The Last Thanksgiving, poem by Taylor Collier

first appeared in Tar River Poetry Spring 2010

During dinner my uncle’s behind the house
helping a heifer through her first delivery.

Inside, dry turkey, hot dinner rolls.
The heifer’s cries bellowing through the house.

Green beans, sweet potatoes, and cornbread
stuffing. All with the tang of

this might be his last.
And who even remembers?

I’m staring out the back window
at the heifer’s uterus prolapsed

on the muddy grass.
The vet and my uncle hose it

with peroxide and shove it back
inside like a beating heart into a wine bottle.

The trees haven’t even begun to turn,
and my grandfather can still speak.

Knowing we will soon be gone,
he’s telling every dirty joke he can remember.
taylorcollierTaylor Collier currently lives in Tallahassee.  Work has appeared or is forthcoming in some places like Birdfeast, The Journal of Applied Poetics, The Laurel Review, Nightblock, Rattle, Smartish Pace, Tar River, Zone 3, and others.  More poems and writing about poetry at taylorcollier.com.

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A Redneck Eats Thai Food, essay by William Matthew McCarter

I can still remember those dark days–not long ago–when you couldn’t hang out with a group of grad students at a university campus without someone saying “Let’s go get some ethnic food”–like they had just smoked a bourgeois blunt and had a bad case of the middle class munchies. Somehow, some way, we always seemed to wind up at a Thai restaurant, as if Thai food was the communion wafer of the bourgeois multicultural sect. I hated Thai food and still do, but I had a part to play on this graduate school stage and didn’t need anyone staring at me because I refused to take part in the communion of middle class white people.

Thai Food Restaurants–they were like a law of nature. Newton himself might have proposed it: objects in motion tend to stay in motion and middle class bohemian wannabes tend to go eat Thai food. If you went to a poetry reading–if you were a young bohemian–you went to the Thai restaurant. It was as true in Fat Chance, Arkansas and Slim Pickens, Oklahoma as it was in New York or LA. Wherever two or more middle class graduate students are gathered in the name of art, there is a Thai Restaurant among you. At times, these merchants of bohemian culture will make the token gesture of asking for your opinion–“You do like Thai food, don’t you?”–with a tone that sounds very much like “you do breathe in oxygen, don’t you?” But for the most part, it was a given, especially at the poetry readings or writing workshops: you read someone’s work, comment, others comment, critiques were passed around, sometimes complaints about critiques followed and then you adjourned for the Thai restaurant. I mean after all. . . you breathe oxygen right?

I have nothing against Thai restaurants. They all seem like regular Chinese food restaurants except they tend to have fancier table cloths and, for some reason, better egg rolls. It was the inevitability of going there that created my rancor–and the suburban white kid presumption that I must like it because “I breathe oxygen.” Oh, and the growing suspicion that somehow I lived among people for whom–no matter what their taste buds truly begged for on a given night–the Thai restaurant represented a moral decision. Pad Thai was some kind of a cosmopolitan ethical choice in a way that Frank’s all night diner wasn’t.

You’d drive right by places like Frank’s where you knew the ambrosial scent of the two by four–two eggs, two pieces of bacon, two sausage patties, and two potato pancakes– was bountiful in the air, or a heavenly portion of Frank’s blue plate special–pot roast–was crashing like a meteor into a heaping pile of mashed potatoes, or across the street at Sal’s, a deep-dish supreme pizza, heaping full of toppings all stuck together with a mixture of provel and mozzarella–a pizza fit for the gods and fresh out of the oven–a pizza searching for that cracked red pepper and grated Parmesan. . . and there you were, with “Love Is Like Oxygen” playing on the radio, thinking to yourself “Thai food must be like oxygen too” as you step out of the car and walk toward the doorway to the Thai Restaurant. And to think that we passed by the legendary Joe Willy’s and I had to wave goodbye to the chicken fried steak on my way to the fuckin’ Thai restaurant.

To suggest that you, the great unwashed, might actually prefer a chicken fried steak smothered with gravy became one of those truths that just could not be uttered. “I’d prefer a big hunk of meatloaf and some beans and greens tonight,” was verboten. That is the bourgeois bohemian equivalent of walking into a trailer park in High Ridge, Missouri and yelling “Walmart sucks” with a bullhorn. Truth be told, I would trade every Thai restaurant in the world for a BBQ pulled pork sandwich and cole slaw or a chili dog at the A&W. Or The Pig’s Country Fried Chicken Platter or a slab of dry rub at Cory’s. And. . . I long for the day when the bourgeois bohemian sect discovers Trans Appalachia–the beautiful fourth world country that stretches from western Carolina to Arkansas–and wants to show its solidarity with the oppressed downtrodden people of that region. And. . . makes the moral choice to go eat Chicken and Dumplings after a poetry workshop. “You do like turnip greens, don’t you?”

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Two Poems, by Adrian C. Louis

Invisible Places of Refuge

Deep inside myself,
I am running out
of places to hide.
I am an old man,
a dirty old man &
the world we knew
is fading fast away.
I cannot say how I
became covered with
the cobwebs common
to poor & broken folk.
Darling, I cannot say
if I’m spider or fly.

***

My love, I pray that you
can not see me now, but
of course you can see me
& yes, I am a walking scar,
one of life’s miracles, but
you’re just a ghost, still,
the only ghost that I
dream hard about.
I will never hide from
the haunting you offer.

***

Soon I will need no
invisible places of refuge.
While other spirits float
through a dire dampness
of tears & wet kisses, I
will flitter about, brittle &
arid as pack of Top Ramen.

***

How I love my Top Ramen.
Top Ramen is my hemlock.
It shrinks my body & soul.
My body has grown thin
& my shadow so skeletal
that it often hides from me
& the palaces of memory,
from all that I’ve known.
Dear Gods of my known
& unknown universes.
I thank you for the sweet,
sweet & holy miracle
of noodles made from
the baked & pulverized
bones of poor folk.

Ratiocination

I am a ghost who hates
Rapid City, South Dakota
but I need it occasionally
like a low-dose tweeker
with a weekend habit.
Exiting late Friday mass
at some execrable saloon, I
see some idiot has barfed
a blizzard of gizzards right
next to my shiny, white SUV.
I’m guessing they’re gizzards
because the hipster bistro
across the street sells them.
Gizzards from ghost chickens.
Oh, my country…
My country ‘tis of thee
sweet land of gizzardry.

Adrian C. Louis

Adrian C. Louis grew in northern Nevada and is an enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe. From 1984-97, Louis taught at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. He recently retired as Professor of English at Minnesota State University in Marshall. His most recent book of poems is Random Exorcisms (Pleiades Press, 2016). More info at Adrian-C-Louis.com

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Brothers, fiction by Juan Ochoa

It was a big family. So much so that Ama Quina was still having babies when her oldest children started families of their own. The initial significance of this overlapping was that Ama Quina functioned as wet nurse for her grandchildren not long after she had weaned her two youngest boys Sergio and Roy, El Polaco—he was called that because his skin was so light he looked Polish. Ama Quina’s nueras, daughters-in-law, were not happy about handing over their babies for another woman to nurse, but the young brides’ hands were needed in the fields as was the extra paycheck.

The children also learned the importance of work and getting paid. When they were old enough to walk, each child followed the family to the field to pitch in and help with the work. Since the kids were raised so close together and with everyone sharing duties, they did not observe the formalities of family titles as is the custom. The grandparents and heads of the clan, Ama Quina and Apa Cheto, were the only ones to carry a title before their names. For the rest, there were no titles to distinguish one member of the family from the next like tío, tía, primo, prima, hermano, etc. So the children of their second oldest son Julio, Gilbert and Davey, grew up like little brothers to their uncles Checo and el Polaco and called them by their first name instead of tío even though the uncles were years older than the kids. Whenever anyone outside the family commented on this “falta de respeto,” Julio would respond, “Es culpa de uno for not teaching them any better.” The only way to distinguish which child belonged to each couple was at night when the clan broke up after work and everyone retired to their respective rooms, which were just that, cuartitos, one room shacks that the patron lent the field workers. Following an accident, Julio was laid up in one of these rooms because his hand had been almost severed when it was caught in a spiked press the men were trying to move without the aid of a tractor. His wife, Anita, had pleaded with the doctor to save her husband’s hand, and when this did not move the surgeon to action she wrote down his name and was very careful of the spelling because she did not want to make a mistake when her husband woke without his right hand and asked for the name of the man “he must kill for leaving him crippled.” The surgery lasted eight hours and there was six months of bed rest before Julio could move around with his arm in a sling. The hand was still attached, swollen and for the time being useless, but the fingers moved under the thick white gauze more and more everyday and the burning around his wrist where the spike had bitten and torn his flesh was now almost bearable. He could have enjoyed the time away from the fields had it not been for the constant complaining and quarreling he faced each evening when his wife and kids came back from the campo.

While injured, Julio had to rely on the paychecks of his little brothers, Checo and El Polaco, to sustain his family. But the way Anita told it, she was the only one doing for the family, staying longer in the fields, running back to the cuartito to see to his hand and cooking the midday meal. Julio thought his wife a chiflada who didn’t appreciate the help they were getting from Checo and el Polaco. Even Gilbert at ten and Davy only nine years old picked more grapes than she did. This reminded Julio of another of his troubles. Gilbert and Davy had gotten harder to manage for Anita. The boys ran away from her in the fields and preferred to pick the rows next to their uncles Checo and Polaco instead of next to their mother where she could keep better track of the money they were earning. Anita, Julio thought, just didn’t understand boys; it was only natural for them to choose other boys for company over their mother. Julio was at least thankful that Checo and Roy salieron buenos as far as brothers go.

One evening when Anita came home herding the boys in front of her, Julio thought about slipping out of the shack and eating dinner somewhere else. Davy was marching ahead of his mother clutching his pants and howling continuously, his sobs only interrupted by sudden attacks of hiccups. Gilbert walked with a more deliberate pace between his little brother and his mother. His cheeks were streaked with furrowed rows of dust where tears had fallen.

¿Qué paso?” Julio asked his wife as the group came nearer.

Tus queridos hermanos,” Anita hissed pushing Gilbert who had all but stopped in his tracks at the sound of his father’s voice. “Checo and Polaco were making them fight again. Why don’t they fight themselves if they want to see a fight? Why do they have to pick on my babies?”

Oh, that’s how boys play,” Julio said stepping out of the doorway so the group could pass. “You keep calling them babies and they’ll never grow up. My brothers are just trying to toughen them up.”

Anita turned in the middle of the room. “Toughen them up? I found them wrestling in the dirt with their pants around their knees. How does that make them tough?”

Julio looked at his boys. Davy was still crying. Gilbert was trying hard to shrink into the furthest corner in the room. “They were just playing.”

Checo and Polaco were poking their little butts with sticks, laughing like idiotas while my babies cried in the dirt.” Anita’s eyes were rimmed with tears and the veins in her neck looked like they were about to leap out of her skin.

¿Qué dices?”

Algo paso, Julio,” Anita screamed. “Your brothers did something to my babies.”

Julio paced the room like a kenneled dog. His hand throbbed more now than it had all day. Davy had begun a new bout with the hiccups that threatened to drown out Anita’s shouting. Gilbert had his face buried in the corner, crying in silence.

No paso nada,” Julio said rubbing his wrist. “No paso nada.”

Algo paso, Julio. Your brothers did something to my babies.”

No paso nada,” Julio shouted. “They’re helping us, without their checks we couldn’t buy food.” He moved on Davy, grabbing him by the arm with his good hand and lifting his bandaged hand in the sling over the boy’s head. “Verdad que no paso nada,” he demanded from the boy. Davy was silent for a moment then began crying anew. Anita lunged at Julio, crashing into his bandaged wrist as she screamed, “Poco hombre.” Julio winced with pain, released his hold on Davy then shoved Anita to the floor, where she stayed.

Gilbert ran to his mother’s arms, but she pushed him away and covered her face to cry. Gilbert kneeled next to his mother sobbing, “No paso nada. No paso nada.”

Later, Davy woke in the middle of the night screaming from a nightmare, the first of many. In a couple of weeks, the nightmares came accompanied by incidents of sleepwalking. They tried tying a string to the boy while he slept then attaching the other end around Julio’s foot so he could feel if the child got up in the middle of the night. But this only caused the boy to wake up throwing fits, punching, and kicking like a captured savage.

Daytime rivaled the night in its lack of peace. Gilbert and Davy could not get within arm’s reach of each other without becoming a tangled mass of kicking feet and gouging fists. The boys’ fights caused Julio and Anita to quarrel. The quarrels gave the rest of the camp more to talk about.

Anita and Julio took Davy to Ama Quina for a limpia. Ama Quina rubbed an egg over Davy then cracked it and emptied its contents into a glass of water. The yolk was stained in the center with blood, a true sign of mal de ojo. She took a broom and swept over the boy and then made him hold his head under a towel over a bowl of burning herbs. She frothed the boy in alcohol and wrapped him in sheets. Drying her hands on her apron, Ama Quina said, “Si esto no lo cura, llévalo de aquí.”

The camp was talking about Julio’s poor luck. His hand all broke up and on top of that a sick kid. But this wasn’t all that was being said. Julio’s older brother Ines told their sister Lola about how Checo and Roy were joking about making Davy and Gilbert play with their chilitos. Chetito was heard talking with Mel and Rafa about how Checo had told him how he held Davy and the funny garbled noises Davy made when Checo made him kiss Gilbert’s pipi. More details leaked out, but no one can be sure what is true and what has been exaggerated when talking about these things.

No one but Checo and Roy—with skin so fair he looked Polish—could know how surprised Davy and Gilbert looked when they sneaked up behind them as the boys peed. Only Checo and Roy can close their eyes and see the baffled look on Davy and Gilbert’s face when Checo asked them, “Who’s bigger?”

I’m older,” Gilbert said.

But I’m bigger,” Davy said still peeing.

Let’s see,” Roy said grabbing Gilbert between the legs. Roy locked Gilbert’s hands behind his back and with his free hand reached around and finished pulling the boy’s pants and underwear down, all the while shrieking with laughter. Checo had Davy from behind by the elbows, shorts dropped to the knees, grinding the boys butt into his crotch and yelling, “Look, the little girl likes it.”

Look at Gilbert’s pretty chilito,” Roy said. “Make him kiss it.”

Checo pushed Davy’s face between Gilbert’s legs. Davy screamed but was muffled by a mouthful of flesh. Gilbert bawled with pain and tried desperately to break free but he was busy trying to get his eyes to close tighter, tighter. When the boys were finally turned loose, they stood facing each other, panting. Davy, feeling a betrayal he could not understand and because he didn’t’ know what else to do, punched his brother in the face as hard as he could. The blow seemed to wake Gilbert out of a trance and he lunged at his little brother knocking him to the ground. They rolled around in the dirt until their mother appeared and Checo and Roy ran off laughing like idiots.

Apa Cheto and the older brothers gathered some money to help Julio move his family to a neighboring ranch that needed a new foreman. His hand was almost fully healed and would be as good as new by the time the harvesting season started again. Two years after that, Julio was able to move his family out of state to Texas where he found an even better job driving a truck for a lumber yard in Houston.

Davy’s nightmares became less frequent with every move but never really went away. As time passed, the family talked less and less about the nightmares and more and more about how Gilbert and Davy, even now as young men, couldn’t be in the same room with each other without getting into a fight. Everyone agreed that it was very sad that the two boys never learned to get along like brothers.

juanochoaJuan Ochoa lives and writes on the Mex-Tex border. Ochoa is the author of Mariguano: a novel. Ochoa opposes slavery so he advocates for immigration reform.

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Dot the I’s and Cross the T’s , poem by Joy Bowman

On her deathbed she asks me if I can still play

the piano, and begins to sing of jasper roads.

I search the linen for forgotten crochet needles

she swears are under the cushions.

 

Her hands never stop moving, trembling out

letter after letter into the air, spelling something

intangible, something liquid. Never forgetting

to stab her finger at the end of each line.

 

After she is buried, I hang no basil

and pray to a god I do not know, but fear.

Receiving no answer, I pray to her instead,

and finally to something quiet and unnamable.

I imagine a silver cord still exists between us,

not yet buried by the snowfall.


Somewhere between here and there,

I find her in a mildewed trailer,

next to Highway 30, heading east.

I tell her I have my car waiting out back,

you don’t have to stay here.

 

In the backyard my father is dowsing for water,

she has a headache so my palms begin to spill

salt over her gray hair.

I try to take her cold hand into my mine,

but she does not reciprocate, they remain fixed

melded into the porch banister.

 

Instead her eyes, milky and bewildered, stare

into the darkness searching the dim hills,

looking out into the distance somewhere.

bowmanJoy Bowman lives and writes in eastern Kentucky. Her work can also be found in the anthology Feel It With Your Eyes: Writing Inspirited by the University of Kentucky Art Museum. She is a practicing hermit.

 

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The Deep Roots of White Trash: A Review by Kate Tuttle

nancy_isenberg-620x412

Nancy Isenberg Copyright Penguin/Mindy Stricke

“Americans like the rhetoric of equality but they don’t like it when it’s real.”

Nancy Isenberg’s book “White Trash” begins by looking at the characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Both the book and the movie play with the divide between Atticus Finch, who is saintly and proper, and the poor white family, the Ewells, whose daughter’s false rape accusation is at the story’s center, as an example that there are two kinds of white people in the South. The book has been on Isenberg’s curriculum for 15 years, as part of a history class called “Crime, Conspiracy, and Courtroom Dramas,” which she teaches at Louisiana State University.

From “Mockingbird,” Isenberg’s book travels back to the first English arrivals on the American shore, tracing four centuries of how we talk and think about class (and race) in our most unequal union. It’s a bracing, sometimes upsetting read, beginning with its name, a term which still causes deep offense in some quarters.

 When did you first start working on the idea of the “poor white” or “poor white trash?”
When you’re a historian, you gravitate toward certain issues. Part of it has to do with my graduate training; my first book dealt with race, class and gender. But it also had to do with when I was working on “Madison and Jefferson,” which I coauthored with Andrew Burstein. I became very aware of the importance of how Jefferson talked about the poor. He has this amazing line where, at the same moment that he’s calling for the education of the poor, something the Virginia legislature would reject, he refers to the poor as “rubbish.” I became interested in figuring out the language: how do Americans talk about the poor? And then I realized that this is connected to the larger problem Americans have about class, that they believe a myth. We are told over and over again by writers, sometimes journalists, but mainly politicians, that we are an exceptional country, that we embrace the American dream. And what’s that rooted to this idea that we believe in social mobility. And we think that that idea, that promise, goes all the way back to the American revolution, that at that moment we broke free from the British system and that somehow we unburdened ourselves from the English class system. Now this is a problem that Americans have – they often prefer the myth over reality.
 I began to look more closely at how Americans talk about class. There are a long list of slurs and of terms such as waste people, vagrants, rascals, rubbish, lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, degenerates, rednecks, and of course, trailer trash. And you’ll see that just by paying attention to the words people use … what comes up over and over again, is the way the discussion of class throughout our history has forced on the centrality of land and land ownership, as well as what I call breeds, or breeding. And both of these big concepts come from the British. For example, the early indentured servants, the poor who the British wanted to dump into British colonial America, they were called waste people. And where does that term come from? It comes from the idea of waste land.
 If a rich field, a productive field, is the sign of success, then fallow and untilled soil, soul that is ignored, the scrubby, swampy, completely worthless tract of land, is what waste land was. We forget – through most of our history we were an agrarian nation. That means that land ownership was the most important marker for designating an individual – and course we’re talking about, primarily, men – it was the most important signifier of civic identity, it was the first way to measure who had the right to vote, it also was a measure of independence. Americans didn’t believe everybody was free, you were only free if you had the economic wherewithal to control your destiny and where did that come from? It came from owning land.
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Field Fire, fiction by Paul Heatley

Bobby woke in his truck, the rim of his hat pulled low to cover his eyes. Rising sunlight hit him full in the face when he lifted it. He winced, blinked until he could handle it, then reached for the warm bottle of water in the centre console. It was half-empty. He drained off what was left, but still his throat was dry. It burned, and it wasn’t just his throat – everything else hurt, too. His right hand was swollen, the knuckles purple. He looked back at the bar behind him, the cars and trucks parked in front and around where he was near the bottom of the lot. In front of the building there was a row of motorcycles. A couple of bikers had fallen asleep in the saddle, and a couple of others were laying splayed on the ground or atop the benches on the sun-bleached grass.

Bobby got out the truck, stretched, then strolled up to the bar. It was dark inside, only a few lights on, but it was blissfully cool. The bartender looked up as he entered, raised one eyebrow. “We’re closed,” he said. He scowled. He sat on a stool behind the counter, reading a newspaper. His left eye was blackened and his lip had a split in it. He sucked on the cut.

“I can see that.” Bobby took a seat at the bar. “You got water?”

“I said we’re closed.”

“You ain’t gotta open just to give me a glass of water.”

The bartender looked at him, his eyes hard, then put the paper down and went to the sink. He came back with a glass, handed it over. Bobby gulped it down. It helped, a little. His throat stopped hurting.

“Looks like someone did a number on you,” Bobby said.

“Uh-huh. Ain’t the first time.”

“Deserve it?”

“Sometimes do, sometimes don’t.”

“In this instance?”

“You tell me, asshole.”

Bobby held up his swollen right hand. “Your face did this, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“I was wonderin.”

“Wonder no more.”

“I don’t remember.”

“No one does.”

“Guess I should apologise.”

“Save it. I don’t give a shit.”

“So what happened after?”

“Couple of the boys threw you out.”

“I appreciate not receiving a beating.”

“There’s time yet.”

“Sure. Well. Thanks for the water.” Bobby turned.

The bartender called to him. “You brought somethin in with you.”

“What’s that?”

The bartender reached under the counter, produced a gun. He put it flat on the bar. Bobby looked at it.

“You threatening me?”

“No. It’s yours. You came in here waving it round. I took it off you. That’s when you started throwing fists.”

Bobby stared at the gun. “That ain’t mine.”

“You brought it in.”

“I don’t own a gun.”

“You did last night, and you do now.”

“I don’t want it.”

“It ain’t staying here. Just take the fucking gun.”

Bobby reached out, picked it up. It was heavy. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Stick it up your ass. I don’t care. Now get the fuck outta here.”

Bobby checked the safety was on, then tucked the gun into his waistband and went back out to his truck. The night before was a blur. He’d gone out in the early afternoon with his father-in-law, to celebrate the old man’s birthday. Somewhere along the way he’d lost him, but he didn’t know when or where. He reached into the glove box, pulled out his phone. There were more than a dozen missed calls from Karen, his wife. She wasn’t going to be happy. He braced himself, rang her back.

“Where you at?”

“Hey, you.”

“Goddamn it, Bobby! You know how many times I called you? Where you at?”

“I’m on my way home.”

“Uh-huh. You know where my dad’s at?”

“Uh –”

“He’s at home, asshole. Why’d you take his gun?”

“His gun?”

“That’s what I said. Why’d you take it?”

Bobby could feel it, pressing cool against his stomach. “I – I don’t know. I mean, why’d he have it out?”

“How drunk did you get?”

“Pretty drunk.”

“And you were driving. You’re in the truck. You know how dangerous that is, Bobby? You could’ve got yourself killed! You could’ve killed someone else!”

“Yeah, okay, but I haven’t.”

“That doesn’t make it all right.”

“Tell me about the gun, Karen.”

“You don’t remember?”

“No.”

“Well. Dad said the two of you got drunk, then you went back to his place and you got this idea in your head to go out back and shoot bottles in the moonlight.”

“Bullshit. I’ve never taken a notion to play with his gun ever before, why’d I start now? I reckon he’s just blamin me, it’s him, he’d’ve wanted to do that kinda thing.”

“You remember that?”

“No.”

“Well, he said you were real insistent on it. And I believe him, because once you’ve had a drink, you get somethin in your head – I know you, Bobby. Anyway, regardless, the two of you went out there, he left you with the gun while he goes and sets up the bottles on the fence posts, then he turns back and sees you running off. Why’d you run?”

“I got no idea.”

“Have you got the gun?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Just come home, Bobby. You can apologise to dad later.”

“Sure. Yeah. Sure. I’m on my way.”

He pulled out of the parking lot and headed onto the road. In the mirror he saw a couple of the bikers begin to rouse, stretch their limbs and climb onto their bikes, or off their bikes, depending on where they had woken. One of them stood to the side and pissed into the dead grass.

Bobby drove, still thirsty. His throat burned again and swallowing just made it worse. He thought about the night before, of the story Karen had relayed to him, but he remembered none of it. The mental images it conjured, however, brought a smile to his face. He chuckled.

He passed through a thick gathering of trees that sprouted up in the fields on either side of the road. Coming out from their shade, something caught his eye. A fire. There were kids stood around it. He slowed. The fire was raging, it kicked and thrashed. He stopped. It was a horse. The kids, five of them, stood and watched.

He jumped out the truck. “Hey!”

The kids looked up, saw him. They turned and ran. Bobby hurried after them into the field, then stopped. The horse screamed. It was the most awful sound he’d ever heard. He smelled burning flesh and gasoline. He looked at the horse, the heat bringing tears to his eyes. Its own eyes were gone and its lips had burned back to reveal gnashing teeth and a lolling tongue. Its legs were broken, all four of them. They’d been smashed so it couldn’t run, probably with a hammer.

It continued to thrash, to scream. It pierced his ears, made his skin prickle and his teeth grind. He tried to block the sound with his hands but it came through. He was about to start screaming himself when he felt the gun still in his waistband. He pulled it out, shot the horse until it was dead.

Lowering the gun, he breathed heavily and watched it burn. Tears ran down his cheeks. There was movement to his right. He glanced. A kid stood beside him, red-haired and heavily freckled, wearing shorts and a grass-stained t-shirt. The kid didn’t looked back at him. He stared at the horse. His mouth was twisted.

“Were you with them what done this?” Bobby said.

The kid nodded, once, very solemn. “I was with them,” he said. “But I’m not one of them.”

Bobby nodded, then turned back to the fire. The horse was just meat now. The flames were dying across its blackened corpse.

“Why’d they do it?” Bobby said.

“Because they had gas, and matches, and a hammer, and they wanted to watch it burn. It was an old horse, anyhow.”

“That don’t make it all right.”

“I know it don’t. What you gonna do about it, mister?” the kid said. “You gonna go after them?”

Bobby realised the gun was still in his hand. “No,” he said. He wiped the tears from his face, and they stood together in silence and watched until the flames were gone, and smoke rose and curled from the charred and blackened carcass.

heatleyPaul Heatley’s stories have appeared online and in print for a variety of publications including Thuglit, Spelk, HandJob Zine, Crime Syndicate, Plots With Guns, and Shotgun Honey, among others. He has six novellas available for Kindle from Amazon. He lives in the north east of England.

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The Master Plan, by Michael Chin

Sometimes after I lift weights, my shoulders broadest, my chest thickest, my step a little slower, I picture myself as Kane.

The Big Red Machine. The Demon.

The Undertaker’s little brother.

The brother he left for dead in a childhood fire. The brother who came back to haunt him in 1997, thirsty for revenge. Thirsty for fire and damnation. Thirsty for choke slams and piledrivers.

Kane evolved before our eyes, over a decade. Starting a masked monster, hell bent on revenge. Becoming management’s hired gun. Falling in love and having his heart broken. When he was forced to unmask, he went a little crazier, setting a play-by-play aflame, clamping a jumper cables to another wrestler’s testicles.

Then, he reunited with his brother—The Brothers of Destruction—a team too big, too strong, too supernaturally insurmountable to be challenged.

In 2010, he put his brother in the hospital.

It was all a part of Kane’s plan, you see. To scout his brother. To test him. To win his trust over years and years and years only to gain the advantage. To become unbeatable when they clashed for the last time.

And though I picture myself like Kane, in biceps, in gait, in intensity, this may be what appeals most. That my every word, my every tragedy, my every pratfall, my every triumph—that it all might mean something.

That I might convince someone—not least of all myself—it was all part of a master plan.

michaelchinMichael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Oregon State University. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in over thirty journals including The Normal School, Bayou Magazine, Gravel, and Weave Magazine. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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Down By the River, fiction by Sarah Einstein

Daniel walked through the clusters of drunken college students as they stumbled out of the closing bars, his black wool cap pulled low and his face tucked down into the collar of the olive drab parka he’d picked up that afternoon at Christian Help. The clock on the bank blinked 1:27 and then 24°-the time was fine but if the temperature dropped four more degrees the police would start rounding up the river folk and forcing them into the night shelter at Bartlett House, which would ruin his whole plan. He quickened his step, pushing past a gaggle of girls teetering on high-heeled, open-toed sandals standing outside The Lazy Lizard. He supposed they were too drunk to feel the cold. He heard one say, Holy shit, did you see that? That guy almost knocked me down and then giggle, but no call-out from a boyfriend looking to chase him down, so he hurried on.

Daniel was following a girl he’d seen limping out of Bent Willies, a cast on her leg, a crutch under each arm, and no date. She was moving slow, too slow for him to follow her directly without being noticed, so he was weaving his way in and out of the crowds along High Street, guessing her path and only crossing down to Chestnut to check her position. Tracking, he thought. He liked the sound of that. It made him feel like a hunter. It made her sound like prey.

She was a fat girl with stringy blond hair and too much make-up. Daniel figured her for about twenty-four. A townie hanging out in the college bars. But he didn’t care that she wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t her face that caught his eye. It was her leg.

She hobbled into the parking garage, making things easy. Daniel had been afraid she’d parked on the street, or in one of the lots behind a busy club that would be filled with knots of boys and girls involved in the final negotiations of who would be going home with whom. But she had passed all those places and walked into the one part of downtown that stayed quiet at night. He followed her down the long concrete ramp to a deck empty except for one pick-up. Nicer than he’d expected, new with a custom paint job. There might be a bonus in this.

He stepped out of the shadows, no longer worried that she would notice him following her, and started to run. He slammed her against the side of the truck before she could get the door open, pinned her against it and grabbed her hair. With a grunt, he pulled her head back as hard as he could. “Just shut the fuck up, bitch, and give me your purse,” he said, punching her forehead against the window.

She dropped her purse and pissed her pants at the same time. This always struck him as funny and even though it happened pretty much every time he strong-armed a woman, he couldn’t keep himself from laughing. “Stupid cow,” he said. Daniel kicked her casted leg out from under her and then tossed the crutches over the railing onto the deck below so that he could get good and gone before she had any way to get to help.

He cut through the alley behind the Monongalia Arts Center and jogged toward Riverfront Park, headed for Cecil’s camp under the Westover Bridge. When it was cold like this, everyone stayed near Cecil because the cops wouldn’t bother him, the old drunk so sick his liver now hung over the top of his jeans, a flabby sack of tumor and cirrhosis. Cecil said the only good thing about dying was that the cops couldn’t keep him in jail—they had to stick him in the prison hospital instead—and it was so much damned trouble that they just left him alone.

Those that had tents pitched them along side Cecil’s, those that didn’t climbed into the Big Agnes Flying Diamond Eight tent that some do-gooder had bought him. When necessary, that eight man tent would hold ten, twelve, sometimes even thirteen people easy, just so long as they were drunk enough not to mind each other’s stink. Cecil no longer cared what company he kept. Hell, most nights he was long passed out before anyone else had even started on the night’s drinking. Ever since the cancer, Cecil couldn’t hold his liquor.

Daniel followed the trail until he passed the boat ramp and then jumped the barrier. Crouched behind the concrete embankment, he dug through the purse to see what he’d gotten. He pushed the wallet aside; whatever money was in there wouldn’t do him any good till morning and it wasn’t what he wanted, anyhow. He was glad to see the cell phone—it meant she couldn’t call the cops—and set it on the concrete. He stomped on it until it was broken into a handful of pieces. He knew that if he kept it, it would lead the cops right to him. There was a big, zippered bag inside and he rooted around in it, tossing mascara and lip gloss into the snow until he found what he had been after… the plastic bottle with the childproof lid he’d known would be in there.

He held the bottle up to catch what light he could from the moon. OxyContin 80s. Damn, he muttered to himself, I hit the fucking jackpot. He rattled the bottle. It was full. He knew that cast looked fresh. Hardly any dirt, the plaster around the toes not yet starting to crumble. He counted two out into his hand and ground them between his teeth. Cursorily, he took the money out of the wallet. Almost six hundred dollars. Shit, bitch must have just gotten paid he said to himself, chuckling and sticking the bills and the pill bottle into his pocket before tossing the purse and everything else that was in it into the river. He felt clever for knowing not to carry the thing around with him; he felt like an accomplished thief.

The front flap of the tent was open and he could smell the stench of the tangle of bodies from outside; sweat and piss mixed with the sickeningly sweet odors of Cecil’s cancer and fruit-flavored MadDog. He crawled over some empty bottles and then closed the flap behind him.

The men stood in a knot along the walkway behind the Garlow Building. Friendship Room, the day shelter on the second floor, wouldn’t open until eight and Abigail, the woman who ran the place, didn’t care that it was cold, she wouldn’t open the door fifteen minutes early or let them wait in the warm hallway. But the only other place in town that would give a guy a cup of coffee and maybe some stale cookies for breakfast was the Mission down on Pleasant, and the preacher there was the hard-shell kind of Baptist. Wouldn’t let in the guys who smelled like they’d been drinking the night before, made a fellow pray over every little cup of coffee or stale donut, and didn’t allow any card playing in the place. The only people who went there were the men who’d gotten themselves sanctioned from the Friendship Room for drinking or selling drugs and the women who thought any minute now Jesus was going to find them a Section Eight apartment and a disability check.

Daniel didn’t want to be here; he wanted to be back in the tent, smoking up the pills he’d scored while everyone else was here getting warm, but he knew better than to disappear the morning after robbing a girl. The guy who wasn’t where he was supposed to be was the first guy everyone would suspect. Besides, it was Friday, the day the Hospice nurse came to check on Cecil, and she always brought a few dozen eggs and some sausage for Papa Russ to cook up so they could have a real breakfast. Since it was cold, Abigail would probably break out the commodity powdered milk and flour and make them biscuits. Better to get a full belly, he knew, because once he started to smoke he had enough to keep him going for a few days. He’d never learned to pace himself. Daniel reached into the pocket of his jeans and felt the bandana filled with pills to reassure himself they were still there.

He’d slipped the prescription bottle, six pills, and forty dollars of the girl’s money into the pocket of Cecil’s coat back at camp; a coat that looked exactly like the one he’d thrown into the dumpster behind Chico’s Fat on his way up the hill this morning. Some group had donated about forty of them to the clothing pantry. There were three other guys milling around in the exact same parka. That was the great thing about Christian Help; everything was free and they didn’t care how many times a guy came in and got new clothes. Daniel would head over after breakfast and tell them somebody took the parka and they’d give him another one. This time, he’d ask for one of the used wool overcoats hung along the back wall. When the cops came looking for a guy in a parka, he wanted to be sure he didn’t have one.

Daniel shuffled to keep warm, careful never to get too close to Cecil or the old men who stood around him. All the old men from down on the riverbank had taken to walking up with Cecil on Fridays just to make sure he kept the appointment with the nurse. Men who wouldn’t normally have anything to do with a place like Friendship Room because it made them feel claustrophobic. There was Papa Russ, an old Marine who was an alright guy until he got some whiskey in him and then he’d pace up and down the sidewalk, calling every woman who walked by a god-damned whore and trying to take a swing at any man who met his gaze. He held Cecil’s elbow like a prom date, keeping him steady on his feet. Dollar Bill leaned up against a wall, Cecil’s backpack thrown over his shoulder with his own. He was a tiny man, couldn’t have been more than five foot three, and quiet most of the time. Not even much of a drinker. But if he lost his meds—or someone took them, as Daniel had done a time or two—he started to ramble. Scary talk about loving his baby granddaughter with her clothes off and what business was that of anybody else’s? Two years ago, they’d tossed him out of the Clarksburg Mission for sneaking a can of beer in under his jacket and he’d burnt the place to the ground. Hadn’t been inside a shelter or day program since, not until word got out that Cecil was going to die. A couple of the other old-timers, men who’d spent decades living out of doors, stood around rolling cigarettes and stomping the cold out of their toes.

Daniel didn’t understand the loyalty of the old men. On any given night, with enough liquor and almost no provocation, they could be found beating each other bloody over the dregs of a bottle down by the river. In their world, there wasn’t any right, no good, only success. Getting away with something, outsmarting someone, that was the measure of a man’s worth. He couldn’t figure out what angle these old men were working, and it made him nervous.

When Friendship Room finally opened, Daniel filed in, got a cup of coffee and sat down on the threadbare brown couch in front of the television. Sesame Street was on. Kids weren’t allowed in here, but the organization that ran the place wouldn’t spring for cable and all they could pick up with rabbit ears was public television. He watched Big Bird explain sharing to some kid and tried not to squirm, but after about three minutes he couldn’t take it any longer and bolted for the bathroom. The door didn’t lock—in places like this, they never do—so he tied one end of the drawstring from his sweatshirt around the doorknob and the other around the cold-water tap to keep it shut. He pulled the bandana full of pills, his pocketknife, a square of tinfoil, a cut up piece of straw, and a lighter out of his pocket. Using the back of the toilet as a table, he cut one of the pills into quarters. One by one, Daniel placed the pill quarters onto the center of the tinfoil, held the lighter pills underneath, and sucked the smoke up through the straw. Chasing the dragon. It wasn’t as effective as a pipe, but easier to ditch if necessary and the tinfoil cooled down fast enough that he could shove it into a pocket without being burned if he was about to get caught. This morning, though, no one bothered him. He finished the first pill and broke up another. Two quarters in to the second, he felt the familiar warmth and knew he was in danger of nodding out. Shoving everything into the front pocket of his jeans, he untied the drawstring and stumbled out into the main room, falling into an old yellow armchair just as he started to drift away.

Two or three times during the next few hours, Daniel felt himself shaken awake, heard Abigail tell him to wake up because Friendship Room didn’t allow sleeping during peer support group, knew he was being threatened with a sanction. He didn’t care. He was always getting tossed out of places, and he would rather stay in this chair for now and worry about what to do later when later came. Fuck you he managed to mutter the third time a hand grabbed his shoulder and tried to force him out of the comfort of his haze. Fuck you to death.

“What did you say, boy?” A man’s deep voice penetrated the fog. He thought it sounded familiar. Daniel tried to rouse himself.

“Boy, I asked you what you said, and I told you to wake up.” The voice didn’t sound angry, just certain. “If you can’t wake up, I’m going to have to start wondering why exactly that would be.”

Officer Booth. Daniel sat up and tried to feel enough panic to keep himself from slipping back into that better place. “I’m awake, sir. Just not feeling well today. Took some Nyquil earlier, must of knocked me out. Sir.”

Daniel looked around the room. There were four officers, two of whom he didn’t recognize. One was the lady cop they only brought along when there was going to be a body search. Daniel had to struggle to keep his own hands out of his pocket. He knew that would be a dead give-away.

“Get out on the hall with everybody else. We’re bringing the dog in. If you got a coat or a backpack, just leave it be.” Officer Booth pointed toward the door. “But don’t go anywhere, we want to talk to everybody. Won’t be but a few minutes, and you can get back to your napping.”

Daniel followed the line of people out into the hallway. He saw Dollar Bill, and a few of the guys he knew were probably holding, sneak down the steps and out the High Street exit. He wanted to go with them, not because he was afraid of getting caught—he knew the cops couldn’t put the dog on them, just their stuff, and he hadn’t had a coat or pack to leave behind—but because standing in the cramped hallway was taking the edge off his buzz. But he needed to stick around to make sure the dog sniffed out the bottle in the inside pocket of Cecil’s parka, needed to know what they’d do next.

It was a fast search. In five minutes, they were all back in the room, lined up along the walls with the officers in the middle, like they were playing some children’s game. Papa Russ was angry, maybe a little drunk, and yelling at the director.

“They ain’t got no right to search us, or our stuff, without a warrant.” He puffed out his chest. “I served my country for four years and I know my rights.”

Abigail moved to the middle of the room beside Officer Booth. “They have my permission, which is all they need.”

“Why the fuck did you go and tell them it was alright?” Papa Russ punched his hand into the wall. “What are you, some kind of Nazi? Don’t think a man has any rights just because he’s down on his luck?”

Abigail just shook her head. “Cecil, the police need to speak to you. The rest of you can head down to the Red Door church for lunch. I’m closing the room for an hour while this all gets straightened out.” She ushered everyone but Cecil, his nurse, and the officers out of the room and locked the door.

Daniel wasn’t hungry—he was never hungry when he was using—but he knew better than to separate himself from the crowd, so he followed everyone up to the soup kitchen. He realized that if there had been eggs and bacon that morning, he’d missed them and so forced down a bowl of spiceless chili and a couple day-old cheesesticks from Giant Eagle. Everyone was up in arms about the search, and then again about being thrown out of the room for an hour though, truth be told, they all knew that the room emptied out for the hour the soup kitchen was open, anyway.

Proud Mary, who Daniel figured had to be at least seventy and quite possibly the person who had lived the longest on the riverbank, was waxing philosophical. “That bitch got no right. She thinks that just cause she got the keys, she’s something special. But nothing them cops found today will do them any good in court, because she don’t have the authority to tell them that they can search our things.”

“What could they want with old Cecil, anyway?” Dollar Bill tore a slice of bread into tiny pieces. “I mean, he ain’t a doper. Hell, if he was, all he’d have to do is go stay in that Hospice and they’d give him one of those morphine pumps. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Backpack Jack sat down across from Daniel and tossed a copy of the Dominion Post in front of him.

“You see this?” Jack asked, pointing to a story on the front page about the mugging. “You do this?”

Daniel feigned ignorance and picked up the paper. It said the girl, Kimberly Atkins, was in guarded condition at Ruby Memorial with frostbite and a concussion, that she’d been stuck in the garage until someone found her at six that morning. There was a description; a man, medium build, in a black stocking cap and an olive drab parka. Could have been anyone.

“Me?” He tossed the paper back toward Jack. “No, man, that wasn’t me. I don’t do that shit any more.”

“Since when?” Jack pulled a bottle of hot sauce out of his backpack and doused the chili, then offered it to Daniel. “I thought this was your thing.”

“Not any more. I got my thirty day chip. Working the program. One day at a time.” Daniel had learned the hard way not to brag. Used to be, he’d lay claim even when he wasn’t the one who’d roughed up some local late at night. Thought it made him look tough. But everyone was out for himself and people traded what they knew about his business for ways to get out of their own troubles.

“Well, better hope it don’t fall on you.” Jack pointed his spoon at Daniel. “Lot of people going to be real pissed off if you brought the cops down on us today with something stupid like this.”

Daniel felt his stomach turn. “Why you want to go and say something like that? I told you it wasn’t me.”

Jack shook his head. “I’m just saying. Description in the paper could be anyone. Hell, half the guys in here are wearing those parkas from Christian Help today.” He looked at Daniel’s jacket. “Didn’t you get one?”

“No. Meant to, but didn’t make it over before they were all gone.”

“Not smart, man. You gotta keep warm and take care of your feet. That’s the secret to making it out of doors in the winter. A good coat and warm socks.”

Daniel just nodded and let Jack ramble on about gear. Jack was one of those guys who got a healthy disability check every month and could live indoors if he wanted to, but preferred the road. He probably had four, five thousand dollars worth of camping equipment in that pack of his; a good tent, a four season bag, Gore-tex socks. He had too much stuff to sleep down by the river with everyone else—it wasn’t done, this having and not sharing—so he slept up behind the Giant Eagle on Greenbag Road. Made him an outsider. Daniel figured if it came to it, his word was better than Jack’s. After all, he didn’t hold himself above anybody. He was down there in it with them.

“Well, be cool,” Jack said, getting up. “Don’t matter to me, I’m most likely headed out of town in the morning.”

Daniel just smiled and nodded. Jack said this every day. Sometimes he really went, other times he just said he was going and then hung around for months. He watched Jack hitch his pack over his shoulder and, when he was sure the man was good and gone, gathered his own things and headed outside.

Daniel fingered the money in his pocket.. He had over five hundred dollars. If Jack hadn’t of spooked him, he’d have gotten himself a room for the week at the Airport Motel, stayed someplace warm and dry while he smoked up the pills. But if people were looking at him for this, it was too risky. Still, surely he’d earned himself some sort of reward for all his hard work. He thought about Jack’s bag—about how nice it would be to sleep warm for a change—and walked down to Adventure’s Edge.

The woman in the store smiled and pretended to believe him when he said he was looking to do some winter camping, but it was clear she knew from the get-go that he was really living out. She steered him away from the three hundred dollar Sierra Designs bag he was fingering and showed him a Kelty that was just under seventy.

“Both are rated to zero degrees, and the Sierra won’t hold up any better under regular use than the Kelty,” she said. “The only real benefit is that it’s lighter. If you’re not planning on doing a lot of hiking, that’s not worth the more than two hundred dollars extra you’ll have to pay.”

He liked being talked to like this, like a regular person. He liked that the woman was upfront about things and wasn’t trying to sell him on something he didn’t need. He thought of himself as the sort of person who told it straight and admired that trait in others. In fact, he felt so damned good he asked her out for a beer. She laughed and pointed to a man arranging ski jackets on a rack at the back of the store.

“I don’t think my husband would like it,” she said. But then she’d whispered. “He won’t like this, either, but I’ll give you ten percent off on the bag.” Daniel didn’t know why, but the discount pissed him off, though he didn’t mind that she’d turned down his offer for a beer. A married woman should.

“Fuck that. I got money. I’ll pay what anybody else would pay,” he said and pulled the fat roll of twenties out his pocket. The woman gave him a deflated, confused look, but took four of the twenties and gave him back his change.

“Well, stay warm,” she said and then walked back to stand beside her husband, her eyes on Daniel till he was out the door.

Daniel carried his bag up to Christian Help, where the lady gave him an old pea coat and a child’s book bag. He stuffed the sleeping bag down into it—it wouldn’t do to show up with a new sleeping bag on the day after some girl got mugged—and headed back to Friendship Room.

The place was full, which meant trouble. Usually only a few folk would straggle back after lunch. The afternoons were full of craft classes and self-advocacy groups, and the people who didn’t attend had to sit silently on the couches—reading or napping—while the meetings went on. Today was Wednesday, when the crazy bead lady came and tried to get them to make necklaces to sell at the United Way garage sale to raise money for the place. Some of the women did it, and once in a while one of the new guys who didn’t yet know it would get him called “pussy” by the regulars. But, today, she was sitting alone with her bags of beads while everyone was milling around, talking all at once.

Dollar Bill was sitting on the arm of the couch, just taking it all in. Daniel sidled over to him.

“What’s going on?”

“You ain’t heard? The cops found a pill bottle belonging to that girl that got mugged last night in the pocket of Cecil’s jacket.” Bill looked at Daniel through narrowed eyes. “Took him away.”

“The cops took Cecil to jail?” Daniel was shocked. He was sure the cops would leave Cecil alone even after they found the pill bottle. They had to know that Cecil hadn’t, couldn’t have, done it.

“No. Told him that he had two choices. He could go to jail, or he could go stay at the Hospice.” Bill shook his head. “Either one’ll kill the old boy. He can’t abide staying indoors, and they won’t let him have his beer even though the nurse said he was too weak to stand up to the DTs.”

“How could the cops force him into Hospice?” This didn’t sound right to Daniel.

“Didn’t so much force him as tell him that if he was there, they’d consider him arrested and put a policeman outside his room and he wouldn’t have to go Doddridge. Said they knew it wasn’t him, but until they figured out who did do it, they had to hold him.”

Daniel looked for some sign that Dollar Bill was asking a question, but the old man seemed to just be sharing the news. He looked quickly around the room, relieved that Jack wasn’t there.

“That fucking sucks, man.” Daniel worked on building up some righteous indignation, told himself the cops had no right until he’d almost forgotten that he was the one that put the pills in Cecil’s pocket. “God damned man got no rights at all in this country if he’s poor.”

Dollar Bill just nodded, then pointed to where Papa Russ stood, red-faced. “Now, there’s a man about to get himself in trouble. Russ done got himself a bottle at lunch and has been sneaking sips on it ever since. Any minute now, he’s going to start swinging. You mark my words.”

Daniel watched, hopeful. If Russ did hit someone, then the cops would have no choice but take him down to the regional jail in Doddridge County. And Russ was a canny old man. If anyone was going to sniff out that this was all Daniel’s doing, he figured that’s who it would be. He’d rest a lot easier tonight if Papa Russ was sleeping off a drunk and disorderly more than an hour’s drive away.

Everywhere, people were standing around in clumps arguing about what the police had done, whether or not it was legal, making guesses as to how the pills had gotten in Cecil’s pocket, and insisting they knew who really strong-armed that girl. Here and there, Daniel heard his name mentioned, but he heard five or six others at least as often. The clock on the wall said it was just after three… half an hour more and the room would close down. Daniel decided he had learned everything he could and asked the director for a bus token. Told her he had an appointment out at Valley with his drug counselor in the morning. He didn’t, of course, and he sure as hell didn’t need to save the seventy-five cents a token would have cost him, not today… but he liked that she knew he was lying and had to give him the token anyway because she had no way to check. It made him feel smarter than she was, powerful in some small way.

Morgantown used to be full of places where a guy could hole up for a few hours, catch a buzz, not get noticed. But the last three or four years, it seemed all the old houses were either getting torn down or slapped back together for student apartments. Daniel decided to treat himself to a movie and took the Westover bus out to the mall. He stood for a while in front of the movie posters, trying to decide what to go see even though he knew he’d probably sleep through at least two showings of whatever it was. He was torn between Zombieland and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. In the end, he decided on the zombie film because the movie poster for the other had Based on the Best-Selling Book of the Same Name by Tucker Max along the bottom, which Daniel ranked up there with subtitles for being proof that a movie was going to be dull as hell.

He bought his ticket and then wandered into the theater’s bathroom. It was still a half an hour till the first matinee, and the place was pretty much empty except for the kid selling tickets and another making popcorn. Daniel pulled out the tinfoil, lighter, straw, and two quarters of a pill he had left from that morning and smoked them. Then, before the buzz had time to really settle in, he took another three pills out of the bandana, cut them up, and wrapped them in toilet paper before sticking them into his other pocket. If he was lucky, no one else would be in the theater at all, but even if they were, as long as he sat in the back, he knew he could get away with smoking during the film. The pills didn’t smell when they burned, and the sound system would drown out the flick of his lighter as long as he made sure he only fired up when something noisy was going on, like gunshots or an explosion.

Daniel found a seat in the back row and watched the trivia game that ran before the movie previews. What actor won his first Academy Award for his portrayal of Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects? _ev_n S_a_e_ Hell, even stoned, Daniel knew that one. What sort of idiots were these questions written for? He smoked up three more chunks of pill and settled in.

When Daniel woke up, Woody Harrelson and some kid were shooting up what looked like the county fair while zombies tried to climb up one of those free-fall rides to get at two girls with what he assumed were empty guns. Daniel had worked a few carnivals in his time, and he thought the zombies looked pretty much like the regular crowd on a Saturday night.

The theater was empty except for a knot of teenagers making out in the middle rows, and he had no idea if this was the first or the fourth time he’d sat through the movie. His legs were stiff and his mouth so dry it hurt to breathe, so he figured he’d been there a while. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the rest of the cut up pills, smoking them as quickly as he could in case this was the last showing and he’d have to start the long walk back to town.

Up on the screen, Woody Harrelson held the zombies at bay while the nerdy looking kid rescued the girls. Maybe it was funny, but Daniel hadn’t seen enough of the movie to know. To him, it just didn’t make sense. That wimpy kid would never make it on the riverbank, much less in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. He knew, because that was the sort of kid he’d been, a long time ago. He gathered his new coat and knapsack and headed out the door.

The parking lot was empty and the air bitter. He must have slept straight through to the end of the nine-fifty showing. That would make it around midnight. Daniel wrapped his coat around him and walked toward downtown, stopping every five minutes or so to fire up again. By the time he got over the bridge and down the embankment, he was so stoned that at first he thought he was lost. There were no tents, no fires. Only some burnt up steel garbage cans and a lot of broken bottles glimmering in the moonlight. For a moment, he thought maybe the zombies had gotten everyone, and then he laughed at himself for being that fucked up. He kicked around the rubble trying to piece together what was going on.

He would, he knew, have to head out of town in the morning. Not being caught in the round up would make everyone suspicious. And while the police didn’t worry Daniel—a little jail time didn’t bother him any more, and in the dead of winter a few weeks in Dodderidge might even be pleasant—being called out by Dollar Bill, Papa Russ and the rest did. There were laws down here on the riverbank, too, and retribution was swifter and more brutal than anything the courts would do to him. He thought he might head down south to his mother’s place in Alabama. He’d need a six month chip before she’d let him back in the house, but those were easy to come by. Daniel knew he could trade two, at most four, of the remaining pills for one at any Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

Chunks of ice floated in the Mon, and Daniel knew it was too cold to sleep out. Either the cops would get him or he’d get frostbit. He figured it to be around 12:30, just the right time to hit the hippy bar, 123 Pleasant Street. The place had had a lot of names over the years—The Underground Railroad, the Nyabinghi Dance Hall—and retired into the infamy of its own address. It wasn’t as lively as it used to be, but with money and drugs he was pretty sure he could find some drunken hippy chick to take him home for the night. That was, Daniel thought, the great thing about hippy chicks… they thought raggedy old clothes and dirty hair were badges of honor. He would bed down with one for the night.

He had to stash the sleeping bag, though. It was a dead give away that he was dirty for reasons that went beyond being hip. There was a concrete traffic barrier wedged up against the wall of the bridge, and Daniel tried to tuck his new sleeping bag behind it. There was something already back there, though. He got out his lighter and flicked on the flame. There, crammed in the tight crack between bridge and barrier, was the rainfly from Cecil’s giant, orange tent. Daniel grabbed it and shook it out to its full length. It snapped in the wind like a kite. He took it down to the very edge of the bank, where the wind was strongest, and let it go. It hung for a minute in the air and then fell into the current. Only after it was gone did Daniel stop and think what a very good ground cloth it would have made. He watched until the current had carried it around the bend, toward the Ohio, and then headed up to town.

Sarah Einstein is an Asst. Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks 2014). Her work has appeared in PANK, The Sun, Ninth Letter, and other journals, and been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity.

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Pluck Pluck, fiction by Catfish McDaris

After making friends with Maya on Facebook I figured she wouldn’t mind a visit. I found out where she lived and jumped on a southbound Greyhound. The worst part was avoiding peeing on myself in the skinny bathroom while hitting potholes. When the dog arrived, I stopped at Popeye’s and got us a bucket of crispy chicken and the fixings. I rang her doorbell and a man that resembled a black Adolf Hitler answered, he wouldn’t let me enter until I gave him a thigh and neck bone from the fowl. When I saw the queen of poetry I smiled and gave her some fried okra with a packet of hot sauce. She looked me over from head to toe, her eyes seemed magnetic. Finally she spoke. “I’ll bet you’re pure hell on the ladies.” I said, “I do alright.” She removed her drawers and said, “Let’s see what you can do you silver-tongued devil.” I plunged in all the way to my ears, she started moaning and groaning and carrying on. I got a bit frightened, I thought I was going to fucking kill her. She started whistling and pulling my hair out by the roots. I figured she had enough. “Goddamn. You sure got a lot of pluck for a naked neck rooster scalawag.” I put my crotch in her face and asked, “Do you fetch bone?” “I’m too old to be your bitch, now give me the rest of that chicken and get the hell out of here.” I hit the bricks back to the bus station.

mcdarisCatfish McDaris has been active in the small press world for 25 years. He shot howitzers 3 years in the army and used to fish and hunt as a boy in New Mexico. Sometimes he goes down to Lake Michigan and feeds seagulls and dreams of mountain horses. He’s working in a wig shop in a high crime area of Milwaukee.

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