“A Puppet Show On Top of a Puppet Show and Under a Puppet Show” by Rhoads Stevens

The child watched the burn pile.

She had a hose, which had a rusty nozzle gun on its end, and every time the fire made a move toward the house or toward the fields, she worked the rusty gun and sprayed that fire.

Earlier, the child caught her palm in the clamp that worked the gun. The clamp left a purple mark. She had wanted to cry, but she didn’t because her father was near.

The child’s father stacked the child’s mother’s furniture onto the burn pile. Sparks flew up at him. He put her clothes into the fire. He dumped her books into the fire. He tossed her collection of puppets into the fire. One puppet had black glass eyes in a wood head, so its head burned but not its eyes.

“Don’t let the fire get too big,” the man said. “And don’t let it reach the house. Or me.”

Stevens_Rhoads_picRhoads Stevens was born in Baltimore and grew up in Honolulu.

This entry was posted in Fiction on August 30, 2016

“The Gazers” by Neil Serven

Rollie was convinced that what Michael Stipe was really singing was come into the Winnebago and that “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” was about child abuse (the evidence in the lyrics: candy bar, falling star, The Cat in the Hat), but nobody on the boards was having any of it. The other newsgroup members pointed him to the FAQ—he pronounced it like a word in his head, rhyming with whack—and congratulated him on figuring out Usenet, now stop being a sorry-assed troll.

They were out there, ducking in and out of rec.music.rem to show off their pistol wits as artfully as the white-dot VAX graphics allowed. He imagined, from how they strung together eloquent sentences or tucked in extensive literary .sigs, that they were English majors like he was, only they blew off their classes to read Baldwin, Nabokov, and Bertrand Russell in paperbacks with their spines broken. They spun hard-to-find seven-inch vinyl at their campus radio stations. They had outsized personas and carried pocket handkerchiefs and drank whiskey in heavy glasses and dashed off verse on cocktail napkins. They got no joy from rage. They didn’t hook up, they made love.

Were he able to swing the postage, he would send everyone on rec.music.rem the new issue of Smug Fossil. There would be one hundred fifty copies of Issue Three, twenty-four pages of poetry and fiction and cartoons and rants folded and stapled and hand-numbered and brilliant. A few souls humored him by tossing a poem or doodle his way, but most of Issue Three was the work of himself and Alyssa, who now sat at the main table of the Writing Center, folding and stapling and numbering the issues and stacking them inside a printer-paper box. The school didn’t know it had loaned the paper. Rollie and Alyssa had hid under the table as Campus Security did midnight sweeps. Then they kept the lights off while the copier went to work, emitting its patient hums and hot black musk.

He logged back into email to see if there was another message from Melody, the sophomore at Ohio State whom he had met in alt.music.betterthanezra and with whom he had been pen-palling for much of the semester, she dropping him lessons in conversational French and sharing complaints about Newt Gingrich. He worked out that a trip to Columbus from New Hampshire would take twelve hours by bus. Melody had mentioned a boyfriend back in October, but since then the guy had thinned out promisingly to a murmur.

The Writing Center was on the top floor of the library. From the darkened room, the windows showed a nice night for stargazing. Howlers were out, stumbling back along the Rape Trail. Through Rollie’s lenses, the new lamps along the trail were halos.

Alyssa had finished with the issues and was now squinting at the Boston Phoenix. “Pavement’s coming to the Middle East,” she said.

Rollie said, “I hate the new album.” It came out hostile. Then he said, “Let me see if I can turn up funds.” There have been more of these suggestions to ditch campus and have adventures in the city. One month ago, a mosh pit on Lansdowne Street: Juliana Hatfield with special guest Cold Water Flat. Their friends disappeared. Rollie had the urge to muscle up against the BU fratholes copping handfuls of Alyssa’s tit as she crowd-surfed. Then she accidentally on purpose put her left shitkicker into one frathole’s ear, and when the guy came to, Rollie was the one he wanted to fight. He sort of felt something for her then.

But Alyssa hung too close. She had read Prozac Nation, and began to suspect that Rollie’s every eccentricity was a warning sign. (Rollie couldn’t finish the book, too annoyed by the platter of opportunities handed to the author.) Alyssa found him on the roof of the science building, stripped to the waist in subzero temperatures, gazing out at the lights of Manchester Airport with Automatic for the People spinning on repeat on his Discman.

The school called his parents. Rollie refused to talk to them. They’d say he was being a brat. Alyssa made him promise to get counseling. His symptoms were consistent with manic-depression, she said. It made Rollie think of the hair dye they sold at Newbury Comics.

Why did he choose to go to school with these unhappy walled-in Catholics, with their flip-flops and Irish kegger politics and pajama drama, their proud aversion to complexity? At other schools, it seemed, you could hang in the lounge all night, pass around a two-liter of Mr. Pibb and watch Barton Fink or S.F.W., and not have to explain any of it, and it didn’t matter if you lacked the thumbs for NHL ’94.

Diane at Health Services—an aunt-type who talked hip and let Rollie smoke in her office, his Chucks up on the split, electrical-taped upholstery—pressed him to find a creative outlet. So he started Smug Fossil. It was cathartic: a fuck you to every hacky-sack-playing, Cider Jack-drinking, Neil Young-listening mock-anguished trust-fund baby who had ever stuffed a towel under a door. If ten people opened the thing before chucking it into a garbage can on the quad—last spring, the pages piled up everywhere, caught in the wind, snagged in bike racks—then there was the satisfactory chance that one or two might bleed a little bit.

Alyssa put the cover on the box, then stretched back in her chair. Her t-shirt rode up. She said, “You’re awfully quiet.”

He was thinking that if he returned to his room he would find Shep’s gray ankle sock slung over the doorknob, insultingly content in its limp threadbareness. On that floor, it only encouraged knock-bys.

“Need a place to crash?” Alyssa asked.

“Thanks. I can sleep here.”

“We were going to deliver these in the morning.”

“I said I can sleep here.”

“Until security throws you out, then what?”

“They won’t find me.”

He did want a cigarette. He would have to go outside, and then he wouldn’t have a way back in.

Alyssa lived in one of the community houses set aside for straightedge kids. Her roommate was visiting a friend at UVM. She and Rollie used the Rape Trail to cut across.

The box was heavy. The cardboard handles cut into his fingers. “I need to stop,” he said.

He shook out a clove cigarette and lit it, and shared it with her.

Alyssa looked up. “You can’t see shit now since they put in these lights. This was the best spot on campus.”

“The science building.”

She looked at him.

“I know a way in.”

“So do I, remember?”

It involved going through a window. Alyssa, a foot shorter than Rollie, had to stand on the box to reach it. The cardboard almost gave way. Rollie then passed the box through the window and followed her inside.

They moved hushedly, though nobody was there, no alarm had sounded. Up four flights, through a service door. They were on the roof. He wedged the box inside the door to hold it ajar.

“Is this why you come up here?”

“Shh. We might see a shooting star.”

But every twitch they spied turned out to be a plane. The airport twinkled to the east. With his head craned upward, Rollie started to lose his balance; he let Alyssa lean against him. They lost themselves in the whirl of blues and blacks and lavenders, the visible static: light-years, ecstasy, shiver of a proof of God.

Beneath his chin she said, “Nobody’s going to read your stupid zine.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Everyone already knows what’s in it. None of it’s you. All your talent, and you’d rather be a creeper in a world that’s crammed with ‘em.”

Rollie lay in Alyssa’s roommate’s bed feeling the weird scratch of flannel, his nose tickled by a strange shampoo. Posters looked down on him in the dark. Alyssa, removing any doubt, fell right asleep on her side of the room. Shadows of feet darkened the light beneath the door. Rollie passed the time making lists in his head. He pondered second acts. He wondered if he should transfer to another school, or drop out and learn a trade. He wondered if he should try Pavement again, if the new album would grow on him.

Serven_Neil_picNeil Serven lives in Greenfield, MA and works as a lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Washington Square Review, Cobalt, and elsewhere.

This entry was posted in Fiction on August 17, 2016

“Titanic Built for Two” by Sarah Sorenson

I am building an imaginary Titanic and yes, I am using zero research. I am imagining everything. This is how I self-help myself. You already know me. And this project is my recovery from you. Oh, my love. This is for you. I’m serious, zero research. You are the methodical one. I am the spontaneous flutter of just being present. Besides, the truth isn’t the point. I know, you just shuddered at that. But, this is about feelings. Yes, I saw you frown just now with discomfort. I can promise you one thing only from here on out: this will be uncomfortable. I would hold your hand, but I am learning boundaries.

Remember how in the movie Leo and Kate were super in love and he held her up by the front of the boat in the pointy corner and she spread out her arms and looked like an angel hood ornament? Yup. And then the whole thing just sank and failed and all of their love was irrelevant? I feel like all love is a ship, a big dazzling miracle—buoyant and filled with life, floating under the sunshine—and it’s supposed to carry you to the other side. It’s supposed to ride you out gloriously until death. But sometimes you hit some glacial ice or some other terrible thing happens like pirates or cannonballs. Then, there you are and the fucker is going down and you can only bail out so much water with your stupid little tin bucket. You are stuck flailing and worrying, but you know the ship is a goner and you just hope like hell that you both manage spots in those rescue boats that will drag you across the ocean in opposite directions and to separate continents where you will live in miserable, unhappy safety until you acclimate and live in complacent, deadening routine.

I love you. Keep reading.

The crew band has to keep playing music while they drown. Or was that the Edmund Fitzgerald? Maybe that is just every shipwreck. If I was the band, I would have said, “Fuck you. I am devoting this time to shitting my pants and crying.” Who would the crew band be in this metaphor? Maybe just all of the songs that we both loved that are now ruined forever? And they play on a loop so that they torment us while we are forced to recognize the futility of our situation? Ah, okay. So then, the band is not playing to comfort us, the band is playing to add chaos and pain. Those bow-tied bastards. Probably some jerk with a tuba just going blug-blug, blug-blug while a half-drunk saxophonist makes some long-winded soft, jazz solo. Wait, I think I just said these were songs that we liked and no one would like that. Moving on.

I’m building the ship figures—that’s you and me. I’m using some sort of child’s crafting putty that I found in the dollar section of the craft store. Yours has lots of long, pretty hair that keeps breaking off and I keep gluing it back on with Elmer’s. I have to admit, she doesn’t really look much like you. To be fair, my lady figure didn’t turn out any better and it is bizarrely large shouldered and hot neon pink. I tried to make them clasp hands and they won’t do that either. In short, if anyone were to find these, they would look as generic and childish as if any elementary school student fashioned them. You and me, the orange and pink putty ladies. I gave yours small feet, but those fell off too.

Our Titanic is made of card stock paper. I am still drawing on porthole windows with sad, screaming faces of agony behind them. In the bottom are scraps of paper reading all of the things I wish I could say to you but just really can’t and shouldn’t and won’t because I am determined to leave your life so that we don’t hurt each other anymore.

Are you really there? Are you really reading this because these are the things that I wrote and you just shouldn’t even know, except that I still want you to know. I wrote:

You brought me to all of my extremes

Your voice and its criticisms haunts me

I still believe that you are the most beautiful woman who has ever lived

I love you forever

When you held me I felt loved

I wanted to be with you for all time and eternity too if that’s real

You have been my world

I know we both did our best and we failed

Why didn’t you choose kindness?

I am dropping our figures into the boat, these distorted little weirdoes that don’t look like us are riding a paper ship bound for a river that will drown all my efforts.

I am putting it all together in my imaginary Titanic. My heart is pounding now because this is going into a real river where real people might see it and where, if I am as unlucky as I feel, even you might see it. And I’m going to set it down in all of its metaphorical glory and let it go the way that I am supposed let go of you. I’m going to place it out there in its meticulous efforts, let it fail, and walk away.

I can’t keep it because it’s a journey, not a possession. I can’t keep it because it’s already gone.

Remember Leo painting Kate topless and it was supposed to be all sexy and stuff? Remember how it was a big whoopty deal? Well, it wasn’t. Because there was more sex in just the way you could look at me, more fire in the heat of your whisper in my ear. I’m just saying. But I guess that’s done happening now so I should probably stop mentioning it, especially to people other than you. Sometimes I have mentioned it. I’m just saying.

But fuck it, because here we go to the river with some fake clay figures in a little paper boat. Here we go with a few shreds of paper and a few busted words to tell the universe about the volumes and volumes of words that I flounder through and rearrange all in an effort to say that I love you more completely than anything singly or cumulatively in the entirety of time or space and yet you and I will not work because we somehow can’t. The shockingly bright fucking fireworks of all of my deepest happiness and the razor that same light of my previous happiness now fires into brain is the source of some medical research worthy migraines.

Here is your lady figure in orange. Here is my lady figure in pink. They will not hold hands. Here is a boat made of paper and filled with shreds I’ve coated in words. It’s a real imaginary Titanic replica diorama thingy and I did zero research because I already know what terror and pain and joy feel like and because this is my self-help help-myself project and I can’t do it wrong. I can only do it.

So I place our little love boat in the water and it is gliding so sweetly. And I am turning fast and walking because I know the ending. I know, I know, I know. I know the ending and it doesn’t get easier by watching. It is not my possession, but it was our miracle. And miracles fail too.

SorensenS_photoSarah Sorensen has most recently been published in Whiskey Island, In Stereo, Dirty Chai, Cactus Heart, Embodied Effigies, Your Impossible Voice, Gone Lawn, and Monkeybicycle. She holds an M.A. in English from Central Michigan University.

This entry was posted in Fiction on April 20, 2016

“How to Survive Your Inner Demons: Special Version for Writers” by Penny Perkins

1. Demons are spawn of hellfire and brimstone. They sweat blood and live in the cauldrons of excruciating Mercury-like temperatures and Jupiter-like atmospheric pressures. Consequently, they need relief, too. Offer them a refreshing beverage. It will help take the heat off. Pink Lemonade is a favorite among demons. But never on any circumstance offer Red Bull or Monster. These FDA-approved concoctions have been know to grow demons three times their original size!

2. Do something unexpected in your battle with the demon. Most effective: ask the demon about his own backstory. Where did he grow up? Does he have any demon siblings? What were the conditions of his birth? What were the circumstances of his death: Was he brutally murdered and dismembered, or tortured with bullwhips, or bound by rusty chains in dungeons? What was his favorite toy as a child-demon? Engaging an adversary in the dramas of his own narrative takes the focus off of you and offers the demon an audience through which he can explore his own inner turmoil, which may be fueling or exacerbating his persecution of you.

3. Everyone has a guilty pleasure. Even the demons who taunt and massacre you. Find out what is the go-to escape hatch for your demons. Did they just spend a week binge-watching Orange Is the New Black seasons 1 and 2 back-to-back? If so, dig in! Are they Team Piper or Team Vause? What about that awesome evil Vee character—dead or not? And how lame is that Larry dude? And, my goodness, Pornstache is almost growing on me! (Not literally, of course.) Find your demon’s guilty narrative pleasure and focus on that instead of the torments that are preventing you from finishing your own literary to-do list.

4. Take the demon for a drive. Hitting the open road (or even meandering down new city blocks full of traffic and double-parked delivery trucks spewing exhaust from diesel idling engines) is a swell way to interrupt the constant gnashing of sharp teeth against the tattered cloth of your fragile soul. Roll down the windows, leave on the air conditioning, pop in some old-school tracks that remind the demon of his younger years. A ride in a car with no destination is a time-honored American cure for all sorts of internal ailments—not to mention a neat way to expedite global warming and the extinction of the human race, which will also end the problems you are having with your demon in a different way.

5. If all else fails to give you relief from your demons, look them straight in their dead, black, shark eyes, and simply say out loud: you don’t exist. Then be sure to update your Facebook status and hit your Twitter feed with #DemonsExtinguished and #FinishingMyNovel.

Perkins-pennyWaxwing-photoPenny Perkins has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Her short story, “Car Ride Through Corn Fields (1975),” was chosen by Manuel Muñoz as the winner of Beecher’s Magazine‘s 2014 Fiction Contest. Recent short stories have been published in Waxwing and HOAX. Other publication credits for fiction, poetry, and non-fiction include SalonConditionsThe Portable Lower East SideCurvesGirlfriend No. 1, and Book.

This entry was posted in Fiction on December 16, 2015

“It’s Just a Dream” by Justin Hamm

Neil Young wakes in the semidarkness, rises like the very sun itself, and places upon his head a dusty black fedora. He wraps his physical manifestation within a flannel shirt, as if wrapping it within a shroud of the Holy Spirit. He eats something organic and picks up the news and quickly puts down the news, and outside is waiting a specially engineered, environmentally conscious classic car into which Neil Young climbs with great pleasure.

He stretches, rubs his eyes, keys the ignition.

Neil Young’s dreams have been troubling. In them, there was a Rubik’s Cube that Neil Young had been trying to solve. This Rubik’s Cube should have been called the Devil’s Cube, so certain is Neil Young that he could not have solved it, even if he had been given a lifetime. Now, as the American West unfolds before him like a motion picture that does not move but is, rather, moved through, Neil Young begins to mentally design a machine that will not only solve the Rubik’s Cube but also punish the Rubik’s Cube for being all but unsolvable. Neil Young, in his dream, and, in the here-and-now, as they call it—in “dream” or in “reality”—is suddenly willing to do anything, willing to risk anything to bring this machine to fruition. He will meet presidents and prime ministers. He will go on television and try to remain at least moderately cheerful and accessible. He will record new music, perhaps even alongside fellow rock icons with whom his current relations are rumored to be as frigid as an Ontarian winter.

Of course, all of this is a tall order, even for Neil Young, who finds himself suddenly sweating beneath his fedora with the heat of the enormous pressures he places upon himself. Off comes the fedora. The western atmosphere sucks through the car window and swirls around Neil Young’s uncapped head, cools him, restores his senses. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief, catches a glimpse of himself hatless in the rearview.

His hair is less substantial than it was at one time. His face is different than he usually imagines it. His eyes still cut, but…but…but…

I look so…mortal, Neil Young thinks. Back on goes the fedora, quickly, and yes, Neil Young feels himself again, restored to legend-in-the-flesh status, just another rock god out cruising in his environmentally friendly land yacht to breathe in the soul of the mountains and the essence of the valleys he so desperately hopes but is not confident will be here for future generations.

He reminds himself the fedora stays in place from now on.

Now a song begins to knock at the cellar door of Neil Young’s imagination. He applies greater pressure to the gas pedal, feels the minutes and the miles falling away like old habits and old friends. Someplace deep and lost and wild, Neil Young pulls over. He takes out, or perhaps conjures up, a guitar and an amplifier, which he plugs directly into the side of the first mountain he reaches. This perhaps seems unlikely, and it would be, except that it happens. It is the truest thing you will find written here. Neil Young plugs the amplifier into the side of the mountain and he plugs the guitar into the amplifier and he makes a contorted face and begins to do Neil Young–like things to/with the guitar. The sound is the sound of an electric beard trimmer and a concrete truck making strangely melodic love. The sound travels high out over the lands and everything the lands support—the flowers, the cities, the rivers, the graves of the famous and the graves of the forgotten alike. The sound travels out over everything and everything willingly submits, agrees to believe that Neil Young can create anything Neil Young can dream. The irony: in that same moment, Neil Young himself no longer believes. Neither does he disbelieve. He has no opinion; in fact, no existence except in the noise he has become, or perhaps that he has always been. Neil Young has forgotten the Rubik’s Cube of the long dark night behind, the punitive measures he wished to take against it, the great promise of his unmade machine.

Our scene must shift now. Missouri. Early morning, just me and a steaming cup of Jamaican blend, three sugars and three creams. I’m sitting at an outdoor table watching the breath steam like dragon smoke from the mouths of the winter sidewalk walkers, Neil Young’s memoir spread open beside me, when the sound of his guitar hits my ears. I can’t tell if it is real or if it is something I have invented from what I have been reading.

I hear the guitar, and soon after I hear the trees calling back. And the mountains, and the valleys, too, and the last of the clean rivers who still have voices and a chorus of gleaming fish. And I wonder if these sounds are mine. Do they belong to my mind? Or are they formed from the corporeal stuff of this world?

That’s the thing. I can’t begin to say for certain.

For their part, the mountains and valleys and rivers and fish do not seem to care. Neil Young, they howl in ragged unison, responding to the call of his guitar, and their howls easily stretch the long miles between us.

Neil Young. Neil Young. Neil Young.

Hamm,JustinPhotoJustin Hamm is the author of a full-length collection of poems, Lessons in Ruin, as well as the chapbooks Illinois, My Apologies and The Everyday Parade/Alone With Turntable, Old Records. He is also the founding editor of the museum of americana. His poems or stories have appeared in Nimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Hobart, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Recent work has also been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest and the Stanley Hanks Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center.




This entry was posted in Fiction on November 4, 2015