Author: Jake Kemman

November 21st, Not in Service – Richard Luftig

November 21st, Not in Service – Richard Luftig

Here are the first two (out of three) of Richard’s poems that we’ll be publishing. Reading these really is like sitting in a gentle misty rain on an overcast day. Things are wet, but the sun’s presence is apparent through the clouds’ diffusiveness.

We enjoyed them. We hope you will, too.

___

November 21st

Cold today.

Grass still

Wet. An old push-

 

Mower rests,

   Rusts, near

A weed-strewn

 

Shed. Clouds collide

   In a wary

Sky. Sun low,

 

Hidden, behind

Long pines

And cedars

 

That line the wind-

   Break side

Of these fields.

 

Cold today.

   Sometimes

I wish winter

 

Would tell us

What it really

Intends when it takes

 

The faint pulse

   Of these bare-

Shouldered trees.

 

~~~

Not in Service

As I sit on this bench, waiting

in the rain, each passing city bus

announces the same destination

across its front. Not in Service.

 

God knows, I probably deserve it.

Punishment for last Sunday,

on my way to the golf course,

playing hooky from Mass,

 

and the sign in front of church,

all in caps, like at a Seven-Eleven,

letting everyone know like the message

on that bus where currently I am not.

___

Richard is a former professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio now residing in California. His poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary journals in the United States and internationally in Canada, Australia, Europe, and Asia. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart prize and two poems recently appeared in Realms of the Mothers: The First Decade of Dos Madres Press. His latest book of poems will be forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2019. Richard’s webpage and blog may be found at richardluftig.com

The day before work – David Mellor

The day before work – David Mellor

Here’s something many people in overtiring circumstances might find particularly relatable–though each in their own way.

We found it to be a friend.

Enjoy.

 

___

The day before work

All of a sudden the air becomes thin

And the glee of jumping out of work on Friday like a drunken chimpanzee is gone

Instead the day becomes heavy…

Weighed down in disbelief that the minutes are ticking faster and faster

“Surely it’s not already twenty past three”

Then the evening falls, like a Transylvanian night

The gargoyles and wolves howling as you are passed your last rights

David you will have to go to bed some time tonight.

Rocking to and fro in your captive’s bed

Starting at the clock till your eyes turn red…

Then you wake up like a coiled spring

Bounce down the street

Surprised to see that there is no one on your streets

Only to see it’s only

Twenty past three… AM

 

“Shit”

___

Born 1964, (Liverpool, England) to a difficult birth, David didn’t find his voice until his youth. After years of thinking he was nobody and being treated as such–Including a period of homelessness in the desperate Thatcher Years–he hit the paper papering over the scars.

David found understanding and belief through words, and he has been published and performed widely from the BBC to The Tate, as well as in galleries, pubs, and everything in between.

His poems are autobiographical, others topical, and several his take on life.

Dreams, Treasure Hunt – Melissa Kelly

Dreams, Treasure Hunt – Melissa Kelly

Here’s a pair of poems sure to hold a niche in our memory. These are special.

Read them carefully:

___

Dreams

 

I’ll wait until the morning’s light

When beams of sun will glow

In the fire’s warmth, late tonight

Where few will dare to go

 

In hopes of wonder basking

Dreams too real too die

With days we left at passing

Is where the truth shall lie

 

A stage to set the living

A shield to shelter through

A will to keep on pushing

Are how our dreams come true

 

~~

 

Treasure Hunt by Melissa Kelly

 

Far into the murky water I see

Glimmers of gold shining off the sun’s rays

Down the creek, between the valley of trees

I take my blue bucket and dream of wealth

Digging for treasures where the light leads me

Each scoop adds to the mountain built beside

Grabbing some from the top with my left hand

As the gold disappears, it’s now wet sand

___

Melissa Kelly is a poet and short story writer from Long Island, NY. You can see some of her work in WestWard Quarterly Magazine, Plum Tree Tavern, Soft Cartel, and Amethyst Review.

Radio & In The Next Room Over – Hiram Larew

Radio & In The Next Room Over – Hiram Larew

Here are two wonderfully evocative poems Hiram sent us. They may be carefully crafted, but they certainly aren’t fragile.

Dig in:

___

 

Radio

That was so long ago that it’s hard to pinch —

Whole hills have turned the other way in the meantime

Most babies who left home have come back driving already

   and the trees from then are now two-by-fours.

 

So why bother with such things that should be forgotten?

Why let years ago get to me?

Why oh why can the turned up sounds

   of an every so often mouth

   spook me?

 

I’ll tell you why —

Because this curly damn morning’s crackle

That’s why

What was said so oozy sounded like a ghost

   and slipped me right back to when

My heart had just barely started

It grabbed me by my surelys

   and took me back to the days

I was as spilled in love as a glass of milk.

___

In the Next Room Over

I’ll bet you whatever you want

That she won’t make it through the week

   and that’s not being dreary

   That’s just being clear –

So anything out loud she says pay attention

But especially do if you hear her coughing

   or if you smell doom in the hay

   or hear some water swirling

   because she’s preparing

 

Trust me

Long long ago when things were simple

   as that finger in your ear

She was as godly in person as smoke is next to skin

   pure as poured milk

   the fullest of apples

That was then

Now the situation is like gaspy fish —

   and the need to aver deeply is with us

 

And will you just look at this little frame –

There we were once

Posed under a tree

Lined up like sparrows

   She was the robin —

I tell you that a cool damp word is the very least we can

do

for her now.

___

Larew’s poems have popped up recently in The New Ulster, Voices Israel, Amsterdam Quarterly, Contemporary American Voices and vox poetica.  His fourth collection, Undone, was published in 2018 by FootHills Publications. On Facebook at Hiram Larew, Poet and Poetry X Hunger.

Talk of Hammers and Crosses – by Edward Bishop

Talk of Hammers and Crosses – by Edward Bishop

Though you may or may not agree with or understand Edward’s view-and-relation of his experience, this is a compelling story nonetheless. Knowing others comes through listening to their experiences. Knowing the world comes through the same.

Enjoy:

____________

 

Talk of Hammers and Crosses

 

This is a tale about a hammer, and what that hammer represents to me. This is a story of gods and of men. It starts with a man named Jesus, who was born in a town called Nazareth and nailed to a cross. Not by the same hammer as before, but by one made from roman iron.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church I was familiar with Christ’s crucifixion. Every Sunday morning, I would analyze the look of agony on his face as he hung above the alter, and muse over the red paint that ran from his palms, feet, and from a cut on one of his ribs.  He was bare, clad in a small bit of cloth around the waist, open to the eyes of the masses like a zoo animal.

And no matter what church I went to, his face was always the same: upturned with his mouth open in pain, with eyes that never met mine.

In Sunday school I was lectured about divinity and the powers of God and his son. I was told about miracles that come about from belief; Men can walk on water, or rise from the dead, a trumpets’ horn can bring down the walls of a fortress, and a mother could rise body and soul into the afterlife.

I was told repeatedly. “God has a plan for you. He knows everything that will ever happen to you, and he designed a plan uniquely for you.”

“He knows how you will live, and he knows how you will die.”

For a while I zealously believed in God’s plan for me. I wore a cross, said my prayers before bed, learned the rosary, and I even tried to teach myself the Nicene Creed in Latin. The Roman Catholic Church provided an escape and a sanctuary during both middle school and the earliest years of high school. It served as a hideaway from the drama, anxiety, and hormonal pandemonium.

The steps where always easy to remember; sign the cross, kneel, stand, rise again, and sign the cross, kneel and pray again.

For a while I considered joining the priesthood.

So, when I say that the death of my grandfather split me to my core, I mean it made my stomach churn at the sight of a cross. Grandad was a minister and a preacher during my early childhood, and even when he stopped preaching, he was a holy man. You could walk into a room and feel his intense spirituality. When he spoke, you listened. And when he prayed you knew that there was power in his words.

I wanted to be like him, I wanted his strength of belief, and that love for other people that his ministry gave him. I wanted his confidence in God.

I was with him in the end alongside my family. I remember the way his heartbeat monitor chirped every so often, that horrible monotone “beep, beep, beep” I hated the way he breathed; his oxygen mask caught every exhale and inhale, and enhanced each one until they were a monotone gurgle.

Grandad was coherent. However, he could not move, or speak. A machine kept him alive, and painkillers kept him sedated. All we could do was wait for his brain to suffocate.

I held his hand in that little white hospital room and prayed as his pulse twitched and spasmed. I prayed the Lord`s Prayer and the Hail Mary until my voice caught in my throat.

I had begun to choke on anger.

For the first time in my life I was angry at God. My father would later say that “no one could have planned or prevented this.” but according to my childhood sermons that was a half-truth. If they were true then God knew how my grandad was going to die and he knew when and where. He knew that my grandfather’s’ heart would stop beating in his bathroom as he washed his hands after tending to his roses.

God knew that Grandad’s triple bypass surgery nine years ago was not going to do a damn thing to prevent it. Yet he allowed that scalpel to unzip my grandfather’s chest.

I found myself praying to Odin, King of the Norse Gods, and one of the gods of the afterlife.

“Take him painlessly.” I pleaded “He`s is a great man, one of my role models.”

While praying to Odin I felt as if I was having a direct conversation with him. I could feel an intimate exchange of emotion, an understanding that said even though nothing could be done for my grandfather I was not alone, my pain was being felt.

Looking back, I don’t know what spurred me to do so. I’m familiar with Viking mythology, it is something that I have studied for as long as I can remember being able to read. But I never considered the idea of worshipping the Aesir and Vanir Gods as non-fictitious beings until after Grandad`s passing.

After his death I turned away from God, Christ, and the Church. I destroyed, sold, or tucked away most Christian memorabilia in my room. I destroyed paintings, sold my bible, and broke a glass angel.

“I refuse.” I told myself “I refuse to idolize and pay homage to a deity that planned such a fate for grandad, who designed for his death to be so gruesome. Why should I recognize a deity, who made my Nanny sob into a pillow as the love of her life faded away into oblivion?”

Today modern paganism feels right to me. In contemporary Norse Mythology gods are described as beings who are living among us, almost like big brothers to humanity. The gods have wants, needs, fears and failures. And they play an active part in the activities of the world.

This expression of the divine, this level of humanization, was something that I found lacking in Christianity. Sunday school taught me that God was this supreme and iron will, and that you came to him on bended knee. In Asatru, in Heathenry, and Neo paganism you don’t have to kneel. Its permitted, but not insisted upon. Instead you lift your head high when you are speaking to your gods.

Yes, there are offerings and devotionals given to the Aesir and Vanir, but they are gods, that is what is expected. What is most important is the relationship between yourself and the deities. It is not about modeling your life after theirs, it is about accepting the existence of the gods and being a part of their lives as much as they are a part of yours.

After Grandad`s death I missed feeling spiritually connected to something, I surgically removed myself from the emotional fraternity of Catholicism and realized that I was removing the very warmth Grandad had, and that I was aspiring to hold. By cutting myself off from Christianity I emptied a part of myself that I never recognized as being filled.

Belief in the Old Gods filled that void. I have a much easier time feeling the brotherhood and energy of Neo-paganism than I ever did at a Catholic mass. The Pagan Community is full of love, respect and comradery. It doesn’t feel like a race for attention as congregated prayer does to me now.

In Heathenry a hammer is the equivalent of the Christian cross. It represents Mjolnir, the weapon of Thor, and it is commonly worn around the neck of a practitioner to ensure safety and to symbolize your brotherhood with the Gods. I have yet to buy a hammer necklace, though I do plan to acquire one in the future. And I plan to wear it with pride as a heathen.

I doubt that I will return to the Catholic Church. I acknowledge the lessons it taught me and the morals and good character it instilled. But I am still so angry.

I am angry about the death of my grandfather, a man who I childishly regarded as immortal and unchanging. I am angry that he died in the manner he did, that in return for his life of compassion, faith, and honest ministry his “thank you” was to be unable to move, unable to breathe without a machine, unable to stand up, eat, or use the bathroom. To be crippled for the last nineteen hours of his life, as his heart slowly killed itself and suffocated his brain.

I do keep a rosary, a gift from when I was confirmed. I take it out occasionally to run my fingers across the amber beads and delicate silver knotwork of its Scottish cross.

But I do not pray.

I hold it and I talk to Grandad, keep him up to date on the weather, family drama, Nanny`s latest piece of juicy gossip, or my Dads ever increasing work schedule. Neopaganism teaches that our ancestors and family walk with us, that they remain as positive influences in our future. I believe today that Grandad walks with me, that he holds my hand when I am struggling. To me he will always be that empathic old man with an infectious smile and laugh. I believe he made it into Heaven, and for the life he lived I hope he enjoys its every luxury.

I cannot walk with him beside Christ anymore.

But that is not his fault.

_________

Edward Bishop is a passionate collector of glass tankards and is a self-taught master of skills that were last used over 500 years ago. A Maryland native, Edward enjoys laying in hammocks, thrift shopping, and writing pieces of fiction.

Out of Time – by Jack D. Harvey

Out of Time – by Jack D. Harvey

This is the final installment of our to-date collection of Jack Harvey’s work. It is a fitting sendoff. Take time to read it–it’s more worth it than you may realize.

___

Out of Time by Jack D. Harvey

The old man rose and

wiggled his toes

in the light of the faltering fire;

the season was Lent

the bent trees starting to bud;

the long procession

of providential days,

like pretty children,

drew a bead on his heart.

 

At the open window

the old man looked

at the season’s last snow,

scrappy birchbark

black-patched,

the spokes of a

wagon wheel

poking out of

a pile of rubbish.

Open fields

ungreen and mute,

their strength to discover

spring’s breath still

puny and remote.

 

The old man spoke,

muttering to himself;

some holy place,

shriving, I shall go,

like Noah, send from

the lost ship a dove,

over the flood, a raven.

 

More and more his

lips move;

whispering, his breath floats,

aimless,

his spirit faltering,

becoming less and less

as day ends,

as the sun, bleeding like a lamb,

redeems itself

for the umpteenth time,

setting in the west.

 

A prisoner of the sunset

the old man peers out at the sky.

Beauty and life and the end of life;

all debts forgiven in this moment,

in the ribbon of red spreading

from the sun’s defection,

in the blood of redemption,

in the coming of the dark.

 

Nearer my God unto thee

and never so near;

never near enough.

 

Lonesome and lost

the old man, like

all of us;

his faith gone

like a runaway balloon, or

is God going away?

Already gone for good?

 

Our good, His goodness,

moon and sun

set in a heaven

that never was;

an illusion, a dream.

We grapple like fools

with a sky

real as the rain

that falls,

forgetting the very rocks

beneath our feet

are shadows

no more, no less

than the face of heaven.

 

Made and remade,

our God, our goodness,

blaze anew in

a Promethean sky

of blessed stars;

Newton’s, Einstein’s

imperfect space

keeps time and tune

with God’s enterprise,

paradise confined

to the garden of Eden.

 

On high,

seraphs, saints, sinners,

the fruit of good and evil,

dancing cheek to cheek,

brushed by some unknown purpose.

 

Yet down below,

simple and solid,

the dark holds,

 

tightfisted.

 

Have we mortified our flesh

for the ten commandments?

Tenderly slaughtered

too many innocents

too many times?

 

Stabbing and saving,

sowing and raping,

our eyes show the compassion

our hands belie.

Jacob and Esau,

Abel and Cain

compelled by breakneck time,

did better than we think

and worse.

 

Knights-errant all,

long gone on the quest,

God only knows

what guides us

to our best;

God only knows

what glimmering

in the gloaming

leads us

through the forests,

the mountains,

the high plains,

riding, riding, like Parsifal,

like Tristram,

eager hunters

riding to war.

 

The romance of life,

the vitality, the blessing,

whatever it is,

against the background of violins

speaks violence;

the plucked string

signals the slaughter to come;

the brave and the meek,

the indifferent, the corrupt,

go about their business;

in the loom of catastrophe,

in the belly of leviathan,

don’t know or care

and that is God’s grace.

 

With no thought for the morrow,

sans passion or sorrow,

those who survive the longest

sit by the fire

and wait for spring

and the least desire,

are subject to love

and love’s reminders

are touched to the quick

by the turns and twists

of unforgotten luck

and disaster…

 

Short of breath and temper

they offer hunters’ wisdom

in broken weather,

present for inspection

trembling heads,

candid and flimsy

as cherry blossoms.

 

Holy and intractable time,

short and sharp

as a knife

cuts the thread;

legions of the living

fall and break

like waves on the shore.

 

The old man rests;

rests and waits

for the last inning,

the last call to arms.

At the ends of

his gnarled feet,

still wiggling,

his toes signal

their steadfast devotion

to movement.

 

And,

at the window,

final plenipotentiary,

the merry rising sun turns

his thin white hair

to straw-

 

alchemist’s final gasp!

 

Discovering gold.

_____

Jack D. Harvey’s poetry has appeared in Scrivener, The Comstock Review, Bay Area Poets’ Coalition, The Antioch Review, The Piedmont Poetry Journal and a number of other on-line and in print poetry magazines. The author has been a Pushcart nominee and over the years has been published in a few anthologies.

 

The author has been writing poetry since he was sixteen and lives in a small town near Albany, N.Y. He was born and worked in upstate New York. He is retired from doing whatever he was doing before he retired.

Saintly Day, Stuck – by Jack D. Harvey

Saintly Day, Stuck – by Jack D. Harvey

We’re continuing today with our wonderful stash of Jack Harvey’s work. Eloquence abounds.

___

Saintly Day by Jack D. Harvey

For my own saintly day,

I shall be martyred

on a great white cross-

shaped bird, borne away

high, fast and bleeding

to the upper regions

where Mark the lion roars,

where the tiger rolls

in lamb’s fleece

and angels serenely sing.

 

In keeping with the primal myth

crucified like Christ,

each of my hands

and feet punched

with a hole.

Why not?

Do it up right.

 

Flying high,

up, up and away,

open-mouthed

in my ecstasy;

for a moment

going aloft

and then falling

like an impaled Titan

fraught with perils

from the failed war

with the new gods;

doomed to dark Tartarus,

doomed forever

under the unspeakable weight

of an earlier younger earth.

 

~~

 

Stuck by Jack D. Harvey

With the muse upon me,

fanciful colloquies with dead

Pindar and his peers,

rhapsodies unimagined,

tuneful momentous metaphysical

speculations, the sound of far-off music

stronger than the wind, Calliope

in her white robe floating

above my head, seeming so close;

 

no use her divine presence

her favoring grace,

I can do nothing.

 

I sit stuck here below,

struck dumb as a post

and look at my fat thumbs.

 

~~

_____

 

Jack D. Harvey’s poetry has appeared in Scrivener, The Comstock Review, Bay Area Poets’ Coalition, The Antioch Review, The Piedmont Poetry Journal and a number of other on-line and in print poetry magazines. The author has been a Pushcart nominee and over the years has been published in a few anthologies.

The author has been writing poetry since he was sixteen and lives in a small town near Albany, N.Y. He was born and worked in upstate New York. He is retired from doing whatever he was doing before he retired.

 

Theme Update – Unity of Lost Souls

Theme Update – Unity of Lost Souls

Hi there,

You’ve either come here of your own volition and intuition–your curiosity–or you’ve seen our flyers scattered about.

Either way, please read.

 

Unity Among Lost Souls

 

Unity Among Lost Souls ; Hedge Apple Magazine

 

The same wind that caressed the faces of our ancestors crosses our paths and waves like a distant friend. The very atoms that make up our bodies are shared with every object, being, idea and construct ever heaved into existence.

There is a deity in our feet that links us to the earth.

Circumstances differ, but everyone has a shared story—a spirit of their place.

Circumstances change, too. Generations of footprints can be torn and tossed in a geopolitical instant. Upheaval is, unfortunately, also timeless.

In any circumstance, whether rooted beneath trees of foremothers and fathers, or circling the globe for a ray of light to emerge through an opening door, everyone has a story.

 

What’s yours?

 

Send us your history and hardship, joyful discovery and rough reality. If you know a ray of light, tell us about that, too.

 

We’re here to listen.

 

Submissions close April 15.

Mannheim, Musgord – by Jack D. Harvey

Mannheim, Musgord – by Jack D. Harvey

These two poems are the first of the several we received from Jack Harvey.

They have a particularly whimsical, yet serious nature which threatens to bubble out from beneath their seams at any moment. More to come. Enjoy!

___

Mannheim

Mannheim went mad

one morning, before

they brought his coffee

and bun

               staring out

across his desk

his eyes popped wider

than portholes;

the universe

skipped a beat,

Mannheim jumped

like a bug on a leaf.

 

Mannheim’s unknown errand

was done;

the great unseen walls

dissolved in a giggle.

Carefully, he doffed

his coat, unzipped

his fly;

out it popped

like a baby chick

and drooling and leaping,

crowing, creeping,

writhing like a boa,

he made his way down

to the divine

diluvial mother,

more mud than woman.

 

Like the old serpent,

Adam and seaman alike,

he breaches

goddess and mortal,

garden and portal,

ransacks creation

to find

the plain flower of love.

 

An iron irate bee, he

buzzes like blazes

in the dim and smoky air;

blind as a bat,

what he cannot see

he pursues,

relentless and desperate

to possess.

 

But life and death,

God’s passionate eyes,

the Devil’s spiky tongue

all forgot in the old branches

of that olive tree,

sweet and enduring giantess;

bedrock and bed where

Adam and madman,

burgher and sailor alike,

sleep to be awakened

and then sleep again.

 

Sleep Mannheim!

The chariots roll on

without you;

Lethe rolls on

beyond the world

of tilled fields,

forgotten miracles.

 

Waters of the sea of Vigo,

you will see my amigo;

waters of the ocean waste

you will taste his sea-blanched

carcass, outward bound.

 

On the shore of another land

you will be his bride,

O daughter.

 

~~~

 

Musgord by Jack D. Harvey

 

Musgord the Meretricious,

sometime king of

a faraway country,

sailed skating

down dawn seas.

Broken in defeat

he plugged west

across splendid

red suns setting,

green and blue

seascapes;

he pushed west.

 

The stars pinked

out, one by one,

before dawn and

Musgord turned his

lovely wishful face

back east,

back home;

 

all lost,

yet ahead the bell of

a strange new sea,

beautiful with beckoning;

 

new countries,

new lions in his palace,

new gold

in his treasury!

 

Onward! Onward!

The past’s but

a shard,

lying on abandoned ground.

Musgord the Meretricious

goes west;

 

abandoned by no one.

 

___

 

Jack D. Harvey’s poetry has appeared in Scrivener, The Comstock Review, Bay Area Poets’ Coalition, The Antioch Review, The Piedmont Poetry Journal and a number of other on-line and in print poetry magazines. The author has been a Pushcart nominee and over the years has been published in a few anthologies.

The author has been writing poetry since he was sixteen and lives in a small town near Albany, N.Y. He was born and worked in upstate New York. He is retired from doing whatever he was doing before he retired.

The Food Upon Which Others Feast – by Thomas Elson

The Food Upon Which Others Feast – by Thomas Elson

This story carries a chilling note of the thought-provoking.

Please, enjoy the read. We certainly did.

___________

THE FOOD UPON WHICH OTHERS FEAST by Thomas Elson

We mapped this route generations earlier, and irrespective of origin, the path is the same for everyone. We also dictated a hierarchy: We, the vanguards, would watch the votaries whom the witnesses were told monitored them.

Two of our votaries perched thirty feet above the driveway in front of a limestone building constructed in 1868. Obadiah, the senior votary, impeccably attired in a dark blue suit, silk tie – the color of which befitted our calendar, and sunglasses, rested his hands on the polished railing. Ariel, young and eager to impress, hovered with his clipboard pressed into his gray sweater.

“Who are the two new witnesses?” Ariel looked at the older votary, bit off a piece of beef jerky, and waited for an answer.

“Take notes at the briefings the way I taught you and you’d know.” Obadiah smiled and looked down.

Ariel, by now used to such sarcasm, tapped his pen on the report form attached to his clipboard. “Humor me.”

Obadiah shrugged and continued. “That first guy, the red-headed one, is Herb Peavy. He used to sneak into second-floor bedrooms and stomp women to death with his climbing spikes. It’s his second time here. He’d be at the North Center if the vanguards didn’t still have some use for him.” He waited for a moment. “Just watch him. All he wants to do is get close to that thin kid. If he were anywhere but here, he’d get detained for-“ Obadiah waited a second. “Following too close.” Laughed at his own joke.

“That thin guy looks like an eleven-year-old girl.” Ariel pulled his sweater over his belt buckle. “Hell, he looks like a-”

“Don’t say it. Do not say it. That’s Kenny Dumars. Just two months ago, he was a part-time wheat farmer and full-time high school Spanish teacher livin’ the dream. Even set-up housekeeping with his girlfriend. But the sheriff caught a Cessna unloading marijuana on his property. Ol’ Kenny boy had himself a third job – being paid for the use of his farm land.” Obadiah grinned, added, “Poor guy’ll be eaten alive in here,” then shook his head and unbuttoned his suit jacket.

“He ought’a have a good time in this place with Herb tailgating him.” Ariel watched the red-head smooth his hands over the thin kid’s shoulders. “What’d they want us to do with ‘em?”

“Well, Herb’s bound to do what he did the last time.”  Obadiah adjusted his tie, nodded toward the driveway. “His only value to the vanguards is to see how Kenny reacts around him at the South Center. So, we are required to keep ‘em together after processing and watch what happens.”

When new witnesses arrived we required they remain alone for a short period of time. Alone and unattended, but not unobserved, and certainly not unrecorded. Their movements to be transcribed by votaries onto a checklist. Posture erect? Hunched over? Gesticulations made? People touched? Pockets reached into? Items extracted? Stepped out of line? Anything picked up? Rocks? Cigarette butts?

The witnesses stood as if transfixed. Blank stares. Clenched teeth and tight jaws. Minds working overtime. They stiffened as a scattershot wind hit their faces. Herb looked east toward the wide expanse of farmland and inhaled the scent of the harvest. Kenny stared at contrails swirling twenty-six thousand feet above. Both shuffled around on the gravel driveway. Their sounds alternated between crunching and hammering. Neither looked toward the North or South Centers.

Inside the South Center Processing and Orientation section a votary with a sore-knee limp walked toward the two witnesses, handed each a towel and small cup half-filled with delousing shampoo. “Well, Herb. I figured I’d see you again. What happened? You hear we got a new line of clothing?”  He pointed at the open shower. “You know the drill. And keep it in your hair for a few minutes.”

Amid echoes of “Fresh meat,” and  “Come over here and visit me,” Herb walked with his middle finger aloft. He abruptly shouted, “Looks like you’re working old three-pack pretty hard,” nodded toward the man laboring to stand – his left hand clasped three unopened packs of cigarettes, then hurriedly walked to his chair, lifted his pad and charcoal, resumed drawing.

Kenny held back until Herb returned, then clutched his towel where he thought it might do the most good, and, despite wet floors, rushed into the shower. He finished without drying, quickly headed back, and hurriedly dressed.

The votary handed each a paper bag and directed them to carry it in their right hand. “What you’ve got there is a toothbrush, toothpaste, and two hotel-sized bars of Ivory soap. Commissary takes ninety days to kick-in but most of you will be gone by then. So, other than your meals, that’s pretty much it.”

The votary raised his palm. “Ya’ll gonna be buried under the mass of senior witnesses. Just know that you have no rights here. Only privileges. The rest you gotta figure out on your own.” He looked at Kenny in his practiced manner. “Consider that your orientation.”

The votary knew Kenny was too frightened to remember what was said, but his perspective would change after the doors slammed. When it became apparent that he could never again open or close a door, walk from one room to another, chose when to eat, what to eat, where or when to sleep without first asking permission. When Kenny had the look of an animal that decided to stop running, we would know he had learned our Rules: Eyes down but stay alert – Don’t look but see everything –When you walk hug the wall but do not touch it – There are no gifts; accept anything and you are in debt. – Ask for permission before you do anything.

The votary led them into an area the size of a basketball court with a walkway surrounding a chain-link enclosure. He assigned both witnesses separate bunks within fifteen feet of two exposed toilets and one rust-stained sink. Then he repeated what he said each time, “Good luck. And don’t come back.” He locked the gate and walked away.

As Kenny waited in line that evening, his eyes moved from witness to witness. He watched how each held two utensils under a stainless-steel tray, and silently moved toward a wall opening, then placed the tray on a small ledge, and remained motionless as meat and green beans were plopped on it. After a half-pint carton of milk hit a tray, a voice barked, “Next!” and the line moved forward.

Kenny set his tray on a table near the stage. Herb pulled a chair out, turned it slightly, dropping his tray next to Kenny. Herb looked at Kenny, “What’cha need from the commissary?” Then skimmed his tongue across his upper lip and moved his hand under Kenny’s. After a moment Herb raised his fingers slightly, pulled his hand back, and left a list of commissary items under Kenny’s palm. “I can get you ramen noodles, pens, paper, stamps, cigarettes, peanut butter, pretty much anything. What’cha want?”

“They told us we can’t use it for ninety-days.” Kenny moved his hand away.

Herb pushed a package of gum between their trays. “But I can. I’ve been here before.”

Silence.

“Why me?”

Herb stroked Kenny’s hand. “You’re my friend.”

Kenny leaned forward, gently raised his hand, gracefully rested it on the back of Herb’s head, and whispered.

Herb’s eyes flared. “We’ll see smart guy.” Then, contemplating his next move, said, “We’ll see how you’re taken care of from now on.” He grabbed Kenny’s half-pint of milk, shoved it into his coat sleeve, stood, left the package of gum on the table, and walked toward the stage and the line of witnesses waiting to be frisked.

A votary bent to frisk him – calves first, then thighs and hips. Herb, with a one-arm motion, slid the milk carton from coat sleeve to palm and onto the stage. When the votary found nothing, he turned to frisk another witness. Herb picked-up the milk carton, raised his arm, allowed the carton to drift inside his coat sleeve, cupped his hand, lowered his arm, and walked away.

An hour and a half later sounds and smells reverberated inside the enclosure. Toilets flushing or not flushing. Bodies unwashed for days. Scattered loud voices. Small groups talking, shuffling. Bunks creaking.

A votary wheeled in a console television. “This will remain on the channel it’s set to.” He paused. “That safety razor on top the t.v. has one blade.” He pointed to the razor. “You have one-half hour to shave,” he said to everyone. “When I return at eight o’clock, that razor will be right there.” He struck the top of the console with his knuckles. “With the razor blade next to it. If I see anything other than that, I will respond.” Tapped the console and left the enclosure.

Herb rose from his bunk with three other witnesses, walked up to Kenny, blinked slowly.      “You busy?”

No reply.

“You too busy to spend some time with us?” Gestured toward his bunk, then pulled Kenny’s head closer, “You owe me.”

“The hell I-”

“Shut up. Shut the hell up. You owe me. I gave you something. And now you owe me. Don’t renege or I’ll make sure they yank your privileges. Send your ass down behind them damn white doors.” Within moments he laughed, raised his voice a decibel below a yell.   “You want that? You wanna be b’hind them doors downstairs?”

The three witnesses from Herb’s bunk surrounded Kenny, then tightened their circle. Kenny’s head jerked back. Pain descended from eyes to mouth, then came guttural sounds, and he was on the floor in a fetal curl. He knew he was leaking – red or brown – but did not know which. One of the witnesses set a blade on top the television.

The next afternoon Kenny waited in yet another line of witnesses to be told what to do, where to go, yelled at about something, lined up to go somewhere or lined up to come back. It didn’t really matter. His knees ached, everything ached, and he was ashamed of the stains between the hip pockets of his jeans. Herb cut in. Within seconds Kenny was again encircled.

“You.” Herb spit on the floor. “You do not say ‘no’ to me.” When he signaled, the circle blended away, and Kenny was on the floor with blood on his shirt darkening yesterday’s stains.

A votary meandered over. “Get off the floor.” He raised his voice. “Get over to the infirmary.”

We now knew Kenny had learned the Rules.

Late the next day, when he awoke, Kenny’s eyes followed the white infirmary wall toward a metal desk at the opening of the ward. He blew at the detritus descending from the ceiling, watched it float away, then concentrated on the liquid dripping through a tube attached to an elevated bag. When he pulled down his sheet, he saw stitches below his rib cage and several blood stains.

A nurse from Honduras walked up. “¿Como estás?” Kenny asked.

She eagerly responded. “¿Pero, como estas?” Then smiled and touched his shoulder.

A witness two beds over pounded his mattress. “Hey, lady, get the hell over here and take care of my bedpan.”

She rolled her eyes, stooped slightly, walked toward the demand. When she returned, Kenny continued with questions about Honduras, her hometown, his difficulties. In an environment where she was held in less esteem than children’s pets, she lingered. On his third day, she handed him a gift – a Hershey’s candy bar.

“No te puedo pagar,” said Kenny.

“No need to repay,” she said. Then added, “You don’t look like you belong here.”

Kenny laughed, then winced. “Gracias.”

On his final morning, the nurse placed the Spanish edition of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” on Kenny’s bed. “When you go back, read it,” and tucked it under his pillow, then patted the pillow as if fluffing it. “Wait. Open then.” She knew when he left the infirmary he would not be searched.

A week later Kenny was strong enough to walk the circumference of the enclosure. He moved carefully. His head down just enough to seem disinterested – as if passing through on an assignment.

#

Kenny had waited almost six years since his transfer to the North Center’s third floor when he heard a votary’s clipped accent call his name for the first time, “Du mars.” The sound seemed to extend. “Kaaaa-neee Duuuu-maws. Somebo’y lu’ ya.” He pitched a nine-by-twelve manila envelope on the concrete floor. Kenny hustled down iron steps to retrieve the package.

Back on the third floor, he flipped to the last page, saw the final word: DENIED. But when he read the preceding three words his body constricted. “… the same fate.”

He reached for the book the nurse had given him. Opened it to the section with the indentation. He did not understand why they allowed him to keep the book. Kenny closed his eyes. His contours hardened as if chiseled. DENIED, that last word on the final page told him whether sunny or dark, summer or winter, held no relevance for him. He knew what came next.

He would soon be inside a metal building, past racks of the North Center’s food items – cans of peaches and lard, bags of rice and beans, five-gallon bottles of ketchup and mustard – walking toward unmarked doors, then into a building connected to a small concrete warehouse, and through an opening the width of a garage door. When he stopped, the door would descend.

Lights would illuminate five unsmiling votaries in dark suits and one senior witness. At this point, Kenny would need assistance. We knew it required an element of irrationality to voluntarily continue. “Let’s go,” a votary would say. “Lean on me.”

Kenny’s shallow breathing would be familiar to these votaries, as would the next sequence – exam table. White sheets. Straps. No needles. No tubes. Eyes never averted. No request for last words. No more time.

Our Rules dictated that Kenny remain awake while the senior witness held the toothbrush the nurse had secreted inside the book. The same sharpened toothbrush Kenny shoved__ into Herb Peavy’s carotid artery.

The senior witness would press that toothbrush into Kenny’s neck until there was no longer a pulse.

– THE END –

 

______________

Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon,Lunaris Journal, The New Ulster, The Lampeter, Blood & Bourbon, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.