Posted on: January 30th, 2011 Thin

By Sara Kate Ellis

Here’s how bad the epidemic was. Nobody noticed.

I show up at the ward and no one even looks at me. I find my locker, the utility closet with the mop and the non-flammable solvents and go about swabbing down the corridors. I have to do this three, four times a day because the spread rate’s high. I don’t care. I get overtime.

I’ve been a cleaner for ten years, and I like the smell of the chemicals. They remind me of the lot behind my mother’s house where there were still a few pines left. I’d go there and sit just out of sight of the kitchen window, and smoke one of the Kools I’d stolen from her purse. And if I closed my eyes, I could sometimes imagine there wasn’t a big ass freeway to our left.

When she got sick, we had to leave. Mom was one of the first cases, but they didn’t know that then and her insurance wouldn’t cover what they said was a clear case of inhalant abuse. She couldn’t think straight anymore, couldn’t pay the property taxes against her medical bills, and by then there’d been lost jobs and court dates. The bag the police used as evidence was one she’d used to pack my lunch. It still smelled of banana peels, but they told me thinner is sweet like that.

Judge sent Mom to a state rehabilitation center and me to a foster home. Said it was temporary, until she could get better.

First time I visited her, she started smacking herself across the face.

“I’m seeing lights, Harry,” she said. “They’re so pretty. Buzzing around my head like goddamned bees!”

The orderlies were on her then, had her arms pinned behind her back as they led her back down the hall.

My foster father Bill had a mail order business. He put us to work stuffing packets and licking stamps. My new sister made me do it, said each stamp was five calories, and an envelope was ten. But I liked the taste, sweet and fresh like a forest.

Then the cases started piling up. I remember finding a copy of Time on Bill’s desk and putting its slick, shiny cover under my nose. The remains of a burnt out trailer and the photos of three dead kids stared back at me. “Plains Inhalant Epidemic,” it read. “The Thinning of Rural America.”

They didn’t ask why the crime rate hadn’t risen. Didn’t ask why patients continued to deteriorate after they’d been locked up for months, or why it was spreading in other countries. They did make up some bogey substance with a few bogus names: Wiper, fuzz, snifter – that last one was good.

When I saw Mom about five years ago, her hair was white and thin, just a few taut strands barely covering her scalp. Hospices and care centers were overrun by then, and they waived half of her bill just to get me to sign. I bent down and kissed her before they pulled the plug. She already smelled like formaldehyde.

Then I went out to the truck, pressed a gas-soaked rag over my face and inhaled as hard as I could. I saw them that night for the very first time. Such cold, clean light. They floated around me, not seeing, but I could see them.

When you enter a hospital these days, you don’t so much smell the chemicals as the patients. They secrete it through their skin, their eyes. It coats their tongues until they can’t eat anymore. The ones who can afford it get a procedure to deaden their taste buds. They eat runny porridge, crisp salads, anything with texture.

Took them fifteen years to figure out it was a microbe. Fifteen years of paranoiac crackdowns, incarcerating entire families, beating down on people already so beaten up, they started sniffing on their own.

They’re still alive.

“You can fake ‘em!” a guy once told me. We were out behind a paint store, spraying streaks of purple into a brown paper bag.

“That’s just your missing brain cells talking,” I said.

The alarm sounds in the ward, and I smile as a few panicked docs rush past. Happens all the time. Then I close my eyes and inhale the scent of fresh pine, remembering the feel of their needles in my fingers. So soft, and thin.

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Posted on: January 16th, 2011 In The Deep Deep Sea There Is An Even Deeper Susurrus

by Ben Godby

“I’ll take you from Brazil to North Africa,” the man said, and something made me inclined to believe him. And it was a tough sell, mind you, because I live in Cape May. But he spoke like an Islander and he had skin like a Congolese, and though I was born economically distrustful of people looking like that, I’ve been inclined to believe them in mystical matters–ever since I saw Live and Let Die with Roger Moore.

Baron Samedi, am I right?

So I said sure, and sure enough, the mouth of the Amazon receded behind us as the old man shoved us off with his long wooden pole. (Do you call it a punt, or is that the ship? Because it wasn’t a punt; he was piloting a raft, did I mention?) Across the burgeoning swells of the Atlantic, we shook and we quailed; but I didn’t mind the jaded turbulence of the seas. Just so long as my pilot didn’t hand me a midget’s top hat and some bloody chicken feathers, I’d follow him from the ends of the Earth to the coasts of Venus and Mars.

He paddled with that stick, and I tell you, I never imagined the things you’d see crossing from Brazil to North Africa. On a Risk board, it all looks pretty bland: basically just a bunch of dots and dashes, y’know? But there were dolphins and whales, and gulls big as my torso–they must have roosted on whitecaps–and I suspect there were other things lurking below the surface that didn’t show themselves at all. Once, I thought I saw a castle, floating–floating!–on the water, all the way out to the south; but then it slid apart, like a mirage, or a glacier, and tumbled down into the sea.

So it was either a metaphor, or a glacier. The end’s coming, can’t you hear?

When we finally reached other side, it was just as I’d expected: brown earth and sand and palm trees, and golden-blue surf crashing against pristine beaches. The man set me ashore, pushed off, and waved goodbye, and left me to wonder how he’d brought me from Cape May to Brazil to North Africa–and then back again.

Do you remember, when everyone graduated from college, and they all went on stupendous travels–to help orphans in Nepal, to party like wild animals in Thailand, to absorb culture in Paris, to do ecstasy and fuck hookers in Amsterdam–but we didn’t? We hung out in Cape May, the town we grew up in, and lay on the beach, wondering where each piece of flotsam and dross that washed up came from. But maybe that’s because we never graduated; or maybe, if we bumped up on some distant shore, bloated bodies, rotted with age, in some patch of land yet unknown to us, they’d wonder where we’d come from–and maybe they’d pick us up like driftwood and hurl us back into the sea.

It’s not so sad, really. That old man? He never went on stupendous travels, either.

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Posted on: January 2nd, 2011 Serapis

by Fritz Swanson

When George Washington was a boy, he cut down 100 old cherry trees.

His sister, Betty, caught him.

“You’re smoked,” she said, and shook her head.

George stuck out his tongue. Betty ran off.

Sassafras, a young slave George’s father had just purchased, claimed to be from Egypt. He had written a word on a curl of paper for George.

With his knife, George carved the word around the trunk of the 100th tree.

When he came home, George’s father Augustine said angrily, “We’ve talked about cherry trees, George!”

But George just smiled.

George and Sassafras had all of the trees milled into lumber and George made tools from the wood of the 100th tree. He used these tools to carve a small bird.

*

After dinner, George sat by the fire and whittled tiny feathers and a blunt beak

“What’s that, Georgie,” mother Mary whispered.

“A present,” he whispered back.

Earlier, George had gathered dead twigs and branches from the trees. He had put them in vases all around the house.

“Oh, what a mess, George!” His mother had scolded.

He scratched strange letters on the bird, breathed on its neck, and tossed it into the air.

The wooden sparrow came to life, fluttering around the dead wood. The leaves unfolded green, and the blossoms bloomed pink.

Augustine took hold of George’s ear.

“We’ve plants to move, George! Wagons to mend, soil to prepare, not to mention an orchard of stumps!”

But Augustine saw George’s determination.

“One more day,” Augustine sighed.

*

George put Old Ben the carpenter in charge and had the slaves set to work on the still green lumber. Sassafras insisted they had to move quickly.

They made desks, chairs, card tables, chests, cabinets, secretaries, canes, cases, boxes, and picture frames.

Sassafras and George set aside a pile of the wood for themselves. Under Sassafras’s direction they had this carved into little animals. There were cows, goats, sheep, pigs. But they also made leopards and giraffes. There were crocodiles, turtles, all sorts of snakes. And then strange deer with twisted horns. Finally there were men and women with the heads of animals. As soon as each piece was done, a slave child would start playing with it.

The last thing George had made was a door.

*

“Are these toys?” Betty asked. She and two slave girls pushed cherry-wood bulls through the dust.

Sassafras checked each creation.

“What about the door?” Betty asked.

Old Ben leaned the door against a willow. Sassafras opened the door and out rushed a hot dry wind, strange music, and the bellowing of unknown beasts.

When the wind struck the nearest wooden animals, they leapt from the hands of the children. A leopard, like a kitten, mewed as a little boy held his tail. Six tiny elephants stampeded to the open door.

Sassafras held open the door and looked to each slave.

One of the old men looked up to George’s father who stood away at the door of the house on the hill.

A mother cried and pushed her little son to the door, but he wouldn’t go.

Sassafras sighed and went through the door, closing it after. When the door shut, it fell forward, dead upon the ground.

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