The Good Stuff

062. Hitching a Ride with Kerouac. Michael Slagle

Last night I dreamed I hitched a ride with Jack Kerouac, stuck my thumb skyward on old U.S. 6 heading west when the old beat angels themselves, Jack and Neal, show up Benzedrine dialoguing and pounding bop rhythms on the vinyl dashboard to a blaring radio and Neal slams on the brakes of the rust colored ’49 Hudson and whoops out Jack’s open window “yeah, yeah, yeah, hop in, man.” We race through the rural midnight fishing the static for the next in-range station and slugging down cheap red wine from a jug passed back and forth until the lights of Cleveland detonate the darkness then cast us again into the flat shadowed fast lane. I’m startled awake in a window booth of an all-night trucker’s diner which is – per the map on the placemat beneath my cold coffee and un-eaten fried eggs – just on the Indiana side of the Ohio border.  My head pounds to the atonal cacophony of clanging pots and utensils of the night cook’s breakfast prep.  He acknowledges my stirring with an unsympathetic nod. My 10-year-old Honda Civic glares at me from the empty parking lot. So much for the romance of all-night drives, old man.

061. Kafka in Place. William Doreski

Kafka seated at his desk in the insurance company. He’s shuffling important papers, valuable papers, contracts and the dreary reports of actuaries. His salary could support a family, but although he has been engaged to several women, he’s too tubercular to marry. He lives in his fiction, his secret undertone. He writes many letters to family and friends, who feel his sour breath lofting over Prague. The days pass like kidney stones. Kafka’s stories pile up in little heaps of angst and existential dismay, although the word “existential” would puzzle him. He coughs a lot, but so do most people in this damp gray city. Still, that’s good enough reason to call him “Kafka,” rather than the more familiar “Franz.” He doesn’t know that Edmund Wilson will dismiss his work, preferring the graces of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He doesn’t know that his friend Max Brod will preserve his corpse in amber. Those of us who have been to the penal colony and survived that hideous machine, that cosmic bloodletting, appreciate Kafka’s attempts to clarify.  Those of us who have suffered the knock on the door, the desultory interrogation, who have confessed to whatever doesn’t need confessing, accept his blocky little worldview. In memory of his fragile sincerity, we cough up blood and spit it on the sidewalk. Let the post-ward paradigm and all its casual erasures be thus infected, dying at home in bed.

060. Fairy. James Hancock

Jill knew she shouldn’t be looking in her mother’s jewelry box, but she couldn’t help herself.  There were so many pretty bangles, sparkling earrings and…  ooh, what’s this necklace?  Jill lifted the string of pearls and held it up in wonder; her attention immediately pulled away by the object the pearls were hiding.  A small tin sat in a velvet pocket.  Jill put the other treasures aside and wiggled the tin’s lid free.  There were six tiny teeth inside, each with a dried red scratchy end, just like hers had been after they’d come out.  Jill ran her tongue over and between the new teeth in her mouth, and thought about the ones she’d lost over the last three years.  She’d lost six teeth.  What a coincidence.

Since her mum was preoccupied with bleaching the toilet, Jill took a tooth, popped the rest back where she’d found them, returned the jewellery box to the vanity table and left her parents’ bedroom unnoticed.

All moments of genius come from careful planning, and Jill used the rest of the afternoon to devise her foolproof strategy.  An hour before bed, she held a folded piece of tissue paper in her mouth and showed her parents the tooth from the tin.

“It was wobbly and has just come free”.  Jill sniffed a fake tear for dramatic effect, and her parents gave her a hug.

Under her pillow the tooth went, and sure enough there was a shiny pound coin in its place come morning.

Later the next day, Jill crept into her parents’ bedroom and looked in the jewellery box again.  Opening the same tin there were six teeth inside once more.

“I knew it,” she whispered.  She took one; carefully placing the tin back whilst her mother was out of sight, busy hoovering the stairs.  Jill realised what was going on, and truth be told, had questioned the true origins of the coin under her pillow.  This was all the proof she needed.

Pushing guilt aside and deciding on a long-term plan, Jill prepared her saddest face in the vanity table mirror.  Bottom lip pushed out and tears welling in her eyes.

“I think another one is loose,” she murmured.

She was a great actress and knew it.  She closed a tight fist around the tooth and grinned a wicked grin.  If she played this carefully, she could make a lot of money.

059. When Angels Fly. Alison McBain

Angels make an impression in the snow, but they are merely an outline–the shadow of a presence. They have no substance to fill them up.

Men have substance. Snowmen, that is. Big, fat and jolly. Only their tar-black eyes are hollow. Blindly staring past the mistakes they make. They are the last to melt when spring comes, slowly dripping down until they look like old bones.

By then, the angels have already flown away under the newborn sun.

You flew away long ago, but I wouldn’t call you an angel. Lord knows, you aren’t. Night after night like a record player cycling through static, our raised voices danced through the air in a violent samba. The neighbors with their open windows in the sweltering summertime shook their heads at our antics.

Children, they said with their mournful forty-year-married eyes. This too shall pass.

It didn’t pass. Instead, you packed your swanky suitcase, every crumpled-up shirt another word in your argument. My silence was a loud rejoinder; the slamming door a semi-colon.

You’ll be back, I said.

I said it into the phone. I said it in person, handing over the touristy shell lamp I always hated, the Metallica CDs from the glove box, the mesh belt with the frayed edges that had dropped to the closet floor. When others stopped listening, I said it to myself–the words repeating in my head like an old vinyl.

When the first autumn wind blew the leaves into a rainbow of rusty colors, I felt a chill flare in my chest. I pulled out the woolen sweater you had given me for Christmas, held it across my face and felt warm again.

When the snow fell in January, the angels didn’t come back.

Outside, the trees were dead. Their skeletal fingers reached out from the brown ground in a sign language of reproach. Everywhere, I heard your final words, and everywhere, I heard my response.

They became tired of listening to me. I filled that silence now, but they were never the right words. Those words were lost back in the summer.

It snowed. Every day, it snowed. I knew I had to do something, so I went outside and made a snowman. I rolled up the snow until I brought up bits of gravel and grass still green under the protective layer of white, so I had a Dalmatian man spotted with the detritus of summer. I told him you would come back, but his eyes were empty.

When the snow finally stopped falling, I told myself that it didn’t really matter to me at all.

058. Good Morning. Tony Rauch

A crowd gathers outside your window. You lie in bed, listening to the strange gentle murmurs. You sit up, sigh, and stare at the floor for a while, still listening.

The stirring murmur is alluring – a beautiful, lacy, silky breeze with quietly dynamic waves and independent streams and undercurrents crossing one another. . . . then even more transparent layers of waves on top of even more layers of waves.

Another morning.

Finally, you get up and peek through the curtains to see what the weather is like.

There are tons of them out there again – people bunched up, waiting for you, more appearing from behind houses and cars in the distance, each walking this way. A few are standing on cars or climbing trees, some already sitting on branches, waiting.

A man spots you peeking. He points and calls out, “There! In the window!” and everyone begins cheering.