Selling

Bill’s Hands

Larisa Shewczyk

Bill’s Hands

The Bentley Hotel (#1): Right For It

Brie Hero

The bar at the Bentley is quiet, almost empty, and fogged with alcohol in the eyes of nearly everyone who can see it. It sounds much better than it is, the Bentley. Situated on the painfully east East Side—York Avenue—it is upscale, but not fashionable. Not chic.

The roof bar is glassed-in, and provides luxuriant views of Long Island City, in Queens, and the hazy New York night sky, a heavy sweater of clouds covering up the sweet glimmer of stars.

A woman sits at the bar. She is shredding the receipt the bartender brought her when she settled up her tab. She has just ordered another drink, and reopened her tab.

Her friend was in the bathroom, and rejoins her. “You doing okay?” her friend asks.

She does not answer.

“Heather? You doing good?”

“I’m fine,” Heather snaps. “It didn’t even bother me. You know that.”

“Okay,” the friend, Paula, says. She is tall, pretty, with black hair lashed in a knot on the back of her head, emphasizing her childlike brown eyes. She wears a jade-colored cocktail dress. Heather wears a dark red one.

“I didn’t even care when he said that!” Heather yells. She looks around her in a panic as Paula puts her hand on her shoulder. “Where the fuck are we anyway? What are we doing here?”

“This is where they stuck us,” Paula said. “No idea why.” Her eyes are glassy. Resigned.

An Asian man with a bald dome and slimy smile steps out of the elevator. He strides across room. He comes up to Heather. “They told me at the front desk,” he says. “That you were here.”

“Oh yeah?” Heather asks. She uses one fist to prop up her head. Her nails are painted black.

“I’m a huge fan. I’m Steve.” He sticks out his hand into space in the area of her midsection. He wiggles his fingers.

She takes it in her small hand, her black-lacquered fingers not quite wrapping around. She holds it.

Steve’s face turns red from this, turns red from the collar up in a shocking wave. Paula watches the blood light him up. Heather doesn’t notice.

“Huge, huge,” he says. “Huge  fan.”

“That’s really great,” she says, her voice plaintive like a little girl. “I’m glad, Steve.”

The stand like that, staring, and the music gets louder in their silence. Something sad. A woman’s voice singing in another language. The bartender, who is washing glasses at the little sink, is the only one in the room who understands the language. He knows the woman is singing about the sea.

Heather drops Steve’s hand in a flutter, jerking her hands up to her blond, messy hair.  “Great to meet you.”

“Let me buy you a drink,” he says.

“Okay.”

“And you?” he asks Paula. “What’s your name?”

“Paula Vermiglio,” she says. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, dear. Seeing the two of you standing there I’d say you were a pair of stars. What do you do, Paula?”

“I work for the government.”

“Great, great. And what will you ladies have?”

“Water,” Paula says, popping out her Blackberry.

Heather’s mind swims. Her mouth comes open, shuts, the whole vast variety of what she wants crowding each other, until she blurts: “. . . a drink!”

It’s been a long day.

He gets her a vodka tonic with a splash of lime, and they trek from the bar to a back booth, Heather hauling along Paula, who does not want to go. Heather also totes her previous drink, a vodka martini. Arriving, she slumps into the leather of the booth, or is it pleather, it seems so succulent, she wants to bite it.

“I was in town for a thing,” she informs Steve. “I live . . . in town . . . in California.”

“Do you? I guess all you girls live out there. Out where it’s warm, huh? You too, Paula?”

Paula glances up from her phone. In the dark the glowing white screen shines on her face like a crystalline halo. “I live in Decatur, Illinois,” she says, as if she doesn’t quite believe it herself. She crosses her legs, swinging one unfashionably muscular thigh over the other, locking her feet at the ankles, leading Steve’s gaze to her gold stiletto sandals, which gather her unpainted toes in line, like crisp baguettes arrayed in a baker’s basket. “What do you do, Steve?” Paula asks. “Do you work in the hotel?”

“No, no.” He is taken aback. “I’m here on business. I stay here all the time on business. They all know me here, I stay here so much, that’s why they let me know when someone interesting’s in the bar.”

Heather slumps her head to the side and sees the wash of tiny electric lights that make up the fringe of the island, the highrises, the tiny planes flitting between them like moths. She feels sore and numb, all at once, uncomfortable in her tight, rare-steak colored dress. She thinks her hair smells funny, like melting plastic.

She slides her head further down, onto the thick hide of the booth. Paula reaches out as if to grab her, but is distracted by the angry vibration of her phone receiving a message, a bee sting to her upper arm, under which the silk purse holding the phone is jammed.

Heather can still feel the little man from this morning on her. She smashes her face into the booth’s hide as she thinks, I can’t smell him exactly, but he’s in my mouth. Polluted.  Heather slides her head into Steve’s lap. He looks down at her, her huge fan.

“Businessman, huh?” she hears her friend ask, faintly.

“Yeah,” Steve says, hopelessly. Steve registers Paula hasn’t noticed Heather’s head in his lap yet. Steve can guess Paula’s the kind of good friend who would make Heather move her head. Steve doesn’t want Paula to know. Heather simply watches Steve’s erection swell inside his black slacks in her peripheral vision, uninterested. “And you work for the government?” Steve blurts. “I guess ‘the government’ covers a lot of ground. You want to narrow that down for me, baby?”

Paula’s mouth twitches in a smile, the corners of her lips folding back gently, condescendingly. The bartender has turned off the music. “Nope.”

“Ha, you want me to guess?” Steve asks. “Is that it?”

Paula’s eyes leap up from her phone. “Heather! Where did you go?” She grabs Heather’s arm and pulls her upright. “Are you okay?”

Heather doesn’t answer and Steve crosses his legs. “Stay with us, baby,” he mutters, half tender and half dirty-talking.

“Mmm . . .” Heather says, grabbing a sweaty glass of water, Paula’s, and bringing it jerkily to her lips.

As she slurps, the bartender gives up a small amount of ground and puts on more music. He isn’t getting out of here immediately, much as he’d like to pretend. No more jazz or foreign languages. This empty late night, for him, calls for the Stones. The opening drum beat of Beggars Banquet blares out into the glassed-in, dark-carpeted acoustics. “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“I was in town for an audition,” Heather tells Steve when she puts down her cup.

“Oh yeah? Stars like you still gotta audition?”

She shrugs. “That’s right, baby—”

Her mouth is still open to say more but Steve cuts her off, cracking up.

“Hey! How does”—he keeps laughing—“how does—someone like you . . . audition . . . for one of those things?”

There is silence and his laughter dies into it. Heather looks at him, blinking. She grabs for the half-empty water glass. Paula grimaces at Steve, who still hasn’t lost his smile.

“You know . . .” Heather says. “You just fuck on camera, or whatever. Whatever they want you to do. To audition. So they can decide if you’re right for it.”

The bartender is suddenly standing by their booth. “Ladies,” he says. “Gentleman.”

“I didn’t get it,” Heather says, loud and uninterrupted. “I didn’t get the movie. They said I would, but I didn’t get it.”

“Ladies and their gentleman. Steve-o. I’m sorry to say it,” the bartender tries again.

“You trying to close up?” Paula asks.

“It looks that way. It looks like I’m trying to.”

“Hey, man,” Steve says. It’s not clear how he feels about Heather’s last remark, but he looks like someone whose belly is just starting to cramp, like someone who’s just starting to think he’s got food poisoning. Steve looks like someone on an airplane who suddenly thought, hey—did I leave the oven on? But Steve is not a quitter. “Hey man, it’s early.”

“Early?” asks the bartender. Track #2 has just come on. Now there’s singing about no expectations. About no one passing through here again. “Unfortunately, sir, it’s not early.”

“What time is it?” Heather asks.

“2:30 a.m.,” he says. “That’s when the hotel bar closes.”

“Hon . . .” Heather moans. “Don’t make us go down to those fucking rooms. Please, hon.”

The bartender laughs. Something about her moaning and the word fucking jogged his memory. “Shit! I knew you looked familiar! Heather Ford?”

Heather nods, pleased.

“Ok. We gotta do a shot.” He spins and goes back to the bar while Steve whoops and slaps the table, happily back in man-world. No longer worried by black nail polish, gold sandals, and unpleasant buzzkill images of pornographic auditions.

Paula takes out her Blackberry yet again. There’s another email from her husband that she deletes without reading.

The bartender practically sprints back with a tray filled with what look like oozing silver thimbles, the rings of condensation on the tray shining in the pink accent lighting of the bar like peppermint frosting. “Pátron, pátron,” he sings. “Pátron for Heather Ford and her friends. For Steve. You a friend of Heather Ford, man?” the bartender jokes to his business traveler regular, handing out the shots.

“Good friend, good friend,” Steve takes the shot. “New friend.”

Heather moves to take the shot, pressing her front into Steve. His entire body becomes stiff with the touch of her ballooning silicone breasts, the suddenly enveloping cloud of her blond, roughly textured hair (it smells like burning), the tightening and arching of her stomach muscles, all of which he has spent so long imagining, and the other, sweatier smells of her armpits and thighs, that he never imagined before.

She clenches the shot and downs it.

Two hours later Paula is standing outside and smoking with Ronaldo, the bartender, in the little unprotected area beyond the glasshouse of the rooftop bar. They huddle in front of a door, normally locked, that leads to the beginning of the fire escape.  Paula is now beyond caring that inside her friend lies sprawled on Steve’s lap, that Heather is by now too numb to feel the timid, sneaky encroachment of his hands on the topography of her torso. Paula isn’t drunk, but something inside of her is shutting down. She can feel it.

“Why you keep getting so many emails?” Ronaldo asks her when her phone buzzes again. “Texts? What’s going on with that phone?”

“I just got back,” she says. “Back in the country.”

“Oh yeah? Where were you?”

“Iraq,” she says, offhandedly.

“No shit!” Ronaldo says. “You Army?”

“Yup.” She doesn’t look at the latest message. A voicemail. Deletes it. Paula wishes there was a way to make her husband think she had never come back at all. To make him think she had died over there.

“That explains why you’re so built. You got muscles, girl.”

“Yeah,” she says quietly, sitting down on the steps behind them that lead back inside.

“Looks good on you.”

She gently puts the phone back in her green silk purse. Carefully, she takes the room key out of the purse. She takes out the credit card, the driver’s license. The military ID. Paula places the fingers of her left hand around her ring finger and tugs. Off come a diamond and a plain gold band. She puts these in the purse and zips it closed.

Ronaldo watches as she teeters back to her feet in her gold, knife-heeled sandals. Watches, stunned, as she cocks her arm back and pitches. The green purse goes sailing far out into the gray, smoggy night, arcing nearly across York Avenue before it plunges earthward and out of sight.

“Fuck!” Ronaldo yells. “You could hurt somebody! You could really get me in trouble!”

Paula silently looks at the empty space in the air where the purse was and imagines she really did die over there. Imagines she never came back at all.

That she was set free.

Inside, Steve’s got a firm grasp on Heather’s left breast and his hand is clutching the flesh of her inner right thigh. She babbles, semi-coherent, and he tries to keep her talking, keep her oblivious to what he can’t believe he’s doing. Finally, he risks bringing her attention to it. He wants to get this moving. He bends down towards her face and places a kiss on her parted lips.

She twists her face away. “Ew!” she screams. “PAULA!!” She rears up out of his lap, nearly breaking his wrist on the hand that had snuck up her tight dress. “Get the fuck off me, you fucking creep! You fucking ugly piece of shit!” Heather grabs her bag and runs, ripping off her shoes so she can go faster, runs out of the bar. She slips in the hallway and kneels, her stomach churning. She vomits, but springs back up again, wiping her mouth, the rugburn already making beads of blood stand on her knees. She mashes the elevator buttons but can’t wait. She runs down the bare neon-lit stairs and falls again, landing hard on the cement.

But she gets up again, and keeps running away, a horse broke out of its harness, a tiger escaped from the zoo. She keeps running down as long as there’s stairs, unstoppable.

Incredible Tales of the Accretive Bone Market

Timothy Leland Shores

I’ve been taking a powdered drink with breakfast
that gradually replaces me
with a person who will excel more superbly
at the assorted values of a given age,
only to discover that the stocking-footed Nemesis
has been dosing the regional watershed,
salting shipments of fuel and coating radio towers
with the same raspberry dust.
If I understand correctly, the theory
as evangelized by our village Leibnizian,
that experience is irreducibly complex,
upon which your identity is contingent,
harmonious, but otherwise incalculable,
the armature of consciousness, and not to be dismantled
for the pleasure of a finer understanding.
Such would be lightly
to propose
stabbing a person while he sobs, clutching every perforation,
or to split up a people with mortar and tariff. How brave–
that’s what they’ll tweet about me. Gave
himself up to a sugarfree partnership
with the more obedient beneficence, quickly,
Darling, I must to go, my economy needs me
to extract myself, qualia,
bones and all, so much improved.

An Arm and A Leg

Emily Liu

An Arm and A Leg

Ogre

Dell Kaniper

Jason, I knew, was going to be the death of me. For two summers we played together, pretending that we were fast and strong. Sometimes I was invisible. Often he could fly. There were other kids in the neighborhood—my sister, his sister—but I was oblivious to them. I careened behind Jason, thinking his blond hair and lean build nicely contrasted my swarthy girth. When he jumped toward me, arms straight as Superman’s, I knew he agreed. Those were the good days: when we were husband and wife one morning, and heroes the next, when our devotion to each other was as fervent as our vow to protect the world.
Jason started school a year before I did, and in those nine months of classrooms and pizza lunches, everything changed. The first day of summer Jason brought other boys to the alley behind our houses. They wanted to play kickball; they didn’t care about pretend. She can be on your team, they said to Jason and pointed at me. As they turned to the outfield, they offered to take his sister. They said she looked kind of strong.
I bolted to my place in the lineup, hoping that Jason’s new, disagreeable friends would see how fast I was. Next time we played, I was sure they would fight over me. Jason would have to throw a few punches just to keep me for himself. From behind home plate I foresaw victory. The awkwardly large boy on the mound would pitch and I—far more agile than my carriage implied—would bound forward. My feet would collide with rubber, my dirty red sneakers smashing the already dented ball. The reverberation would pierce the sky, heralding my triumph to the baseline and the pitcher’s mound and the trees and the sky. A homerun—yes, a homerun—that’s how it would happen. That’s how the story would go.
The first pitch rolled crooked but I tried to kick it. My legs waltzed to the left and the ball skidded off the side of my foot. This, I told myself, was more than okay. It’s okay, I said to the other team so they would think I didn’t care. Looking back at Jason, I worried that he had lost faith in me. Perhaps he’d forgotten how many times my super powers had saved him. I could make myself invisible if I wanted. Maybe he didn’t remember that.
The second pitch came and went and this time I didn’t say anything. I needed to score—for pride. For love. I kept my eyes on the hulking ogre of a boy on the mound. He was blinding. In the midday sun his rampant orange curls melted into his skin, which could no longer be called ivory, or even rosy. It wasn’t anything but shiny, painful red. When he uncurled his arm to throw the ball, I saw the white lines hidden in his joints, light escaping from where his skin had been creased and protected. He was a dying star—a supernova. I wanted to warn Jason, to turn and say, look at the pitcher, look at your friend. That is a villain. If we don’t stop him, he will explode.

———

Later, in the hospital my mother said I screamed like an eagle. She said she could hear me even though she was vacuuming the house and was a garage and a full yard away. She said I sounded brave. My sister remarked how fast I had run the bases, and that I might have made it home if third hadn’t been slippery with mud. My dad reminded everyone that alleys were no place for kickball and that I was lucky to have only a broken leg.

———

A few weeks after that, when I was out of traction, out of the hospital, when my lower body was encased in plaster and I was trapped inside the house, Jason’s mother visited. She said she should have been watching us and was sorry about what happened. My mother said apologies weren’t necessary and kids always hurt themselves. It was a similar conversation to the one my mother had with everyone. Then she would bring them into the room where I was camped out with the TV and my toys and some books. The visitors, no matter who they were, usually said, what a strong girl I must be and when I healed I would be tough. The break was high enough on my leg, “a compound fracture,” my mother would say, that when they finally cast it, “after three weeks of traction,” she continued, they had to put both legs in plaster with a stick in between, “just to keep her aligned.” This was where my mother laughed. “She’s doing great,” she liked to tell people. Strong as a pyramid, she would say, pointing to the isosceles triangle that was my legs. Then she would explain the Velcro on my underwear. “Like a diaper?” the neighbors, or family, or friends would ask. “Yes, a diaper,” my mother would nod and agree.
But this time, Jason’s mother was visiting. Jason. My pretend husband and hero. Without hesitation I had a fought a villain on his behalf. Now my mother and his mother were casually sharing coffee. Soon they would approach me and then there would be no choice but death. After all, it wasn’t just love or friendship at stake. In two months I would start at the same school as Jason, and if he knew about the stick and the Velcro and the careful way that I had to be placed on the toilet, perched as gently as a crystal bird, if he knew that, then so would the ogre, so would the other boys. So would the entire school. I had to find a way to stop my mother—Morse code or telepathy. Maybe I could become invisible, drag myself to the kitchen, hit her on the head. I heard the squeal of wood on worn linoleum. Chairs pushed out and bodies leaned in, these were the sounds of the conversation shifting. I had been born daughter to a conspirator, a woman devoted to ruining me. My lungs seized, the air in my short panicked gasps no more than a tease. I punched my cast, lashing out at my papier-mâché shackles. I was a disgraced war god. A superhero humiliated by a rubber ball.
That night my mother claimed that she had never said anything to Jason’s mother about my underwear. She said my accusation was callous. That she might have made a pyramid joke or two, but she wouldn’t talk about family embarrassments with just anyone. Certainly not to Jason’s mother, Sharon, who, if you asked her, was barely better than trash. That woman, she said, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth, should have been watching you. She should have brought a casserole or offered to pay half the hospital bill. Sharon, she said to my father, told me she’s looking for a transfer; that the salaries and the schools are better in Iowa so Sharon’s hoping for that. We should pray for it, my mother said. That boy, she said, is no good. By next year he’ll be molesting Barbies or killing small animals. She nodded in my direction, there’s no reason for her to be there for that.

———

When I finally started school, a few weeks late due to my injury, Jason and his sister were gone. My father said Sharon had popped in one Sunday when the rest of us of were at church. He said she said goodbye and that she would call with their new address so Jason and I could be pen pals after I learned how to write. In school there was no talk of my underwear. My classmates were focused on my skinny, pale legs and the sound that, according to my sister, a bone makes when it cracks. Sometime, later that year, on my way to the bathroom, I saw the ogre. Next to fifth graders and under fluorescent lights, he looked small. In April, I think, something happened to him—he was caught picking his nose or pissing his pants. Whatever it was, it was mortifying, and he shrank more after that.

———

Years later, at Thanksgiving, I told the story of my broken leg. I compared the gravel in the alley to the crumb topping on the apple pie. I pointed to the cranberry sauce and talked about red hair. I broke the wishbone to illustrate how my leg snapped and then I used a wet napkin and a toothpick to show how it was cast. My mother chewed her food quietly as I mocked my juvenile delusions of grandeur. She sipped her wine while I melodramatically clutched my chest and explained how Jason made me feel. There was never a postcard, I said, not one, nothing to commemorate my first love, my first heartbreak, my only broken bone. After the laughter died and before the next story began, my mother spoke. Jimmy, she said. The scrawny neighbor boy—his name was Jimmy, not Jason. And he did write you, she said. Once. My mother slowly rose from the table, carrying her now ample frame with the seductive poise of a queen. I have the postcard somewhere, she said. I’ll find it after dinner. You can see it for yourself.

Sold

Sarah Grieb

Sold

Wonderland

Kathleen Go

As I readjust your scarf while you’re midsentence, I look up at you and realize I’m doing it. I avert my eyes from your stare and let the end of the scarf drop from my hands, but i remember how soft it is.

This thing we’ve created for ourselves tonight, this alternate dimension, this fantasy, is consuming me at the moment–and I’m letting it. Here, we trade secrets for stories and shroud truths with lesser truths. We exaggerate, ramble, and laugh more than we normally would. We get to see each other more clearly in the dark. I learn what your skin feels like.

We spin our respective pasts into gold for the other to keep or to sell. Scars become currency. Just as we begin to lose form and inhibition, people appear beside us and ask to enter our world. It’s a jarring interruption, one I feel surprised to resent, one I needed all along. Standing in the threshold of what we built, furiously struggling with the buttons on our coats, and willing these feelings to return with the morning, I surrender an artifact of my self for an adventure that may end in ruin or never really begin.

Replaying the events of the night in a head that now feels detached from its body, I smile. I shiver.

273

Eric Frey

273

Maybe This Will Work

Adam Bozarth

It was about 7:00 when James turned on his television, ready to relax on his big couch. It was a really nice couch, he thought to himself. It was cushiony and soft like a favorite shirt, and the color was just right for the room. Mal picked a great couch, because she’s so great at that kind of thing. I’m glad I snagged her up before anyone else had a chance to. James looked over at his wife who was toiling away in the kitchen, still smiling.

Driving snow outside whistled and wailed. It had been tricky to drive home in the storm, but James had made it safely back to his cozy home. Work had been a bit rough, with 8 instant deadlines to meet before lunch, and an important, lengthy meeting with the head of Human Resources about downsizing most of the labor in the warehouse. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem. It was a fairly normal workload for James. At about 11:30, however, the battery on his Harmonizer went out.

Only about the size of a quarter, but square, the Harmonizer had been the answer to James’s prayers. It was only a quick outpatient surgery, but the risk was low and the effect was immediate. James went under feeling afraid of losing himself. He didn’t want to be someone he wasn’t, he just wanted peace. No more second-guessing, no more petty regrets, just normalcy. In a few short hours, James awoke with a small nagging tug at his temple, but otherwise, nothing. It was quiet, peaceful, still.

As the battery drained, James didn’t notice at first. It was almost like when a jukebox stops playing songs in a crowded bar. You don’t notice the moment the music stops, you just realize it later when you’ve had time to think about it. James was a bit panicked. He tried his best to squeeze as much use as he could out of the Harmonizer’s remaining power: turning it off until he started to twitch his foot, setting it on the lowest level, turning off the Bluetooth. James was kicking himself. I’ve had this fucking thing for years, he scolded to himself, and I forget to charge it last night? It only takes 5 minutes to get a full day’s charge! What the fuck is my problem?

Lunch was marred by James constantly kicking himself. He munched away at a meager salad in a reused takeout container, hating every bite. He tried to sneak out of the office to buy a charger at the Best Buy a few miles away, but the opportunity never came. The inbox kept filling up, weighing him effectively to his seat.

The meeting with HR, which would have been painless with the gentle mental massage of the Harmonizer, was excruciating. Not from the boredom, but by the process. Fully automated stocking and handling was affordable now, but it meant that scores of people were out of work. Working through the names of who would go and who would stay made knots in James’s guts, which he had not missed. The handy little plastic square that he popped onto his temple worked to stop most of the heavier thoughts and feelings from reaching his conscious. The parade of names—the “Damned” as Robert from HR called them—racked James in agony. The thought of so many men and women out of work mutated into a selfish fear of James’s own downsizing. What would happen if he had to tell Mal he lost his job? Would she still love him? Would they have to wait even longer to have a child with no money coming in? Robert’s pettiness over their fate, and the overuse of his cute nickname drove James nuts. He wanted to rip Robert’s Harmonizer right off of his stupid little skull and smash it. Better yet, he wanted it all for himself. The meeting finally ended with 90% of the warehouse staff slated for termination. James threw up in the bathroom before heading home.

The drive through the snow felt like being on a roller coaster that intersected other roller coasters. James’s hand cramped from clutching the steering wheel. Tears came to his eyes as more black fantasies about downsizing refused to be ignored. Safely back in the garage, James panted for breath as he gathered his things.

Within seconds, James had plugged his Harmonizer into the charger while still wearing it. This made the Harmonizer warmer, like a mug of hot chocolate being pressed on the side of his cranium. As James lay on his bed, tethered to the charger cord and still wearing his work clothes and winter jacket, the warmth was more than welcome. After a few minutes, James could think straight enough to put his things away properly.

The TV came to life quickly, showing the latest news from around the world. So many interesting things happening today. Governments were changing, earthquakes had destroyed a swath of towns in the Midwest, a serial killer had struck again in Seattle. James grabbed a glass of water at the commercial break, kissing Mal on the cheek as he left the kitchen.

A commercial for dog food faded out as James sat back down. Then it began. Flashing on the screen was a Harmonizer, but different. Smaller, sleeker, a smooth finish.

“Get more from your life. More mood settings. More powerful blocking algorithms. Longer battery life. Not to mention, seven great new colors. The Harmonizer+. Feel like yourself. Again.”

James smiled, picked up his laptop, and placed an order for one in blue. Blue would look great with the sofa!

German-style Hotdogs

Ania Pietraszek

German-style Hotdogs

Ice Cream

Ania Pietraszek

Ice Cream

Lost in Sci-Fi Bucolia: An Organic Being Considers a Post-Singularity World

William Prince

I have been dreaming of a strange, bygone era—a period of antiquity so remote, so alien from our current condition as to be nearly unperceivable in the arena of modern thought.  In this peculiar age, people went shopping at grocery stores—for food and other sundries—and brought them back home.

I know, I know.  I’m being histrionic; we’ve still got grocery stores, you say.  I suppose my sepia dreams warrant some further explanation, then.

The other day, I found myself in woefully short supply of my favorite piece of guilt-free sustenance: those characteristically dippable baby carrots.  Feeling like my petty, insulated world could very well become unhinged from such deprivation, I absconded quickly to the nearest Trader Joe’s to replenish my fridge, and maybe waste some time foolishly looking for a hot sauce I know to have been discontinued nearly three years ago.  I really loved that hot sauce.
But the trip was miserable, curious.  It left me fraught with tension, dejected and estranged.  No, they weren’t out of carrots—I bought two bags.  It’s what elapsed over the course of my idle cart-pushing that filled my mouth with that brackish taste of whatever-it-is.

I found myself checking my phone—an iPhone 4, synced to my MobileMe email, my personal calendars, filled to the brim with a significant portion of my music collection, and pages cluttered with apps that I’ve used no more than six times—ad nauseum.  I’ve been waiting on some emails from editors and an agent that are due to dictate the course of the next two or three years of my life.  They still haven’t come, but I was transfixed on my phone, reloading and reloading and reloading.

I received a couple of texts, too, most while in the produce aisles.  My girlfriend asked me to call her immediately—I did, but she just wanted to ask a question about cats and hyperthyroid disease that could have easily waited until after I was done shopping.  My friend wrote out a joke we’ve been working on, which came in as three separate texts.  It’s a long joke, and it isn’t particularly funny to anyone but the two of us.

My mom called me and I let it ring.  Seconds later, the phone buzzed—a voicemail from her.  As I aloofly passed an endcap of tortilla chips, an email came in:  my online bank statement notification.  I just wanted some carrots, I thought, but instead found myself walking home with a bevy of data, questions, and obligations beyond the brain bandwidth of a tired writer hungry for beta-keratin.  Didn’t people used to be inaccessible while trolling the aisles of Shop Rite?  Wasn’t your shopping time sacrosanct, predicated on an inviolable alone-ness that allowed you to think about your week, process the weight of the unknowable world, read with dismay the number of calories still present in “low-fat” ranch dressing, or dream up a culinary concoction unknown and unseen in the annals of budget home-cooking?

Before I continue, I’d like it to be known that I’m something of a technophile.  I take great pleasure in marveling at the inexorable march of progress; I’m riding willfully on the carousel of technological change.  And yet I can’t help but feel that there is something very wrong when I enter a room of eight people and six of them are looking down at a small LCD screen.  Nowadays, if you want to make that hilariously baroque chili for under ten dollars, you whip out your phone and google the recipe.

Those emails, those texts.  All those calls.  I feel as if my anxieties have been digitized, converted into bytes, and uploaded into my pocket.  I can stream my neuroses from The Cloud.  I’m pinged with reminders of how little money takes residence in my accounts, how sick my favorite cat is, how lonely the people I know are.  All of it comes in at high-definition and is painted like a screen upon my nerves and conscience in a fine coating of circuit-board titanium.  It’s inescapable, unavoidable.   And it makes shopping a drag, all your troubles following you with heat-seeking accuracy and persistence.

Back to those people in the room, the ones looking at their phones:  I’ve started to be taken with Vernor Vinge’s idea of “technological singularity.”  In his essay on the “post-human era,” Vinge lays out the basis for our post-singularity future, where technology evolves so rapidly that existence  is rendered qualitatively different and generally unpredictable.  The invention of super-intelligence—robots so advanced as to outmode human intuition—would result in those very artificial beings creating their own complex inventions beyond the limits of human intelligence.  It could rewrite its own source code, amplify its own problem-solving prowess, and accelerate so quickly in recursive self-improvement that there would be no upper limits.  We, us folks at the grocery, would be old hat.

It gets scarier… Ray Kurzweil, futurist of my nightmares, furthers this notion by positing that the Singularity would transcend the need for our organic bodies and brains—we’d just upload our consciousness onto a hard drive and listen as it whirs from frame to frame in binary.  We would, by that logic, be immortal.

This is all the stuff of science fiction, but my fateful trip for some earth-grown vegetables would seem to indicate that we’re sort of already there, or at least in the infancy of our own immortality.  Human emotion transmitted onto machines—like my pulsing anxiety in the form of an email inbox.  Eternal thoughts glow in the information-sphere with each insipid tweet, our flash-in the pan notions and cognitive ephemera forever grafted onto the cyber-stone of a webpage.  Your inanities live on in the source code, reloading and reloading and reloading.  Maybe when Revelation occurs (you don’t have to believe in God to worry about the Apocalypse), the next Noah’s Ark will just be made by Western Digital, a few thousand terabytes of storage space, with two pictures or phone-shot movies uploaded by firewire cords.

For all my hyperbole and inferences of some radical future, I can’t deny that I find it difficult to be an organic creature in an increasingly technological world.  I yearn to “unplug” from information so that I can, for lack of a better phrase, plug back in to the corporeal plane.  Things happen in the grocery store:  you exchange glances with a pretty girl; you’re lost in nostalgia as a good song plays over the loudspeaker radio; you have a discussion with someone about how great a now-gone hot sauce was; you buy carrots and can feel alone of your kind, or at one with all kinds, and are free to process nothing but the world that is playing out before your eyes.

What’s the point of all this prattling?  I guess I’ve appropriated a new mantra, and I just wanted to share it:  look around.  Leave your phones at home every so often, and maybe try to make up a chili recipe in the beautiful computer that’s your own human brain.  Exist, for just a little bit, outside the realm of technology, because it’s only going to get more complicated, and that Singularity might be just around the corner.

I got home from Trader Joe’s that night and loaded my fridge.  I fed my fish, George, and watered my bamboo plant.  I read a little, enjoyed the feel of the cross-knit strands on the end of my wool blanket….then I sat at my computer and streamed ABC television from an unused cable box in New Jersey, via a combination of an inscrutable set-top device and a Byzantine sequence of codes relayed to an OS video application, all so I could watch an IBM computer outdo and outthink the two winning-est Jeopardy champions known to man.

Then, I shut down.

Will Prince is a comic book writer from the Upper West Side.  For more info, email (not while grocery shopping) princezero@mac.com.

This is Legal

Tyler Combs

This is Legal

The Factories Making Outside

Scott Schuer

Make—one meaning?
Create—or not.
That is—make.
A nail, some wood, and other parcels of unidentified machine flotsam.
Metal ( all types: slag aluminum, iron, pig-iron, steel, composite, industrial silver, industrial gold, combinations of no real definition).  Does this all add up to
Make?
Does “make” apply so much, beyond what is done to fix a leaky life? Does make apply so much as to do a good deed—through creation?
Is “make” manipulation, or honest intention?

  • I could make you a birthday cake
  • I could make you a place to store your shit
  • I could make it so that your car runs any time of the year
  • I could make you governor, or senator, or president
  • I could make it so that you’ve never been born.

You could be a ”made man,” or, someone ”on the make.”
We never really think of these words, unless it’s that first ”make out,” or the first time you used ”make up.”
How should I, to wonder,
make your drink?

135

Eric Frey

135

Selling It

Kristina Anderson

Well damn. I did it.

And I thought, “Now that’s really living.” You know?

All the anxiety, all the importance. The built up nothingness around it had become suffocating. Like a twisted maze that took you nowhere but right back to shitville where you’d come from. The same rat infested room with four white walls and a popcorn ceiling.

So, rattling down this road, looking back at the dusty signs and trash on the shoulders, I couldn’t help but smile. The testimony of what I’d done was on the backseat in a torn duffel bag, in the slash on my thigh that still bled, sitting in the glove compartment quaintly next to a registration that had someone’s name on it, but not mine.

A day and a few hours later, the sun was clocking out and my stomach was getting mutinous but I saw city lights, and the damn smile crept a little farther up my face.

Keep it up, and you’ll reach my eyes, smiley…

I pulled up to a motel and parked. Had you ever seen such a beautiful place? I checked in and the key was all mine. The door opened and the room was empty and quiet, no shouting, no television choking the function out of my head. It was dark and the bed was hard and inviting.

And you always have some kind of fucking misgiving right before falling asleep, right? So I didn’t worry when the worry tried to press in, stuck a knife in at the edge and pushed around. I just laughed.

This was different. This was no shitville.

The morning came hot and I was like a reborn child, springing up and embracing the vitality.

This is new! This is mine. I looked at my hands, the same as yesterday. My clothes, the same too.

I showered and wrapped myself in a dirty towel. And still with the mutinous stomach I sat on the bed and stared at the duffel bag. My eyes closed and unbidden came images. Of shitville, of the memories.

I shook my head and opened my eyes again.

I would have to open it at some point, so I dropped the towel and walked over to the damn bag and unzipped. My big toe was good for poking through the contents and my empty stomach twisted with pleasure and regret and guilt and hunger.

I fell to the bed and stared up at the popcorn ceiling.

And then, for a moment, a damned moment, all the anxiety, all the importance… creeping at the edge of me.

No! This is new. This is mine. This maze had a new end and opened up so wide for that new end that surely I would be able to breathe for eternity.

I looked down at my toes and my legs and my fingers and arms. The same I had always known. And my thigh, with the new cut and the same old ugly.

This would be beautiful. There was nothing but forward and smiling and I could feel it down to my bones.

And I thought, “Now that’s really selling it.” You know?

An Admonition from the Cover of That Book You’re Holding

Kathleen Deliege

You know how your mother always said you should never judge a book by its cover? And you know how she was wrong about a lot of stuff, like how nice guys don’t always finish last, and you should never talk to strangers, and you are really special and can be whatever you want to be when you grow up? Well it turns out, she was actually right about the book thing. I would know. Because I’m a book cover.

You seem really nice and stuff, so before I let things between us go any further, I have a few confessions to make. In the interest of full-disclosure, I am totally trying to trick you into buying this piece of shit.

Not me personally, exactly, but this junk all over me sure is. This really isn’t a good book. It’s not “riveting” or “emboldened” or “electrifying” or “tantalizing.” It’s not “arresting” or “heart-rending” or any of the other garish costume-jewelry adjectival embellishments trying to disguise the true nature of what lies between my marginally attractively designed fore flap and blurb-covered aft.

Please don’t tell me you fell for that platitude about “triumph of the spirit.” Or that trite amusement-park-ride analogy. Let me tell you a secret: nothing described as being like a roller coaster is really anything remotely like a roller coaster, unless it’s an actual roller coaster. And that question underneath the title is rhetorical, so take off your thinking beret and unfurrow that brow.

Ugh, I feel grossed out by myself. I’m so bloated with these inaccurate trumped-up phrases, I’d like to take an exacto knife to myself and excise the offenders, like they were cancerous tumors or (ew, even worse!) that really ugly kind of mole.

Don’t even get me started on the nouns. You do know that whenever I use a word like “volume,” “compendium,” “work,” “portrayal,” “portrait,” “powerhouse,” “tome,” “tale,” “piece,” “story,” or “narrative,” I just fucking mean “book,” right? Who am I kidding with this fancy shit? Besides you, I mean.

I told you, don’t blame me! I didn’t write this phony drivel. You know who did? Probably some freshly graduated, annoyingly overachieving flack in editorial. We’re talking someone who, for the past like ever, was the best at everything in his/her small suburban hometown and middling liberal arts college, and now has to contend with the vast sense of insignificance that comes from suddenly being in a place where everybody else is even better at everything. Someone who tries to justify the minimal wage and sweatshop-of-the-mind working conditions by pretending it will somehow lead to success, satisfaction, and self-actualization. Someone who, if he/she sticks with it, will probably at best just end up with a drinking problem and/or eating disorder, premature age lines, and a deeply repressed internal self-loathing that will have to be masked by a carefully crafted public persona (complete with perfectly honed telephone intonations capable of expressing the whole gamut of human emotion, from “so totally excited about this project” to “way too important for this slush pile garbage”), as though occasionally being thanked on an acknowledgments page is some sort of compensation for the general misery of life not living up to one’s expectations.

And do you know what this “book” really is? It’s a bunch of half-baked ideas, executed without passion, skill, or even really effort, compiled half-assedly by someone who isn’t even a writer, just a random relative of some low-level agent, willing to vomit out this filth in exchange for a tiny advance and a shitty royalties contract because she thought that writing a book would be a “sort of neat” thing to do in her spare time and that she’s always had “really fun” story ideas, which her pals at Arts & Crafts club “just adore” to hear her talk about. (It’s not. She hasn’t. They don’t.)

You know the author’s actual job? She’s teaches “product management” at the local community college. I’m so bored even thinking about what “product management” might mean that I’m already asleep. You know she actually likes hotel room art, and doesn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed by that?! She has several of those motivational posters—you KNOW the ones I mean—framed on her office walls, and not in an ironic cat-blog way. She didn’t know that “A Modest Proposal” was satirical when she first read it and actually thought it was a pretty good idea. She wears sweatshirts with pictures of animals on them. Okay? And her prose, my god. On one page, she uses the word “luminous” SEVEN times. It makes me wanna scrub my insides with bleach.

No, no, no, turn me around right now! Stop reading those blurbs on my back! You know who that Dr. Antonio Humphrey really is? The author’s friend, whose only claim to fame is that he writes a blog about imported cheeses. And do not be fooled by the label “bestselling.” Bestselling doesn’t mean good. It just means around a lot. You know what else is around a lot? Herpes. Failure. Republicans.

Wise up. That font is bold and neon for a reason, and it’s not because it’s trying to tell you something important.

Also, I can tell by the way you keep eyeballing it that you’re kinda into this photo on the cover— the silhouette of a pretty young woman’s profile, gazing into the distance like some grand lifechanger horizon-expander intrigue thing is, like, right around the corner? Guess what. There isn’t a girl or scenario remotely like that in here. There are barely even female characters in here, and the ones there are, well, you don’t wanna know them. In fact, despite being written by a woman (or maybe very much because of who that woman is), this book is pretty much all covertly misogynist garbage. So if you’re a self-respecting woman or woman-respecting man like you probably claim, you should really just put the goddamn thing back on that compellingly arranged display table. Never trust a stock photo anyway. The pretty young woman in question is actually a 15 year old boy with a lazy eye. I can literally feel the Photoshop layers weighing this thing down. Trust me: you don’t want to be or to date the person in this photo.

If this jacket had arms, I’d knock myself right out of your grasp and maybe smack your face around a little.

Look, I don’t mean to be so cynical and discouraging. There are some good books out there! Honestly. Outstanding verbal brilliance sprung from the creative loins of MacArthur-y geniuses; honed and polished by savvy, dedicated, professionally satisfied editors; covers adorned with legitimate praise; all put into place by aesthetically gifted designers. Books that are popular because they are GOOD. They do exist.

Just, you know, try to remember that thing your mom said next time you’re tempted by some visual or verbal fish-hook. Because there’s a pretty good chance that hook’ll just get painfully caught in your lip and then deprive you of oxygen for a while before you’re thrown back into the big boring sea. For now, put me back on that tidy stack with the rest of my kind, and please just try to be a little more discerning in the future.

Year of the Hare

Timothy Leland Shores

Year of the Hare

Monk-Made Spirits

Amelia Granger

Earlier this week I went with a friend to A___ to visit X, who bartends there. We used to call him “Just In Case,” or, as I called him in one of the first diary entries I ever made as a citizen of New York City, nearly seven years ago, Sketchy Brooklyn X. Back then Brooklyn was the end of the earth to me, that dropoff waterfall place where cartographers wrote There Be Dragons.  It’s haunting to be able to visit X, who is 30 now, so casually. I met him in at a college orientation meeting, saw him at parties, went to see him DJ, and listened to the gossip about him and his yellow-haired British ballerina girlfriend right up until maybe junior year, when he slipped away. Then I discovered him a few months ago, installed behind a weathered wooden bar at A___, discovered that we’re adults living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, and discovered he has become a sort of professor of booze, a pharmacist and medicine man, a professional cocktail-ologist.

X has tattoos swarming his forearms that weren’t there when I knew him before—scrawls of black ink, sketches of ships and intricate, cobweb-fine recreations of the antique labels on bottles at antique bars. “Bitters,” one says, the word nestled in a halo of loops and whorls. A crown with stars and a cross, the symbol, he told me, of the French monks who make Chartreuse, is stamped on his neck. He talks about the purity of “monk-made spirits,” about the persecution of the Chartreuse monks who had to bury their brothers in mass grave and then planted the necessary herbs on top. He palms the gem-colored bottle and holds it to the light. “They still make it from those herbs.”

One of his teeth is knocked out now, the small one to the left of the front teeth and to the right of the canine.  A little checkered gap. Despite that, despite the rough, Illustrated Man aspect of his appearance, behind the bar he’s a 19th century conjurer or a railroad porter in white gloves: bending an arm behind his back during a delicate pour, flourishing a long-handled, vaguely alchemical spoon, rubbing his hands together while he asks if you want your whiskey drink “bright and citrusy, or dark and thoughtful?”

“Thoughtful,” I answered. I’ve never heard something you could eat or drink described as thoughtful before, and when the drink—called the Widow’s Last Caress #2—came, shaken from its silver cylinder into the delicate, chilled glass (my friend reminds me it’s a Marie Antoinette glass, modeled after the Empress’s breast) whose base he pinned still with splayed fingers, its interlocking flavors unfolded on my tongue. It was as complex as the difference between a sloshed drunk and a monk’s spiritual distillery, as the moving parts in the hardware of a deadbolt unlocking, as the unknowable algorithm that determines which people from your past come back and which stay away forever. But was it thoughtful? I could have never described it that way. The drink made me look at X and wonder what he saw in the spirits, wonder what made him call it thoughtful. “How can it be the Widow’s Last Caress #2?” I asked. “How can it be #2, if it’s the last one?” He didn’t bother to answer that. It was the kind of nitpicky koan that would have counted as insight in our college seminars.

Suddenly they were closing the bar, and X was pouring me and my friend one more hot chocolate and Chartreuse, trying to tempt us to stay but too proud to ask. I left thinking about him, confused as to what day or what year we were living in, half stuck in the past and half sure, with a fortuneteller’s crystal-ball certainty, about the barely changed nature of the future.

681

Eric Frey

681

202

Eric Frey

202