My broken heart. I opened the bag right there on the spot and dumped its contents onto Calder’s tiny shitty table. I tried to say thank you but I could barely breath. There were the socks and the underwear and the long red birthday box Chris had given me and the card. All of it was there in a pile on the table. I dug through the bag some more and found some loose flattened papers and some trash and a dirty broken toothbrush and two pens. I pushed through the two pairs of socks and the underwear on the table, and I pushed everything off the table and onto the bluestone slab and looked through it again. I ripped opened the red box. Inside it was a telescope. A golden telescope with a leather strap like the kind a sailor would use to find land. I picked up the box and dropped it again and I opened the bag again and all its side pockets and I held it upside-down over the table and I shook it out. Saw dust fell out over everything and some small rocks and a gum wrapper and a couple bottle caps. I picked up the long red box again and I threw it off to the side at the Arch.

Calder watched closely.

“I’m fucked,” I told him.

“Yes.”

My Chris Book. My journal.

Calder nodded calmly. Knowingly.

I couldn’t figure out how exactly yet—but I knew it too.

Chris had stolen my secrets.

For money Dylan Smith plants flowers on rooftops in New York and has a website with links to other stories online. Oh and check out The Other Almanac. A piece of Dylan’s will be published in print with them this fall.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

The Playground

By Matt Rowan

The guy was not a very sociable guy. He walked past a small playground every day. There was never anyone playing. No children. No adults. No dogs, even. In fact, a lot of parks and playgrounds expressly forbid the presence of animals, pets – wild animals could do as they pleased, no one would stop them. (You’d like to see them try!) But no pets, even though it was public property. That didn’t seem very fair. 

This day, while walking by the small playground, he decided he was done with his job. He was done with his old life. He climbed some plastic steps and sat on a slide. He wasn’t coming down. He was wearing his business suit. He had a tie on. 

Not too long after he’d positioned himself there, a little boy and a little girl emerged from a nearby house and walked over to the playground. They had a tiny dog with them. The dog wouldn’t stop barking at the guy. 

“Go home, kids. Places like these, they don’t allow dogs. They only allow people,” the guy said. “People like me. They’re for people like me.” 

The children stared at him in the way children will.

“I said go home. And take the dog. Don’t you know dogs aren’t allowed in places like these?” Raising his voice now. “This is a place for people whose lives are garbage and who’ve got nothing left to give.” 

“You’re in our backyard,” the little girl said. The little boy touched her arm, and he shook his head, no. They went inside. The dog followed after them. The guy stayed where he was. 

Here, all around him, was what his life had amounted to, so little. Friends of the guy had said he was melodramatic. That didn’t mean he wasn’t really and honestly suffering. And greatly. 

The next day, the guy still hadn’t moved. A few more adults were with the guy, sitting on different parts of the swingset and other equipment. The little girl and the little boy began playing in the front yard, deciding that was better than trying to get rid of the adults. 

This time it was the boy who lost his patience. “Get out of here, you people! This is private.” He ran and climbed up to a man in a business suit sprawled out but seated upright on top of the blue plastic tunnel that connected the two wooden structures of the playground apparatus. “Goooo, gooooo,” the boy said, shoving this man. The man moaned but did nothing else to indicate he was aware of the boy’s shoving. “Muuuuuuuh,” the man said. 

The boy kicked the man hard on the spine. The man, overcome by the pain of it, felt his back. He moaned again, this time to convey physical pain. And then, once he’d recovered, he slapped the boy hard on the face. 

The guy looked at the boy, and then looked back down at the woodchips beneath him. Sometimes, in this world, little boys get slapped by men.  

The boy’s eyes welled with tears and he began bawling, running from the man, and the little girl was shouting something incoherent as their dog barked obsessively. 

The guy dragged himself through the wood chips and the distance between that separated the playground apparatus from the swingset. He pulled himself up by the swing’s chains and hoisted his torso over the swing’s seat. He was still facing downward. He crouched back on his toes and pressed off to give himself a bit of forward momentum. It didn’t do much. He moved very slightly. He moved, though. The swing weakly rocked back and forth, but not for long because his feet still skidded against the ground. He kept his arms hovering over the ground for a while but they soon fell. All of his limbs created friction and slowed the swing down. He was back at a relative standstill, twisting the seat left and right and twisting its chains up sort of. He got back on his toes and repeated the process. His clothing was covered in wood chips. 

“I don’t care. Whoever you are. My life has been the worst by far,” the guy said, tugging at his shirt. 

“Are you talking to me?” said a woman wearing a red skirt and white blouse. 

“Sure I am. Why not? I am. You don’t have it like I do.” 

A man in a cowboy hat and a bolo tie interrupted them. “Whoa now, who had it worse than what? Let me tell you who has it worst: me. Yessir. There was a time a man could speak his thoughts out loud without being told not to after he spoke his thoughts out loud.” 

“What sorts of thoughts?” the guy said. 

“You know the sorts, but I’ll tell you — all sorts. And time was I could say them and no one would mind. Hell, people would clap and applaud and tell me I’m great. But then the second I spoke my thoughts to ‘more people’ everyone got all bent out of shape. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair. I blame the leaders of old who didn’t do their jobs. Them and the new leaders, who are terrible.” 

“It’s true. A lot of things are terrible,” the woman said. “Just think about poverty. Poverty could happen to anyone. You wake up and boom: poverty.”

“I tell you this, we ain’t talking about the same thing, girlie.” 

“Don’t call me girlie,” the woman said, and threw a handful of wood chips at the cowboy. The cowboy howled in exaggerated pain as a few of them winged his face. He then sobbed and wilted back into himself.

“I’d fight you for suggesting your life has been worse than mine, if I weren’t so miserable,” the guy said to the cowboy and rolled over on his back, staring up into the sky at nothing specifically. 

More people started filling up the space on the playground equipment. All of them had problems. They looked like birds, all huddled together in masses of humanity. 

The boy and girl’s mother was in the kitchen. She looked out the window that offered a view of their backyard. She was horrified, startled by the many people who’d filled every inch of the available play space. 

She went immediately to her children. “Have you been outside recently? Have either of you been outside in the backyard?” 

“We both have,” the girl said. The boy nodded but looked away from his mother. 

“Did you see all the people? Did you talk to any of them? They’re strangers, so don’t talk to them again, if you did. I’m calling the police and I want you both to stay inside.” She saw the boy now; she saw his face, the red mark. “What happened? What did they do, who did this?” The mark on his cheek seemed to be throbbing. She dialed 911 and, despite what the operator had warned her not to do, she hung up and went outside to confront the adults who had hijacked her children’s backyard playset. 

“Get out of here,” she said, moving briskly toward the adults, resembling a pod of walruses now more than birds. They stayed entirely still, unstirred by her sudden appearance. She raced around the various people in their various positions: supine, recumbent, seated with legs crossed, slumped over, and dangling from various objects and heights. “You all need to get off of my property.” 

They had no intention of leaving. She was beginning to think she could beat one to death and still the rest wouldn’t leave. She tried anyway, a ridiculous looking man in a trenchcoat and wearing the fake “nose, glasses and mustache” combination. He refused to fight back, as though he were in some kind of transitive state. She was furious, who were these people and what had they done to her child? The police might take her in, as well, but she was going to be sure someone answered for their crime. 

She clawed the man’s face. She bit him. She stomped on his neck. Eventually he began stuttering and gurgling up blood. But it was more like a damaged robot expelling some kind of fuel or propellant liquid. Not a man. No longer that, if it ever was. 

“You are not a child!” she shouted as though it were an expletive. “This is not a public playground and even if it were, there is no going back. You think you can just go back? Who are you to think that?” She spat on the man, having finished her attack.

The police arrived, and they saw the mother standing over her victim. The police thought the scene was weird but aware of the only option available to them, they took the mother into custody. The children watched as their mother was escorted into the squad car, learned from this obvious injustice that the world is a complicated, terrible place. 

The guy knew that. He had already arrived at that point. That’s why he was laying where he was laying, blood pooling all around.

Matt Rowan lives in Los Angeles. He edits Untoward and is author of the collections, Big Venerable, Why God Why, and How the Moon Works (Cobalt Press, 2021). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, Electric Literature, Gigantic Worlds Anthology, Booth Journal, TRNSFR, Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, Moon City Review and Necessary Fiction, among others.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

Watch and Learn

By Jillian Luft

Every day, the knocks came. Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy.

Beads of sweat ran down their bodies, clung to the polycotton blend of their K-Mart dresses, squished between toes scrunched in shimmery plastic. Humid sighs of nothing, there’s nothing hung in the afternoon haze as they waited for someone to drive by and wave, for anything  to coast around the corner and take them by surprise.

There was only so much Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy could do in Verdant Village. They could roam the subdivision’s empty streets as if they were one sad backyard. They could buy Screwballs from the ice cream truck and throw the bubblegum stones at the warty red ducks that bit their hands far too often. They could creep toward the canal and wait for a gator to feast on their tender shins. And when they exhausted those options, they could look toward the road while the blacktop cooled, dull and quiet and wonder what lay beyond those rust-flecked walls. .

I was too new to the world then to grow tired of things but now I see why Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy slouched on the sidewalk, their day-glo jellies poking the pavement while they longed for anyone—even their mothers—to come outside and talk to them. After school, they appeared on my doorstep because I nodded and smiled and consented to anything they asked. I gave them what every girl wanted: I made them believe they were at the center of things. I was eight and glad to have a job to do.

When not at school, I spent my time staring slack-jawed at the TV screen, filling my head with a constant reel of music videos. Smoke and silk, fire and fantasy, neon and nasty. I couldn’t get enough.

But when those knocks came, I always answered.

Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy were older. Fifth and sixth graders with awkward teeth and budding breasts. They liked charm necklaces, WWF wrestling, scratch-n-sniff stickers. They loved, loved, loved Bon Jovi.

Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy spoke softly of Bon Jovi. How they would marry him, how his hair looked in the video premiere, how he sang and made them cry.  If you asked me—and no one ever did— Bon Jovi was a twerp with a horsey smile. Even his winks were wholesome. He was a goof, like someone’s dad wearing a wig. I liked the wild boys, the ones with the impish sneers and scandalous pouts. The ones that looked like they were up to something secret and special and I was dying to know what. 

How cute is he? Katie swooned. We were sprawled out on her living room floor and “Bad Medicine” was playing for the umpteenth time.

Sooooo cute, Bren and Shandy swooned right back.

My mom said I can go to the concert but only if we win the lottery. She’d better play a zillion times because there’s no way I’m missing my husband!

Katie clutched her heart and flung herself against her bean bag chair. We watched this performance and giggled like we were supposed to.

My dad’s always playing that dumb lottery, Shandy said, rolling her Disney animal eyes.

My dad tries to tell my mom it’s a waste of money but she doesn’t listen to him, Katie scoffed.

Bren said nothing because her dad didn’t live with her.

I said nothing because I didn’t know what the lottery was and I didn’t know much about what my dad thought about anything. He was always working. At night, a scrambling of keys in the door, a tired face in the cramped foyer. A man who put me to bed, tickled me and told me he loved me before leaving me in the dark.

In Verdant Village, none of us had money but we acted like we did. We had a community pool and our condos were basically houses with screened-in patios, modest dining rooms, vanity lighting. Maybe it wasn’t true suburbia, but it was the same sunshine warming our limbs. The same grass, only less of it. Even if we owned more square footage, we’d still be hyped-up on Kool-Aid, strung out on MTV. We told ourselves it was all the same.

Dads worked at power plants and pizza joints. The lucky ones pulled shifts at both. Moms stayed home and set the table. When their kids were watching, they danced in their living rooms. When no one was watching, they napped until dark. Their lives, fevered pink with blusher sets, lemonade, flamingo home decor. They baked and vacuumed and tied up the phone lines with stories of bill collectors, their husbands, other people’s husbands, the state of the neighborhood, the state of the world, department store sales, and how we drove them crazy. And then one day we heard them murmur a new word.

What’s a Peeping Tom anyway? Shandy asked.

Katie sipped her Capri Sun, let out a world-weary sigh. It’s like a pervert or a robber. It’s like a bad guy, okay? A really bad guy. 

I don’t get it, Shandy said.

I don’t either, I admitted.

He watches ladies through their windows and waits for them to take their clothes off. Do you get it now? Bren smirked.

Kinda, I guess.

But why is he called Tom? Shandy asked.

He just is! God, you guys can be such babies sometimes. Katie buried her upturned nose into Bren’s triple-pierced ear and snickered.

I tried to ignore them, return my focus to Bon Jovi and his lame antics. But it was no use. Their laughter won out.

Katie and Bren often teamed up, making it clear where their loyalties lay. I didn’t mind, really. I was just happy to be there. But Shandy, the 10-year-old in the group, wanted to be seen as their equal. Her dignity depended on it. Like so many times before, at this sign of alliance, she fled for Katie’s bathroom, slamming herself inside. I shuffled toward the door, waited for her in the hallway. Loud sniffles competed with the running faucet. I never knocked. I let her be.

When the sink went silent, Shandy exited with her sad movie stare, imploring me to take her side while she took my tiny hand. And I never knew how to say no to anyone so I let her lead me out Katie’s front door and across the street. I’m not sure Katie or Bren even noticed.

***

Shandy’s dad, Don, was home. Like usual. Wearing nothing but his tighty-whities. Hairy legs spread wide in his recliner. A jar of Miracle Whip in one hand. A butter knife in the other. Thick chest hair, thicker glasses. The stench of fried bologna glazing the air.

Hey honey, he greeted me, licking the knife’s edge clean, then dipping it back into the jar. And he smiled. Wide. Not like Bon Jovi’s grin, not like Billy Idol’s snarl. More like a circus clown on a smoke break. Relieved that the facade’s crumbling. Pleased that you’re confronted with his true nature.

Shandy, sweetie, grab your Daddy a soda before you go play, wouldya?

Shandy abandoned me for the fridge and I swayed in the sliver of light Shandy’s mother’s seashell lamp offered, the only light in that living room at all. Cars exploded on the television. Shotguns fired. The knife ran circles in the now empty Miracle Whip jar, scraping and screeching against the sides.

So, what are you girls up to? Don scratched a furry thigh. I avoided his tortoiseshell frames but I felt his eyes leaning into every part of me, burrowing past my suntanned skin, my chubby-cheeked politeness and digging deep to reach somewhere I didn’t even know about.

I shrugged, looked down at my Easter yellow socks, my candy pink jellies. Tried to focus on the colors, the cheer they offered in brighter places than this. He was asking me something. But I didn’t understand what. He was asking more than what he was saying. He was asking me something else entirely.

You’re so shy, he laughed. Just like my Shandy.

My skin burned so hot I was convinced it smelled. My tongue wilted. My limbs froze. I decided that at least half of me was dead. Half of me had gone limp, watching Don ingest me without even opening his mouth.

Here ya go, Shandy mumbled. A soda can hissed. I heard a gulp, a belch. No thank you. Just the increased volume of brakes screeching, glass shattering.

Shandy took my hand again. She revived me. I fixated on the back of her strawberry print romper as she skipped down the hall, leading me to safety.  I tried not to think about Don’s hungry eyes bulging in the dark.

In Shandy’s room, we knelt on her bottom bunk, undressed Barbies in our fists. We smacked taut torsos together, bent legs into impressive splits, contorted smooth groins into straddle-friendly positions. Some of the dolls didn’t have heads. We’d managed to pluck their symmetrical faces clean from their necks, leaving that weird fleshy knob. We made their grotesque bodies wail and whimper Oh mys! and Oh nos! even though they didn’t have vocal cords, even though they didn’t have mouths.

It was a ridiculous game. A game fueled by our curiosity about how a woman’s body worked. What it did when it was alone and out of our sight. In this game, we agreed that to be a woman was to be naked and maimed. To be a woman was to be hysterical. I didn’t know where we got this from. Maybe TV. Or maybe it’s what our mothers implied when they rested silently on their loveseats. Their eyes, unfocused but fierce with knowing.

A flock of headlights flew across Shandy’s window, signaling the dads’ return home from work and dinner time. I dropped my dolls, said good night and made for the door.

Don was still pantless and parked in front of the tube when I re-entered the living room. At that moment, I was reminded of my mother’s advice when playing in the backyard, the canal flowing a few feet away. Don’t get eaten by those gators. Run like mad but scramble! Zigzag. If you zigzag, they’ll never catch you.

Hey, sweetie, Don called after me. Don’t be a stranger. You’re welcome here anytime.

Thank you. I-I-I won’t, I stammered, memorizing the same crap linoleum I had in my own entryway, hands trembling as I reached for the doorknob. I could feel his eyes roving in their glass cages. Somehow, I managed to stagger out into the streetlights and zigzag my way home.

When I walked in, I inhaled deeply. Exhaled finally, too. Taco night. Cumin and onions. Something sizzled, something bordered on burnt. TV on, not MTV. The evening news. But no one was watching.

Mom’s voice spiraled through her bedroom, following the length of her phone cord as she stretched it to its limit. Hovering in the teeny space between her bedroom doorway and the kitchen entrance, she monitored her ground chuck. Nothing was in flames, so she continued gabbing.

It’s probably that Christian kid…No, no his name is Christian. He’s definitely not Christian…The one that lives by Tammi. You know the one. He’s got that satanic music blaring out of his car at all hours of the night…Yeah, the dirtbaggy-looking one. It has to be him because Gary and I caught him and his punk friends on our roof throwing rocks up there, drinking beers and other dumb shit… Un-huh. Yep. And he was pressing his pimply face to our skylight, looking in at us watching HBO, yelling and laughing. Gary dealt with them, went out and told them to knock it off. We haven’t had trouble with him since. He doesn’t even make eye contact with us anymore, the twerp. But I could see him doing other creepy crap. I wouldn’t put it past him to be our neighborhood Peeping Tom…Hold on 007’s home… Heeeey, when’d you get here? Your dad’s out back. Go say hello.

She patted my head absently but I didn’t bother responding. I knew she wanted me out of the way so I kept on walking through the kitchen. I yanked open the sliding glass door, stepped onto the patio to find my dad beyond the screen, perched high on a ladder, installing the high-tech lights he’d blabbed about for weeks, the kind that clicked on when something moved. When someone moved. Someone. Somewhere out there.

Don’t come outside. Stay where you are, Dad barked. 

I won’t. I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my face to the screen. 

The mosquitoes are bad. Some huffing, some panting, some metallic clanging and then: What’d you do with your friends today, squirt?

Nothing really. Just played.

Sounds nice.

I waited for my father’s next question. Crickets chattered in the grass. My father’s feet rested on the rung in front of me, his dirty work boots level with my face. I peered up but could only detect the faint outline of his denimed torso. All I could see was his neck. The bugs were finding me through the screen and my father stopped speaking, so I wandered back into the faux warmth of our living room. Dusk filled the skylight above my head. I was getting hungry.

On the TV, an old man reported another girl missing. I immediately changed the channel to watch a pretty man sing.

***

It was Mom’s idea. Katie, Bren and Sometimes Shandy at our place for a sleepover. An excuse for her to invite their moms, and Tammi, over for some “grown-up fun.” Strawberry daiquiris and girl talk at the kitchen card table while their daughters huddled up in sleeping bags in the living room, slowly losing their innocence to cable TV. 

Katie and Bren didn’t want to be there but their moms refused to leave them home unsupervised. After all, there was a Peeping Tom on the loose. Plus, their dads were working overtime and wouldn’t be home until dawn. They were probably bribed with cheap jewelry and cassettes from the mall. It was fine to hang with me during the day but no babies were allowed in their presence past sundown. When they arrived, they talked only to each other, kept their distance from Shandy and me in case some cool stranger dropped by and they had to explain, Hey, we’re not with them. We swear.

Have fun, girls. Pretend like we’re not even here, Bren’s mom said before disappearing into the kitchen. We didn’t have to pretend. Once the blender started whirring, we rarely saw our mothers’ faces. We might as well have been alone.

I didn’t ask Katie or Bren to play Barbies or board games or Truth or Dare. I didn’t ask them anything at all. Instead, I decided to gossip. To reveal something. Something I’d overheard that might ingratiate me to them further. Something that might change the course of their lives—at least for one evening. And they’d have no choice but to be grateful.

We were watching that boring movie with Tom Cruise and the unicorn when I turned to my fickle friends and teased, Hey guys, I know something you don’t know.

What? Bren asked, eyes still on long-haired Tom.

Yeah, what? Katie asked, stuffing more popcorn into her mouth. 

Well, you have to promise you won’t tell anyone. 

God, we won’t. Now tell us.

Yeah, spit it out already.

Shandy grinned patiently, said nothing.

You know that older boy, Christian? 

Their eyes fixed hard on my little impish face. I knew I had them now.

Oh, he’s so cute! Katie exclaimed.

Yeah, he’s super dreamy. Dreamier than Bon Jovi maybe. What about him?

I kept my tone casual but glowed with pride. He’s been on my roof before. Him and his high school friends go up there to party and drink beer. And one night he was looking in on my parents. Maybe he’ll do it again tonight and we can wave or something.

Oh my god, no way!

All three girls screamed. With anticipation. With fear. With desire. I tried to shush them in case the moms heard but it didn’t matter. The moms were cackling too loudly. The moms were drunk. 

We should scare him by sticking our tongues out!

Ew, no. Funny faces are lame, Katie. We should just look up at him like, “What are you doing, you freakin’ weirdo?” Like we don’t give a crap.

Yeah, you’re right. I was being totally lame. Let’s just do what you said.

I gotta put some mascara on. Bren rummaged through her purse.

I don’t know, guys. Maybe he’s the Peeping Tom. Shandy laughed nervously; her Disney eyes panicked.

But we ignored her concern. This was the night’s new plan.

For what felt like hours, we craned our necks toward the glass-plated night and waited for Christian to see us. Eventually, our necks ached and our stomachs rumbled and mom had baked a batch of Toll House she was willing to share and we were getting tired even though we swore we’d remain awake to see Freddy Kreuger invade teenage dreams, to see a startled Christian beaten at his own game. The prospect of his arrival had been enough to satisfy us. So, we turned away from the skylight and filled our mouths with chocolate before giving ourselves over to sleep. 

I was faking though. I took advantage of any opportunity to stay up late. The moms were still in the kitchen, pairing their cookies with Kahlua and milk, discussing what they would do if they were the Peeping Tom’s next target. Who they would call (their husbands at work, the cops, each other), what they would shout (curse word, curse word, curse word), who they would blame (pornography, society, unemployment).

Then I heard the squeak of nylon and opened my eyes to see Shandy slipping out of her sleeping bag and ambling into the kitchen. I didn’t hear what she said but suddenly she was leaving and ruining her mother’s good time.

This was my one night off in forever, Shandy, her mom grumbled while stepping over our still bodies.

I didn’t ask her but I think Shandy was afraid Christian would show up and haunt us in our slumber. I stared up at the skylight again and held my breath. I saw only black but I couldn’t help but think of Shandy’s dad’s face. 

At some point, I fell asleep to the TV and the moms’ tipsy excitement about when and where the Peeping Tom would strike next. My own dreams remained undisturbed. 

***

A few weeks after the sleepover, Katie, Bren and me were down at the pool, splashing around. Shandy stayed home with a stomach bug. We were showing off our handstands and holding our breath in the deep end when we spotted Christian, up-close and shirtless, washing his car in front of the pool’s gates.

Katie and Bren scrambled out of the water like excitable dogs, shaking their bodies dry in an embarrassing hurry. A boy was better than handstand contests. A boy was better than me, better than ice cream or anything. They elbowed each other in their scrawny sides and dashed toward the gate, leaving me and their towels behind. I hung back because I knew my place. I knew I didn’t belong in this scene. Still, I entered it anyway.

After collecting our towels. I dragged my feet across the scorching cement to the pool’s entrance. Once outside the gates, I dawdled under a tree a few yards away and tried my best not to gawk, to make my presence known. There he was. Flaxen rattail pasted to the damp of his neck, silver cross earring sparkling in the sun. Axl Rose whistling through his stereo speakers. An open beer next to a bucket of suds. Christian, dirtbag teen and possible Peeping Tom, on full display.

Katie and Bren squatted on a nearby parking curb, squinting up at danger. They talked loudly about nothing. They used bad words and acted stupid. They didn’t acknowledge me once even though I stood directly behind them.

Christian sponged his windshield, humming along to the radio like we weren’t right there ogling him with open mouths. We watched his muscles crest like waves across his back as he lunged over the gleaming black of his Pontiac Fiero, as he hosed down his hubcaps, waxed his back bumper, polished his taillights. And then he turned his attention, along with the full force of his nozzle, to Katie and Bren. He doused their just-dried bodies, aiming directly at their bare browned skin. They squealed and bolted across the parking lot, giving themselves away as the children they were.

Eventually, the water stopped rushing and the girls stopped shrieking. But Axl was still singing when Christian moved toward Katie and Bren. He lit a cigarette, looked on as they shivered with delight.

I’m headed up the street to the Gas-n-Go. You two wanna go for a ride?

I mean sure yeah cool. That’d be awesome. Katie and Bren were beaming, giddy. Then, emboldened by his invitation, Katie asked: Would you mind buying us some Garbage Pail Kids?

Christian laughed. Yeah, I can get you some of those. You’ll owe me one though. Then he turned his bright eyes on me. What about her? Does she want to come, too?

She’s not allowed, they said while I stayed in the shade. He took their word for it, tossed his bucket in the back, and revved the engine. In their soggy two pieces, Katie and Bren clambered into Christian’s passenger seat. All goosepimpled flesh and giggles. Katie squirming on Bren’s lap. Don’t you dare tell on us, they smirked. Fingers to lips curled in satisfaction. It’s a secret, okay?

The shiny Fiero sped off, left me choking on a cloud of burnt tire and cigarette smoke. I wanted to know Christian’s secrets. Not if he was the Peeping Tom or not. I knew he couldn’t be the one stalking our windows. Getting loaded with his friends on our roof was for fun. What the Peeping Tom did was for something else.

I wanted to know other things about him. Like his favorite Slurpee flavor, his favorite song, what he wanted to be when he turned 18. I wish I’d blackmailed Katie and Bren, asked for a pack of Garbage Pail Kids or Dr. Pepper Gum in exchange for my silence. Asked for anything at all.

That night, I curled into my covers and imagined Christian lurking outside my window, surveilling from the front seat of his Fiero, aiming his eyes and high beams into my bedroom, hoping for a light to flicker on, for a mere glimpse of my beauty. He wasn’t a Peeping Tom, just a lovesick boy. In my mind, there was a difference. 

I fantasized I was older. Older than Bren or Katie but not as old as our mothers. I had teased hair, bleached blonde, like the girls on Club MTV. I wore ripped jeans and bustier tops. To sleep, I slipped on satin negligee. My room wasn’t crowded with toys or stuffed animals. Everything smelled fruity-sweet and party-ready. Everything was cool. I was cool. 

And Christian knew it and longed to be inside. He ached to hold my hand while I slept. He ached to make me stand in the middle of my moonlit room, his arms around my waist as he looked deep into my eyes to find that I knew much more than Katie and Bren. About life. About rock music. About all the things that mattered to him. That I was ready to ride shotgun in his Fiero far past the Verdant Village walls and the Gas-n-Go. That no one would have to know he kidnapped me. That no one would care if I went missing.

***

***

Not long after Katie and Bren’s Gas-n-Go escapade, the knocks stopped. The pair became a rare sight, sometimes glimpsed in Christian’s driveway where he and his scummy pals loitered past dark, blasting metal from their cars’ tinny speakers. 

Katie and Bren still looked bored but less alone and more important. I guess that’s what Mom meant when she said there was a way something called puberty could change you. I wondered if they still loved Bon Jovi. I wondered if they thought of him—or me—at all. 

There was still Sometimes Shandy, skittish and lonely at my front door. Big eyes pleading for me to not turn her away like everyone else. And I never did. Only lied now and then when she asked me to play at her house.

Sorry, my mom says I’m not allowed anymore. She wants to keep an eye on me. 

Mom was one of the last to encounter the Verdant Village Peeping Tom. Dad was working overtime the night he visited, which meant I was staying up later than usual lounging on the sofa like a lazy empress, gnawing on cold slices of leftover pizza. Adam Curry was counting down the top videos of the week. 

Over Bret Michaels’ broken heart, I heard my mom on the phone.

Holy shit, Tammi. He was here…You know who, the creeper, the peeper!…No, I couldn’t tell. It’s too dark and those stupid lights Gary installed don’t catch crap. But someone was out there, standing and facing my bedroom. I got out of the shower with my boobs out and everything else before I even noticed! Jesus Christ.….Yeah. it’s kinda my fault though. I left the blinds open by accident like a dum dum…Yeah, I’ll be fine. Gary gets home soon. Hope that asshole got a good show…Hey, you might be next! (laughter)…Okay, g’night.

I waited for the clack of the receiver. Her door was ajar. I knocked gently.

Why are you knocking, kiddo? Get your butt on in here!

Mom was in bed, freshly showered and smiling. She pulled back her bedspread, patted the empty side of the mattress.

Come on in. The water’s warm.

I dove in between the sheets and snuggled into the soft of her terry cloth robe, her loose curls spilling wet onto my cheeks. I hoped she’d spill her secrets, too. I wanted to stay there, nestled against her. Warm and safe. I wanted to be her baby still, for her to watch over me and never let me go.

We cuddled in silence for a while, our bodies facing one another. I kept my eyes on the vertical blinds, their vinyl slats jammed shut. Protectors from the night. 

I swallowed hard and looked deep into my mother’s eyes before asking, Mom, did you see the Peeping Tom just now? 

Were you listening to my phone calls again, 007? You’re too smart for your own good. She ran her fingers through my tangled hair. I didn’t see who he was but I saw someone man-shaped for sure.

I swallowed hard again. Do you think it was Don?

Don? She jolted upright, her spine kissing the headboard. Why would you ask about him? Kiddo, what’s going on?

Nothing. But I don’t think it’s that Christian.

Jesus, 007! When did you hear me say that?

I don’t know…one day when you were on the phone.

Dear lord, you truly are a spy. Listen, I’m not sure who he was, she sighed. And I don’t want you to worry, okay? He’s not going to hurt me. And he’s not going to hurt you. Whoever he is. She reached for my hand, crushing it against her sun-damaged chest. Her eyes boring into my brain. There are people out there that are searching for something. Some excitement, I don’t know. We feel more sorry for people like that than anything.

I nodded although I didn’t understand. Mom vibrated with a nervous energy, but it wasn’t fear. 

You know sometimes I think you know more than we think and it’s terrifying. She bent down and kissed my forehead, gave my tummy a playful poke. Let Mommy get dressed, sweet pea. Daddy will be home soon.

She rose from the bed, freeing herself easily from my embrace, opening and shutting dresser drawers, retrieving her clothes and then her cosmetics. I lay there and thought about how mere minutes before a mystery man took in the sight of my mother’s naked body. But more than that, he’d entered a place he didn’t belong without ever having to step inside. 

I watched my mother watch herself in her bureau mirror, pursing her lips together like a promise and admiring the results. Her eyes, aflame and haloed in kohl, she reminded me of the women on MTV—the way they arranged their faces to fit the mood of the man’s song, the way they pretended they weren’t seducing and surrendering to danger. But they knew they were and they liked it. My mother’s reflection met my eyes. I wasn’t sure which one of us had been caught.

She turned around and bared her normal face, flushed and sheepish. Shoo, shoo! she squealed, chasing me out of her room before quickly closing her door. I lingered, hoping to be reinvited, but the blow dryer began its pretty drone.

I let my mother be, plopping myself down again in front of the television. I let the men in the music videos tend to me, let them teach me. Those men that sung about being hungry beasts, bringing me to my knees, watching every breath I take and wanting more, more, more. I brought my face so close to the screen, I could taste the technicolor of their feigned desire. I didn’t dare look anywhere else.

Jillian Luft recently returned to her home state of Florida. Her work has appeared in Hobart, XRAY, Rejection Letters, Expat, Vlad Mag, and other publications. She’s currently seeking publication for her novel about toxic Florida romance. You can find her on X @JillianLuft and read more of her writing at jillianluft.com

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

THE SUICIDAL IDEATION THAT SPIKES WHILE CHANGING JOBS

By Jesse Hilson

I was at a library and talking with a middle-aged woman and made a pass at her. I was telling her movies to watch and books to read. I touched her throat, then said I’m sorry, and are you married? She seemed alarmed but not like she was going to call the cops or anything. I think she gave serious thought to being unfaithful to her husband with me, like she wasn’t hostile to the idea but it made her feel very sad because she felt trapped. Only one other person lingered in the library with us, the librarian, another even older woman who sort of represented the middle-aged woman’s life and sense of propriety. She was pretending to read a book and waiting for us to be done with our conversation and leave.

I’m very attracted to you, I said, as if this fact should knock over everybody else’s needs and upend lives. Vronsky and Anna didn’t wait for the world to cohere around their wants. I didn’t say that at the time but I’m saying that now. This really happened and it’s still happening.

Then I drove her somewhere. It was a cross between LA and the town where I grew up. She ended up disappearing.

I’m the Son of Sam but instead of a dog, it’s a black mold pattern glyph on the wall at the head of my bed, behind the headboard that gets onto my pillows and seeps into my mind while I sleep, gives me hyperdreams. Grand Theft Auto Sadness. Antisocial fantasies in isometric pixel animations. And I don’t even like games.

I couldn’t give my wife a back massage because her back was covered with ink. Less a tattoo than a glossy book cover, like a catalog. For Xmas shopping. I said she had a lot of knots and tried to remember the parallel runways of muscles up both sides of her spine but the printed back ink was confusing me. I felt her big breasts. She kicked me out of the house. I tried to talk her out of it. A baby was walking around the room. It was such a bitter argument. It was forever. A typical theatrical event was happening elsewhere and I drove there listening to delusion-reinforcing music with cryptic lyrics as I used to do in that part of the city. At the theatre thing, which was full of kids because a lot of schools went there, an adult pulled a gun. They talked him into leaving and he was tackled by a tank of a security guard on the front lawn. I went to a concession stand inside which seemed familiar: and I bought three cannabis-infused bananas from the rip-off artist. Right away they got jumbled with normal bananas so I lost track of which ones had the drugs in them. So I ate three and went outside and there was a rock concert with people dancing and the band was playing the hit single from that year “(I Was) Standing In Heaven.” 

The interview they give to welcome new schizophrenics is called the IRIS (Ideas of Reference Interview Scale), and a high score on item 14 indicates that some message of significance has been sent to the interviewee through the media. In the Before Time, usually while driving, awake and not dreaming this time, I did perceive that — Kurt Cobain singing “Yeah” on the car radio meaning whatever random thought I was thinking at the moment I heard that verse of the song was true, song lyrics teased information about hidden Cotard arrangements, death marbled into life — but now it’s as if TV shows and movies and pop radio were daily rushes slipped quietly over the transom of my heavy-lidded eyes in REM aquarium depths. Dreams are safe psychoses (sike-oh-sees), rehearsals of virtual unreality. Wandering around fairgrounds honeycombed with tents and corrals no one wanted you to be in, populated with crooked firefighters, rapists, angry ghosts, disabled childhood friends, all in constant frenetic video game motion.

I am led by spectacle through dream-malls. Stage massive dynamic group-races that absorb me and take me along. Blood trips, voyages that always have some dramatic turning or betrayal among passengers, often family members. Shopping spaces, markets both indoors and outdoors, carve up group attention. An audience waits and peers into my dream-world. Mass media pilgrimages staged for someone, not me, not the dreamer displaced by the spectator’s passive ego. Everything is given a new portentousness, a signal within the dream transmission.

Setting up social media accounts, dating apps, work emails at my house, I had to come up with wifi superstitions to combat the ghosts that prevented multi-factor authentication from getting through. Everything’s combat. And the authentication code only arrives when it’s too late and you are no longer near the device. This is the shield of the poltergeist.

Frustration happened impacting the mood, paralyzed the mood-feeler beyond the actual obstruction causing the frustration. Can’t eat can’t sleep can’t perform simple tasks. The crazy man is a robot with one square task-peg stuck in his round queue-hole blocking a whole string of other later tasks, of all more amenable shapes. I don’t appreciate you setting the extroverted tempo. I have not intersected enough with all of you. Very well. I will take my chances. A noon whistle blotted out all repetitions of your name.

Jesse Hilson lives in the Catskills in New York State. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Expat Press, Hobart, Exacting Clam, Don’t Submit!, Bruiser, Apocalypse Confidential, and elsewhere. He has published two novels, Blood Trip and The Tattletales, and a poetry collection Handcuffing the Venus De Milo. He is the founding editor of Prism Thread Books. He can be found on X and Instagram at @platelet60.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

LOU AND OTIS

By Ed Komenda

Lou opened the door with a heavy blanket over his head.  I hadn’t seen my best friend in over a year, and it was a relief to see him standing there, cloaked like the South Side’s Obi Wan Kenobi. It was January.  A few days after Christmas.  A dull gray Chicago.  Lou welcomed me into the house:  A rented three-bedroom on 67th, where the temperature was a few degrees warmer inside than outside. Comforters covered the picture window. A blue couch sat at the center of the living room.  On the cluttered coffee table sat a TV remote, a Tambourine, a stack of X-Men comics, an old Ziploc of weed, an empty bag of Lays, a pickle jar half-filled with garlic chunks suspended in juice, a peanut butter jar with a protruding spoon, a two-liter of Coke with one pull left at the bottom, an ashtray with Camel cigarette butts, six or seven nubs of days-old blunts and a tattered copy of Road-side Dog.  The reason blankets covered everything is winter gas bills got too high.  One weekend of heating the place and you were bankrupt.  Lou zipped his body in a sleeping bag and breathed through a fabric air hole he fashioned in the shape of his mouth.  We walked through the living room and into the hallway, where another set of  blankets obscured a doorway.  Lou parted the blankets like a beaded curtain, and we stepped into the kitchen.  It was warm.  All four burners on the gas stove were going.  Lou sat at the table. In front of him sat a bottle of Jim Beam.  Next to the bottle was a tiny puddle of spilled whiskey – an erroneous pour left to evaporate.   Lou poured a shot for himself and took it. He slid the shot glass to me, and I took one, too.  We said little. We traded the shot glass until we felt brave enough to exit.  Lou said he needed five minutes to shower. He left the kitchen and entered the bathroom.  Shower sounds and steam leaked under the door. I rubbed my hands together and jammed them into my coat pockets.  I could see my breath.  The spot reminded me of the country house where I’d been living the past three years. I stapled Walmart blankets over the windows. I kept a space heater next to the bed.  I slept fully-clothed – pants, sweatshirt, socks – with a hood drawn tight around my head.  A heavy blanket on top. On the dead heating vent, I kept a bottle of Wild Turkey.  It was nice to have someone to drink whiskey with.  In the country, that someone was Otis, the fifth man on our four-man lease. He looked like a descendent of Andre The Giant if Andre The Giant grew up roping steer and using Keystone beer to fluff up his scrambled eggs. He stayed in the basement. Tucked in a corner room cramped with warped, musty vinyl, a king-sized bed and computer desk, he chain-smoked Winstons and played World of Warcraft, wrapped in a nest of secondhand blankets. We had a fireplace in the living room and no money for wood. But we worked in the library, and one day Otis returned with stacks and stacks of discarded books. He grabbed a thick history text and tore it in half.  Split it right down the spine.  He grabbed a geography edition next  and tore that in half, too.  I could tell he was well-versed in the art of book disposal.  We stacked the pieces like cords of wood. I crumpled pages into kindling balls, and Otis dropped his own in the ash. He flicked his Bic under the yellow pages, and soon there was fire.  We spent the next week watching Kubrick on couches we salvaged from curbs around town. I was working a library shift when Otis fell asleep during a Cheers marathon. A few embers popped past the metal mesh and landed on the carpet. Smoke filled the living room. A house party regular named Cody showed up and found Otis snoring. “Yo, wake your ass up!” He slapped Otis awake and stomped the smoldering rug. Otis rubbed the crust out of his eyes and peered through the haze. “Shit,” Otis said, “that was a close one.” He cracked a window, shut off the TV and went back to sleep.  Lou came out of the bathroom, slicking his hair back with a brush.  Steam followed him like a fog.  We drove to Chinatown for five-dollar soups. We cruised. Marquee Moon played from the car stereo.  We glided through the dirty slush with no plan, no discussion about what we’d been up to, no talk of what came next. We were full of broth. And we were warm. 

Ed Komenda is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow him on Instagram @ejkomenda

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Across The Wire Vol. 2

Leaky Boat

By Dylan Smith

They put a perfect

Cathedral in my phone 

an endless Barn

gets Spiritual inside 

Wordy Mountain 

Brand New Bible

for every War 

and all its Trees

like an Ark 

Take that apocalypse

out of your pocket  

Google the Word 

Tevah—haha

why not, Put an-

other Endless War

in it, Put all of 

Moby Dick 

in it and

every Name 

of every Tree 

and all that Math 

My phone is a

leak in the Alphabet 

Proof of Space 

I loved your name 

absorbing Light

and Water and

this is the Way

we’ll be told 

our Mothers

are dead

Dylan Smith is serializing a novella-length fiction thing called Crayon Barn Chris and plants flowers for money in Brooklyn, NY.

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Across The Wire Vol. 2

Wrong Currencies

By Sy Holmes

I stood next to Julia, holding a portion of Lou’s ashes in a Dixie cup. The air was calm, and it was cold, but not snowing yet. We were in a scrubby half-acre out behind Lou’s friend’s house, near Rochester. It was short on views, but my late father-in-law had claimed it was his favorite place on earth. He had hunted deer here. He could sit in his tree stand, drink Black Velvet, and be at peace. No memories of 9/11. No stress from the firehouse. No kids asking him for money. No cops bringing his drunk wife home. Just him, a rifle, a pint, and the deer that sometimes decided to show up. It was beautiful. He wanted his cremains scattered here. 

“Dixie cups?” I had asked Julia. 

“What the hell else are we supposed to scatter him out of, Ben?” 

“I don’t know.” 

I really didn’t. Maybe they made special ash-scattering cups. I had always assumed that was something the funeral home would give you on the house.

“Ben, baby,” she was talking slowly, like I was a kid in her second-grade class, “we’re giving him the best we can.”

“Yeah, I know, but I used to drink Sunny D out of these after church.”

“We’re doing the best we can.”

“I know, babe, I know. He’d just think it was funny too, probably.”

“I don’t think it’s funny, Ben. He’s my father. He’s dead. We’re honoring his memory.”

“I know, I know.”

Lou had been a man dedicated to his college rock. On late-night shifts in the ‘80s, when there was nothing else going on, he’d call radio stations until he became caller number five or whatever and win records. Eventually a couple of them had to ban him. His wife got herself banned from the local Chinese place, the school where she worked as a teacher’s aid, and most of the bars in Queens. His kids had gone to Catholic schools. It wasn’t a bad life, he’d say. I was from South Carolina, which was close enough to Georgia for him, so he always told me about how much he loved R.E.M. Murmur, Fables, and Automatic were classics, of course, but his favorite album was Monster.

 I’d come up to his retirement place – the house in small-town Pennsylvania – on Christmas and sit in the garage with him, listening to it as he got drunk and nodded along. He had the album on a moderately-scratched CD. Some friends I have are all about sound quality, fancy speakers. Not Lou. Lou was a man for the people. If the boys from Athens repeated a couple lines, that was alright with him. He wanted “Strange Currencies” played at his funeral. It felt weird holding him in a paper cup next to a picture of him, young and thin in his FDNY turnouts, CD player ready to go on the leaning folding table.

We were all going to walk around the woods, sprinkle out his ashes, then reconvene for the final goodbye. I split off from Julia and wandered, sprinkling the ashes into a bush here, in some moss there, trying not to create little piles of Lou everywhere. I loved the man. I don’t want to make light of his memorial. It was hard looking at Julia through the trees, trying to do the same thing. I liked to think Lou would think it was ridiculous. I liked to think he was looking down on me from somewhere. It made it easier to cope with the fact that he was gone, and this was all I could do about it.

We all made it out of the trees. There was a tasteful trash can for the Dixie cups. I crushed mine and put it in my pocket, promising myself that I would burn it in our backyard later. Hell, I might take the whole bag back in the car with Julia. Just her and me and the cups contaminated with the remains of her father. I would build a bonfire and hope the HOA didn’t bitch. 

Mikey, Julia’s younger brother, was standing by the table. He was wearing a black suit with a black shirt, a red tie to round it out. He was ready. Ready to play the disc. Ready to inform me that it was time to leave an Italian restaurant. I was in no state to judge Mikey’s fashion choices. I was freezing my ass off, an old down coat over my blazer. When you’re thinking about an outdoor memorial service, you really never consider that no one is going to lug fine wooden furniture out to the woods, or that maybe your dumbass family and friends won’t look like a Brooks Brothers catalog. You never think about Dixie cups and the fact that it isn’t going to be the classiest thing on earth unless you’re mob-connected. It’s hard to fuck up R.E.M., though, unless you decide to play “Everybody Hurts.” At least Lou could have that. 

Mikey pressed play. I was waiting for the feedback. I could almost see Lou, drunk and leaning his head back, tapping his foot, smiling. Instead I got the click and piano riff of the song after it, “Tongue,” the band’s ode to the cunnilingus, desperate yearning, and the pain of feeling like a last-resort lay. As I heard Michael Stipe’s falsetto start, I tried to bury my face in my hands and act like I was overcome with emotion. It didn’t work. I was cackling, man, not a shred of dignity left. 

“Ben,” Julia hissed at me, “this was the song he wanted. I don’t get it, either, but could you stop being an ass for five fucking minutes?”

I’m sorry, Lou, we fucked it all up. I should’ve known. You should’ve known. I hope you’d have done the same. 

Sy Holmes is a writer from western North Carolina. He lives in Montana with other people’s dogs.

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Across The Wire Vol. 2

If we make it through December

By Sheldon Birnie

Some of the neighbourhood dads are planning a trip out of town to harvest Christmas trees. 

A little jaunt to the great outdoors sounded swell, just tickety-boo. Pocket flash full of rye, maybe sneak a toke or two after the kids run ahead. Good clean fun. Only we got this giant fake tree off my wife’s parents like 10 years ago, when they were downsizing. Seven feet tall, big fucker. I’m spitefully committed to putting the son of a bitch up every year until all it’s plastic needles fall off and it’s just a metal skeleton, or I die, whichever comes first. 

I send our regrets. Leave another one to grow out there in the orderly wilds of southern Manitoba. Maybe next time, I tell ‘em. Sure thing, dudes. Sure thing.

Every year, when we set this big bastard up in December and take it down again in January, we vacuum up at least a cup, maybe two, of green little plastic needles. But it doesn’t show. This thing might as well have come outta the box yesterday, fresh off a boat from China and a transcontinental shipping container ride by rail to the middle of fuckin nowhere.

At least the kids still get a real kick outta setting the thing up. Pulling out the bins of decorations – some as old as my wife and I, some older, even – and dressing the tree. Seasonal tunes playing in the background. The classics. Please, daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas. I try to soak it all in, but it isn’t always easy. Merry Christmas, I don’t wanna fight tonight. They’ll be grown before I know it, uninterested or feigning so in all this seasonal mumbo-jumbo, and then they’ll be off on their own and it’ll be time for my wife and I to downsize ourselves. If we make it through December.

The tree, I’ve no doubt, will still be standing. An offgassing ghost of Christmases past. Unless we suffer a house fire or sewer backup in the meantime. Maybe I can pass it on to one of the kids, once they’re grown. Keep the tradition alive. Will they still celebrate Christmas, as the world spirals inevitably into climate catastrophe? At least the bulbs burning upon its boughs are LED.

And they do look lovely, late at night when the rest of the house is sleeping, all the lights out but one I read by. A tall dark rum with a splash of coke for colour close at hand. But most nights I’m not reading. No Chuck Dickens for me. I’m just staring at the tree – lights twinkling, sparkling, anytime my eyes tear up – until the morning comes yet again.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer, dad, and beer league hockey player from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. 

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

Tiny

By David Williamson

The day Rosie was sick and stayed home from school, her daddy stayed too. He worked from his home office and sat in his chair and clicked on his laptop and looked at reports. Every few minutes his hand reached down and ruffled Buck’s golden doggy ears. Automatic, unthinking affection. 

Because he had to work most of the day, Rosie could do whatever she wanted. All morning she streamed musicals on her tablet. When her eyes dried out and started to itch, she switched off her tablet and plugged it into the charging station in the kitchen. 

She pulled a near-full gallon of milk out of the fridge, poured four giant glugs into a plastic salad bowl, squeezed eight seconds of chocolate syrup into the milk, and whisked it up until it frothed. She put the bowl on the ground, crouched on all fours, and lapped it up like Buck would do with his water, but it didn’t make her feel like a dog.

Rosie grew tired. 

Her bed faced the windows in her room, but too much sun came through for her to sleep. It cut chaotic scraps of light all over her bed like the throw-away parts of a paper snowflake. 

She gathered up a thick quilt, her pillow, and armfuls of her stuffed animal friends – Night-Night Bunny, Team Owl, Ogre, Jelly, others – and carried them into the bathroom, lined the tub with them and climbed in. The curtain screeched as she closed it. She lay in the tub thinking about chasing squirrels in the backyard until she fell asleep. 

When she woke up, the first thing she saw was a giant chrome cobra hanging over her. She shrieked, then remembered she made a bed in the tub, and the cobra was just the showerhead. She climbed out of the tub and called for her daddy. He didn’t answer even when she knocked on the closed door to his office. 

She moved like a ghost through the hallways, down the stairs, in and out of rooms.

Daddy, where are you? bounced off the walls. 

She ran back to the office and threw open the door.  Her daddy’s chair was gone. Where his desk should have been was a cardboard box instead, sealed with rainbow-colored tape. 

The insides of her body rattled. She floated through the house again, calling Daddy! but there was no Daddy, and – a thing she hadn’t noticed a moment before – there was no furniture. No pictures on the walls. No charging station in the kitchen. No tablet. A house emptied of everything but her and the box. 

She went to her daddy’s office and picked up the box. The rattling in her body, now a steady vibration. Her fingers trembled so the tape was hard to peel at first, but once she got a corner free, it came off in colorful strips. 

Inside was a miniature stuffed version of herself. She and the tiny Rosie even wore the same clothes: purple pajama pants and a t-shirt that read “Good Vibes Only.” The tiny Rosie clasped a rolled-up piece of paper in her tiny, stuffed-toy hands.

The real, life-sized Rosie unrolled the paper and read the message typed on her father’s official letterhead. 

Dearest Rosie,

I looked for you but couldn’t find you. Just this miniature stuffed version of you in the tub. I looked for you in your closet and in the crawl space. I looked for you in the attic and inside Buck’s doghouse in the backyard. I called your name, but you didn’t answer. I looked for you in the linen closet and the small cupboard where only your little body could fit. I looked for you in the sofa cushions and in the trunk of the car. I looked for you in the neighbors’ houses and under their beds and in their cupboards. I called the police, and they looked for you in the sewers and the woods and the tree forts that the neighborhood kids build. They looked for you at the school and the playground and at the bottom of the pool at the community center. They looked for you inside of wells, as children your size can fall into them, but you weren’t anywhere.

I don’t know how I could have missed you. Why did you leave? It’s been so long. I’ve gone now, still looking for you. I miss you terribly. 

Lots of love,

Daddy

He signed the letter in his official-looking signature. 

Rosie felt too sad to cry. She rolled the letter back up and hugged the tiny Rosie. Then she went downstairs, opened the front door, and walked into the yard. The grass under her feet was soft and fine like Buck’s doggy fur. The giant maple tree with leaves that caught fire in the autumn was now a thick column of knotted yarn. Wisps of batting poked out where the knitted bark came loose. Buck curled up in the corner of the yard, billowy and still. His eyes, hard disks of glass. The neighbors’ houses were enormous downy things that looked as soft as marshmallows. The sky was an unrolled bolt of felt. Clouds of stuffing hung down from fishing lines, and the sun was a bright golden pillow. 

Everything was stuffed except for her body. She felt the bones inside her arms, the tremors running through her muscles. The organs inside her hardened and squirmed as if she were hungry. 

She cradled the stuffed version of herself, lay down on the fluffy grass, and shut her eyes. Moments later she fell asleep and dreamed of her daddy at his desk, clicking away on his laptop, his head, inches from the monitor. His lips muttered words, but she couldn’t tell what he was saying. She called out to him from the doorway, but whatever words each said never reached the other. Their speech came out too softly. Whispers in cotton.

David Williamson is a writer living and working in Richmond, VA with with his family and a whole bunch of animals. Williamson’s stories are forthcoming or have been published in Short Story, Long, X-R-A-Y, BULL, Maudlin House, HAD, and others.