A black and white plastic bobble-head cow was suctioned to the top of the dashboard. The front seats wore Holstein slipcovers. Why don't they gather up opossum skins? There's enough road-kill on American highways to cover every seat in Los Angeles.
The owner of the '92 VW Rabbit Cabriolet popped the rear hatch.
"Here's the car cover, case you ain't got no garage," she droned, jelly arms jiggling as she lifted the cow-print car condom.
I felt like slapping the back of her head with a grammar book.
She showed me how to fold the top down and I asked if I could take a test spin. Hands on hips, she turned to yell into the front door of her mobile home. The back of her neck looked like a pack of hot dogs.
"Manny!" she screams. Out comes Manny looking like he's spent the last thirty years on the couch, chugging Old Milwaukee and watching Duck Dynasty. He squints out from the doorway. His eyes are rheumy, and the wife-beater has yellow stains at the armpits. White stubble gleams from his face.
"You got them keys, baby?"
"Yeah, yeah," grumbles Manny. After a minute of thrashing, he appears at the door, putty eyes, and red-veined cheeks-tosses the keys and she missed them.
"Shit," she spat, "two steps and you could'a handed'em to me."
I picked them up realizing the effort it would have taken for her to bend over.
"Thanks, darlin'," she was puffing as if she'd run a half-marathon.
I gave them my best schoolgirl smile. She didn't even ask why I carried wheeled luggage.
"Is it okay if I have a mechanic check it out?" I asked, slipping into the seat, "Should be a couple of hours tops."
"Sure honey," says Godzilla and she waves me off.
Christ, how did she fit in here? I wondered. The rabbit started right up.
"Be back in a jiff," I lied.
Halfway down the street I lit a cigarette and smiled to myself. "You did it again Marlene, you little bitch!"
I stopped at an AM-PM, gassed up and threw the car's barnyard accessories into a dumpster. Before leaving, I asked the attendant to take a photo of me leaning against the Cabriolet and then I hit 99 North.
Cow-lady would wait a good four hours before thinking to call the cops. It would take another three for Barney to get there and by then I'd be out of state, out of mind. I imagined Manny and his Moo-moo wife with the officer:
"She was a cute little thang," smacking on her Juicy Fruit and popping it on every other syllable.
The officer (who found his badge in a Cracker Jack's box) would drone, "Can you describe her, ma'am?"
"Well-" she'd rub chin whiskers, "she had sort'a short black hair and she was a tiny little thang-had on a T-shirt and a pair'a Levis-sure hope nothin' bad happened."
"Anything else you remember about her, ma'am?"
She was kind'a dark-maybe Messican."
Manny would stand there rubbing stubble and thinking it was time for a beer-run.
Two hours later the piece of crap Rabbit busted down just south of Bakersfield. I abandoned it on a side-road-poetic justice-a dead Rabbit to keep opossums company. I grabbed my suitcase and a guy in a blue Chevy pickup gave me a lift.
He let me out at a Red Carpet car wash-not before asking if I was hungry or thirsty and wanted to come over to his house. There was a baby seat sitting in the jump seat behind us.
"Rain check," I answered.
They always have free EasyAd's laying all over the place at the car wash-lots of cars, phone numbers to call-a motherland of turkeys waiting to be plucked. They even had a red courtesy phone for local calls.
My cell phone had bit the dust on a cement sidewalk the week before and now it made a strangling noise whenever I tried to use it. After half a dozen swings on the red courtesy phone I hit one out of the park.
My phone manners are amazing that I should be on that Jerry Lewis telethon. I raise my voice a couple octaves to sound just like that sweet little girl down the street.
"Hi, I'm calling with regard to the Mercedes you have listed-yes-how many miles does it have-I see-and do you have the maintenance records? Wonderful. What color-uh huh-and when would be a good time to see it?"
Bingo-his wife's car, and she's out of town. I cleaned up in the bathroom and bummed a ride with a guy leaving the car wash in an aircraft carrier-looking Escalade.
Decent looking girls can get anything they want from guys. All they need to do is look honest-tell them what they want to hear-let their ego do the rest.
I don't know what inspires me to do it-maybe getting over on the system. Anyway, who am I hurting? When I need a hotel, I bring a bottle of ants and sprinkle them around a chunk of Snickers I leave out on the nightstand. Then I whine to the manager. Sometimes I even prick my arms to dramatize ant bites. The manager is kowtowing by then-of course I don't pay a penny, and I usually get a coupon for a free stay.
Daphne got a camera for her tenth birthday. It was a bright blue Polaroid, the kind that slowly tongues out your photo on thick square film moments after it's taken. Her younger sister Quinn saved her allowance to buy a strap to go with it, a long black band through which Daphne would loop her head so the camera hung down her torso, bouncing off her stomach when she walked through town. Daphne took her camera everywhere she went that summer. She took photos of flowers, of puddles, of people walking out of the gas station, of Quinn on the swings and running in the yard. If Quinn said, "Hey Daph, look at this!" Daphne would take a picture, wait a minute for it to develop, and then examine her photo. "Oh, yeah" she'd say, "that's nice."
Daphne felt a sort of pride when she looked at what she'd taken. She would spread her photos out on the kitchen table and think of titles to pen on their white strips. She liked that photographs captured the world but also distorted it, letting her get closer than she should or warping the light. She knew there was a thin line separating what she saw in the photos from reality, but the photos felt more truthful because they made things stand alone, they took their subjects out of their context and made them speak for themselves. Mostly, it was comforting for Daphne to know that every time she looked at a photo, it would be the same.
One afternoon that summer when it was too humid to be outside, Daphne's mother helped her hang fishing wire across her room where she could fasten the photos with clothespins. When her mother went up on her toes to pin the wire high on the wall, Daphne could see her calf muscles tighten into a small smile on the backs of her legs. Other women called Daphne's mother beautiful. She was lanky and delicate and had long, narrow feet with high arches perfect for slipping into heels. She was a dancer when she was young and sometimes when the girls would beg, she'd push the furniture to the side of the living room and call it her studio. It was one of the only times she let herself abandon her steadied precision. Without lipstick or blouse or embroidered apron tied around her thin waist, she'd put a t-shirt on over an old leotard and position Quinn and Daphne on the hardwood floor. They would put on their church shoes to practice time-steps or go barefoot to practice second position and arabesques. Sometimes their dad would come home from work while they danced and he would lean on the doorframe while he watched them, a look on his face like he was sad or in love or thought he was in love but was unsure exactly what that looked like. Daphne's mother would make eye contact with him and smile while she said things like "Heels together, girls. Good."
Daphne's mother wore a thin summer dress and black mascara when she helped her daughter pin her photos onto the wire. When they were finished, Daphne reached over and grabbed her camera from her nightstand.
"Smile, mom." Daphne's mother smiled. Daphne shot the picture and watched it darken into color. She got up to hang it with the others on the wire. Daphne lay on the bed where her mother had sat down. Together they looked at the photos swaying from the fan like Tibetan flags made from pieces of their world, and her mother pulled Daphne's legs onto her lap. Daphne loved that her mother always found ways to touch her, putting a hand on her shoulder or touching her arm. Sometimes she washed her hair in the kitchen sink, Daphne's knees on a chair and stomach digging into the edge of the counter until it hurt. But she never complained while she leaned her head upside-down over the sink because her hair created a cave that trapped the smell of lavender shampoo, the steam rising to her face, and her mother's voice humming radio tunes. Daphne's mother spent every day that way-washing hair, vacuuming, decorating birthday cakes, helping to finish science fair projects. She was the sort of mother you read about in books and see on old television shows, creating a world in a house for a family. Whenever she stood with one of her daughters looking over an accomplishment-a solar system out of wire hangers, an empty sink from where dishes had been washed and put away-she'd slip her hand on the back of her daughter's neck, under her hair where its warm and boney and there are dips and hollow places under the skin. She'd squeeze there ever so lightly and kiss the top of her daughter's head and say something like "well that's that" before turning to start something new.
The next morning Daphne woke up early. It was Quinn's birthday, exactly one month after hers and they both had guests coming later for cake and games. Out her window, the sun was not yet above the horizon. It was the time of morning when everything familiar is draped in blues, when you are still dreary from sleep and slightly uncertain if the world will ever get its color back. The window was just close enough to Daphne's bed that she could reach her hand out into the square of blue light coming through. She put every body part in separately; right hand then arm, right foot then leg. She watched how easily she changed.
A grunge rock gut punch. Dark things slither around in the heat under all the Night and the Texas Sky. Set in Houston just before Nirvana conquered the world, it is about a band and the four messed up young people who must negotiate the collective horrors that haunt them all.
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Summer of the Long Knives
by LS Bassen
What if Hitler had been stopped early on? Is history the story of what was or what could have been? Does art reflect the ideal or the real? Explore these thoughts in a page-turner set in Berlin in the 1930's. Beautifully written the text will transport you to that time -- in a parallel universe.
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by William Matthew McCarter
In this coming of age novel, William McCarter introduces Billy McCauley, who thinks his one challenge in life is to avoid the "cornbread voodoo" Gram uses to make sure he isn't getting into too much trouble. Growing up in Piankashaw County with his grandparents in rural Missouri means swimming holes, "scoring tongue" at the skating rink and baseball-until his "Big Daddy" gets sick and the easy going childhood seems to go by the wayside.
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by Linda Simone
What is love if not one continual dig into the shards and fragments, the moments and pieces we collect to make sense of our lives? In Archeology, I juxtapose poems based on real archeological finds with poems about a variety of modern-day experiences that serve to reconnect people, both dead and living, and renew family bonds. In the writing of these poems, I was amazed at what can be learned about love from the unearthing of side-by-side skeletons in an ancient Italian town. Or how easy it is to feel the concern of a prehistoric gatherer when her mate hasn't returned from the hunt. I was equally surprised to discover that eating a plum or losing sight of a child in a busy store or the simple act of replicating a family recipe could be the way in to primal feelings and experiences…what I believe makes us human. The book is available at Amazon; or from the publisher Flutterpress.
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by K.D. Bloodworth
Divorced and too much time on her hands, Dawn finds herself drawn into an online dating site. Her vacation trip to meet the smooth talking, handsome man, turns into a fight for her life. Her only hope to survive, is to escape the wilderness and the terror of the madman.
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by Driskill B Horton III
In early 1864, after two-and-a-half years of fighting back East, Major David Hawkins returns to his small farm outside of Shreveport, Louisiana to find the fresh grave of his loving young wife Emily. Facing an empty future, Hawkins recalls a promise he made and rides south to Pleasant Hill looking for Johnny McRay, the son of the man who died saving his life at the Battle of Shiloh. Pleasant Hill is a hauntingly poignant tale of love, loss and adventure of a Confederate officer struggling to keep his honor and find his purpose in a lost cause, and the endeavors of a troubled young boy seeking retribution on his path to destiny.
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Glamour, Gidgets, and the Girl Next Door:
Television's Iconic Women from the 50s, 60s, and 70s
by Herbie J Pilato
GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: TELEVISION'S ICONIC WOMEN OF THE 50's, 60's and 70's profiles Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Sally Field (Gidget), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), Mary Tyler Moore (The Dick Van Dyke Show/The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and over 70 more legendary female TV legends. According to author Herbie J Pilato (Twitch Upon A Star, The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery), "There are so many charismatic women who have made their 'beauty-mark' in television. I wanted to celebrate their contributions, not only with regard to aesthetic appeal but to honor the intelligence, individual wit, and unique talent and style that each of them have contributed to television-and how that great medium in particular was utilized to introduce and showcase so many amazing and wonderful women to the world." For exclusive and key information on TV's top leading ladies who shattered expectations and paved the way for successive generations, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is the number one resource and go-to guide.
Discovering Susan Belle
By Sean Michael
New York City traffic! The most unattractive aspect of this city. Forget about the pickpockets who work over the crowded sidewalks and subways in broad daylight, the traffic is far worse! As the driver ahead of me attempted to squeeze his Cadillac into an impossibly tiny space at the side of the road, I leaned on my horn and spat a few choice words. He gave up his wishful thinking and the slow procession of cars resumed.
I glanced at the clock on the dash, 9:31 A.M. I'd been in traffic for an hour with less than five miles to travel. I'd have been better off jogging it, minus the six-inch heels, of course. About a block from the scene I found a place to park and quickly walked the rest of the way. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach when I arrived and saw that the area was bereft of the usual swarms of people that tend to gather when there's a tragedy in the city. Then I spotted two detectives in black suits climbing into a Crown Victoria.
"Excuse me. Excuse me, detectives, can I have a moment of your time?" I called. "Would you mind giving a statement about what happened here this morning?"
"No, you can't, and yes, I would," replied the short, overweight curly-haired detective climbing into the passenger seat.
"Ongoing investigation," added his tall, robust counterpart on the driver's side.
"A young woman died here today," I persisted. "Has it been determined whether her death was accidental, suicide, or homicide?"
"You're a little late getting here. The scene's been cleared," the driver said. Curly hair was already in the car jotting in a leather-bound notebook.
"There was an accident on the way, as if the traffic isn't bad enough already, right?" I stated in my defense, then extended my hand. "Michelle Wisely with the New York Post."
He shook my hand, then said, "Detective DeMarco, Homicide division."
"So the woman was murdered?" I began digging in my handbag for my pen and pad.
"I didn't say that. Homicide is called to investigate all deaths in the city. But we aren't releasing any official statements to the press as to what happened here today. A woman died, that's all I've got for you."
"Wait. How about something unofficial, detective?" I said, giving him my best pearly white, if not coquettish, smile.
Briefly thinking this over, he said: "How's about I give you the scoop over lunch. I know a nice Italian Bistro in Brooklyn, best stuff in town."
"Engaged," I said with, hopefully, a rueful expression and lifted my left hand so that he could see the diamond on my finger.
"You're new, right? I haven't seen you before. It's usually that other lady, what's her name, with the Post."
"She left. This is my first real assignment. That's why you've got to help me out here, detective."
"Let's get a move on!" Curly hair hollered from inside the car. "Jesus H. Christ, I'm dying here!"
"Next time, wisely show up on time if you want the story, Wisely." DeMarco said with large emphasis on the word wisely. I gave him a "not-so-amused" look and he said: "Alright, this one time you get a pass. The lady's name was Susan Belle. She was young still, in her thirties, and it looks like a suicide, no sign of a struggle. Took a dive from the window, fifth floor," he gestured to a tall red brick building behind me, "and ker-splat. Right there on the sidewalk, pretty messy."
I looked to my right where he had pointed and saw the vestige of a blood stain the size of a manhole. "Uh, thanks, Is there anything else you can give me?"
"Nope!" he said smugly. "Tubby here needs to be fed, burped and put down for a nap. Be seeing ya, Wisely."
"Be seeing ya," I said as the Crown Victoria pulled away from the curb and left me there on the sidewalk pondering my next move. Susan Belle, the name tugged at some corner of my brain. I was sure that I had heard it before but where? Susan Belle... then it struck me like a ton of bricks. "Susan Belle, the author!" I shouted at myself.
She had written at least one book that I knew of, a collection of poetry called, Belle's Lettres. I remembered my Language Arts teacher, Mr. Mark, recommending it to the class in my senior year of high school. Never much into poetry, I hadn't read it. But this development made my story that much better, maybe front-page material. Thank you, Mr. Mark, I thought. Then came the guilt. A woman had purportedly committed suicide, and I was jumping for joy because she had been an author and it might lend stature to my story. Forgive me, Susan...
I found her name on the directory board of the complex and pressed one of the call buttons at random. A gruff voice answered, and I pretended to be a tenant who had locked herself out. I rode the elevator to the fifth floor.
The air in the hall was stale and musty. The dust appeared to have been gathering for years on the yellowing walls and in the stained brown carpets. I found apartment 513. The edges of the door were sealed with crime scene tape. I tried the knob but it didn't budge. I knocked on 512 and, when there was no answer, knocked again. Someone inside yelled, "Go away!" Then I tried 514. The second time I knocked a very hairy, pot-bellied man in speedo underwear answered the door.
"What can I do for you? I'm busy," he said tersely. He seemed to brighten up a bit as I explained who I was.
"Hi, my name is Michelle Wisely with the New York Post. I was wondering if you knew the woman who lived next door, Susan Belle."
Hal slammed the station wagon door shut and checked the latch out of habit before walking up the moonlit drive. He stopped halfway up the drive and looked back, the gym bag pulling the tendon on his arm as he dropped it down over his shoulder and dangled it from its twin straps. Here he was, just off work, his tie still on, standing on the driveway of a warehouse in the Barrio, a block from La Perla's and next door to the Santa Fe yard.
He wondered if he'd locked the car's door. He gave into the doubt and double-checked.
At the warehouse, he turned the knob and opened the heavy metal door and stood in the doorway waiting for his eyes to adjust to the artificial brightness of the florescent lighting inside. The bell went off and as it buzzed, Manuel Rodriguez and the others slammed a thousand fists into the creasing heavy bags while Joe the trainer shouted through the bull horn "that's it, that's it. Work! Work! Work!"
Joe saw Hal enter the warehouse.
"Hey," he said, not getting up from where he sat at the end of the canvas platform of the training ring, "you're back."
"Yeah," Hal said, passing the trainer on the way to the dressing room. "I'm back."
The pounding and rope-jumping and shuffling on canvas of the gym came through the thin walls of the dressing room as Hal undid his tie, took off his shirt and dress slacks and rolled up his belt and placed it all in his gym bag after taking out his shorts, his sweatshirt, his hand wraps, shoes and mouth guard.
He went to the urinal after getting his shirt and shorts on, carrying his gym bag with him -- he'd had $20 stolen in the dressing room his first day at the gym -- and drank from the fountain before rinsing off and putting in his mouth guard. He took a look at his boots under the bench in the dressing room before walking into the gym and trying to look casual. It was always better looking casual than like you knew what you were doing. Hal had seen what happened to Anglos who thought they could box.
He took a seat at the old row of movie theater chairs next to the ring, tossing one of his handwraps out in front of him, hanging onto the end, unraveling it.
"Criss-cross," he said to himself, slipping the strap over his thumb, beginning the boxing ritual. He took the bandage-like cotton wrap and moved it over and under with an extra wrap at his knuckles and an extra wrap around his wrist, the way Kenny had showed him -- not too tight, not too loose -- and tied the strings at the end in a square knot, using his teeth to hold one of the strings while tying them off with his free thumb and index finger. He'd not washed the wrap and there were spots on it where he'd skinned his knuckles and dirt from the back of his neck from exercising but, overall, they were in good shape.
He wrapped his left hand, remembering what Kenny had told him about it, smiling a little. Then the bell went off again and he looked up and watched Manuel thud good but obviously tired punches into the swinging heavy bag. He watched the bag and remembered the first time he'd practiced in the ring with the Chicano. He remembered Manuel's brother shouting until he grew hoarse "Viva Mexico," pronouncing the word "Mayheeko," and "Viva Manolo!" He remembered Manuel's jab. He remembered it well.
"You gonna sit there all day and just look pretty?"
The crackle of Joe's bullhorn snapped Hal out of his reverie. He had work to do.
First, he went to the pads on the floor and did his sit-ups in sets of 20, waiting for the rest bell. Then he did the push-ups. Lastly, the rope-jumping. By then, he was breathing hard and sweating and his head was swimming from a lack of oxygen. It felt good. It had been a long time.
"That's it," Joe said, without the bullhorn. He came over and sat on the edge of the ring near Hal. "Work it out of you. The sweat, it feels good, eh?"
Then, in the next breath, scowling and getting up to go back to his bullhorn: "Don't jump so high."
Hal finished his three rounds' worth of jumping and pulled on a worn pair of bag gloves. He went to the speed bag and saw it would take a while to get the rhythm going again. He rested each time the bell went off. Boxers who didn't know enough to rest didn't last, Joe once said. Joe the trainer knew. He'd been about to turn pro when someone with a truck ran over his arm. Still, he'd managed to get a detached retina as an amateur.
The bell went off, signaling time to start. The sound of Manuel's work out was interfering with Hal's rhythm. He thought again of how Joe said he'd gotten the blow that detached his retina -- "I wasn't payin' attention."
"That guy," Hal thought, hitting the speed bag with left jabs, "is-built-like-a," the bag came forward, "brick," again, a left and a right hook to the words "shit-house."
The bag flopped back and forth from the force of the hook.
The bell went off again and Hal went to the heavy bag, keeping his description of Joe Cervantez as a chant to pace his punches and his breathing. He felt the canvass of the heavy bag skin his knuckles again and hit harder. He hit high and then, when the bell rang and Joe yelled "Work! Work! Work!" with his bull horn, Hal slammed body blows as hard as he could, bending but not creasing the bag, and then practiced a few upper-cuts before resting. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and face with the tail of his sweatshirt.
Joe came up to him, telling him how to turn his wrist, how to lock it so he wouldn't break it. Then he said quietly: "Manuel wants to spar."
Hal looked over at Manuel. The Chicano was grinning through his thin beard and doing extra sit-ups.
"What do you think?"
"It's been a long time, Hal," Joe said. "A long time. He'd kill ya. You ain't even close to bein' ready."
Hal looked at the heavy bag. He knew Joe was right.
"You won't be payin' as much attention as you should. Remember. We ain't got no headgear. That stuff costs money..."
"And Manolo's a head-hunter. Yeah, I remember."
Joe looked at the clock. Hal had been working out for about an hour already.
"Besides," Joe said. "You ain't got nothing left to prove."
Hal smiled at his trainer.
"You old sonofabitch," Hal said. "Slant-eyed, one-armed sonofabitch."
"I noticed it right away. You used to take it off, kiss it and slip it into your sock every time you put on the wraps. I remember your shock that first day when Kenny told you women weren't allowed in here, especially in the mind, and said you couldn't wear that here because you'd tear your finger off just on the bag."
Hal looked at Manuel.
"Maybe next week, eh? You'd kill me today."
Manuel stopped smiling.
Hal took off his gloves, picked up his bag and went back into the dressing room. He took his time taking off his hand wraps, rolling them up, and made a mental note to wash them. For just a second he was about to reach in his sock for his wedding ring, then remembered he wasn't married anymore. There wasn't anyone waiting for him to get home, anymore. Hal took his time getting dressed, and left.
By Alice Baburek
The darken sky fell early upon the misty autumn trees. Icy pellets held fast to the shrinking maple leaves. Avery glanced about the deserted array of sweeping trees speckling the thick, overgrown forest. With a damp chill in the frosty air, calls of the summer birds had long been forgotten among the rolling hills. Where was she? How did she get to this strange and desolate place? It had to be a mistake! Silence was easing its way until finally reaching her deceptive ears.
She was alone. All alone. Far away from the world she once knew-warm, friendly, filled with love and happiness. But now it was all gone. Maybe to the point of no return. Yet she dared to think of what was to become of her brief encounter with life. Could this possibly be the end?
Avery's memory swam in circles. Heaviness weighed her mind. What had happened? She closed her blurry eyes. A single tear made its way down to the frozen blood stuck to the gash on her upper lip. Blending images swirled together trying to connect like pieces of a horrible puzzle. And then all of a sudden, it came flooding back. The car-the flat-the ride. Getting into his truck was the wrong thing to do. His devious façade was impenetrable. It was just a quick ride down the road. But instead, she invited evil, lurking in the darkened corners of his mind, waiting, preying on the innocent.
Avery whimpered. There was no justification for her devastating choices. Painful emptiness crept inside. She frantically struggled with the acceptance to an irreversible destiny.
He left her to die-die a lonely, painful death. Discarded like a bag of trash. And then he moved on, his wretched and depraved soul loathing any chance of remorse, yet gladly sanctioning his heinous, sadistic deed.
Suddenly, the wintry clouds began to dissipate. Thunder reverberated somewhere in the near distance. Shards of twinkling stars peaked through as if her guardian angel reached down to soothe her grieving spirit.
Avery shivered. Her shallow, warm breath touched the frigid night air. By now, she could barely feel her aching, aged body. The long twisted rope had cut and burned into her raw, delicate skin. A torn, flimsy shirt and blue faded jeans held no warmth, only dankness and filth, as they clung uselessly to her battered and bloodstained body.
A silent pray of forgiveness escaped from her thin, trembling lips. Avery wept as a gentle whisper unburdened her troubled soul. It was then she conceived the unfathomable realm and ultimately let go. Letting go of all her fears-of all that she once knew-and all she would never become. Surrendering her entire being to the peace and tranquility to the calling heavens above that was promised so long ago.
"Every thirty-six minutes a murder is committed throughout the United States. Some 200,000 cases remain unsolved."
The Angst and the Blur
A Tale of Katrina
By Dris Horton
I remember riding on a train and it was very hot, a dry heat with wind like a huge hair drier blowing through my curly matted red hair, against my bearded sunburned face and my arms. I was on the front ledge of a reddish-brown boxcar and could see desert terrain, plateaus and sandy-colored mountains, some capped with small patches of snow. It was over a hundred degrees where I was, but I could see snow on a faraway mountain.
I was suffering from a bad case of DTs, alcoholic withdraws, so weak I could barely stand, so irritable I could hardly sit still, my whole body quivering, breathing erratic. Felt like bugs were crawling on me and I couldn't stop scratching at them. Perfectly grid-patterned across my vision was a scary overlay of hideous faces, grotesque and scowling at me, taunting me from over the desert sand, plateaus and mountains. And it got even worse if I closed my eyes.
Not only was I out of alcohol, I was out of water, so dehydrated I couldn't spit or piss. I'd jumped the train in El Paso with a handle of cheap vodka, a gallon of water, some tamales and plans of jumping off in Phoenix to resupply. Singing Hotel California in beat with the clacking drone of the rail, I vaguely recall seeing Phoenix as the train approached a westering sun, a few fingers still sloshing in the bottle. Next thing I knew it was dark, awakened by the want of a drink, clutching the empty bottle. I'd slept right through Phoenix and it was now fifteen hours since my last drink, that want having long since bent to a need. Scary thing, DTs, a physical and mental self-affliction rendering one terrified of the benign and utterly inept among the simple.
Suddenly I saw a small desert town flanked by a legion of wind turbines off in the distance. Clearly displayed in red letters on the side of a tiny white building was the word LIQUOR. While the DTs had haunted me, I was irked to no end by the fact that I had money, $127 plus change. Every other time I'd had the bad-shakes was because I was broke, out of money. Now it was because I was on a train hauling ass through the desert with no way of getting off.
Cursing myself for not buying more booze back in Texas, I glanced ahead noticing something where the tracks turned slightly skirting the base of a mountain. It was a bridge. The train was about to cross some kind of bridge, and bridges sometimes cross over water. In a spastic lurch, I turned and grabbed my rucksack, heavy and cumbersome as I pulled it to my chest, jerkily looping my arms through the straps to wear it reverse as a cushion. Shaking like a dog shitting peach pits, I grabbed hold of the railing and stepped up on the rung, leaned out and looked to my left, the direction the train was going at 60 plus. I could see the bridge clearly now from a five o'clock angle, twenty seconds away and counting. One of those low iron jobs that stretched 100-feet over a concrete river. But I could not yet see any water. It was late May and this wasn't Louisiana, it was the low desert of Southern California. What if there was no water? Finally I saw it, a forty-foot-wide strip of dirt-brown swill. But how deep? Was I about to die, about to commit suicide? I saw my time and jumped, the world spinning down and to the left, crashing belly first in a warm soup of slow-moving runoff.
My breath was knocked out as water was forced up my nose. A strange buzzing hum reverberated in my ears, the whining protest of hydraulics. A convulsion of agony shot through my body, desperately seeking some form of anchorage. Bubbles spilled upward from my mouth, my scream muffled by the hot, dirty water. Suddenly my feet found shoring on the bottom five feet below, thrusting my head up to puke water into the air. Struggling to free myself from the straps of my rucksack, I pitched sideways, then grabbed back at the pack as it nearly floated away. Coughing, hacking and choking, I found the cement bottom with my hands and pushed up. Working my legs, I moved toward the dry part of the slab, slanting upward, more shallow by the inch. Retching, coughing, and spitting up water, I pulled myself amphibious-like onto the sunbaked cement to gasp and moan. The stale smell suddenly took me back to where I'd been nine months earlier. The musty odor of havoc.
The Friday night before Katrina hit, I had to work running bicycle deliveries for a small 24-hour grocery store in the French Quarter, the kind with isles so narrow I had to walk sideways or I'd knock something off the shelf. I was supposed to be there at eleven to cover the graveyard shift, but as I poured the last of my vodka into a plastic travel bottle, I noticed it was 11:03. After a handful of ice I screwed on the lid, gave it a good shake and popped open the pour spout, squirting a generous shot in my mouth as I headed for the door.
John, my roommate, was on the sofa crouched over the coffee table, digging through an ashtray for roaches. Cigarette butts spilled onto a table littered with empty beer cans, whiskey bottles and an odd assortment of clutter, including a Taurus 9-millimeter handgun. I paused at the door hoping he'd find a roach big enough to share and glanced at the television. That was the first image I remember seeing of Katrina, churning up the gulf on the weather channel, spinning like a bogeyman in an 80's video game. I'd been through several hurricanes, and it was obvious we'd get some of her outer bands, but my guess was she'd make landfall somewhere around Mobile, sparing us the worst.
I used to wait tables and bartend for a living. Pretty good at it too, rarely making less than a cool grand in a forty-hour week. There was a time when I could carry four drinks in one hand without my fingers touching the rim of the glass. Tote plates all up and down my arm without getting my shirt dirty. Flip bottles in the air, doing a wide array of bar tricks, and take orders and remember names without writing down a single word. A silver-tongued devil I was, so good I was often recruited to other establishments, taking my regular customers with me. I was also quite handy in the kitchen. With ambidextrous, multi-tasking prowess, I simultaneously ruled the different stations like a mad liege lord. In short, I use to give a damn back when giving a damn wasn't as cool as it is now.
But back in '98, I went through a bad break up with a girl I'd lived with for three years. She got pregnant by another guy and I didn't handle it so well. Super-good-looking and white-trash-rich, the guy's family owned trailer parks, tow trucks, a lumber yard and the local roller skating rink. He was married and had two live-in girlfriends, seven kids between the three of them. One of those harem-guys. But my girl did not actually want to leave me, she simply wanted to have this guy's kid, and still stay with me. It was almost as if she thought I'd be impressed, her getting knocked up by the guy. Or that it might somehow enhance her status within the community, which, in a Jerry Springer-kind-of-way, it did.
I've since gotten over her, but I'd be lying if I said there was no bitterness over her having gotten the better of me. And I've also since learned that what doesn't kill you, does not always make you stronger. It was during this time that my alcoholism went from habitual to chronic, from a weekly ritual to a physical addiction of well over a fifth a day plus beer, rendering me incapable of giving a damn about anything but my next drink. I was also rendered incapable of working directly with the public, except of course as a bicycle delivery boy. And I was 40 years old.
I remember trying to hear what the weather guy was saying about the storm, but my other roommate, Booke, (pronounced book), was laughing out loud at something John said about the girl he'd had over the night before. John always had girls over, he was cute and cool like that. They weren't bad roommates, I guess. I've definitely had worse. They made me laugh a lot, their endless banter often being the stuff of comic legend, causing me at times to feel ten years younger, and I needed that.
John was a 24-year-old, rock-n-roll wannabe from Houston, Texas, who'd moved to New Orleans a couple of years earlier. He could play guitar quite well, had a good singing voice and knew my generation's music better than I did. (His dad was a real hippie.) But as it turned out, his funky band of grunge-punks, The Saurus, met with an unusual run of bad luck. The drummer shattered both his wrists skateboarding on the Riverwalk, pulling a Jackass down the back steps of the Jax Brewery. The bassist got caught red-handed by a cop in the back of a van with a fifteen-year-old runaway he thought was a girl, but turned out to be a boy. And the lead singer got so tweaked out on crack and ecstasy one night, he took off running stark-raving-naked down the Esplanade neutral ground, screaming at the top of his lungs, (second similar offence), earning himself a one-way ticket to OPP's nuthouse ward.
'Mate, will you just settle on a station.' Said Rob in frustration, as Mark pressed the tune button again.
He'd been in work thirty seven minutes. It should have been fifty four, but alarm clocks and such binary measures of life had become insignificant since Anna left. He'd spent the whole time trying to find a song that didn't remind him of her. He had had high hopes for the music, wishing each pulse would jolt away the pain, but it was just making him feel worse.
That was the trouble with a life lived alongside someone else. Every significant moment, and thus the soundtrack to them all, was bound up with them. The song that was playing when they met, the song they used to sing around the house, that tune they heard every bloody night in Spain. She was the only person who also knew all the words to Spandau's Ballet's Gold, and he loved the way she used to come in from a sweaty gig and switch the radio to Classic FM to fall asleep to. Now he might never be able to listen to music again.
'Fuck it, I'll put on a CD.' He pressed play, hearing the familiar tone disc whirling in its spin of anticipation.
'Leave him alone.' Said Alex. Any other day Mark would have been shocked at this apparent gesture of warmth from the office wanker, but today his mind was so full of drizzle that it barely registered. Alex however immediately affirmed that he had not had a personality transplant.
'It's the only way he'll get his knob twiddled.' And he spluttered little specks of tea on his desk with a self-satisfying guffaw, like a sneezing and proud elephant.
Rob glared at him, which Alex read as a need for clarity on his hilarious joke.
'I mean, now that Anna's not there, twiddling his.'
Piles of paper flurried across the room, and a coffee cup shattered not far from Alex's ear. It was a good shot, deflecting from the way the office chair flung across the floor and that Mark was now pacing towards Alex. He grabbed his collar and shoved him against a filing cabinet, tripping on the strap of a satchel in the process. His pulse seemed less like a rhythmic reflection of his blood pumping than a ricocheting shuttlecock coursing through his veins.
Rob just sighed. 'Go home, go on.'
Mark didn't want to go home. There were still two coffee mugs on the table, her books on the floor, and the sheets still smelt of her hair. He'd been at home, and the empty flat, a humming fridge, a cool indoor chill, the inspiring drone of a snowy television and the taste of luke warm tea on his tongue wasn't doing him any good.
She had got bored. They had been living together for so long that she wanted to live separately. She wanted a beginning again. A heady, breathy excitement where anything could be, and in that moment lives the potential. Mark had never been one for the frivolities and flirtations, but he loved her. He knew to make her morning tea when he heard the shower click off, so when she came out of the bathroom it would be the perfect temperature. When she sat on the sofa and hunched her legs up, he knew to sit on her feet to keep them warm. He always put her bookmark in when she fell asleep with limbs flailed and the pages flapping in her hand.
That first night, when he saw her at the bar, her fingers wrapped around a glass of wine. She sat twiddling the curl at the nape of the neck, presumably aware that the action entranced him. But really she had danced him into loving her. Her hips shimmied with delicate sexuality, her eyes flickered through her dark hair, sending electricity like jelly fish clamping around his heart. Her arms waved sporadically as she lost herself in the music and Mark lost himself in her.
He felt his heart had been wrenched from his chest and trampled on in front of him, forced back down his throat so he was forced to taste the loneliness and rejection.
'I'm going to the pub.' He picked up his parka and stormed out.
Bars in the day, especially a week day, always seemed a bit curious to Mark. There was a certain type of person who spent all day in the pub that still had a musty scent of stale cigarette smoke and squashed dreams being channelled out every time that someone passed through the doors. The room always felt somewhat jaded. This suited him just fine. Right now he just wanted to stare into his pint and drink the hurt away.
The afternoon passed in a blur, and as he drank more he found himself speaking to anyone, splurging the thoughts he would rather remained hidden, but something was necessary to remove the edge. He looked outside, where the soft embers of the day were fading into evening. He used to like this time of day, a time of transition and change. Now he did not want anything to change. He just wanted Anna back.
His legs took him back to the bar in which he first met her. He wanted to be there, to feel as though he was near her again. The fizzing neon sign looked cheap, and the lights flickered rather than throbbed down on the empty dancefloor. A group of girls stood chatting, all dressed in black. He winked at the blonde one, and she looked away.
'Double whisky and a shot of tequila please.' He said to the barman, slapping his note on the sticky surface. This was an order repeated again and again.
Suddenly the lights came on, and Mark had flashbacks of being at a school disco. He couldn't remember the last time he had stayed at a club until closing. He wasn't sure he would remember this. Stumbling down the stairs to the door he was hit with a waft of cold air. Pin pricks of hurt were felt in his eyes, a tingling throat slowly morphing into sobs and large, round, wet tears rolled down his cheeks.