Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Harris Tobias

The Element of Ritual

From the NY Times May 4, 2010
...one idea would be to deliberately increase the element of formal ritual in medicine. Studies of “alternative” therapies show that strong placebo effects can be induced by ritual. Indeed, in mainstream medicine, surgery is the treatment most surrounded by ritual; perhaps this is one reason it appears to be the most powerful placebo.


Nurse Smithers straightened Dr. Baumgartner’s feathered head dress. it had slipped down below the caduceus so carefully painted on his forehead by the medical ritual staff. The MR (Medical Ritual) dressing room looked more like the backstage at a Broadway show— racks of costumes, shelves piled high with musical instruments, makeup artists and hair stylists scurried about helping physicians prepare their illusions. It was a far cry from the old days before doctors finally understood what healing was all about—illusion. It was illusions that kept the patient’s belief system functioning and if the patient really believed, they were practically cured.
Ritual was Placebo General’s way of maximizing the curative powers locked away in each patient’s own belief system. Modern medicine was all about placebos much to the chagrin of big pharma. There was precious little money to be made from a science fiction set and a shot of salt water. These days medical treatment was more show than substance. If the patient believed he was being cured, his mind took care of the rest. His attending physician, Dr. Baumgartner, knew that the contents of the syringe he was holding was not nearly as important to the patient’s recovery than the ritual that preceded it.
In this case, the patient, Mr. Louis Silverblank, a portly 60 year old from New Jersey, was just waking up from his placebo heart surgery and was expecting a shot of painkiller. His pre-surgical work up revealed that Mr. Silverblank was superstitious and distrusted modern medicine. He tended to a strong belief in more primitive forms of treatment. As a result, his surgical team dressed for the occasion in a combination of Haitian Voodoo and Amazon rain forest garb. His surgeon, Dr. Numsey, performed the operation in a sterile loin cloth and body paint. Numsey was highly regarded throughout the region as a master of the elaborate and effective primitive scenario.
Nurse Smithers, herself dressed in a flowing muumuu with a colorful tropical theme and a hat filled with colorful fruits, began a rhythmic beating on a small drum hung around her neck. Dr. Baumgartner accented her rhythm with staccato shakes of a rattle made from a tortoise shell. Together they entered Silverblank’s room in a shuffling Samba chanting in a language no one present understood. A semi conscious Silverblank seemed impressed by the ceremony and felt much improved just watching the medicos working so hard to stimulate his trust. Nodding his head to the rhythm he gave nurse Smithers a shy smile.
His smile increased as Dr. Baumgartner raised the syringe high in the air and called upon the mystic forces of healing to flow into it. Nurse Smithers beat a furious crescendo on the drum. Dr. Baumgartner turned around three times, produced a puff of smoke from his palms and injected the saline solution into Silverblank’s enormous rump. Mr. Silverblank heaved a blissful sigh and lapsed back into sleep.
Dr. Baumgartner and Nurse Smithers turned and left the sleeping Silverblank’s room and hurried down the corridor to the MR ready room. They had to change out of their feathers and beads into a futuristic costume consisting entirely of chrome and plastic prosthetics. Nurse Smithers donned an android mask while Dr. Baumgartner slipped into a breastplate filled with flashing lights and gauges and hurried off to operating theater 4, the Doctor From Tomorrow set. Mrs. Hackman was having her gall bladder removed or at least thought she was.

© Harris Tobias 2011

Harris Tobias was raised by robots disguised as New Yorkers. Despite an awkward childhood he learned to read and write. To date Mr. Tobias has published two detective novels, The Greer Agency and A Felony of Birds, to critical acclaim. In addition he has published short stories in Down in the Dirt Magazine, Literal Translations, Electric Flash and Ray Gun Revival. He currently lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Paul de Denus

The Attraction

He’d passed the same attraction three days running. Down the dry leafy back road, just off the golf course and up around the bend, it waited patiently for him like an old friend ready for play. The monument of snapped limbs and discarded brush stacked high, a rambling golden pyre, bone-dry, quivering like an expectant lover. He had hoped running would alleviate the burning need, create another game with less to lose. He slowed to a trot as the mind game caught hold; a glowing ember of it circled - wanted to touch with one strike of a match, one finger-flick of a clean cigarette - lightly crackle “you’re it.” Later, from his spot on the hill, he watched it run and play, quietly glowing hot and bright, pleased with what it had started.

It was faint at first, like a distant train whistle calling from somewhere along the darkening horizon, but now the sound was louder. It was not a whistle but the blare of wailing sirens and he relaxed a bit. The sirens smothered his pounding heart with a blanket of relief like that of cool rain and he licked his dry lips.
“It will be alright,” he whimpered, almost collapsing. He turned to leave and his eye caught a glimpse of something that did drop him to his knees: a surging wall of orange flame boiling through a row of trees that kissed along a ridge of large homes hugging the golf course.
“What have you done?” it said.

The first engine arrived and a fireman heavy with gear stumbled from the side railing. He was shouting instruction to the other firemen as they scrambled from the vehicle, serpentine hoses uncoiling over the road like spilled guts from some reddened beast. On the hill he watched them play, mesmerized as flames took the first two houses. They flowered, a hushing sound like marshmallows to the flame.
It’s just a game,” he whispered, his face shiny, angelic. “We can stop anytime.”

There had always been an affinity with fire. When he was very young, it spoke to him, drew him like moth to flame. His mother had seen it in him too - this calling - had noticed how his eyes would light as they stared blankly into the blazing fireplace. In church she would encourage him to light a votive candle for lost souls and the dearly departed. She believed it was goodness he saw, some guiding light, the flame a source of warmth and comfort. She was wrong. His father, a heavy smoker, a heavier drunk, saw it exactly as it was. “You’re it,” the old man would say, flicking a flaming match toward him as the boy played on the floor with his older brother, Davey. “Oh you’re it alright,” he’d slur and laugh between pulls of the bottle and drags on the hand-rolled smoke. It was a contemptuous laugh, malicious. But it was quickly silenced the first time the boy - quick as a viper - snatched the lit match as it bounced off his chest. With widened eyes, he felt the sting of the flame, then overwhelming sadness as it quickly extinguished, the burn searing his palm. The boy didn’t mind though; he liked it… this new game. “Fire’s a motherfucker… a beast,” his father grunted, holding the shaky cigarette up close to eyes. He lightly blew on the smoldering orange ember. “It’s like you. It’s tricky.” His eyes faltered, then drowsily dropped down upon him. “Unplanned,” he mumbled. “Unplanned and tricky. That’s it.” The boy didn’t understand all the things his father had said but he trusted the man knew what he spoke of. He and Davey rolled and played about on the floor, dumping plastic soldiers and Tinker toys into their father’s stained fireman’s helmet. Crinkled matches lay scattered about the carpet, as black and as brittle as torched bodies.

He started setting fires when he was eleven. The attraction was a rough clearing out in the old dump near Rollins Swamp. It seemed a safe place to play, with so much ready to burn, so much smoldering there just beneath the surface of discarded trash. It was a game - “I’m it… you’re it” he’d say - and flick matches one by one from the long matchbox, each one tumbling, some flaming out, others burning bright as they landed in a scratch of bramble and oily boxes. They quickly caught on. He always heard the voice in the crackle - his father’s voice - a soft whisper at first that would detonate into a terrifying roar. “YOU’RE IT!” it would boom.

He controlled the fires at first, kept them small but the day came when the winds seemed to shift out of nowhere, the world opened wide and he was confronted with the beast. It stood before him, alive, taunting and unstable. He was not afraid. He was terrified. It ran around him, leering, its fiery tongue lolling and whispering around his ears. It quickly turned and rolled toward the swamp, like some living creature eager for water to soothe it, to cool it. He followed and waited. Instead of water, it found fuel to feed. The dry bramble swamp exploded and it consumed everything, its gaping maw, red and hot.

He had run then, somehow escaped through the thicket, excited and horrified, sprawling flat in a ditch as the fire engines screamed past down the smoke-choked road. As the last truck flared by, he glanced up in time to see his father riding the top of the engine’s cab, saw the terrified look as their eyes locked. He never saw him again. Outmatched and trapped in the swamp, his father and three other firemen were consumed by the monster’s fury.

There was no other consequence, the origin of the fire blamed on conditions at the dump, on shifting weather, an unfortunate and horrible accident the papers said. After that, he ran in a futile attempt to outrun what had happened. Then in his mid-teens, he started running with the fire, hoping it might grow tired of the game and burn itself out on its own. But it circled… circled and chased him. Always.

The fireman stood frozen. The blaze towered above him, the heat an open oven wrinkling the air. It had taken hold everywhere, jumped the street to the left of the golf course, rolling like a wave toward the opposite curb. Smoke churned between the remaining houses, hugged the gravel in a low thick fog as orange spikes flickered and peeked through like demon eyes in the night. He felt his partner then - Conrad - at his side grabbing his arm; he was shouting, barely audible through his mask over the roar.
“We gotta go… go now!”
For a moment, he thought he might faint. His vision blurred and he felt disorientated as if falling down a funneling dark tunnel. He thought he heard Conrad again but the voice was different, familiar.
And he knew.
It was a voice coming from the hill high above him somewhere, his brother’s voice screaming, screaming. He turned to look but all he saw was Conrad’s face wet and pleading, the beast rising behind him.
“We gotta go Davey,” he shouted. “We gotta go… NOW!

© Paul de Denus 2011

Paul de Denus is a graphic artist by day, writer by night. He has been published at Six Sentences (The Love Book, Word of Mouth, and 6S Vol 3), Smith Magazine, Fictionaut, and Espresso Stories.
Paul's writings and self published books appear at his blog: Me, the Other Twin.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bill Lapham

Turner, Raymond K.

We found him inside his gun turret charred black, his mouth frozen in a permanent smile, teeth white as fresh sheets on a country clothesline. His dogtags said he was Turner, Raymond K., Protestant, Blood Type A+. He was frozen in position and in time as if someone had doused him in black plaster. He had been loading a projectile into the breach of his gun when another had penetrated the armored skin of the turret and exploded. For some reason the explosion did not blow Turner’s body to bits but incinerated him and cemented it into the exact position we found him in. He would still be there, stuck in World War II loading that shell, if we hadn’t gently recovered his body and buried it at sea where it rests still today.

Earlier that day, before Turner, Raymond K. had been hurled from his upper rack by the call to General Quarters, he had been studying a picture of his wife who was back home in Liberty, Iowa. The picture was threadbare and faded, details of the image nearly imperceptible, rubbed away by his fingers and thumbs. The case on the pillow under his head was moist from the tears that had run down the sides of his head. He missed his wife.
He had answered his country’s call to arms with reluctance. Others were. Sure the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, but before December 7, 1941, who had never heard of the place? Hawaii wasn’t even a state for chrissakes.

Before his ship had set sail as part of the fleet invading the Philippine Islands, Turner, Raymond K. had been lying on the beach in Waikiki enjoying the sun and the waves and the motion of the beautiful Hawaiian ladies in their grass skirts. Most guys his age were drunk by noon, or hungover from the night before and sleeping it off in their hotel rooms or back in the barracks on base. Not Turner, Raymond K. He enjoyed his time off sight-seeing, sun-bathing and running on the beach. He liked sitting in the shade of palm trees, looking at Diamondhead while listening to ukulele music. Every once in a while he would climb Tantalus Mountain and hike on the trails in the rainforest above Pearl Harbor and Honolulu. War had brought its own kind of peace to the mind of Turner, Raymond K.

Before his ship had steamed off to the Hawaiian Islands, it was overhauled in the shipyard at Mare Island near San Francisco. Those days had been long and hot. Not that it was hot in San Francisco, it wasn’t, but it was always hot in a ship with no air conditioning. And the destroyer-escort USS VIRGIL J. JOHNSON had never seen any air conditioning. Sweat dripped off the end of Turner, Raymond K.’s nose as he polished the bright work in his gun turret. He referred to it as “his gun turret” because it made the long hours he spent locked up inside it training and cleaning easier to endure. He knew the purpose of every switch, valve, lever, door, swivel and fastener inside the contraption. He could operate the thing blind-folded. And he could lift the shells and stuff them into the breach until 7 times a minute from now until the gates of Hell swung open to welcome him home.

Two years before Turner, Raymond K. hauled his seabag up the brow of his new ship, he was driving a tractor on his Uncle Jim’s farm in Liberty, Iowa. He and Karen had just been married and she was expecting their first child. The doctor in town thirty miles away had given Karen a clean bill of health and said the baby was doing just fine. He could hear his or her heartbeat and it was strong, nothing to worry about. Two days later, Karen miscarried. Such was the state of prenatal medicine at the time. Karen was devastated and Ray could not console her. Eventually, after months of getting used to the idea, Karen resolved that she wouldn’t have a baby until God was ready to give her one, and when that time came, they planned to name the baby William after his great-grandfather from Ireland. Ray was relieved that Karen seemed to be back to her happy self again.

Before Young Ray married Karen and long before he shipped off to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese Navy, he was a strapping young lad living on a farm owned by his father’s brother in Iowa. His parents had been killed in a freak fire at their home two counties away. He had narrowly escaped the blaze and survived only because his dog Jake had jumped on his bed to warn him of the impending danger. Both he and the dog fled the burning house out his bedroom window, and despite yelling until his throat was raw, could not raise the attention of his parents who must have died in their sleep. He never saw them again. The next morning, his Uncle Jim came to the house and found Ray asleep on the grass under the sycamore tree hugging his dog Jake, the smoldering embers of the house lying in ruins not far away.

Not long before the tragic loss of his parents and his house, Raymond K. Turner was born into a peaceful world on the verge of unprecedented wealth, peace and prosperity at the beginning of what would come to be known as the Roaring Twenties. He had a happy childhood living on his parents’ farm, playing with his dog, Jake, growing up strong and smart and morally straight. He worked hard, studied hard and played hard. He loved baseball. He loved his parents and his dog and he could not wait for the day when he would have his own farm and family.

© Bill Lapham 2011

Bill Lapham is a retired submarine sailor and current MFA student at Goddard College in Vermont. Find his blog here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Callan

The Apparatus

I am floating, above an orange sea, unfinished, unborn, free. There is a hole inside me, but I am tethered to myself. I float above myself, above my hot and narrow bed. I see myself twisting unconscious in damp sweaty sheets. I see my own flesh my, own twisted body. There is a grinding screech, then, a violent pull.
Long metal nails against an old-fashioned sign, the teacher is demanding attention, but the class room is outside, in the dusty abandoned parking lot of an old drive-in. All the desks are empty. There are no students. I am seated in the center of the row, in the center of the bank of empty desks. The teacher with the long metal nails drags them across the sign. What does she want? What answer is she looking for? She wears a beehive and a tight dress. She has no eyeballs. Blood streams like tears from where her eyeballs should be.
I wake, but the sound, the horrible sound, of metal against metal comes again.
It is the apparatus. It is in need of secrecy oil. I climb out of bed and walk to the window. I lean out shading my eyes with my hand and eyeball the suffering metal components of the machine.
My upstairs neighbor flings open a window and shouts down at me, “Oil your apparatus I am trying to take a nap.”
I yell back at the neighbor, “I am out of oil. Could you give me a ride into a town?”
“No, I will not give you a ride into town, I hate you! I hate your irresponsibility, your sloth and laziness, and most of all I hate your reckless treatment of your apparatus. Some of us don’t have an apparatus. How could you! How could you allow yours to run out of oil! Why, didn’t you buy extra secrecy oil? You must have known it was low on oil, yet you did not prepare for the future. If I had an apparatus, you can be certain it would never, ever run out of oil.”
With that, the upstairs neighbor slammed the window shut, retreating behind a musty red curtain, possibly forever.

.........................................................................................................................


I had to get secrecy oil for my apparatus. With no other alternative, I set out walking. The journey proved insurmountable in the unrelenting heat. When momentary lapses in traffic occurred, I could see pools of water that did not exist. The longer I walked, the harder it became. The breaks in traffic came more often, and the hallucinations of the road grew more detailed, more menacing.
First, the mirages consisted only of small pools of water, but as I walked, the hallucination became more elaborate. The pools widened and took on depth. Palm trees bristled on the road. Camels dotted the immediate horizon. Mermaids appeared. They caressed their sleek cold bodies with white and perfect hands, tempting the camels.
I became discouraged. I stopped in order to assess where I was. To my dismay, I discovered that I had traveled only a block and a half from my apartment. I checked my watch and saw that a mere fifteen minutes had passed. It was the heat, of course. It was so hot outside that time had melted.
These walks had a tendency to rend my sanity. I gave up. The walk home was a gentle slope. The dry wind was at my back. I was bothered no more by visions of bestiality-laden oases.
As I approached the apartment complex, I caught site of the apparatus. It labored and twitched in the brittle grass of the side yard. It groaned horribly. I ran towards it and watched as it sputtered and spat, its lubricated springs straining with the effort of production. What my neighbor had shouted at me was true. I had known the apparatus would soon be out of oil, but had done nothing. I had failed the machine. Still, it struggled on my behalf.
As I watched, it began to turn itself in a slow circle, cutting an agonizing swathe in the half-dead grass. Its springs came loose. Sparks flew. The dry grass caught fire. It spread, consuming the apartment building. The neighbors’ window flew open, and they called down to me, but the roar of the flames swallowed their voices. They fell to earth with vapid, accusing eyes, pitifully grasping empty air with empty hands. I did not move, I did not cry out. I was glad to burn.

© Callan 2011

Callan left Orange County, Ca. in 2007 and moved to the country to focus full time on her writing. Her work is featured at Six Sentences and her blog: theworksofjanecallan

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bolton Carley

HoW addiction got me here

I can’t believe it’s come to this…

I’ve denied it since the days of big hair and stirrup pants. I’ve tried to focus on other things, but inevitably I fall off the wagon. It’s steadily gotten worse as I’ve aged. Life stresses and old age have put me in a panic. Admittedly, my marriage and job have been chucked into the backseat because my addiction was cozied up riding shotgun. In fact, it’s probably happened on more occasions than I wish to admit. Many a late night, I’ve been up sulking about the house with a drink and my thoughts.

All of it seemed harmless enough; just a hobby or a tension release. Nothing more, nothing less. Everybody else does it, too, don’t they? Apparently, that assumption was wrong. Mid-snit the other night, my husband came home to find me slumped over in his Lazyboy. His words were ones of love, concern, and compassion. He’s always been my cheerleader and keeper. Perhaps he knows better than I do, so I agreed to take this first step.

Now here I am walking into all these seemingly confident, uninhibited strangers. Polar bears are tap-dancing on my heart; my gut instinct is to run. Jesse Owens wouldn’t have anything on me right about now. Why? Why did I agree to do this? What was I thinking? Obviously I did not think through the process far enough to realize I’d be facing a firing line, or at least a circle of addicts claiming they’re no better than myself (of which I know they are stronger and further down the road to success). At this point though, I realize it’s too late to tuck tail and amscray. They’re all staring at me like I’m a piece of raw, fatty, flavorful prime rib in a lion’s den.

A familiar, yet unknown woman is already hugging me as I’m rooted to the stained shag carpet in uncertainty. What happened to a good old-fashioned formal hearty handshake or a new-fangled fist bump? Hugging? Really? Crap. They hug each other here? It must be one big happy family, or at least a family. Is there any chance I’ll fit in? Is there any chance they’ll understand my situation and not judge me harshly? Thank God that woman over there has already taken a seat and just gave me a jaunty, if not half-scared, wave. Maybe this isn’t old hat for everyone. Maybe she’s new, too.

I’m scanning the room hoping I don’t stick out like a sore thumb in a middle finger kind-of crowd. Already I’ve spotted a stocky, charismatic guy grazing at the snack table in back, trading one addiction for another. Another guy is knee-deep in his iPad, paying little or no attention to the rest of the group forming. The long-haired beauty queen with her back to me talks like she’s semi-worried about her children at home with their father. Then there’s some guy with a canary yellow shirt that people are flocking around. Good. Hopefully, they all glue-stick to him so I can slip in over in the corner to watch without notice like an old man at a strip joint. I know I don’t belong here. I won’t fit in with these people. It’s a guarantee. Even before I admitted my situation, people condensed me into nothing more than goat cheese on a vegetarian platter. I told my husband that, and he informed me I needed to give it a chance. I might be surprised at how much I have in common with these people and if not, I shouldn’t worry. He assured me they’d be accepting. How could they not love me? He asked. Yeah, right.

As I gage the situation, I notice they all chat amongst themselves like they’ve known each other forever. Will that be me if a few months? Will I be sharing the intimate details of my life with these people? Will they feel more like family than my real one? I hear it happens. Oh, how I hope they recognize my obsession and welcome me into their fold. Lord knows why it is so important to me, but it is. Perhaps, I am literally and figuratively starting a new chapter.

Now here I sit on the furthest perch I can get on this flowered couch pondering how to properly introduce myself. With all these somewhat anonymous people, how do I cleverly seek their friendship? Do I tell a light anecdote? Do I share why I’m here? Do I give my real name? Do I try a joke? Or maybe it’s best to keep it short and sweet. What’s that old saying about being a fool but by opening your mouth you remove all doubt?

Okay, I can’t get negative. I promised my husband I would give it my best efforts. I will not give up. I’m a fighter. I can do this.

“Hi, my name is Erica and I’m a… writer… or at least I play one on the computer screen….”

© Bolton Carley 2011

Bolton is a farmer's daughter/teacher/attempting writer/author of YA verse novel: Hello, Summer Vacay and blogger of lessons learned the hard way at www.boltoncarley.wordpress.com

Double or Nothing

Double or Nothing by Michael D. Brown New beginnings are all very fine, but what happens when one starts having double vision? ...