by Philip C. Breakenridge

Beams of hazy sunlight stroked Christopher’s skin as he took his usual place at the window. The gently rustling drapes, a melancholy shade of mauve, fingered his thighs and calves carelessly like an inattentive lover. Peering out over the newly awakened city, Christopher inhaled the fragrance peculiar to a late spring morning in Vancouver. A lush, green aroma rich with the pungency of Japanese blossoms and lilac bushes clung to the air. Christopher closed his eyes, timidly inviting the quiet of the early day to wash over his nakedness. He envisioned what was ahead and shifted uneasily in the rigid wooden chair.

Christopher’s eyes flicked open, his body tensing. The familiar silhouette darkened the window across the way.

Suddenly, Christopher’s stomach churned painfully; a bizarre combination of reticence and excitement wrestled inside him. An icy tremor resounded through his body as his quivering hand crept up to explore the firmness of his own chest. It was still difficult for him. Christopher’s right nipple hardened under his fingertip’s chilly touch. He twisted it between his thumb and forefinger, conjuring a delicious sensation of pain. The sharply shooting twinges of agony freed him, releasing him from a disobedient body. Christopher’s escaped self hovered above, a shadowy apparition gazing down on a vacant shell.

Christopher felt the stranger’s anxious presence in the distance. It was time to begin.

Fiery streams of water consumed Christopher as the last traces of the morning ritual swirled down the shower drain. Numbness washed over him as he pondered the repulsiveness of being touched by hands other than his own: hands that had molested the bodies of other lovers, hands that had sweetly mussed the fur of filthy, dumbly-devoted house pets. The oversized washcloth resting on the edge of the tub invited him to scour away these thoughts, a foul grime slick upon his skin. He gripped the washcloth tightly, scrubbing until his pale, freckled skin flushed an angry red.

Exhausted, Christopher slid into a heap on the shower floor, swallowed by a thick, dank blanket of dewy steam. Consciousness slipped away from him.

The boy raised a bruised hand to block the sun’s fierce rays. The colorful shorts set his mother had placed out for him that morning glimmered in its bright beams. A tepid summer breeze danced on the backs of his spindly legs. He squinted, scanning the expansive greenness of the backyard. His eyes refocused as the formidable man came back into view.

His father crouched uncomfortably ten feet away on the meticulously-manicured lawn. He wiped away copious beads of sweat from his crinkled brow with a meaty, calloused hand. A sigh of exasperation escaped his mouth, unresisted.

“Okay, Tiger. This time I wanna feel it burn right through my glove.”

The freckle-faced boy grasped the baseball clumsily. He struggled to wrap his delicately boned fingers around its shape.

“Here it comes, Daddy.”

Using a madly hurled overhand pitch, Christopher threw the ball with all the might a six-year-old could muster. The boy’s miniature physique lunged forward as the fervent force of his throw sent him tumbling to his knees. For an instant, he cowered on all fours waiting for the call.

“You still throw like a girl. Get up. Let’s do it again.”

Christopher stared down at the grass wishing its fierce green blades would wind their way around his body and pull him down into the cool soil. Droplets of childish determination welled up in his eyes. They had been at this for four hours and he wasn’t getting any better. He was still a sissy.

“C’mon. Get up. Only girls give up.”

His father ran his hands through a coppery-colored brush cut and smiled smugly. His boy would thank him for this someday.

“I’ll show you how it’s done. I’ll pitch it to you. You catch it, then throw it back to me.”

The little boy stood up and brushed flecks of dirt off of his grass-stained knees, feigning the bravado of a major league player. He swallowed hard and braced himself for the impact of his father’s pitch.

“Are you ready?”

Christopher tugged at the ill-fitting leather glove that engulfed his left hand and nodded. His father didn’t hold back.

The force of his throw seared into the boy’s chest, throwing him onto his back. Christopher lay on the grass, winded, gasping for any faint wisps of air he could smuggle into his lungs. A raucous cough rattled his chest, bringing up with it a ghastly mixture of blackened blood and spittle. The putrid liquid oozed from the corners of his pink mouth and dribbled onto his chin. Christopher stared up at the awesome summer sky, a deliriously beautiful palette of soft blues. Its radiance mesmerized and comforted him as he floated upwards to embrace it.

Suddenly, the blackness of his father’s stern expression fell across the heavens, darkening the magnificent sky like an ominous eclipse.

An hour passed before Christopher felt composed enough to leave his sodden refuge. Stepping out of the shower, he wrapped a plush towel around his narrow waist. With a sweep of his hand, he cleared the bathroom mirror of steam. His estranged self stared back at him as he ran his water-pruned fingers through an untamable mass of wavy hair. The sun had already turned it a shiny carrot-red. The murky blue pools of his eyes reflected back a sad vacancy.

The stranger had been coming every morning for over six months now. Christopher hated what his dark visitor made him feel. The detached connection that came with being watched was something Christopher both craved and despised. He was losing himself, a casualty of a sordid inner conflict. His carefully-constructed guise slowly peeled away, exposing a pinkish, tender sensualist flesh. Christopher craned his neck, bringing his face closer to the mirror. He poked at the finely etched lines tugging at the corners of his eyes. Maybe he was better off lost.

Christopher stared out into the faintly glowing blackness. The night air had an edge that prickled the flesh of his exposed chest. The pearlized buttons on his finely-tailored dress shirt were all undone. Its crisp cotton shape billowed on the breeze. Christopher summoned all the energy he could and directed it towards the shaded window. His eyes cautiously scanned the prodigious high-rise that looked especially foreboding after dark. The cold, grey building gazed back at him, its scattered illuminated suites forming a menacing grimace. Christopher focused on the dimly lit apartment across the way. Nothing happened.

He knew it wasn’t time yet. The shared addiction was precise and calculated. Christopher slid the frosted glass door back into place, shutting out the night.

Morning slowly crept up on Christopher. He awoke from a restless slumber and took his post earlier than usual. The familiar anxiety embracing him made the wait excruciating. Tiny beads of perspiration blanketed his body causing him to shiver slightly in the crisp morning air. A distorted collage pieced together with visions of other mornings just like this one spun in his head. The endless effort given to resisting the perversion of his own thoughts wore him down.

The masculine frame stepped out of the shadows, bringing Christopher to his senses. The stranger was already aroused. Christopher closed his eyes and laid back in the chair, balancing himself on the very edge. He gently ran his hands over the expanse of his chest. The stranger liked this – Christopher felt his approval. He lowered his hands, examining his rippled midsection with probing fingertips. He moved deliberately, pausing to feel each section of taut abdominal muscle.
Growing impatient, the stranger looked over his shoulder, into the black of his abode. Christopher gave him what he wanted. The stranger watched intently, fixed in the moment by an eerie stillness.

Christopher’s body convulsed with the force of his climax. He lay trembling, listening to the hurried pant of his own breath. He slowly peeled his eyes open. The stranger was pleased. The dark figure vanished into the obscurity of his apartment. Christopher was alone.

Christopher peeked through the sad drapes. Two dreary and vacuous weeks had passed since the stranger had stopped coming. The desertion had caused something inside of Christopher to short circuit, making the maintaining of his make-believe daily life unbearable. He was a fraud, a disconnected being, an unlovable abomination. Christopher had stopped leaving the apartment a week ago. The sour stench of his unwashed body grew thick upon the stale air inside. A dense, coarse stubble had claimed his smooth face. He ate only when the growlings of his belly demanded it; sleep came to him infrequently, in dreamless and gloomy waves.

Christopher’s robe slipped into a neat pile on the living room floor. He slid the balcony door open and stepped out into the midday rays, the sun’s brightness assailing his dulled eyes. He hoisted himself onto the wall of his balcony, his bare feet gripping the rough concrete ledge. Christopher closed his eyes and inhaled calmly. The thought of erasing a mistake was strangely soothing to him.

Christopher leaned forward, letting go of his balance. He simply let go.

Discretion Assured

by Philip C. Breakenridge

He’s a scarecrow set against the blackness of my backyard, a lanky figure trapped inside the small square of yellow emanating from the porch light. His scarecrow mouth puckers in a guilty little grin. Time for the awkward goodbye.

A mass of tousled, honey-colored hair hangs loosely around his face. It’s stuck to his forehead in places, clinging to the moistness of his skin – a product of our romp. He never takes a shower or stays the night. To do so would cross that unspoken, invisible boundary.

I hope she smells me on him.

The door clicks shut and I listen to the grumble of his car coming back to life. It’s taking him back to his relationship, his house by the sea. Leaving me in my dingy basement apartment.
I turn on the television and its fuzzy, throbbing glow fills the disheveled bedroom. It’s the only thing that hasn’t left me. As long as I keep up with the cable bill, it can’t.

I play with the brass screw he had pulled out of his pocket earlier. He had built a fence around [i]their[/i] yard today.

“Is it okay to want you so bad?” I had asked him.

“As long as you know that my heart is taken,” he had answered. “Can we put the porno on now?”

He left the screw on my night stand as a reminder. I twirl it between two fingers and think about all of the ‘attached’ men I’ve fucked this year. Wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, whatever. Like all the others, I provide him with what his insignificant other won’t – dirty, noncommittal sex. A release from the boredom of monogamy.

Tonight he lost control and came all over the sheets. I roll around in his genetic cast off like a neophyte Madonna strung out on stardom. At least I have part of him. Before he left, he told me that I’d always attract abusive, unavailable men, that I was too internal, too intelligent.

What the fuck does he know?

The Drop

by Suvi Mahonen

The man stood waiting with his back to the desk.
It was dim in the room. Pale light struggling through the small barred window fell onto the tiled walls and floor. The shelf opposite the desk was stacked with dressings, rolled bandages and a large, rust-coloured bottle of iodine, to disinfect caning wounds.
I tried to swallow. Bile pooled at the back of my tongue but my throat was too dry to get rid of it.
The man took out a little notebook and pen from the pocket of his khaki shirt. His black fringe hung in limp strands over a forehead that was pitted in the middle with a bullet-hole-shaped scar. His dark eyes were sunk in deep hollows beneath twitching eyelids.
I searched his face for any acknowledgement of what he did, why he had me here. He remained expressionless.
‘Please step on the scales,’ he said.
I shivered even though it must have been at least thirty degrees Celcius.
‘Leave your shoes on.’
Warm sweat dribbled down the back of my neck as I stepped onto the scales in front of me. The man leaned forward and started moving the little metal weights that slid across the bar.
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
I turned my face away, clenching my teeth hard. I stared at the narrow examination bed. At the locked medicine cabinet. At the two guards standing watch by the door. And finally I came back to the scales.
The man clunked the last weight into place and stepped back for a moment to make sure the beam stayed even. I blinked. I’d lost more than ten kilos since coming to this place.
The man wrote my weight down in his little notebook. It was all very scientific. They used a system devised by the British in 1888 called the Official Table of Drops—bloody Peng had told me that.
‘It’s a manual for working out the length of rope,’ Peng had said. ‘It depends on your weight.’ He’d stopped by my cell, uninvited, after the pardon board rejected my appeal. ‘If the rope is too long, it rips your head off. Too short, you strangulate.’ He put his hands around his throat and made choking noises.
‘Okay,’ the man said. ‘Step down now.’
I stepped off the scales. My prison coveralls, damp from sweat, chaffed at the rash on the inside of my thighs.
The man closed his notebook and nodded to the guards.
‘You have any questions?’ he asked me.
I shook my head; I couldn’t speak.
‘I will see you tomorrow morning,’ he said.
I had no choice. The man was my hangman.

‘A Malay, a Thai and an Australian were on death row. The warden gave them a choice whether to be shot, hanged, or injected with the AIDS virus.’
Khee Boon occupied the cell on my right. He was a Singaporean who liked telling jokes. He only saw half his audience—those prisoners facing him in the row of cells opposite—but he spoke to all of us. Shouted conversations in Mandarin, Malay and English babbled between the bars. You got used to it.
‘The Malaysian chose to be shot. He died instantly.’
Khee Boon paused.
‘The Thai chose to be hanged. He also died instantly.’
I waited for the punchline.
‘The Australian said he wanted to be injected with the AIDS virus. So they gave him the needle. He fell down laughing. The warden wanted to know what was so funny. The Australian said, “You’re so stupid. I’m wearing a condom!”’
Everyone laughed. I laughed the hardest—until gagging on an inbreath, I realised I was crying.

Steel clanked as a cell door rattled shut. Restless inmates paced and sweated through another miserable afternoon, and in the guard’s office, the television yabbered in that high-pitched, whiny dialect I had come to despise.
I was sitting on the edge of my straw-filled mattress that lay on the ground, knees to my chest, playing Seven Devils Solitaire, one of the hardest solitaire games to win. Floor space was limited. Some cards were even arranged half under the bars to avoid the brown metallic water trickling from the leaking tap. I’d tried playing the cards on the mattress, but the stacks kept tipping on the hard bulges.
If I won I’d get a stay. My starting layout was promising. I had an ace of diamonds. I picked it up and moved it to the right near my foot. Spongy chunks of skin peeled in the cracks between my toes. I couldn’t resist the urge to scratch, to kill the crazy-making itch. Blood came away on my fingers. I went bare foot in my cell to try and keep my feet dry—tinea lurked in every crevice in this festering row of manflesh—but it was too humid. My feet were never dry.
Six of spades. I couldn’t use it. I put it on the waste pile and took another card. The game wasn’t going well. In a way I was lucky. I didn’t want to live here for the rest of my life. Every day the air was heavy with the stench rising from the open toilet hole, the mosquitoes at dusk, and the moans and mutters of men at night that never gave you peace.
Five of hearts! I had a chance. What was the point of trying to kid myself? I didn’t want to die. My hopes rose and fell like an imam praying.
Guards. Their heavy boots grinding into nubs of course concrete sounded threatening in the closed dimness, hard and unforgiving. One of the guards stopped outside my cell. Usually they counted us four times a day. Today they were checking on me hourly.
He nodded and strode off, slowly running his baton along the bars. Tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk.
I turned back to my cards. A king. I was going to finish my goal piles. I had to get an ace. One card remained in the stock pile. If it was an ace, I lived. If it wasn’t, I died. I picked it up and held onto it for a second. I still had hope. I turned it over.

The cobbled alley was walled in on both sides. A strip of sky divided the buildings; light flashed off jutting gutters, below that, grey.
Rod stood with the man at the back of the Chinese restaurant. The smell of fried duck, steamed rice and burnt garlic came from an open door.
I went up to them, fighting the urge to look over my shoulder. I knew there was no-one behind me; I was being paranoid.
Rod gestured towards the man.
‘This is Thanh.’
Thanh was a thin Vietnamese man in his late twenties with a small mouth and tufts of moustache sprouting around flaky lips. He wore rumpled black clothes—T-shirt, skin-tight jeans—and thongs in the middle of winter. Lizard tattoos coiled around his wiry brown arms. As he glanced at me, he raised an eyebrow, as if appraising my value before I was sold.
I took a step back; the heels of my Nikes struck the edge of the gutter.
Thanh reached into his pocket. He shook out a cigarette from a battered box, lit up, then crushed the box back into his pocket without offering a cigarette to us.
He looked at me again, then grinned, blowing smoke in my direction.
‘So you want fast cash?’
I turned away and cleared my throat to cover the cough. I could hear the street outside the alley, the idling and revving of inner city traffic, someone shouting, and the long hiss of a bus’s air brakes.
I looked back at Thanh and tried to concentrate on what he was saying. Details. How much cash he would supply; who would pick us up from the airport; the mobile number for a go-between in Kuantan who would facilitate the exchange; our flights back to Melbourne; and our fee for the job. Rod and I were going there together, but we’d return separately to protect the stock in case we were busted.
‘How long will it take?’ I asked.
‘Less than a week.’
‘What if we’re caught?’
Thanh laughed. ‘No-one ever gets caught in Malaysia.’
His laugh made me uneasy; I knew he was lying.
I didn’t want to be here any more. I should’ve been at home, studying for my exams. It was cold, but under my shirt my chest felt hot.
‘Let me think about it,’ I said.
Thanh’s face turned hard. He had eyes that told you not to fuck with him. ‘Let Rod know by tomorrow.’
I looked at Rod. He was busy studying a crack in the wall. Rod was my best friend; I’d known him for years. He’d got into serious trouble, and he needed this job. I’d agreed to help him, but now I wasn’t sure. The whole thing felt wrong.
I turned and started walking without bothering to say goodbye. The alley seemed to stretch further than before. My legs felt numb, like they’d been sat on for too long.
I wanted to go home. I could still back out; Rod could find someone else. I had to study for my TAFE exams. Eight months to go till I finished my course.

Rod made it home.

It was a grimy, windowless room with mildew staining the once white-painted concrete walls. Cigarette burns cratered both sides of the vinyl counter where prisoners stood talking to their visitors through the grille. The air was a taxi-driver’s armpit in peak-hour traffic: steamy and rank.
As always, my mother was there, waiting. Her hands gripped the steel bars; the expression on her face was eager, pained.
I scuffled over to her, my ankles tugging against the leg-irons that reduced my steps to an awkward little waddle.
She reached through the bars.
‘Benny.’ Then she started to cry.
In a way I was glad that she wouldn’t have to come here any more. The constant travel between Australia and this bumcrack part of the world had left her both broke and wrecked. She’d done everything she could to get my sentence revoked: paid for extra lawyers, harassed Federal Parliament, written to the Queen, given interviews to a media grabbing story after story about the young white man about to be hanged in an Asian jail. Now, I wanted her to rest.
She put her hands on my shoulders and tried to hug me. Our faces scraped against corroded iron. I whispered Sorry.
She squeezed me hard before letting me go. After a moment she searched in her handbag, pulled out a small white Bible, and placed it on the counter.
With a fierce smile she looked up at me.
‘We will see each other again.’
She meant in heaven and I nodded. I saw the desperation in her pulpy eyes, punctured cheeks, and the deep troughs around her sad, downturned mouth.
‘Next thing you know,’ she said. ‘You’ll open your eyes and see Jesus.’
I tried to hide my doubts as she spent most of our last visit talking about heaven. I didn’t want to take away from her reliance on God. It comforted her.
She wasn’t always this passionate about religion. A strict childhood loaded with rules had driven her to rebellion. By seventeen she was pregnant with me. My father was never around. I never knew who he was. Once, when I asked her, when I yelled at her to tell me, she said she wasn’t sure. After I was born she gave up drugs and eventually got a job. But it wasn’t until a house fire killed my grandparents that she returned to the church.
Now the church was all she had. She had no other family.
‘Look after yourself, Mum,’ I said towards the end of our allotted time. ‘You got everything ready to fly home?’
‘The people at the high commission are helping me.’ Then she started crying again.
I reached up with my shackled hands and touched her face.
‘I’ll be all right,’ I told her.
Her bottom lip blanched as her teeth bit down on it.
‘I love you, son.’
The back of my throat hurt. I wanted to say it back. I knew it was what she needed. But I couldn’t get the words out.
A guard tapped me on the arm.
‘Time’s up.’
My top lip curled into my gum. No chance remained for me to say it. Not with the hacks there, listening.

‘Do you really see heaven as a tangible place?’ I asked.
We were sitting on the hard slab of mattress in my cell, our backs against the knuckled wall, my feet bare, his sandal clad. It was dim but never dark on the row and in the fluorescent light coming through the bars I could see him nodding his head in that earnest, measured way he had.
‘Have you ever doubted?’
He was honest enough to hesitate. ‘We are human beings. We all doubt from time to time.’
That might have been true. But now was not a good time to have doubts as I sat here beside him, listening to the sound of sleepless inmates stirring in their beds, the muffled television in the guards’ office, and the steady tick … tick … tick of the metal clock. My guts felt like they were being twisted over a lemon squeezer.
I was terrified.
‘I don’t think I’ll make it.’
Father Cheng thought I was talking about heaven. He turned and looked at me with his lopsided eyes. ‘Remember John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son. So that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’
Father Cheng had spent a lot of time with me over the last few months. He knew my struggles well. The shame. The fear. The heavy ache of remorse. He never judged me, never challenged the different beliefs I held, never felt it relevant to question me about my past. He was a genuine friend. We talked about a lot of things, not just religion. Some of my most comforting times in prison had been during our long conversations about sport. He talked badminton; I talked Aussie Rules.
‘I still have doubts, though.’
‘Then you’re in good company. Jesus’s own disciple Thomas doubted.’
I smiled. I was grateful for Father Cheng’s support, that he was here, spending the night with me in my cell. His duties included accompanying Christian death row inmates to the gallows.
When I asked him how many men he’d seen hanged, he refused to say. He simply put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You don’t need to fear death’.
But of course I did.

I sweated under the glaring floodlights. The smell of old vomit hung trapped in the air between the rutted cement walls and the low ceiling above me. Across the corridor, a hose lay heaped under a copper tap, with a wooden broom and an upside down metal bucket beside it. No tap was in this cell, only a small drain, to wash away the waste of past men.
From where I sat on a plastic chair, the only piece of furniture in the cell, I could see the gallows door. Steel shanks bordered the archway over the tall stone entrance. The door was metal plated, with rivets around the edge and a thick iron bar that was bolted across the middle.
Two guards stood outside the holding cell. Their shadows shifted across the notepad on my knees.
I was trying to write a letter but I was shaking so bad I could hardly hold the pen.
A loud clank made me jump. They were testing the trapdoor. We’d all heard the sound before, reverberating down the row on the morning of an execution, telling us the hangman had pulled the lever, or the gear as Peng called it.
I looked back down at the notepad again. I was nearly out of time. This was my last chance to write to my mother. To give her words of comfort. I wished that I had told her that I loved her when we’d said goodbye. I hated that I hadn’t. I wanted to write it down—tell her I loved her, let her know.
The pressure in the block was building. I heard the raised voice of a guard in the distance, the cough of a nervy inmate, and the metal gate at the end of the corridor clanging open and closed, open and closed.
I bit the skin on the inside of my cheek; blood oozed over my tongue as I forced myself to write.

Dear Mum,
I wanted to thank you for all the things you’ve done for me. None of this
is your fault. I’m sorry for the shame. I want you to know how much ——

In the charged air, the scraping sound was loud, harsh, like something heavy being dragged over concrete. I looked up. The gallows door was opening. Light from the death chamber arced out across the corridor.
I stared at the widening gap as a guard pushed the door towards the thick stone pillar. The guard bent down, then drove a stake into a ground socket to secure the door open.
He straightened up again, then moved to one side and stood at attention.
The row became silent as the hangman and his team filed out through the gallows door.
A moan that I wasn’t ready rose halfway up my throat.
I hadn’t finished my letter, telling my mother that I loved her. But I couldn’t keep writing. I had to stand up. I wouldn’t face them sitting down.
I put the notepad on the ground and got to my feet.
The execution team stood on the other side of the bars. The guards wore military uniform, their green pressed shirts tucked into high-waisted trousers, pistols at their sides.
Father Cheng was there as well. The expression on his face was sad, the time for smiles over.
I looked back at the hangman.
The same twitch was in his eyelids, the muscles in his face were drawn. His fringe was damp and shiny, combed neatly to one side. I remembered the bullet-hole-shaped scar that I saw on his forehead.
‘Benjamin Pearce,’ he said. ‘We have a warrant for your execution.’
I held myself still as he read out my hanging order. I stared at the steel bars in front of me with their flakes of rust, their tarnished grime. I thought about this life I had ruined. My home. My friends back in Melbourne. My mother. My dear, unselfish mother. As the hangman finished reading, I said a silent prayer for her.
The hangman turned and nodded to the guard standing beside him. The guard stepped forward with a ring of keys in his hand and unlocked the cell door.
The hangman stepped inside.

First published in ‘Verandah’ in 2007

Address to the Greenville Senior Women’s Club 35th Annual Pedigreed Dog Show

by Summer Block

Address to the Greenville Senior Women’s Club 35th Annual Pedigreed Dog Show by the mystery writer H.L. Lemontre

It’s quite an honor to be speaking today as both a guest and a participant. I am asked to speak at a lot of dog shows by fans of my mystery series, but rarely do I get the chance to speak in my own hometown, and even more rarely do I get to speak at a show where my own dog is also a contender. Perhaps you’ll indulge an old woman if I tell you a bit about how I came to write the [i]Fluffems[/i] series.

Readers are always tickled pink when I confide that I don’t like dogs. Everyone seems to find it quite simply hilarious. Journalists, too, love to quote the author of sixty-two books in the [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog[/i] series as admitting that she doesn’t even like dogs! Well, I’m not trying to be cute, I can tell you that. I don’t care for dogs. I’m not trying to be funny. Everyone seems to find it perfectly hilarious that the creator of the adorable little white terrier Fluffems shouldn’t like dogs. If you ask me, dedicating your entire life to a subject in which you haven’t the least interest isn’t very funny at all. But I’m an old woman, so I suppose I see things differently.

Well, as I’m among friends, I might as well tell the truth. I started the whole thing as a joke. I heard about a series of mystery novels where a cat solves the mysteries, and it just seemed so ridiculous, and I thought, well, why not a dog? If a cat can solve mysteries. I started with my first one, [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog and the Case of the Wicked Wicket[/i], and it sold like hot cakes. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so easy. After that, I settled into a routine, and before you know it, six books were done. The sixth was the most popular at the time, [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog and the Case of the Purloined Pudding[/i]. It’s important to have catchy titles.

Anyway, I came upon it all quite by accident. I don’t like dogs, but I do like mysteries. Everyone enjoys a little light reading now and then, and for a woman of a certain age it’s better to be seen on an airplane with a decent mystery than a romance novel like you sometimes see women just reading right out in the open, which I think looks tacky. Some people have tried to find all sorts of literary meanings in my work, especially in the later books like [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog and the Case of the Tempting Trifle[/i]. I think they just feel guilty about reading mysteries and want to dress it up to justify it to themselves. Like people that call any old thing art so they can go to galleries and look at smutty pictures in public.

But anyway, I like mysteries. I like their structure, and I like the idea that things should have a cause. I think people should take responsibility for things. And I’d like to think I have a logical mind. I was told that, as a girl, and I always did well at science and math, which after all are puzzles, like mysteries. I’ve come to look for mysteries everywhere. I don’t mean, of course, that I go around snooping through people’s medicine cabinets or looking for dead bodies, like that woman on TV. I just mean I like to look for clues, and the cause of things. Sort of a whodunit. I’m seventy-three years old, all my friends are dead, and I’ve never been married. I’d like to know who did that.

Of course, my own little dog looks very little like Fluffems. I copied the idea for Fluffems’ appearance from a greeting card sent to me by my sister, God rest her soul, who loved dogs and sent a card with a dog on it every year for Christmas. My own dog isn’t white or fluffy and he doesn’t have blue eyes. He’s a dachshund, and I introduced a dachshund briefly as a sidekick in [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog and the Case of the Captured Cozy[/i] but a lot of my readers didn’t like it. They said it drew attention away from Fluffems.

It may surprise you that although I have never liked dogs, I do like dog shows. That is because I have always appreciated perfection. My own dog is really a superior specimen. I acquired him as a present from a reader, in fact. That was around the time that [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog and the Case of the Daunting Dagger[/i] won the Poirot Prize for Best Mystery in a Series. A fan wrote me the kindest letter about my work. I get so many letters these days and my eyes are bad, I have a little Indian girl from the college who reads most of them for me, but she passed this one on to me, it was so nice. A gentleman fan—most of my fans are women—with very nice penmanship. He particularly liked [i]Fluffems the Softest Dog and the Case of the Spilled Soup[/i]. That’s the one where Fluffems learns to ride a motorbike.

Well, I kept up a correspondence with this gentleman for quite some time. He was living in Virginia with his daughter; his wife had passed away. I believe he had once been a military man, but he loved a good mystery. He was the one that gave me the idea for Fluffems to use the computer in the later stories, to communicate with Mrs. Peale. I met him only once. He said he would be near Greenville to visit his other daughter, and did I want to have dinner. We went to the Ivy Room, which used to be a lovely place, but now they have one of those live bands that could wake the dead and the food’s not what it used to be. He ordered wine, and after dinner he insisted we drive back up to his hotel so he could give me a present. It was a dog. Can you imagine that? A little dachshund, with a ribbon around its neck. I thought it was extremely importunate to give someone a dog as a gift and I told him so, but he really insisted. I am too old, I told him, to start in caring for something like that. Later I found out his other daughter lives nearly fifty miles from Greenville. I suppose that was a clue, but I’m an old woman and I don’t much notice things like that anymore. He went on back to Virginia, I think his mind is going a bit now.

Well, my apologies, I do run on a bit sometimes at these speaking engagements, and I know there are many dogs here to put through their paces. Who would have thought when I was just a girl getting high marks in science at Greenville High that I’d be back here today with my own little dog and a shelf of stories. Well, I guess it’s a mystery.

[i]Note: The piece has been published online before, but only on my personal blog, www.thefoghornmagazine.com, and can be removed upon request.[/i]

Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in a variety of publications, including
McSweeneys, Small Spiral Notebook, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, the San Francisco Chronicle, Monkeybicycle, Stirring, ALARM, Identity Theory, January Magazine, and Rain Taxi. Find her work at www.summerblock.com.

audie and martin

the night before martin luther king
was gunned down in memphis
he came screaming
out of a dream.

the instant outside roanoke
that his plane smacked a mountain
was the first time since holtzwihr
that audie murphy wasn’t afraid.

audie and martin met in heaven and
walked Paradise apart
from listening angels,
the ears of God.

what they whispered
to each other
was not put down
into the book of ages…

they swapped medals,
and their laughter echoed
through heaven and earth,
to hell and back.


Kevin P. Keating

White sunlight pierced the cracked, mud-encrusted windshield of the pickup truck, stinging my one good eye. The woods, green and lush and wild in the full heat of summer, became an impressionistic blur. With trembling fingers I adjusted my eye patch, desperate to see where I was being taken. Dirt and gravel churned beneath the tires of the truck as Hollerin’ Bob, laughing with raucous child-like glee, stomped on the accelerator. Thick rivulets of brown saliva trickled down his scruffy chin. As the truck fishtailed and careened toward a ditch, something sharp gouged the small of my back. I let out a sharp cry of pain and searched the seat for the pocket flashlight I kept in my back pocket but my fingers only scraped a thin layer of grime from the vinyl seat. In weepy-eyed panic, I clutched a new copy of Ulysses to my chest, believing that the words of a great writer like Joyce could be used like some ancient incantation to help protect me from the chaos of life in Coshocton County, Ohio. I need only find the correct page and, with the proper awe and reverence, recite a perplexing passage in a plodding monotone.
Mr. Peaches didn’t believe in magic. With a snort of contempt, he seized the novel, fanned his face with the pages, and then hurled it to the floor. He slouched so low in the seat that the brim of his greasy baseball cap was nearly level with the dashboard, but when he caught me staring at the tattoos on his forearm he sat up, nudged me in the side and waved a nearly empty tin of tobacco under my nose. “Patch, you wanna try some of this?” We hit a dip in the road and he nearly choked on the wad bulging from his ruddy cheeks.
Above the revving engine Hollerin’ Bob bellowed, “Hey, Patch, this sure is a lot differ’nt than the adventures you been readin’ in that damn book.” He slapped my thigh and then jerked the steering wheel hard to the left.
I jostled around the truck wedged between the two men, their thick shoulders knocking my skull with every twist and turn in the dusty country road.
“You ain’t been down to Wills Creek yet, have ya, Patch?” asked Hollerin’ Bob.
I shook my head.
Mr. Peaches picked a few small clumps of tobacco from his crooked yellow teeth. “Damn if there ain’t catfish there that can swallow a baby’s leg,” he said. “You won’t believe your eyes. I mean, your eye.”
The men laughed.
We raced up an anonymous gravel road toward a small shanty hidden by a swatch of underbrush and a grove of diseased pine trees. The shutters of the cottage were lopsided, the porch littered with pinecones and brown needles. No one had any intention of cleaning the place. Even the breeze seemed too listless and lazy to sweep away the debris.
Hollerin’ Bob slammed on the breaks and I knocked my head on the dashboard. “Me and Peaches will run in and get the rods,” he said.
In the distance, a rabbit raised its ears and darted toward the woods. Mr. Peaches leapt from the truck and hurled a rock at the animal. “Damn things are always eatin’ my lettuce and tomatoes,” he murmured. “Don’t know why I bother plantin’ anything down here.”
The men disappeared inside the cottage. I stood outside and leaned against the front bumper. I cocked my head, and made an effort, albeit a half-hearted one, to appreciate the alien serenity of the countryside, but instead of the peculiar clatter of cicadas and the rustle of leaves I heard that incessant kicking and thrashing coming from the back of the truck. I considered making a run for it, driving away in a cloud of dust and a fury of mayflies. The keys were in the ignition. Unable to relax with all that racket, I approached the tailgate. Even from a few paces away the air smelled sharp and pungent. I reached into the bed of the truck and lifted the heavy green tarp. The unblinking red-rimmed eyes of Old Crow stared back at me. Brown packing tape covered his mouth and wound around his head, pulling at his cheeks and making him look like the victim of a botched facelift.
“Hey, man,” I said. “How you doing back here? Pretty hot under this tarp, huh? Well, I think the game’s over. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna let you go now.”
Old Crow closed his eyes, shook his head. Heavy beads of sweat trickled down his cheeks.
I smiled and tried to explain it to him in the simplest way I knew how. “They’re only fucking with you, that’s all. You understand, right?”
A mosquito landed on my forearm and I squashed it with a sharp slap.
“Bugs eating you?” I asked. “They’re pretty annoying, aren’t they?” Behind me, I heard footsteps. “Here they come.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Hollerin’ Bob carrying three fishing rods. Mr. Peaches cradled a case of beer in his arms. “Just remember. This wasn’t my idea.” I dropped the tarp back over Old Crow’s head.
“That’s not part of the rules!” Hollerin’ Bob proclaimed. Every word uttered by Hollerin’ Bob was some kind of proclamation. “No peeking aloud.” He huffed as he marched, his prodigious gut wobbling from side to side. Flies buzzed around his eyes and he swatted at them as best he could. When he reached the truck, he tossed the rods into the bed where they landed with a loud clatter next to the shifting tarp. The kicking and thrashing grew more intense, and Hollerin’ Bob shouted, “Shut up back there or we ain’t never gonna let you out!”
Mr. Peaches stuffed a beer into my hand. The two men watched me closely and because I knew this was some kind of test–of camaraderie, conformity, machismo–I accepted the beer and gulped it down. After I finished it Mr. Peaches handed me another. I drank that down, too. One long steady gulp.
“How does that make you feel, Patch?” asked Hollerin’ Bob.
I nodded. “Not bad.”
Hollerin’ Bob laughed. He leaned over the bed of the truck and shouted, “Did ya hear that? Not bad, he said, not bad!”

For the rest of that afternoon we drove in circles I think, I’m not sure, just up and down the same dirt roads, drinking and farting and belching until evening. I felt inept, feeble, a delicate city boy who couldn’t grasp their world of dirt roads and 4x4s any more than they could grasp my world of books and university life.
As I stared at the big bugs bursting in bright green globs against the windshield, Hollerin’ Bob turned to me. “Let me ask you something, Patch. What made you start on books? Were you a sensitive boy? Hmmm? I only ask because I think my son might be, you know, a sensitive boy. Bookish and what not. Tell you what I think done it to him. The belt. I used come home from work, tired as hell, and I used to whoop him with my belt. I couldn’t help it. I ain’t got no patience for kids. Now he has his nose in a book all the time. Never talks to me.”
Mr. Peaches cracked open another beer. “My boy ain’t like that.” He took a long swig. “I once put my boy in an inner tube and floated him out to the middle of Will’s Creek. I tied one end of the rope to the tube and the other end to a tree and let him drift. Them catfish came right up and tried to swallow his little legs like they was worms. Never heard a child scream so loud. After a half hour or so he finally stopped makin’ such a fuss and just sorta slumped over. He never picked up a book as far as I know. You ever catch a catfish, Patch?”
“Well, you’re gonna catch one today.”
I found that in some vaguely shameful way I admired these men. They were a tough pair and seemed impervious to trouble. They didn’t worry about drinking too much, staying out too late, behaving respectably, saying the right things. They simply didn’t give a damn. Marriage didn’t matter because their wives didn’t matter. And their children feared them, feared the crack of the belt against their backs, the smell of alcohol when they burst through the door demanding a hot supper. But despite their hardnosed, old school ethos, they had been very good to me, gladly instructing me about their trade. They were middle-aged boilermakers who described themselves as “lifers” while I was just some college kid trying to earn money for next semester. “We been welding and grinding and hammering for longer’n you been alive,” Mr. Peaches liked to remind me.
My uncle, a prominent labor leader from Cleveland, arranged it so I could stay with them at their cottage. “You can’t go wrong,” my uncle told me. “The rent is free. Besides, they’re good men. You’ll learn a lot from them.” My uncle was right of course. When I first arrived at the cottage several weeks ago, I came prepared with an arsenal of books, Borges and Calvino and Saramago, but the education I was to receive would not consist of a careful analysis of postmodern fiction. Without opening their mouths, the men supplied me with a remarkable amount of information. Their bodies were veritable roadmaps of tragedy and misfortune, their eyes ruined from endless hours of welding, their knees shattered from particularly nasty falls, their bones improperly mended together in odd and lumpy configurations, their teeth chipped or crooked or missing altogether, their noses red and pitted from excessive drink.
The cottage, more of a child’s tree house than a habitable dwelling, had no electricity, and at night, as the men played cards by candlelight and drank beer at a makeshift table made of particle board and sawhorses, I tried to read with my pocket flashlight. The batteries never lasted very long and I always ended up tossing and turning on a mattress in a corner. Like a child who wants to hide from monsters lurking in his closet, I pulled the sheets over my face, trying to shut out the smell of cigarettes and the sound of high-pitched, whinnying laughter.
We worked at the power plant ten miles down the road. As an unskilled laborer I did all the grunt work and spent my days organizing toolboxes, detangling electrical cords, and securing ropes. I lifted loads, hauled away scrap metal, got the men coffee and water during breaks. From a safe distance I watched as cranes lifted heavy steel plates high into the air. The men scrambled along narrow planks of scaffolding, reached out to grab the plates, and then welded them to the exterior of giant cylinders. The strange language of the trade unions left me in a state of total confusion. Haggard and grim-faced, their cheeks black with grime, they shouted at me in a code I couldn’t quite comprehend: “Get me a new stinger. I need a crescent. Find me some more rod. 7018. Turn my machine down ten. Tie me a sheepshank. Where’s that chippin’ hammer?” I can’t say that I entirely adapted to this new environment–my mind had been conditioned to respond to the detailed instructions of soft-spoken, high-strung intellectuals, not the terse commands of sweating, short-tempered boilermakers–but Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches taught me, as best they could, how to swing a hammer properly and how to really drive a nail home. They showed me how to tie a dozen different knots, how to grind welds until they were flush with the metal, how to use an acetylene torch to cut through rivets. They even took me to a store in town and told me which steel-toed boots to buy, which leather gloves would last longest, and which long sleeved flannel shirts would best protect my arms from cascading sparks.
As part of their initiation process, the men teased and tormented me. One day, Hollerin’ Bob, a swaggering bull of a man, walloped the back of my legs with a plank of wood. Mr. Peaches emptied my lunch box and replaced my pita chips and hummus with chicken bones and a Moon Pie. They drew obscene pictures in the books I read at lunchtime, Isaac Singer and H.P. Lovecraft. They laughed at my outrage and jovially explained, “We’re just fuckin’ with you.” I soon found out that, as a rule, boilermakers were continually fucking with one another, it was their code, and no one was exempt from it.
Everyone also had a nickname, each an allusion to some kind of catastrophe that left the men physically or psychologically scarred for life–Giraffeneck, Leper, Monkey, Cockburn, Girly, Mudflap–and I knew and addressed my co-workers by these various monikers. My own nickname came quite easily, a gift from the gods. This was during my third week on the job. We’d been working another twelve-hour shift and the summer sun had taken its toll on me. Too exhausted to watch where I was going, I carelessly wandered behind Old Crow, a humorless journeyman who’d only spoken to me on a few occasions, usually to berate me in some way. “Watch yourself now, pretty boy,” he’d say. “Don’t get your hair mussed. He-heh-ha! Watch that lilly white skin. Might get a sunburn. He-hah-heh!”
With his arms working like pistons, Old Crow pulled up a hundred yards of torch hose through the steel grating of the power plant. The small metal bits attached to the end of the hose flashed in the late afternoon sun, and before I could leap out of the way, one of the metal bits struck my eye, shattering the contact lens into a dozen miniscule shards. I screamed and writhed on the ground, clutching my face.
Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches took me to the nearest emergency room (a thirty mile drive), and the doctor, a small Indian man with a disdainful frown, plucked the pieces out of my eye one by one and softly scolded me for wincing and blinking. “You must cooperate,” he stated flatly. I could smell cigarettes on his fingertips. “Am I going to be blind?” I whimpered. He paused. “Keep still.” When he finished he handed me an eye patch and told me to wear it for a week, then he quickly scribbled a prescription for eye drops. “Apply them twice a day.” I clutched the piece of paper to my chest and whined, “But am I damaged for life?” His disdain seemed to deepen, bordered on impatience, disgust, revulsion. “No, your eye is perfectly fine. Apply the drops.” He yanked the white curtain open and marched off, giving me the unmistakable impression that he was sickened to be in the presence of another stupid redneck. He never even asked how the accident had happened and probably assumed that I’d fallen out of a tree or jumped off a garage or got into a fistfight at some squalid roadhouse.
On the drive back to the cottage, Hollerin’ Bob muttered, “Goddamn towel head He ain’t got no business talking to you like that.”
After the accident, the foreman stationed me in the tool room and told me to watch my step, to look sharp, to pay attention. When the men came in I handed them crescent wrenches and extension cords and sledgehammers. They whistled when they saw the yellow bruise forming around my eye, asked how I was holding up, and jokingly called me Patch. The name stuck.
Then one day, just before the afternoon whistle blew, Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, Patch!” Hollerin’ Bob shouted.
“Yeah, hiya, Patch,” Mr. Peaches giggled like a mischievous schoolboy.
“We got a surprise for you, Patch. Out in the truck.”
“Yeah, Patch, a big surprise. Come and take a look.”
I only wanted to go back to the cottage, to collapse on the dirty mattress, to sleep until fall arrived when I could return to my insular world of Derrida and deconstruction, but what choice did I have? Reluctantly I followed the men out to the pickup truck to see their insipid surprise.

The moon flickered through the treetops now, its green goblin glow transforming me into a local yokel, and when we hit a bump in the road I burst into a fit of sloppy laughter, enjoying the novelty of my stupid intoxication. Hollerin’ Bob seemed to appreciate this metamorphosis, seemed almost relieved by it, and like a madman he swung the truck across the width of the road. Fireflies floated through the vast darkness like constellations. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and lilac and a hundred different wildflowers, so very different from the sulfurous stench surrounding the power plant, all merged together and became charged with mystery.
Once again, Mr. Peaches caught me studying his meaty forearms, the skull, the cross, the gothic letters, and when Hollerin’ Bob stopped the truck and switched off the lights each symbol seemed to pulsate and float in the darkness.
“Come on, Patch,” Mr. Peaches said. “Let’s get the fishin’ rods.”
The men seemed to understand the darkness and moved forward with confidence.
I toppled out of the truck. A pile of empty beer cans clattered to the ground, a cacophonous musical accompaniment to our reckless adventure.
“You okay, Patch?”
“You’re good friends, both of you,” I said. “You could have left me back at the cabin. Left me to my books.” My words became a string of insensible syllables, the low croaking of a toad swallowed whole by the ravenous darkness and then regurgitated from the night’s grumbling guts. In a drunken dance, I crushed the cans under my boots and then stomped through the mud, stumbling over branches, banging my knees against trees, scraping my arm on thorns. I looked up to the stars for guidance but the thick canopy of leaves hid them from view. The night was so impenetrable that I felt trapped at the bottom of those terrible smokestacks or pinned under that stinking green tarp in the bed of the truck. Then I remembered, dimly, that Old Crow was still back there but the memory was as faint as the glowing red ember of the cigarette that now guided me.
Someone thrust a rod into my hand.
“Come along, Patch.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what about whatshisname?”
I hiccupped. “Old Crow.”
I don’t know why but I felt my stomach tighten as Mr. Peaches, his hot breath stinking of tobacco, leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “What’s wrong with you, huh? You a nigger lover or something? That jig’ll be just fine. Them Africans, they’re used to the heat. Besides, he fucked with you. Fucked with you bad. A man fucks with you, you gotta fuck with him right back. Maybe you don’t understand that. Maybe that’s ‘cause you ain’t got balls enough to stand up for yourself.”
Mr. Peaches spit on the ground and he and Hollerin’ Bob marched off to the creek.
For what seemed like a very long time, I shuddered in the darkness and jumped at every snapping branch. Wild turkeys roamed these woods, an occasional fox, sometimes a coyote or two. I heard, or imagined I heard, high-pitched screams, animals in heat, sounds so menacing that I unzipped my pants and pissed on the back tire because I was afraid I might wet myself.
Without Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches to lead the way, I was helpless, blind as a mole, and I had to feel my way back to the cab of the truck where I sifted through the crumpled cigarette cartons and tobacco tins until my fingers came across the pocket flashlight. I flicked it on. My copy of Ulysses was still on the floor, its pages darkened by soot, but seeing that ancient name in big bold letters suddenly inspired me, and I pointed my little beam of light into the night and went to the bed of the truck.
“Don’t worry, Old Crow,” I said, “I’m coming, buddy.”
I thought that maybe Old Crow was dead. Judging from the way Hollerin’ Bob had been driving that day, it was distinct possibility. But when I lifted the tarp and started to unravel the tape around his mouth, Old Crow came to life, his eyes rolling around in his head like bright red marbles in a black bowl.
“Whoa!” I said. “Calm down. It’s just me. I’ll get you out of here in minute.”
After pulling the last of the tape off his mouth, he gasped and said, “Hurry now, do my hands.”
“Right,” I said and giggled. “Musta been a heck of a ride back here!”
I set the flashlight aside and worked slowly, methodically, picking at the tape with my jagged nails. After a Herculean effort, I managed to get Old Crow’s hands free. He sat up, rubbed his wrists, and then, without looking at me, without even saying thank you, he lashed out and struck my jaw with a clenched fist. I fell backwards, knocking my head against the tailgate. My head was cracked open, I was sure of it, shards of bone protruding through my scalp. Dazed, I watched as Old Crow yanked the tape off his ankles. He stood up and then delivered a swift, solid kicked to my side with one of his steel-toed boots. I couldn’t breathe, thought my ribs were crushed into a fine powder, a white dust that seeped into my lungs and choked me. I reached out for help but Old Crow grabbed the flashlight and hurried down the desolate country road in silence. Like a groveling dog, I got to my hands and knees. I panted, gasped, tried to scream at him, curse him, threaten him. “You dirty, black sonofabitch!” I rasped. “Hollerin’ Bob will get you! Mr. Peaches will get you! You’ll see. They were right about you after all. They’ll get you!”
A certain amount of time elapsed, I wasn’t sure how much, but at some point during the night I heard Hollerin’ Bob’s booming voice echo inside my skull. “Get the kid up! Get the kid up!”
I clutched my head, climbed down from the bed of the truck and made my way to the cab. Terrified that Old Crow might appear out of the darkness and strangle me, I locked the doors and flicked on the headlights.
Through a dense tangle of branches, Hollerin’ Bob emerged like a Sasquatch, his eyes beaming from behind a thick growth of beard, his shoulders hunched, his hands, heavy with drink, batting away bugs. Behind him, Mr. Peaches carried a gigantic catfish by the gills, its slimy brown dorsal dragging in the dust. The men showed me their prize and boasted of their struggle to pull the leviathan from the muddy waters of the creek. They tossed the fish into the bed of the truck, too drunk to notice that Old Crow was gone. I told them nothing. Bleary-eyed, beaten, bruised, I pretended to admire their catch and felt relieved that our adventure was now over.
At last we arrived at the dilapidated cottage, and without bothering to recover my copy of Ulysses from the floor of the truck, I staggered off to my mattress in the corner. Before I drifted off to sleep I wondered if in fact I was the protagonist of this adventure or if I was simply a minor character who appeared but briefly in one episode in the ongoing adventures of another man. And while my mind puzzled over the implications of this idea, I grew drowsy and gratefully descended into the oblivion of a deep and dreamless sleep.

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