January 25, 2017 | ISSUE no 208
crack the spine
Ethan Forrest Ross
The Ghosts Are Drinking Mai Tais
I’ve driven past it so often I don’t even see it anymore. But my wife is in the car, and she sees everything. “Why is that still there?” she asks.
The sign is a lacework of rust, the glass tubing that once spelled Tiki Lau, long since cracked and bereft of the gases that lit it. But she means more. The derelict A-frame building, the cedar shakes on the steep hill of its roof ever sparser, the all-but-gone hula grass that once festooned the eaves, the bamboo growing tall and unkempt before the door that no one uses anymore. In the time it takes me to turn back to the road, I remember dinners and cocktails and soft music there when we were new to town, and fleetingly superimpose that upon a dark interior, burnt-out table candles, a fish tank filled only with air, silence, ghosts.
Why is that still there? The unspoken rest of her question is: And not torn down?
There’s no clear answer. Bad food. Bad location. Landlord abandoned it. Maybe the owner didn’t need the tax dodge anymore. What’s the resale market in Polynesian restaurants, anyway? And what have they got that your garden variety Chinese buffet doesn’t?
Still, I glance over again, past the unruly bamboo, windriven now in lonesome October, beyond the missing roof shakes, and imagine all those old images of the days when Don the Beachcomber opened shop in Hollywood, California, with the carved tiki heads and flaming torches, and then came Trader Vic’s, and in a few decades’ time the craze that made its way across the continent like a jolly tsunami. Places with names like the Islander, Bali Hai, and the Tiki Lau sprang up. In suburban backyards people had thatch-roofed lanais built, with stools fashioned from wharf pilings and men in island shirts and woman in flower-print muumuus, all shimmy-shaking to the musical exotica of Martin Denny and Les Baxter playing in stereophonic hi-fi.
I remember my parents and the neighbors out there in the backyard bar, swatting mosquitoes and drinking Mai Tais and Singapore Slings, Headhunters and Fog cutters, while skewers of teriyaki-marinated pineapple chunks and sirloin tips seared fragrantly on the hibachi. Some fun those times must’ve been. A rum-fueled, Adventures-in-Paradise escape from the nine-to-five to the South Seas.
But the wave crested and passed, as, eventually, all dreams in America do. Tiki culture met its natural end, and the Tiki Lau was left like a bit of flotsam. After-work cruisers didn’t drop in anymore, couples didn’t telephone for reservations, vodka replaced rum, Martin Denny gave way to Herb Alpert, and hibachis were supplanted by Jacuzzis. The cash register didn’t ring the way it did once. You want that action now, you go to Disney World.
“Why is that still there?” my wife asks as we drive by on Rt. 110.
The night wind sounds like ghostly laughter.
flash fiction by David Daniel
Last Caress of
short fiction by Andrew Davie
The Karaoke bar was a gentlemen’s club. The client would arrive and select a woman to accompany him for the evening. She would pour his drinks, dance, and select songs for him to sing. Most of the time, the evening would evolve into some lurid affair. The booths were separated far enough from each other to allow for minimal voyeurism from the neighbors.
The Mama-san, who ran the establishment, had emigrated from Laos. She was tough as nails and rumored to have operated a notorious establishment which catered to CIA Ravens and Hmong commando units during The Secret Bombings.
When O’Folliard came out of the elevator, he found her waiting at the entrance as usual.
“Foward!” He always laughed at the way she pronounced his name. Her knotted stump of a hand drew him close; her strength always a surprise. It was probably the low center of gravity since she barely broke five feet.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
“Come, come,” she said. Brown leather skin with lips pulled back to reveal broken teeth.
He followed her from the dimly lit elevator bank and walked into the main foyer where ten girls stood waiting, each scantily clad in sarongs, mesh, and bikinis. He always let Mama-san select for him, and tonight she suggested Princess. The rest of the girls scattered back into the dark recesses, while Princess gingerly put her arm around his waist and led him to their booth.
On the stage, someone was doing a decent rendition of “Creep,” by Radiohead.
“I don’t belong here,” he sang.
He was drunk, but it didn’t hide the discomfort he was feeling, out on the floor, under the lights.
The half naked Phillipina, who was grinding against him, didn’t help.
The song ended. The singer returned to his table greeted by cheers from his companions. He possessed a pleasant enough disposition; first time in Hong Kong and his ex-pat friends were showing him a good time. They called for another round of drinks, and the girls with them encouraged their Bacchanalia.
When he sat down, Princess placed her hand on O’Folliard’s chest and gave him a newly arrived bottle of San Miguel.
"What would you like to sing?” she whispered in his ear
“How about ‘Last Caress,’ or ‘Hybrid Moments,’ by The Misfits?” O’Folliard said. Princess smelled of mangoes and sour antiperspirant. Writing it down, she made sure to refill his beer again, then slid her hand inside his button down shirt and kissed his cheek. Watching her go, he felt a hollowness enter his body. The experience was a charade, but still, it helped to comfort him. He took another drink and chased down an amphetamine he’d procured from one of his students who had ADHD.
O’Folliard was supposed to leave Hong Kong at the end of the month to return to the US after two years abroad. To be with X, that was the deciding factor. They had met while both were abroad. X went back early, and for the long year which ensued, they made it work across the ocean. There were tumultuous times to be certain, but they navigated through the fear and uncertainty.
Of course, ultimately, the question remained of what would happen when his contract ended. Would he join her in The States? He could re-up for another year; Hong Kong was a city of promise, with the track, respectful students, and a surreal quality as if his life didn’t abide by conventional rules. There were fellowships for which he could apply anywhere in the world. But, he would picture X, and the two of them building a life together, and the rest of it would all fade. While Skyping, he could hardly contain his excitement when he revealed his intentions to be with her. Afterward, he could only shake his head in astonishment at the reversal of fortune, and the cavalier manner in which X told him she had changed her mind about their future.
“Sorry, don’t have that song.”
“That’s OK.” He killed his beer. She signaled for another, then began massaging his shoulders.
He’d purged himself of the onslaught of emotions which followed the final conversation with X. However, the fallout lingered like radiation, and every so often, he’d be overcome with rage or sadness. Now, as he felt the first wave of enmity building, he knew what song he could sing to exorcise it from his soul.
“I want to sing My War.”
Princess leaned in so her breasts were resting on his shoulder.
“My War,” O’Folliard repeated.
He’d sing the entire album “My War,” by Black Flag, or maybe just “Nothing Left Inside.” Yes, that’s what he’d do. He’d go over and program the damn machine himself if he had to, but no one was taking the mic from him until he was finished. He could finally rid himself of the empty feelings which dragged behind him leaving a trail of desperation like a slug.
Princess had recoiled, almost losing her balance on the arm of the couch, but managed to right herself. O’Folliard hadn’t noticed, had already stood, brushed himself off, and began to walk toward the console. When she finally broke from her daze, she ran, a difficult thing to do in heels, and found the Mama-San.
“He’s going to sing My Way!”
In the last decade, over twelve people had been murdered in The Philippines in what became known as “The My Way Killings.” Debates raged on as to the cause, whether it was the aggressive lyrics themselves, or the ability of the performer since the song was held in such high esteem. Regardless, people’s lives had been taken; the catalyst always Paul Anka’s song as sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
Most places had the song stricken from the playlist. But, Mama-san had been putting it off, and now she watched as O’Folliard made his way across the room toward the machine. She’d seen the look on his face before reserved for soldiers about to face death. She told Princess to go downstairs to the noodle shop and round up as many were willing to get their hands dirty. Once Princess had disappeared, Mama-san casually walked over to the booth in the very back. Her broken English and sing-song voice disappeared replaced by flawless diction and Machiavellian undertones.
“I need you to take care of something.”
As a girl in Laos, the bar and brothel had become Mama-san’s realm. The hardships she had endured would leave her a sobbing mess at the end of the night. Cloaked in darkness and shame, she’d wait for the bombings to commence, then wail, her cries masked by the scream of the bomb’s descent. Eventually, she learned to exist without emotions smothering them until they stopped altogether.
The Communist Pathet Lao continued to gain the upper hand during the civil war, but while others fled to neighboring Thailand, Mama-San remained to secure her place of power within the saloon. Always with a smile, and quick with a drink, she kept the revelry going even during the darkest moments. Finally, the day arrived when men no longer looked at her with desire in their eyes. She quickly adapted acquiring and managing new talent which would satisfy those appetites.
In 1975, she finally left Laos ending up in Hong Kong. The first few weeks were a challenge due to the territorial nature of her line of work. Soon, she managed to ingratiate herself to a notorious triad named “Three Finger” Tang. With his influence and her tenacity soon she had her establishment up and running. Their partnership was mutually beneficial, and over the years, he let her have free reign of their enterprise while providing protection.
O’Folliard was hunched over the machine, searching for his choice, when the man careened into him knocking them both to the ground. The man was all sinew covered in a stained tank top t-shirt, strands of facial hair, and a pony-tail. He frantically grabbed at O’Folliard, letting loose what sounded like a string of vowels. Disoriented, but just for a moment, O’Folliard got to his feet amidst the incoming blows and threw a right-cross left-hook combination, which sent his opponent to the floor.
The man did not stir.
O’Folliard had wrestled in high school. A winner of “The Iron Horse Award,” he’d finished in the top six at the state tournament four years in a row. He also trained for two years as an amateur boxer and was prison big: not overly muscular or intimidating but powerful and heavy handed. O’Folliard turned back to the machine thinking the man who lay beneath him was nothing more than a drunk patron who believed his turn at the microphone had been compromised. Then he saw four other men running toward him. Princess stood off to the side, yelling at the men, and pointing at him.
O’Folliard punched in the corresponding numbers for his song, then walked toward the stage. The man with the microphone dropped it and ran when O’Folliard approached. The reverb shot through the bar. O’Folliard had just picked up the mic when the group of four attacked.
Reijiro left Japan to avoid prosecution and found himself in Hong Kong. One phone call from his former boss secured employment working as an enforcer for“Three Finger,” Tang, a loan out on retainer.
Though people feared him, and he took care of business with machine-like efficiency, Rei felt out of place in this century. He’d read the Hagakure, memorized long passages, and could recite them from memory. Live by a strict code above all else. It disgusted him the lack of respect and order which ran rampant in the youth of today. They excited to violence too quickly and rarely thought of the consequences of their actions.
He was plagued by a sense of ennui.
The refuge was found in the Karaoke bar. Usually, he’d ignore the opportunity for companionship and find solace in singing flawless renditions of Billy Idol songs. One time, he received a standing ovation for his soulful interpretation of“Eyes Without a Face.” Even those who’d been engaged in some sort of depraved fantasy with the help ceased their acts to pay their respects. There were nights, though; he’d stew in his booth hoping for a true test of his mettle. He was a warrior after all.
Rei was in the midst of drinking sake, ruminating about his song choice when Mama-San approached. When she spoke, he heard the urgency in her voice and instantly was alert. He killed the rest of his drink and stood, turning to watch a gaijin foreigner lay out some tokuajin near the karaoke machine. The gaijin’s technique relied on brute force. He was telegraphing his punches, but against a lesser foe, it didn’t matter. It was the look in the man’s eye which caught Rei’s attention. He’d rarely seen it before, and for the first time in a long time, Rei felt the excitement build. Now he would finally have a challenge.
Four more ran toward the gaijin wild and unfocused. Rei folded his arms across his chest to watch and started laughing when the next track “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones,” by The Hives started playing as if it was the soundtrack to the scene unfolding before him. Gaijin took a punch to the jaw, which snapped his head back but only seemed to increase his determination. He threw one of his attackers over his shoulder, landing him on a table, which collapsed under the weight.
Rei took off his leather jacket and laid it on the back of the booth. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and rolled them back, revealing full sleeve tattoos on either arm. By now, the commotion had spread through the entire place, and chaos threatened to infiltrate. Rei told Mama-san to go from booth to booth and calmly instruct her patrons to head to the exits. He would take care of the disturbance. The track ended, and the ambient noise consisted of the moans of the men contorting on the ground. O’Folliard sang the first part of the verse:
“Nothing. Nothing. Nothing left inside.”
So consumed with his delivery, he didn’t even notice the Japanese guy standing five feet in front of him. They stared at each other for another moment, then the man assumed a fighting stance and came forward. O’Folliard felt as if multiple assailants were hitting him with ball peen hammers. A kick to the chest sent him airborne and onto his back. Still, the microphone remained in his hand.
“Pain in my heart.”
It took all his focus to getting back to his feet. His head throbbed, and blood flowed freely. More blows rained down upon him, but this time, he remained standing.
“Pain hurts my heart.”
Rei took a step back, both his hands inflamed, and one of his knuckles dislocated. He couldn’t fathom what was keeping this foreigner on his feet let alone conscious. The man swayed back and forth like a reed caught in the wind spewing out song lyrics. Rei calmed himself and moved in to deliver the final strike.
O’Folliard timed his opponent’s attack and threw him to the ground using a hip toss. Once he had him down, O’Folliard assumed a rear mount, and while still holding the mic in his right hand, attempted a rear naked choke hold. Throughout the duration of the maneuver, he never stopped singing and kept in time with the song.
“Nothing left inside.”
Rei attempted to pry the man’s fingers apart but could not. It was like trying to pull tree roots from the ground. He saw stars and felt the constriction close around his carotid arteries. All around him the handiwork of the man who now lay upon him, choking the very life from his body.
“Leech. Drained me dry. Nothing left inside.”
Before he succumbed to unconsciousness, Rei thought of his purpose, his service, and whether his track “Rebel Yell,” by Billy Idol would be next.
Princess had stayed throughout the duration of the melee and watched in utter horror as O’Folliard dismantled both the bar and an onslaught of people. At one point, he locked eyes with her, and though she had been through enough in her lifetime to disavow the existence of God, suddenly she knew he had to be real to allow such evil to exist. When O’Folliard looked away, she felt released somehow and fled screaming
Later, when the police interviewed her about the evening, Princess would have trouble recalling any of the specific details. Time ceased to follow a consistent measurement distorting her perception.
“He seemed possessed,” was all she could get out during questioning. She returned to work after a week. It was all the time she could afford to take off. Emotionally, she had already distanced herself from the event and chalked it up to a work-related hazard. Everything returned to normal. She continued to put money aside to help bring her family over from Manilla. The key was to anticipate the possibility of a repeat occurrence. She purchased a balisong and practiced flipping the blade open and closed until the movement was fluid, and she could wield the weapon with accuracy.
One evening, while tolerating the unpleasant tendencies of a particular client, his forcefulness caused her to break protocol. Her timid and aloof facade disappeared replaced by something mercenary and vindictive. The blade strike was so quick and precise he continued groping for almost thirty seconds after she’d severed his femoral artery. Remanded to The Lo Wu Correctional Institution, she becomes withdrawn and despondent spending her days in a catatonic state reciting cryptic statements about how none of this would have happened if he could have sung “Last Caress of Hybrid Molemen.”
Confusion met the police officers who were the first to arrive at the karaoke bar. Standing in the middle of a pile of bodies on the ground, at the center, was a gweilo foreigner singing and repeating the same song lyrics over and over.
Except, the music had long since ceased playing.
Still, the man sang.
It took over five officers to wrestle the microphone from his grasp before finally bringing him down.
“I want you.
I want you to see my eyes.
Nothing left inside.”
poetry by John Grey
From the farm-house,
Vince didn't have to go so far so find water.
From the huge corrugated iron rain water-tank
to the running creeks
and the dam that lapped muddy water
against even muddier banks
there was enough to drink, for bathing,
and to satisfy the fields.
His wife, Joy washed diapers
and underwear in fresh water
watched over by possums in the trees,
skinks on the rocks.
But the warning her mother gave her
echoed like a cry for help.
"He's the laziest farmer in the valley.
It's rich land but he'll never make a go of it."
As a new dad, he carved the name
of his son in a splintery rotting fence.
And he plunged into his work
with a new enthusiasm for a time.
Even if he'd rather
have taken the boy fishing.
When the boy went out into the dam too far,
slipped and fell down a deep hole,
Vince could do nothing but wet himself.
Then he ran for help through a well-worn path
between the gray ghost eucalyptus trees
for he couldn't swim a lick and nor could Joy.
He sat on the porch when the ambulance came,
head down, soaked and sloshing in his old brown boots.
Joy ran to the dam to see her little one for the very last time.
They divorced soon after and he gave up the farm.
One night, at the bar, some guy told a dead baby joke.
Vince laughed and then he peed himself.
It had got so he couldn't tell the difference.
Vince and Joy
microfiction by Joel Best
There is the desire to craft order into our lives. A leading to B and to C and then to D. These are the standard mathematics of narrative, learned in middle school through the dissection of prose carefully constructed by men and women from centuries past. But what did those men and women know? Why do their opinions matter? They died. Died.
flash fiction by Ethan Forrest Ross
The first bug is small, brown and red with hair-like antennae scouring the surface of the pillow. You don’t think much of that smear, the stain on your thumb and forefinger. It is not merely bug guts; it is you also. Your blood, dry and flaking as you fall asleep.
Two weeks later you wake up with a sting in the precise center of your chest. Something crunchy, like a food crumb, is stuck to you. In the bathroom mirror, the bug is bigger this time. Dark brown, and you think, could it be?
Sleep Tight. Don’t let—
You have just that vague notion because of the nursery rhyme.
Flipping back the quilt, you see five or six of them crawling in jerky motions like remote control cars. This night you will remember as the night of trash bags, frantic searches of the Internet. Everything must be sealed, every cloth item—even that box under the bed with the old Latin book and the roll of wrapping paper. Did you know that bedbugs can live over a year without food or air or moisture in a concealed area? Did you know they can crawl through electric outlets to infect other rooms like cancer spreading through the bloodstream?
Bedbugs change you. Oh, they change you!
But that next day you find the right kind of bedcover at the new Walmart on the south side. The bugs are still in there—gray nests, little, established kingdoms on every corner of the mattress. The dead ones are the walls; is that not like catacombs? But the cover holds them in. Everything is washed and dried. Bags stored in the far corner of the room; open just one as needed, lest you infect the whole lot. You lay double-sided tape on the floor around the bed. Spray the frame with rubbing alcohol three times a day. If you put the sheets back on, a few wayfarers will creep up in the night. That’s when they’re most active, and, after all, you are the food source, a warm feast set before them. So you lie on the crinkling plastic, attuned to every itch, every slight pinch of pain, slapping your hand to your knee, your stomach. Nothing. Or did it crawl away?
Life resumes. You see a live bug maybe every-other day. But your mind—how your mind sees—has been adjusted. Every speck might be a bug. Piece of lint on a cardigan. Thread hanging off a towel. In odd places, the bugs creep into your psyche. Such as the theater. Your first thought as you pull down the memory foam seat: Wouldn’t be surprising, the sort of folks who attend movies like these. Everywhere you go, there may be bugs. Might have bugs crawling between the labyrinthine grooves of your brain. But you can grow used to almost anything; always some pleasure to be found in the worst of circumstances, in the joke of their self-contriving typicality.
Like a new form of hunger, your fingers kind of want that feeling of the crunch between them. It ought to be an embarrassment—the fact that you contracted bedbugs—but having survived and come out stronger, there’s a sense of pride in that. “Oh, I know bedbugs,” you say, like they’re some family tradition, something everybody does back where you’re from. You insist on going with a friend to inspect the cushions of a couch on Craigslist. Somebody’s cousin brings them home from Kidz Camp. “Here’s what they gotta do,” you say. The key is containment, blocking their route of transfer. And kill them; kill every goddamn one in sight.
Because this, this could be your thing. You wouldn’t even need to advertise. It’d be all word of mouth. Somebody'd be like, “You need to call Eric. He’s good. He’s real good.” You’d show up at their door with a briefcase and a van full of equipment. You’d put your ear to their walls, get down low to inspect the floorboards. “Here’s what it looks like to me,” you’d say, sketching a diagram on an iPad. “We got nests here and here and one just starting to come together up here.” You will hold their hands and tell them that infestation does not discriminate, that having bedbugs does not make them dirty.
Every landlord in Chicago and the greater beyond knows your name. That guy, he’s expensive and kind of eccentric, but that’s what you want in an exterminator. Passion. You and your gray one-piece, custom made for your odd shape. Boots and socks up over the pant legs. Gloves tucked into your cinched shirt sleeves. Pesticide? Never. You have developed your own methods.
It is good to have belonging, to have vocation. Giving talks in the schools, lunch-time chats with the staffs of nursing homes. Even an interview on a local radio show: Preventive measures. Common misbeliefs. You’d like to stamp every business card with the body of a dead one just to demystify the concept of the bedbug, but that might be a bit much.
You think of yourself as “The Exterminator.” Not the title of your business, just the name you hear in your mind as you work. A superhero in life; the closest thing we can have to superheroes. Call any time, rain or shine and all that. You’ll be there, all nine-one-one style. The wretched, sleepless awfulness; the plight of a very close and personal war. You’ve turned it into your rogue operation for a cause so necessary in these urban reaches. Isn’t that the best gift of tragedy? To do well with it, to make good out of so much filth.
short fiction by Jon Herring
His quiet voice and bashful movements were what first drew my interest, given his six-foot stature. He walked with his head craned forward, balding in the back, his hands concealed in the rolled up cuffs of a non-hooded sweatshirt. His nervous face and bony frame appeared mouse-like and strange. He would scurry from his cube down the hall to the bathroom, always moving faster than those around him, passing by with a feigned half-smile, before fleeing on around the corner. I’d worked at DynoPharma for six months before ever speaking to him. Our cubicles shared a wall for Christ’s sake. I could hear him chew his food and crack his knuckles. Not that he can be blamed for our belated introduction… I am not the best with strangers. I’ve been working at Dyno for two years now and I can honestly say that I know nothing more about any of my co-workers than they might tell a friendly stranger in line at the supermarket.
I blame this unfortunate attribute in myself on a tendency to unjustly partition those around me. This is rooted, I believe, in my liberal arts education. Analyze and categorize. So and so is a Romantic, a Modern, a Continental, a Western Analytic… While I recognize the faults in such reckless classification, it is true that groups of people tend to behave in similar ways when in a specific context—and the office is a distinct context with its own rules and meanings. Seen only in that world, office people are a terribly boring lot. The way everyone laughs at the same banal jokes and talks about the same sports teams and uses the same corny jargon and speech like, “No need to reinvent the wheel here” or “When it rains it pours.” And the unfounded optimism they all possess... Even if it is all, most likely, a farce… I am not without envy in this regard, but it certainly does wear on you after awhile to be immersed in such undeserved joy. What happiness is there in a life lived inside a cube? What drives them? What keeps them performing? Have they given up on anything better? Do their brains produce more dopamine? Are they better actors than I?
I am well aware that all office workers aren’t dull automatons. To think so would only expose an immature and judgmental intellect easily fooled by appearances and role playing. But they do seem that way. That is their role. They appear dull and act dull. But I am certain of a deeper humanity, an unseen truth, and I will discover it, even if I have to invent it myself.
Needless to say, my initial preconceptions of my co-workers as aging duds prevented any overzealous introductions or socializing on my part. Yet I could not help but grow interested in the underlying mechanisms of those around me, clicking on their keyboards and staring into their screens for months on end without sign of wear or fatigue. There was actually something quite impressive about it… their resignation and continuation. I wondered if like me, an incurable frustration burned inside. I could have spoken to them and in doing so gleaned some sort of understanding about who they are and the nature of their lives, but childish anxiety prevented me from moving in this direction. After months of working mute and eating lunch in isolation at my desk, hidden behind a pair of headphones and a shabby wardrobe, the thought of approaching a group of them in the cafeteria or subtly merging into a ring of chatter around the coffee machine seemed to me an unbearable strategy. Plus, I had little hope of uncovering any truth from the sources themselves. As previously noted, most of my surrounding co-workers appeared hopelessly cheerful and full of glee and anyone that happy must be practicing some form of self-deception and would thus serve useless in revealing their own deeper motivations.
But Chris Tsirigotas, the aforementioned mouse, was different. He never attended team cake cuttings for birthdays, or newborn babies, or after-work happy hours where everyone engaged in PG persiflage and pretended two beers were enough. If approached while using the microwave or coffee machine, I could see his pain, struggling to respond appropriately when addressed, fighting off his proclivity to look down and blush or leak gallons of sweat from his nervous skin. He too ate lunch at his desk every day, normally something bland and without color—a tuna fish sandwich, oatmeal, or Greek yogurt. His large size made him all the more interesting. How could such a massive man possess such a broken manner? What in his life had shaped him?
The first time I said hello to him he nearly choked.
“he hell hello,” he said. Before he completed his stuttering response his face had taken on a crimson hue, near purple in its intensity. From that day on, I greeted him every day. After a few weeks of this, his responses settled into what one would call normal. I became part of his routine and he mine. These casual morning hellos were the extent of our relationship.
I recognize how eccentric this may sound to someone who has never worked in an office. The captivity affects the mind in strange ways, especially when subjected to solitary confinement. I am not looking for pity in this regard. I realize this aspect of my workday was self-inflicted. But nevertheless, I mention the detail only to frame the context of what follows. Sitting in silence within the confines of a cubicle changes a person. You seek entertainment wherever you can find it. Surfing the Internet was fun for a while but that gets old. And my hourly hikes around the corporate campus soon became noticed by my supervisors.
It was this lack of available entertainment, which led me to create my own. I began constructing narratives for my fellow worker bees. When everyone had stepped out for lunch, I would sneak into their cubes and take stock of their possessions—what they kept in their drawers, on their desks, in their gym bags, etc. From the objects alone I would build a life, connecting the dots and filling in the gaps. These narratives soon became an obsession. From a family portrait, a preference for pencils over pens, and a fondness for romance novels, I would sculpt an entire identity. Surreptitiously, I studied my peers, judging whether or not their eyes revealed a deep sadness, if their smile was genuine, if their teeth and fingernails looked yellow enough to assume a smoking habit... No one ever caught me during these escapades. And if they did, I would have simply lied and claimed to be looking for a stapler or something innocuous.
An unbiased witness might claim that I somehow crossed the line intruding into other’s personal possessions. Maybe such a witness is right… I violated their privacy in some way. But so what? We forfeit privacy every day of our lives. Anyone who uses the Internet forfeits privacy. Violating someone’s privacy is no worse than jaywalking or sticking your gum underneath a barstool. It’s a minor offense. Everyone has overheard a conversation before and chosen to listen. Is what I do really that different?
One by one, I completed each life. Constructing identities I could sympathize with and understand. I was meticulous in my craftsmanship. Not any arbitrary detail would fit the frame. In order for a fact to function, I had to believe it. It had to be true. I couldn’t simply claim that Sheila liked the beach, when day after day her fair skin remained translucent. No, Sheila is allergic to the sun. This allergy resulted in severe childhood bullying from her classmates, which is why she flinches whenever a group of people laugh near her. Quiet in demeanor and not prone to arguing, the resentment from her younger years towards those who ruthlessly tortured her is what led her to create a list of names… people whom she will one day strike back against in vengeance. She keeps this list buried in a metal lunchbox behind her Golden Retriever Rosie’s doghouse, only removing the list to add or remove a name (post-kill) when her husband plays softball on weekends in the spring.
Over the course of my two years at Dyno, I sculpted lives for each and every one of my co-workers in the general vicinity of my cube. Every life was a perfect work of art, consistent, connected, and true—every life except for one that is… the mouse.
Chris was a difficult case. The initial foundation kept throwing me off. How was I to prove a faulty premise? My preliminary reconnaissance of his personal belongings revealed a relatively consistent picture. He filed all of his documents chronologically, using different colored folders for the different departments that had requested the job. A paystub in his desk revealed that he was not an employee of the company, but a contractor, slightly unusual for a man his age—which alludes that his wife was the provider of health insurance and other benefits in the household. Also in his desk I found a stack of certificate awards for excellence. The typical employee would display such awards for their other co-workers to see, but his decision to hide them fit perfectly with his obvious desire to evade any and all attention. Based upon my experience with the man and these few details, I imagined him a recluse, the kind of man who peers out a crack in the curtains when the mailman arrives—perhaps a serial killer with an affinity for turning joggers into lampshades.
The wedding ring presented my first obstacle. He didn’t seem the marrying type. I couldn’t imagine him having sex. The thought of his gangly body convulsing and sweat dripping off his bald head while he struggled to perform seemed impossible. But in time I overcame this detail, constructing a vision of his wife as a haggard baggy-shirted woman with an immutable ponytail who enjoyed playing video games at night while he snuck out to murder innocent women and manipulate their organs.
This picture of his identity, while complete and interesting proved to be short-lived. One afternoon, I walked by his desk and to my horror noticed the image displayed as Chris’ desktop screensaver. The image was of two blonde girls, no older than ten years old—his daughters. “Inconceivable,” I whispered. My entire invention was ruined! He couldn’t have daughters. He didn’t have daughters. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit. He was too emotionless and self-contained. How was he a father? The faces of the girls looked happy too—genuinely merry and excited to be alive. Did he smile with them? Did he coach their swim team? Did he drive them to school in the morning?
I don’t expect anyone to understand the calamity caused by the image of these two little girls, but trust when I say that it devastated me. The material stakes of course were nil. But material stakes mean nothing. What stakes are at risk when ink spills on a near-completed canvas? The world does not fall apart when after weeks of arduous fiddling; one discovers that the jigsaw upon which one has labored is missing the final piece. The stakes are of no consequence and I beg whoever thinks such thoughts to move on with his life and develop some character.
At the time, without any apparent option, I chose to stick to my guns. The picture of his daughters was nothing more than a façade—a cheap trick to exude a sense of normalcy to his co-workers—a deceptive act of a truly paranoid mind.
I admit that the narrative never fully satisfied me. I realize now that the fault was my own—a lazy surrender to self-deception. An inability to accept the obvious. Irrational denialism through and through. My intentions had been compromised. Completion had come to mean more to me than quality.
At the height of my internal struggle regarding the possible inaccuracy of Chris’ narrative he stopped showing up for work. As it turned out, he had fallen ill and had been hospitalized. I learned this only in virtue of Sheila stopping by my desk with a get-well card for me to sign. The next week I received an email, sent out to the staff, notifying everyone that he had died. There were no details of cause of death or funeral arrangements.
A small presence can leave a large absence. His empty cubicle sat like a shrine – representing the silence in which he lived his life. A full week passed without activity. I wondered what would come of his things. How long until another body took his spot? Would they hire someone who looked just like him, as a mother does with a child’s dead hamster? Who would have the morbid task of cleaning out his possessions? I received the answer to this question exactly ten days after his untimely death.
The day began as any other, I arrived fifteen minutes late, turned on my computer, took a dump while it booted up, and fetched myself a cup of coffee. When I rounded the corner from the kitchenette towards my cubicle, I lost my breath. My heart palpitated, burning each time I inhaled. There they stood—a beautiful blonde woman, and the two little girls from the picture. With somber eyes and languid movements, they loaded his possessions into cardboard boxes. As people passed by and took notice I overheard words of condolence whispered.
I took the long route around the building back to my cube. Who was this man I took for a mouse? The silent stalker of the night… the manipulator of human flesh?
Hunched in my cubicle, I peered through a crack where the dividing walls met, observing the little girls and their mother. I could no longer go on denying their existence. His daughters were real, I admitted to myself. I watched them pack away the remnants of a man I never knew. After completing the task, his wife ushered the girls away from the cubicle and down the hallway towards the exit.
I frantically searched my desk for a reason, something, anything... With my alternatives being a few plastic cups and a Post-it pad, I settled on a rubber stress ball with Dyno printed across the circumference in red letters.
“Mrs. Tsirigotas!” I yelled, chasing them down the hall. She turned to me. “I’m… I knew your husband… I’m sorry for your loss,” I said. I held the stress ball out to her, my caffeinated hand shaking. “This was your husband’s.”
She examined me quizzically, taking the foam ball from my hand and placing it in the cardboard box she carried.
“Thank you,” she said. I looked down at the two little girls, their eyes red and chapped from days of tears. I wanted to say something, to express how much he’d meant to me, but I only smiled. The three of them turned and left the building.
I returned to my desk, dejected and embarrassed. Admitting failure, I reflected on where I went wrong. Had my own overactive imagination deluded all rational thought, refusing to acknowledge the obvious, ignoring the valid foundation, and haphazardly inventing? I readily admit that this is most likely the case. Alas, there is no repairing his story now... I accept my failure. I accept it with shame.
Towards a Narrative More Than a Mouse
poetry by Simon Perchik
Step by Step the Nights
Step by step the nights
taste from weeds salted down
though even shorelines
decay, taking hold between
the dirt and one last look as dew
half marshland, half within reach
where her breasts are forever water
and from this darkness
the thirst you use for mist
and bitterness, surrounded by rocks
and in your throat her lips
saying things, ordinary things.
Buenos Aires, 1992:
It’s a sultry February here below the equator, where Nazis are harbored, where machismo reigns. Where Argentina’s middleweight boxing champion, Carlos Monzón, flung his wife out the window to her death. “My dinner was late for the second night in a row,” Monzón explained.
Me? I’m sharpening my housewifery skills.
Beneath our window is passing the primordial recycler: an old man and an old horse dragging an ancient wooden cart. They beg discards from any household that will oblige. Cardboard, newspapers, string. Trodding the cracked streets of Argentine mornings, theirs is the doleful cry of a dying animal. “Trapero, botellero,” they wail. Rag-gatherer, bottle-gatherer. Along with the tango’s sad strains, their dirge defines this melancholy land.
Nothing much happens in Temperley, the lethargic hamlet where my husband, Horacio, was born. One of the rough stones ringing the tarnished sapphire of Buenos Aires, Temperley’s only shops, besides markets, are video and liquor stores.
Horacio and I are quartered on the second floor of his family home, situated on a cul-de-sac with the lovely name Calle Cervantes. The house is ruled by Blanca, the only one of her eleven siblings to have left (reluctantly) her family’s remote ranch in rugged Roque Pérez for an urban life. A formidable woman, Blanca is my mother-in-law. La piedra, we call her, “the stone.”
Her all five senses keen, you can sneak nothing past her. Last week, on an insomniac pre-dawn ramble, I opened a living-room armoire and drank the few sips of apricot liqueur from one of its phalanx of bottles, hoping that the sticky-sweet liquid would lull me back to sleep. My wee indulgence drained its container, which I put in the trash. At lunch the next day, Blanca (“Buba” to her grandchildren) announced to the assembled,
“One bottle’s missing.”
My blood rushed hot. She must take daily inventory! Then I remembered my husband’s tale of childhood terror: like a condemned man forced to dig his own grave,
“I had to fetch my father's leather belt so my mother could give me daily beatings,” he’d told me, “just for being a curious little boy.” No, there’d be no escaping this one. I fessed up.
During the viscous silence that followed my apology, I grasped the extent of my transgression. That nearly empty bottle had surely been in its spot—between equally empty bottles of anisette and amaretto—for decades. But I bought Buba a new liqueur, despite knowing it could never restore the ancient equilibrium of her treasured array.
How could my hot-blooded husband have come from this ice woman? Nowhere in the spartan first floor of her house is there a blush of color. Though her son is a prolific, illustrious painter, the only one of his images on her walls is a murky, eviscerated figure he painted as a teenager.
“I don’t need anything new,” Buba states flatly. And she doesn’t. The sole household item that ever changes is the annual calendar from Enrique’s gas station. The cutlery, which dates from her 1932 wedding, includes a curious table knife employed thrice daily by her husband.
“My father almost suffocated from a chunk of chicken stuck in his throat,” Horacio explains, “so he used this knife to chop his food into minuscule morsels.” He must have sharpened it often, since its blade has become a mere sliver. But it remains in the flatware drawer, and if it’s next to your plate, you use it.
“My family’s Italian, German, and Scottish,” Blanca informs me. She’s particularly pleased with her Scottish blood (diluted though it is), of her German maiden name, Badde, and of the British spelling of her middle name, Esther.
Most Argentines go by nicknames that—no matter how unsavory—are terms of endearment: gordo (fatty), flaco (skinny), and foro (condom). It’s routine and affectionate to call one’s mother and father vieja and viejo (old one). Horacio is bala (bullet) because of his speed at football. And any Argentine man, woman, or child may be referred to as “che,” an epithet that means just “Hey, you!” The world knows Ernesto Guevara as “Che” simply because he’s Argentine. And since my mother-in-law has a hard time with my difficult first name, she often summons me with “che.”
My husband and his first wife married when they were teenagers. In seven years together they had five children, four girls and a boy, who are now my stepchildren. We’re currently awaiting the results of seventeen-year-old Nuria’s pregnancy test. She has three boyfriends is the problem.
Fearless, foul-mouthed, and charismatic, fifteen-year-old Sabrina is the leader of the pack. When she cut out the knees of her jeans to wear the bottom third of them around her ankles, she set a town fashion trend. We’re eager for her romance with the son of a questionable Peronista TV star to end, but we know she can take care of herself.
“He’s just my style,” Sabrina lets loose about her ten-years-older boyfriend, “And I don’t give a fuck what you think!”
Sabrina’s extensive vocabulary of vulgarities surprises even her verbally gifted father, and her defiant spirit inoculates her against the attitude of resignation rampant in this downbeat land. She’d be a standout anywhere. But in Argentina—like the Buenos Aires billboard that shrieks SHOPPYLANDIA in bulbous, red-and-yellow letters—Sabrina is fluorescent.
We share a water tank with Horacio’s sister, Edith (pronounced sans “h”), ten years his senior, who lives in the attached house next door. Edith works in a bank and is still afraid of her mother. Distinguished by her precisely enunciated British speech and short blond coif, she possesses the beleaguered body of a matron who’s reared four children, including a wheelchair-bound daughter. Two years before I arrived, Edith’s late husband called her into their bedroom to witness him pull the trigger of a gun pointed at his heart. He left her little but his proper English surname, which she carries proudly.
Until as recently as 1983, Argentina was ruled by a military junta. The army conducted a seven-year war, la Guerra Sucia, against leftists who had allegedly tried to organize a coup. That Dirty War is credited with creating, at minimum, 30,000 Desaparecidos (Disappeared).
Disappearing is worse than dying. First you’re interrogated and tortured. After you’re killed, the junta’s next step is to destroy all records of your existence and raise your children as their own. Many of los Desaparecidos were placed in airplanes, drugged, and tossed alive into the Río de la Plata. The military knows that without a bone or document to prove your existence, you can’t really be declared dead.
My husband was very nearly disappeared when, while walking near his home, several soldiers ordered him onto a truck. Perhaps it was his gravitas that made them suspicious, or maybe it was his beard. In any case, they demanded his identity card, which showed him clean-shaven. That discrepancy would have sealed his fate, were it not for a colleague who chanced by. From the truck’s flatbed, Horacio, surrounded by dozens of the now disappeared, called out to his friend,
“Roberto, quick! Run to my house and ask my mother for my journalist ID. The one with a beard.” (Later, in New York, when Horacio and I left our apartment, he often asked me, “Do you have your documents?”)
In 1983, when democracy returned to Argentina, there occurred a nod toward punishing the murderers: A handful of generals responsible for the Dirty War were arrested. In a deal with Argentina’s moderate president, Alfonsín, these military men were shepherded to a minimum-security prison where they’re coddled in comfort. We occasionally see in the papers photos of these blackguards out on weekend leave, strolling arm-in-arm with their girlfriends.
When Alfonsín was replaced by the ambitious Carlos Menem, the son of Syrians who emigrated to Argentina, the military leaned on the new president: “We got you elected. Now you must pardon our men.”
But the Argentine people—long cowed by the terrible triad of military, church, and police—planned a gigantic demonstration demanding that Menem deny amnesty. To publicize the event, the organizers chose one of Horacio’s illustrations: the bust of a military man, his puffed-up chest smirking with dozens of medals, each one dangling a skull.
My oldest stepdaughter, especially distraught at the prospect of freeing the last jailed generals, was crying.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “Menem wouldn’t dare pardon those killers. And if he does, people all over the world will rise up against him.” Three days later, he did. And we didn’t.
Argentines dare not speak of the Dirty War. Their sole reminder of that horror are Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. These women, whose daughters and sons are among The Disappeared, gather every Thursday in front of La Casa Rosada, the president’s pink-walled residence. For two hours they walk silently around the government square, so that we do not forget, white kerchiefs tied under their chins.
creative non-fiction by Jerelle Kraus
Joel Best has published in venues such as Atticus Online, decomP, Crack the Spine and Blaze Vox. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and son.
The San Francisco Examiner called David Daniel’s ‘White Rabbit’ “one of the most atmospheric novels about the Sixties.” He has published ten additional novels and over 200 short stories. “The Heaven Stone” won a Private Eye Writers of America award and was a Shamus Award finalist. He has been the Jack Kerouac Visiting Writer in Residence at UMass, Lowell. Among his books are “The Marble Kite,” “Goofy Foot,” “Reunion,” and two collections of short fiction: “Six Off 66” and “Coffin Dust.”
Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. Currently, he teaches in Virginia. His work can be read in Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, The South Dakota Review, and Menacing Hedge, among others.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in New Plains Review, South Carolina Review, Gargoyle and Silkworm work upcoming in Big Muddy Review, Main Street Rag and Spoon River Poetry Review.
Jon Herring lives in Philadelphia where he works in editing and writes during the evenings. In his free time he also serves as the Assistant Fiction Editor at Cleaver Magazine. His book reviews and fiction have been published at Cleaver, Piker Press, and Baby Teeth Magazine.
Jerelle Kraus has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine and is the author of “Inside The New York Times” (Columbia University Press, 2012).
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poetry has appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, The New Yorker and elsewhere.
Ethan Forrest Ross
Ethan Forrest Ross grew up in Michigan and now lives in Virginia. His fiction has appeared in Meat For Tea, Dewpoint, Blotterature and elsewhere. He also reads for the Barley South Review.
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