A HOUSE OF VLAD PRODUCTION
© 2023 by House of Vlad Press
All rights reserved. No part of this content may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, with the exception of excerpts used for critical essays and reviews.
These are mostly works of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Release Date: November 7, 2023
Guest Editor: Jillian Luft
Cover design: Percy Hearst
Cover photo: Andrew Chadwick
Author photos © the authors
Founder and editor: Brian Alan Ellis
Contributors: Mike Andrelczyk, Jon Berger, Sam Berman, Elizabeth Burch-Hudson, Cash Compson, Josh Luft, Devin McNerney, Elle Nash, Persephone, Kyle Seibel, Catherine Spino, Anthony Verdi, Myles Zavelo
Thanks for reading.
I was folding napkins into a shape called the Bishop’s Hat. The kindly Bishop of Napkin. A mountain of snow-white napkins was piled up on the cart beside me. I looked over the form. It was twenty-five tables. Eight napkins per table. Two hundred napkins. Then the silverware. Four hundred spoons, two hundred knives, four hundred forks. Then two hundred coffee cups, two hundred water glasses, two hundred chairs, twenty-five centerpieces.
I was moving in circles. Like a clock. A clock within a clock. I was moving in circles, arranging shiny objects into mandalas and trying not to think.
It was a wedding ceremony on the beach, followed by dinner for two hundred. Then a reception with a dance floor. Shit. I’d forgotten about the dance floor. People cannot just dance on any floor. A special floor is needed to facilitate the dancing, otherwise the vibe gets all fucked up. Not many people knew this.
So I also needed to set up the dance floor which meant wheeling out the heavy metal cart of interlocking wooden panels, arranging them in a square pattern on the floor and setting them into place with a special L-shaped metal tool. I hadn’t factored that in. I looked at the clock. I had four hours to do this. That was plenty of time.
I took a break and opened the ESPN app on my phone and scanned the starters for the night’s games. The Angels’ starter had an ERA in the low threes and he was facing a struggling Mariner offense. Seattle was trotting out a rookie lefty with a 0-2 record and an ERA approaching six. The Mariners had beaten the Angels last night and I doubted they’d win two in a row—especially in Anaheim. That looked promising. I reviewed the rest of the games. If I paired the Angels game with another team, I could do a parlay and not worry about the money or run lines. Both teams simply had to win and I’d win. I considered the Dodgers at the Pirates, or the Braves at the Marlins, before settling on the Mets at the Rockies.
I called Christopher and placed the bet.
“I prefer the Braves, Dodgers and Red Sox tonight personally,” Christopher said. “How’s the Palms?”
“Living the dream,” he said. “Want anything else?”
“All right. You’re in for the Angels with the Mets.”
The west coast games wouldn’t start until 10 p.m. I decided to try, for fun, to set up the ballroom and dance floor as fast as possible. A sort of speed run. Then I would go to the roof for a smoke and spend the last hour of my shift watching the games.
I made some coffee and looked at the ballroom. I hadn’t factored in the dance floor when I initially set the tables, so I had to move three tables to make space. I fit together the dance floor and went back to setting the tables. I had the whole ballroom set up in an hour and a half. Except for about thirty napkins that I would save so I had something to do while I watched the games.
I glanced down the hallway checking for Rufus, the walrus-faced security guard. I didn’t see him. I snuck down the hall to the stairway that led to the roof. Sneaking around was something I enjoyed ever since I was a kid. Something about the spy-like and secret missionish feeling I got. I went up to the roof, got high and listened to the surf booming into the darkness. Getting high at work added an extra element of excitement to my shift.
The Mets game was airing on ESPN 2, so I wheeled a TV into the ballroom and sat down with the remainder of the napkins and took my time folding them into Bishop’s Hats. I folded one into an airplane and threw it, but it was a flop.
By the sixth inning, the Mets were up by four. And the Angels and Mariners were scoreless in the second. My shift was over. I ran downstairs and clocked out, then snuck into the bar storage area and slipped a bottle of beer into the waist of my pants and untucked my shirt. I took the stairs back up the ballroom to watch the end of the game.
The walrus-faced security guard was standing in the hallway outside the ballroom.
“Thought you left with the TV on,” he said. “And make sure you lock these doors up too.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just a couple more things to do in there.”
He stared at me, knowing for sure I was doing something wrong, but didn’t know exactly what it was or how to prove it. I moved past him into the ballroom.
“Don’t forget to put away the TV and shut off the lights and lock the doors,” he said, like he was my boss. He walked to the elevator and pressed the button and stood with his back to me and stared at the closed elevator doors.
The Angels were up 1-0 in the fourth. The Mets seemed to be cruising now with a five-run lead in the eighth.
I’d be up $300 if the scores held out. The ballroom looked immaculate. Really beautiful, I had to admit. This would likely be the event of a lifetime. And that dance floor, well, what could I say about that?
I watched the end of the Mets game. New York gave up a meaningless run in the ninth and won 6-2. I could check the Angels’ score on my phone. I turned off the lights in the ballroom and wheeled the TV cart back to the storage closet. I got down to the garage before I realized I’d forgotten to lock the ballroom doors and I’d left the empty beer bottle under one of the tables.
I ran back up and locked the doors and put the bottle in a recycling bin. I wasn’t going to let the Walrus have anything on me.
When I got back to my car and checked my phone, the Angels were winning 9-0.
There were lucky nights when everything seemed to be arranged just for me and betting gave me a chance to test my luck. Like if I didn’t bet, I might not know I was even having a lucky night. It would be all lined up for me and I wouldn’t even know it. It was also a way to test my instincts. That’s what I liked about betting. That and the money.
I pulled into the parking lot of a combination nail salon and bait shop and took a grape-flavored Dutchmaster from my glovebox. I slid my fingernail along the seam and dumped the guts out in the parking lot and filled it with weed. Licked it. I lit it up on the highway and drove home without seeing a single cop.
Mike Andrelczyk is the author of four poetry collections, including !!! (Ghost City Press).
TEXTILE RINSE (AN EXCERPT)
Jason was 14. August with brown grass. Jason was at home watching his little sister when someone pounded on the door. Jason went to the door and it was this girl who’d been kidnapped. Her picture hammered like nails into the news. A college student. Now she was naked in daylight. She was running down the street pounding on every front door she could. She escaped the kidnapper van. She was grimy and scratched up. Her long black hair clumped in wet tangles around her sweaty body. She and Jason didn’t say anything to each another.
Jason rushed her inside. He recognized her from the TV his drunk dad yelled at every night after Hamburger Helper. Jason bolted the door shut. He gave her an old, itchy Afghan blanket and brought her downstairs to the cool, secluded basement with his sister.
A sudden boom came from the front door. It wasn’t a knock. It was a kick. The door frame shook. The kidnapper saw her go into Jason’s house and was trying to kick the door down. Jason dialed 911 and told the dispatcher what was happening and where he lived. He lived on the Reservation. Jason went into his dad’s room and loaded up the shotgun and went back downstairs while still on the phone with the dispatcher. The dispatcher was concerned about the fact that a 14-year-old boy had just loaded two shells into his father’s over-under 20-gauge shotgun. When Jason came back downstairs, the kidnapped girl started screaming horrifically. Jason thinks her sudden screams had something to do with him having a gun or she was scared Jason was the kidnapper coming down the stairs. The girl wasn’t able to speak like a person. Jason wasn’t able to talk to the dispatcher anymore because the girl’s screams were so loud. She just kept screaming no matter what. Jason’s sister started to cry and wanted to go upstairs but Jason wouldn’t let her. The kicks on the front door kept coming. The kicks stopped but it was hard to tell because the girl was in the fetal position on the couch, wrapped in the Afghan, and still screaming over the noise of everything else. Jason gave the phone to his sister and told her not to hang up but to keep the phone close to her. He went to the bottom of the stairs and pointed the shotgun up the stairway. He could see wisps of smoke coming from underneath the front door and he could smell the smoke from the fire the kidnapper started on the front porch.
Then he heard sirens and cops yelling outside. Then quick poppy gunshots in the front yard. He said he doesn’t remember much after that. Just the girl screaming. His sister ran up to him with the house phone gripped in both tiny hands and big watery eyes and said the cops are coming in and he had to put the shotgun down. Jason unloaded the shotgun and put it on the concrete floor of the basement. The cops knocked down the door with a rampart and stormed into the basement. The cops didn’t say anything when they came inside. The dispatcher had told the cops where the girl was located in the house. The cops carried the kidnapped girl out and loaded her onto an ambulance and the ambulance drove away. There were maybe 5 or 6 cop cars in the front yard and a fire truck.
The kidnapper had tried to light the house on fire, but the cops showed up and killed him.
This all happened on tribal land. So everything took place in tribal court. The judge gave Jason a life-saving award and he was interviewed on the same local news channel his drunk dad still yells at.
7 years later and Jason is 21 and he is at the Casino with his friends and he is on cocaine. Jason and his buddies got into a fight with another group of guys in the Casino parking lot at 2 in the morning. Jason and his friends are tribal members. The town of Mount Pleasant is a college town and an Indian Reservation town and the college is called Central Michigan University and the tribe is called the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and sometimes the college kids and the Native kids don’t get along. Jason was on top of a frat guy and he was punching down at him while the guy was trying to block with his forearms and turn his face away from the punches. Then someone big jumped onto Jason’s back. A meaty arm wrapped around his neck. Jason flung his head back and head-butted the guy in the nose. Then a bunch of other guys tackled Jason. The guy who Jason head-butted was a tribal cop trying to break up the fight. Jason was charged with a drug possession, a weapon charge for carrying a knife longer than 3 inches, assault and battery and resisting arrest.
When Jason showed up to county jail that night, one of the old cops recognized him from the kidnapping incident. The old cop gave Jason warm food and his own cell.
Monday morning arraignment day in Tribal Court. Jason was given a get-out-of-jail-free card. The cop he head-butted had to agree to this on paper and sign a document. He did. The cop wasn’t really hurt, just a bruised nose. Jason was told this was the only chance he was going to get. The judge told Jason that the court was going to keep record of all of this and if he ever got into serious trouble again, all these charges would be considered.
Now I clean carpet with Jason. We’re a good team. He doesn’t get into serious trouble. I don’t either. We did race the carpet vans in reverse once. We did take the carpet vans two-tracking once. We smoke a little weed, drink a little beer. Shoot some guns. That’s about it.
Jon Berger lives in mid-Michigan. His short story collection, Goon Dog, is available at Gob Pile Press. His poetry collection, Saint Lizard, is forthcoming at Gob Pile Press.
HERE LIES THE CHARLIE BROWN GANG
Us: The Charlie Brown Gang stands beside a small bank.
It’s me: Me.
And everyone else: All other members of the Charlie Brown Gang—TCBG, we’ll call them from here on out—a gang of big-hearted lunks who never learned any better.
Continue imagining us: with nosebleeds that have been going hard for a month straight.
And of course: with our letterman jackets—the ones with Marlboro-red sleeves we had JJ pick up from the dry-cleaners that his mom works at.
Back to me: upset that we’d chased that dog that’d bit the mayor’s (Mayor Spool, whose always been a friend to The Charlie Brown Gang and even bought a WHOLE table at our pancake auction at Tinley Park) daughter into the Best Buy and beat his brains out in front of the televisions that were all out of sync (playing a commercial for knives that could cut through anything), and MAYBE we’re a little too giddy on our speed (and our K. And dope. Some of us on bars. Some kiddies. All of our antidepressants have been crushed properly and shaken in with our gin sodas: nighttime juice that we keep in a dorm fridge Real Tony brought home from Pepperdine). And it’s all a bit much, making judgment calls like WHO or WHAT to beat next—“We’re crazy,” I say, calming my voice down so they know I’m for real. “Like! Hello? What are we—”
TCBG: Screams gently back at me, “Okay, we went too hard at that dog, YES! And blowing out the windows of the SexXx Palace with a potato gun was a little much. CERTAINLY we shouldn’t have shaved that girl’s head who was handing out mailers on WAYS TO LIVE WITHOUT WASTE.”
Me: Lowering my head in contrition, knowing the truth.
TCBG member, Really Tony: Lifts my head. Looks me in the eyes.
Me: Looking at Really Tony but talking to everyone, “We hurt things! That’s whaaaaaaaat. Gangs. Do.”
TCBG: Laughing, steps back, scoffing, “You can’t be serious, bruh, nah. Nope. We run it. ’Cause it must be run.”
Me: “Run it? Yeah?”
TCBG: “Oh yes. One-thousand-and-one-hundred-motherfucking-percent.” Then everyone adjusts something; jackets or glasses or the belt buckle with the working can opener that Danny Frinfrock cut almost his entire thumb off with when we were at the bonfire and no one could open the girls’ Blue Moons.
TCBG member, JJ: (who did such a good job picking up the jackets) punches the ATM screen beside me.
The ATM beside me: Flickers like the end part of a dream.
Me: I point at Sauce, who has fallen asleep against a wood lamppost and the leftover nails and pins from the “Garage Sale” and trivia night posters are poking into his cheek and a long one is pulling up his lip like a milkshake straw. “That’s the problem right there,” I say.
TCBG: Huffs…Their chests growing big and useless, but then calmness occurs. “Okay. AFTER our fight with the Dillinger Boyz, we’ll check down. We’ll slow up. Okay? We’ll chill on all fucking things.”
The trees: Quietly sweep the roof of the bank.
The banks: Tellers watch us, praying we don’t turn our destructive bodies towards their destructible bank.
Me: Sits down on the hot pavement, “And fighting the Dillinger Boyz seems important?”
TCBG: “Very. It was then and it is now.”
Me: Remembering our fathers showing us violence for the first time. Wielding their office chairs, their flare guns, their two-foot-tall collegiate swimming trophies, and—oh! Oh yes, those beautiful bats…Was it even the Dillinger Boyz? The 10-Toes? Maybe the Association of Violent Wolves? Does it matter? A lot of blood is the same as a little blood. It’s all red. It’s all hard to clean from our clothes.”
TCBG: “A gang is a gang is a gang is a God.”
Me: Remembering our quiet mothers, says, “We could just stop.”
TCBG: Looks upwards, towards the sky and yellow sun. They think of our nights spent late, drinking beneath the night-time red light of the Shell sign. They know we love each other. They KNOW it. They know they know they know.
Love: understands it’s difficult sometimes knowing what to do with it.
Me: Suggests we get the car and just go find something fun, or someone fun!
The Charlie Brown Gang: Bites its lip and looks at me.
All of us: In the car. Laughing. Chugging. Then on purpose or accident, someone dumps a tallboy out the back-back window. The can hisses against the cement and the sweet smell of melon-malt-liquor comes for us. We’ve gotta hurry to the pawnshop, get there before five or Hanna (who JJ swears up-and-down he smashed) will lock the doors on us. And we need cash, but not SO badly. It’ll just make tonight easier. We’ll sell a guitar. An old cellphone. A ladder from some unwatched construction site. Sauce turns the high off and the subwoofers all the way up.
The city: Watches us, hoping we stay kind. Stay Nice.
The subwoofers: Rattle our little hearts.
Me: Believes there’s something better than a fight waiting for us, somewhere out in the big chill night.
The Big Chill Night: Knows exactly what I mean.
But time: Is not on our side.
The pawnshop: Sure enough, has locked its doors seven minutes before closing. They do this whenever they see us coming. And, certainly, I don’t blame them. NO. If I was a door, I’d lock myself whenever the Charlie Brown Gang came around. HONESTLY, I’d lock myself whenever anyone came around. All the time—just for the fuck of it.
Right now: JJ is out of the car first, cupping his hands against the darkened glass. “Hannnn-naaaaa,” he says. “We got something nice. Quick and nice and we’ll be in-and-out. We got a watch! A nice watch we found by the baseball fields—And I thought, duh! Dummy! Hanna would love this piece.”
In a moment: I leave the car with the rest of The Charlie Brown Gang. I’ll call JJ back. I tell him we’ll find a liquor cabinet without a lock. Or we’ll eat the rest of the mushrooms we stashed in Ben’s brother’s treehouse without a roof that we jokingly called a bird’s nest and Ben’s brother overheard someone say it and—apparently—Sauce caught him crying in the hallway and Ben’s mom was wiping away his snot—we’ll go make Ben’s little brother cry! Something! Anything! Let’s just roll. Let’s roll.
But JJ’s hands: Are on the door handle, and the glass is shaking, and the locks are making that sound locks make when they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but it’s getting close now, and I just pray…
My prayer: That the locks keep us back, that they keep us out—right here, in the streets, where we belong.
And the locks: They’re praying for the exact same thing.
Sam Berman lives in Chicago and works at Lake Front Medical with Nancy, Andrew, and Reuben. They are terrific coworkers. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in The Quarterless Review, Expat Press, Maudlin House, Northwest Review, The Masters Review, D.F.L. Lit, HAD, Hobart, Illuminations, CRAFT, Joyland, Dream Boy Book Club, Rejection Letters, The Idaho Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He recently won Forever Mag’s Unconventional Love Stories Contest, and was a runner-up in The Kenyon Review’s 2022 Nonfiction Competition, as well as a semi-finalist for the 2022 Halifax Ranch Prize and the ILS Fiction Contest. Lastly, Sam has been chosen as the director of Storyfort 2023 (Boise, Idaho) and is looking for writers of all backgrounds for programming.
MR. MARLBORO MAN
HIS FINGERS WERE MADE OF CIGARETTES AND HIS TEETH WERE MADE
OF PRETTY WORDS—BETWEEN THEM, HE STORED HIS LIES.
HE’S THE KIND YOU’D NEVER TAKE HOME TO MOM,
THE ONLY ONE YOU’D WANT TO TAKE HOME TO MOM,
HANGING OFF HIS SHOULDER WHILE YOU GLOWER
AT THE AUNT WHO TOLD YOU TO FREEZE YOUR EGGS
WHEN YOU WERE ONLY TWENTY.
GOD, HE WAS AN ASSHOLE.
WHEN YOU WENT TO NEW YORK WITH HIM,
YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE IN LOVE.
YOU THOUGHT DRY HUMPING AND WATCHING HIM DO COCAINE
AND BEING AFRAID OF WHAT HE THOUGHT OF YOU
WAS THE BIGGEST THING YOU’D EVER FEEL.
WHEN HE TEXTED YOU THAT
THINKING ABOUT YOU WEARING GLASSES IN BED
WAS ENOUGH FOR HIM TO BOOK A FLIGHT FROM ENGLAND TO LA.
BUT REALLY, IT WAS WHEN YOU WERE IN LONDON TOGETHER,
WHEN YOU WERE IN HIS BED, WHEN YOU WERE LIVING WITH HIM,
HIS MOM, HIS DAD.
THAT’S WHEN YOU LEARNED THAT WET HUMPING AND WATCHING HIM DO
COCAINE AND TELLING HIM EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT
WAS LIKE SWALLOWING A BALLOON AND EXPANDING TO MAKE MORE ROOM
FOR WHAT YOU FELT.
HE WAS SHORT WHEN YOU WERE IN THE DESERT TOGETHER.
WHEN YOU DRESSED HIM UP BECAUSE YOU WERE EMBARRASSED BY
WHAT HIPSTERS (CELEBRITIES) AND RAPISTS (PEOPLE FROM YOUR UNIVERSITY)
MIGHT THINK IF THEY SAW HIM,
IF THEY SAW HIS LIPS ON YOUR NECK.
HOW YOU ANSWERED A CALL WITH YOUR HANDS STILL BOUND IN HIS BELT.
WHAT IT FELT LIKE TO SINK YOUR TEETH INTO HIM.
HOW HIS SHOULDER POPPED OUT OF PLACE—THE OLD RUGBY INJURY—WHEN YOU MADE HIM CUM.
IT ALL SMELLED LIKE DUST AND HOW YOUR NOSE BLED LIKE PENNIES.
HE GREW TALLER IN MANCHESTER, HIS HOME.
HIS SPINE LENGTHENED IN THE MANCUNIAN AIR.
HIS HAIR HEIGHTENED WITH ASSURANCE.
THERE, HE WORE HIS ARROGANCE LIKE A CROWN.
HE OFFERED A JOINT TO A HOMELESS MAN.
IT WAS THEN YOU REALIZED YOU WOULD LET HIM DO ANYTHING TO YOU.
HE COULD HAVE CARVED HIS NAME, FIRST AND LAST PLEASE,
DON’T MISS A SINGLE FUCKING LETTER,
INTO YOUR RAW FLESH AND YOU WOULD’VE SAID
YOU WERE SO DESPERATE FOR HIS LOVE,
BUT DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO SAY IT OUT LOUD,
SO IT GREW HOT,
BRANDING YOUR INSIDES.
YOU USED TO SMOKE BACK THEN TOO.
GOLDS. BACK IN THE STATES YOU SWITCHED TO REDS. THEN YOU GAVE IT UP.
IT WASN’T WORTH IT
IF HE WASN’T THERE TO WATCH YOU EXHALE.
WHEN THERE WAS NO ONE LEFT TO DIE FOR,
THE MARK HE LEFT IS HOW YOU STILL SWALLOW WORDS.
YOUR RITUAL TO REMEMBER HIM BY.
THAT, AND ASKING THE ONES YOU UNDRESS FOR TO CALL YOU BABY.
EVERY TIME THEY DO, IT’S LIKE HE’S STILL THERE.
IT’S LIKE YOU NEVER HAD TO LEAVE HIM.
YOU WERE ALWAYS SUCKING HIS DICK RIGHT BEFORE HIS FRIEND CAME OVER
OR CALLED TO HANG OUT
AND YOU TOOK THAT AS A SIGN,
HE WAS THE ONE,
EVEN THOUGH YOU NEVER FUCKED HIM.
YOU KNEW IF YOU DID THERE WOULD BE NO CHANCE
AT FUCKING ANYONE ELSE,
IT WOULD ALL TASTE LIKE PAPER AND SAND AND LEAVES AND NEVER
HE CARED A LOT ABOUT YOU, BUT ALSO HE HATED YOU A BIT—PARTS OF YOU.
YOU HATED PARTS OF YOU TOO. YOU STILL DO.
YOU TRIED TO KILL SOME PARTS, SUM PARTS,
BUT NEITHER WORKED AND YOU’RE STILL HERE
AND HE’S GONE.
HE LIVES WITH A WOMAN IN ENGLAND.
HE WILL HAVE HER CHILDREN.
HE WILL MAKE A TRAILER INTO A HOUSE INTO A HOME
IN THE TOWN YOU CAN NEVER VISIT ANYMORE,
BECAUSE IT REMINDS YOU TOO MUCH OF THE TIME HE TOLD YOU
HE WANTED TO SLEEP WITH HIS MOUTH INSIDE YOU, YOU TASTED SO GOOD.
HE OWNED YOU. YOU HOPE HE KNOWS THAT.
HE PAID FOR DINNER, HE CALLED YOU A CAB, AND YOU WATCHED HIM
DISAPPEAR INTO A MEMORY.
NOW HIS FACE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED BECAUSE WHO’S TO SAY
WHAT HE DID OR SAID?
THERE IS NO WAY TO KNOW.
YOU WEREN’T A GOOD WRITER BACK THEN,
BUT YOUR SENSES WERE SHARPER,
AND THOSE YEARS TASTED OF CHEAP CAROLINIAN WHISKEY
AND FRIED PICKLES
AND BOTTOMLESS G&TS, FRESH FROM THE SOURCE,
AND SMELLED LIKE WIND (THE COLD KIND, AMERICAN AND BRITISH)
AND SOUNDED LIKE YOUR NAME ON HIS WRETCHED TONGUE
AND FELT LIKE CALLOUSED PALMS.
SUCH ROUGH HANDS. WORN DOWN, PERFECT.
WITH CIGARETTES FOR FINGERS.
SWEET WHEN YOU SUCKED THEM, THEN SOUR, LIKE TOBACCO.
THE HIGH THAT CAME AFTER, WAS LIKE FRENCH KISSING A DEITY.
LIPS FULL OF FEAR AND ASTONISHMENT.
THE KIND OF HIGH THAT COULD KILL YOU, SHOULD KILL YOU, WOULD
KILL YOU IF YOU LET IT.
IT WAS HARD TO BE HONEST WITH HIM.
TO ASK HIM TO KILL YOU WITH HIS ROUGH HANDS.
TO BEG FOR SUCH PEACE.
WOULD HE HAVE BEEN A MERCIFUL GOD?
WOULD HE HAVE HELD YOUR BODY, DISCARDED AT HIS ALTAR, AND WEPT,
LONGING TO JOIN THE OTHER SIDE?
WOULD HE PLACE THE TOKEN ON YOUR TONGUE
TO PAY FOR THE JOURNEY BEYOND?
NO, YES, AND YES.
YES, YES, AND NO.
YES, HE WOULD HAVE HELD YOU.
ONLY HE KNEW HOW.
Elizabeth Burch-Hudson is literally insane. Second Rounder Austin Film Festival 2022 and 2023, Sundance Development Lab 2023. Published with HAD, Crybaby, Rejection Letters, Forever Mag, and Hobart. Creator of Intimacy Issues—a sex and love advice column for the emotionally unavailable.
MYRTLE BEACH SPRING BREAK
People spending money under the sun.
Dead deer on the road, ripped the fuck in half.
Johnny’s Gun emporium.
At the Waffle House and I’m praying for a fight.
My golf swing like the golf swing of old body, crooked
like that old oak, like that old lightning. Like something from below
or from above. Hard youth in the morning
running by me, another world.
A moment behind my moment.
I tried to write a poem about the Spanish moss sweeping against my car window like jellyfish, I promise, and the fat kid I saw on the Ferris wheel on the boardwalk all alone just before it poured, and the bar where I tried not to have a beer and had 7 and tried to ignite a war, had to start over, but it turned into this poem.
Every sexy girl will hate my poems. Or at least every sexy girl who can read.
I whisper them in the wake of sweat hanging in the
hot morning like it’s shrapnel,
when they’re gone already.
A girl I saw on the beach when I was drunk
and the water was filled with lightning,
like wings. Her cerulean
stare under cerulean heaven.
I said, to no one: I won’t forget her. I will.
My parents are getting older.
My dogs are getting older.
Myself, getting fatter, misshapen
under that whip of a light
in the pink bathroom
in the home my parents call
home that can’t be home. Because
home is where I am.
I was here when I was
younger and nobody
cares but me. The way it should be.
Under moonlight I’m okay.
Next time I’m here I’ll be married.
I hope you look at me under the moon, like how I want to be.
I hope what they say about time isn’t true.
LATE TO THE PARTY
There’s something about days
so hot you get to be someone else.
Everyone is looking at you through their stupid sunglasses,
you know it. You’re one of Hemingway’s lost
people in lost days. Almost.
I know I want to be.
How perfect, part of a
puzzle, part of something larger.
Just missing you, that drink
unfinished. Nobody’s laughed at me
today, what’s next. What’s now.
The only poets who matter are the ones
we read for centuries, but nobody will read in the next one.
That’s as good as promised. Hail Mary.
So this is as good as writing into nothingness, vacancy,
about you and the way smoke clings
when the air is almost all ocean. I do it
because we’re here.
Hello Sexton. Vuong. Lowell. Emily.
In 70 years, we’ll be the same.
Unremembered. Beauty-less and unnerved
at the end of us. I hope it’s a pasture.
I hope I’m never alone.
WHEN SPRING COMES, I GROW ILLITERATE
I know I’m changing when
I wake abrupt,
birds loud with warning, hollering
into me, to run from my
heartbeat, that cannon, grenade that
a lead cape
of pills can’t smother. I am nothing
and I know it. The only time I
see God is in a maniacal April.
I am a child in the flesh
of Christ. When it’s over
I’ll be the oldest lamb you’ve ever met.
Do not kiss me when I’m manic.
Fire me when I’m flying. You
don’t want it, my flight. Forever I’m
vacant. Words are puzzles and I’ve no
time for a game. Flesh like braille. Wedding ring
melted into something we’ll smoke with strangers.
I turn back to nothing and I’m
fully again. Bless the vibrant
dress, clothed like sweat upon
that mannequin I run with, mouths of
ellipses alive with distance, déjà vu,
nails raking through the rings beneath the muscle.
Come back when we’re finished with this Bible.
Count them when I’m dreamless.
NOTES ON A NEW HAMPSHIRE HONEYMOON
Getting stoned &
playing golf alone
at wet quiet snap of morning
sounded like fun, like holy prayer.
I am lost
in ghostly wood, terror
fear pushing the sky south atop me,
wrapping fairways around my neck,
bury me in the bunker.
I play with
my new wedding
ring the way
I used to sleep under blankets & bed
when thunderous storms pregnant with
so much summer
would arrive. I listen for another. Plan a castle of future.
We’re back to
touching like before
we stopped thinking about
Waking up in
the mountains, astonished
you’re here. Silent in your
sleep. Seeing what
I’m seeing, remembering
what I forget.
I’m in the hot tub by the pool, looking out at peaks stabbing into dark storm clouds as sun falls, when the drunkest old man I’ve ever seen tells me he saw a bear out on the trails this morning.
I hope if the bear came for us
I’d die for you
like Jack Dawson, or like someone who dies for his family. Like your own husband-Christ, this thing to go before you. To never leave you without tomorrow.
We saw Barbie
tonight in a
theater in a town
hall in a town
we’ll never see again.
I love to hold
your hand in warm
rooms, love to feel
you alive through your
fingers & wrists.
I kept thinking about
how many friends I
had growing up
who used to strip,
impale, burn naked
Barbies at sleepovers. On
the bus. In Kmart.
Does it hurt to
be idle, to summer in the mountains like
Edith Wharton or someone like Edith Wharton
because we can’t ever
forget there will be an end to all this one day? To all this life?
Every moment before
you was frivolous & gone.
It is like I carry
a church around
in my head now.
When James Wright said,
“the branch will not break”
I hope he was right.
For you. For me.
I hope he was right.
Cash Compson lives in New England with his wife and their dog. His first book of poems, PEOPLE SCARE ME, will be published by House of Vlad Press in April 2024.
THE STENCH OF SUCCESS
Jesse Desmond apologizes profusely for the smell. Upon entering the actor’s trailer on the set of Netflix’s latest breakout series, Dark Valley High, I feel physically struck by the odors. There are notes of mildew, sweat, old cheese, cat urine, and several others I cannot, nor will not, identify, all of which combine to form a malodorous melody.
Desmond, 22, plays the handsome and mysterious Nate Gargantazo on Dark Valley High, a character who lives alone in a rundown, swamp-front cabin and saunters through the halls of the titular high school like a Tiger Beat Pig-Pen, eyes smoldering, clothes moldering. The actor spends two hours in hair and make-up to give Nate his now-famously filthy, mud-covered look.
Pinching my nose, I ask him about the state of his trailer.
“It’s a little method, I know, but it really puts me inside Nate’s headspace.”
The odors emanate from piles and containers arranged, surprisingly, with organization and care around the trailer. There’s a pyramidal heap of wet towels, a stoneware canister I recognize from West Elm filled with medical waste—“just bloody bandages,” Desmond assures me—and a space pod–like, completely glutted litter box. The kitchen area, however, is pristine, a bowl of fruit, protein bars, and a green juice on the counter.
“If it’s on the counter, it’s ok to eat,” Desmond says with a laugh.
“I will not go in that trailer. It’s fucking disgusting,” says Desmond’s co-star Bradon Chung, who plays Dark Valley High’s star point guard and Nate’s frenemy, Cal Yang. “But I love Jesse and his work is amazing.”
Dark Valley High became a sensation after the release of the first half of its first season. This was due in large part to Desmond’s character, whose brooding, shocking green eyes, and overwhelmingly grimy look blew up on social media.
What began with X posts like, “OMG. He’s SO MUDDY,” followed by several drooling emojis, turned into “I Can Fix Him” memes where men are shown clean in a before photo and covered in Nate-like filth in altered after photos. The stanning has now expanded beyond social media. On a recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host said in a segment, “Step on my throat with your rotting, muck-coated sneakers, Nate Gargantazo, you beautiful man-mountain of sludge.” Marc Jacobs began selling a $750 pocket tee—Nate’s preferred top—left in a Washington bog for a month. Desmond himself realized the show was getting big when a friend showed him a TikTok tutorial for how to get Nate’s slimy lips. “I was like, ‘Whoa. I’m a part of something really special.’”
Desmond was born in Mesa, Arizona. He starred in several local commercials before getting small roles in locally shot films like Little Miss Sunshine, The Kingdom, and Desperation. His mother and father, Gayle and Kevin, left radiology jobs to focus on Desmond’s burgeoning acting career, becoming his co-managers. The family moved to LA in 2008. Desmond had steady work throughout his childhood, largely bit parts on sitcoms. His biggest role was playing Kip Plympton on the Disney Channel series Dr. Macy Mays, Teen Vet.
Desmond caught the attention of Dark Valley High’s casting director, Lara Klein, with his multi-episode guest star role on the long-running NBC procedural, Pathological. He played Johnny, a teenager who escapes a serial killer. In his biggest scene, Johnny recounts his experience to the detectives at the police station in a single, three-minute-long take. It is both harrowing and utterly mesmerizing. “His eyes in that scene,” Klein says, lighting up. “His entire face is covered in the blood and viscera of the killer’s victims except for his eyes. With just his eyes, Jesse conveyed all the character’s emotions. Gives me chills just thinking about it.”
With his last two roles being characters covered in mess, I asked Desmond if he’s worried about being typecast.
“I am, yeah. I don’t just want to be known as, like, ‘the Sad, Dirty Guy.’”
That being said, Desmond has been offered the lead in the film adaptation of DC Comics’ antihero, Sewer Boy, a wastewater treatment intern who falls into radioactive sewage and gains powers like spitting acidic ooze and controlling rats with his mind.
“It’s such a great opportunity. Joining the DCU? It might be worth being dirty a little bit longer!”
Thankfully, we finally leave the trailer and head to the soundstage where Desmond is shooting a scene at Nate’s cabin.
One of the show’s central mysteries is who murdered Nate’s parents—his mother was the benevolent mayor of Dark Valley. Nate was the prime suspect all of season one, having been found by the police in the Gargantazo home covered in his parents’ blood. Suspicions continued when, out on bail, he left home for a rundown cabin in Dark Valley Forest, where other murders began occurring. A flashback in the season two premiere revealed Nate to be innocent.
The inside of the cabin is like something out of Hoarders. The Gargantazo family belongings cover everything, the belongings themselves blanketed in pine needles, dirt, and disturbingly lifelike animatronic critters. Nate moved everything from his house to the cabin just days after the murders because he could no longer stay in the house. “The silence,” Nate says in a season one episode. “It’s as loud as a scream.”
For today’s shoot, Caty, Nate’s love interest and Cal’s twin sister, played by Elise Tam, shows up at the cabin to help sort through his family’s belongings. I ask if a cleaning of the cabin would eventually lead to a glow-up for Nate.
“Casey [Vasquez] and Shantal [Wilkins, the showrunners] have told me Nate’s gonna be filthy for a while. But who knows?”
I ask Desmond if Nate got clean, would his trailer?
“I think some of the stuff, some of the smells, would always stay. Grief is such a major part of Nate’s story. And that’s grief, right? A stink that never goes away.”
Josh Luft’s work has appeared in LIT Magazine and elsewhere. He was born in Oshkosh, WI, a land of airplanes and overalls. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
IF LOOKS COULD CRY OUT FOR HELP, I’D BE ON MY IPHONE
I think a handful of random pills would revive me. I think I’m eating blueberries like pills now and putting them inside me and pretending to get high and thinking up great ideas because of it: T-shirt with couple kissing on the sidewalk, movie where girl drowns and the only thing you can see is her ass. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful ideas make beautiful people more beautiful and ugly-sad ones sadder. I actually hate being high but I won’t stop until it’s done.
Most of my connection to the world now is iPhone. But isn’t it beautiful that iPhone can make you happy? I think so. The most humiliating things about me are the true ones.
I have to tell people that I actually do want to link and build, but I’m in my bedroom right now, and that I’ve been in here for a while and don’t know how much longer I’ll be. That I’m busy creating a beautiful portrait of myself as me that nobody will ever see even though my account is public. I just don’t have enough followers yet.
I kill life with every moment I breathe. I go on my iPhone.
STEVE AT WORK
Steve is going to the bathroom at work to cry. And while he’s crying in there, he’s thinking about typing and working, and when he goes back to work, he’s thinking about squatting and crying. Also, he thinks about smoking cigarettes and crying and going back into the bathroom to vomit and pee. But he doesn’t vomit or pee because he doesn’t have to, it’s just an internal representation of disgust with himself. Which he already knew, so he doesn’t know why he made himself think about it. And so he is going to smoke outside and think about being inside and slamming his hand over and over in the copy machine and claiming workers comp through insanity. And going up to his boss’s desk and telling him he has to quit TODAY because he is a drug addict and has to go to rehab. But he’s not a drug addict and that would just be a lie to make it easier. He’s actually addicted to self-harm even though he’s never cut himself and doesn’t do anything. He’s addicted to drinking Red Bull and smoking cigarettes and not going outside unless he’s on the way to work and then in the car ride over he’s not really driving, he’s actually thinking about being at work, and then at work, he’s thinking about everything else, so really he’s at work 16 hours a day, and during the work day he has to take a break because everybody deserves a break. Hard work degrades the soul and, although he’s evil, when he dies, he will go to heaven, holding up his soul, intact somehow, and God will see it and smile, smile so big, and ask him, is this proof of your love for me and me only, your fear of everything, your animal lineage and pure heart? And Steve will think of being at work and hating his life and say, yes.
EVERY AFTERNOON IS AN AMAZING TIME TO SIT ON THE COUCH
I am lying but being honest still. I think I was born to stare out the window. Drink milk out of the carton with red lipstick on. It’s always 2:40pm. And I’m always like this. Go online, the world is lost. This chair is just somewhere I post from. And the bed. And the train. Just take me to the internet. Girls are supposed to be strong. But I can’t help myself. I’m trying to figure out something important. Which picture of Dasha is the most “me”? Hard to choose. This one. Nice. Smoking weed and vaping. Nice. Total apathy and online shopping. Nice.
Devin McNerney is a writer living in Boston who is trying to be honest. Work can be found in Hobart or on Twitter.
the fuckless black beneath a pane of glass
like a blood clot test
of painting my nails
like a man’s nails, i lean
into the comedy of my fake tits
in my stupid tank tops
is so boring and
iconic, a blurry gesture
i can’t think clearly after
severing my life from maidenhood
a new void
i wish to stuff back inside my womb
the satin panties of the Saint of All Sums
love is no longer a pushing force
a swathey rope through one gash
He is begging me to come—
does a mother get to be in love with anyone other than her child?
He is begging me to come visit and i sift through fear
inconvenience skips a rock across grass
eventually each reason fades but
familiarity is neat
with my night mask on i pretend to confess
so help me Lover this lucidity
makes me feel confused i touch sap
from a peppered or gurgling
ear sharp for the smoke alarm
my hands cruise the
sweet muscle of his
crushed carapace for you
to suck the jellied ganglia?
watched as you caught silkworms
for my play show?
he comes for me from so far away until
fuel to burn slowly
a rot that is wet
dumb log splintering into
the most simplistic of my sponsorships
i want you to smell
like the unspeakable red metal
while this gloriole of black
slips over me
what then works me into this
veiny antechamber while i wait
for my rebirth?
i wish you could
shit anywhere else
other than where you stuff
Elle Nash is the author of Deliver Me (Unnamed + Verve Press), Gag Reflex (Clash Books), Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc + 404ink), and Nudes (404ink). Upon publication of Animals Eat Each Other in the UK, Elle appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to speak about sex, death, and feminism in literature. Her work appears in Guernica, Adroit, BOMB Magazine, The Creative Independent, Literary Hub, Cosmopolitan, New York Tyrant, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine, runs the Goth Book Club, and currently lives in Glasgow.
VIOLENCE ON XXTH ST
Lately, my little streetlamp prophesies have been waking me up in the middle of the night. Condensation drips down my bottle of diet ginger ale and leaves a wet ring on the nightstand. There are no antidotes for a madness that burns like neon, but I’ll sometimes concede and take the pills to trick myself into believing I am sane enough. There is something divine about never feeling full, the uncanny dis-ease of pilled-out emptiness. Still, I am tender when I want to be. All the books are stacking up and up and up in a sort of literary fortress. My hair is so long now that I can hide beneath my curls. I haven’t left my house since the attack. Everyone is wondering how I was able to load the magazine and chamber the round given the state I was in when they found me, naked from the waist down and chemically disoriented. Too much liquor on an empty stomach—it was an accident, okay? They said his dick was out and I was nearly unconscious. The absurd commotion brought me back to life.
I don’t think God was in here when it happened. I’ve been whispering scripture, praying with the televangelists, ripping the sutures out of the wounds with my own pearlescent teeth. For I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. For I will fear no evil, I have you with me…right? Were you with me when my roommate decided to leave the backdoor unlocked? I think a little Led Zeppelin and sun tea might cure me. I think I’m delirious. Now that the violation has happened, I hover outside my body.
There is a new lock on my door and I’m not sure if it’s to keep me in or others out, but I lock it anyway. Maybe I’ll die in here, among the stacks of books. There is a Bic lighter somewhere in the bottom of my purse that I use to light all my altar candles. I wonder if I will ever leave this room again. After all, this was the sparkling warzone. My body was the scene of the crime and I’ll never escape that. I changed the bedding and scrubbed every surface of myself, but I can still feel him in here with me even though they chased him out before I could kill him. The smell of his unwashed body has settled into the bones of this room. There are fingerprint-sized bruises on my stomach and thighs and my period is late. The hospital gave me a shot in my left bicep and a few oral doses of antibiotics—just in case, but I refused the pelvic exam and bailed before the nurse could scrape his DNA from underneath my fingernails.
Since then, my attention is shrapnel and I lose hours of everyday trying to focus on every beam of disco ball light all at once, pupils dilated in dissociative fugue. Every corner of this house is haunted and smells like burnt hair and old cigarettes. All the mirrors bend and contort my reflection like they’re trying to confuse me, but I know the awful truth about what happened here. My therapist tells me I’m handling this well, all things considered. She asks me why—why I am handling this so well? I think it scares her that I am not inconsolable. Perhaps I do not live up to the expectation of victimhood inside her head. I tell her I’m built for the violence and for the isolation. I’ve gone years on almost no sleep and listen to the same six songs on repeat. Life is just a dazzling display of misplaced antagonism. Maybe I am waiting for him to come back. I guess it’s possible I killed us both and God was never here.
THE FORMER CHIEF WITHERSPOON
The Former Chief Witherspoon is confined to the base while outstanding charges are further investigated. He sleeps in a single room at the BEQ. He wakes up before dawn and walks to muster in the dark. He rakes leaves on the golf course and picks up trash along the jogging path. The Former Chief Witherspoon is resolute in making this setback temporary. He doesn’t see it as penance. He’s made the decision to see this as a chance to grow.
Speaking of growth, The Former Chief Witherspoon is working hard at becoming a better bowler. For example, he recently added a flourish to the finish of his release. He holds his hand above his head at the end of his throwing arc and when the ball hits the pins, he makes a fist and then pumps it. The Former Chief Witherspoon has also mastered the style of dramatically sliding one foot behind the other. He moves like an athlete. If someone were watching, say the woman working the shoe rental counter, they might even call it graceful. Despite these enhancements, The Former Chief Witherspoon rarely scores into the triple digits. He may never be good at bowling, but at least he’s trying, goddamnit.
Since becoming The Former Chief Witherspoon, he started eating most meals at the bowling alley on base. By doing this, he avoids the enlisted chow hall where he might have been seen by someone who knows him as Chief Witherspoon, rather than The Former Chief Witherspoon. By doing this, he also avoids the Chief’s Mess, which spares his former colleagues the awkwardness of telling him he is no longer allowed there.
A preliminary investigation results in the substantiation of some of the alleged charges. It’s a where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire kind of thing, his lawyer tells him. The Former Chief Witherspoon remains optimistic. If anything, he’s even more determined to make some goddamn lemonade.
For example, the Former Chief Witherspoon has fallen in love with the woman who works the shoe rental desk. She remembers his size and has a pair of 11s waiting for him by the time he gets to the counter. The Former Chief Witherspoon finds excuses to talk to her. Some issue with the heel, he says. She sprays the shoes he’s returning and The Former Chief Witherspoon asks her, What is that supposed to do? and she says, I dunno, they just make us do it, and he smiles and says, Oh, so you always do as you're told? and she says, Yeah, sure, I guess, and walks away.
The Former Chief Witherspoon wonders if she has a boyfriend. If she doesn’t, he wonders if she wants one. If she wants one, he wonders if she would consider The Former Chief Witherspoon. He’d have to tell her about the accusations and he strategizes how he’d do it. I don’t see myself like that, he imagines telling her. That’s not who I am, he says to her silently from across the bowling alley.
The Former Chief Witherspoon doesn’t dwell on failure. He doesn’t wallow and he doesn’t wish he could “take it all back.” This approach feels enlightened. It makes him buoyant. The more they try to pull The Former Chief Witherspoon down, the faster he’ll shoot up.
The Former Chief Witherspoon is issued a General Discharge. The lawyer says he’s lucky they didn’t find a smoking gun. The lawyer says he’s lucky he’s not getting a Dishonorable Discharge. The lawyer says it’s the best result they could realistically hope for. The Former Chief Witherspoon accepts this outcome. After all, the world is waiting for him, goddamnit.
The Former Chief Witherspoon always tells different stories of what he did to become The Former Chief Witherspoon. To the weeknight crowd at a bar near the college, he was a submarine commander who was caught sending lurid cables to junior sailors on a restricted network. To the waitress at the Chili’s in the Orange Park Mall, he was a recently divorced drone pilot who showed up drunk on duty.
With each iteration, The Former Chief Witherspoon chips away at what really happened. He is reshaping the story and bending his memory to conform. He is trying on different histories, assessing the reaction. He is marking what works and what falls flat. He is so close to perfecting it, so close to being restored.
The Former Chief Witherspoon lets his life slide into syndication. He is forty years old. He has a trailer in Palatka and pays his few bills by picking up odd jobs. He is waiting the required five years before he can petition to upgrade his discharge. His is a monk’s life. He owns one plate and one cup. No TV. No phone. When he closes his eyes, he never sees the woman who disappeared, the woman they accused him of hurting, the woman who lived across the street. The woman who wouldn’t give him the goddamn time of day. He doesn’t see her smirking face and he doesn’t see the horror he created of it. He doesn’t see the swampy patch of nowhere where they’d never find what was left of her.
Instead, when he closes his eyes, he sees a gleaming white airport and himself at the center. He is standing at the nexus of infinite possibilities, with each gate leading to a wondrous and beautiful future.
Kyle Seibel is a writer in Santa Barbara CA. His work has been featured in Joyland Magazine, New World Writing, and Wigleaf. His debut novel and collection of short fiction are currently looking for a publisher.
THE TWO-HEADED CALF
She sits across from me, knees knocking mine underneath the white and red checkerboard table. Want to see a trick? She rolls her eyes to the back of her head, orbs like farm fresh eggs shine back at me. She stays like this for a long time. Then her pupils join me back in reality, laughing. I fucking hate when she does this.
No humor with this one. I can’t believe Mom always got us confused.
She takes a long sip of her martini, blows air out of her teeth. Let’s play a game.
Not this again.
I have nothing to bet.
Sure you do, last time we played I was lucky enough to get your pinky.
There was so much blood for such a little piece. There’s always so much blood.
Not for me.
Well that’s because you haven’t lost yet.
I never lose.
Yeah I know, why the fuck do we keep playing?
Because you love me.
I fucking hate you.
Not when I put that gun between your legs. You really loved me then.
Christ, we haven’t even ordered our food.
I know what you like, you get off on fear.
Can we just look at the menu and figure out what we want?
She sips her martini. I scan the menu, the dotted lines on the body of a bovine. Its eyes are far away.
Why do you think they show the cow like that?
It’s nice to know where to cut.
I have this theory that a medium rare steak, like a proper medium rare steak, has the same consistency as a human’s tongue.
What the fuck made you think of that?
Because I think today I’ll take your jaw.
I haven’t agreed to play yet.
What makes you think we aren’t already playing?
I notice all the yellowing photos on the wall above her head. Big Italian families, not a smile to be had. Blood mixing with red wine. Violence happening as easily as a handshake.
Remember that guy you were seeing?
He had those ugly tattoos and never wore deodorant.
Oh yeah… Jon?
You can’t even remember his name?
It was years ago, you know I was always drunk back then. I think he was the comedian.
I can’t believe you fucked him.
Yeah well… I fucked a lot of things that shouldn’t be fucked.
Yeah but you let him slap you. I can’t believe you let him slap you. I thought I was the only one to do that to you.
It was years ago, why are you always so touchy about this shit?
A single rose stood proudly in a plastic vase on our table. The more I looked at it, the more I thought it could be real, it could be inside of me. The center, a button to press and leave.
I can’t seem to remember what he looked like, the memory coiled and black like a burnt Polaroid.
Do you not remember or are you wishing to forget?
I don’t know.
I close my eyes and feel them curl upward, over, settle, my irises pointed at the genius dancing in the back of my skull. Breathless I watch bodies move, walking stunted, towards a mattress. Everything is alive and dead all at once, an endless winter.
I hate it when you make me do this. What are you trying to show me?
Everything you wish you could let go of and how you can.
The way the bodies, the way the bodies, the way the bodies… My eyes blink open.
She hovers over me, puts her hands on my chin, her face now close to mine. I go weak but keep her gaze. Her eyes like the rose on the table. Endless red slick folds. The button. Please, let me. She is holding her steak knife. Taps it gently on my teeth. My incisors, my canine with the receding gum. Steel against bone. Which one will she take? My skull rattles with possibility.
The sound of a saw, clicking. Something lusciously pulls and snaps, a boomerang, stars everywhere. Red stickiness floods my mouth. It dribbles down my shirt, muscles lax, eyes clear. Tears on my cheeks, not because of the searing pain, a hinge that cannot close anymore.
She whispers, If you don’t have a jaw, you can never be silenced.
It is only then that I scream.
Catherine Spino is a writer from the East Coast and orders her steak medium rare. Her work can be found in Hobart, Black Lipstick, Expat Press and more. She doom-scrolls on Instagram under @spaghetti____western (that’s four underscores) and tweets from the road under @1virginmartini.
I wore as small of shoes as I could
To be the best skateboarder I could be
I got pretty good
I got free small shoes for a while
Until it got too hard, I got bored and it hurt too much and I wanted to drink more
So I spent my twenties with ingrown toenails and in the thralls of alcoholism
girls would come over after the bar closed
They would ask me to take off my socks
I’d tell them I don’t really want to
They would say come on, my tits are out, take your socks off
So I’d shrug and take them off
And they would say
Ugh, your feet are bleeding
And I’d say I was a pretty good skateboarder though
And still an excellent alcoholic
And they would shrug
Can you get into tap dance at 35 if you don’t have much rhythm and have two crappy knees and one crappy hip, a crappy liver, okay feet and sciatica flare ups?
You don’t know any other dances and you don’t really care for the sound tap shoes make which you know is the point but beggars, choosers, or something.
You don’t like many sound stage musicals and you only saw Wicked once.
It was okay, the second act was kinda crappy but you followed the lead on Instagram.
Her life seems fine.
Should you switch to ballet when you can’t keep up in the first class but the people seem nice or at least smile at you and they aren’t mad at you and check up on you and ask if you’re okay and had fun and if you were also having trouble doing the flap or the shuffle and you were because first class jitters and talent level and they can’t wait to see you next week and like everyone else they don’t invite you to lunch because they’re worried you will be uncomfortable around beers as if the sight of a crappy pint will make you relapse and, god forbid, they don’t have that 4th shot at noon with their burger that they say is bland but is probably fine, they’re just drunk and want to complain and they go to repeat a story about their job being crappy and you agree but you just heard them tell it, and you start to wonder what Gene Kelly’s Instagram would look like. You think he would be in flash mobs? It would probably be obnoxious and you would watch every day until it becomes problematic or he says something weird old men often say online.
You probably should sign up for softball instead.
Anthony Verdi is a writer from Gainesville, FL. Originally from New York, he made his way down to Florida, as many do, because his parents owed drug dealers and couldn’t afford to live up North anymore. He dabbled in skateboarding, punk rock, alcoholism, sewing, and karaoke before devoting himself to a hodgepodge of them all. He makes T-shirts full-time, as well as in his spare time. He found out he’d be in Vlad Mag in a way that would make Brian Alan Ellis proud: checking his email during an AA meeting. He’s finishing his first novel and hoping to have it published sometime in 2024.
It’s another lousy late summer afternoon. I’m reading an article in a magazine Mom accidentally stole from the supermarket checkout line.
It’s the magazine of the people, by the people, for the people. There are lots of pictures and not many words.
The article is about a beautiful girl. Actually, the most beautiful girl in her hometown.
Her hometown is a small town in Florida. Men notice her at the supermarket. Men notice her on the beach. In her dreams, men notice her. Her face is heart shaped. Her approximation of denim cutoffs—don’t get me started. Her silky hair is everywhere. She’s not on the cover of the magazine. She’s a sincerely adventurous blonde who loves her boyfriend.
But her boyfriend is a player who plays her maliciously. A sex addict at seventeen. He uses pornography as a coping mechanism. He’s a villain. The biggest in the world.
When the beautiful girl catches him buck naked, wrapped around the goth girl nobody likes, she’s devastated, beyond crushed, no chance of repair. His old lamb, her favorite, is nestled under goth girl’s butt. Beautiful girl could almost dissolve into boyfriend’s floor. It’s a mystery how she bicycles home.
She paces around the house. Shedding great globular tears. Her parents are celebrating their eighteenth wedding anniversary at the new Portuguese restaurant over in the strip mall. She finds herself perched on the limits of their bed. The barrel of her father’s shotgun points back at her. Think you know what happens next?
Three years after, she’s the youngest recipient of a face transplant in the United States. I’m an orderly at the hospital. My job is to clean and tidy up her room.
I change my latex gloves and push the door open. Before you can say knife, she says to me, “You have no idea what I’ve been through.”
Mom yells from the kitchen. She needs my help opening a jar. I put the magazine down.
Myles Zavelo lives and writes in New York.