VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Kaci Skiles Laws

Ghosts

My mother was crazy. She was crazy in love with my dad long after he started ‘working late hours.’ She loved him even after his broccoli casserole was too cold, and he hit her for the first time, two years into their marriage. 

There were times the biscuits were overdone; the ice cubes had not fully set and the sweet tea wasn’t chilled when he came home at random hours drunk. He choked on a chicken bone, and she stared into his face, a little void, a few seconds before saving him. She could have let him die. 

I came as an afterthought. 

*

I stared at the oatmeal hanging onto my mother’s chin. Mom. I started to say, annoyed. A reflex inside my arm swept the oatmeal into a napkin and placed the wad next to a bottle of Zestril, prescribed for her high blood pressure. 

Seeing the bottle, I couldn’t remember if I’d given her one. It was like all the times I’d driven the hectic stretch of road between my work and her house, unsure, after I arrived or once the streetlights disappeared into my rearview, if I’d stopped at any red lights, unable to remember any green ones. 

I looked at the antidepressant, Celexa, sitting next to the Zestril, as dazed as my mother, the reason I’d stopped at the pharmacy on the way over.

“Your doctor,” I said it as if my mother was going deaf and paused, searching for recognition in the lines of her forehead, “He prescribed them for your mood.” I had the antidepressant’s cap in my hand and was shaking one out. Her jaw slid open, and her tongue was flat, white. I stuck it on and asked, “Did I already give you your blood pressure medicine?” 

She closed her mouth and made a slight sucking motion. I glanced at the bottle again and watched the napkin full of oatmeal disappear under the table. Her Shih Tzu, Hannah, was there eating the entire thing. Oh, well. I thought. Just this one time. It had happened other times too. 

Mom kept sucking but never replied. Her eyes were lost marbles. She carried on that way every day after my dad died.

*

On the way home from her house that night, tired and struggling to see through the patches of low fog settling around my Jeep like a sinister cloud, speeding up and slowing down in frustrated intervals, I clipped an animal or what I assumed to be an animal. 

I started to cry as sudden as the impact, a well of black water that had been rising inside of me, so hard I had to pull over. Outside I recognized the turn off point my dad referred to as Goatman Road and the dying dagger-shaped tree illuminated in my headlights. In my mirror I saw a tall mass stumble and disappear into the cornfield.

A person? “No, I saw fur,” I said out loud. A fur coat. It was late winter and though the days were warming up, the nights were still cold enough for a coat. 

I got out and yelled, “Hello?” and hoped for no answer. I heard stumbling. Hooves? Yes. Hooves. I wasn’t certain, but I wanted to believe it was an animal. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I ran back to the car and tried to cry more but couldn’t. 

*

“I hit something by Goatman Road last night.” I told my mother as I spooned a dumpling into her mouth the following evening. The bite was small and her chewing even smaller. She swallowed and opened her mouth again.

A few years ago she would have spoken in whispers about the legend of Goatman Road, how it was rumored there was a man who bred with goats that used to live at the end of the road, that there was more than just one Goatman and possibly even a goat-girl or two running loose in the fields.

She would’ve said it’s a bad omen or a curse, the Goatman’s ghost or spawn that I’d hit. She would have gone out and danced around my car with a bundle of burning herbs. I wished she would, but she sat borderline comatose. 

“How is it?” I asked and looked back at the thick soup, scooped up a carrot, had it spit back, a contrived confetti spray across my face to celebrate my incompetence, some in my hair and on the floor. No carrots. Okay. It made me forget about the thing I’d hit and my fantasy of Mom coming back to life. 

Hannah licked at splatters. You’ll be all orange tomorrow—I thought looking down at her, fishing out the rest of the baby carrots, letting them plop down onto the linoleum like Oompa Loompa fingers. 

In the kitchen I tore a bag of instant pudding open, happy to steal a moment away from my mother. Trying to push aside the creeping thoughts of last night, I thought of all the times Mom made pudding for me as a kid, as a different mother, one that became a distant memory, a person I must have imagined or dreamed up. 

I stirred the pudding with a wooden spoon, letting some spill out. I started to say something towards the doorway of the living room where my mother sat, a sea cucumber, about throwing the spoon out because of the bacteria breeding in its porous skin but didn’t because it would’ve made me feel more alone.

Once the pudding was thick enough, I used the spoon one last time, licked it and threw it end over end at the trashcan. It didn’t make it. The kettle whined, and as I poured its contents into mugs next to identical bowls, I remembered another thing, something funny, for the first time in six months, since my father had died, and my mother refused to speak or eat unless I was the one feeding her.

“Nancy,” I said, referring to my dad’s widow, setting the tray down on the coffee table. My mother looked at me for the first time in a week. “You’re going to like this.” I placed a dollop of dessert onto her tongue. “Not the chocolate pudding, Nancy…I was in high school, and it was Dad’s weekend.” I motioned towards the tea, “And Nancy had a cup of Earl Grey steeping on the end table. She went out to have a smoke while it cooled. Her cat, Sammy, came over to see what it was, realized he didn’t want it and turned to jump down, but before he did I saw a tapeworm fall from his butt into the tea. I got closer and watched it sink. Sammy left the room as Nancy came back in. She must have seen the look on my face because she demanded—What? I was going to tell her, but I could tell she was disgusted.”

The corners of my mother’s lips crawled up higher than they’d sat in a month and her eyes twisted green and yellow in the light. “Mom,” my eyelids grew like a camera lens on zoom, “She drank the entire thing and never said a word.” I saw my mother’s teeth start to form a smile for a second and heard her almost break the silence.

*

Driving home, I was regretting my decision, worried I should’ve turned back even though the fog from the night before had lifted; the quiet inside my Jeep and warmth of the heater was making me drowsy. I rolled down my window and the rush of air was unexpected and jarring. I kept it down as I drove along more somber and sober, grateful for the biting wind keeping me awake. 

I noticed the crooked tree that on this night looked less like a dagger and more like a finger pointing, followed by a sense of dread. I drove on, subconsciously backing off the gas pedal in search of something my morbid curiosity couldn’t stop picking at, afraid I’d not only injured an innocent animal but killed one, when I saw a lump on the shoulder of the road.  At least now I’d know if it was a deer or stray dog or worse, someone’s pet. The Goatman. 

Getting closer I could make out sleek brown fur and thought it must be a poor deer. I got closer and was at a crawl on the shoulder of the road when I saw the human hair splayed out, blowing. Surely not. Then I saw a hand crossing over the white line, its fingertips and bright red nails resting in the road. In shock, not sure of anything, but certain I could not have hit a girl the night before, I turned around to go back to Mom. 

*

Back in her driveway, I sat staring into the house. It was all dark except for a soft glow, a touch lamp by her chair stuck on its dimmest setting, one with a tarnished silver base and stem, a shade made of frosted glass plates which over time had become so grease stained no one could see the flowers underneath. 

Years ago we’d seen it on display downtown where everything was half-off. The same day I found gold lipstick in the basement of the store. It became my most prized piece of makeup. I took it to a slumber party when I was ten and never saw it again. It reminded me of all the things I loved the most that were stolen from me.

I didn’t know why I was there. I knew I couldn’t go home. I was supposed to be her best baby, most obedient, caring, not killing.

I called first, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer. I wanted the ringing to send a crack up the wall, make the roof cave on one side so we could survey the damage and fix it. I could hear the telephone from outside, shrill—screaming, screaming, screaming—me losing count.

I used my spare key to get in, hoping she might just shoot me dead. I stood at her bedroom door knocking, could hear Hannah’s muffled barking, my mother shuffling, the old knob making a racket in her hand. She looked at me tired. She had not heard until now.

“I was drifting. I can’t drive. I’m going to sleep in my room.” I lied.

Mom reached, her hand oblong and unexpected from the crack. I drew back. She squeezed, and it was cold intending to be comfort.

*

Her spare room, dusty and gray, had not been mine in years. It wasn’t long after I’d laid in my old bed, stiff, my doubts surfaced; the thing on the road ran across the ceiling. Dark vines spread like arthritic hands. I watched the familiar shape of the oak tree outside. It was bigger, all-consuming after years of summer storms, being spared by lightning and Dad’s bullets and everything that could’ve killed it.

I didn’t make it until morning. If Mom was awake, she heard me saying, “I need to report a hit and run,” over the phone outside her room. I imagined as if stuck in a story, her listening for something beating loose inside one chamber of my heart, an ear pressed into the door that in the story was a floorboard. I saw myself slump as I said it.

I needed someone to blame, but there was no one.

As the police investigated my call, the road where the deer had been a girl, the road where she was running confused before I hit her, she had somehow vanished.

*

At sunrise I searched the shoulder of the road. The police were gone and probably wouldn’t be back; they said they get pranks like this out by Goatman Road all the time. Probably just kids messing around

I got out and walked long stretches inside the cornfield next to where I was sure I saw her body, half-expecting to find blood and fur, some confirmation that it was a deer and not a girl. Afraid I’d find a shoe or earring, purse and ID. There was nothing there, not even a dead deer. It seemed unlikely to hit a girl on a semi-desolate expanse of road. Unless it was a prank gone wrong. Unless it was a goat-girl. 

I looked at the fur still stuck in the grill of my Jeep and grabbed some out; I folded it inside a napkin to send to the forensics lab to prove it was synthetic or mink or cow, whatever they make real fur coats out of these days, so I could say—see, see, I told you, I’m bad. I deserve whatever I get. I’m not crazy. It’s from the girl I hit. I hit her, and I ran. 

I called into work first a few days then indefinitely. I insisted they keep searching for the girl. Maybe an animal had drug her body away. 

Restless, I thought about the kids in my homeroom, how I’d disappeared without warning, but I was in no shape to be teaching. I didn’t know if I could go back, feeling as though I was without conscience, disposable. I wouldn’t allow myself to go back. If they found a body it wouldn’t be a choice. I was relieved at the thought.

*

After a week passed, exasperated from conducting my own strenuous searches and no body to show for it, I took my fur sample to the police department. They said they’d—humor me—and ran a test. It came back inconclusive. I think they lied about it and threw my sample away to shut me up and close the case. 

They asked if I’d had my vision tested, if I was on any prescription meds. I shook my matted head—no. They told me no new missing person report had been filed. They made me black tea and suggested a psychologist; it was the most mothering I’d gotten my whole life.

*

“I try not to feel the exhaustion and emptiness, pretend it’s not there or that it’s normal, but I’m not okay. I’m tired, and I’ve been tired, and now I’m certain I killed that girl. No one believes me.” And what about the legend. What about the Goatman? I wouldn’t mention it. My psychologist was a great listener. In our sessions I realized that psychologists are just people you pay to care about you.

*

It all rose up over time as I continued on with my appointments, and I would do something unacceptable and feel confused by the setbacks. My lack of control scared me. Feelings were a foreign language; they came as nightmares climbing from the well of my esophagus like a cough, spilling into the air. 

I’d lay long under the bent tree limbs floating over the ceiling like a projection and try to listen in my room where it all started, and soon I stopped looking for the phantom girl. She was lost and forgotten in the cornfield because nobody cared to find her, and I had failed. Nothing would be left of her but eventually bones. The Goatman carried his daughter away to rest, to bury the legend. Nothing would ever be the same. 

In the daylight I did normal things; I cooked and cleaned. I fed Mom. I grew resentful and didn’t know what to call it or why, so I asked my psychologist; I witnessed deadly nightshade sprouting up like veins, violet-blue and violent, buds that never should have come at a time so cold, afterthoughts, swallowing the house.

I stared at the wooden spoon on the floor next to the trashcan covered in brown for days, angry that I’d be the one to clean up the mess and it’d be there waiting until I did. It all seemed juvenile and shameful. I didn’t know what to do with myself; I didn’t want to feel anything. I had to practice presence and sitting with myself. I organized the silverware and plates and cups. I watched shadows to feel less afraid and worthless. I let the sadness twist within me; I identified it coming up. I stopped caring if Mom ever spoke again. I knew it wasn’t my responsibility. 

*

“When Dad’s liver failed, I was relieved, because I didn’t want him to override any more good memories.” I said, setting a plate of eggs and bacon before my mother. “I’m not feeding you today, not your medicine either.”

I looked back for signs of life before I walked towards the door and said, “I killed someone.” There was none, so I started to say—Nancy—to jolt her, but I knew it was mean like I knew the plate would be untouched except for what Hannah could curl her tongue around, and my mother wouldn’t stop her. The certainty of it all was reassuring.

The silence, deafening at times, became bearable. The shadows in the spare room told me what I needed, the same way a cobweb tells you it needs to be wiped. I never knew what I needed before because no one ever asked me. I didn’t know how I thought I was supposed to go on that way forever like people do, like ghosts.

fbt

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Merrit Waldon

Brilliant lips apogee

Twixt towering spines brittle gestures

Untamable languages breed

How we puke mere embers of stars

Never full flame

Choirs vast breeze the air we breathe

Invisible flame of youth

Of virility 

How sound the truths of our burgeoning

Softness

How we can never re animate the

Organisms burnt out shells

Fallen to be collected

By children whispering

Tales of star men

& un reachable planets

Sometimes I remember the smell of gasoline

Fondly ,  with nightmarish fervor

Eons ago    different times

I remember the mad shenanigans

Of teen age poets 

Sometimes I think of napalm made

In a Styrofoam cooler when I was a  kid

Experimenting with the ideal

Of viet nam,  or trying to experience

Something of my fathers war

I remember huffing gas for a whole week end

With a couple friends while He was away

On a bowling tournament in Reno

The early days of MTV

We were chemical extremists

& pilgrims of expression

I was 17 or 18

Oh the memories 

Tales, epics & organic projections

Of self

poem_

Listening to the slowly fading out screams 

Of butterflies 

The machine gun beats of drums as fast 

As artillery spewing forth 

The music clings to ribs 

To memory the soft parade files 

Along 

The stirring of something unseen 

& powerful 

Fingering the senses 

I watch the vibrational ripples of air 

Twirl like some kind of dervish 

From the 13th century 

Or like monks drunk on wine 

Dancing through streets 

As if the mad infinitesimal energy 

Of our own divinities 

Clasped tight to hand 

Dragging our vision through 

Town 

 “you got to meet you a few 

Animals at the crossroads” 

Their filming the scuffling figures 

Scuddling down the sidewalk 

At dawn 

Following them to the ledge 

High above them 

In  the brownstone next  

To the liquor store 

Their vibrations sing with the sun rise 

The last poems of a drunken poet 

Crying on the shoulder of his muse 

Waiting for the unseen 

To pull them from the ledge 

The image is not new 

The holy renaissance of senses 

& star c(h)ords 

The music lingers  

Sinew, piss, and rivers 

Undiluted spirit of youth clamors 

“everything must be this way” 

Cyclical waves of never ending 

Impermanence 

Ever see the lips of an ancient bard 

Chapped & surrounded by hair 

Weeping 3 stories in to the night 

Calling to the dogs or the gods 

Looking for the lack of gravity 

“Tropic corridor 

Tropic treasure 

What brought this far to this mild equator” 

Looking for something new 

Like wine growing from the decomposing 

Bodies of Aristophanes 

& Jim Morrison 

Listening to the slowly fading out screams  Of butterflies 

WHERE THE CROW FLIES…

Dumpster Fire Press is proud to release Johann Van Der Walt’s modern horror novella THE CROWS WILL NEVER TELL a striking tale of what lies within the forest, a gothic exploration of the horror of being divine, in the tradition of STAND BY ME and Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS. Several young boys explore what it is to be man as a mysterious figure with his own vile intent goes on a quest seeking out what is divine to quell the killer inside. New and old gods collide in a twisted tale of divine rites and romance in which the crows will never tell.

Cover image by Dillinger

Johann Van Der Walt is an author residing in South Africa who has recently contributed to DFP’s first anthology DEATH BY PUNK and most recently to the third volume of VOICESF FROM THE FIRE and I hope to showcase more of his work as well as engage in more collaborative feats.

Johann Van Der Walt

This is by far the most stellar read by solo prose writer, Dumpster Fire Press has put out this year and will be hard to top, if one even wants to top it….a tight plot, on the nose dialogue, you’ll be dismayed the author isn’t American even with the deep echoes of Stephen King with some of that Gaiman magic…Van Der Walt pulls the roots of the old gods straight from the earth itself to call out the new gods of a dying world populated with the divine bordering on stagnation and what shall either be all out war or slowly suffering self eradication.

It all starts out with several young men or rather teenage boys on the quest to attain manhood in the most vulgar of ways and from there it’s like an acid trip to the secret universe underneath our feet, an erotic bloody Alice in Wonderful as a serial killer miles away seeks something like god far away possibly in another time or is it all happening at once?

Funny thing, time…divinity and the infinite horror of it all, leaving you wonder if it ever really does end…
If there’s an answer the author ain’t telling and as for the crows….

the crows will never tell

Donnie could tell from the look on Sam’s face that he was not going to let go of it. Albeit a rumor, it was a rumor about sex, and anything even remotely sex-orientated made Sam all the more desperate to fulfil what he believed was his destiny. Having sex all the time. Donnie on the other hand, wanted more from childhood, having witnessed his parents ugly divorce, understood the importance of enjoying their young and carefree years.

“Well now,” Sam sighed and slapped his hands against his knees. His disdain, like so many times recently, sprout from what he dubbed, the banality of life.  “We always sit down here in this musty basement and talk about it?”

He kicked the bottom of the reclining chair in an upright position in an overly dramatic fashion. “What if we could find out for real? This is our opportunity…think about it guys.”

Donnie and Sam’s other friend, Ralph snickered, “We are fifteen years old, living in rural Vermont, what else is there to do except talk about it?”

“To start fucking doing it,” Sam cried. His face flushed in a quick wave of anger.

Ralph pressed his lips together, absorbing Sam’s rant. It wasn’t like the three of them weren’t on the same frequency when it came to the disproportion of youth induced frustration in a small town as opposed to kids living in the big city. It was a harsh truth that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

Small towns didn’t have a lot to offer bored children. Especially not a place like Greenwood. Their school barely had one hundred kids for starters, and that was counting both grade school, middle school, and high school. They were all just meshed together in one big building at the foot of Green Hill, the relatively large mountain that overlooked the sleepy town. A sleepy town on the verge of being forgotten. Greenwood was a typical rural town, with its days served hot in summer and cold in winter, and for dessert either nice shades of Autumnal cinnamon and orange, and a sweet and juicy floral decadence in Spring. It was a picturesque town, with the Star-Spangled Banner lazily fluttering about on almost every lamppost. A proud and patriotic town to most, but to most kids it was just another place in America they couldn’t wait to escape from. 

Donnie didn’t really believe Sam’s story. In Vermont- if you look at it just the right way- things were already as good as it was going to get, so when something sounds too good to be true, it often is just that. Especially if it had anything to do with sex. Not for lack of trying, but they all had their fair share of fuck ups when it came to getting laid, or in their case, trying to get laid. “What if it is all horseshit?” Donnie frowned.

“Well this is our chance not to talk about it, but get down to doing it,” Sam said, his eyes even more pressing. “If Kyle did in fact do what Tommy said he had done, then this is as legit as the swelling of my nipple on my left tit.” He moved his palms in a comical fashion while he spoke, circling his nipples.

“I went to the Greenwood Library again,” Donnie said and offered a subtle grin as consolation for Sam’s evident grievance given his friends’ lack of enthusiasm. The alternative shift in conversation was not well received.

“Here we go again,” Sam said and rolled his eyes theatrically. Donnie was a mood-changer, a kid too responsible in the eyes of his peers.

“We either daydream about sex or discuss a few disappearances hidden in this shithole’s history. We sound like Scooby fucking Doo and his silly gang.”

“Did Scooby and the gang solve mysteries and think about sex?” Ralph scowled. Not always the brightest amongst the bunch, but highly loyal and easily influenced. In other words, Sam’s type of guy. A yes-I’ll-do-anything type of kid.

Sam sighed again. “Daphne is a hot piece of ass and Velma, well, you know, she’s good for a few things.”

“They are cartoon characters,” Donnie intervened. In his mind anything that did not take up physical matter in the world wasn’t tangible enough to debate with human attributes. He was a very realistic guy, often reigning his two friends in from going all out crazy. Donnie was definitely the needed equilibrium of the group. “Once again you attribute what you see on the internet to all women, and this time they are not even real.”

“I’m just saying that Fred and Velma and Daphne always split up and search for clues on their own. You gotta have thought about them having a threesome at least once?”

“It’s always about sex with you,” Donnie cried out, and instantly regretted it. With good reason too. He knew how Sam hated it when he challenged his views, especially in front of Ralph.

Sam jumped out of the chair; his face suddenly flushed. “I sense another speech about feminism about to come along… And what’s this ‘always with the sex’ suddenly?” His voice squeaked and he combed his hair behind his ears. “Maybe you guys are content with being here in this basement discussing murder mysteries and jacking off to porn every once in a while, but I am not. Perhaps I am with the wrong friends? I mean, come to think of it, you guys are pretty chill with this town. When is the last time we actually talked about busting our nuts to New York as soon as we graduate?”

“You know we are with you on that,” Donnie answered quickly and diplomatically. “Nobody said that we like this town or that we intend on living here a second longer than absolutely necessary.”

“Really Don? Because you invest a lot of time in the disappearances around here, newsflash, this is America. People leave town, people run away. How many times have we investigated a missing case and hit a wall? The American dream does not exist in fucktown, Vermont. It’s out there.” He nudged his head toward the small window for emphasized effect.

“People get murdered…” Donnie offered. “They can’t all just have up and left one day? Most of them were school kids.”

“All of them are…were… school kids,” Ralph chirped. An observation that made both Sam and Donnie frown briefly. “Whatever…I mean they were mostly our age.”

“You have to admit Sam, it is very alarming that kids our age and even some that are younger skip town?”

Sam’s breathing calmed down and he searched Donnie’s eyes. Somewhere caught up in this distressed and depressed kid, still suffering from the aftermath of a divorce, lived the reckless Donnie he once knew.

 “Maybe they were as tired as I was,” Sam said, and wiped flecks of spit collected in the corners of his mouth. “Maybe they were as tired of discussing stuff like that too. They were probably virgins too, just like us. Fifteen-year-old virgins.”

“Most kids around here are still virgins,” Ralph sighed. His tone carried his words like an insult, mostly aimed at himself, as if he had to realize yet again that in order to get laid, he had to take initiative and get off the couch.”

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Shane Allison

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Paul Ilechko

Kingbird

I was watching the birds the day that Jose Mendez cracked up. I do that a lot. You can learn a lot from birds, trust me on this. I bet that old Chinese guy, Sun Tzu, got some of his ideas from watching them. They know strategy. I was watching kingbirds – a whole family of them, squatting on a branch in one of Celia’s apple trees. Kingbirds, yeah. Ain’t nobody going to mess with those boys. Nobody. Not the crows, not the blue jays, not even the mockingbirds, who harass just about anything that comes into their territory. The mockers are tough too – they’ll take on a crow if they have to, even a red tail. But a kingbird? No way. 

Some of the guys that I chat with online think it’s pretty damn weird when I tell them about the birds. You don’t get it, man, I tell them. Birds are incredible. That morning – the one I’m talking about – I’d been watching the ballet of the kingbirds catching flies – a thing of beauty, let me tell you. Then Celia’s goddamn lawn service shows up, all noise and exhaust fumes. 

Ilya hasn’t been the same since the accident. He doesn’t remember too much about the details, and it’s probably best that way. He doesn’t remember what happened right before we got in the car, and that’s definitely a good thing. It would be much too complicated to tell him about the truth at this point, so I keep up the story that we’ve settled into. One thing that’s odd, though, is that he’s never called me Mom, or Mother, or anything like that, since the first time I visited him after his surgery. He called me Celia, there in the hospital, and that’s what he’s called me ever since. At first, I thought it was because he remembered the conversation with Ernesto, but now I’m sure that he doesn’t, so I don’t understand what caused the change. There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t understand though, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve concluded that it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  

Don’t get me wrong about the lawn service, I love those guys. All of them are Mexicans, and they’re a good crew. They all work for Ernesto, not that he ever shows his face around here. He’s got three crews: he’s raking in the dough. Spends half his time in Miami. Anyway, they like me because I speak Spanish, and because I’m a regular guy, not like most of the upper-class assholes around here, with their expensive suits and Mercedes Benz trucks, their snooty attitudes. We’re the misfits in this development; we only live here because Celia got the house when she divorced Robert.

When Ernesto’s guys come, I always make up a big jug of tea for them. I made one that day too, same as usual.  I’m heading outside with it, down the ramp and out through the garage, and I’m just in time to see Jose drive his lawnmower right through Celia’s tulip bed. Man is she going to be pissed, I’m thinking to myself, when he stops, pulls out a gun, and starts shooting out the windows at the Canters’ house. Jesus H. Christ, and I’m scrambling back inside. If I learned one thing from my birds, it’s that flight is usually the wisest move when there’s trouble.

Fuck the bastards, fuck all of them. I cut their lawns and my sister cleans their houses, but we’re invisible to them. We can’t afford to live in their expensive neighborhoods, but the places where we have to live, the white people there don’t want us either. They complain because we live too many in a house, or they see us waiting for work in the street. What’s the problem with trying to work, I ask you? Then, one Mexican commits a crime, they want to deport all of us, they say we are savages, we are criminals. All we try to do is feed our families. When one white man commits a crime, they don’t blame the whole race, do they? Well, they say I’m a criminal, I’ll show them what a fucking criminal is.

Out of the window I see the cop cars come screaming in, followed by Ernesto in his Porsche. Ernesto is chatting with the cops. I guess he’s trying to keep them calm enough that they don’t kill Jose, who doesn’t seem to be trying to hurt anyone specifically.  Now here comes Celia, home from work. The cops have blocked off the access road, so they wave her over to the side of the street, and Ernesto walks over to talk to her.

I’ve known Ernesto for years. We used to shoot pool together over at Billy’s. Man, he was one hell of a player, and he knew how to milk it. Most of the guys there, they would show up wearing jeans, t-shirts, cutoffs – you know, very casual looking. Ernesto comes in wearing a white suit. Under the suit he has on a chocolate brown shirt and a bowtie. He has his own cue, a two-piece MacMorran, that he assembles so carefully that you’d think it was likely to explode if he made a mistake.

He’s a short guy, Ernesto, even for a Mexican. When he’s playing, he stands with his feet apart, watching his opponent. He’ll have the cue resting on the floor, leaning in the crook of his elbow, and he stands there with his thumbs in the lapel of his jacket, all oratorical looking, like some kind of crazed schoolteacher. He stands and stares into the eyes of his adversary, never looking at the balls on the table until it’s his turn to play

Ilya is a good kid. I tried so hard to help him when he was growing up. Celia was a mess in those days. She wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but when Ilya came to the pool hall, I was able to get to know him a little. He’d had a tough childhood, like most of the kids in that neighborhood.

Everyone who meets Celia thinks that she’s Hispanic. But she isn’t. In fact, her father was half Russian and half Armenian, and her mother was from Haiti. She grew up speaking English, French and Armenian, still speaks fluent French. She told me that most of her cousins spoke patois, but that she had to be careful her mother didn’t hear her speaking it, otherwise she was liable to get a beating. If she was to speak French, then it had to be proper French, no matter where she was.

Before she had Ilya, she had been a dancer, but she never quite made it at the top level. It’s a damn shame, because you’ll never meet anyone so naturally graceful. After that ended, and after her marriage broke down, that’s when she started the drugs. Of course, I blame myself for that, which is why I’ve always tried to help her and the boy.

Gambling was always big at Billy’s, and Ernesto made a lot of money there. The regulars would never bet against Ernesto, but Billy’s was a location on the unofficial tour, and there were always guys coming by to take on the local champion. Suckers, most of them, but every now and again you would get a real hustler, and then the game was on. Like the time that Dooley showed up.

Dooley was a former pro. He was retired, but he could still play. Even I was thinking that maybe betting on Ernesto was not such a good idea that day. The game was nine-ball, first to win seven games.  Dooley won the first two, Ernesto came back to win the third with an unbelievable seven ball break, finishing with a seven-nine combination shot off two cushions. Dooley had to nod his head and tap his cue at that one. The fourth game was where the trouble started.

I remember it well. Ernesto in his usual pose, feet spread. He has a slightly unhinged grin. Dooley is in a good position; he’s cleared four balls and has a makeable combo shot to win it.  The shot lines up in such a way that Ernesto is directly in his line of vision. Etiquette demands that he move, but he just stands there, smiling, looking right into Dooley’s eyes. Dooley is in position, he’s going to play the shot, when he stops, straightens up, and glares at Ernesto.

“Are you going to move the fuck out of my way, or are you just going to stand there staring at me, you spic bastard?”

Silence. The whole crowd is on tenterhooks. The Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are looking at Ernesto, with this ‘shall we kill this asshole?’ look on their faces. The Irish boys are looking nervously around, realizing how outnumbered they are. Everyone else just wants to see what’s going to happen. Then Ernesto grins, takes his cue, bangs it on the ground twice, and laughs out loud. “You may as well pay me now, you Irish prick, because you just lost the match.”

Dooley stares at him with a confused expression, but Ernesto has already walked away and taken a seat, adjusting his pants so that the creases stay sharp. Dooley blows the shot, and Ernesto wins every game from that point forwards. You know what I think? I don’t believe that Ernesto was the best player that day; he won because he was the kingbird. Dooley was the mocker, but that wasn’t good enough. Not even close.

After I talked to the cops, I went into the house. Just like I expected, Ilya was at the window, watching everything.

“Hi, kid,” I said. “I knew you’d be by the window – are you trying to get yourself shot?”

“Come on, Celia, Jose isn’t going to shoot up this house. We’re buddies.”

“Ilya, love, think straight, will you? You don’t know where Jose’s head is at right now. Plus, the cops have guns too, remember.”

I wheeled him away from the window, into the middle of the room. I could see him fuming. He’s never adjusted to the loss of his ability to walk. The doctors say that there is nothing physically wrong, that it’s all in his mind, but that just makes him mad. I don’t know what to believe.

Celia grew up in a mixed neighborhood, but after it started getting more Spanish a lot of folks moved away. She learned to speak Spanish herself, and married a Dominican guy. His name was Carlos, and that’s pretty much all I know about him. He moved out when Celia got pregnant, and she divorced him. She was the one who named me, after her grandfather.

My childhood – what can I say? We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, a walkup off Melrose Avenue. I guess she was doing drugs then, but it wasn’t something that a kid would notice. People would come over for parties; in the morning the place was a mess. I would get myself up and go to school. Celia would come and pick me up in the afternoon, all apologetic.

When I got to my teens, I started to realize what was going on, and to get angry with her. She made some effort to clean up her act, or at least she hid it from me better. That was when I started hanging out around Ernesto. He’d been a friend of Celia’s for a while, but they didn’t speak anymore. He would try and have these man-to-man talks with me, telling me what a great person she was, and how I should focus on my schoolwork so that one day I could take her away from all the garbage. I liked Ernesto, but I just figured he was telling me this stuff as a favor to her. I just figured he tried something with her once, and she put him in his place.

I want to know what’s going on, so I wheel myself over towards the window, just as Celia turns back into the room. She catches hold of my chair and spins me around, and then dances away from me towards the kitchen. Watching her graceful movements just makes me more frustrated, makes me want to dance too.

Sometimes I dream that I can fly. There are birds that don’t have legs that are any use at all; they spend almost their entire lives in the air. Swifts are like that. They eat, drink, even breed, while flying; they can go over five hundred miles in a day. All they can do with their legs is hang on to vertical walls. My legs aren’t even that much use. They should have just cut the damn things off, have done with it. But the doctors tell me that there is nothing wrong with them, it’s all in my head.

That bastard Ernesto is here now. Look at him, chatting with the cops. It’s OK for him, he’s legal here, they can’t touch him. He’s a millionaire, and we’re barely surviving, living three in a room so we can send money back to our families. You’d think a man wouldn’t exploit his own people, but it’s human nature. Mexicans know about this. We remember the revolution, even though what they tell us in school is all lies. We know the truth and we pass it down, generation to generation, so that the children will know what we tried to do, and how it was perverted. It’s the same in the USA, except here they don’t even remember. 

The accident happened when I was seventeen. Celia was driving me back from the pool hall. She was angry with me because I was supposed to have come home early, I don’t remember why, and I was angry with her because she was strung out. She was still high when she picked me up, and I remember her screaming at Ernesto, although I don’t recall what it was about. I guess I was a little drunk too. She never saw the red light that she ran, or the truck that was coming down Jerome Avenue, the one that slammed into us.

God, I still remember everything about the first time I went to visit Ilya at Bronx-Lebanon. He’d been in there a week already, and had surgery three times, but I’d been injured too, and couldn’t get to him sooner. The nurses were great, they gave me daily updates on his condition.  He’d had his bones set, and it was just a matter of time, the doctors said. They would send him home in a wheelchair, and he’d be up and about in no time. That never happened; he’s been in that wheelchair eight years now. At least the accident straightened me out. I was done with the drugs.

When I went home from the hospital something was bothering me, and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t even want to talk to Celia, I was still pissed with her, but not because of the accident, there was something else, something that I couldn’t get a grip on. You’ll be walking soon, the doctors told me. Three weeks, maybe four, you can start taking your first steps. I never got out of the wheelchair. Oh, I tried, but my legs didn’t work. It’s psychosomatic, they tell me. Bullshit, I say.

Somehow Celia got enough money to move us to New Jersey, to a small town with a train station and an old-fashioned main street. She got a job as a waitress, and that was when she met Robert. They dated for a year or so, and then married. Robert never liked me– he was a prissy WASP guy, and I think he just saw me as a hoodlum. We moved into his house, the one we still live in. Robert moved out after the divorce; he lives in Manhattan now. Celia still runs the bakery store that Robert bought for her. None of the neighbors talk to us – I know that they think Celia is a gold-digger.

Two gunshots. Celia runs to the screen door. She screams “Ernesto!”, opens the door and runs out. I jump out of my chair and hobble to the window. Even before I get there, I know. I know what I’m going to see. I remember. I remember everything.

I remember Ernesto and Celia outside the pool hall arguing. I remember what Ernesto said that made Celia turn white. I remember the things she said to him after that. I remember getting in the car and driving home – yes, I was the one driving, not Celia. I was trying to calm her down, and I never saw the red light.

I know where the money came from, the money to pay for my treatment, and to make the down payment on the house in New Jersey. I know why we moved to the area where Ernesto had just started his landscaping business. I don’t want to go outside and see what’s waiting for me, but I do anyway. After all, I can walk. Walking feels almost like flying, almost like dancing. For maybe ten seconds, I am the kingbird.

I open the screen door. Ernesto is lying on the ground with Celia cradling his head, blood spreading on to her white blouse. Paramedics from the ambulance are running towards them; it looks to me like they are moving in slow motion. A cop is standing there with his rifle raised. Jose is slumped across the wheel of the mower, blood dripping from a wound in his head. I walk, unsteadily, down the steps to the patio, and stumble slightly as I walk across the lawn, walking to Celia, walking for the first time in eight years, walking out there, to be there, so that I can watch my father die.

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Johann Van Der Walt

Guilt comes in our silences

I tell myself that I am a far flung ideal, 

my thoughts love to attract anything worth regret,

no company more loved by misery 

than the graveyard in which my mind sleeps.

I look in the mirror and brush my teeth,

routines somehow scratching too far under my skin.

Is this really all that there is to me?

I promise myself that an outsider’s touch is more righteous,

a more decent approach than my own uninitiated fingers 

their ability only impervious in excavating guilt.

I make believe that my from own hands 

blooms only promises of wraiths and perversion.

(this is how I try to keep to the vehement gospel others once gave)

tell me if you have found yourself here before:

does not wanting to conform to society 

suddenly become a crown of thorns?

what is the truth then- am I, according to society, 

guilty of intemperance because of my indifference?

does my self considerations and explorations

-as a woman always and forever untamed by the touch of men-

do nothing except cast me away 

am I to be nothing but a chapter in an unholy book

warning against the sins of becoming

 a demented and confused whore?

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: James Maj

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: J.J Campbell

no one was ever meant to

sometimes the loneliness

will distort even the best 

memories

beat you down until you 

understand that no one 

was ever meant to love 

you

there goes another bottle

of scotch

soon, you’ll be looking

at a bottle of pills and

thinking of one of your

musical heroes

these are the nights you 

turn on coltrane and let 

him blow some sense 

into you

somehow, you’ll be 

searching for a vein

and looking for the

cloudy sunshine in a

land where rainbows

don’t exist

from top to bottom

she had on one

of those dresses

with buttons in

the front from

top to bottom

the kind of dress

that someone 

with a dirty 

mind suddenly 

starts to have 

a little fun with

and in my mind

after undoing every

button with my teeth

her beautiful naked

body takes me in

and shows a lonely

soul what i’ve been

missing all these 

years

in reality, 

she asks me to pick 

up my mouth from 

the floor

her piercing eyes 

laughing

she shows me a little 

leg and makes sure 

to walk away just 

slowly enough

so, i’ll never be able 

to forget it

every second of your time

her soft brown 

skin glistens 

with sweat

her smile is 

every dirty 

thought that

has ever graced 

the tip of your 

tongue

when you’re 

lucky

she’ll show you

right where you

can put that tip

her eyes look

dangerous

nearly half your 

age and worth 

every second 

of your time

let the muse take

you by the hand

and remember 

to say yes

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Howie Good

Unfortunately

It is my least favorite word in the English language. A sentence that begins with it hasn’t a chance of ending on a happy note, with balloon bouquets and showers of confetti. Instead, the word serves as a kind of alarm bell, its only purpose to alert you that you’re about to be shot in the eye with a nail gun and have all of a nanosecond to prepare yourself. That job you applied for? “Unfortunately. . . ,” the form letter says. Those poems you submitted? “Unfortunately. . . ,” the editor responds. The word is like forced transport to a cruel, monochromatic wasteland of rejection and disappointment. I have been there, am there now, walking in smaller and smaller circles under a sky the size of a “no.”

All Were Completely Surrounded by Blackness (after Mernet Larsen)

Everyone was talking about the same things. We would get a cup of coffee and say to each other, “Have you ever painted a bathtub? A piano? Tornadoes?” It was almost like a competition. I ran back to my studio and started painting yellow fields with bright red cows. The red never looked more like blood. The shadowy talons had never been more teeth-like. Even the angels were painted as if they weighed 150 pounds. I didn’t necessarily end up with meaning. On many sleepless nights I was a man on a raft or someone bunting a baseball.

editor’s note: Howie Good never got back to me regarding an author pic or accompanying image so we assumed him a ghost…props to Dillinger…

VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Duane Vorhees

BLOOM’S KAMA SUTRA, new edition

To the garden of harlots I pilgrimage again.

“Hey, Bud.”

The rival queens of the bed compete for attention and agency.

“Pick me, pick me.”

Their perfumes, their costume hyperbole, all tended for effect. Their gloss and glitter lipstick, their soft and tender feel.

“I bet you came to sniff my genitals. As usual.”

I contemplate paradise in every connate petal. The throats, the limbs.

“Why don’t you take me home with you?” The spiked heels, the hiked up miniskirts and stuffed brassieres.

“Oh, Rose, everyone knows you’re already wilting. So take me instead. You won’t regret.”

I blush: Those brash sunflowers are selfing again. Shameless exhibitionists!

“Hey, Bud!”

The blossoms’ bosoms sway like ecstacy while stems swivel and gyrate. The anthor sacs split boldly open, and pistils expose their sticky tips, their fine tiny hairs. Oh, my!

“My nectar is sweet and yours for the tasting.”

Their scents, their scents, they’re engineered to test my feigned reticence.

“I do bouquets.”

Though I confess, after all these years, I savor their style still, I am aware that there is a stigma attached.

But, this time, I choose to cruise the hothouse. Rumor has it that the orchids are in gametophyte.

DESTINIES SHIFT

Like a detective or salesman after a lead,

a jealous extra hungry for of the first lead role,

my destinies shift between control and rolled dice.

Knowing the sea will be not forever ice free

along my chosen route, do I want to free boot

or aspire to engage as a cruise ship boot black

and watch the unsettled play their slots and blackjack

in quest of their elusive holy grail jack pot

while jaded doves adrenalize in the spotlight?

The isolated, stark figure of the light house

confronts the image of the soft-bobbing houseboat

like a cradle rocking itself in its boat slip

moored oh so serenely by its careful slip knot

which is not (not!) a noose. It’s a kind of knot ring.

O, to be barefoot beach boy, heedless of ring worm.

OPPOSING OCTAINES: A DIPTYCH 

And thus have we survived Time’s constriction: 

Our birthright has yielded to castration,  

imagination consigned to fiction, 

the possible straitened since Creation. 

Our regular Sunday crucifixions,  

augmented by dances and cremations, 

reduced by constraints and interdictions  

to meaningless recreations. 

My universe expanding 

from a drop of hydrogen. 

My world blessed by dawns and springs, 

rainbowed by imaginings. 

Any tomorrow has wings. 

:This is why I laugh and sing: 

Ending joins with beginning, 

every closure with an in.