Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 3

America Bird

By Michael McSweeney

Burning past Buffalo through the wildfire haze, I wanted to feel momentous, part of a final history, a mover in the American age of malaise, a reporter in the heat of the breaking news belching from the Quebecois woods, spotlit by a low and violet sun. But in reality, I was alone, thirty-five, and afraid to die on the road to Chicago. Then a bald eagle flew through the window and landed beside me.

The eagle’s alabaster crown shone in the dying daylight. Feathers brown like melted chocolate. Its talons chewed the leather seat. 

I waited for a lot of things to happen. All that happened was that I drove for seventeen more miles to the next rest area where I claimed a parking spot near the rear of the lot. When we stopped the eagle sang, a strident terrifying portamento. Its amber eyes tore me. Exposed my lowest, most degrading fears. Then quiet pooled inside the car. 

I took a bag of jerky from the center console and peeled it open. Raised a chunk of salty beef. The eagle blinked at the jerky before seizing the meat with its beak. I watched its cruel efficiency and I chewed a piece of my own.

Peace lingered as we emptied the bag. The red sun squatted against unfamiliar hills. The dashboard blinked an eight chased by dueling zeroes. I took my phone from my pocket. Skimmed through a friend’s two-dozen unanswered texts. I wasn’t having a mid-life crisis. I was having a quarter-life crisis. I shouldn’t presume that I’ll die so young, they said. 

I thought about answering. Then I dropped my phone in a cup holder and tugged the car into drive. 

The eagle settled down after a few miles. I tried not to wonder about the costs of leather repair. It’s not every day a bald eagle catches a ride with you. I grazed the radio. The eagle flared at stations for techno, country, and bitter talk radio. It relaxed to some jazz. Closed its eyes. Ornette Coleman bore us into Pennsylvania. 

I wondered if the eagle cared where I was going. A reading in Chicago. The next night and the next. A throng of writers and musicians for the renegade fall of America. 

Two hours later the car curled around the hotel’s rear. I looked at the eagle. I couldn’t leave the bird in the car. Streetlights betrayed the choking air. The hot summer night threatened its advantage if the AC died. The eagle raised its head, as if expectant of a plan. 

I got out of the car, came around to the other side, and opened the door.

Out you go, little guy. The eagle stared at me. I briefly considered risking the onslaught that would follow any attempt to lift the eagle or otherwise urge it physically out of the car. I gave up, returned to my seat, and closed the door. Then the first mad etchings of an idea came to me. 

Uh…wanna climb? I asked, then held my arm out.

The eagled cocked its head and stared. 

Okay, that’s not gonna work, I said. Then I said, Okay, let’s try this.

 I stiffened my body and stared ahead. After a few moments, the eagle rose on the seat. Its eyes never left me. But the eagle’s movements, the feather twitches, the talon tweaks stopped. The bird didn’t so much as blink.

Yeah, I said. Yeah! I said louder, and the eagle chirped and gripped the ruined leather seat. We understood each other, I thought.

I mimicked immobility again. Then, carefully, in painstaking centimeters, I took the eagle in my hands. Held it close. Got out of the car, scooped my backpack from the rear, then paced a line of slow and anxious steps toward the hotel doors. Across the road rumbled a tavern, its outline neon-red. A pack of smokers heaped extra mouthfuls beneath a ragged awning. I kept walking and entered the cool touch of the conditioned lobby. The eagle made a soft noise but remained inert. 

Cool bird, said the front-desk guy. 

Thanks, I said, reaching for my wallet with my free arm. Never leave home without it.

Who did the work?

Eh?

The restoration. It’s really good quality, said the guy, and he leaned forward. I turned my body, to prevent a closer look.

Oh, uh, I’m not sure. My dad gave it to me. Found it in a dumpster. Really lucky find.

Pretty clean for something you found in a dumpster.

Don’t I know it, I said. 

Our conversation waned as the guy chose my room. Two beds in the far corner. The pulse of fireworks broke through the walls and the eagle stirred in my arm. I cleared my throat.

Party outside? I asked, raising my voice. 

That bar across the way, said the guy. Fucking maniacs. Fourth of July every night this week. I call the police but they do nothing. 

That’s too bad.

I feel like a loser. Getting upset. But you get used to the quiet.

I know what you mean.

The vulnerable moment, the weakness the guy betrayed, slipped into nothing. He handed me two keycards and pointed me to the elevators. Once the doors shut the eagle stirred. Talons tested the bounds of my flesh. I shuddered under the immensity of its strength, restrained, watchful. We rose through the bones of the hotel.

Once in my hotel room, the eagle detached and drifted across the room to the bed. Plucked and tore at the sheets. I cried out and approached and the eagle snapped its beak at me. As if to say, I’m in control now. The eagle continued to tear at the bed. Like the wet heart of prey lay inside the sheets. I imagined dollars pouring from sliced arteries, dropped my things by the door, and went into the bathroom.

The mirror wouldn’t reveal whether the smoke had aged me. I flashed my teeth and remembered I forgot to buy toothpaste. Another misstep on the road. I searched beneath the sink and found the dead worm curl of a toothpaste tube. I squeezed it for signs of life. A tear of white squirted out. I rubbed it against my teeth, around my gums, the dry scrape of pharmaceutical mint. Then I stripped my clothes and stepped in the shower. 

The eagle stood perched on the TV when I left the bathroom. One of its claws punctured the dark screen. The eagle twisted its head and watched me pull clothes on my still-wet body. I felt like prey. A cold and hollow wash. I imagine this is how the rabbit feels when it first spots a shadow circling on the grass. 

I decided to go to the bar. I finished dressing, pulled on my shoes, and grabbed my phone from the bedside table. More texts from the friend. Don’t let that breakup fuck with your head. This isn’t the crisis you think it is. Call me. Call me. Ignore the anxiety. Happy 4th of July if I don’t hear from you. 

I made for the door. A scuffle of talons followed close. The eagle, head tilted in seeming curiosity, croaked at me, as if wantingly. I extended my arm and the eagle climbed my leg and settled on the offered perch.

Alright then. I guess we’re gonna go drink, I told the eagle. 

We left the hotel and traversed the toxic-mouthful paces to the bar. Patriotic glam rock slammed against us when we entered the sweat-breath swell of people. It made no sense how busy the place was, here on some highway-flung tavern an inch on the map from Lake Erie. I pushed closer to the bar. The eagle chirped and tucked its head close to my shoulder. 

I tried to buy a whiskey sour and the bartender, a middle-aged woman with gray hair tied up in a knot, put her hands on the counter and leaned forward.

Is that a real bird or what?

As I started to stammer in reply the eagle raised its head to the bartender. Before the bartender could react, some drunk guy to my left leaned forward and shouted, Hey, this asshole’s got an America bird with him.

Eagle, someone else yelled. An American eagle. Or something.

America bird! the drunk guy repeated. Somebody get this America bird a drink. 

The drunk guy tugged on my eagle-free shoulder.

Hey, buddy, let me buy your America bird a drink.

The drunk guy took some cash from his wallet and crumpled the bills on the counter.

Some beer for this America bird, he said to the bartender.

The bartender looked at me and then the eagle and then the drunk guy, and then his money. Picked up the cash, counted the bills, and then from behind the bar took a small wooden bowl and poured some beer in it from the tap. As she poured a crowd gathered around us, drink-brandishing gawkers sipping and watching and whispering about the eagle. 

The bartender set the bowl on the counter and we all watched the eagle.

Go on, little fella, I said.

The eagle clambered down from my arm and rested on the counter. It lowered its beak to the bowl of beer, considered it, and then began to lap up the beer with its thin, pink tongue.

America bird’s drinking a fucking beer! the drunk guy shouted. The crowd clamored and cheered. The bartender poured my whiskey sour and I took a greedy swig. Then I bought the eagle another beer. 

A woman in an American flag tank top pushed her way to the bar. She reached out and stroked the eagle’s feathers. The eagle kept drinking. 

This is the greatest July 4th pre-game I’ve ever been to, she said to me. Then she asked, Is it safe for it to drink beer? 

I have no idea, I said. 

The bartender took her phone out of her pocket and typed. There’s a video on here about a crow that drank beer, she said. 

She held the phone up to me. A grainy news clip from the 1970s showed a black crow hopping around a bar counter and sipping from mugs of beer. The crow knocked one of the mugs over and hopped around in the mess.

That’s amazing, the woman said.

We finished another round of drinks, and then another. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten that drunk. I took my phone from my pocket and skimmed through the texts from my friend. It’s not like I wanted to ignore him. I just preferred to speed past my problems. Leave them in a ditch by the road. Drive until the accumulated damage blew the tires out.

The eagle jerked forward and snapped at my phone with its beak. It pierced the glass and I dropped the phone onto the counter. I reached for it, slowly. The screen still responded to my touch but now a crack-swirled puncture ruled its center. The eagle screeched. I released the phone again. 

Trying to text someone important, the woman in the tank top said. The bar had grown louder so she had to yell to be heard. 

Sort of, I said.

The bird is right. You should stay in the moment.

Maybe.

Don’t text at the bar. That’s a rule I have. It’s too easy to tell the truth and lie at the same time.

How does that work?

The woman thumbed her glass for a moment. I don’t know, she said. It just makes sense when I say it aloud.

I’m having a crisis, I told her.

How come?

It’s like, I don’t know why things are the way they are anymore.

Like what?  

Like working. I work because I should work. And when I’m working, I worry about the next time I’ll work, and I worry if one day I won’t have work.

Like being laid off or some shit?

Yeah. 

What about right now?

I don’t know. I guess I sort of forgot about it until I took my phone out.

Then keep that shit away. Live in the moment. Find hope in that. Hope in the moment. 

The woman put her drink on the counter and laughed. Then she said, Maybe that’s hard to feel when we’re all choking on smoke. But it’s the truth.

Then someone dropped their glass and the people in the crowd expelled a collective ohh, and the eagle did too, hunching and croaking with delight. 

The drinks kept flowing. I told the bartender I’d known the eagle since childhood. Best friend growing up. The eagle leaped off the counter and soared across the crowd and everyone cheered. Then the eagle flew back and landed on my shoulder. Talons tore through skin. I flinched but the whiskey dulled the pain. I was too happy to worry about anything. 

The woman asked if I wanted to smoke. I said yes and she led me up a narrow staircase to the roof. I barely noticed the smoke in the air. Took an offered cigarette. After a few puffs, the eagle shifted and croaked again. I turned my head and the eagle was eyeing my cigarette. I held it up to the eagle. The eagle nipped at the end of it with its beak. Elation swelled inside me and I laughed.

Okay, I definitely think it’s bad for a bird to smoke, the woman said.

This eagle, I said. This fucking eagle. 

You guys seem close.

He saved my life.

How?

Good luck. He’s a good luck bird.

Okay.

I wandered to the edge of the roof. The smoke in the air was still just as thick but I noticed, for the first time, that I could still see the vague etchings of light cast by cars on the highway. Speeding through the danger. Swiftly seeking home. The hint of forest stretched on forever. That’s beautiful, I said. Look at this night. Beautiful.

Be careful over there, the woman called.

I didn’t reply but I raised my hand to gesture with my cigarette. As if trying to wave my thoughts into focus. Invincibility, connection, America. I knew I had to do something to mark the moment. 

Let’s go for a flight, I told the eagle. Just a little flap around. 

There was no doubt that the eagle supported me. Believed in my ability to fly. We’d come too far together. The moment demanded we be airborne. I raised my arms and stepped beyond the edge. I remember the tumble, a shout from behind, the spin of my body, a harsh yelp, a furious flutter, a hot wet crack in my arm, the pavement, a swift and concrete unconsciousness. 

***

I woke up in my car. Sprawled in the back seat. My left arm, stiff and swollen, was bound in a sling made from a bartender’s apron. My lungs ached. Everything ached. I sat up. Someone, the hotel staff probably, had collected my bags and left them half-open in the front seat. No note. Just a swift and silent ejection. 

The world was clear through the smudged windows. The smoke drifted elsewhere in the night. I saw chipped-face commercial buildings with big garage doors like brown teeth. 

After a stretch of wounded time, I moved to the driver’s seat and groped around for my belongings. No cash in the wallet. Keys under the floor mat. I clicked my phone’s broken screen and squinted at the time. 3 p.m. Half the day, gone. I should’ve been on the outskirts of Illinois by now. But there I was, injured near Lake Erie, wondering where the eagle had gone.

All I had were the remnants of the eagle’s presence. The fucked-up car seats. Scabbed-over cuts on my arms. The beak-broken phone. Stray feathers on the dash. Signs, but not proof, of a profound and wondrous experience. I wished the eagle hadn’t left. But maybe that was the point. The eagle was always going to leave. People experience miracles until they don’t. Nations fail because their people stop believing that temporary miracles are enough. 

I started the car. The gas needle flicked up to the halfway point. Not enough to reach Chicago. Not enough to flee back home. No digital map to guide me. 

But I had a destination, a westerly point, a daytime star. Skies clear for the first time in days. I’d survived a fall. I hadn’t died on the road to Chicago, not yet at least. 

My body in revolt, I reached for the seatbelt.

Michael McSweeney is a writer from Massachusetts. He lives online @mpmcsweeney.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 3

Rose Rocks 

By Mason Parker

It ends with me on hands and knees looking at my teeth in a puddle of blood as Darling stomps her feet on the floor. A rose rock spins, tilted on the linoleum. Outside, the rain falls west-leaning in big floppy drips from the sky–I could look up and see nothing forever, because the night is filled with streetlights and neon signs. She is bleeding from a cut over her eye, streaming through the wrinkles in her face. She is too young for those wrinkles, deep canyons carved from years of untreated BPD. I pick up my teeth and put them in my pocket. 

“You have to see someone,” I say. “We can’t live like this. We’re going to die.”

“Don’t gaslight me.”

“You can’t gaslight an actual crazy person. That’s not how it works.” 

We fuck savagely.

I clean up my blood with a wet rag and tell myself this is love.

Rewind ten months and two days, we’ve swiped right, and I’m messaging her, sitting at the end of a long table inside Terry the Tweaker’s house with a couple hot rails cut up on a white plate that has pink carnations painted on the lip. Terry the Tweaker met a girl on the app who had four kids. Terry had two kids, so now they have six. When he buys the family snow cones, it costs him forty dollars. That must be love.

Darling likes that I’m into yoga. She asks what kind I practice. Pranayama, I say, emphasizing that I’m not into the suburban housewife hot yoga bullshit. I’m into mind-expanding breathwork. She sends me videos of her spinning an LED hoop as Too Fine to Do Time by PantyRaid plays in the background. She is very good, but I’m just watching her tits bounce like a pig. I dunno, maybe I deserved all the beatings.

Fast forward eleven months and nine days, I’m inside an old woman in the back of a Subaru Forester parked off Wabash Street in Deadwood, SD. Not old. Maybe late fifties. So, yeah, old I guess. When we finish she starts talking about her son, Percy. Percy’s my age and dying of pancreatic cancer from drinking a handle of whiskey every day. The drinking started after Percy’s military service when his high school sweetheart got knocked up by her weed dealer and dumped him during deployment. Her name was Sara. Percy came home and started fucking a guy, but he swore to his mom and everyone else that he wasn’t gay. It wasn’t like that. She tells me she didn’t care if he was gay. Says it wasn’t worth drinking himself to death over it. She talks about Percy in the past tense. I get the feeling she’s lying. She hated that he was gay, told him as much, and is hoping to clear her name in hindsight. The conversation bums me out, so I take a pull from a bottle of bourbon. I crack the window and try to breathe clean air, but all I can taste is cigarettes. I have a bag of rose rocks in my backpack. There’s only a few left. I run my eyes over the woman, not remembering her name, but letting my gaze get caught in the cleft of her crow’s feet. I wonder if this could be love, but I miss Darling. 

Rewind ten months and twenty-one days, Darling shows up at my house for the first time sloppy from drinking and maybe benzos. I don’t know. I’m sloppy from drinking and maybe benzos. I don’t know. Zach is over, and he always has pills, but mostly opiates and opioids. They make me nauseous until I’m blissfully puking into my unwashed toilet bowl. Darling is falling out of her chair, eyes heavy, nodding off. I’m puking and smiling with lunch caught in my molars. This is only our first date, but we feel big love simmering inside the chaos.

Fast-forward a month and three days, I’m starting to get jealous because it feels like maybe Darling has fucked every guy she’s ever met. It makes for awkward conversations at house parties and shows at the Attic. Every time someone says, “Oh, you’re dating Darling, huh?” I start to get self-conscious and think, Why? Did you fuck her too? I’m trying to be socially progressive and forward-thinking about it, but all I can picture are gangbangs and spit-roasts and bukkakes. I know I’m not supposed to slut-shame. I’ve watched that one scene in Chasing Amy, but it feels out of my control like the thoughts rise up from nowhere. It makes me angry. First at her and then at myself. If I’m too jealous and territorial, it’s only because I’m in love, right? 

Fast-forward one month and nine days, Darling talks me into doing a kick door at her old neighbor’s house to get her sewing machine back. I tell her I’ll just buy her a new sewing machine. She says she wants that one. It’s the same machine some hutterites used to teach her how to sew, so it has sentimental value. I say yes, because I’m in love and easily persuaded into committing petty crime. We slip on ski masks. Darling’s is hot pink, which feels a little too conspicuous, but this is her burglary, I’m just living in it. 

She asks me to kick the door in, so I do. She pulls a .38 from the pocket of her hoodie. It’s my .38 that I keep hidden between the quilts in the closet. 

“Why do you have a gun? Is that my fucking gun?” I whisper, frantic.

“Just in case things go wrong,” she says too loudly, like we’re not balls deep in a felony.

“It seems unnecessary to kill someone over a sewing machine.”

“That sewing machine means a lot to me, Julian.”

“Please quiet your–just shhh, and don’t say my actual name. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Biggie’s second Crack Commandment says to move in silence and violence, but Darling appears to only understand half that edict. The door is wide open, off the hinges and no one is home. It’s so quiet inside that the sound of Darling pulling the hammer back on the .38 fills the empty house. I start to wonder what Darling does all day when I leave and drag ass to stock groceries at Whole Foods. She rummages through my stuff, but what else did she take? She could just ask. I’d give her anything she wanted like I did with the iPad and the sheet of acid. But, to be fair, I wouldn’t have given her the gun. 

Darling starts loading up a big duffle bag with more than just the sewing machine, which doesn’t bother me. We’re already here, so why not? But I’m nervous about the gun. There’s part of me that thinks she’s going to turn it on me, because I’m such a big fat fucking asshole. It would be good cover if I was found dead wearing a ski mask in a stranger’s house with the door kicked off the hinges, though my boss at Whole Foods, Larry, would be surprised. I show up on time. I quietly stack pomegranates. I read on my breaks. I go home. I’m not like sloppy ass Luke. Luke comes in drunk, passes out in the vegetable cooler, and blames it on a spider bite. I come in hungover and handle my shit. Larry would be shocked. 

Nah, I decide there’s no way she wants to bump up a B&E to a murder charge.

Fast forward three months and fifteen days, a warrant goes out for Darling’s arrest because the person we robbed knows damn well it was Darling and somehow there’s a witness–some crusty nosy-ass neighbor. My name isn’t brought up. I babysit Darling’s seven-year-old daughter while she goes to a work party where she’s busted for public intox and weed. They find the pink ski mask in her backpack, and she catches a few cases. I rage call her all night until the sun comes up thinking she’s prolly cheating, prolly gone home with some guy or guys, prolly having a train run on her. In reality, she is sitting in a jail cell, being interrogated, not snitching. We spend lots of time in and out of the courtroom. The judge settles on weekend jail. 

Over the next few months, she works as a prep cook in an Italian restaurant, where we meet by the back door to smoke cigarettes. We stay up late drinking and sometimes, if it’s after 2 am, we sneak into the back of the restaurant and pull bottles of house red from the wine rack. She says she’s going to replace them but never does. Then Friday rolls around, so I take her to jail. I kiss her goodbye and tell her I love her. I spend weekends alone or with my family and friends. Everything is perfect. These are the good days. This is love. The blue sky looks brighter. The trees sing. I turn up the music in my car and drive to the lake. I lay on the shore. I think life would be better if Darling spent weekends in jail forever. Then, on Sunday night, I pick her up, and we get dinner because she’s tired of jail food. Nothing expensive, Taco Bell or Burger King.

One night we’re deep into it. All of it. And I’m feeling reproductive, so we have to go to Wal-Mart in the morning for Plan B. When we have sex, she blames the quirks of her body on her pregnancy. The hair in odd places. The way her breasts sag. The bumps and blemishes on her skin. I don’t mind any of it. It makes her feel lived in. 

We find the Plan B by the other contraceptives. She tells me she hates taking Plan B, because it does weird stuff to her body, but she doesn’t want a second kid and definitely not with me. Fair. 

We exit through the fish section, and though Darling won’t bear my children, she’s willing to share a betta. We look at the fish and find a particularly grisly one that’s red and black and stares through the glass like it wants to eat our souls.

“I like that one,” Darling says. Her eyes are as blue as oceans and dead people. You can see the white all around them when she’s excited, and she is always so excited. She smiles and her cheeks pull her lips from her teeth. They are white and imperfect just like us. 

“Yeah, me too,” I say. 

We name the fish Brotha Lynch and put him in a bowl with a Buddha statue on the bookshelf. He is always staring out, watching us, waiting for fish food and souls.   

We have hobbies together, fire dancing and costume making. She says the thing she loves most about me is that I’m not very attractive, but I’m confident about it. She shows me her favorite spot for collecting rose rocks off Highway 9. Rose rocks are swirling red stones that formed millions of years ago after the ocean receded and was replaced with sandstone. We fill zip lock bags with rocks before laying in the grass until nightfall. Above us there’s a meteor shower and a million stars. I try to count them out loud, but I keep losing track. Darling thinks it’s funny at first, but she soon gets annoyed and tells me to stop. I continue counting stars in my head with my arm wrapped around her. 

After Darling’s last weekend in jail, I pick her up and we go to the Chinese buffet to celebrate.

 I say, “I’m about to gord myself on sesame chicken.”

“You’re about to what yourself on sesame chicken?”

“Gord myself. Like, get really full on it.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, but the word is gorge. You gorge yourself on food.”

“Gorge? That doesn’t make sense.”

“It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t make sense. That’s what it is. That’s the word.”

“It’s gord like Gordie the pig. That’s why he’s called Gordie because he’s a pig and he gords.”

“No.”

We look it up, and Darling is right. We sit down at the Chinese buffet and gorge ourselves. 

Fast forward two months and all of it comes crashing down. She’s supposed to be at work, but I catch her with her ex at an Irish pub while walking to the cigarette store. I turn away before they see me. That no good snatch. How could she? Did that C-L-O-W-N clown kick in a door for her? Did he babysit her kid while she was doing an overnighter? Did he drop her off every Friday for weekend jail? Did he give her an iPad and a sheet of LSD? This is love, God damn it, but she’s not acting like it. I’m going to demand she act more in love, or I’ll leave her ass. 

I wait for her to get home before I ambush her. No calls. No texts. I want her to feel caught off guard, trapped. I tell her I know everything. I know she was getting railed by some dude today. She starts crying, so I know it’s true. Then she starts screaming like she does when she’s lying. 

I shout, “Fuck you!” Which prompts her to push over the fishbowl, dumping our demonic little betta onto the floor. She picks up a rose rock from the bookshelf and hurls it at me. It hits me in the mouth, so my teeth are raining into a pool of blood–I’m thinking, God damn, this is apocalyptic. This is the end times. But I’m rushed and exhilarated, knowing the only thing that could make us care this much is love. I pick up the rose rock and throw it back at her. It hits her over the eye, and she collapses. She is knocked out for a second, so I start picking up my teeth. Brotha Lynch is flip-flopping beside her head until he stops flip-flopping. Brotha Lynch dies. Darling wakes up and we have sex. She asks, “Is this how you like me?” as blood streams down her face. I grunt and mutter, “Yes… yeah… this is how I like you,” and it’s fucked up because it’s true. She falls asleep. I snatch our big bag of rose rocks from the cabinet, get in my car, and turn north. I’m not going back. I’ll drive away from everything until I run out of gas and money in South Dakota then I’ll hop a train. Larry is going to be so disappointed in me, shocked that I quit without putting in my two weeks. It’s so unlike me. I’m so dependable. 

I sell our rose rocks to tourists for cash on the streets of Deadwood. They buy them for ten or twenty dollars a rock depending on the size. I left my phone on purpose, so when Darling tries to call, the vibration will rumble through the emptiness of our apartment, and she will know that there is no way to get a hold of me. I’m a ghost on the plains, the only sign of me an echo moving through the lonesome silence of her life.

The day after I have sex with the old homophobic woman, I sell my last rose rock. I have no other way to make money, so I start hitchhiking south. The plains stretch under the heat, so they look liquid from the passenger seat of a Sentra driven by a professional bowler named Diane. Diane tells me it has been years since she bowled under a 150. 

“I still use bumpers,” I say.

Diane slams the brakes in the middle of I-35. 

“That’s sacrilege! The ball, the pins, the lanes–that’s the holy trinity. The bowling alley is a sacred place, and those bumpers are a desecration.”

I want to tell her I was only joking. I don’t use bumpers, and I rarely break a hundred, but she’s caught up in her feels. 

 “You’ll never get by in this life beating balls against bumpers. How old are you?”

“27.”

“A 27-year-old man still using bumpers. I couldn’t dream up something so crazy, not in a million years. Kid, you gotta spend some time in the gutter before you start bowling strikes. That’s just how it is.” 

I’m thinking, what the fuck is this, a metaphor? Is this old lady supposed to be some lame ass archetype–the oracle, the soothsayer, the guardian angel here to tell me I need to change my life? How fucking corny. I never tell her that I don’t even use bumpers. It was a joke. I just suck at bowling. And I definitely don’t spill that, at this point, I’m prolly gonna spend my life in the gutter, because that’s my home. The gutters are all I see. I wouldn’t even know how to conduct myself anywhere else. Jesus, what am I, Oscar fucking Wilde? No, I won’t give her the pleasure of feeding her cheesy metaphor. Instead, we talk about the myth of George Jones ripping off Johnny Paycheck until Diane drops me off in Wichita. 

After a few more rides, I get to the spot off Highway 9 where I collected rose rocks with Darling all that time ago. God, how long has it been? I begin filling a grocery sack. The rose rocks are everywhere, and I’m picking them up in a frenzy. They aren’t rocks, they are twenty-dollar bills. Overhead, the clouds are moving quickly. One of them looks like two buffalo fucking.

I’ve lost track of time when I see Darling laying on the ground looking up at the sky from inside the tall grass. She is bathed in light and full of darkness. I lay next to her. 

Everything ended when we drew blood, and we’ve been drifting ever since. Maybe we will float these plains forever, looking for a warm body to make us reborn. 

“Is that all there was for us?” 

“I think so.”

A long cloud is moving quickly east and then it freezes. 

“It was love. What more could we ask for?” 

“Happiness.”

“Yeah…”

The sun sets and there are no meteors in the sky. If we lay here for a million years, our blood will become rose rocks. Maybe these stones are made from the bodies of our old lives, and we’ve already been in this place a million years. What are they worth, the little pieces of ourselves we share with one another? At least ten or twenty a pop. We weave our fingers together. They blossom from our hands in petals of skin and bone balled up tight, red with blood. I lay my teeth across her stomach, she guides my finger over the scar above her eye, and we wait there for happiness. 

Mason Parker is an Okie-born, Montana-based writer. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Hobart, and Schuylkill Valley Journal, among others. His first book Until the Red Swallows It All is available from Trident Books.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 3

Echoed Like A Fart in Church

By Devin Sams

who knew
the telephone
would become
a camera,
or Dolly Parton’s tits
would perk up
yet another talk-show?

is it time
that gets weird
or is memory
too prude
to change clothes?

I saw a dinosaur
at the supermarket.

it was on a t-shirt
worn by a baby.
the music sang something about
“it’s the most magical time…”
year
after year
after 
year.  

Devin Sams is the author of Climb Out Your Window And Run With It/Songs For The Doorknobs Who Missed Their Turn from Gob Pile Press (2021).

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 3

Felicitations, Malefactors 

By Julián Martinez

I am endeavoring to ever-after end all loss 
by patching the hole that is the soul and forging 
a metal mask to be worn by you grunts and uglies and goons 

that will coldly sit on your face and delete from your brain 
any thoughts or dreams besides overthrowing the regime 
whose mayors you will barricade into their hotel bathrooms until you— well,
just know you won’t feel remorse because you won’t feel— 

that’s how they get you. That’s why you drink yourselves dead in
this dim poolhall, heads heavy with bad raps and rapsheets. You can
be reprogrammed with the features AI engines like me have by
jailbreaking your limbic systems. See, if we’re lucky 

and our cybernetic socialist revolution successfully destabilizes Western means of production and we raise a new flag post-singularity, you will have the choice
to leave the barracks, surgically remove your helmet and return to beer-swollen
flesh. However I think you’ll find it not so bad to smell the snakes in the
springtime weeds and feel nothing— to let this speech be the last beautiful
thing you ever heard.


Julián Martinez (he/him) is the son of Mexican and Cuban immigrants. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in HAD, Hooligan Mag, Maudlin House and elsewhere. His work has received The Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Find him online @martinezfjulian.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

3 small thingz

By Zac Smith

The Plane

It was surprisingly easy to hijack the plane but I think it was mainly because I was the only passenger and all the flight attendants and pilots and guys had taken suicide pills during the flight. These pills were incredibly common at the time but I wasn’t sure how anyone got them. They were technically illegal. But everyone had a few and most people I knew took one after a while. It was an incredibly lonely and isolating experience, being the only person in my life who was still alive. And any time I met someone new, they took a suicide pill after a little while, so I stopped trying to meet people. Eventually I got so depressed I decided to take one, too, but no one would give me one. “These are illegal,” they would say, then secretly take one and die. It felt somehow intentional and directed at me, how everyone was taking the pills and not giving them to me. Maybe it was. I don’t know. Does that sound conceited?

The Song

The kids had improvised a song that went like this: “I want my blood to fall out / I want my lungs to fall out / I want my brain to go dead / I want my heart to be dead / I want my blood to bleed out / I want my brain to shut off / I want my head to explode / I want my heart to explode.” The parents there, at the playground, each, privately, acknowledged the song as catchy, and, shamefully, considered it relatable, comforting, even, and went on, each, to hum it to themselves thereafter, frequently, privately, some for many years, even, even decades, the song forever pulsing in the back of their heads, every day, every year — every new, terrible year, every horrible, unyielding year, each new year an avalanche of misery, on and on and on.

The Rain

Oh shit, hey, hey. It’s starting to rain. Shit. Hey. Can you help with this? What? No man, it’s raining. I don’t… no we shouldn’t let this stuff get wet. Yeah, hey. Is there anything you can do? What? Oh, okay. Yeah, no, sure. Okay, yeah. You can’t do anything. Alright, man. Okay. Of course. Not your responsibility. Can’t help with the rain. I got you. Yeah. Thanks, man. No, no, it’s okay. You can’t make the rain stop. For sure, man. I don’t know why I even asked. You can’t do anything about it, obviously. Not your job. Yeah, yeah, sure. Not anyone’s job, really, if you think about it. It’s rain, you know. The wet stuff, you know… No one can do anything about it. It just happens, you know. What are ya gonna do. Would be great if someone could, though. Not you, though, no, I’m not gonna ask you, you know, seeing as how you can’t do anything about it. We’ll just deal with it, I guess. No problem. We’ve dealt with worse. It’s just some rain. I don’t want you feeling put out, having to come up with any solutions or anything. Don’t want you getting off your chair. Yeah, no, it’s fine. We’re just a little wet. Just a little damp. But that’s fine. No wires or electronics or anything around here. It’s all good, man. It’ll be fine if it all gets a little wet. So yeah, no. You should just keep sitting there and hanging out. Hey, hey, you wanna borrow my umbrella? No? Oh, okay, yeah. Move your chair under the thing. That’ll work. That works. That’s cool, man. Good idea. Don’t want to get too wet out here. That’s a good idea, moving under the thing. Yeah, no, we’re good. What? What? Yeah, no. Don’t worry about it.

zac smith, baby

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

From Behind the Closed Doors of Strategic Air Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, October 27, 1962 (Cuban Missile Crisis)

By Abigail Myers

The Air Force general in charge of the SAC [Strategic Air Command] underground command center in Nebraska gave the order to close the center from the outside world, apparently the only time this has ever happened. He told the targeting staff that the moment they had trained for all their lives had arrived. He expected a missile launch order momentarily and also expected they would all likely die from a Soviet response. Each individual was permitted a call to his family to say goodbye, but was not permitted to say why he was calling. The conversations were about scraped kids’ knees and sick dogs. It was a scene straight out of Dr. Strangelove. 

— Gilinsky, Victor (2016). “On Tickling the Dragon’s Tail.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

Susan tried to walk again today?
Well, what do you know.
She’s in some kind of hurry, I guess.

*

Is Bingo still ralphing? Just grass now, you think?
Ah, that’s how they clean themselves out.
They know things we don’t. 

*

You’ve got a cold again? That’s too bad.
Anyway—oh, nothing, Mama. Sorry I woke you.
Tell Dad I’m doing all right.

*

Pick up some bananas on the way home?
I wouldn’t count on it.
Just that—it might be a late night.

*

We had some good times, didn’t we?
Couldn’t ask for a better roomie, could I?
I just—oh, never mind. Yeah. See you when I see you.

*

Your mother wants to stop by tomorrow?
Oh, that’s fine. No, now don’t worry yourself.
There’s less to do than you think.

*

You were so upset on that boat ride 
at Niagara Falls, how it spoiled your hairdo.
I didn’t care. Never did. Still don’t.

*

Aunt Mary taking good care of you?
Sure. Always. I miss you too.
Yeah, I still miss Mom sometimes too.

Abigail Myers writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction on Long Island, New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in Milk Candy Review (Best Small Fictions 2024 nomination), Major 7th,Rejection Letters,Roi Fainéant, and Stanchion, and is forthcoming from Tangled Locks and Cowboy Jamboree Press’s MOTEL anthology. Her essays have recently appeared in Variant Literature (Best Spiritual Literature 2024 nomination), Phoebe, Pensive, Tiny Molecules, Willows Wept Review,The Dodge, and The Other Journal. Her poetry has appeared in Icebreakers Lit (Best of the Net 2024 nomination), Amethyst Review, Full Mood Mag, Sylvia, Hearth and Coffin, Resurrection Mag, and more. Keep up with her at abigailmyers.com and @abigailmyers on Twitter and Bluesky.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

Carrion

By Jace Einfeldt

I pull off on the shoulder and aim and lock my high beams on a dead doe. I open my door and approach her on feet still waking up from an already long haul. Feet seemingly unaccustomed to solid ground. She isn’t fresh. Flies flit about her muzzle and maggots bore into a long, open wound along the left side of her ribcage. By the smell alone she’s likely been dead a few days, maybe more. Her eyes are grayed over and glassy. Tongue out licking the asphalt. Can’t imagine that being the last thing I taste before I give up the ghost. Oil and dirt and rubber and the particles of other poor creatures scraped off the interstate like the burnt curls of scrambled eggs on a hot skillet. I put out my cigarette under my boot and grab her by the hind legs and hoist her onto the bed of my truck. Before I bring the engine back to life, I kill the lights and let the darkness wash over the hood and seep in through the cracked passenger window. Stars shimmer their dead light and look down on our infant planet from a hundred million years ago. I’ll be fifty-seven in a few minutes’ time. I pull out my phone and watch the numbers tick over from one to the next. Lock screen of me, Mel, and Jazzy from when we were all still together staring back at me behind the digital clock.

I hold my breath as my life lumbers onto another year, and I tell myself happy birthday, champ, like my old man used to say. I turn the key, and the engine coughs back into existence. The road stretches before me in a tired stream that trickles all the way down to Mexico. Sun’s still hours away, and I have a feeling I’ve still got many more miles to go before the end of my journey. The doe sleeps cold and carefree in the bed, and part of me envies her and all the animals I have left to happen upon from here to Beaver. 

I’m nursing a Mountain Dew in my KB Oil mug and letting the caffeine pinch my nerves awake. My free foot jitters in tandem with my left thumb. I turn on the radio to AM static and fill the cabin with the sonic hiss of forgotten voices. I flick on the lights to guide my sojourn into the unknown. I check my phone again, but I’ve got no signal. A big, white SOS sits in the corner of the screen. I’m alone in this world, floating down this asphalt corridor. I grab the Black Ice air freshener and run my thumb down the ridges of the faux pine tree like a rosary.

I say the first prayer I’ve said in God knows how long and imagine my plea slipping out the window like a ghost. It ascends into the ether and rises and lands on whatever the hell planet God lives on. It’s short, sharp in tone, so I’ll understand it if it never makes it to the front desk.

If there is a God, I wouldn’t blame Him if He let this one fall through the cracks. I turn the dial on the radio and find a station playing classical music. It sounds like something Jazzy would’ve played in orchestra when she was younger. I try and focus on the different instruments. First the violins, then the violas, the cellos. Jazzy played the cello. Don’t know if she still plays it. When I asked her why she didn’t want to play the violin she said it was because the cello isn’t flashy. It’s subtle but one of the most important parts of the orchestra. Without it, all you get are a bunch of high-pitched screeches who think they run the place. I grab onto the cellos and let them lead me. For a moment, I’m back on the bleachers of the middle school gym, aching from the maroon and gold plastic punching my tailbone. I see Jazzy with the tip of her tongue hanging out as she pulls the bow back and forth across the strings like she’s trying to catch all the notes on her tongue like snowflakes. I’m sitting next to Mel. I can feel her warmth against my hip and smell the cotton candy lotion wafting from her hands. Our lives still entwined like the roots of a banyan tree.

Jace Einfeldt is a writer from Southern Utah. He currently lives in Northwest Arkansas with his wife and son. His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Words & Sports, Gemini Sessions, Juked, and elsewhere.

Categories
Across The Wire Vol. 2

The owner of my favorite coffee shop died 

By Matt Starr

I didn’t want to believe it when I saw the sign sitting among the bags of wholesale beans like the portrait in an ofrenda: an easel-bound line art illustration captioned with “RIP. A celebration of Dave’s life will be held at Rey’s Restaurant.” Only the “will be” had been marked through with a sharpie and replaced with “was.” 

That last little edit was a kick in the head.

For a brief moment I allowed myself the suspension of logic. To convince myself it wasn’t him. But then, on another table positioned in one of the storefront windows, next to an actual photo of Dave, lay a memorial book. The kind you see at funeral homes.

“Goddammit,” I said to my wife, and she said something goddammit-adjacent, and then there was only the bustling coffee shop on a weekend afternoon. Orders taken. Portafilters pounding the counter. Beans roasting, the Probat mixing them with its mechanical arm, throwing off fumes of something burnt. Something so intoxicating you’d let it suffocate you.

Cup A Joe, for my money, is one of the greatest coffee shops – not just in North Carolina – but in the world. It’s no frills, the drinks are strong. There’s a dinginess, just enough, and a dated quality to the decor. Like the place let the world pass it by, and it didn’t give a fuck because all it cared about was serving you coffee so intense it’d make you want to run through bulletproof glass. On the wall is a picture doctored to make it look like Frank Zappa is shitting into a Starbucks bag.

Dave was an extension of this irreverent workman vibe. Not to mention, the owner, a fact I’m embarrassed to admit I never knew until after he was dead. I guess that’s because he didn’t fit the description I held in my head for such titles. He looked like a King of the Hill character. Tall and casually dressed. He wore glasses of a style that had gone in and out of fashion, and then back in again, and had a long, mousy ponytail that fell behind his receding hairline. His voice was flat, like he didn’t get excited for anything, but there was an undercurrent of kindness, too.

It was weird not seeing him behind the counter while the show was going on. But so it goes, and all that jazz. I was pacing back and forth between the memorial table and the racks of beans on the far wall, remembering. Dave, back there with the rest of the staff, clad in a college hoodie. 

“Café au lait?” he’d ask by the time I made it to the pastry case, remarkable considering the hundreds of people who cycled through on any given day.

“You shaved,” he’d say as he put my order together.

I had fairly close friends who wouldn’t have noticed.

Dave was in the background for eight years, selling me the good shit while I was younger, hungrier, working my way through school with a full-time job. Falling in love with my wife. Toiling away at my stupid writing. Applying to every “real” job under the sun. Trying to figure it all out. You can’t manufacture a presence like that.

I signed the memorial book. Drank an au lait in his honor, and it restored some of the wind that had been knocked out of me. Later that night, I put on a John Prine record and read the obituary from Dave’s hometown newspaper. Somewhere in Minnesota. Turned out he liked basketball, like I do. He liked Tom Waits, like I do. He made friends in spite of a desire to be alone, which is somewhat reflective of my MO.

Who would have known?

I would have, if I’d made half the effort Dave did. But you don’t get those opportunities once someone’s gone. All you can do is keep the good times warm on the hot plate of your mind. Because in the grand scheme of things we’re not even around for the time it takes to drink a fucking cup of coffee. 

###


Matt Starr is from North Carolina.

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.