Big Dirty

A brown doe with tranquilizer darts stuck in her hide enters the red line to 95th, nestles vacant space between seats of Vietnam vets in Chicago-stained Cosby sweaters. A junkie teenager, ringworm scars like trilobite spirals fossilized into his scalp, steadies himself as the train quakes over demagnetized tracks and walks toward the deer. The two of them sleepy-eyed, unsure of movement, drunk and emaciated dancers on fetal calf legs.

The deer mistakes industry for a meadow; passengers’ backpacks and briefcases as moss-covered boulders; the ding-donging Doors Closing announcement for flittering birdsong; the hollow vibrations of the subway accelerating underneath the city as the cooing of a rushing brook.

The junkie muscles a dart from the doe’s thick skin. Licks a droplet of blood from the tip and eases it into his neck, collapses into the deer’s stomach. His head, frozen with poison, nuzzles into fur and rubbery tick nipples.

They sleep entangled, like fighters too tired to throw punches, both thankful for warmth and the thud of heartbeats against skin.



I’ve been dreaming about Cuba.

Brown beanpole girls under coconut trees fan themselves with elephant ears. Skinny rib-caged boys pet cats and eat blankets, shatter bare feet against dirt clod soccer balls. Men named for warships clothespin cigars to lines that swing between adobe mud huts. Bats sleeping-bagged in sun-baked onionskin wings. At night they use fire to dry. When one catches, the city is a glowing festival of purple tobacco smoke and orange paper lanterns.

A Cuban woman sleeps naked in my bed and my fingers island hop back freckles.

Pronounce your last name again.

“Montes de Oca.”

My bed fills with sand, Garcinias bloom from my chest.

What is your hometown called? 

“Ciudad San Ramon.”

I can see you there. And I am there too, smashing toilets to build barriers from the men who argue over corn and potatoes.


We Will All Make a Mixed Tape

Just for today let’s pretend that love is real.

And this word (when we close our eyes

and whisper it into our hands)

can cause us to will images of clouds in the sky.

Some of us will see tufts of white

in the shape of boys pushing girls on swings.

Others will imagine a slender woman

bending down to uproot a flower

in the high whips of cirrus

painted over the moon.


Keeping our eyes closed,

let’s all hum our favorite song.

Listen as the melodies

overlap with one another,

colliding in dissonance

and sounding like thunder rattling windows.

The sound causes the clouds in our minds

to morph into puffy grey record players

with hearts bubbling from their phonograph horns.


Now let’s open our eyes.

Let’s make a decision right now.

With all of us here,

syncopated by the heartbeats in our wrists,

let’s decide that love is not make-believe,

is not as indefinite as a dream

or as faint as a ghost zips by in a whisper.

When asked to prove this,

we will all make a mixed tape.

When we go home

and climb the stairs to our bedrooms,

pretending that our fathers are not asleep on couches

and hoping that our mothers will come back

from aunt’s and grandmother’s,

we will all make a mixed tape.


Pipe-Cleaner Girl

We all gathered around the tank because she was actually going to do it. This pipe-cleaner girl, a child really, with long stringy brown hair hanging over the indents of sad eyes, was standing on the rusty access-ledge over the shark exhibit. Aquarium patrons, overweight women with colorful visors and men in shorts with fanny packs turned away, cringed in prayer. The girl was wearing an ADOLESCENTS t-shirt and, already discounting her life, turning into newsprint, I knew someone would blame the music. A police officer with narrow eyes and a red mustache tried to talk her down. C’mon kid, he said. You don’t really want to do this, do you? She answered without words, taking two tiny steps closer to the water. The cop placed his hand over the megaphone and whispered to his short partner, I’ve got 50 bucks on the sharks. The menacing sharks whose fins had been breaching and slicing through the skinny girl’s shadow as it ebbed on the water’s surface. Then, without warning or explanation, she leaped forward like a broke-winged heron plummets. I closed my eyes, her afterimage branded into my eyelids. While waiting for the splash, time stopped at the aquarium. The choking sounds of the water filter sounded like planes passing. And for one brief second, instead of considering what drove her to jump, I think about what will become of me after my own death.

Ryan Mattern


Ryan Mattern is a 23 year old creative writing student at California State University, San Bernardino. His work has appeared in Criminal Class Review, The Toucan, This Paper City, Halfnelson, and The Secret Handshake. Although he calls Chicago home, he currently lives in Southern California with his dog, Wrigley.

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