LONG NIGHT'S JOURNEY INTO LIGHT
Nate Clute

Four fifths of a fifth drunk, one fifth left in the fifth, my James’ son, Irish whizzing key in cardinal, I am. Are you, my fraternal brethren of sigma nu? You bet you’re damned hearse I am. Bud, light our brand in the basement sty did run atop a-rye, son long done with college ten years near now coarse-sinning a-fly. When does it end? So bury it all in the past, or set it alight. Let the flame of the present light eat it alive, liquor sopped sac ridden and all, right on down to its hell-hardened, core-infested lie. Defects within the being universal within us we all did die, verge on the cusp of the paradoxical, ultra dichotomized souls transmigrating to the eternal universal. Metempsychosis, karmic binds within us all we do most certainly find. In the maelstrom of worldwide calamities we fare better as humankind to be humane in kind. But ruthlessly kind, fair to those who rule and engage in actions most cruel, hard we all do find to treat those as kin in kind. Nonetheless the same in humanity, we all do find. Dare I presume, but not ass whom, that most remain fairly blind. And therein lies the rub.

Luminosity, candled candelabra, its wick lit, held by a young man in Prague on his way across cobblestones three alley ways from the entrance gate to a Bavarian style castle. Dapper dress, clad in smooth Levi jeans and a suede button up brown shirt, gray boots no less comfortable than appealing to the eye, their bohemian style, his tan skin feeling cold air goose bumps rising still beneath his pea coat thick, draws nigh. He lights his cigarette from the flame, and inhales deep the tobacco of his smoldering, burning, fuming cigarette. Alight, the flame from the candle in his eyes reflecting, burning strong and bright. In Kafka’s realm, the castle of the night, dark, its shadows’ in tangible sight. A symmetrical patterns’ eyes upon the cobbled path its gate does with gaping metal teeth welcome this hip, boots clapping cobbles young stranger as a distant cathedral’s bell dongs eleven times in song, this night net yet fully sung, not nearly done with James’ son. Thoughts of his father popping up often enough for him to question his life and where it has taken him, stuffed all back down every time he drags upon that cigarette alight, tobacco leaves concentric symmetry, smithy like a third eye bright. His would be destination there in sight.

I arrive, for I am he, you see my sight? Siphoning off from reality any when but here and now, I look to my right, see a button, press. The modern adornment rings bland, waiting, beeping, answers from the other side a voice dreary, yet the faint hint of excitement I felt in her salacious, a tone. Meant by me, sincere in my venture this far side of a foreign town, curiosity bound even when danger sounds.  

For I had been invited by my dear lady friend, Gertrude Coyle. We’d been dating for some eleven teen months now. Eight years the younger, she held my hand for spades that paid in fun. A trickster of a lass, she had those witchy Hazel eyes that sass an Irish look. Fore took eleven teen thousand years to evolve in its seductive spook.

—Come on in, her voice chimes in over the intercom, her fey countenance sounds contrite compared to the other woman’s voice that initially had greeted me. Her maid, or her mother, either or, I couldn’t help but shutter. As the gate opens slowly, a train whistle blows loud its oncoming, freight outbound a warning blight in fury. Smite!

I found serried along the castle’s entrance walls beyond the gate, knights in draconian armor guard. Stood their blackened by age dented metallic garb, scarred by swords, battle axes and Time’s scything remind I, Brandon James, that I do feel the cull of a distant age’s bind. When was last I the page? Humble and meek, most certainly not in these last few debaucherous, Gertrude for ruck us in sheets. In bites. Since four in Hekate spate weeks gorgeous frocks of curls, coils, spiral swirls of hair, did join us forlorn. Tempted me to have other women join, I could not them, us scorn. For other loins I could not help but with her, Gertrude Coyle, enjoy and adorn. All of us more gorgeous merry, ripe and full of that craving for our lives in full. Sincere in our youth, soothing each in gall. Experiencing everything. Enjoining in one, in all.

The aftermath of which these past few days I have never felt the same quite since. Having tossed a tan, trick ball, bouncy, she did see us one and all. And gave us that present same trick bouncy ball, tan in color, thrown on the marble ground for one and all to see it rise and fall. Gifted us each at our present age in a sense still as of yet not upended this night; for I, Brandon James, still do yearn to see her late.  

—Early yet, Brand... done, her voice silks inside sweet the hallway, knight serried walls listening from a none too distant age of man waylaid, a lie in Morgana’s glories paid. Gorge he ides the church bells did chime before the end of your March from home to my sweet rind. Did you bring your bouncy, tan, trick ball for me to see it bounce upon the castle ground? To see it rise and fall, from me to you to meet my family here upon this midnight drear in call?

Fog outside descends, a run furl weather begins to swirl, the wind hounds in a destitute call for I do sense some portent beck about this night’s strange, calm before, whining winds’ attack this late in winter did befall.

In the shadows, out she saunters on into bits of scattered moonlight, stands still a moment further. Then she spoke. Her voice etches in time that which does escape description mere words alone pretend to belie. Colors out of space and time begin to replace, I dissociate, still standing quite still, as of yet still young James’ son, incorporeal sight, sound, texture, the smell and the taste of sulfur ethereal a-round, round, round, merry go-bound. “J’aime le bon ton fashion, Brand... ennui. C’est tres chic,” she bemoans with more than a hint of derision in her tone. Sarcasm? Her own garb a black and white checkered dress, strands of tattered grey in her once pure brunette hair, though no less young nor old in appearance she does rebound her voice in echoes neither lost nor found. “Ancient as the time before civilization, before the world, before The Word, before any and all, I was, and remain, the wisest, the most beautiful of them all. Neither angels nor demons would dare to proclaim. For you see, you are but a player upon a checkered board. I control your movements, some, if not all, the same to me. Did you enjoy your brand... on ball, Brand... done, James’ son, as I recall?”

Memories flash before his then young, aging fast now bloodshot eyes upending, downed, as I into my body back do rebound. A seismic shift, the superb fluctuations of time remiss, though the images of deeds past done they do persist, in sins hellacious in nature they do insist, every thought, word, action, all those deeds they do bequeath summation for a cleansing rinse. Lives dating back to civilization’s birth, primordial ooze, amoebas, a sole amoeba as a tentacle reaches out from beneath Gertrude Coyle’s waist, lifting garments up to reveal more, an infinite galore, more tentacles from centrifugal petals in tentacular chase, each one slithering into my James’ son’s, psyche, body, mind, spirit, soul, sucking out the rest of the filth, slowly, painfully, from his sour sac-ridden in whole, four fifths finished now, on hold, a pause in the feeding. I, Brandon’s near all over now life, keeling. Reeling. Anything to make the hurt stop, I’m on my knees now begging for God to save me from his monstrous revealing.

Please make it stop!!!

—Anything, God, to make the hurt go away...

Pop!!! And there she stood upon the same spot fey, though the scenery changed, her family surrounding her. In pre-Victorian aristocratic garb, Gertrude at the head of the table, her bosom held in corset, the bouncy tan, trick ball atop her cleavage she did balance it there holding it still with ease in balance for one and all, her mother, father, and grandparents in awe and me my jaw agape at the other end of the dining table hall, feeling my paralysis, held stiff, still by tentacles infinite, invisible, though for what I saw I must admit I do feel more than a fair bit of sinuous enthrall. 

—Tonight, we’ll be eating sole fillet, Brandon. It’s best to try it with a little seitan. It’s a delicacy of ours, spiced up and diced, mixed together with human, compliments of yours truly, Brandon James. As a reward for your enduring our colorful treatment of the rainbow plus indigo, a color unseen, plus many, an infinite, in fact more in hue mane characteristics of my family, dare I proclaim? Like a lion roaming about, my silent entrance roar anyone, if heard, would most certainly abhor, looking for just a meal, solo, ready to devour. Why that look upon your face so sour?

She admonishes me with a longing look, not without a bit of the winds’ howling tantrum. Forsaken by my call for help, I could not but guess I did upon her other worldly senses impress, the enfolds of her gown whirling with the wind’s abound, a surly knight she found? This night, might I chance a rebound?

And with that thought at the forefront of my consciousness, subterranean dungeons I did hear them quake beneath my feet as she gave, in turn, an equal in measure, surly wink, then mirroring my look to perfection personified, such was the artistry of her capacity to demonstrate reality, to turn the mirror to mine own nature and see Hell’s flaming lights in mine own eyes in her sweet rind as the bell did chime midnight late, in spate. Awake!!

Now early, rising from my bed in sighs pleasurable and horrible, thunder crashing outside, to look at my clock on the bedside table, stopped at midnight on the tick, between the tock. And atop it did I see that tan, trick bouncy ball balanced to perfection upon the clock’s round surface, defying gravity for more than a moment did I behold it rise and fall, bouncing upon the ground as my eyes and ears do recall. That bouncy, bouncy, pouncing ball and Gertrude Coyle’s silent roar, crackling her proud as lightning catty call.

THEN THE  MUD
Kara Reynaud

 

On January 8th, two weeks after the containment of the Santa Barbara fire, I was outside sweeping up some of the ash and hosing down the bougainvillea bush in my tiny yard. My neighbor Karen came over with some tarps. “You may want to cover that outdoor furniture.” she said.
                   “Oh-right. We have a rain storm coming - finally!” I remember saying. “I wish it came three weeks ago!” I said. 

 “It’s supposed to be really bad.” She said.  

        I remember thinking what an odd statement that was. After all the fire - it would be nice to finally have some rain.  My dog Romio’s once white coat was now a permanent dingy grey.  No amount of washing seemed to get him clean and my lungs were still killing me from the residual ash. 

             “It’s really not a good thing for such a heavy rain to come after a fire.” She said.

“Why?” I asked. 

 “Mudslides.”

               In New York City, we have rain - loud, pounding, howling rain and wild winds. It is not unheard of to have 3-5 inches per hour. As you walk the streets it pours from rooftops like waterfalls and will often go on and on for days on end. There’s not a New Yorker who doesn’t own a pair of rainboots and an umbrella. If you’re not prepared for the monsoon-kind-of-rainfall in the city, you’re guaranteed to spend your day with shoes full of water.      

              7,000 residents in the mandatory zone were told Sunday, January 7, two days before the storm hit, to leave their homes immediately. The same evacuations were ordered as were for the fire. The predicted 1 inch of rain per hour. Weather forecasters had predicted a heavy rainstorm would pound the Thomas Fire burn scar directly above Montecito.  I could imagine their angst having to leave again just 4 weeks after the fire - another evacuation.  Two days later, In the middle of the night on January 9th, at around 3:30 am, my dog Romio began barking and howling. I awoke to the sound of rain pounding the roof of my cottage. 

               “It’s just rain - go to bed.” I told him. 

He never slept. He stayed up all night howling and barking.  I remember thinking why is he getting so crazy - it’s no worse than the rain in New York. Little did I know as I went back to sleep, waist high mud and boulders the size of trucks became unhinged and began rolling from the high hills of Montecito straight into town, taking cars, trees, and anyone in their path. The mud continued to drag all in its way,  straight toward the ocean, burying and climbing over 101 North - the main highway that carries over 100,000 trucks a year through California through the west coast of the United States. People were awoken in the middle of the night and climbed up onto their shaking rooftops, some with children, praying for their lives as they pulled neighbors, dogs and all living things up with them.  No one expected a mudslide that would push all the way out to the ocean like it did. Some of the victims’ bodies were swept more than a mile from their homes.

           At around 10:30 I ran into Karen as I walked on the property and she told me about the mudslide. “It’s so sad. Karen said, “I heard someone died.” We didn’t really know at the time the extent of the destruction. I turned on NPR when I got in my cottage and learned that all the roads to Montecito were shut down due to the mudslide. I thought of my friend Jan who lived in Montecito on Park Lane and called her. She didn’t pick up. 

 

3 PIECES
Jane Zingale

IN HIS PRESENSE

The white square of his clerical collar scowls. His eyelids quiver.

I stand firm and silent after my confession.

His jaw stiffens; taut lips hug his dentures, the corners of his grimace twitch.

I fear his judgment.

He prepares to speak; his stale breath sickens me.

The radiator in the vestry gurgles heat while anguish chills my bones.

His clenched hands squeeze and release.

The pupils of my eyes shrink to tiny pinpoints as I conjure up a thunderbolt shooting straight into his shaved Adam’s apple. With a flash it shuts down his vocal cords. I’ve rendered him speechless for now. 

 

MY SHOES

My shoes stand in numerous places around my apartment.

They line up toe-to-toe or nestle into the arch of the other.

Either way they are empty ready to mobilize.

 

SHE THINKS OF HERSELF

She thinks of herself as a girl, twelve years of age or so. Her mind flutters from one thought to another when she discusses situations of interest to herelf and the other members of her mind. She walks and talks in animated fashion, speaking out loud with her hands. Her hips, like liquid mercury, slide from side to side as she moves splayfooted down the path. 

 

WHEN IT RAINS IN LOS ANGELES
Isaac E. Ronch
Translated from the Yiddish by Marvin S. Zuckerman

When it rains in Los Angeles,

The sky falls to earth

And its blue turns grey, and "hey!" 

A little wind blows, 

And the skyscrapers tremble, 

The encircling hills hide,

The Pacific disappears--

When it rains in Los Angeles

 

The many-branched banana tree

Becomes a frayed willow twig, 

And the blood-red poinsettias

Hang their heads in shame.

The familiar bird-of-paradise

Opens its throat, thirsty.

My! The things that happen

When it rains in Los Angeles.

 

The palm-tips whisper in their need. 

Sacrifices are brought to the Moloch rain: 

Carob-pods, olives, wild berries, mandarins

Lie strewn about on slippery sidewalks.

A person dares not risk his being,

And stares out through shut, dewy windows,

Shuddering, like the green leaves outside.

Solitary cars splash about, chastened, 

Like stray dogs whose punishment it is

To draw themselves over wet, dreary roads--

When it rains in Los Angeles.

ROBOT THOUGHTS
Audri Phillips

It occurred to me that just as our thoughts and body (machine) are totally dependent on each other, inseparable because our thoughts change our brain structure, our brain creates our thoughts, so too is that the way our technology is developing. The hardware and software are totally dependent upon one another. Hardware is being structured so that it can work with the newly developing AI algorithms and software. The hardware and software are becoming one, much as they are in us.

So it is to be expected that soon we will have developed a fully self aware robot, purely constructed by our software and hardware, no spirit at any point ever having been inserted? Is this to mean that we have no spirit, that without our body we do not exist? Or can it be that everything down to the smallest atom has a life force, an intelligence and that the organization of these life forces is constantly being changed. So the life force is always there, the spirit is always there. It is only the structure and organization of this life force that is changing, is always changing.

Can it be that when the robot is constructed to a certain point, hardware and software are ready, that the spirit enters? What is the difference between consciousness and spirit?

Watching my father die it occurred to me how for 102 years the cells in his body had fought to keep him alive. They had all agreed to work as one, and as he lay there, they were still fighting to keep the organization they had formed intact and functioning.

Perhaps the intellect of my father wished to die, but the machine was fighting on. This is the tragedy. Everything down to the small ant scuttling in fear across the floor wants to live.

So what is this mysterious force of attraction or organization that makes atoms and even smaller particles join up for a common cause, whatever it is, a person, a robot, a tree, a plastic container? At what point do the atoms not only act with a separate intelligence, consciousness and connectivity to the universe but also provide a connectivity, consciousness and intelligence that operates for the whole, the tree, the person, the robot, the plastic can? I include the plastic can in that possibility as well, because the atoms that make it up have an intelligence, that everything has an intelligence. So what happens when the body, the robot, the tree, the plastic can start to deteriorate, or what is commonly known for a person, die? Do the atoms once again return to their separateness and the whole loses it connectivity to the universe, its consciousness, or is there a possibility that once formed as a whole and establishing its

own connection, consciousness, that it continues on in some changed state because consciousness once formed never was inside the body but always existed outside of it?

I once watched an old beautiful Grey stone mansion being taken apart piece by piece. It was being done this way so as not to disturb the neighborhood with an explosion. Only the tall cranes and bulldozers were being used. It took 3 days. Finally all was flattened but one small section of a wall with a window in it. A shredded curtain in the window blew in the wind. I watched as the window was also taken down. Only then did it seem that the building and its spirit were truly gone.

OUR SMALL HANDS
An excerpt from the memoir A New Past
Drew Vandiver

            It’s impossible to walk into a room where you watched someone die and not think of them. Something about the space is forever altered by the memory you have of watching them fight their way out of this life. There is no such thing as a graceful exit. We go out the same way we came in. Kicking, screaming, messing yourself and scared. Birth and death are violent acts in which we get ripped out of one world and launched in the next against our will. Neither birth nor death allow one any dignity.

            When the Hospice Nurse arrived, Mama was sitting at the roll top desk in her bedroom, reading glasses perched in the end of her nose, paying bills. I remember the nurse as dirty blonde, but that’s all. She wore light green scrubs and her thick-soled nurse’s shoes gleamed white. I led her down the hall to the bedroom. I knocked on the partially open door. She put her pen down and pushed her glasses up on her head.

            I fetched a couple of chairs and the nurse sat in one very close to Mama. Dad came in the room and sat on the edge of the bed. I stood by the dresser.

            “Ms. Vandiver, do you know what Hospice care is?”

            “Yes. You take care of sick people until they get better.” My stomach dropped. We were all trying our dead level best to avoid talking about it, but I thought Mama understood the diagnosis. She looked over at me and saw my discomfort. Dad stared in the other direction. She reached up and pulled her glasses off her head and sat them on the desk.

            “Or if they don’t.”

            The nurse never hesitated or blanched.

            “When the time comes that you need it, we will bring in a hospital bed. Where would you like us to put it?” She pointed to where I was standing.

            “I suppose right over there.”

 

As the tumor at the top of her lungs grew larger, her ability to speak weakened. By then, the cancer was in her bones, had passed the blood-brain barrier and was affecting her mind. We kept very careful notes about how often we changed the Fentanyl patches on her back and how much morphine we dripped into her mouth.

            One afternoon, my father changed her diaper and left to go run an errand. I noticed that the sheets on the bed had a small bit of mess on them, so I decided to change them. I had spent enough time in hospitals to know how nurses changed the sheets around a patient, so I pulled the edges of the sheets away and started. I began to fail almost immediately. Mom was too heavy for me to push, so I had to pull on the sheet to roll her. She opened her eyes and stared at me. She was on too much medicine to be in pain, but not enough to stop her from being annoyed. I had seen that stare before. I felt like a laser beam and even when I looked away, I could feel her eyes burrowing into me.

            “I’m sorry. I have to change your sheets.” Her little, shaking hands pulled the sheet on top of her up to her neck defensively.

            “I want Drew.”

            Most fistfights are not lost in the moment of the first punch, but in the moment that follows. When the shock of being hit causes you to hesitate and not react with a return blow.

            “Mama, I am Drew.”

            I focused intently on the sheets, tugging harder, trying to finish.  The second that you get hit, your body disconnects from your mind. That’s why fighters train. You train your body to react, not think. The body reacts to a hit with a hit. You have to take you mind out of it because your mind is never going to get used or be okay with being hit. I focused on my hands. I have her hands. Small, with little fingers.

            I looked up again. Her stare had neither abated nor relaxed.

            “I believe I told you that I want Drew.” I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.  My whole body shook. The feeling was the same as when you are holding on to something to keep from falling and you lose that grip. That seized, frightened body shake. She tried to clear her throat and couldn’t, which made her madder. Her voice came out no louder but strained by anger, with a slight gurgle behind her words.

            “I want Drew. Go get him.”

            I nodded and closed the door behind me as I left.

            I walked down the hall towards the kitchen, reeling. I had read in the hospice manual that this would happen. But feelings are mystical things and no matter how many times you read about them, it does not ready you to feel them. I squeezed the edge of the metal kitchen sink and locked my elbows to stay upright. That was the first time I felt the feeling I would feel when she actually passed. She’s gone. My mother is gone. But what do I do? I pulled my cell phone out and held it. I couldn’t call anyone. I would just dissolve in tears. I had to go back in there and finish. I had to give her a clean bed to lie in. And I had to be her son, even if she didn’t recognize me. I took a couple of deep breaths and walked back down the hall. I tried to straighten my spine and clinch my abs. Another blow was coming. Be ready for it.

            I opened the door and met her gaze head on. She was waiting for me. I stretched my lips across my teeth in the closest approximation of a smile I could muster. I grabbed the sheets where I left off and went to work.

            “I believe I told you that I want Drew.” In that instant, my fear and sadness transformed into respect and admiration. My god, she couldn’t hardly move or talk but she would not give over her will. She would not bow her head. It took every ounce of soul she had left, but she was not going to be ignored. I looked up at her. A pale, grey wounded lion, cornered and bleeding, but roaring as loud as she could with no idea how to surrender. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

            “Well, mama, I am Drew. And you ought to know that because you are the one who gave me that name. You put it on my birth certificate. I am legally Drew because you said so. So I have a question. If you say I’m not Drew, does that a legal standing?”

            Her hard, pursed lips relaxed and the corner of them turned slightly upward, almost to a smile.

            “Never mind. You’re definitely Drew.” I coughed out a laugh and wiped my eyes. She tried to curl lips into a smile, but she now she was aware of what just happened. Her lips quivered and she began to cry. Her small voice tried to croak out the word sorry, but she couldn’t push it out.

            “It’s okay, mama. It’s okay.” She shook her head gently from side to side. It wasn’t okay. She knew now that her mind was going. She couldn’t trust her own thoughts. And she had frightened me and she had no ability to watch her children in pain. I held her hand and kissed her on the forehead.

            “It’s okay. You’re on a lot of drugs. I remember when I was doing this many drugs. I once slapped my friend because I thought we were both animated and I had Go-Go-Gadget arms.” She opened her mouth to laugh. No sound came out, but she shook with laughter and that was good enough for the moment.

            “And you have some good drugs. It’s a damn shame I’m sober.” She shook with more laughter and an easy sense of relief. I smiled at her and she nodded.

            “It’s going to be okay. I promise.”

            I’ve never stood in that room since without thinking of her lying there in that bed, the sand of dignity and life sliding through the little fingers of the small hands we share.

 

A LONG WAY TO HOME
Valerie Woods

Naturally, it was my father’s fault, this wanderlust that kept me moving from place to place.  For my dad, being married with four growing kids didn’t stop him from traveling and rambling.  The only time I happily woke before noon was that day in late summer when we got the pre-dawn wake-up call from my dad.  A quick breakfast, leave the dishes – we didn’t even have to make our beds.  And then, the car or camper or whatever we had that year, was loaded up, windows open to the August dawn, and we were off. 

This inherited travel bug may be at the root of why I found myself stepping off a plane into the soft, warm night of Mumbai, in the Maharastran state of southern India.  What else would explain why a city girl from the south side of Chicago would be on this side of the world?  My move from Chicago to Manhattan was understandable… I was a struggling actress after all.  And then the move back to Chicago to live with mom after my father died made sense.  A marriage proposal and an aspiration to screenwriting took me Los Angeles. But now Mumbai…Bombay…India.

This pilgrimage to India was in the hopes that I would finally, after eleven years of practicing meditation, be able to, well, actually meditate.  At least, what I thought of as “real” meditation.  That deep, transcendent state of wondrous bliss that I’d heard so much about.  When I sat to meditate, grocery lists, past memories or clever scenarios of imagination would scramble across my inner screen and I’d jerk myself out of it, inwardly chastising myself for a lack of discipline. 

There were rare occasions when, during a session with my teacher, I’d touch that space, but I couldn’t maintain it. I wanted to go to what I considered to be the source.

Mumbai Airport - 1:00am.

Outside waiting for the shuttle, I was surprised at how familiar I felt in the night. There’s a hazy moon and just enough moisture in the air for comfort. It reminded me of Chicago summer nights, hanging out on the stoop, too hot to be shut up inside. It’s definitely India, there are people everywhere, speaking rapidly in Marathi, Hindi or Gujarati, I can’t tell. But it still felt like home.  Maybe it had to do with the fact that I shared the skin tone of nearly everyone I saw.  My short, fuzzy hair, in contrast to the long, silken hair of the Indian women, identified me as someone not from this neighborhood.  And yet I didn’t feel out of place.  Was it this similarity of color that made me so comfortable so far from where I called home?  I remembered the surprise my father felt when he arrived in Africa for the first time.  He could see the faces of his relatives all around.  That man could be his cousin; that one looked just like the guy at the barbershop.  It was a wonder to finally experience this connection to his ancestral and genetic home. I didn’t think too much about it at the time.  It was enough to simply enjoy the atmosphere and the sense of welcome.

The temple bells were ringing when we arrived at the retreat site. At 3:30am it was time for the day of worship to begin.  I quickly changed clothes and entered the sacred space. Candlelight danced in the darkness of the stone and marble courtyard.  The mystical beauty of the place was not surprising.  I had seen photographs and videos of this holy place with its classical Indian architecture, arches and symbols.  However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the waves of emotion that trembled through me. I had never been in a place where the vibrations of silence were so clearly heard. I was powerless to contain either the tears that flowed or the non-subjective love that surged in my chest as I entered the candlelit temple.

A man in traditional Indian clothing waved a large silver lamp with multiple flames – side to side and then in a large circle.  The light swirled in the smoke of incense that surrounded the temple deity.  And the arati being sung lulled my travel worn spirit.  Then, after the morning chant, when the dawn burst through, a monk I had met in the States, greeted me by saying, “Welcome home.” 

There it was again.  Home.  How could that be?  Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me to be in this place, with these people and chanting in ancient Sanskrit.  And yet, I was now wondering how I could possibly leave this place now that I had found it.

That eagerness to awake before noon was back as we all made treks to neighboring temples to make offerings at dawn: climbing tall stairways with trays ladened with garlands of flowers, coconuts, incense, candles.  Lilting chants to the rising sun, to the Goddess and to Shiva.  And yes, there were cattle in the marketplace, and prayerful sadhus, holy men, bathing at the sacred hot springs. And then, morning chai, but made without the caffeine.  We were invited to forgo caffeine for the entire retreat.  This would support our meditation.  I knew there wouldn’t be Starbucks, and I was cool with that.  But no caffeine at all?  Well, I’d come this far and I did want my meditation supported, so…herbal tea chai.  At least there was sugar.  And, there was progress.  But I also struggled. Aside from the physical challenges of heat, unfamiliar food confusing my digestive system, there was the realization that this inner journey I had begun was proving to be more than just a notion. 

Yes, it had its share of spiritually romantic aspects that Hollywood movies like to highlight.  Yet, as we traveled the inner terrain, anything and almost everything could and would surface. There were times of intense frustration, unexplained sadness, or whip-fast surges of anger.  Yes, it was not all sweetness, yet there was some light. 

Near the end of my stay, during a meditation session, I felt I’d nailed it.  A typical westerner’s concept, I realize now.   Meditation is not a competition after all.  In any case, I was moving with the breath, I could feel my awareness dropping into the deep void of Consciousness, the stillness and peace of the Self.  The next thing I knew, a scene from an old movie western was playing through my mind -- a movie I’d only seen once in my life maybe thirty years ago!  Why in the world was it in my head while I’m on a journey to the inner Self in a sacred meditation hall in a remote village in India?  I.  Was.  Furious. 

At the conclusion of the meditation, the teacher gently told us to pick up our journal and write about our meditation experience.  ‘What meditation experience?’ I screamed in my head.  I was daydreaming about an old movie!  But I said to myself, fine, I’ll write. Fine, I’ll “journal” about my great meditation experience.  And so I began to detail the movie scene that had played in my mind.  A man and a woman were hiding from danger inside a cave.  And naturally, the man made a move on the woman, as if this was the time to get romantic.  Yes, I was supremely angry that this scene interrupted my spiritual journey, but I kept writing.  In the scene, the woman stopped the man and said, “Don’t do it unless you mean it.”  And then…I stopped writing. “Don’t do it, unless you mean it.”  The words I’d written on the page hit me in the face with startling clarity. Why did I make this journey? Was it just a whim? Had I been carried away by the novelty or by simple curiosity?  Did I mean it?  Here, in the heart of India, in the land of yoga, in this place, there was no faking it.  I had to check myself.  Did I mean it?  And the advice: Don’t do it, unless you mean it. 

So maybe meditation isn’t about visions of light.  Maybe it’s not about relaxation or stress reduction, even though that does happen.  And perhaps it’s true that meditation isn’t what you think.  Meditation, “real” meditation, was about the journey to know who you truly are.  And if you don’t want to know the answer to that, then don’t make the trip. Who am I, really?

One day, at the noon chant in the temple, I had a glimpse of the answer. The melody was unfamiliar, haunting and beautiful. It was a shloka, or devotional poem, written by the great sage Adi Shankaracharya.  As the melody continued, I read the translation.  It’s called the Nirvana Shatakam, the Six Stanzas on Salvation.  One of the stories about its origin is that at the age of eight, Shankaracharya was wandering the Himalayas in search of his guru.  He met an old sage who asked him: “Who are you?”  And the boy’s response resulted in this shloka that expresses the essence of Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of non-duality.  In essence it says I am neither this nor that.  I am not the senses or the body.  I am not the eyes or the mind.  I am Consciousness and Bliss.  I am Shiva.  I am Shiva. 

In this context, it is Shiva who represents our true nature, the indivisible Self of all. Things began to make sense, especially the sense of feeling at home. Throughout my stay, there had been no reflection of me as a city girl, a black girl from the south side of Chicago.  I wasn’t a foreigner or a tourist. I was neither male, nor female, short nor tall.  For a brief time, traveling the pathways of meditation, I caught a glimpse of my destination -- I saw no difference.  This was finding the universal home of each one as one.  The eyes, the hair, the skin, the body, the hands -- I am not those things.  And neither is anyone else.  I am Consciousness and Bliss.  And so are you.  

Yes, it was my father’s fault.  This longing for traveling unchartered territory, whether tangible roads or the intangible pathways of meditation.  I never got the chance to thank him for my wanderlust while he was here, but now I can thank him as I continue the journey to the universal heart – where all journeys lead.

Chicago to Mumbai: not a long way from home.  It was a long way to home.

* * *

MY GOD...MY GOD
Susan Dumas

I made you in my own image. When I

look at you, I see a Masterpiece,

an Ambassador, my very own.

When you speak, you speak the right

words, because it is I who worketh

in you both to will and to do of my

good pleasure. When I spoke I

created the heavens and the earth.

When you speak, you can make your own

heaven on earth. Remember the One

Who owns cattle on a thousand

hills, the One Who wishes above all

things that you prosper and be in

good health, it is the One Who

wants you to be more than a conqueror

through Him Who loves you.

You can do all things!

All of your needs, wants, and desires are met

according to His riches in glory…

 

It is my God, my God…

EXCERPT
from Walking Gun
Romey Keys

Chapter 1 – Fugu

Fugu spilled all over North Beach. You felt Fugu before you could see it. It began as a bass throbbing in the chest. Then there was the glow in the sky as if a building was on fire two blocks over. As you got closer, the sound was like a stadium crowd. For blocks around, you passed through streets full of driverless cars, cruising the streets on wait mode. Closer still you begin enter the crowd. Some people came not to get into Fugu but to experience the scene. A line dance, formed out of the crowd waiting to get in, circled the club. Sellers and takers moved among the crowd, their robot vans forming a wall along one street. People stood in conversation. Food trucks and carts were set up on another street. The people called Spectacles. Bodies a living show screaming look at me!

Fugu went after the Cosplay crowd, the Rich Decadents in their evening clothes come down from their towers, the tourist from the territories staring look-at-that, and all the varieties of wannabes. It was an inter-racial crowd, all seven or was it nine sexes represented. Some elaborately dressed. Some still wearing the dusters and wide-brimmed hats that had become fashionable day wear in an environment gone crazy. People openly chewed, smoked, inhaled, injected, and rubbed into their skin a number of narcotics advertised in neon ads that drifted through the streets. And in this crowd was Mark Redman.

Redman had the build of a basketball player, a guard. All built for speed with a core of muscle. He was six four and two hundred pounds. He looked as if he had spent his youth running after balls in various sports. He had a tribal tattoo that covered his right should down to his wrist. He was a racial mixture a Redman ambled/strolled along like the others who had come to see. Allowing himself to be drawn toward the entrance, he seemed to have no particular purpose in mind other than to enjoy the crowd. But he had acquired a follower. A spectacle covered in white body paint, white hair jelled into a rooster comb, a knot, now an explosion, the jell shifting it leapt into the air near him. A red slash of a mouth and dark eyes, another figure of the night. The woman kept to his course though she also seemed to be an aimless wanderer. Nothing to make her stand out from the crowd being drawn to Fugu.

Ignoring the line, Redman drifted to a stop at the entrance to Fugu.

“My friend.” 

The seven foot tall, 300 pound Tongan refugee in Cowboy Boots and an immaculate and bulletproof tuxedo, who was the decider for Fugu, greeted him. He was a heavy on the cream café au lait shade, spoke eight languages, and his name meant Hurricane. It fitted. Redman had seen him handle a mob trying to break through the lines.

“Afa, anything?”

“Not yet,” said Afa.

“The Flash are out tonight,” said Redman. 

The Flash, the people who came to be seen. Who invested every penny and every waking hour into being seen. Because once you were seen, you existed. Fugu was their life.

“Creepers and Crawlers all. We’ve caught a lot of people trying to sneak in listeners. I don’t know what people think they’re going to hear. We’ve got the best countermeasures on club row. 

“Listeners, not visuals?” said Redman.

“And someone showed up with full shields. Had to register it before we let him in. Was quite nice about it. And a real heavy guy came in just ahead of you. Quintero.”

“Quintero. Don’t know him.” Redman lied.

“I bet you don’t. That guy got some evil tats. Beware, Redman.”

“Where is he, Afa?”

“B3 upper.”

“Thanks,” said Redman.

Redman entered through the tunnel. Two figures came off the wall.

“You want a patch?” Sellers.

“One for mild elevation,” said Redman.

“We got the whole spectrum of up and down, and sideways,” said the other.

Redman handed the guy one of the blue five hundred with Clinton’s hologram on it. A red fifty bought him a group of crowd breakers. The men formed a flying wedge in front of him. Redman followed in their wake. This was how they made enough to live on through the week. Busting crowds at Fugu.

The crowd pushed through, moving past him into the interior. Some wearing their avatar masks, electronic devices disguising their wearer’s appearance. He reached a balcony and looked out over the crowd. The white spectacle was dancing wildly on a table. A group of similar painted a variety of colors danced with her.

He continued searching the masses on the floor until he found what he had come for. A woman was struggling through the crowd toward the lifts. She carried a thick, grey paper wrapped package. Redman looked across at two men on the same level. They also were watching the woman.

A level up, in a space of darkness Quintero watched the spectacle dance. He knew Redman quite well. He had all the intel files on Redman that you could get in the legal world. And most of the black files.

 

 

Chapter 2 – The Gun Wakes Up

Adrastos Quintero, a man with a reputation for violence, for having little regard for life, the hellhound you don’t want on your trail, watched the thin line of vapor chase the dark speck of the scramjet across the sky. The 3:10 am flight from Moscow ended its steep dive toward the Bay, leveled off and started a turn to bring it in over air traffic and put it on the path to Sacramento. Quintero, a regulator, thief, and gunman was staring into the night from the top of the Mark Hopkins hotel. Before him, the nightscape of San Francisco was looming shapes covered with sheets of light.  

“Come to me,” said Quintero.

The Gun woke up. First, a basic set of routines with no awareness. Then it knew itself. It recognized the parts of itself as they came online and went to ready status. It ran a systems check. It was alright. In a fraction of a second it moved through the four levels of intelligence. Now it could reason and plan. All visual systems infrared accepted and processed the data falling on its receptors. The Gun was suddenly aware of the world immediately around it. Its tools powered up. Four identical barrels extended and retracted: a .50 machine gun, a Direct Attack Autonomous Guided Weapon, and an Exact-Target, Long Range Sniper weapon. Defensive systems went down their checklists. 

The final check: “Why is a Walking Gun like the East Bay?” from Gertrude Stein by way of Herb Caen, “Because there is no there there.” The Gun paused, and then understood the joke. It had reached its level of self-awareness, intelligence, and independence.

Looking like a cross between a Rottweiler and something out of the bio-tech labs at Livermore, the Walking Gun, a weapon with mobility features and a high-level AI.

The dog walks toward him across the rooftop. Quintero begins walking toward the edge of the building and the Gun follows him. The weapon reaches the edge and stops beside Quintero. 

“Stay. Set up. Lock down. Locate position. Acquire target.”

The Walking Gun began to transform, moving from machine to organic, biologic and mechanical assembling its components for firing. The short barrel protrudes from its mouth, taking the snout with it as a silencer. Hind legs move away from the body and screw themselves into the roof. A port popped open on its back. 

“Safe?” said Quintero.

“Clear,” said the gun.

Quintero carefully stepped within the gun’s defensive perimeter, waited a second, then took out a small targeting scope and plugged it into the port. He paused and listened. When Quintero listened he engaged the best upgrades you could obtain. He heard a baby pigeon tentatively peck at a straw in its nest, the flow of water down the sides of the building, the wind roughly sweeping over the granite and metal around him, and nothing threatening.

Quintero blinked and the Lake home was pulled out of the dark, appearing within arm’s reach. He saw heat radiating from everything within it. Blinked again, saw a high-resolution, incredibly detailed plan of Lake’s home. He activated his body’s network and linked to the Gun. He scanned across the length of the penthouse, penetrating the shielded windows. Shields blurred some areas, totally obscuring others. He gave the coordinates to the gun. 

A man wearing the formal dress of a European butler made his way through the rooms of the Lake penthouse followed by an attractive young woman who carried a champagne flute. Quintero almost smiled. A red hot shape with multiple limbs was forming and reforming in a bedroom. He saw them clearly through pebbled glass and shields. 

The gun has secured itself to the roof. Quintero removes a magazine from the bag, loading it into the gun. 

“Status?”

“Target acquired. Five Stryker rounds loaded. Ready.”

“Fire.”

The gun fired twice, two muffled metallic thunks the sound of a blade striking a log. At 101 meters past the barrel the projectiles gave a high-pitched roar, coming to life and arcing up.

James Lake was enjoying a courtesan in one of the lounges in his townhome. He is stretched out on a very large bed. The girl was astride Lake, working on him. Suddenly, something hit the window glass. The glass bellied in, ripples spread out over its surface. The window began to separate into layers. One of the middle layers caught fire, turning a translucent orange that flashed across the expanse of the whole window. A thin point suddenly appeared on the surface and then exploded. The projectile hit the girl, lifting her up in the air. She pin wheeled toward the wall. The window fractured and blew in, filling the air with a blizzard of burning plastic flakes. 

“Blinds. Blinds.”

Armored shutters came down like guillotines over the windows. Fire suppression filled the room with white particles of foam. Guards burst through the door. 

“Stand down,” said Quintero. Already in motion, he had somewhere he had to be. 

“Return home. Nest. Deactivate.” 

He was gone through the doorway. The Walking Gun moved to the edge of the building. Its feet became climbing appendages. The Gun started down the side of the building. But it did not return home and it did not deactivate. As it climbed, the Gun’s downlink was receiving terabytes of instructions.

 

THINKING YESTERDAY
Michael Saluzzi

Thinking of Yesterday

        Or Yesterdays-

A slip away from a touch of

      my mind

A Mystery of time

      and Place    

a Mind of Yesterday

      Away

            Never to again

                  Today.

Slipped away...

      Oh yes...

            It was a

                      Yesterday!

 

 

FOR ANGELS ON MOTORBIKES
Marina Muhlfriedel

Me and the Virgin Mary stepped out for a cigarette.

Hadn’t seen one another in years.

Cara, she asked with that same serene smile,

y’keeping well?

I’m so damn sorry about your boy.

You know

I know

just how you feel.

She embraced me and I sank

into that shadowy time.

Forever invoking the immortal grief

of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

A young son draped

like a napkin of tragedy

across his mother’s lap.

We know what it is to touch a place so deep,

one can no longer breathe,

she whispered.

When that elevator descends

without an end,

reach for me.

Cara, she said, extending those perfect chiseled hands,

I’ll be there to care for you.

To show you the way back up.

A gasp of divine air

thawed my paralytic lungs.

Me and the Virgin Mary crossed paths at the Piazza Navona,

I offered her my apricot gelato.

We strolled all the way to the coliseum

celebrating a thousand anniversaries.

Across the ages, across generations

All those newborns with the promise of a mighty life.

All those headfirst dives into the lightness of our world,

Brimming with nothing but possibility.

Where do all those possibilities and all that promise go,

when the babies are no more? I asked.

Angels sped by on motorbikes

and as quickly forgotten.

Last night, I ran into the Virgin Mary in Mexico City.

She was standing in an alcove at Casa Azul.

Got a smoke for an old pal?

She asked.

Couple of mothers, aren’t we?

Just look at us,

still breathing strong,

when we swore there wasn’t a chance.

3 POEMS
Ken Allan Dronsfield

My Mother's Angel

She sat majestically atop the Christmas tree
hair of gold
buttons sparkling
dress of white lace
her wings a silver hue

I watched each year
her being placed
with loving care
upon the tree.

My mother standing back telling Dad,
no, to the left,
now right,
forward.

The years have now come and gone
Mom and Dad have passed away
the Angel sits in her box now
her dress dirty and worn
hair frizzy & unkempt
buttons don't shine.

Memories are made and then put away
as we remember this Christmas Day
just like Mom's beautiful Angel
radiance never betrayed
shining so very bright
each Christmas.

 

The Old Hound

Like unblown dust on the floor of seasoned oak,

he sleeps all curled up next to the old wood stove,

laying there he dreams of Christmas days gone by;

times spent chasing squirrels, hunting hoodoos and

hours of walks through the great spruce and birch...

looking for that perfect Christmas tree to be displayed.

A bit of gray now apparent on his angelic resting face.

He now walks a little slower on those cold winter days,

and always gravitates towards the warmth of the fire.

He's my faithful friend through good times or bad.

Listening to my screams at losing ball games, and all

the laughter during some great old comedy shows.

Always there watching the parades, he loves snoopy.

A protector on those dark stormy nights, a staunch

supporter when others have fallen away by and by.

And as this Christmas eve comes to an end, I am much

more nostalgic, spending these quiet moments with him.

My friend, part of my soul, my shadow, my old Hound.

 

Solstice at Christmas

Fields of mottled dead grass

rotting apples lie unclaimed

deer tracks cover the hillside

orchards are graveyard silent.

Hazy winter of graying skies

winds blowing through the trees

train whistle sounds by the river

hot coffee warms cold hands.

Chickadees and jays flutter about

wood smoke wafts in the valley.

Squirrels race on the stonewall

a lone falling snowflake cheers.

The winter solstice has spoken,

whispers in an icy crispy voice

lazy strolls on the forest paths

skipping rocks on the frozen lake.

Knitted hat and mittens welcome

days of no sunshine are a plenty

while the winter solstice smiles in

December on this Christmas Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RODENZ
HW Taeusch

After adolescence filled with near escapes and plenty of sewer sex under the streets of Jerusalem, I enjoyed the secure ascetic life of a lab rat. Home was a five-gallon Styrofoam container that nobody could reach on top of the refrigerator where the Boss had tossed it. Nights were quiet. By the time the Filipino workers mopped the floors at first light, I'd already worked my way through the wastebaskets that often contained some Korean cookie crumbs, leftover borekas, and sometimes a spectacular chunk of pizza with a puddle of Coke at the bottom. When the pickings were slim I gnawed on the rubber insulation wires at the back of the floor centrifuge till I got a shock that fried my whiskers and threw me under the lyophylizer. For roughage I nibbled at the corners of cardboard boxes stacked in the closet. After one of the cleaning people found where I did my business in the warmth behind the freezer condenser ("Aiiii! Isang masamang amoy! Big stink!"), I learned to pee and poop in the sinks.

During the day I'd nestle inside a pile of soft shredded pages gnawed out of the lab supply manuals. Between naps I kept an eye on the humans through a hole I nibbled in my Styrofoam home and listened to the chatter of Freda Schwartz, Li Song, and Sam Bream, the humans who worked in the lab. My life was different from my adolescent wilding out in the world where as a hooligan youth I'd roamed the alleys, owning the night, looting a box of groceries or swarming with my brothers beneath the feet of a screaming elderly couple who regretted their late night shortcut home. They don't call a group of rats a "mischief" for nothing.

Now and again I'd still have nightmares of the feral cats who sent me squealing straight up a drainpipe to escape their claws and fangs. After those dreams, I'd hunker down in my hidey-hole, hoping to stay forever. Though sometimes despite the safety and comfort in the lab, I did get bored, and, yes, lonely. 

Life changed so much for the better when Sam forgot to sign off on his computer. That night his monitor glowed on the lab bench with a screensaver of a continuous waterfall in the woods. I crept close to watch, us rats being nearsighted. When I stepped onto the keyboard, the whole scene disappeared and the screen showed a bunch of little boxes. It happened so unexpectedly that I jumped two feet in the air and fell off the countertop. In not so very much time, experimenting key by key, I'd learned to open various programs. It was another great night indeed when I accidentally found a way to stream movies. I did all the animal movies first--just anything with four legs, Bambi, Lassie, Babe, Black Stallion, Home Free. One night I found Ratatouille, about a rat that became a famous chef in Paris, a rat who could be whatever he dreamed. 

As my taste became more sophisticated, I watched movies like Midnight Cowboy, where Ratso Rizzo, a human who embodied ratitude, was shown to be a good guy after all. Night after many nights, the computer was my life. I learned to read and write on www.starfall.com, and even became a slow two-paw typist. Google, Hulu, Wikipedia, and YouTube were my classrooms. 

Time passed and it seemed the humans needed to renew their grant to keep the lab going. The Boss came down from his office somewhere in the hospital to talk with the staff. He was a big Russian, with feet that could squash you flat, and he talked so loud that I laid my ears back and covered them with my paws. And smell? I live by aroma, the sharp and the nuanced, but the Boss resembled the dumpster behind the Renaissance Hotel that overflowed with bad meat, stale milk, empty liquor bottles and discarded little shampoo containers. Unlike our general reputation, we rats are very clean, bathing ourselves at least six times a day. Though we don't have thumbs we lick our paws to get to the hard parts. 

The Boss stood in the middle of the lab and shouted, "Peoples! We need thiss research at new level. What we need iss new idea." Freda, the lab manager nodded vigorously, knocking her wig askew. Sam nodded too. He was a graduate student from Haifa who was finishing his PhD so he had to listen politely to whatever the Boss told him. The Boss dropped his arms, and said, "One new idea, одна идея. Iss too much to ask in order to keep our lab running?"  Even little Li, the Christian predoc from Korea, who was scared of the Boss and didn't understand much Hebrew, English, or Russian, bobbed her head as she put some Erlenmeyer flasks on the drying rack.

From my perch on top of the refrigerator, I too agreed with the Boss. If the lab closed, my I would be forced to resume life on the streets. If they needed a new idea, I was there to help.

That night I booted up Sam's computer and read a draft of his email to the boss in response to the request for new ideas. It was long, turgid, and included a lot of formulas with spectrophotometric and biophysical testing of a variety of mixtures in various concentrations. For years, the Boss had been trying to find a lung treatment for patients in the ICU who were stuck on ventilators. The goal was good, but esoteric experiments in test tubes weren't getting him anywhere. I deleted Sam's email and wrote in its place:

------- Original Message ----------
From: "Bream, Sam" <sbream@hu.edu.il>
To: Dr. Karnokioff@hu.edu.il
Subject: RE: FW: new idea
Date: Mon, 20 Oct 2012 02:00:36

Say Boss, I think we've got to make this work more relevant to people.

Sam

The next day Li brought in a green metal box with holes in it that looked like a small suitcase. Out of one of the holes I saw...a small pink nose that sniffed then disappeared. There was much putting away of equipment and opening of boxes and setting up new stuff on the counter by Freda and Li. Sam pitched in with the heavy lifting. After things were in order, a snow- white Sprague Dawley female was pulled by the scruff from the metal box by Freda and plunked, timid, cautious, alone, onto the counter. A rat?!  I had no argument with experiments on fruitflies, zebrafish, or even, if you pressed me, mice, those annoying little critters that were basically just rat wannabees. But not us! Not rats!

Despite her fear that pulled my heart halfway out of my chest, the female moved with a sensual grace that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her pink nose had a black spot right on the tip as if some errant mutation contaminated the uniform gene pool from which she emerged. And I've got to say, the most fetching little pink eyes. She had me at her first squeak when Freda pushed her into a small Plexiglas tube and drew blood from her tail. 

That night they left her, Millie, I learned her name was, in the box with no food or water, breaking at least three of the rules promulgated by the Hebrew University animal use committee. The box had a tricky catch, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't open it. Through the air holes we touched noses and communicated. She appreciated my concern, but was used to a cage and wasn't too alarmed. She was such a purebred; I worried that she would have little interest in an orphaned gray street rat of highly mixed parentage. Millie's fur smelled like grape soda. We stayed close all night as I thought and thought how to spring her from the box. I could flood the lab by gnawing through a hose in the distilled water filtration unit, but that would risk Millie in the box on the floor. Even crawling up the phone line on the wall, I couldn't reach the emergency fire alarm. There was no way I knew to get out of the lab, and what help could I bring anyway.  

The next day, Freda taught Li how to draw more blood from Millie's tail, and then Li took Millie out of the lab in the green box. 

I was smitten. I looked up the word on the free dictionary on the web. "Marked by foolish or unreasoning fondness." I didn't think I was foolish, Millie was gorgeous and a delight to commune with despite the hard steel wall between us during our night together. And I was certainly not unreasoning--I lay awake in the daytime and mused over every nuance of nose wiggling and whisker touching, every movement of each of us trying to get closer. Was I too rough for her, a gray-scarred street rat, when she was the essence of purity and grace, matched with good sense? She didn't worry about what she couldn't do anything about, while I thought and thought (ineffectively) about how I could find and free her. The following night I printed out a picture of a Sprague Dawley that resembled Millie, then took the sheet and stuck it to the inside wall of my hutch. I scrambled up a counter and overturned a bottle of methylene blue, touched the liquid with my nose, then scurried back up the wall and carefully put a dot on the tip of the pink nose of the rat in the picture. Sure enough, it looked like her. My Millie.  

In the next weeks they repeated this blood-letting procedure on other rats, and though I missed Millie I was hopeful that she was living in the safety of the animal quarters that she was used to, fed, warm, and comfortable, though sometimes I hated myself for hoping it might soon be Millie's turn for Li to draw blood so I could see her again. 

And then so it was. Li brought the green cage back to the lab. I'd recognize that dotted pink nose anywhere as Millie sniffed through the holes of the cage. When Li took Millie out of the box, I could see that she was now pale even for an albino rat. They left her in the steel box again overnight. Millie and I communicated our affection through the airholes. I knew something was up since Millie was the only one they kept in the lab these days. 

In a panic I jumped to the computer and opened the recent lab files. I saw what was coming: a tracheotomy, then a ventilator, artery catheterization, lung injury, experimental treatment, more bloodletting and death. This was their new idea that I had unwittingly suggested. Millie could smell my fear, but I distracted her as well as I could by telling her the plots of animal novels that I'd read online, narrated by whales, salmon, dogs, bears, deer, pigeons, parrots, wolves, pigs, and  spiders, but only a few by rats and then only giant mutant rats that terrorized the world.  

At nine in the morning, the Boss was there to supervise. He peered over Freda's shoulder and offered suggestions as Freda with her hand in a big bite-proof glove pulled Millie from the metal box. Quickly she shoved Millie into a Plexiglas restrainer and shot some pentobarbital into Millie's abdomen. Millie fought the drug but soon she was drowsing and Freda pinned her paws to a corkboard and readied the surgical instruments. 

My plan was ill formed: create a little chaos and maybe somehow something good would happen. From what I read online this was the standard modus operandi in Israel. Standing on top of the refrigerator erect on my trembling hind legs, my back to my safe and secure Styrofoam home, I wanted to sound like the Wizard that scared the hell out of Dorothy and her buds. But I felt like the wussy little wizard behind the screen. Maybe I could forget the whole thing and crawl back into my hidey-hole. Be secure. Life might go on as before. But it was for me that I was doing it, not only for Millie. For Chaim, Life. I raised my forelegs high over my head like a small but potent demagogue. Taking a deep breath, I SCREECHED! 

The humans, used to rats that were pinned down and anesthetized, turned towards me, a live rat taking control of their lives. Their mouths dropped open. Li screamed and collapsed in a chair. The Boss threw a scalpel, just missing the back of Sam's head. Freda shouted, "Do something," at Sam, so he got a broom and took a swipe at me. 

I leapt from refrigerator to lab bench to surfactometer, then crawled up the back of the cold box and made an appearance on top. Just as they closed in, I scrambled onto the blood gas machine taunting them by flicking my whiskers. Freda tried to throw a lab coat over me. I jumped to the floor and ran a circuit between their legs. It was a close thing, but I was fighting for a cause greater than myself.

Freda grabbed the phone and yelled for help. After she'd reached up and yanked the fire alarm, Li collapsed back on her desk chair, her legs straight out in front of her after. The Boss did a little Russian dance of rage, while I did figure eights under his stomping feet. He pulled the emergency shower that was used for acid splashes and it sprayed a corner of the lab wetting the floor. Turning to keep me in sight, the Boss slipped and fell on his butt. In response to the alarm, the anesthesiology resuscitation team was the first to arrive and they gave the Boss oxygen and checked his blood pressure while he sat in a puddle on the floor. Other lab workers peered into the lab, blocking the hospital security folks who soon crammed through the doorway. They were knocked aside by the police in full riot gear and then the fireman. I hurtled along the lab bench scattering glassware that shattered on the floor. Around and over and through the lab I charged. I could do the whole lab with my eyes closed just navigating with my whiskers. Sam was getting better with the broom, so I ran even faster and upset a Bunsen burner that lit some spilled solvent in a gloriously distracting bloom. Just as I hoped, the ruckus bought time for Millie's anesthetic to wear off some. I jumped to the counter top, freed her, and bit her tail to get her fully awake. Instantly, Millie got the get, and we both, stoked on adrenalin, streaked out the door.

Out of the lab, back in the world, I kept a nervous eye out, for Millie. Like a nun sprung from a convent, she stopped to look and smell just everything. Ice cream! Tr affic! Insects! Feces! And, yes, cats! They wanted to kill us and all we wanted was to live in peace. 

We found our new safe haven in a Jewish-Arab high school downtown. Millie gave birth among old boxes of used paint tubes in an overstuffed loft of the art teacher. It was a tough thing as kid after kid popped out of her, and I paced and paced, stopping only to lick Millie's damp face. After their birth Millie kept her eyes closed for a long time as the kids all nestled up to get some milk. When I nosed her cheek, she finally opened her eyes and snuggled against me. I was so happy I chattered my teeth and Millie laughed because my eyeballs jittered. 

At night we had the run of the school that had a good library and plenty of computers. I got off emails explaining my views on animal research to the president, prime minister, members of the Knesset, the deans of the Israel universities and research institutes (and just for good measure, the dean of Al Quds medical school on the other side of Jerusalem), the Association of American Medical Colleges, National Institutes of Health, Jerusalem Post, London Times, Le Monde, Spiegel, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The Boss was copied. One of the deans responded. Said he chuckled at my signing the email as A. Rat, and suggested a future in humanities rather than science. He insisted that animal experimentation was no more unethical than eating hamburger. He had a point but I shot back with Aristotle, "...matters of moral action...have no fixedness .., but it must be left in each instance to the individual agents to look to the exigencies of the particular case ..."

Millie and I home-schooled the kids who soon danced on iPad screen keys rather than doing the quaint two paw typing on old-fashioned keyboards like Dad. They learned, but if I didn't keep discipline, they would play http://www.global conflict palestine.dk/gc.html all day long. Millie told me I was getting preachy again, to lighten up, that we'd been young once ourselves. Our kids grew and investigated the world in ways that amazed me. They even made friends with a litter of kittens that one day shared our loft. The mother cat watched from a distance but didn't interfere. Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for was Kant's definition of happiness. It worked for us. 

Eventually Sam emailed me that the Boss's research grant was renewed contingent on the use of mice rather than rats. In appreciation I helped Sam and Li write a review that is already available online. You can look it up.*

 

*Bream S, Song L, Rodenz  R. Mice vs. rats for models of lung injury. Amer J Resp Crit Care Med. Epub ahead of publication.

THE MYTH OF DEMOCRACY
Gary Beck

Ancient Athens has been hailed as the birthplace of democracy, with good reason, as long as it’s understood that it didn’t mean liberty and justice for all. Governance of the City-State represented a colossal achievement in history, heretofore characterized by rule of chiefs or kings. In the ‘Golden Age of Athens’ there were 25,000 citizens. The rest of the population consisted of  peasants, trades people, slaves. There was no standing army. Citizens armed and trained themselves for the defense of the state from threats, notably the Persian invasion, thwarted at the battle of Marathon, 490 B.C. When a tyrant usurped the rulership of the governing class, supported by a personal bodyguard, it took a while to throw off the oppressive rule.

Athens was the first state to be ruled by the people. Of course it was restricted to certain people, the wealthy, the influential, the privileged, those able to use the system for advancement. Almost endless litigation went on and the lawyer class was established, sophists able to equally argue both sides of an issue. But people sued each other, instead of killing each other. Without the Athenian innovation of the rule of law for some, the development of civilization could have taken many millennia.

The Roman republic attempted to adapt many of the Athenian examples of governance. But just as Athens succumbed to a policy of conquest and expansionism, so did Rome. The patricians of wealth and power usurped the rule of the Senate, determining policy, foreign and domestic. They allowed a large underclass to pressure the system with unruly demands, that they resolved with bread, circus, or violent suppression. When power was finally centralized in an Emperor, everything else became subordinate to the imperial prerogative. Conquest and expansion built an empire, more civilized than the rest of the world, but autocratic. When overexpansion and many other causes led to collapse, the ‘Dark Ages’ followed, because there were no institutions to take Rome’s place.

Organized civilization began to arise from a period of chaos and disorder, and the feudal system evolved for protection against Viking incursions. Despite the theory of obligations both ways, the demands of those above always took precedence over the needs of those below. Nobles called their underlings for service, which had to be obeyed. When Harold Godwinsson destroyed the Norwegian Vikings in 1066, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, the noble class was so established that they continued a system of obligations to the high-born. The struggle for the rights of the people went on in England for hundreds of years, culminating in a limited monarchy that allowed the people some rights, but governance was still in the hands of the rich and powerful.

Like Athens and Rome, the British Empire expanded through conquest, cloaking many invasions under the pretext of bringing civilization to the natives. The Industrial Revolution put England ahead of every other nation in wealth and power, which facilitated the further growth of the empire. Yet whatever system English masters introduced to their native subjects, it was unacceptable foreign oppression, proven by the rejection of British rule when it could no longer be enforced by power. Yet mechanisms of democracy were left behind, even though they were dominated by the rule of power, wealth and privilege.

The American Revolution, led by a small group of men of wealth and privilege, threw off what had become oppressive foreign rule. They produced what many believe are the most wonderful documents in history, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This unique rejection of monarchical rule, with promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness affected many with the vision of freedom. And the owners of the new nation had only stolen a small portion of the vast continent, mostly from Native Americans, but from anyone else who stood in the path of expansion. But there was room in this new land for common people to blaze new trails, carve homesteads, farms, towns, out of the wilderness, as long as they were willing to kill the previous owners of the land. And they felt independent. Except for slaves, bound people, lackeys, many people felt free. At least until civilization arrived with the demands of law, taxes, military service, which paid for the enormous resources needed to steal a continent.

Then democratic America stole a big part of Mexico. The hunger for land drove people westward and as they had since the first landing on the Atlantic coast, intruded, negotiated, bartered, killed all those who stood in the way of expansion. But the Eastern magnates had grown strong enough to challenge the Southern agricultural barons for control of the nation. And a great divide opened between the owners of the land. The inevitable clash saw the Industrial North master the art of modern war, outproduce the more rural South and beat it into submission.

The end of the war between the states set millions of restless men, tested by the rigors of war, adrift in an unsettled land. The rush to claim farm and ranch land from native Americans led to bloody conflict, small in scale after the ferocious war that devoured the blood and treasure of the Civil War. Settlers paved the way West, supported by the army, in a now unified nation dominated by industrialists eager for new markets, with vast resources yet untapped. Within a few years, Native Americans were reduced to reservations and the land began to fill up. We bought or stole all foreign held land, so the owners of America began to look abroad.

The Spanish Empire was crumbling within and without, so the venturous capitalists daringly turned their sights on foreign conquest and acquisition. With the usual superficial motives to conceal crass greed, war was provoked. Young, energetic America overwhelmed creaky old Spain and not only stole Cuba and Puerto Rico, to dominate the Caribbean, but captured the Philippines, thus becoming a Pacific power, which was linked to the annexation of Hawaii and Guam.

Then American democracy tried to digest new conquests, make them part of the nation, even though they were offshore, far away. After all, we grabbed Hawaii and that was offshore, far away. But the Filipinos didn’t want us. Neither did the Cubans. And they resisted the benefits of democracy, at least the capitalist kind, despite benevolent efforts to impose the lot of little ‘Brown Brother’. Only Puerto Rico didn’t fight our occupation, hoping to gain peace and prosperity from imperialism.

It took a while for the owners of America to accept that they couldn’t digest Cubans or Filipinos, or exterminate them, or confine them to reservations. To end continuing bloodshed, independence was promised down the road. We didn’t worry about their future then, because we were adept at promise breaking. But we didn’t know what to do with Puerto Rico, so we left it dangling, with an inconclusive status. Now that we were masters of countries in the Pacific, the Caribbean, we need a bigger navy to patrol, control unruly elements that might interfere with commerce, intrude on our self-proclaimed sovereignty, rebel against our authority.

Our burgeoning industrial might stirred more ambitions. We were too late to stake claims in Africa, already divided among the big dogs of Europe. We were too late to stake claims in Asia, already divided by the big dogs of Europe, as well as Japan, emerging as a power after defeating Russia. So we snuck in with lofty proclamations about an ‘Open Door’, since we weren’t strong enough to demand a share of chunks of China. Yet when the resentful Chinese took up arms agains the sea of invaders, we always sided with the imperialists.

The European powers built great armies and navies to maintain empires and defend against belligerent neighbors. So when Germany, come later to imperial land grab then France or England, ringed in middle Europe by unfriendly nations, was determined to expand, conflict became inevitable. The Generals who planned the Great War were still fighting wars past and did not comprehend the democratic power of the machinegun, which devastated huge armies with countless casualties. And the owners of America watched from the sidelines for several years, while the Great Powers drained themselves on Western battlefields, as well as much of the rest of the planet.

The warring powers, weakened by years of the loss of men and treasure, were finally ready for American intervention. Our troops fought on the great stage and acquitted themselves creditably, but when it came to establishing the peace, the old dogs outsmarted the young pups and we went home seemingly without profit. Yet everyone owed us a lot of money for selling them war materials that they didn’t have the cash to pay for. We cleverly introduced the dollar as the new world currency, replacing the Pound. But we learned how to discard Civil War mentalities of how to fight, and some Generals prepared to fight a modern war.

American corporations thrived in poor Latin American countries, dominating the one product economies with total control, reinforced by the Marines, whenever the locals resented our democratic exploitation. And we watched cautiously as Germany rebuilt and Japan started conquering China, selling them raw materials to nurture their war machines, until their expansion threatened our interests. So after selling Japan steel to build her ships, planes, tanks, we cut off the sale of oil that they needed to run them. This was an almost forgotten episode, except by some historians, some of whom think we forced Japan to attack us in order for them to seize oil fields to fuel their military. 

So we fought another great war across most of the earth. After waiting long enough for Europeans to deplete themselves, we responded to Japan’s attack on our territories with the greatest industrial output in history, producing huge amounts of war materials to provide to our military, as well as our allies. At the end of World War II we were the big dog and we briefly dominated the world. When Communism resisted capitalist encroachment and established a rival empire, a competition was born. The ‘Cold War’ stimulated our industry to produce more and more war materials, as well as domestic goods, allowing middle-class luxuries never imagined before and blue collar aspirations for their children to live better.

The owners of America were not content with millions. They wanted billions. But factory workers with salaries and costly benefits, ate into the profit margin. So when the aging factories needed upgrading, they were abandoned, along with millions of workers, for factories abroad, with cheap labor, thus allowing huge profits. Entire regions were devastated by corporate departure, leaving rust belts as a reminder of capitalist selfishness. The American Dream was callously removed from the future of discarded workers and their families.

The ‘Cold War’ was a great benefit to the owners of America. The military/industrial complex thrived to nourish the legions that occupied much of the globe. The technical race to produce superior new weapons brought vast profits to the arms makers. Production of domestic goods poured into every home that could afford them. And more people could afford them then ever before. And education flourished. Thousands of colleges turned out hundreds of thousands of graduates, many of whom contributed to the growth of the economy. Except for a few dangerous confrontations with the Russians that might have incinerated much of the world, America seemed to be relatively safe.

The Vietnam incursions started with a handful of advisors, then grew and grew until it dominated the American psyche. It took a while for anti-war fervor to rouse enough resistance to government policies for the media to turn against the war. Youngsters ‘turned on, tuned in, dropped out’ and wanted to make love, not war. Protestors divided the nation. Yet the owners of America let the war go on until swollen with profits they ended the carnage. But the nature of American life had changed. Patriotism was no longer a dominant force.

A new breed of citizen opposed government and corporate actions that hurt the people, the environment, cause after cause, issue after issue, disrupting the tranquility of the lords of profit. With so many alienated from ‘traditional’ values, the middle-class agitators became dispensable. The blue collar class, the only group that fought the bosses, was deaccessioned first. The factories that hadn’t closed or moved abroad, turned to automation, which removed human jobs, increased profits by eliminating costly labor and depleted the unions until they could no longer demand, only request benefits from the bosses.

Large segments of the middle-class were no longer needed, since they didn’t comply with the objectives of the owners of America, whose capital was so diversified that they were no longer dependent on domestic consumption for their profits. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., American investors filled many gaps that the Soviets could no longer afford. But enemies were always needed to justify maintenance of the war machine and stimulate patriotic loyalty in support of one’s country. Cuba no longer stirred the people to anger, since without Russian missiles it was merely a semi-tropical backwater. But the Middle-East was ripe for exploitation.

The only way a dominant military could benefit capitalism was if it made war, necessitating all the costly materials of war, as well as selling materials to friends and enemies. So we invaded Iraq in a massive campaign that didn’t change anything, but generated huge profits. Not all our citizens seemed to realize that as the self-appointed policeman of the world, we only patrolled certain beats. We continued making big bucks supplying arms to our allies, South Korea, Japan, others, keeping potential future customers, Vietnam, The Philippines, for another day. The Asian market was relatively profitable and stable, so Europe and the Middle-East were priorities. We welcomed new members to N.A.T.O., and their business, also continuing tensions with Russia as we encroached on her old empire and resources.

We conquered Iraq again, then saw the country dissolve into warring factions. Then we did the same thing in Afghanistan. Critics argued we were failing at state building, but stable regimes were never the goal of capitalism rampant. Chaos and war is much more profitable. At home, a vocal minority, in defense of democratic values, objected to government policies with little lasting effect. The blue collar class was virtually powerless and could only support the bosses, though not overtly, or see their remaining factories immigrate to a more profitable clime, Much of the middle-class was becoming expendable, since enough wealth was concentrated in the 1% that a large consuming class was becoming obsolete. As income declined, less was spent and small businesses and stores began to close.

The ascension of President Obama filled the liberals with hope, but they never inquired where half a billion dollars came from to elect him. He was probably the least experienced candidate in our history, but he did a credible job, continued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent tendrils into Syria, maintained tensions with Russia and China, kept the wheels of business and industry turning. And if Republicans were outraged at his health care act, their outrage kept many focused on a domestic issue that mattered little to the owners of America, as long as the public didn’t meddle in net profits and foreign affairs.

Historians may wonder one day how the most unqualified candidate ever defeated a slew of Republicans all more experienced and qualified. Then, with the help of Russia and the F.B.I., Trump defeated the most qualified candidate since George W.H. Bush. Trump’s character and pronouncements outraged a lot of Americans, who protested volubly, a few violently. Many intelligent citizens joined demonstrations opposing objectionable policies. But in America, the rule of law is controlled by the system, regulated by elected officials indebted to their funders, so their obligations to the people are secondary, if they want to continue in high office, the cost of which is paid for by the owners of America.

For a short time after World War II our people were lulled by comforts, at least some of them, since capitalism requires a poverty class to exploit as needed. The children of the parents of comfort actually believed they were democratically entitled to resist the abuse of power by their government. Objectors were so busy protesting the war in Vietnam that they didn’t notice the removal of the industrial heart of America, which went abroad. When citizens finally realized their children would not lead better lives then their parents, many resigned themselves to diminishing opportunity. The Information Age is not for masses of the population. The Service Industry is the future for many. Only strong pressure on the owners of America can compel the trickle down of material prosperity. Only well-paying jobs can restore a prosperous middle-class. Unless there is a new, innovative age to gainfully employ many, the American Dream is rusting away. 

3 POEMS
Alden Marin

New poem about misplaced flowers (for Khe Iem)

Sep 30 at 5:15 AM

CARELESSLY CLOSE

I didn't think

You would mind

If we put the nighttime 

Here--like a vase

Of red flowers

On a shelf 

Close to day;

One for whom 

Placement & preservation

Are everything--

Those flowers 

Freshly picked

Like nighttime itself

Arranged by a 

Picture window

Looking out towards day

Where birds & animals 

Play at the end

Of September, together

Or even fighting

Like angry children

Over candy...

All this caused 

By flowers in a vase

Put carelessly close 

To misinterpretation

And a spot too near

To the edge, where

They could so easily 

Be knocked over by

An errant arm or elbow--

The vase, to shatter

And the flowers 

To scatter again

Across the field 

In haste, making

Their escape...

 

 

New poem

Dec 19 at 6:14 AM

MY JOB

Then, there was 

No explanation...

The nail did not

Get hammered--

Stood out as a 

Monument to 

Incompleteness;

The separated leaf

Lying red and alone 

Had no tree...

The pine needle,

Once instructive

Pointed nowhere 

And was sharper 

Than thought, didn't

Want to be collected...

I bent to retrieve 

A rock and found 

It was a bottle cap--

The flicked cigarette 

Like a missile from 

Some hostile country;

My job is to find 

Acceptance for 

These facts & truths

But, so often--

I cannot...

 

New poem based on a true story...

Jan 4 at 6:33 AM

INCONVENIENCE

You might as well

Believe inconvenience--

The bed with its 

Slight angle 

Causing odd comfort

Your old cough reemergent 

(Try a new syrup)

The sharp-edged rock

You were going to collect 

But it cut you instead

And you put it back down

Where rocks belong

In Nature, not 

The house--

That trail, leading 

To a spring, which 

Dried up in the drought

So you get to bring 

Your own water

Packing necessities 

In and out...Things 

Don't go as planned--

You left the envelope behind 

But still have the letter;

It makes for new ways

Of delivery & passage 

Such as finding new routes

Or wearing better shoes,

Trusting inconvenience 

To redraw the map 

Like finding that long-lost pair

Of glasses when the marble

Rolls under the couch 

And has to be found 

Where the vanished gems

Have fallen...

 

Prologue

PROLOGUE: ACCIDENT

It is all about speed, driving through the desert. The faster you drive, the more you are lifted up out of the natural world. You move with no effort and the desert flows past you. Until you hit something.

A man, a product of Brighton, England, was taking his evening walk in the desert twilight. Considering the things that had taken him from the shingle beaches of the channel to the desert outside Palm Springs, he could hear the intermittent sound of cars on the road in the near distance. If he had turned to his right he would have seen the lights moving along the highway. But he preferred the shifting colors of the desert and so heard the accident instead of seeing it.

First, the sudden, quickly building sound of skidding tires. The sound of other cars trying to brake. A loud bang. Still the skid screeching. Another long drawn-out bang. A moment's silence. Then a horrible series of crashes as something pin-wheeled off the road, smashing through the desert. Sudden silence. The moment extending. Then, two voices shouting. A sudden scream. Johns stood still looking across the mesquite. It occurred to him that it could have been Ryan. He turned and walked quickly toward the end of the driveway thinking, I'll just go look and make sure. He broke into a run.

Susan Yee opened her eyes and looked up at a beautiful pattern of light coming through shattered glass. The car had stopped speeding smoothly down the road. Now she wasn't looking at the desert sweep past; she was looking at the sky. She remembered the stomach-dropping realization they were going to crash.

Susan finished breaking the side window with her high heel. Glass pebbles showered down over her. She dropped the shoe and looked for a foothold to help her in her climb up and out of the wreck. Maggie Chow lay tossed in a heap against the side window that now rested against the pavement. She tried to keep from stepping on her friend. Blood was seeping through Maggie's black hair. Susan paused, half in and half out of the car, to survey the wreckage around her. The Lincoln Town car rested on its side pointing back the way it had come. Something–she couldn't tell what kind of car–lay twisted and torn apart. And something else was off the road in the mesquite. She slid to the pavement, bent to slip on her five-inch, fuck me heels and carefully started to walk around. A car came slaloming through the wreckage and then gathered speed as it whizzed away.

"Thank you for caring,” Susan said.

"Are you all right?” It was Ryan's voice. She looked for him. He was sitting on the gravel at the shoulder of the road. She looked at him, but didn't answer. "I think I'm fucked up,” said Ryan. He kept flexing his right arm, looking at the elbow.

Two more cars slowed to make their way among the cars and wreckage. A woman stuck her head out the window of one of the cars. "Do you want me to call 9-1-1?”

"Yes. Please. We need an ambulance.” I'm in shock Susan Yee thought, "Am I hurt?”

“I get dizzy if I stand up,” Ryan called.

"Fuck you, Ryan. You almost killed us,” she said.

Susan stopped turning in a circle. She stared at what they'd hit. The wreckage off the road could have been red once. Another SUV came up, made its way through the pieces of cars, and pulled over on the shoulder of the road. A man in tennis whites got out and walked toward her. He pulled his sweater over his head as he came.

"Here. Put this on," He said, lifting the sweater over her head.

Looking down, Susan realized that her blouse had been torn away and she was naked from the waist up. A siren slowly built its alternating sound in the distance.

The ambulances seemed to arrive quickly. Susan looked up and saw the first one coming through the wavering heat. The police arrived shortly after. They seemed to be moving very slowly to the people who, having been moving so fast through space, had come to a stop so disastrously.

The center of the accident, what had once been a classic Porsche, was now red metal, ripped and hammered into a shape that resembled anything but a car. Flung from the highway, it was planted in the sand thirty feet off the road. The hot metal chunk of the engine lay twenty feet from the car. The broken bodies were where the collision had thrown them. The big Lincoln Town Car was on its side, its hood and grill destroyed. And an Audi sedan with one side deeply creased, was nestled under the rear wheel of a black Escalade.

Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1: ARRIVAL

Frank Caldwell was driving southeast away from Los Angeles and into the desert, heading down the 10 to Indio and Palm Springs. He had left early from LA with the morning chill still in the air. Now he was coming up on Indio and close to the end of his drive. The car was climbing through a pass in the Chocolate Mountains. He had reached the wind farm by 9 am. Line after line of relentless, three-bladed propellers turning in synch on their towers.

The house was outside Palm Springs. The client was a Rock musician, wealthy of course. The job was armed bodyguard and supervising house security. The client had stressed that, so there had to be a threat, or a perceived threat, involved. Or he wanted the status of having an armed bodyguard escort him around town. When asked about it, Ryan (the client), had downplayed the threat, had been vague, Seacole said his explanations had wandered. Caldwell was curious about that. You never expected your client to be totally honest with you at the beginning. Events usually forced the truth out.

Frank was incredibly focused. That was your first impression of him. He was six-three, 210 pounds, with the build of a Cruiser Weight and wore his hair in a near military cut. The physical confidence of four years in the Golden Gloves capped by another two as a professional showed in everything he did. For the first meeting with his client, Frank had dressed in khaki slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt as a concession to the heat. A lightweight brown and black hound's-tooth checked sport jacket was carefully folded and lay on the back seat.

Frank Caldwell was the top bodyguard at Seacole Security. He held a California investigator's license, one of eight held by Seacole's employees, and a permit for a concealed weapon. He was a realist.

Frank's father George had also been a boxer. Coming out of the south to California at the beginning of the opening up of the Fifties, George had discovered that he could not make his way by what work he could find. When he married he stepped into the ring and began bringing home an extra paycheck to support his wife and the three children that followed the marriage. He wasn't a great fighter; he was a good fighter, a journeyman with a chin like a brick. He had a powerful body shot, a left that knocked out three men in his career. Hard to bring down, he would take a knee, gather himself, and rise at nine. Never knocked out, he fought on the undercards of seventy fights. Trainers sharpened their boxers against George Caldwell's brick. George never expected anything else. He figured he would see how many checks he could bring in; how far he could shift his family up the ladder on his back. The small family settled securely on his back, feared for him. Even now they watched him out of the corners of their eyes looking for dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, the deadly slowing of speech and trembling hand. So far George Caldwell had eluded it all.

When Frank had tried to follow him into the ring, his father lectured the dinner table on why he had suffered under other men's fists. Frank had persisted. Frank's brother finally shamed him out of the ring. Had taken him to lunch at Roscoe's Waffle House and shamed him. Told him, "You're not Dad and you'll never be him." Told him that he was throwing his father's sacrifices back in his face. And Frank also knew he didn't have the brick, couldn't take the hooks and jabs. He was tired of pissing blood, standing over the toilet in some dressing room waiting for the burst of the thick, red stream once the clots forced through, the toilet splattered red. He wasn't his father, he couldn't stay through the damage done.

Stopping once in Hemet for a date shake, Frank arrived at the house at 10:00 in the morning when the heat began to build. Desert House, a large two-story modern design, landscaped with cactus, agaves, ocotillo, and Joshua trees sat well back from the highway. The guard on the gate passed him through and Frank pulled his Camaro into the drive, stopping on a gravel oval that already held a Lincoln Town car, a red Corvette, an SUV, a 300 series BMW, and a Miata. Through the big windows he could see someone moving around, a shape passing back and forth in the back of the house. Looking over the roof of the car, Frank tried to sort out his impressions.

This was going to be his house, his assignment. This place he had to protect. Ryan, the man was his responsibility. Everything Frank had done to this point in his life would be set against what happened here. He continued to scan the house, the object of his protection. His enemies target.

He walked to the front door, rang the bell, and waited. A man opened the door. It wasn't Ryan. Frank remembered Ryan from his old music videos. This man wore a collarless, white shirt and black slacks, with highly spit-shined, shoes.

"Frank Caldwell to see Mr. Ryan. I'm from Seacole Security."

"Ah yes, we've been expecting you. Welcome to Desert House Mr. Caldwell, please come in."

The man shut the door behind Frank and led him through the great room and down a hall to a room set up as an office. At least it had a table set up as a desk with two leather-strapped Wasilly chairs ranged before it. There was an off-white Berber on the floor and cartoons of musicians on the walls. Behind the table was a console with Ryan's four Grammys arranged on it. A terracotta pot held what looked like the green skeleton of a plant. One wall was a sheet of glass forming one side of an atrium full of cactus.

"If you wouldn't mind waiting here, Mr. Ryan will be with you shortly." Frank waited.

He was looking at the cactus in the atrium when the reflected image of a naked woman passed through the rectangle of the door. Frank turned to look but the woman was gone, replaced by Ryan.

"I'm Ryan." He spoke with a pause, as if waiting for the applause to die down. "Welcome to Desert House." It was the voice Frank had grown up with only huskier, darker with age and abuse. Looking closely, you could still see the younger Ryan. The eyes were tired now. At the beginning, they had been pale grey and looked right at you. He was heavier, his face fuller. The hunger that came out in the early photographs was gone. Ryan wore a white and green short-sleeve bowling shirt and jeans with sandals. He had a turquoise and silver bracelet on one wrist and a bright, stainless steel Rolex on the other. He projected hip wealth.

"Nice to meet you," said Frank.

Ryan gave Frank a quick, firm handshake. He sat in one of the chairs facing the desk. Frank sat in the other.

"Did you find your way down here all right?"

"Yes. Very good directions. Very clear."

"It'll be good to have someone here who can handle things. I'd like you to look around the house and give me your suggestions for security. Do you have a gun with you?"

"Yes. Seacole mentioned that you'd had threats."

"I was involved in an accident a while back and threats were made. There's also a lawsuit coming out of the accident. There are more lawsuits and threats over the band. A couple of my lifelong friends are not happy with the money situation. They're suing over who owns the group name. You know, who can tour with it. And people come by. Crazy fans. They come out now and then. Crazy people live in the desert. Thieves."

"Thieves?"

"There was a break-in."

"What did they take?"

Ryan seemed to stop and rapidly consider possible answers. "Mementos."

Ryan looked into the atrium. He gave a little nod like he was satisfied with his choice of an answer.

 "You file a police report?"

"Yes."

"I'd like a copy."

"I can get it for you. They didn't find anything. Didn't even come out

that night. Showed up the next day. Anyway, I can brief you."

Brief me on what? thought Frank

"Johns will get you settled in," Ryan added. "Then we'll talk some more."

"What about the band members?"

"Well." Ryan turned and looked out into the atrium. Seeing something else. "It's about money. It's always about the money." He stood up, as if to start pacing and then, after three steps nowhere, sat down again. "The formula we agreed on when we started and the division we worked out after Circus when I went solo. My lawyer versus their lawyer versus the record company's lawyers. Managers. Girlfriends and wives. Billy Kelvin had three wives and I swear each one of them hated my guts. Mike threatened me with a gun in Kansas City."

"Mike?"

"Drummer." He looked like he was going to open up about something. "Over a girl. And money. Man, people never forget. Or forgive. Once money gets into your band it is gone. Everything just turns bad, man."

"Anything more specific than that? Any threats while they were cold sober and thinking clearly?"

"It's the life, man. Nobody was ever totally sober then."

"What about now?"

"Now? The band is healing. All of us are healing. Mike and I have our problems. I fucked his daughter. That was a mistake." Silence, then, "I don't want to talk about this anymore right now."

The man Frank assumed was a butler stepped through the door.

"You've met Johns? Johns, Frank Caldwell." Johns extended his hand. His

handshake was dry and surprisingly strong.

"Glad to meet you, Mr. Caldwell."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Ryan."

"Johns has been with me for ten years. God. I sound like some old Brit. 'Johns has been in the family for centuries.' Anyway. Johns saw me through AA and Rehab and detox and Rehab again and divorces. Lots of craziness. Anyway. He takes care of the house. We've got three maids who come down from Indio to help out, but Johns is the majordomo. That's his official title: Majordomo. Really." Johns smiled. "Johns will get you settled in. Then we'll talk some more."

Frank went out to the car and got his bags. Johns showed him to a room on the second floor down the hall from Ryan's. The room had the same wealthy rock star style as the downstairs. Potted cactus and carved wood objects had been placed around the space. There were framed photographs on the walls and Indian pots on the dresser. By the windows, three leather club chairs and a wood and iron table formed a sitting area. A flat-screen television sat on a chest in one corner. Frank had a view of the pool and the desert.

This was the first time Frank had lived in the desert and known it as a desert, the landscape unchanged by the irrigation and imported plants of LA. He slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony and into the heat. The impassive humps of the Chocolate Mountains rose in the distance. A few hundred yards out lay a gully choked full of the rubble that had been swept down from the mountains when flash floods came cutting their way through the flats. It was a horrible land and a beautiful land, covered in boulder flows and thickets of thorny brush, wicked Joshua trees, and sudden bursts of flowers.

Scattered through the desert were oases surrounding perfect examples of the architecture of the Fifties. On the other side of the freeway up by the aqueduct there were small shacks pulled together out of the junk scattered through the desert, lone houses surrounded by tall chain-link fencing, and abandoned shells that had once been houses. Places where you never saw anyone moving around outside in the heat.

The band. Crazy fans. Crazy desert people. Thieves. Frank repeated the mantra of bad guys.

There were more than enough bad guys in the desert to account for hiring a bodyguard, like lawyers and retired child actors. But he didn't like Ryan's deliberate vagueness about things. Frank liked clear threats, the kind you could identify, isolate, and counter. But Ryan wanted to play games and not be direct about anything, leaving lots of shadows, blind alleys, and atmospheric fog. He wanted to be kept safe from things without having to name them. He didn't want to admit Frank to the game yet. Ryan was trying to be a character, "the Innocent Client", in a Chandler novel with one of those private eyes with a true heart and a selfless devotion to lost blondes, thought Frank. He'd been listening to his own songs where lonesome strangers moved through a landscape of haunted women in black dresses and lone men drank scotch in empty bars, while the Santa Ana honing everything to a desperate edge. But he was Frank's client. And Frank would protect as far as possible.

The house was closed up, quiet and cool. The downstairs rooms were as big as ten million dollars could make them. In what Americans had taken to calling the great room, the entire back wall was floor-to-ceiling glass. At one end was a massive fireplace made from the rounded stones the mountain sent down. Over it, a Robert Williams painting of a woman wearing stockings stretched out on a giant taco. Two leather couches faced each other across a large wooden coffee table. In the center of the table was a large piece of white coral. Closing off the square were two leather armchairs. Between the chairs was a stand with a large geode broken so it revealed a curving core of purple crystal. A number of highly polished guitars had been lined up along another wall. With their inlays, body shapes, and metals, they dominated the room as Ryan's tribute to himself. By the windows were an eight-sided table and eight high-backed chairs. A backgammon board with a game still in progress was laid out by a carousel of poker chips. All the furniture had inlays of exotic woods and smooth flowing lines.

Frank followed the central hall back to the kitchen. Johns was sitting at a long wooden table reading one of four cookbooks laid out before him. The kitchen had lots of granite counters and wood cabinets with a light stain carefully worked to look old and uncared for. There was a big subzero refrigerator and a Viking stove. Frank continued through, with a nod to Johns, stopping at the French doors leading to the patio. Fifty feet in front of him was one of the biggest pools he had ever seen. There were round metal tables topped with white umbrellas off to his left. Farther left was an outdoor kitchen with a gas grill.

"We'll have lunch at noon. Sand dabs and a salad," said Johns.

"I love sand dabs."

"Good. We'll have a white wine along with it. You do drink don't you? If not, we have all sorts of sodas and fruit juices."

"Wine sounds good."

"Mr. Ryan has an excellent cellar, primarily Californians, but still a quite nice cellar. For dinner, I'm thinking of pecan-stuffed pork chops.

"You eat very well here."

"We try."

Frank looked at the bodies placed around the pool. Ryan and another man sat at a table under a white umbrella. A laptop computer was open on the table and both men were looking intently at the screen. Three women completed the group. A tall redhead had pulled a lounge chair into the shade of an umbrella separate from the men. She seemed focused on doing her nails. Two other women were sunbathing on two of the lounges lined up by the pool, one face up, the other face down. Face down was nude; face up was topless. Face down had propped herself up on an elbow and was talking to the other woman. There were towels on the tile around the chairs and bottles of water, the remains of drinks, and tubes of suntan lotion.

"You could take a photo of that," thought Frank, "and call it Aging Rock Star at Home. Or just Rock Star. You've got the girls, the conference with the lawyer, the pool. Take a picture and put it in Vanity Fair."

"Who else is here?"

"Well." Johns got up from the table and came over to stand beside Frank.  

They looked out over the pool and Johns began naming people. The man with Mr. Ryan is Joshua P. Rubens, Mr. Ryan's accountant. The girl at the table is Naomi Sinclair. The other two are Maggie Chow and Susan Yee."

"Which is which?"

"Susan is the one with the tattoo.”

Something about the two women was trying to fit itself to an image in Frank's mind. He couldn't summon it up just then or remember where it came from but there was something familiar. Especially her ass, he thought. Why does her ass remind me of someone?

As Frank watched, the talking girl turned and looked right at him. Her sunglasses hid her eyes. He couldn't be absolutely certain she was looking at him, but he could feel her gaze. She stared at him not breaking contact until he came out and spoke to Ryan.

Susan Yee was telling Maggie about this guy who had tried to pick her up at Spider the other night, when she looked up and saw the black man standing in the kitchen. He seemed like a distinct piece of existence separate from everything else. He also looked really built. He was looking right at her.

"Don't look. There's this guy in the kitchen staring at us.”

"What?” Maggie turned to look.

"Don't look. I bet it's the security guy.”

"Oh. I got the cast off just in time.”

"I hope he brought his gun with him.”

"Ryan said he was going to carry a gun.”

As Frank came out into the yard, one of the girls got up, face up, posed on the edge of the pool, then dived smoothly disappearing beneath the surface of the water. Her head reappeared at the other end of the pool. Frank got another quick flash of something, a little clearer this time. He couldn't catch it. Frank submitted it to his unconscious for further action. He looked around and went to sit at a table a short distance from Ryan.

"Give us a minute.” Ryan had noticed Frank, he turned back and continued talking to the other man. Frank looked at the reflective surface of the water, the ocotillo and Joshua trees. He picked up his name several times in the conversation. Soon they seemed to arrive at a mutual point of completion. Ryan closed the computer and called Frank over.

"Sit down Frank. I want you to meet Joshua Rubens, my business advisor."

"Mr. Rubens."

"Josh."

"Okay. Josh."

"I was just telling Josh what your duties would consist of. Josh and I go back a long ways." Josh shook a cigarette out of a pack. He looked like a large seal. He was sweating lightly.

"So you finally took my advice and hired a gunfighter."

"Security, Josh, the word is security."

"Executive protection." Frank tossed in.

Josh dismissed both comments with a wave of the cigarette. "You got me to handle the record company and Mal for their lawyers. Now you got him for the thugs. Welcome on board Frank."

"Thanks."

"Could I see your licenses, Frank? A necessary formality."

"Of course." Frank took out his ten dollar wallet and handed it across. Josh actually read both cards with Ryan looking over his shoulder. That was a first, thought Frank. Josh handed the licenses back.

"You filled him in?" Josh looked at Ryan.

"I told him a little."

Josh nodded and flicked the ash from his cigarette. "Well some people are upset over things. As you probably know there was an accident, a fatal accident. Here. Right out in front."

"In the road down from the house," Ryan corrected.

"Wherever. Ryan is about to go to court on this matter. Several weeks ago, there was a request for money, one million dollars in fact. Though we'll negotiate that down."

"You're going to pay?"

"Sometimes it's cheaper than the truth. Also, it avoids a lot of publicity and problems. I'm sure you must have some knowledge about how these things get handled Frank." Josh paused and made eye contact with Frank for the first time. They had reached an important point. Josh was about to give that jerk to set the hook. He was asking Frank to commit himself, to join their little group and accept participation in this confusion.

Frank smiled and tried to look innocently inquisitive. He had expected something like this. When Seacole told him about the trial and the lawsuit, he had known it would happen. It was just a little early. But then Josh probably wanted to get back to town.

"The girls were involved in it. Some other people."

"Sounds pretty bad."

"Bodies all over the road," said Ryan.

 Frank looked around at the "bodies" that were present. "Everyone seems to have come through pretty well."

"Maggie broke her arm and got a bad head wound," Ryan traced an arc on his head. "But they were in the back seat. I almost got killed." Ryan did his thousand-yard stare again. Frank wondered how real it was and what Ryan was seeing.

"The thing is," Josh was saying, "the thing is, people have tried to get into the house."

Frank watched Susan Yee going back and forth in the pool, while Rubens and Ryan talked about the attempted break-in. Susan enjoyed the silence under the water, just the hollow water sounds. Her only thoughts were of her stroke, the movement of the water, and the sounds. Willing herself not to think about anything outside the pool, she tried to attain emptiness, becoming the movement through the water.

"People have been hanging around the house and photographers stalking me ever since I moved down here," said Ryan.

Ryan and Josh were also watching Susan Yee go back and forth.

"This was something different," Josh added. "These guys got in, went to the office, and then left real fast. And they didn't grab anything, coming or going. You see what I mean? They wanted something specific. Knew what it was. Knew were it might be."

"I think it's the Sohn family," said Ryan.

"Stanislaus Sohn died in the crash," Josh added.

"They're out to get me. Rich bastards."

"The Sohns have been here since the Fifties, Frank. They're old Palm Springs. Get written up in ForbesVanity Fair did a spread on them. Pictures of old man Sohn in tennis whites eating raspberry ice cream. Bunch of fascists. The family has a nasty history."

"They want to see me hang," said Ryan.

"Who else was involved in the accident?"

Ryan and Josh looked at each other. Two conspirators trying to decide whether or not to tell Frank that the package they gave him was going to blow up or let him find out on his own.

"Well," said Ryan, looking at Josh, "Well." Ryan looked at a cactus. "The Sohns, the Fredericks from next door," Ryan gestured toward a hedge on a rise in the distance. "Then there were the Levins. They were just driving through. That guy from Vegas."

"A lot of damage," said Frank.

Susan pulled herself out of the pool at the far end. She posed, face tilted up to the sky, swept her hands back over her hair, pressing the water out, molding it into a long serpent that coiled down her back. Water flowed down over a tiger climbing toward a branch covered with red flowers. The tiger had planted a rear paw on her right buttock and stretched its muscular body up. The claws of a front paw reaching for a hold on her shoulder. Its snarling head turned to the right. Its tail curled. Red petals fell around the black and yellow stripes of the tiger. The tiger moved as she wrung the water from her hair.

Whether it was a fragment caught from a video, magazine or show, Frank didn't know, but she definitely had set a hook in him. He would have to figure it out.

She looked in Maggie's direction and then began walking over to the table where the three men were seated. Susan performed her walk like a dancer, every step carefully placed for maximum impact.

Frank was aware of Susan's approach. He could just see her at the edge of his peripheral vision. Josh was staring as she carefully walked toward them. Ryan seemed oblivious. Maggie Chow watched, chin perched on her hand, controlling her urge to laugh. Then Susan was next to him, five-foot seven inches of brown body, dripping water.

Frank looked up at her. Susan smiled.

"Hello," she said, "We haven't been introduced. My name is Susan Yee." She extended a damp hand.

"Frank Caldwell. Please to meet you, Susan." Frank carefully took her hand, trying not to reveal any emotion.

"Frank is going to be handling security for me."

"Oh. Do you carry a gun, Frank?"

Frank looked up at her and considered the several possible responses he could make. He rejected, "Yes, want to see it?" and selected something more appropriate.

"I'm licensed to carry a weapon."

"Good. I feel much more secure."

Then she turned and executed a perfect walk back to the lounge. The men watched her go. Frank watched the tiger strain to reach her shoulder. She moved with the studied motion of a dancer. Placing one foot in front of the other. He turned back in time to notice Ryan making a face at Maggie. Something there, he thought.

"Damn, I wish I were that tiger," said Josh. "

When they finished talking, Ryan accompanied Josh out to his car. "I wonder what that conversation is going to sound like," Frank thought. He decided it was time to get to work. He began by taking a walk around the house. A quick survey would let him reconnoiter the grounds and lower the level of distraction. Frank took a small notebook from his hip pocket and began making maps. Later, he would transfer the information to the maps he brought with him. He noted the placement of trees, gullies, rocks that could shelter a man. He marked where the telephone and power lines came into the house. He estimated the distances to the house and the location of the nearest houses. Next, he'd do a walk-through of the house.

Frank had reached the front of the house. He decided to walk to the gate. He'd reached the end of the drive and was beginning to wilt under the heat. The sun seemed to exert a physical pressure on him. A car shot past like a low-flying plane, breaking Frank's reverie. The way people drove, it was no wonder they had accidents. To his left he noticed what could be a roadside shrine. A Mylar balloon tied to a cross waved back and forth in the slipstreams from passing cars. Flowers and candles were stacked at its base. The collection of objects gave the accident a reality none of the talk had. Frank looked at it for a moment and then turned and walked back down the drive.

There were two outbuildings on this side of the main house. Frank decided to check them and then get out of the sun. The first was clearly a garage. Four bays opened onto a large circular drive of crushed red stone. The doors were all down and locked. At the side an outside stairwell led up to a porch on the second floor. There would be a room or two up there, thought Frank.

He angled over to the other building. The door was locked. Looking through the windows he could see a painting set up on an easel. The was a painting of a woman, her back to the viewer, standing on the water in the middle of the pool looking toward the Chocolate Mountains in the distance. Lines of fire burned along the top of the mountains. Other canvases were stacked against the walls. The next room held computers, guitars, keyboards, and a drum kit. There were lots of chairs and stools scattered around. Microphones stood about the room patiently waiting for someone to return.

He abandoned his tour of the grounds, heading back to the house through the pool area. Two heads bobbed in the pool, Maggie and Susan. Frank considered going up and changing into his trunks. The heat was getting bad. He didn't wear a hat and felt like his head might explode. A slight breeze like that burst of heat you got when you opened a really hot oven swept over him.

"Hey, Frank! Join us!"

"You're gonna burn if you stay out in the heat. The middle of the day you're either in the pool or in the house."

"I may take you up on that."

"Do. We can tell you what's really going on down here. Help you solve the mystery." Susan hadn't shouted that last part. She had only meant for Frank to hear it. Frank glanced toward the house. Johns was moving around in the kitchen. He didn't see Josh or Ryan. Sitting in the game room was an older, white haired version of Ryan. A Hispanic woman was talking to him. Frank guessed she was a maid or the old man's keeper.

"I'll go change."

"Don't change."

"Just jump in we're very informal here at Desert House."

"Very."

"I'm on duty."

He turned toward the house followed by their cries. "Frank! Come back, Frank!"

Chapter 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   

•••

CHAPTER 2: NIGHT

After dinner, Ryan beckoned to Frank and walked outside. At the end of the pool, out of the arcs of light cast by the house windows, they had built a teepee of logs in a clay chimenea taller that Frank that rested in a wrought iron stand. It was all very rustic and authentic. Frank had watched while Ryan explained how to build a fire of the correct size. They stood and watched the flames lick at the wood. A few sparks went up into the air with the smoke. Ryan searched around on the ground until he found a piece of charred and blackened window screen. He bent the edges to keep it from sliding off and placed it carefully on the top of the chimenea. 

“Don’t want to burn down the desert,” said Ryan.  

Then he went into the kitchen and came out with two single malt scotches, doubles. He handed one to Frank and settled down in front of the fire. Flashed his bad little boy smile.

“Bending the rules just a little, Frank,” said Ryan.

Frank sniffed his glass to get the deep smoky smell of the peat. 

“It helps staring into fires,” said Ryan. “They let you see things clearer. You’ll like it out here Frank. Have you ever been in the desert in spring? When we’ve had a good, wet winter, it just explodes with wild flowers. You have to go over the Anza Borrego. Just carpets of wild flowers. Colors just spread out across the land in big sheets.” Ryan turned into the wind, inhaling deeply. “When I moved out here I decided no lawn, no East Coast flowers. I wanted to be true to the land. Now I’ve got white sage, Saint Catherine’s Lace, that’s Orange Blanket flower. I brought in the Joshua trees.”

Ryan started with the basics. The collision on the road: a smash-up off in the near distance from the desert house. Feeling like he was seeing in broken stop-motion, while being helplessly flung around in the screeching, banging confusion of the crash. Then everything was still and you were trying to collect yourself and figure out what you’d just experienced. 

Johns running toward the wreckage spread up and down the highway. Other cars coming through. Survivors being pulled out of cars. The police arrive. People attracted to the accident take photos. People begin disappearing into ambulances, into police cars, into the desert. A Lincoln Town Car, a vintage Porsche, a Jaguar, and a four-door German car—nine people—so much broken metal and torn humans scattered along the road.

People were dead.

“I was driving. I’ve never said I wasn’t. I guess that makes me responsible for some of it. I was going pretty fast. The police couldn’t really say how fast. I didn’t brake so there were no skid marks.” Ryan looked into his glass. Trying to see the accident clearly. “I was just . . . driving.” He seemed to be struggling with something within him and having a hard time of it. “I admit I was going pretty fast. No faster than I usually drive. No faster than anyone else around here drives. I pulled out to pass and a car in front of me started skidding sideways. And then I hit it. Then I was just bouncing around inside the car. Bounced off the airbag. The car is up on its side. And it’s all over.”

Frank didn’t say anything. He was thinking of the little memorial.

“Then it’s people running around and ambulances and police. I just walked out into the desert, ended up here at the house sitting out by the pool.”

“You left the scene?”

“I just needed to get away and process it all. Then I got myself together and walked back down to the car. I hurt my arm. Man that scared me, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play anymore.”

“What caused the accident?”

A look of perplexity on his face, Ryan raised both hands, then let them drop. “You got me.”

“The police must have reached some conclusions.”

“The police report didn’t really say anything.” Frank knew there was a trial coming up and he knew Ryan was facing manslaughter charges for negligence.

Frank was silent. They watched the fire burn away at the logs for a long minute. Then Frank raised the issue of house security. “Can we meet tomorrow to discuss the security setup? I’ve got a list of suggestions from Mr. Seacole. He felt you needed....”

“I’m certain it was clear to pass. And Sohn just appears in front of me out of nowhere. The Sohns were one of the founding familes. Sohn was so respectable, he wouldn’t even talk to Frank Sinatra. If he were still alive and his family didn’t have all the pull in the world, that son-of-a-bitch would be on his way to jail.”

Frank stayed quiet.

“I mean the man has all the money in the world and he’s driving himself around. Cheapskate.” Ryan stopped and ran his fingers through his hair, his head down. “Why the hell did that old fool turn in front of me? It was such a nice day. Such a nice day.” Ryan’s right hand shaped a curve in the air.

In the silence that followed both men finished their drinks. 

“Yeah. We’ll go over the security system tomorrow. Oh, I think Billy is coming down this week. I’m pretty sure I invited him. At least, he says I did. I invite a lot of people down. Billy is just country enough to take an invitation seriously.”

•••

The fire had burnt down to a red glow among the ashes. Ryan sat looking into his empty glass. Frank stood up to stretch. His back to the fire, he looked out into the darkness. He caught a quick, brief movement. 

“Ryan.”

“Yeah.”

“Go inside now, someone’s out there.” 

“Who?”

“Go. Now.”

Frank began moving away from the house to escape its light. Ryan followed him. Frank could feel Ryan behind him. Without looking around, he spoke to him the way you tell a child to do something.

“Go inside now,” said Frank. 

Ryan looked past him into the darkness. 

“This is dangerous,” Frank added. “I will handle it. You go inside.”

Ryan turned and took two steps toward the house. He turned to ask a question. He saw Frank, hand on the gun at his hip, running into the night. Ryan ran for the house.

Frank stopped in the shadows cast by some Joshua trees and tried to stay perfectly still. A large black shadow of some night predator passed soundlessly overhead. People were moving about in the house, but Frank kept his back to it, letting his night vision adjust. Objects were separating themselves out of the landscape. He stood waiting for the movement. There was nothing. Closing his eyes, he focused on locating the intruder by sound.

There were regular movements slightly to his right. Frank stopped doing the silent warrior bit and broke into a run. The footsteps quickened and Frank heard someone colliding with objects in the landscape. They came to a clear spot. Suddenly a figure scrambled, tumbled and fell up the slope before him, making it to the top. Glancing back quickly, the man raised his left arm to the stars and extended his middle finger.

Frank, stumbling through a stream bed full of rounded river stones, put in an extra burst of speed, and, reaching the top, saw a light-colored Volvo SUV pull onto the highway, the arm and its finger still extended, sticking triumphantly from the driver’s window. Frank started to run after the car, which leisurely rolled toward Palm. Frank decided to stop being a fool and ran to the side of the road to get a handful of stones. When the first rock just skimmed the roof of the car, the driver sped up until he was just a pair of headlights moving away.

The walk back to desert house in the cool night didn’t calm Frank. Several cars blew by him, honking rather unnecessarily. Just before he turned into the drive at Ryan’s, a blue Maserati slowed down. Frank stepped back from the road, watching as the car eased by looking him over. Suddenly the interior lights came on and a blonde man and woman looked out at Frank. It wasn’t a proposition or an offer of help. Frank could feel the hate coming from the car. When they finished examining him and letting him look them over, the woman turned to say something to the man. Then the light went off and the car accelerated away with a low growl. 

“I guess I’ve met the Sohns.”

___

ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.

WHAT'S YOUR STORY, MORNING GLORY?
Oleg Kagan

My wife and I are old-timers in our small west Los Angeles apartment building; we have lived here for five years. I know the names of two humans and one dog living in the 15 units surrounding us. I'm told this is normal in the big city.

All in all, we lucked out with this place. When friends complained about their buildings, we bragged about ours. Two things stood out: First, we had our manager, an energetic New Zealander named Margaret with two autistic sons and a zest for gardening. She was competent and friendly, and with her handy husband took care of any issue we had. The second was the building's central courtyard, which Margaret diligently kept tottering just on the charming side of overgrown.

Passing through this courtyard was a daily touch of something simple and artful, like the hummingbirds that hovered around the little bird feeder every summer. Being observant there was always rewarded; leaves, bugs, and birds, changing every day. I grew so attached to the winsome bundle of Morning Glory wrapped around a small bush that I even published a poem about it. Oh, and for years a couple of doves returned there annually for their spring vacation. Tell me, is your courtyard a love nest for birds that coo? Ours was.

Then the owner, an ancient lady whose late husband had constructed the building in the 60s, finally died. Not long after, Margaret's husband began making long trips down south. He had bought and restored a boat, Margaret told us before she and the boys were to depart, so that the family could sail back to New Zealand. What a way to live!

Instead of hiring a new on-site manager, the owner's next of kin decided to personally supervise their new property. Technically, it was the grown-grandson Hank of Podunk, Nevada, who was appointed manager, but I never did glimpse him. This was not so with his mother, Golden Belle, who drove in from Podunker, Nevada to check things out. She was set to stay for a week, but like an obnoxious guest, stayed for five months.

We did not immediately dislike the dumpy, fully-blonde, octogenarian. In fact, we considered the introductory letter she hand-wrote, xeroxed, and tucked into all of our screen doors, amusing. It was written on the dead owner's outdated stationary, had drawings of a lighthouse, the sun behind a couple of skinny, crooked mountains, and was dated "February 1, 2016, year of our Lord". It began "Beloved Tenants," ended "Enjoy your stay," and loosely adopted the metaphor of Golden Belle as "the Captain of our ship," who "reside[sic] on Deck #12". Let it be said that the sailors on deck nine studied her words closely, reading them aloud several times and in different voices.

Despite the enthusiasm of her introduction, it soon became clear that Golden Belle had trouble adjusting to us apartment-dwellers because days after her arrival she undertook to change our ways.

It started with a notice near the building's back exit excoriating the mystery ruffian who'd left a cigarette butt there. The letter ended with the sign-off: "The Bell has Rung!". Next was a note -- topped by the time it was written: 6AM -- reminding us that the "Laundry Room trash Basket is for: Lint only. Not wrappings - towels etc." There was also a drawing of a stinky towel and her now-classic sign-off. Other missives followed and yes, they were all filled with peculiar capitalization, illustrations, and the fervent self-righteousness a holy warrior reserved for the unsaved hordes.

These admonitions were calmly ignored, though it is true that some brave resistance fighter took to adding whimsical doodles and post-scripts to her notes, as well as finding and deliberately planting old cigarette butts near the building's entrances. My ire was not truly awakened until The Bell aimed her puritanical gaze on our lush, wanton courtyard. One morning, about a month into her stay, she waylaid me on the way to my car and began discharging things like "This courtyard is a real mess, isn't it?" "I can't believe we let it go for so long," and "I'm going to fix it." Becoming a murderer occurred to me right then, but I had to get to work!

She spent the next four months wrecking our cherished courtyard with the help of a withered, barely ambulant man (husband? servant? We don't know!), and a bevy of part-time laborers. Even for a novice gardener, she did a terrible job -- chopping down and tearing out established flora willy-nilly with replacements that were pretty much DOA. And then, randomly, I guess she decided that she was done (both with the courtyard and with us) because with nary a farewell Golden Belle got into her old Cadillac and set sail for home.

I don't know what the other neighbors thought of the courtyard situation because we barely see each other, much less communicate. I do know that between Golden Belle's arrival and the sale of the building to its current absentee owner (and faceless management company), the screenwriter downstairs became paralyzed after a fall on the beach, the moody realtor in the second floor apartment across from ours moved out, as did the cute Serbian couple who lived under her. The young ladies, who live adjacent to the couple, graduated from college, and the guy with glasses above them got a roommate. Andrew, an entrepreneur who lives downstairs, participated in a panel at my library and did a good job. Also, the baby belonging to Eric and his wife, who live in the apartment next to ours, turned one.

By the way, when we first moved in, Eric left a green tea Kit-Kat bar from his trip to Japan on our door handle. When I rang to say thanks, he acknowledged that it was actually intended for the school-age daughter of the librarian living beneath us who used to live in our apartment. But he let us keep it, and I respectfully remember his name (though he has surely forgotten mine). The Smokers (everyone calls them "The Smokers") from downstairs continue to have their TV constantly on and smoke with their door open, and a poodle named Kona has moved in next door to us.

I don't know what our neighbors thought of Golden Belle, but anyway, what could we do but go on with our lives? Even the doves came back this year. I should move on, shouldn't I? Let go of things I can't control and all of that. Still, every day I pass the spot where the small bush used to be and I can't just forget that the Morning Glory is not there. 

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OLEG KAGAN is a writer and librarian from Los Angeles. His work has been published in Frogpond, cattails, ROKOKO, Saturation, Phantom Seed, and numerous anthologies. He can be found on the web at lifeinoleg.com.