Tuesday, December 31, 2013

John Grey

The Sounds of January

The furnace starts churning,
radiators kick and snort.
It's that insistent winter soundtrack,
the one that doubts our bodies
have the strength, the will,
to get by without its warmth.

Outside, snow begins to fall
and stick this time.
Soon enough, the landscape
will be white, packed high,
and it'll be the plows that add
the loud, ungainly inference ...
we can't walk, can't drive a lick,
without their blessed blades.

So here we have it,
Christmas behind us,
we're nothing but the inherent uselessness
of all this flesh, these bones.
If nothing makes a sound,
we're doomed.
And then you hug close,
whisper, "I love you."
So tell me are you plow or furnace?

© John Grey 2013

John Grey is an Australian born poet. Recently published in International Poetry Review, Vallum and the science fiction anthology, “The Kennedy Curse” with work upcoming in Bryant Literary Magazine, Pennsylvania English and the Oyez Review.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Gita Smith

LUCK

The year I turned 14, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed into the Long Island Sound, no more than a bike ride from our house. A dark horse named Sideways Glance ran past all the favorites to win the Triple Crown. The unexpected was happening all around us. That was the year when Mother said our luck ran out.

In August, Auntie Gin showed a photo of a giant uncircumcised penis to a client at the Lady Grecian beauty salon and was shunned and fired from her job at Holiness Pentecostal Church. Then Howler, my younger brother (his real name is Howard, but we’ve called him Howler since he cut his baby teeth) suddenly took sick. He projectile-vomited all over the patrons in the waiting room of the Humane Society animal shelter and had to be rushed home before he got to choose his puppy.

In September, Father walked down the stairs to the Far Rockaway subway station while reading the financial Times and kept on walking straight onto the tracks. He was pulled back to safety before the train arrived, but the experience of having almost contacted the third rail exhilarated him unexpectedly.

He gibbered that day and for days after. When he regained his speech he repeated “I could have died. I could have DIED” to everyone he met. “What luck, eh? Everything happens for a reason, though. I must have been saved for some purpose.”

Mother believed that luck ran in families, like a gene for weak ankles or an overbite. It was something that could attach itself to a clan, lamprey-like, holding fast --- until it didn’t. On the one hand, she explained, luck could stick around for generations.

“Look at the Rockefellers,” she said.

Or, it could arrive and stay for only one day before fleeing. BUT, on that day you could win the lottery.

“You only need one day of really good luck to straighten out a whole family,” she reminded us.

After Auntie Gin revealed to the whole world that she had dementia and Howler shamed us at the animal shelter and Father walked into thin air, I began to question the solidity of my family life.

At age 14, I had come under the influence of rationalists like Carl Sagan and the difficult Noam Chomsky. I won’t pretend to you that I understood everything they wrote by any means, not by half. And Chomsky, not by a tenth. Yet I grasped the basic and important concept that we are not beset by a fickle, purposeful force called luck.

I believed that they were telling me, there is no “thing” that we have and lose, no external force that brings us joy one moment and sorrow the next with the draw of a card because luck – the entity my mother wanted so earnestly yet feared -- doesn’t exist. It was my view, because it seemed the rational view, that the universe and all events we can’t control are random. To my 14-year-old mind, we could not be unlucky or lucky any more than we could be Caesar’s ghost or in two places at one time.

My parents took turns debating me, sometimes with the cudgel of religion and sometimes with journalism.



MOTHER: Look at this story in the Herald. This family, the Borowitzes, all of them killed when a bus hit their car.

ME: The bus also hit a cement wall killing the driver and 14 passengers so it was not fate or luck singling out the Borowitzes. It was physics: the bus had bald tires, the asphalt was fresh and the road was wet.

FATHER: EXACTLY! It was the Borowitzes’ bad luck to be on that road at that exact moment when the bus swerved, not three seconds later!”

Frequently, Mother would be ready with the Powerball lottery report when I came home from school, a newspaper clipping laid out on the kitchen table beside some fruit and cookies.

“One hundred million dollars to a single woman!!” she keened triumphantly.

“Your point?” I said, separating an Oreo.

“Are you going to tell me that woman isn’t lucky?”

I examined the photo of a beaming Dorothy (Dot) Kilby, K-Mart cashier from Steubenville, Ohio, and her giant check. Apparently Miss Kilby had felt a sudden impulse to buy her first-ever ticket just 90 minutes before the drawing.

“Unh-hunh, Miss Atheist,” my mother said. “How do you explain that?”

“How I explain that, Mother, is it’s a lottery. Sooner or later someone will win. That is the nature of lotteries. Random numbers pop up in a tube. If enough people buy tickets, sooner or later six numbers will match the ones in the tube.”

In December, Auntie Gin drank some peach schnapps, fell in her bathtub and died. Mother and Father were called downtown to a lawyer’s office and came home happier than we had ever seen them. Christmas that year was an absolute blast. For the first time ever, we had real live tree, a Scotch Pine. Heaped under it were wrapped and beribboned boxes – multiple presents for everyone!

My father seemed to be lighted from the inside – not by a warm glow, but by a tractor beam shooting from his eyes. He talked fast and constantly with a forcefulness like the words had been backed up for years and only now allowed to spill out. Howler noticed it, too, and hid his presents out of fear that Father would snatch them back. I helped him shove an air hockey set behind a chest of drawers.

“Do you think it was the fall on the train tracks?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Howl. I think it’s the money.”

Howler went quiet. He looked too sad for Christmas. He said, “Remember that other time when Father was so excited and talked really fast, and we said it was scary, almost like he was dad but not really dad?”

I was surprised that Howler had noticed. He had been a little kid in a goofy Shrek t-shirt at the time. If we ever spoke about Father’s “bad” time, we spoke in secret.

Father barely slept from Xmas to New Year’s. He talked about everything and nothing, but mostly about his plans for an empire of video arcades. He told Mother she was in for a glorious new tomorrow. He rubbed his hands together when he spoke, like a man trying to start a fire by friction.

On the second of January, when the bank opened, Father took two thirds of Auntie Gin’s life insurance money and bought a video arcade in a shopping center that had seen better days.

“We got lucky to find a store at such a good price,” he said, oblivious to the fact that, one by one, the stores around him were shutting down and moving elsewhere. Nor did he know enough about video machines to know that most of the games in the arcade were outdated or broken.

Still, he plunged himself into the investment and the idea of earning enough from his first – his “seed” – store to build his empire. He loved the arcade’s flashing lights, the sounds of gunfire and bells, pinging and humming.

Father took Howler there one night to treat him to free games. Poor Howler wandered from game to game, overwhelmed by the hurdy-gurdy of the machinery and certain that Father had no clue how to run the store.

“Father can’t tell one game from another,” he said. “I heard this guy ask him if we have Star Vendetta 2, and Father didn’t know.” My smart, perceptive little brother began to worry about our father. He surfed the internet and read a business story about video arcades, so popular in the 1980s, now being dinosaurs.

“People don’t go places to play games,” he told me, his small forehead creased by adult worries. “They don’t have to. Everyone has X-Box or tablets. Father was gypped! It’s not FAIRRRR!” And with that he began to howl, his high, patented banshee curdling sound ripped from a winter wind.

I hugged Howler tightly, letting the noise die down, letting his thin shaking shoulders subside. “Don’t worry,” I murmured, only the hundred thousandth older sister to say it.

Eventually, all the stores in the Eastmont Shopping Center closed and Father’s with them. He found a collector who bought three of his 50 machines, and the rest he sold for scrap metal.

Mother did the math. In his mania to become a video emperor, Father had cost us the equivalent of a college education for Howler who, she believed, was destined for greatness.

Father plunged into a black mood, the same as he had done on previous occasions when a business scheme went south. He stayed under the bedcovers for weeks. We ate dinners without him. Father’s green days – the ones where the world seems new and all things are possible – were over, at least for a while.

Mother was quieter than usual. She stopped trying to bait me with newspaper stories. She left the laundry wet in the machine until it turned rank. I don’t know if Mother saw how his cycles had crept into her consciousness and how her highs and lows were driven by his.

Looking back, I wish that Mother could have seen that luck is the bipolar’s religion, both being based on up and down cycles. Plot them; both are sine waves.

We would have that conversation later. Now was the time for normal things – for pork chops and shoveling the driveway and Tuesday night Bingo at Sacred Heart. We kept it together, me and Howler: shopping for groceries and paying the gas bill and arranging the Ladies’ Home Journals in a fan shape on the coffee table.

We knew Mother had come around one evening when she fixed us chicken pot pies with extra peas and carrots. Howler set the table and tuned the radio to an all-music station. Mother’s chestnut brown hair was styled and she took an interest in our days at school.

“I have a chance to win an essay contest,” I told her, “We have to write a thousand words about our favorite period in history!”

“A thousand words, my, my,” Mother said. “What period did you choose?”

“I know! I know,” said Howler. “I bet it’s the Age of Reason.”

“My, my,” said Mother again. “How did I get such smart children? I’m just so lucky.”

I looked at Howler, who, miraculously had been paying attention all this time to my rants, who knew the topic of my yet-unwritten essay. He looked back at me mouthing, “There’s-no-such-thing-as-luck.”

I nodded, mouthing back, “I know.”


© Gita M. Smith 2013

Gita Smith is a career journalist, whose work has appeared on The Sphere, Fictionaut, Not From Here Are You (The NOT), and her reporting on the South appears at LiketheDew.com, a news site. Luck was read by the author at HoW4.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Paul de Denus

I Suspect...

Colonel Mustard
He is quite the confident one, the tall gentleman in uniform, preening like a rare exotic bird in front of the vestibule mirror. A white linen glove brushes lint from the left breast pocket, glides lightly over gold and silver medals. They sparkle flat dead weight on his chest. He’s appears to be reminiscing in an old memory - of the Academy perhaps - playing to the young cadets hovering about, listening to a sharp wit.
Sharp… yes.
I see how he pulls and twirls the right side of his thin mustache, shapes it into a fine black stiletto point, a dagger’s point… perhaps like the one concealed in the right breast pocket, right next to a cold-blooded heart. This isn’t a game, Colonel Mustard. You act as if nothing has happened to your dear friend Mr. Boddy in the other room who lies helpless to the neat and precise insert that has severed the top of his spine.

Mrs. Peacock
Mrs. Peacock, the woman in the living room, reminds me of the Singer Sargent painting, Madame X, a thin woman with alabaster skin set in a sleek black dress. The dress moves in a flowing rhythm on her wiry dancer’s body. She doesn’t appear particularly weak by any means.
Two young officers bob about and two-step around her, cough up irrelevant questions. There’s a seductive crinkle around her eyes when she smiles; it’s both charming and irresistible. Her eyes focus on the mouths of the young detectives when she speaks, leaving them flustered and tongue-tied.
Tied… yes, that’s the issue here, isn’t it?
Mr. Boddy was found with a thin rope encircling his mottled blue neck. Mrs. Peacock is from old money - New Hampshire, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve come to learn her investment portfolio is tied up with the victim’s investments and all of Mr. Boddy’s investments have mysteriously disappeared.

Professor Plum
The dimly lit library reveals Professor Plum. His name underscores the short round silhouette that shadows against a large stained glass window. I understand he and Mr. Boddy attended high school together, stayed in touch over the years. The guise of melancholy cloaks the professor; his distant gaze betrays something perhaps deeper than disbelief over the death of a friend. I observe his movements about the room, the gentle trace of fingertips over the books lining the shelves, his hand caressing a decorative artifact, an exotic pipe of some sort. As I pass, he draws his hand quickly away. A blow to the head most certainly influenced the demise of Mr. Boddy though a specific weapon has yet to be determined. Be careful Professor. You might just give yourself away.

Mr. Green
Hmm… the chauffeur did it; it was Mr. Green. The chauffeur is always the guilty one in the movies. Easy if it were true but it’s not that simple.
I’ve noticed he has a slight twitch. It’s a triple blink of his eyes and accentuates when asked if the garage can be examined. The blow to Mr. Boddy’s head was made with a blunt instrument - a wrench perhaps… or a pipe. Mr. Green said the garage was broken into last week; equipment is missing, several expensive tools taken. Strangely, no police report was taken. Mr. Green didn’t think it was worth causing a stir. Wouldn’t want Mr. Boddy finding out now would we… or did he find out? I know money is an issue for Mr. Green with back alimony payments and a knack for slow-footed ponies. It’s best to keep an eye on Mr. Green.

Miss Scarlet
Miss Scarlet, Mr. Boddy’s personal assistant, is at her writing desk drawing on a cigarette. She appears to be cool and calm, hiding her emotions behind a veil of smoke but she is rather transparent and I can see why; all her assets sit upfront, on full display. I’m sure Mr. Boddy took full advantage, fooled her with false intentions, and then shot down any hope for a future by cruelly and publicly taking up with Mrs. Peacock.
There’s a small hole below Mr. Boddy’s left armpit, a bullet hole from a small caliber pistol, a direct hit to the heart to match a broken one I’d say.

Mrs. White
The police mill about and try to keep everyone separated so as not to contaminate the crime scene. There are too many suspects, too many wounds; they haven’t a clue. I’ve been eavesdropping on the various conversations. A policeman told the detective in charge something about the guests: not one has asked how Mr. Boddy died.
Only I know that.
Jerome Boddy was a vicious and uncaring man. He destroyed many people on his way to his ill-earned success – hurt many of those here at the dinner party with that devouring nature and sad to say, I believe he enjoyed it.
It appears some of those he hurt stumbled upon him in the billiard room, and each - in their own way - took the opportunity to privately express their contempt. I mean, what was the harm; Jerome Boddy was already dead.

I am the only one here who is not a suspect. My name is Harriet White. I was Mr. Boddy’s housekeeper several years back. After rejecting his advances, he decided to hurt me too, and in the worst way. I suppose it was too much for his cold heart to take, to see me again standing there in the billiard room, in the very room where he murdered me.

© Paul de Denus 2013

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.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bill Lapham

NUKES

We had moored USS TENNESSEE (SSBN 734) in the explosives handling wharf (think of a pole barn over two football fields long, one wide). I was strolling along the missile deck one day, taking in the sights, when I looked down into an open missile tube. The weapons technicians had taken off the tube closure and nose cone from one of our 24 Trident II missiles. I could see the warheads, three sinister beasts arranged in an equilateral triangle. They were conical, coming to a slender, pointy tip. The tips looked like they could draw blood from a finger for sugar-levels testing. The vehicles reminded me of dogs on a chain, straining for permission to attack.
We could assign targets for each of them, unalterable destinations once we shot them. They were the proverbial "fire and forget" type of weapon. I smiled at them, called them derogatory names, slurs spoken under my breath. I hated the gray demons. I reminded them that they were doomed to live a dark, isolated life. We would not release them. They would live in leashed misery in a cold cell of solitude.
We were letting them out this time so we could replace them with telemetry-heads. We were going to shoot this missile just to see if it worked. Two weeks hence, we would be back in Kings Bay to reload these warheads on a new bird, and they would resume their sentence, confined to their cell, buried in the tube. An officer of the Russian Rocket Forces would verify we had safely locked them away in their tomb, and match their vehicle identification numbers with the ones he had on his "top-secret" list.
We do not call our warheads "warheads;" we call them "re-entry vehicles." The term "re-entry vehicles" sounds rather harmless, like bringing John Glenn back from orbit. "And we have splashdown!" They come down through the atmosphere at something like 3,000 miles per hour, in hot, straight lines. At night, they look like super cosmic electron beams of destruction shot from a UFO positioned somewhere above the clouds. They come down together to form a 'footprint'.
Funny thing about the START Treaty verification protocol, it lets the Russians know exactly what, and how many, warheads will have hit them, if we were ever crazy enough to shoot the things. (It would take crazy-reasoning – not cool calculation.) Chances are, however, if we do shoot them, the strike will not be against the Russians. We seem to have accepted their presence in the same sandbox with the other boys and girls of the global neighborhood. No, some other country that has not learned to behave as well will be our target. One might place North Korea first on that list, with Iran a close second. (However, Iran seems to be negotiating their way out of the crosshairs lately.)
The distinctive cloud that forms over the site of a nuclear detonation looks like a giant mushroom, hence its popular name, a mushroom cloud. Though they are most often associated with atomic/nuclear explosions, conventional weapons and volcanic eruptions can cause a similar effect in the atmosphere. The intense shock, heat and light created at the core of an atomic or nuclear explosion pulverizes the ground below it, vaporizes the air above it, and rapidly ascends tens of thousands of feet in a column. As it lifts, it cools, and as the atmospheric pressure declines, the cloud of vapor condenses and expands, hence, the mushrooming effect. Debris from the ground, which rises with the cloud and becomes ionized by the source of the explosion, falls back to Earth in a pattern determined by the wind, or is blown around the world until it loses speed and falls out, like silt at the bottom of a river. Fallout is the cause of much of the radiation poisoning and cancers found in the unfortunate survivors of the initial blast. They continue to increase the bomb's death toll for years after the event.
If atomic mushroom clouds did not hide their sinister intent, lethal effect, and a terrifying promise, they would be beautiful. Instead, they conjure fear and loathing. Indeed, the weapons that produce such an effect are the products of vast amounts of human ingenuity, creativity and innovation. Imagine the other things that could have benefitted from the time wasted on these behemoths. Crop production to feed the world's hungry, mosquito eradication to protect against malaria, water production in the deserts, paper production that requires the sacrifice of no trees, locomotion without pollution, extended battery life, solar panel electrical production, education for the children of the world, and the list goes on. Instead, we employed all that genius toward the development of weapons of mass destruction. Our solution to our problems was to work on weapons to annihilate each other.
Nevertheless, we will not shoot our nuclear weapons. We cannot. The United States is the only country ever to shoot/drop/explode atomic weapons in war. To do it again would be to turn the whole world against us, more than it already has, that is. We would become the biggest bully on the block rather than the global police force, the boy who cannot control his temper, the diplomats who always have a default position: war, nuclear war, if need be. In other words, we are not diplomats; we are arm twisters, the poker players sitting smugly behind iridium sunglasses, secure in the knowledge that we always have at least three aces in our hand, the re-entry vehicles I was looking at today. Slim, conical tips pointed right at the other guy's forehead.
This is bomb math. Three warheads (minimum) x 24 (missiles) = 72 (warheads/boat). Seventy-two warheads at a minimum of 350 Kilotons each = 25.2 Megatons total, minimum. One Trident II fleet ballistic missile submarine armed with 24 missiles outfitted for war cost roughly $2 billion when the U.S. purchased them in the 1980's. The United States had 18 of them built, but only 14 of them carry nuclear missiles today. The other four are loaded with over a hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles each, and are capable of delivering highly trained SEAL teams to any ocean beach in the world.
There must be a way to negotiate these things out of existence. Left to me to decide, I would do away with them by decree, unilaterally, if need be. What are we afraid of, an unprovoked nuclear attack? Here is an idea: Let us not provoke anybody. Then the threat evaporates. Are we afraid of an invasion from the east or west, across the two greatest oceans on the planet? By show of hands: which country has built a naval amphibious force of such immensity? Are we afraid of an invasion from the north or south, across vast stretches of tundra and desert? None of the above is likely. Who would mount an attack against a country armed as we are? It's not even safe to go to school here. We cannot un-create the weapons of nuclear devastation; we can only destroy them and promise each other to never build them again. We were smart enough to figure out how to build the damnable devices, we ought to be able to eliminate them, too.

© William Lapham 2013

Bill Lapham studied creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont. He teaches and tutors undergraduate writing at Davenport University. He lives in Brighton, Michigan.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

John Grey

Two Poems

SHOPPING MALL INFINITUM

Well, life has the soul
at least.
What spirits the trees?

And to what end the shopping mall not made?
Some constructions jobs gone AWOL?
A developer's empty wallet?
So the choice:
pine or parking,
purse or protoplast.
And for me, this scarred sense
of living in the industrial world.
Already, the bulldozers, earthmovers.
Can two for one sales be far behind?
For trees, resistance is sickeningly thin.
Some are ripped out by the routes.
Others go through fire.

Soon enough, business is business.
People are born and soon
they'll be needing stuff.
Eventually, there's just
a few who know which stores were stones,
what fast food chain
squats atop the ghosts of ridges.
They remember, these were woods
once, years before.
The few who predate
remember predation.

THE LAST CHILD TO SEE A TREE

A forest among us,
becomes a weeping
in white heat,
green-leafed bereavement
to us city folk.
Today we wake
to dying evergreen,
blood-red,
creation's core
deep in mire,
dendrite reduced to its
gritty elements,
no forest scene but
dust imbedded in these eyes,
no bed but a cradle of fury,
grief, no relief in sight ...
and there's the infant,
just itself,
looking about
as if it's all its kingdom ...
look at this, mother,
millions of years of creation,
and my screams so morbidly
moving civilization
one step closer
to no longer.

© John Grey 2013

John Grey is an Australian born poet. Recently published in International Poetry Review, Vallum and the science fiction anthology, “The Kennedy Curse” with work upcoming in Bryant Literary Magazine, Pennsylvania English and the Oyez Review.

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