VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Dillinger

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: S.R. Malone

The Purgatory Gate

I

Skies crackled overhead. Was it lightning or something of fouler origins?

Unsure, he nudged the iron visor from his eyes. Never before had he witnessed such deviancy from the greys and blues of the skies above, save for the melting pinks that bled into winter mornings above the village.

Now the village was moved, torn from its resting place among green glens, and scattered. The sun was of no help here, nor could it be spotted clearly among the demonic paintwork that formed the backdrop of this unknown region. Everything, lifted. Everything, gone.

No, this would not do. 

The village itself was even gone, engulfed by the thick soup that had gathered souls and landscape alike. Surrounding Morcant many bodies stood, rigid in the wave of the tide that bore them to this place with cracking sulphur skies and anorexic buildings.

“O, paladin!” wailed one, gripping Morcant’s tunic. “Pray, tell us where we are? Are we in Gehenna?” Knuckles turned white as fingers dug deeper until the knight felt it down to his own flesh, tearing his arm from the gibbering man whose eyes stayed fixed above.

“I would not say for certain, Firmin, though hold one’s tongue until I can deliver news that may be of benefit.”

The ground beneath was a mire, or as near to, above which drifted a soft wisp of mist. Morcant stepped past Firmin, the man’s talons receding as he moved from their proximity.

Gehenna would remain to be seen.

A solemnity held the valley, and its effects weighed heavy on Morcant’s chest the farther he pursued the path downwards. The walkway was scorched and well-trodden. Skeletal homes gave way to burned, sometimes burning, trees and often vegetation that the knight could not identify.

At points in the trail were he to encounter others, they said little as they gazed upwards. One woman fell into him, toppling with arms outstretched, enough to almost force him to the ground; she had no memory of falling, or even that of basic language as her speech tumbled out in fractured sentences.

“Are you hurt?” Morcant’s vacant tone masked by the slightest of irritation. She snatched at his clothing, much like Firmin before her: a blind fool scrambling for purchase. He shook her free and she returned to her previous post, blissfully unaware of him again.

These foreign lands stretched beyond the horizon, the world twisted, alien. This word was a whisper in his mind, sharp but clouded, and not a term Morcant could admit to knowing, educated as he was. Alien. Something else, something wrong. Where had this phantom voice come from, or rather what pit of his subconscious did this inner machination burrow up from, exactly? More words struck him inside the shadow of his helm, but he would resist the urge to lift it from his head and expose his mind to dense mists that only grew denser as he stumbled down into the vale.

Then, two shapes formed on either side of his vision. They were not lethargic as the wayward souls here, more alert. And armed.

Morcant thought the mists to be dulling his calves; he assumed the stance but felt his legs might give way, a chilling numbness rising from the ground up. The two were closing on him, their features still disguised. The rattling of plate informed Morcant of their armoured state however, and he reached for the sword on his hip.

Drawing in time to parry a downward strike from the first, Morcant thrust his blade into the chest and split open a smoking gape. They dropped where they stood.

Uttering fractured speak as the woman above the vale had, the second figure made more cautious advances, crouching lower to the tall grass while keeping his weapon raised; it was a curved blade of unknown origin, nothing that Morcant had engaged in battle across any crusade. 

No, this was of cruder design than some peasant weapon. Stranger. The man pointed it directly at him now, mere feet away. Morcant steadied himself as best he could, clutching his own sword with two hands in preparation. Poised, awaiting the first attack and his enemy’s first mistake; he noticed the weapon opposite him, noticed its almost liquid-like consistency, and how it would not sit still as steel but rather warp and alter as water.

That word from earlier. Was there a more apt way to describe such a thing?

Morcant drew breath, contemplating how this weapon might crash on his own like coastal waves on a cluster of rock. He didn’t have to wait long, as the figure stepped forward with clumsy haste; was it attempting a feint, or actually staggering? Now it was on his left side, arm pulled back with that terrible blade eager to pounce— eager for his blood— and in the instant it had left its chest exposed, Morcant sent his sword deep through the plate.

It twitched, and there was no doubt it was an ‘it’ and not a ‘he’. The death shriek escaping its dry throat felt strong enough to corrode every sliver of metalwork in the vicinity, a piercing sound that tore at the very fabric of this land.

As for the weapon, it landed amongst the brown strands of grass and spilled its liquid blade in streaks of scarlet. It was no water blade, but it still should not have existed.

The day wore on. There was no telling if the inky blackness of night would seep into the afternoon here as it did religiously back home. Putting trust in such a predictable notion seemed ludicrous in this place.

Home.

Voices chattered, and each time Morcant refocused his attention outside of his mind. Pride would not allow him to admit that he was lost, no longer striding among the peoples of Meamoor in the early afternoon, collecting alms for the impoverished peasantry— the waylaid coins jingled lightly in his tunic— instead left to linger around a featureless marshland, devoid of life.

Rows of trees, scorched black, lined the path ahead. He longed to see just one tree that bore fruit, one that might offer even a glimpse of a promise of colour to cleanse the land of its dun hue. With each forward step brought more rot; dryer bark, shattered and black with branches that snapped in the odourful winds.

Home.

Morcant beat a palm against the iron helm. And again. He threw down his glove, striking the armour with bare flesh.

Home.

He let the thing tumble into the mire, rattling all the way. The voice that had been like a fly, buzzing incessantly around his head, was gone. Warm, stale afternoon air bothered his face, and he wiped at a forehead slick with sweat, parting his frayed dark locks.

Morcant let a thought drift back to the countless people he had passed as he watched the onset of dusk, wondering how they intended to cope with no shelter, no visible sources of food. How was he going to cope? Ruins and remains of villages and farms lay miles in his past, the dead tree field consuming the land now.

Curling under the lip of a jagged stone outcrop, Morcant pulled his knees close to his chest. His sword lay on the earth beside him. Bizarre shrieks rang out across the plains as all succumbed to night. Near and far came barks of madness, responded to in kind by the howls and grunts of creatures that eluded Morcant’s imagination.

He lay a hand on the sword’s hilt, dragging it closer slowly. Whatever used these twilight hours for cover could not have been far. Morcant swore to himself that he could pick out the scent of something rancid, worse than the corpse cart that frequently trundled through Meamoor village, staggering the paths ahead of his shelter.

 All he could do was focus on the blood pulsing in his ears and pray that the mouths of madness would not find him that night.

II

The opening had been a yawning expanse, an invitation to the scientific discovery of their year, possibly decade: an electron diffusion region, an X-point tucked away in a cave in southern Utah. It belched sour fumes into the open air when they approached, seeming to blacken surrounding rocks and sparse vegetation, and yet had been called in by a local from Emery while walking their dog in the wilderness one morning.

Now, Taran Pyley, physicist from the University of Utah, proudly waited in its jaws, wearing an expression of awe across his already smug face. This was a real, bona fide gateway— a fucking steppingstone— to another section of space and time. 

And he was the lucky fish that got to swim upstream this time.

“Whaddaya see in there, Taran?” a voice blared from his headset, that of Dr Gwen Rosson. She remained at the opening, still on Utah time, pepped up to the gills on account of having not slept the night before out of pure excitement. Taran felt the weight of that sleepless night too, pausing to ponder whether it wasn’t an effect of the gateway.

He took another few steps, frequently tugging on the thick tether cord attached to his enviro-suit. It was insurance, if nothing else. 

Buzzing lights evaporated, revealing a sickly yellow sky tarnished with shredded clouds. Taran scanned three-sixty degrees, confirming he was no longer just ten paces from the university crew in some dripping cavern in Western America. How many unwitting strangers throughout human history had been swallowed up by these gateways, plucked from time and never seen again? The tiny hairs on Taran’s neck stood in anticipation of what could lie ahead.

He let out a whooping cheer repeatedly over Gwen’s questions to the point where her voice sharpened.

“Dr Pyley, report please.”

He cleared his throat. “I’m out in the open, a woodland of sorts. It’s like I’ve wandered out of state.”

“You’re not picking up on our short-range scanners anymore,” said Gwen.

“What’s the reading?”

“Negative.”

“Say again?”

“Negative, negative!” Gwen’s voice sputtered through the speakers in his headset. “You’re off the grid! What does your digital display read as?”

“Time is as follows,” hummed Taran, “00:00. Oh—”

“Oh?”

“Well, now it just says ‘error’. Weird.”

The comms link fell silent. Taran held his breath in anticipation, fearing the line had gone dead. Murmurs stirred. A warm voice moved forward in the mix, and it took a moment for him to understand that it wasn’t Gwen’s.

Home.”

Thunder rumbled far off. There was movement across the field ahead, an insect or small animal at least. A gentle haze, similar to heat shimmer, distorted the tips of the long grass; Taran wiped at his plasti-glass visor, his very presence antiseptic in a strange landscape. It definitely wasn’t summer here, that was for damn sure. 

“Uh, repeat, control. What did you say?” he said eventually.

“I didn’t say anything.”

His mouth instantly ran dry, a metallic taste coating his tongue.

“I heard a voice just now. Did someone take the mic when you went away there, Gwen?”

Another murmur.

“What are you talking about? No one else has had the mic,” said Gwen, impatiently. “Taran, do you need to come back?”

Another shape darted between the trees. It was large enough to be a fully grown person.

Gasping, Taran locked his legs in place. His muscles trembled beneath the enviro-suit, perspiration gathering on his brow. He’d seen it, he knew he had. Yet, when he craned his neck to see around the spidery shape of the tree, there was no sign of anyone.

He grabbed the tether cord, looking back longingly at the dark void that was his entrance, and tried to figure out just where the hell he was. The apple was rapidly losing its shine, and with every passing minute from his sighting of the shadowy figure in the trees, Taran grew more inclined to follow the cord back— back through the connecting magnetic fields, to his waiting colleagues.

Gwen gradually rose in the audio, her voice rising above the unmistakable white noise that buzzed from the coarse ground.

“Dr Pyley, respond! It’s no good, start retracting the tether—”

“Wait, not yet!” he replied. “I’m still here.”

“What is your report? We lost you for two minutes there.”

Taran squinted. The trees were clear; had he been hallucinating?

“Nothing, control. I assume an issue with the comms crossing vectors. Collecting a soil sample now and returning.”

“Roger that.”

A glint of light hit Taran as he rose, sharp and swift like a knife. Screwing the cap on the vial of bubbling soil, he trudged towards a ridge that cradled the left-hand side of the woodland. The light was brief, but it didn’t shine again. All he had to work with was memory, though had he seen it? Was it a memory if he couldn’t recall it happening?

He felt a biting impulse to move as fast as his weighted boots would carry him, in the direction of the X-point; his limbs said otherwise, lured to the brink of a maw underneath the ridge. The air here was humid, laced with rancid notes that danced on the lazy breeze from under the rocky shelf— the smell bringing back memories of his Uncle Drew’s farm in Ohio the year they’d had to cull and burn his cows due to a bovine madness outbreak.

Taran crouched, being too tall to enter from standing. He twisted the lamp fitted to his shoulder harness and let the milky white beam illuminate the cave; shallow, barely ten feet deep. The ceiling slanted progressively towards the far reaches, otherwise appearing to have been hollowed out on purpose by Mother Nature herself. 

If anything about this land were natural, thought Taran.

Finally, his eyes locked with a set of sunken sockets, a face of taut flesh pulled back in a blood-curdling grin. Below the chin sagged a chest plate, rusted and bloated, under which ran a violet tunic laced with cobwebs. Bony legs were splayed out, arms to either side with one resting on an empty scabbard; a crusty sword lay just out of reach of the right hand, coated in what could have been barnacles in the solitary lamplight. 

“G—Gwen!” Taran fumbled with the chat button on his headset, his breath trapped in his throat.

The getup was ages old, rusted as if it had been submerged for centuries amid a sunken wreck. The corpse itself didn’t seem that ancient in comparison. Bleached bone shone through sections of tissue that hadn’t all withered, the greening skin rebelling against the ages, betraying the clothing’s medieval aesthetic.

“Gwen? Control? Ah, screw it.”

Thunder boomed overheard, the storm on top of the dead tree field at last.

Tearing his gaze from the body with great difficulty, Taran plodded alongside the tether, frequently glancing at the war-torn clouds as they fired out claws of forked lightning. 

#

It was not natural.

It was not right.

Night lasted barely four hours, a night spent counting the minutes and hearing out for all manner of arcane terrors stalking the glens. Eventually, a light had returned to warm a vale that had now taken on a decaying odour.

Scurrying from his makeshift shelter, Morcant rubbed at his eyes, feeling the dark ringlets around them. He was now convinced, more so than ever, that this was Meamoor no longer.

Gehenna.

The word echoed, not like the whispers he had heard previous within the confines of his iron helm, but an echo in his heart that threatened to drag his chest downward. Firmin’s suspicions of a dawning purgatory he had written off sharply as soon as they tumbled from the chap’s whiskered mouth, the incessant ramblings of the village bumpsy. 

Perhaps the elderly sop was right.

Turning, Morcant could see for miles up the pathways he had descended the day before. Black shapes standing upright appeared to dot the browning hillsides, the villagers he had passed. Except now, they weren’t staring skyward.

Now, they stared downhill, eyes aglow. 

Tiny hairs stood on the back of his neck as he met their gaze, a chill wriggling down his spine. Morcant grunted, turning away. His stomach gurgled with pain; it had been some time since he had eaten. True enough, he would have hunted where possible, but there had not been any sign of wildlife.

The eyes on the hillside burned through his tunic and plate.

Another shadow emerged, this one mere feet from him. It was so close Morcant wondered how he had not caught it sooner. He attributed it to his sleepless evening, his full day without feasting. No, this figure was as tall as the others

—taller than the others you have slain—  

and if he could put his blade in its belly swiftly, perhaps he could move it away from the hordes of judgmental eyes watching from the hill.

He stepped lightly, his remaining plate clinking gently. The figure paid no mind. The creature shimmered, its edges wavering and its form unsolid. Morcant would have cried heresy had he seen a creature such as this in Meamoor. Back then, however, he wasn’t hungry.

We ate whatever the peasants offered—

Sword drawn; he shot an upward slash. The blade, jutting from the hunched back, took on some of the being’s shimmer. Morcant panted, whipping it free and wiping the blood, if he could call it so, on his dust-laden tunic.

The body fell forward, slumping into the muck by his boots. His stomach growled, primeval in its delivery, a messenger for the hunger.

Morcant looked back up the hill just the once, the silent gathering watching him feast. Each time he cast a look back, his mouth would be caked ever more so with gore.

Notions of Gehenna rarely entered his mind after that. Nor did much, for that matter.

“Dr Rosson, the machinery is struggling!”

“I don’t care, he’s been radio silent for too long.”

The pulley strained with metallic aches, a foot of the cord flopping back through the X-point. They nearly had him, if it could keep going—

“This should be him!” she gasped, spotting the steel bolts of the enviro-suit attachment lurching from the swirling gateway.

With a final yank, the cord was belched out.

The screams were a symphony.

What was left of Taran Pyley slopped into the cavern, still attached, smacking into the dust. 

Rigor mortis was obvious, until Dr Gwen Rosson explained she had been in radio communication with him not five minutes prior to having the team whisk him from the magnetic portal. The bite marks, the cleaved hole in Taran’s abdomen— both mysteries in their own right, an impossible discussion that keeps the lights on at the physics department of the University of Utah long after the campus has wound down in the evenings.

As for the X-point: following its revealed sudden closure in the cave system, Dr Gwen Rosson began offering a small cash reward for whomever could find them the next magnetic opening, convinced answers regarding the untimely death of Dr Taran Pyley were preserved within.

Her and her team are still searching to this day.

END.

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Mihaela Melnic

Orgastic Carnage

I see patches of unattainable happiness 

scattered around 

and they look like wasted seed 

in conclusion of acts that were 

meant to be of love

while everything appears as a labour 

of Shiva in motion

in the fauces of the cosmos

and we’re all either blessed or screwed

in a carnage somehow orgastic when

the victims generate pleasure

to those born executioners 

I see creation and destruction as two links 

of the same mighty chain 

but nobody makes it out of here alive

except, perhaps,


those living within their space pills

floating in thin air outside of their 

mental straightjackets

Motion Pictures and Myths

I’ve just returned from the movies.

Once home, Morpheus can’t stand me,

I have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to deal with – mirror rehearsal.

Film directors pull me out of my hinges 

with their overly romanced realities. 

They make me want to uncork what needs 

to be uncorked

and decant what comes out. 

The chimera within me still roars and howls 

at my heart of glass

that ages ago rolled off the peak 

of the profane mount of flesh that I am. 

Shards everywhere – be careful 

if you stick around.

The Firmament’s Consistency

Dazzled by wealth – impassable wall between 

you and happiness. Protection or coercion?

Unfathomable distinction.

Where are my loves, my resources, 

my future torn 

from my walking carcass? 

Where has the earth gone 

from under my feet?  

Where are you? Where am I? 

When was the natural 

order of things reversed?

The sky alone gives tokens of strength 

and coherence

pinned as it is, in its leaden clouds’ hinges.

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Maksym Beshlei

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Duane Vorhees

WHEN THEY LOVE US NOT  

When the ones we want to love us  

leave no doubt they’ve left us behind,  

should we loll around, scavengers  

of leftovers lying around?  

Or should we collate our losses  

like alarmed lieutenants behind  

the lines, wannabe avengers  

of honor lost on those martial routs?  

THEY FADE AWAY

Memories — my dear comrades of old

(The fire we braved!

And the rations and the women

we shared!) — They’ve renounced

their rank and lost distinction.

Though still attached to my boots

they cower behind.

They have become shadows

and behind my back they conspire

to disappear in the shade

to camouflage their remnant connection

to all the wars and occupations,

the courts martial and commendations

that shaped my life’s deployment.

SHADOW MONARCHS

Courage is not just the medal, and love not the ring.

Our identities transcend our organs, nerves, and bones.

No ideas, no concepts, are ever concrete things,

and neither are the handsome words by which they are known.

The world we see is made of steel, stone, plastic, glass, wood,

material structures made of molecules, atoms,

nucleons, hadrons, quarks, firmions, and other coulds

and shoulds (names await definition of a datum).

We preside over realms of rebars and 2X4s
but we’re subjects of shadow monarchs called metaphors.

QUATUM RELATIVITY

and beginnings end and ends begin.

eternities move ahead and back.

our present is our time to butcher

before the now determines our fast.

in the spot between gone and again

all whitenesses contain shades of black.

some poets remember the future and other poets create the past

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Shane Allison

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: James Duncan

Fedora

window arteries of black rain 

stream through red apoplectic 

lights of neon and bitter halogen 

where the moonlight dies reaching 

for empty holsters, guns gone, 

carried away by the hands of the clock, 

hour of agony in this office overlooking 

34th Street, rain and chaos, knots of taxis,

umbrellas like beetles scurry to subway

stairs down into the darkness, but up here 

there is only death and dust, each a stabbing 

accusation telling me there is a grinning 

devil somewhere out there crushing a headstone 

with delight; he waits with a gasoline smile, 

as I wait with an empty whisky bottle, 

a hand without a gun, white bones burdened 

by shame, craving time to make this last crime 

correct, but all the time I already wasted 

in this life is just an unsigned confession 

they’ll lay on my chest before they close 

the casket, a sentence six feet deep where 

I’ll have to make do with unrequited love,

unfinished business, a silken kiss in the dark, 

but never the red curtain falling to applause, 

my heart forever one beat shy of love

Transience 

Stray and I talked about walking from New York City 

to San Francisco and I always worried he’d kill himself 

before we had the chance, but then jobs and money started 

coming in again and those long walks along farm roads 

faded, the nights under train bridges dissolved, the crickets 

and little crinkle of fire deafening in our ears as subways 

and traffic held us in place with new jobs, new homes, new 

futures, and maybe it was for the best that we didn’t go…

but 

Stray, old friend, I wish 

we tried—the fact that you even asked 

was joy enough for one wayward lifetime, 

and I thank you

Driver Dave

he drove my Toyota backward

all the way through Greenwich

I followed him on foot, such a 

lonely parade at 11 at night

a small farm town on the edge of

nowhere, the clutch long gone

the only gear that stilled worked 

was reverse, so he said he’d do it

I thought it was too crazy to try myself,

but he made it, 5 mph the whole way 

Dave, browbeaten by life, living in a rented 

room after his wife asked for a separation

though not a divorce, that was too much,

too final, too sad, but he’d never return

he’d spend the rest of his days driving

backward through his life, slow and crazy

willing to try anything, nothing to lose,

later stealing my car from the mechanic’s lot

when the mechanic tried to screw me over,

leaving burn-out ruts in the muddy lawn

the mechanic calling me, screaming for his bill,

but Dave said, forget him, he doesn’t know anything

and returned to his rented room to drink alone

as I listened to the phone ring and wonder what to do

my muddy car hiding under a tarp, the clutch gone,

and so many miles ahead of me with no way forward

A Case of the Mondays

it is 4:30 a.m. and dawn is

somewhere—but not here

sirens came through the night and

the curtains, but now—silence

they say they’ll pay us double

they say they’ll pay us triple

they keep the lights on and

the registers open, they keep

the time clocks ticking even

though the world clocks are

grinding to a halt on every

continent around the globe

it is 4:45 a.m. and dawn is

not coming—not anymore

of course, the sun will rise but

that isn’t the same thing, is it?

they say the stock market crash is

good for us, it will help, like they

said the stock market soaring was

good nine months ago—it’s all

bedtime stories told by men in

ties who don’t know anything

about anything worthwhile now,

but they say Wall Street is open

even though Main Street is dead

it is 5:09 a.m. and dawn is the glow

of distant fires on the horizon

you pick up your phone but there is no

society found in those wires anymore

your work badge and the last of your 

sandwich meat in the last of your bread

waits in your work bag by the door, as

smoke fills the sky, blurring the neighbor’s

American flag and red political lawn signs

that neighbor hasn’t come outside in days

that neighbor will never come outside again

it is 6:30 a.m. and you hope the end 

will be quick, but you also know better 

you rise; you open the door to another shift on Earth,

the monetization of your soul relentless and unending

and disappear 

into the fog

VOICES FROM THE FIRE:Milenko Županović

Tesla

In love with a pigeon

without memory of his homeland

in a distant land

magic and physics

merges into the same thing.

Thunder Juggler

stolen and powerless

it leaves a huge mark on humanity.

And so in the dark

at the end of the tunnel

you can see the light

called Nikola Tesla.

Robert Johnson

At the crossroads 

of life

he made 

a pact 

with the devil

and became 

the blues alchemist

with his music

opens the gates 

of heaven.

Sign

Twelve 

shapes

of the same

 dance

in front 

of the cathedral

has been 

repeated 

for centuries

mystical ritual

of dead sailors.

Milenko

Bell

Tower 

as a shield

silent

 voice

it reaches 

everyone

who 

have will

to hear.

FEMME FATALE DOUBLE FEATURE!

HA! Got your attention with that one you little grind-house slush-puppies!

Closing out this week Friday and starting September off right TWO., yes two fantastic authors I have gotten know over time and are actually influencing my own work along with where I’d like to take Dumpster Fire Press after our one year hiatus in 2023…

But to hell with all that, let’s get to the good stuff!

Leah Mueller’s MISGUIDED BEHAVIOR: TALES OF POOR LIFE CHOICES

Cover by Dillinger

I didn’t want to do this book… being in the middle of another anthology and cutting seven titles from DFP’s release schedule as I came to a decision to shut things down… temporarily…

However… I can’t resist good storytelling and quality writing which if you’ve read Leah in the past, it’s definitely something one cannot pass up…

After coming across each other within the online poetry scene, publishing Leah in VOICES FROM THE FIRE, BEDROOM ANATOMOY LESSONS as well as WORLD ON FIRE: PROPAGANDIE you’d understand poetically, hell LAND OF ETERNAL THIRST AND OTHER STORIES by her still remains one of the best collections of fiction Dumpster Fire Press has published in our brief time.

In this collection, you’ll find a whole slew of misguided behavior and poor life choices infused with charm, wit, contemplative brutality, and meditative comprehension. Even a chance to develop and grow in your manner via some haphazard literary assistance.

Not quite pulpy smut nor what is considered “high-end” lit but definitely not mainstream… Leah Mueller has penned a counter-classic manual stranger than fiction, painting with words the real world we actually inhabit through the reality-hunger guises one needs to shed. Between hardboiled and classy.

The Lust Peddlers

             “Hello, this is Tracey.  Which ad are you answering?”

            “Tracey.  This is Bob.” The man paused briefly, and I could hear the furtive sound of rustling trouser fabric. Bob forged ahead: “I saw an ad in the back of the Reader. It says, ‘Meet sexy friends who like to travel. Call Tracey.” There was a deep silence, fraught with one-sided tension. “Will these women really come long distance to meet me?”

            Every call began in this manner. Every woman who answered the phone was Tracey, unless one of the men probed further, and we wanted to close the sale. At that point, it was safe to reveal our Phone Slut names, so we could create the illusion of intimacy. My Phone Slut name was Melissa, but most of the time, I preferred the anonymity of Tracey. Tracey got the job done.

            My job entailed selling packets of women’s names, addresses, and phone numbers for $25.00 to men who were horny but lazy. It was 1980, and phone sex for hire was still nonexistent. However, the lust for phone sex was raging and omnipresent, and men called Tracey all the time.

Sometimes, an especially desperate man ordered one of the packets. A few days later, a thick envelope stuffed with the names of traveling swingers arrived at his doorstep. The postal carrier collected the COD charges and left the hapless buyer with a worthless list.

Astonishingly, many of the women’s names had originally been obtained through legitimate means. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, 300 desperate females had agreed to have their contact information provided to a nation of sexually starved would-be Lotharios. Now, several months later, most of the phone numbers on the list were disconnected.

            The boss, Bill, was rarely around, but his photograph hung in our office. In the picture, Bill and his wife Jo Ann sat naked on a Naugahyde couch. Bill’s legs were spread wide, and an expression of cartoonish ecstasy was plastered on his face. Jo Ann grasped his enormous penis firmly in one hand. Above the photo, someone had written “Our fearless leaders!” in bold lettering. It was best to sit with our backs to the photo and pretend it didn’t exist.

            We did have a supervisor-Lorraine, a statuesque woman who was in the process of an ongoing sex change operation. Lorraine’s salary was so low that the process had to be done in installments. She sported perfect melon breasts, but rumor held that she was still saving up to have her penis removed. Lorraine didn’t talk about her penis. She was a cheerful woman, with a good sense of humor, and she allowed us to do whatever we wanted.

            Most of the time, we wanted to ridicule the men who called TNT Enterprises. These fellows believed that sexually ravenous women would spend several hundred dollars on plane fare so they could exchange body fluids with strange men who lived on the opposite end of the continent.

Some of the guys were slightly cleverer. They bypassed the sales process and attempted to pull us directly into their fantasies. One of my favorites was a man who liked to play a porn tape in the background while I discussed the benefits of obtaining Tracey’s list. Whenever I picked up the phone for one of his calls, I could hear pre-recorded voices screaming “Oh, YES!” in the background.

            A few seconds into my pitch, the fellow always asked, “Can you excuse me a moment?” and turned his face away from the receiver. He then shouted, “Would the two of you be QUIET?! I’m trying to use the phone!” He returned to our conversation immediately afterward. “I don’t know why they’re always going at it,” he’d say with sheepish exasperation. 

            A particularly frightening man called several times a week while masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. We could hear the electrified sucking noise. It nearly drowned out the man’s voice, which was surprisingly timid. “I’m using a vacuum cleaner on my dick,” he’d say quietly. We ridiculed him without mercy. “Why, is it really dirty?” one of us would howl, to which he always replied, “Yes.  Very dirty.  I’ve been so bad.”

            This wasn’t surprising, since Chicago was a Catholic town. But, as Bill had hugely successful ads in a variety of national publications, it became clear that the entire country was pretty fucked up. He was on a mission to provide sexual relief to as many men as possible, and even appeared on a local radio show, proclaiming, “I’m offering an essential service for a reasonable fee. In New York, I’d be a pornographer.  In Chicago, I’m a philosopher.” No one had the slightest idea what he meant.

            It was rumored that Bill and Jo Ann lived in a 20-room mansion in one of the northern suburbs. It was also rumored that Bill’s doctors had given him a prescription for the maximum allowable dosage of pharmaceutical anti-depressants.

Meanwhile, his minions labored above a secondhand store on Howard Street, while seated at mismatched tables that were covered with nests of haphazardly arranged phones. Our pay was five dollars an hour, plus a five-dollar bonus for each guy who actually paid for his packet when it arrived at his door.

            My co-workers and I were in our early twenties-a ragged crew of misfits who were unable, for various reasons, to hold any sort of corporate job. The bespectacled, pimply fellow who wrote our ad copy held a journalism degree from Northwestern University. He’d wanted to be a screenwriter, but somehow landed a job churning out porn instead. We had sex occasionally, even though he was in love with Astrid, a blonde German girl who usually sat to my left. All of us were cynical beyond our years, a fact that was exacerbated by the sordid nature of our job. We were too young to handle our daily immersion into the shadow side of male sexuality, so we ruthlessly made fun of it instead.

            Other than Lorraine, the only middle-aged employee was a woman named Martha. None of us could fathom why she had decided to work for TNT Enterprises. I suspected that she was in the throes of a particularly difficult midlife crisis. Martha had a comparatively lucrative day job, working as a secretary for the Chicago Board of Education. She was married to a cop, but after 20 years, she could no longer stand the sight of him.

Martha’s husband was extremely upset by her decision to moonlight as a Phone Slut. He called constantly, demanding to speak to her, threatening to use his vast network of police connections to shut the phone room down. Obviously, his connections were not as helpful as he imagined, because cops often walked past the door of our building, without so much as a glance in our direction.

            All of us had repeat callers, men who requested us by name, but Martha was the worst of the lot. She had several suitors who phoned insistently. They always asked shyly, “Please, can I speak to Miss Martha?” We’d hand Martha the receiver and then watch, dumbfounded and amused, as she spun a completely inauthentic web of enchantment around the poor fools.

Martha had a puzzling weakness for Southern men with thick, almost unintelligible accents, men who said “ma’am” and “I’m fixing to come” while they masturbated. Martha egged them on because she had nothing else to do except go home and listen to torrents of abuse.  Who could blame her, really?

            For several weeks in a row, Martha had carried on with a man named Buddy. Buddy’s accent was straight out of “Deliverance.” He owned a gas station in Alabama, in a town so tiny that he was on a first-name basis with all of its inhabitants. The work was abysmally dull, and Buddy was lonely. All the girls he’d fancied in high school were married to football stars and wealthy farming magnates, and every day he had to sell soda and candy bars to their grimy, demanding children.          

            Buddy was in love with Martha, and he wanted desperately to meet her. He proclaimed his love fervently and loudly. We could hear him all over the phone room, as we sat in our chairs with our hands over our mouths, trying desperately not to laugh. There was something poignant about Buddy’s ardor, and we were reluctant to hurt his feelings. Also, the routine was so entertaining that we didn’t want to hasten its ending.

            Three days beforehand, Martha had looked especially rattled when she hung up the phone. “I’ve gone too far. Buddy purchased an airplane ticket, and he’s flying out to meet me next Thursday. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’ve been leading him on this entire time. What the hell should I do?” None of us had an answer.

            I was deliberating about the possibility of going home early one uncharacteristically mellow night, when my phone jangled sharply. I lifted the receiver, and Buddy’s thick twang assaulted my eardrums. “Is Martha there, ma’am?” he asked politely.

I placed my hand over the mouthpiece and gestured towards Martha. She shook her head vehemently, a look of terror in her eyes. “I can’t,” she whispered. “Could you talk to him? Tell him I quit or something.”

            Resolutely, I removed my hand from the mouthpiece. “I have terrible news, Buddy,” I said, without missing a beat. “Martha quit a couple of days ago. She got up from her desk and said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ Then she walked out the door, and no one has heard from her since.”

            There was brief, stunned silence, then Buddy emitted a low, shuddering gasp. “Oh no,” he said.  “Did she tell anybody where she was going? Does anyone know where she lives?”

            “I’m afraid not,” I replied. “None of us can say we really knew Martha.” I paused for a moment and gazed around the room. Astrid and Lorraine were convulsed with silent laughter, slumped over their desks, their shoulders heaving.

Struck by sudden inspiration, I reached over to a stack of papers on my desk and jostled it slightly. “Wait, here’s an envelope,” I said. “It says ‘To Buddy, from Martha.’ Let me open it.” I rustled the papers again. “Dear Buddy, I am so sorry, but we can never be together. I will always love you and treasure our conversations. Please forgive me.”

             Buddy burst into tears. “Oh God,” he sobbed. “I loved her so much.”

            “I know, Buddy,” I intoned solemnly. “We all did. At least she left a note.”

            “She was a wonderful person,” Buddy wept. “If you see her, tell her I still love her.”

            “I certainly will,” I assured him. There was another long pause, punctuated by strangled sobs and gulping noises, as Buddy attempted to get a handle on his emotions. I waited patiently, while my co-workers writhed on their desks, trying desperately to contain their laughter. Obviously, Buddy was irrevocably shattered by Martha’s defection, and I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t fall apart before he even had the chance to hang up. Nothing remained for him now, except for his gas station duties and the unrelenting bleakness of the town in which he resided.

            Buddy’s sobs gradually subsided. “I have to go.” I removed the receiver from my ear and prepared to return it to its cradle. “Goodbye and good luck.”

Buddy suddenly regained the power of speech. “Wait!” he cried. “I have one more question.”

            “Sure.” I felt willing to do anything that would offer succor to the poor man. Perhaps… I could say something that would help him get through his next few, tortured days.

            “What’s YOUR name?” he asked.

The Soothsayer’s Gift

I am the tarot reader of Vashon Highway. I sit outside in a 10X10 pop-up tent on an island that is only accessible to the mainland by ferry. As I perch in my folding chair, plying my trade, streams of cars pass in intermittent bursts. People stare through their windows at my setup. They are not in need of spiritual insight.

In an hour, I will cross the street to Subway for a six-inch vegetarian sandwich. Supposedly, the buns are made from the same chemicals as yoga mats. This could be an urban legend. I’m hungry and inclined to take chances with my health. Also, I’m an optimist. There is no way a pessimist could be out on this highway.

            A young man pedals towards me on a decrepit bicycle, then grinds to an uncertain halt in front of my tent. “Are you a tarot reader?”

 I nod and indicate the cards in front of me. “That’s cool,” he says, glancing at the deck. “I like the Star card.”

“It’s my favorite,” I assure him. “Would you like a reading?”

“No, I’m on my way to see my spiritual master.”

            He rides in circles for a couple of minutes, deep in thought. Finally, he waves goodbye and takes off down the road, rear wheel wobbling on the bumpy surface. There is a sudden burst of ferry traffic, and finally stillness again. I buy my sandwich and devour it, yoga mat chemicals and all.

A few minutes later, I spot the man again. He bears down upon me with a sense of urgency that would have alarmed a less intuitive person. I smile politely as he comes to a halt in front of my tent. “How was your visit with your spiritual master?”

            “I’ve just been riding around. I’m going there in a little while. Can I look at your deck again?”

 I glance from right to left, but no one is queuing up for a consultation. “Okay.”

He dismounts from his bike, scoops a card from the table, and stares at it. “The Sun. That’s another good one.”

 I nod, and he returns the card to the table. He climbs on his bike, prepares to depart, but reconsiders. Tilting his head towards me in a conspiratorial manner, he whispers, “You want some bud?”

            “Sure,” I reply, without hesitation.

He plants his feet on the ground and yanks a backpack from his shoulders. Looking furtively from left to right, he unties a nylon rope at the top of the pack.

I don’t understand the reason for his subterfuge. Marijuana is legal in Washington state. Still, the man is taking no chances. He peels the pack open. It is filled to overflowing with loose marijuana buds. He reaches deep into the interior, pulls out a bulging handful of cannabis. “I’ve got more than I can use. Do you have a place to put it?”

            Wordlessly, I reach underneath my folding table and extract my purse. I flip it open with one trembling hand and reach forward with the other. The man presses the cannabis into my palm and smiles. 

“Thanks so much.” I clench my fingers around the bundle and place it in my purse without looking to see how large it is.

My benefactor stares intently at the road, afraid to meet my eyes. “No problem. Thanks for the conversation. I’m going to see my spiritual master now.” He secures the pack with the rope, hoists it over his shoulders, and pedals away. 

            I peek inside the purse, run my fingers over the buds. There are a lot of them. My purse is completely stuffed with marijuana. The man has given me almost a quarter ounce of high-grade cannabis. Moist, fragrant clumps cover my bills and debit card.

Meanwhile, my benefactor rides his bike furiously along the main highway, with a couple of extra pounds of marijuana bursting through the seams of his backpack. His spiritual master will be so happy to see him.

Well, I certainly didn’t see that one coming.

Other People Ruin Everything

I rarely go to the Blue Moon anymore. Too many of my bar friends have died. The remaining ones have turned into pudgy old vampires. They press their asses against stools and drink beer and shots while they watch the Mariners game on a pockmarked overhead television. Just looking at the place makes my liver hurt. I’d much rather stay home and sip a glass or two of wine while I carefully monitor my intake.

 Last night, I experienced a sudden desire to visit my old hangout. After parking on a side street three blocks away, I trudged towards the bar. A cluster of men leaned against the outside wall, puffing on cigarettes. Not long ago, marijuana was illegal in Washington, and folks stepped into the alley for a furtive toke. Now, indoor cigarette smoking is forbidden, and people must leave the bar for their nicotine fixes.

            I peered at the group and noticed, to my delight, that the owner was there. George’s face lit up when he saw me. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a friendly, boozy hug, then smiled, revealing a row of nicotine-stained teeth.

George had aged a lot since the last time I’d seen him, five years earlier. His leathery face was creased from years of heavy tobacco use. “How the hell are you?” he asked. “Are you coming in for a beer? I hope so.”

            I nodded. “I was driving past and had an urge to stop. It’s been more than a blue moon since the last time I was here.”

            George pulled the door open, and I stepped into the cavernous interior. The place hadn’t changed at all. Its walls were stained a permanent shade of brown, a remnant of decades of patrons’ continuous smoking. Above the battle-scarred booths, hundreds of disheveled books littered the wooden shelves.

In all my years of drinking at the Moon, I’d never seen anyone crack open one of the volumes. The literary motif existed as an homage to famous writers who pickled their brains at the bar—Tom Robbins, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, and scores of others. According to rumor, Robbins once placed a collect call to Pablo Picasso from the wall pay phone, but the master declined to accept the charges.

            I sat down carefully on one of the barstools and ordered a pint from the bartender. A line of men glanced in my direction, then looked away. It was a furtive but calculated maneuver that I recalled from my earlier years when I was an aspiring alcoholic in search of adventure.

 Though happy hour had just begun, the bar was only half-full. To my left sat a fellow with a round face and a porn-star mustache. HIs half-empty glass rested on a nearby coaster.

            The man on my right was having a hard time remaining in his chair. He grinned at me and reached for his shot glass, almost toppling it in the process. “You from Greenlake?” he slurred.

I realized, with a shock, that I looked like an affluent Seattle matron in my clogs and camel’s hair coat. Many of the men at the bar had probably slept in their clothes. “No, I’m from Tacoma.” I spotted a bowl of peanuts on the bar, shoved it in his direction. “Have some peanuts. You seem like you could use the nutrition.” 

            This sort of cheeky comment was typical for the establishment. The Moon is one of the few Seattle bars where inebriated men regularly yell “Fuck!” at the top of their lungs. Women must leave politeness at the door or be eaten alive.

            The fellow laughed and swayed on his stool. “YOU have some peanuts.” He shoved the bowl in my direction. Then he scooped up his shot glass, took a huge gulp, and signaled for another.

            The man on my left was more eager to talk and had better control of his faculties. “I can tell by looking at you that you’re not part of the Matrix.”

 “I met a CIA agent in Puerto Vallarta when I was there with George,” he continued. “The guy knew everything. He told me this: when the eclipse comes, don’t be at the place of totality. Be a little bit west or a little bit east. But don’t be in the exact path, because then you won’t get the full visuals.”

            “What full visuals?” I swiveled in my seat, so I could better hear my new friend. Obviously, a long narrative was forthcoming, and I needed to look like I was paying attention.

The man grinned, pleased by my friendliness. “I’m Don.” He extended a beefy hand. “George and I met on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, and I learned that he owns the Moon. Now we party together in Mexico every year. Anyway, this CIA dude wouldn’t tell me what I’d see. He just told me to LOOK, man.”

            I continued to nod, feeling like one of those swivel-necked dogs on the dashboard of an old person’s car. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to appease him. The guy seemed so earnest, and in dire need of someone who would listen. I just happened to land on the stool next door.

“I took his advice,” Don continued. “Me and my buddies went a bit inland. We woke up that morning, had our coffee, and looked at the sky. It got dark real fast, and the next thing I knew, the sun was covered, except for that frame of light around the edges. I figured I’d better take a picture before it was gone forever.”

Don reached into his pocket, pulled out a battered cell phone. He scrolled through a few photos, then stopped and gazed at me expectantly. Holding the phone in front of my nose, he pointed at an image with one chubby forefinger. “Take a look at THAT. There’s no logical explanation.”

I squinted at the image. The eclipse—a huge black dot outlined with a bright cornea of sunlight—sat squarely in the center of the photo. On its left hovered a moon-shaped sliver. The object hung in the sky like an illuminated toenail.

“See that?” Don hissed. “The CIA guy told me to check out the left side of the eclipse. He said I’d be shocked by what I saw.”

I continued to stare at his photo, trying my hardest to come up with a logical explanation. The image appeared solid, and radiated an eerie, celestial glow. “That’s incredible,” I murmured. “What could it possibly be?”

Don gazed at me, face solemn. “Damned if I know. But isn’t it amazing?”

I nodded, and Don took a thoughtful sip from his beer. “Hey, are you hungry? I’m about to order a whole mess of pizzas.”

I smiled politely. “Sorry, I don’t eat dairy products. But thanks for asking.”

I rose from my stool and wandered into the rest room. The Blue Moon’s lavatory graffiti was legendary, known throughout Seattle for its semi-cogent, philosophical ramblings. There were many scrawled references to the sexual prowess of male patrons.

My old drinking buddy Dan was immortalized on the women’s rest room wall for several years during the 1990s. The scrawled homage had puzzled me, since I’d never found Dan appealing as a potential romantic partner. His diplomat parents raised their only son within the confines of luxury hotels, so Dan exuded a seedy, yet aristocratic air. That probably explained the mystery of his popularity. But his alcoholism caught up with him several years later, and he became a bar ghost.

I wandered into a stall and sat down on the edge of the toilet. Graffiti swirled above my head. “Layne Staley is the most beautiful man God ever created.” “If you have the right glasses, it gets even bigger.” “Anal Nicole Smith.” “I love you Layne! Your girlfriend, Debby.”

Layne Staley seemed to inspire a great deal of posthumous love. This struck me as tragic, since the poor man lay in his apartment for several days after his fatal overdose, and no one ever came to check on him. His neighbors thought he was a strange guy who kept to himself. They didn’t realize he was famous. Some of them probably even owned Alice in Chains albums.

After I finished peeing, I noticed the best graffiti of all: “Other People Ruin Everything.” Truer words were never inscribed in a rest room. Not just “people”, mind you, but “OTHER people.” Of course, Sartre said it first, and better. But the graffiti was damn good for a rest room wall.

Though I shared the writer’s sense of isolation, I’d never managed to articulate it so plainly. Both Sartre and the bar philosopher understood abject loneliness. As did Layne Staley. And me.

I ran my hands under the sink water and stepped back into the bar, feeling melancholy. Dan’s graffiti had long evaporated, his memory buried under layers of paint. Don was already deep in conversation with another patron, a young Hispanic man who looked unblemished and cheerful. Give him another twenty years, I thought.

I leaned towards George. “Hey, how is Mark Preston? Last I heard, he went home to Ohio to live with his folks.”

George shook his head. “He’s back. Parents can only deal with so much. I think he’s homeless. He comes in sometimes, sits in the corner. He’s already shitfaced by then, so he doesn’t order a lot.”

He paused for a moment, took a slug of beer from his pint glass. “Saddest thing of all is that he doesn’t have his fiddle anymore. He fell asleep on a park bench, and somebody stole it.”

Mark and I remained close friends for two decades. As his drinking increased and his marriage collapsed, we lost touch with each other. For years, he played bluegrass fiddle with the withered old pros at Folklife Festival, elderly folks who wore bib overalls and hailed from places like Twisp and Cle Elum. The group respected Mark because he played like he was from the holler and wasn’t some aspiring Microsoft executive who got a violin for Christmas.

“It’s not as easy as you might think to drink yourself to death.” George rotated on his stool and smiled.

 George’s eyes looked astonishingly clear and direct. He’d spent forty years in the bar trenches and reminded me of an old sage. You don’t get to be the owner of a historic dive bar in the U-District if you’re an idealist.

People had lived and died on the Moon’s barstools, and their ghosts hovered in the corners of the ancient booths. George watched the stories unfold and knew the outcomes before anyone else did. Poor Mark wasn’t a ghost yet, but it wouldn’t be long.

“Seattle has changed a lot,” I said. “It’s hard to make it if you’re not rich. When I first moved here in ‘85, my rent was ninety bucks. Now, studio apartments set you back almost two grand a month. Where do people get that kind of money?”

“Goddamn software. The new Seattle gold rush.” George took another swig of beer from his glass. “I’m pretty much retired now. My daughter runs the bar, and I’m only here one day a week. That suits me fine.”

The front door opened, and a man entered, carrying a pile of pizzas. “Where the hell should I put these things?” he demanded. 

After a bit of scuffling, Don and a couple of other patrons managed to clear space on one of the side tables. They stacked the pizza boxes on top of each other and opened the top one, exposing a mass of cheese and pepperoni.

Several men left their stools and wandered towards the boxes. The fellow on my right remained in his seat for a moment, looking baffled. He rose abruptly, almost upsetting his half-full shot glass. “Bout time dinner got here,” he giggled.

I returned my attention to George. He lowered his eyes from the television and regarded me thoughtfully. “I work as little as possible. I’ve done my time. Happy hour used to be a mob scene. These days, the stools and booths are half-empty, except Friday and Saturday nights.”

I remembered the 1980’s-era happy hour crowd—a loud, ribald group of tie-dyed misfits who crowded around the bar, ordering pitcher after pitcher of Rainier. Now, a handful of people clung to their seats like barnacles, drinking slowly to avoid spending money too fast.

I took a final sip from my second beer. Though I could feel the familiar Blue Moon suction pulling me into my stool, I knew better than to order a third pint. I rose to my feet, smiled at George. “I’d better go. It’s a long drive back to Tacoma.”

            George’s face broke into a grin, exposing his brown teeth. “So glad you stopped in, Leah.”    

            As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I heard a sickening crash. Someone had accidentally rammed one of the pizza boxes into an empty pint glass. Jagged shards flew in all directions. Sighing, the bartender grabbed a broom from the corner. George didn’t even blink. “Come back any time,” he said.

            I stepped across the threshold into the street and turned around once like Lot’s wife to look at my old haunt. The “Sorry, we’re open!” sign was long gone from the window. A few people still leaned against the alley wall, puffing on cigarettes.

I resumed walking, rounded the corner, and passed a line of parked cars. The narrow side street fronted 1-5 but was spared a full view of the freeway by a particularly hideous chain-link fence. I’d parked there many times during the 80s and 90s, when spaces were plentiful.

            The first two buildings on the block were slated for destruction, their windows covered with plywood. Yellow land-use signs disclosed new plans for high-rise boutique housing. I strolled past the condemned properties towards my waiting vehicle.

The walk seemed much longer than usual. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever having to park so far away from the Moon. Finally, after a couple more blocks, I spotted my car, right where I’d left it. A long piece of paper flapped underneath one of the wipers.

Goddammit, a fucking parking ticket.

I yanked the paper from the window, stared at its tiny print, and scowled. Zoned parking only, violation fee sixty bucks. Jesus Christ, when did the city of Seattle turn a glorified alley into a cash cow for the city? Like everything else, it happened when I wasn’t looking.

I glanced down the street and finally saw the new sign, protruding from the cement like a middle finger. Its dark lettering proclaimed the city’s intention to fine anyone who dared to park on the block without a permit.

I unlocked my vehicle, hurled the ticket towards the back seat. I’d have to pay the damn fine, since I couldn’t think of an argument that would stand up in court. Still scowling, I pulled into the road, remembering the bathroom graffiti. “Other People Ruin Everything.” I almost laughed out loud. It was the most accurate thing I’d heard all week.

On the other hand, most of us manage to do a damn good job all on our own.

Leah Mueller is the author of ten prose and poetry books. Her work appears in Rattle, NonBinary Review, Glint, Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, etc. She is a 2022 nominee for Best of the Net. Her flash piece, “Land of Eternal Thirst” (first published by Dumpster Fire Press) will appear in the 2022 edition of Sonder Press’ “Best Small Fictions” anthology. Visit her website at www.leahmueller.org.

Next up we Carmen Grover’s book STOP LOOK & BE! TRIED AND TRUE “SNAP-OUT OF IT” TALES….an interesting origin as this was born out of a series of inquiries and lively correspondence in the last few months with Carmen being a previous contributor to VOICES FROM THE FIRE…

Cover by Shane Allison

Every so often you come across a “unique” individual in the world of indie publishing and that usually translates into the something residing the Negative Zone exuding such fine traits such as… narcissism, excessive neediness or my personal favorite deep-seated levels of mistrust that has one, so you bewildered you wondered why they submitted anything in the first place.

I first came across Carmen via FB messenger…let’s be honest here…every publisher/writer hates being accosted there whether it’s “Hey good evening from Nigeria” or “What are the submissions guidelines?” (why have a website?) She had just finished reading Brenda Christie’s STRANDS OF STRUGGLE, she was shopping a concept around for a book which I felt like having a flaming dumpster for a logo, we really weren’t quite the right home for such a title.

But that doesn’t mean the correspondence ended. Carmen submitted to VOICES FROM THE FIRE… we liked what we read. She even had an idea for a book of poetry and prose. I was all up for it. See… being a counterculture doesn’t mean you have to be doom and gloom all the time and that’s what I dig about her work.

A playful micro collection of poetry and prose about reconnecting with nature, profound loss, rejuvenation and hope mixed with a hearty and heartfelt sense of humor. It’s one of the reason I didn’t separate the poetry and prose into different sections. This is a work that deserves it’s own, go with the flow structure.

The Golden Apple

For many years I pruned apple trees. In the beginning I started very hesitantly wanting every apple to stand a fighting chance. As I continued to learn the craft pruning became easier overtime more apples fell to the ground without wavering, they became easier to get rid of. This made more chance for bigger, juicier apples to bloom after all that was the point of it all. Still I would collect the seconds the ones that fell that were “good enough” for my family and friends. Later learning those rotten apples on the ground would nourish the tree to grow, acting as a fertilizer for the next year and so the cycle would continue.

One day I came across a new row of trees one I had not seen before. I started the process first pruning, opening up the tree to let the light shine in when I noticed all the apples were ugly brown and appeared dead. To give this dying tree a chance for life not having to use its efforts on keeping the fruits of its loins alive, letting the tree first live…I began stripping the tree this was simple there were not too many apples. They were all dead so letting them all fall to the ground clip by mighty clip. The boss came over. Feeling pretty proud of myself I stood tall…STOP!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! These are a special breed of apple a cross; new on the market my most prized expensively grafted apples.

The kings and queens of the land needed different, no longer interested in the juicy perfect apples, but a new kind all together. They no longer liked them apples. Wanting a taste of the forbidden fruit! Wanting something that sets them apart from all the other mere peasants in the land, flashing their wealth on this gourmet extravagant pomme.

These apples were tasty a mix between a pear and an apple. Both sweet and deliciously sour, soft yet supple with a gentle crunch! I still believe I did this tree and “it’s people a service”. I did not see the beauty in this apple this perfectly tempered genetically altered fruit to please the new craze until the next.

This new ugly dying strain existed for its revolutionary newness. For those needing something…something to show their status. Die forbidden apple tree and when you do that is when the real fruits flourish.

The Tree

That spot that you go

Where you are met as you are.

Where worries and to-dos are not.

Where getting to is not always easy.

Where you are alone, yet so comforted and loved.

Where you are spoken to with compassion from your own heart.

Where there is such nothingness that is everything-ness.

Where no one can touch you, but you are still connected with all things.

Where the birds know your name.

Where the grass cushions you,

the tree supports you,

the wind nourishes you,

the sky grounds you to your limitedness,

the sun calls you,

and the ants bite you, just a nibble,

To remind you that you are alive.

The kiss and taste of the place

That can always hold you,

That always is.

That saves our history’s stories for us to hear

whispered through the breeze, buzzes, chirps, bristles,

and the language of the rickety, old wise branches.

This Spot is our place.

This place that gives us the answers that we and ourselves before us always knew.

Take time to be at your Spot.

The Spot where all is lost and everything is found.

Listen with your heart.

There you find Heaven on earth.

Hold on to it tightly.

Don’t let it get away from your daily grasps.

Nature, and what we gain from its wisdom, never changes.

That Sound

Where is it coming from?

It is kind of loud

I can’t sleep

It isn’t icicles falling to the ground.

The noise is so sporadic,

Sometimes softer

To more of a PING

Oh my gosh,

It is the rabbit!!

As I try to sleep now I hear two noises

One loud

One quiet

Still irregular

Still random

At times in sync

Others- times in tandem!

Now these sounds are all I can help to focus on

Yet behind it all

There is a steady fan

It is probably the furnace

But it strings it all together

A gentle symphony

With its calming lull

I suddenly don’t hear the sounds

The sounds of the house

I don’t even question it anymore

I can sleep in this blissful lullaby

Of the house

Drifting to the noises that woke me

The noises when only focused on the sound behind it all

The sounds drift away

& are seemingly small.

Soles Pained By Time

A friendly face taking time…so much time to make a sandwich. Making sure all is right. Stop talking so that it doesn’t take longer the elder woman says. That extra step…pen to paper on a bag wishing us Bonne journee!

Never again will I travel with young kids. Pumping in the parking lot trying to change and feed everyone. Loosing toilets down town and shoes flying out the window onto the ground. I got to go pee! …I needed time…but you can’t take it in, quick don’t fall off that cliff! Meditating by the campfire…5 whole minutes…A man comes…you we’re so still I thought you were dead. Ahh! Another human that isn’t mine…trapped with the truth of our story’s…lost homes, relationships, changing jobs, changing lives that’s the point. A beer between us. 

There is never enough time to learn what connects us…escaping the past to make good times last. Time connects us our parents we no longer can live with our parents one day we have to watch the parent my kids love and adore…later the people we can’t stand to love. Never enough time. It’s not true we spend our time trying to escape: The truth of life and mortality. Make sense of the story’s to find the meaning of it all.

We only know us all in a moment of time at a glance it all changes only seeing what we can now. No crystal ball. Mom gets quieter the elders more stubborn. My own discoveries of discontent only my own. Too much time…how to do it, why do I bother. Kids will fight, folks will change, stories may unfold, our story, our life, you’re too old, stretch to screech to sleep.

No one leaves the walls. I want to feel but not too much, I want to function but not in a haze but I don’t want to miss out on the time of days. We spend life trying to learn how to function without our crutch and now I’m right back at it. To stay on or stay off to mess with my brain chemicals long term or to mess with my relationships. To use this disease as a curse. I see how it has helped me and my whole life I have wanted to be helped. Weak needing something and always searching for something. Trying to learn how to live with the tangled in chains generations of wiring. Anger that I lose control of…the whole day lost from one wrong start. To do lists on top on top on top. Time lost.

A hug and high five to a stranger no inner dialogue telling you it’s wrong. So many ways to do life. A Friday done in so many ways…

Some go to McDonald’s

Some pull up a lawn chair to watch the cars go

Some high five in the parking lot…each other another week done

Some garden like their man hood depends on it

Some fly with their hands out the window

Others sit on their front step

Binge watching a show with wine

Walk to the dog park

And some just want your money in the end.

Buying, rushing, building. Lost steps, the only thing we needed, warmed oat milk instead of my latte my privilege showing…as the window got clogged when I went to open it. Frustrated by what only time will tell. The pane that stayed open. To look through the windshield not the rear-view.

To my Husband: Life is what you make of it. I am too busy living my life.

To my Children: Time to catch life by the balls.

To my Oma: Who always says enough is enough!

To my Mama: Try your best… that is all you can do.

and just think…in about two weeks, a new volume of VOICES FROM THE FIRE will appear! Now what cover will we actually be using? hmmmm….

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: James Maj