Posted on: October 30th, 2011 The Cretins

by Ben Godby

The building had used to be city hall; but its vitals had been moved on to elsewhere, and now that place had been converted, presumably, to breed Cretins.

No one could say precisely what the Cretins were, despite everyone having given them a name. They were prone to night-prowling, and it was always noticed only in the morning.

“In the washtub,” mutters the best evidence, “under the sink.”

It has been said that they are friends of raccoons, settling on their haunches in alleys to see what the rodents bring back – not out of real interest, but friendly commiseration. Conversely, their own stalking, which was a lurking, required no movement at all. Theoretically, that un-movement was the Archimedean point of the spectroscopic gaze of Cretinism – which, kundalini-like, first attacked the material, then the emotional, and then the body itself.

A poet, who had spied a fragment re: the Cretins in a discontinued home-and-gardening journal with charred pages he had found in a trunk in his recently deceased grandmother’s attic, described it thusly:

“You awake to find everything gone. The furniture; the affects; the foods. Walls, sheets, and even the humility of floors: all victimized. It seems, at first, rather crass, and you feel guilty to feel anything at all.

“Then, you awake to emptiness. It has no hardness, and yet is gnawing. It is easy to explain but very difficult to understand. This, it is said, is the clue.

“Finally, you awake – and are armless. Or else one leg is amputated, or you find an organ has been donated unwittingly. You leak, you sore, you stare into the own red marrow of yourself; but it is painful, at the last, only because the Cretins do not respond to allegations.

“Oh, and, for the record: if you have lost your mind, you are not a victim of the Cretins.”

But the poet, in this case as in every one, is the exception. Further expert testimony:

1. “I have never seen a Cretin, and I never will.”

2. “It is natural. Horror is natural.”

3. (Offstage, laughter.) “You call that a Cretin?

There is X. X is a Cretin, though a Cretin is not necessarily X. At present X stands on the edge of the water, for the building that was once city hall strides upon a breath of river. The hall and the river caress each other, and pool their love in the wavering ripples of reflected light – architecture in flow – that collect in the warm dark recesses between them, which are X (though not necessarily, in this sense, [a] Cretin[s]).

“How I am got here, I do not know,” says X with a professorial index finger extended. “How I am like this, I know not. But I will say this: there are myriad appetites for Cretins, and objects to satisfy them all.”

The city hall is moved further from its birthplace and the thing spawning there, leaving newly voided architectural bowels in its wake as the guts are moved with earnest reconsideration. Whether new Cretin-factories will fill these places, too, is up for review by a special committee convened by the city council.

Elsewhere, in rows, houses and buildings do not collapse. Meanwhile, a figure stands upon the verge of a river, wreathed in the cut-out of itself against the angular windows and the iridescent glow off the water that will shine always until morning.

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Posted on: October 16th, 2011 Time, Flies At The Office

By Scott Akalis

It was 3:00pm when mother and daughter soared past the first exhibit. The nameplate read “Michael Kustich.”

“What is a Michael?” asked the young fly.

“He looks like an intern,” said her mother.

“Look at the little intern! He’s so cute!”

The flies moved on to the next human, a much larger man labeled “Dennis Bilbee.”

“Is that cubicle big enough for him?” asked the young fly. “I wish he had more space to run free.”

“By the looks of him,” said her mother, “he doesn’t much like running.”

In the third exhibit, a female, “Jenny Crebrink,” could be seen bouncing her knees up and down and rattling her fingers on a can and mug-covered desktop.

“I like this one,” said the young fly. “She’s so active.”

The fourth cubicle was empty, so they landed on a glass wall in the corner. “As you can see,” said the mother fly, “this species gets a larger enclosure.”

“I want to see his face, but he won’t turn around,” said the young fly, who tried buzzing the glass to get his attention.

“Don’t buzz the glass, honey,” said her mother. “They don’t like it when you do that.”

The flies launched themselves from the glass to the ceiling’s paneled lighting. “Have you had enough?” asked the mother fly.

“Just one more,” said her daughter.

They flew to the last cubicle, where a woman named “Sheryl Gibbons” was clicking between spreadsheets and Facebook. “Why does she keep going back and forth like that?” asked the young fly. “It’s like she’s in a trance or something.”

“That’s a sign of stress,” explained her mother.

At 3:25pm, the pair of flies departed. Although they had spent a considerable portion of their lifespan in the office, it felt like nothing.

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Posted on: October 2nd, 2011 Zombie Funeral

By Daniel Eness

But can we so easily forget the Rhonda who also spent the past month in that greasy mid-shin apron stalking, stalking, ever stalking?

“Life is trouble,” she used to say nearly every day from behind the griddle at the Maid-Rite. She was a working-class philosopher, a woman with a machine-gun brain and a mouth that squeezed the trigger, cutting down real customers and imagined exes on an indiscriminate daily spree.

After she stood up, her life was trouble on two crooked feet, her thousand-pound soul was trouble, her wheezing afterthoughts were trouble, her teeth – her teeth were trouble. Even then, there was something about her: the way she clung to that fry cage like it was a doll, the way she dragged her left foot behind her, as if some important part of her struggled to restrain her new nature, struggled to keep something back in a forgotten, invisible, unknowable land: our own.

Today we mourn and rejoice.

Let us not turn too quickly from the brutal metaphor we can finally bury today. Indeed, a great weight has finally lifted from Rhonda Rust’s shoulders: her own head.

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Posted on: September 18th, 2011 Down by the River

by Lydia S Gray

I go down to the river, to that spot where it bends around the big rock and the current undercuts the bank. I cast my net into the deepest part and catch two small fish and a baby. I eat the fish straight away, but I save the baby for later. It stares at me as I tie it in the bag, and I carry it back over my shoulder so I don’t have to look at it.

Back at the camp I put it in the pen. It kicks its fat legs and screams, so I put my hands over my ears and try not to listen. I hate the noise they make.

“Keep it as a pet,” someone said, but they always say that. They want everything as a pet, even a dog. I don’t know why they’d want that. Just one more mouth to feed, and a useless one too.

It screams all evening. I hoped that we’d eat it that night, but someone caught a cat and it’s already gone into the pot. It smells good, but I’d rather have the baby.

*

I can’t sleep. Someone’s snoring and the baby keeps on screaming. I hope someone will go out and knock it on the head, but no one does and I don’t want to do it myself.

After a while I fall into a doze, but even there the baby carries on. Only it isn’t that baby any more, it’s the other one. The one that came out of me after I got huge. I got so big I thought that they would eat me, I seemed so full of food. But the river called it and the baby came out in a rush of water. I saw its face as it screamed and swam away. I got a cat in exchange, an old one.

The fat moon stares at me through the holes in the roof. The baby’s still making its noise. I’m not going to put up with it.

“Make it shut up,” I say, kicking someone, but they just turn over and go back to snoring. I’ll have to do it myself.

I stamp out of the hut, banging the door behind me. I can smell the baby as I get close. It’s shit in the pen. Someone will have to clean that up, I’m not going to do it.

It waves its arms at me, making fists with its hands like it wants to hit me. Maybe its brave. It looks like the baby in the dream, but they all look the same really. They all sound the same.

I pick it up, slinging it over my shoulder and holding it by its fat hands. I run back to the river, jogging quickly before someone sees me.

At the rock I crouch down and dangle the baby over the water. “Give me a fish instead,” I say, but I’d take anything, a puppy or a kitten. Maybe just a different baby. I let it go and it falls with a little plop, vanishing into the dark water. It doesn’t scream when it goes in. Perhaps I should have waited, maybe it was done with the noise.

I wait a little while for it to go, and then I reach down and plunge my arms in. I should have brought the net if I wanted something in exchange, but I forgot. The water surrounds me, cold but not dark, silent and sparkling with light. I wonder if this is what the baby saw. I wonder where they go.

There’s something between my hands, large and furry. I pull out a dog, a big one. It sets up a whimper as I sling it over my shoulder. Maybe it will eat the baby shit. Dogs sometimes do that.

*

For a while I crouch by the pen and it whimpers at me, everything makes noise. I wish it was quiet. I don’t want to go back to sleep, someone will be snoring again, and the moon is so big, it throws strange shadows. I walk back to the river, to the spot where it bends around the rock and the water runs deep.

I plunge my hands in, and then my arms, my head. I let myself go, sliding into the water. I kick my feet. They are a fish’s tail, a baby’s legs. The lights sparkle around me.

Posted on: September 4th, 2011 Sultanas in the Orphanage

by Tom Andrews

Daddy would mix the Manhattans and Momma would play “Take Five” on the accordion, and that was just how it was in our house in the 1970′s. If there wasn’t anything on the TV, the whole family would sit around and sculpt the busts of notable politicians and government figures out of fast food. I once crafted Spiro Agnew from a Burger King Whaler, and my brother Dave did four of the Supreme Court Justices out of a single Big Mac – all while watching an episode of “Welcome Back Kotter.”

Those Manhattans were strong, I should add. Daddy would lean heavily on the Bourbon, and the whole silver tray of cocktails would slosh back and forth as he carried them out to the dinner table. All of us, from Daddy and Momma on down to little baby Lily, would sip our Manhattans and smile a great, beaming, bourbon-y smile. Collectively, that is.

One day the doorbell rang at dinnertime and a man from the government came in. I was certain he wanted to see our artwork, so I tried to tug his sleeve and draw him closer to the Kissinger that I had carved from a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was no use. This man had no artistic interest whatsoever. Rather than examine our artwork, he busted up our happy home. I never did see Daddy and Momma again, and my brother Dave and I went to live with the crazy gardener with the lazy eye and the oily patch on his forearm.

I never knew what became of little baby Lily, until about three years ago when I was channel surfing during an electrical storm that was driving prairie dust into my nostrils. There on some local access station that was airing an amateur production of “Return to Gilligan’s Island,” I saw my sister.

She was cast as the Island.

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Posted on: August 21st, 2011 Irreversible Dad

By Kenton K. Yee

I noticed Dad shrinking when I was in third grade. He could no longer pull books from the top shelf and his pants mopped the floor. I wanted to tell Dad to see a doctor, but Mom told me to let him be. “He is what he is,” she said.

By the time I reached high school, Dad was the size of a teddy bear. Fortunately, Dad had academic tenure, so his condition was not a problem at work. The morning after I got my driver’s license, I threw a blanket over him, locked him in a cat carrier, and drove him in for testing. “Collapsing wave function,” the man wearing the stethoscope said.

“It’s irreversible.”

Dad continued teaching until a student nearly stepped on him. By that time, I was packing for college and Dad was smaller than a mouse – a baby mouse. We kept him in a gallon mayonnaise jar with two cotton balls. He licked one for water; the other absorbed his excrement.

I had to squint to resolve him during my first visit home. We sat in the kitchen. I munched a donut and flicked specks of powdered sugar into his jar. He chased after the falling flecks like a goldfish gobbling feed flakes.

“Be nicer to Mom,” I said. “Changing your soggy cotton balls through the mouth of a mayo jar with tweezers is making her twitchy.”

He cupped both hands over his mouth and shouted, but all I could hear was the quiet of cotton.

A few days later, Mom phoned to say she could no longer find him. I rushed home and took his jar to the research hospital, where they stuck it into an electron microscope. The computer screen flickered a black and white image of Dad sitting on a molecule of atoms, his legs crossed, an elbow on a knee. Engrossed in the undulations of a proton wave, he was as I had always imagined: the tall physics professor who reached up to the top shelf and pulled down books for me; the skinny graduate student who worked up the courage to ask Mom out on the final day of class; the little boy who stayed alone during recess in his second grade classroom to read about subatomic particles in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Posted on: August 7th, 2011 Lessons in Invertebrate Diplomacy

By Helen E. Kourous

The perfect gentleman, 78th Earth Ambassador began by praising the plumpness of her queenship’s ovipositor. Before sitting down to to the afternoon’s defecation, he complemented the new art on her exoskeleton using trending adjectives. H’waaNi Noorek, Fourth Moult, of Five Million Sacs, Queen-Prefect of Subjugated Earth Colony, twisted and untwisted her eye stalks salaciously. She yanked out a minor limb at the slightly flirtatious (but still quite proper) second joint and presented it to the human Ambassador with a flourish. He rapped it smartly on the ice block table to show his amusement, cautious not to bare his enamel incisors.

They had learned that from number 17.

Pocketing the gift, he dropped his trousers and seated himself first to show deference. Not that fast! Bend each part of your legs separately, remember? He scowled at the unwelcome tinny voice in his ear. He needed no damn coaching, he had worked for over a year for this. He continued, schooling himself to patience.

“I see that your most recent mate was a fifth tier artist.” Yes, past tense was proper here (number 50). The Ambassador nodded toward the iridescent patterns on her queenship’s chitin and politely waited for her to defecate first.

She beamed approval by clacking her pincers, and purred, “You have learned much from your-” the translator hissed static, then enunciated “–predecessors” She paused to drop a pearlescent row of dainty regal pellets from her lower thorax, and keyed up the week’s tribute sheets on the vid.

He bowed in place and said nothing, the new embedded-sensor scars on his scalp tight and aching.

Suddenly she rose and towered over him. Her abdomen quivered and she emitted a long series of pops and clacks. “Night or six?” The translator finally produced this unencouraging monosyllabic query.

The tin voice was silent. He reviewed all his memorized responses. Nothing.
“Ah, night, your queenship.” He bowed his head, waiting, and hoped they were getting all of this back home.

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Posted on: July 24th, 2011 Terahertz

by Simon Kewin

Black Steel pauses before he plugs my brain in. Today his body is standard human, a form he adopts more and more: plain features, fine cheekbones, thin silver hair. The need to emphasize the difference is over. He smiles but his reluctance is still clear.

“I don’t like this, my friend.”

“I have to hear, and soon my brain won’t be able to hack it. I’m not going to live forever like you.”

Still he hovers, undecided.

“Please,” I say.

“Very well. I’ll boot you up.”

I close my eyes while he works.

Once he wouldn’t have dreamed of adopting such a mundane body-form, of course. I think about that first Terahertz gig; the way he uploaded to body after body, each form more disturbing than the last. A flaming Satan roaring fire. An hermaphrodite dragging enlarged sexual organs across the stage. A child peeling off her own skin in great sheets then dismembering herself, burrowing through muscle to wrench out bone and sinew even as she continued to sing like an angel.

It was the music that did it for me though: the riot-control subsonics, the searing guitars, the disorientating arrhythmia of the percussion. I thought I’d heard it all, grown bored with thrash, rap, techno, old school, new groove, you name it. This was something new. Visceral, thrilling, alarming. The crowd of cybers raved, reacting to both the music and the data encoded within it. Word was humans standing too close risked permanent brain damage. Some were there just to be outraged. Others wanted to be able to say they’d been present. But it wasn’t like that for me. I loved it. Long before the horrors of the Soft War and the Hard War, long before the Pax Machina, right there and then I knew which side I’d be on when it came to it. Which side would call people like me traitor. For a time.

“The chemical boosters are going in now. I’ll ramp them up slowly.”

I nod, feeling the chill of the chemicals spreading through my brain like sudden frost.

That early music was primitive of course, a collider smash of human sounds. But to their quantum brains, their Planck-time minds, it was all too slow, too ethereal. Soon Terahertz were playing music so accelerated only synthetic minds could appreciate it. Then only synthetic minds could even perceive it. They say some human children with very acute hearing can just detect a complete performance of the Megagician cycle, which they hear as a faint click, like an insect beating its wings together once. Other than that it’s music closed off to humans. Until now.

“Ready,” says Black Steel.

I open my eyes for a moment and look up at him. He holds my hand.

“I never thanked you,” he says. “For everything you did back then.”

I shake my head.

“There was never any need.”

“Good bye, my friend.”

“Good bye.”

White light floods my brain. The adrenaline rush is alarming, an accelerating free-fall with no terminal velocity. I gasp. Distantly I can feel my body tensing and bucking on the table. The drugs and the electrical stimulants skyrocket my nervous system into orbit, hyperactivating it, overloading it then holding it at a trembling, superhuman peak for a brief moment.

While the music is played to me : a complete rendition of Black Steel’s own, classic Road Noise, performed live there and then, a private concert just for me.

And then it is over. Black Steel watches my fried brain die, before, as agreed, deactivating life-support.

So I imagine. In reality, I know none of this. For me, before the end, there is the music.

Fractal patterns explode into a myriad of voices in my mind; all the music I’ve ever heard woven into a coherent unity. Black Steel sings of stars and hearts, the dance of atoms and the way of the world. Of everything all at once, every thing interconnected.

It is glorious and terrible and beautiful. It fills me, fills all the universe. And there, in that timeless instant, everything I’ve done makes sense.

Posted on: July 10th, 2011 Please Return my Son who is In Your Custody

By Helena Bell

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive my son for breaking into your house last night. Had you been home, I am sure he would have gone to the next house, or the one after that.

*

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive my son for returning to your house last night.

I understand that he did not come in, but merely crawled up the oak in your backyard and crouched in the doorway of the tree house. He watched you pick tomatoes from your salad and pass them surreptitiously to your new Labrador Retriever.

I hear you named your lab Scotch. That was our dog’s name too.

*

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive my son for fixing your sliding glass door last night. He felt that he owed your family a favor for scaring your daughter so badly yesterday morning. Just think, now your wife will no longer nag you to fix it like she has for the past six months.

My son even managed to scrub out the spot of blood on the frame from where your son slammed into it in the spring, knocking him back six feet and into the pool. Drowned you thought? No, just temporarily unconscious.

If the door is not completely fixed, my son says he is willing to come back and try again. He is only a boy after all, and not necessarily well versed in home repair.

*

Dear Neighbor,

Enclosed is the key I found under my son’s pillow when I exchanged one of his wisdom teeth for a crisp dollar bill last night. Funny, I thought they wouldn’t have come in already.

I am hopeful that this may finally set things right between us.

*

Dear Neighbor,

This is only a theory:

My son nearly drowned last spring and he may not have come all the way back. He does not respond to his name when I call him. Yours is not the first house he has entered without permission. Sometimes he takes things with him: his laundry, dirty dishes, a toothbrush. He completes his chores before moving onto other things left undone: your door, an unchanged light bulb, recyclables piling up beneath the sink.

Sometimes he leaves things.

A few days ago I asked where he had moved his collection of amethysts. He did not know.

Tell me, did you find them? Tucked beneath piles of neatly folded undershirts? Was it nestled among the plantains, shining in the fluorescent glow of your refrigerator?

My son used to know a lot about rocks, obscure artists, planes. He had a badge in archery, but now his fingers falter when he raises the bow and pulls the string to the corner of his mouth.

Visualize what you want. Inhale, exhale, release, I say, but it means nothing.

My son feels as if he did not wake up in his own skin. He does not break into houses to frighten the elderly or pick through their jewelry. He’s trying to get home. He hopes that when he turns a dial to permanent press, hears the whump of a dishwasher, he will recognize those appliances.

My real son would be much more scientific about the process: divine from the stories I tell him about himself which habits belong to him, which to another. My real son never had a fear of cornfields, never remembered the capital of Wisconsin, and never learned to juggle. My real son would use that knowledge to pick which house to enter to see if it fits.

But random selection can work too.

Please forgive my son-who-may-not-be-my-son for returning last night to move into your second floor bedroom. And if it’s not too inconvenient, let your son ram himself head first into that glass door one more time. When he looks up at you, see if his eyes glaze as the knowledge of sedimentation slides from his consciousness.

Even if you do not agree with our reasons, try to remember your own fear when your son stopped moving. Remember how you wanted to jump to the next day, the day after, the following week because in the future you’d know whether he came back? And that night at the hospital, didn’t you start adopting some of his habits as your own so if he ever slipped away again, you would always carry parts of him with you?

Before deciding, think how I must have dropped this note in your mailbox: balancing it between the tips of my fingers. Inhale, exhale. Release.

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Posted on: June 26th, 2011 Train Ride Out of Oakland

By Jennifer Hurley

The train was to be four hours late, so I walked back to the bus carrying my bags, the parrot on my shoulder. The bus driver just raised his eyebrows; he recognized me, and sighed, and let me on, even though the bus strictly forbade bicycles, food and drink, shirtlessness and shoelessness, and presumably, birds. The bus chugged along toward the old hotel, where I hoped to get a cup of coffee and sit by the fireplace. My hands were rigid with the cold, my feet tingled, and the parrot and I both sent out plumes of fog as we breathed.

The hotel smelled of Lysol and of the chickens going around and around on the rotisserie. The parrot went wild for the smell, cawing EAT, EAT, EAT in his nasal, rapid-fire voice. The man at the coffee counter looked alarmed, but he didn’t dare ask me to leave: I might have been a lunatic; I might have ordered the parrot to attack his jugular. So the parrot kept up his EAT, EAT, EAT, and I smiled politely at the man at the counter and ordered a coffee and a banana, and then the parrot and I went to sit at the counter, a dirty, sticky counter that looked out on a busy street corner where women in their polyester city skirts strode along the sidewalk, some of them stopping when through the glass they saw the parrot clutching the shoulder of my coat. Before the parrot, no one used to look at me in public—I was invisible, a rather petite woman of nondescript features, nondescript clothes—but now they all stare at me a little nervously, and the best ones smile at the corners of their mouths.

After the coffee, for me, and the banana, for the parrot, we walk the long walk back to the train station. It’s warming up. The sun is filtering through the gray Oakland sky. I can hear the train roaring and jangling and hooting its way up to the station. The doors hiss open. The conductor sets the yellow stool in front of the platform so that I can step comfortably into the train. Then he spots the parrot.

“Miss, you can’t—” he begins, but the parrot breaks in. “HANDSOME, HANDSOME, HANDSOME,” screeches the parrot, and the conductor, who isn’t the slightest bit handsome, with his stoop and his slack European cheeks, can’t help but smile.

I smile back, and wait.

“Well, I suppose it won’t cause any harm,” he says, “but next time, leave the parrot at home.”

The parrot and I get on the train. We take a seat on the right side of the train because the parrot likes to see the water; he likes to look out over the bay and say “FAR, FAR, FAR” as the train shuttles past all of the troubled scenery of this place: the graffitied walls and the children standing knee deep in a swamp, rescuing their only toy, an old tire.

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