Kylie Hough

If I’m Honest

If I’m honest, the sky feels different depending on where I stand. You eat chocolate cake before the movie begins. We all want freedom but I am too scared to ask and you are too stunted to know. I have the feelings I have. You label me a conspiracy theorist but I think the parts of you you don’t show sprout wheatgrass. The earth spins on its axis in a matterless universe and I would like to give it up. You don’t talk behind my back and from time to time we meet and embrace like old friends. I converse with dead people. You come to my thing and insist on paying for copy that wouldn’t exist without you. I brush my teeth and smile white foam when I think of you. There’s a space in your chest where my heart used to be before I gave it to the comma. I sign a blank page with the words, For You Love Me, because I believe in something. You don’t have the feelings you don’t have. I read somewhere that to love a thing means wanting it to live. If it can’t be scientifically proven, you won’t leave the bedroom. It’s the way of us, but if I’m honest, the pursuit of liberation is an oarless raft on a flooded highway.

The Problem with Eggs

I told you it works like eggs. You shrugged your shoulders, said you never knew. I thought, there are a lot of things you don’t know about eggs and guar gum and binding and being bound. You insisted you didn’t feel trapped and questioned me about why sex worked like eggs. Not the polysaccharide composed of two sugars whose composition you would have quizzed me on had I given you the chance. Guar gum is frequently used as a food additive in processed foods. I nodded because we were bound and I couldn’t articulate an answer, only watch you chew steak or tune into the voice in my head that whispered I needed the bathroom or to feign a headache or to go outside and shoo the Great Dane defaecating on our front lawn. None of which I did because it wasn’t my turn and if there was anything more to sleepwalking in clingwrap without a compass, I needed to explore it. Yesterday. Like an egg navigates the oiled sides of a wok there was this feeling I got with you. A join consists of two ropes. One lead from you to race, reach, rage toward me. A gypsy unawares. Last year. There was the way I placed you on the top shelf with the strawberry jam and the Jarlsberg. The way you encouraged me. With a look, you took me by the hand and led me up the carpeted stairwell to the waiting king bed. Splice with me, you said and I placed your hand between my thighs. Instead of thickening, though, you split. This is the problem with eggs.

Her Last De facto

Can you see you’re torturing yourself? he said. Yes, she thought and took his right leg and plucked it from its socket much like she would a carrot from her vegetable garden. She stuck it on a cardboard rectangle by a pane of glass beside a wooden frame on the kitchen counter. You’re not thinking of the future, he said and she raised an eyebrow because she was always thinking of how good it would feel to disarticulate him. She removed his left arm with a lurch and placed it beside his right leg. Do you hear yourself? he said, which was strange because all she ever heard was the sound of his voice. He collapsed into a bar stool, with the face of a chastised puppy, and patted the empty space beside him with his remaining hand. She smiled, took his right arm in her left hand and shook it until it plunged pool-like from his shoulder into her waiting lap. I give and you take, he said. She waggled a finger then took a hacksaw to his head. His left leg came away with a tug. She pondered his parts on the counter and poured herself a gin. Pieces of him she arranged into patchwork. You’re mad, he mouthed mounted on the wall, and to a future replete with framed men, she lifted her glass.

Kylie Hough studies Arts at UNE in Armidale, Australia. A Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar, in 2015 Kylie received the Lucy Elizabeth Craigie Award, the Richard B Smith Memorial Prize, and the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She was a finalist in the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction 2018 and is published with Feminartsy, the write launch, Verity LA, and Other Terrain. Kylie is a grateful recipient of a 2021 Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Award Mentorship in Fiction.

Joey Hedger

Paper Teeth

“One day, this old world’s gonna just up and knock out those chompers of yours,” says the self-proclaimed prophet Eloise. “The word of the Lord.”

I push down the “Thanks be to God” that forms in my throat like indigestion. She chews on a cube of ice as if she’s biting glass—a paralyzing sound for me, considering my issue with teeth. I cannot bite ice. Or drink anything too hot or cold. This is likely from my stubborn determination to avoid dentists, a fact Eloise could not have learned without help. But maybe she is not a stranger, and I actually do recognize her as we sit across from each other on the interstate passenger train. She, a dentist or hygienist I have visited in the past. Me, heading back home from Tampa to West Palm Beach. Her, traveling for traveling’s sake, maybe. I never thought to ask.

“Huh?”

“Some people, you can see it like visions. They keep their teeth closed. And you can tell by the way they speak. Others, they’re bound for chaos in the end.”

For years, now, I have been told by dentists that by the time I turned 30, my teeth, if not properly maintained by a plastic retainer, would erode until they become as thin as a sheet of paper. Erode. Like a fading beach. I am close to 30 now, and I can already see the early signs of the prophecy. Yes, thinning. Paper thin.

So recently, to either ignore the forewarning of dental professionals or to live out my days as if the end is near, I have been eating almost nonstop. Snacks. Junk food. Large breakfasts, larger dinners—coupled with entirely irregular meal patterns. Some days no breakfast at all, some days no dinners. Weight gain. Drastic loss. Even here, on this train, I have a half-cleared bag of cashews on my lap.
“How long has she been sick?” asks Eloise.

“Huh? Who?”

“Your mother.”

A handful of cashews comes up to my lips, and I use the pause of my chewing to think of a response. It’s been months, now. Nearly a year. Then maybe she does know me. Somehow. From somewhere.

“You don’t know me, right?” I say, finally. “You didn’t mean anything about that teeth comment?”

But Eloise’s focus has strayed from me to the window beside us. An orange grove slips by, its blossoming flowers dotting the sunny landscape like floaters in our eyes. I did not notice us pass into the orange groves yet—I always try to remind myself to look during this part of the trip. I always want to see these parts of the state.

“Train’s about to stop,” she says thoughtfully. “It stops when I command it to.”

And it does. Just then, the chugging wheels below us slow, and the heavy machine skids to a halt on the tracks, right in time to align itself with the next station on our route. Ah, then. It’s a magic trick, I think. Who’s not sensitive about their teeth? She’s only guessing at when the train stops, at people’s fears of the earth, at my mother’s illness. Only a guess.

The cashews fill my mouth, again, as Eloise gives me a toothy smile, rises, and exits the train. I forget to smile back, as if I was raised with no manners at all. A child, avoiding dentists and chewing with my mouth open.

Blurry Exit Signs

In a pitch-black office outside Washington, DC, an ophthalmologist shines a flashlight into my dilated pupils. With each flick of the light, my backwards eyesight encounters something new. The frontal lobe, possibly. Or the cerebral cortex. A diagram from high school flashes back to me in my vision. Now I nearly see it all in bright pinks and blues and greens to help me memorize the names of each part.

“You don’t box, do you?” she asks, clicking the lights back on, “or regularly get struck in the face?”

“No,” I reply, wondering if she has seen some new bruise, something I cannot find when I look at myself each morning in the mirror. Droopy eyes. Large brows. Irritation wrinkles on my forehead. Yellow teeth. But a nose anybody would kill for. A large gorgeous nose if I ever saw one. At the funeral last month, someone compared it to a beak. A big old bird’s beak. Maybe they lacked the imagination to think further than the taxidermy eagle I had been standing beside. My—well, the deceased loved birds, loved to collect them. Stuff them. Keep them hanging around her apartment like a museum. They brought this eagle out for the funeral, because we could all remember her better with it there.

“I really only came here because I have trouble seeing in the evening,” I tell her. “Like when I’m driving on a highway and the exits further away start to blur. It’s not dangerous, though. It’s just those exit signs that are far up there, that you need to cross traffic to reach. I start to lose my ability to read those.”

“You have a smartphone, right? You can always use a GPS.”

“Well.”

“My concern isn’t your vision, it’s the holes you’ve got in your eyes.”

“The holes?”

“Yes. You have about four in your right one and two in your left. If you were to get hit too hard, they might erupt and leak blood. Which is why I asked if you box.”

The doctor hands me a cardboard container, which I open like a birthday present. Inside is a pair of massive plastic sunglasses I am supposed to wear for the next couple hours. I wait in the Panera Bread below the doctor’s office for my pupils to readjust from the dilation drops. Somebody orders me a coffee, because I must look pitiful sitting there. Alone. In these massive plastic glasses.

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On the drive home, even now, the distance begins to fade. Evening is approaching, my line of sight growing hazy, as if there is a wall up ahead that I will soon hit, an incomprehensible, constantly moving wall.

I can only focus on the immediate to get by. The stoplight blinking yellow overhead. The fire station on the right. Fast food restaurants on the left. A neighborhood sloping downward toward train tracks.

Then, the bird.

It flies in from behind that incomprehensible wall. Hits me hard, right on the windshield and I am swept into a halo of feathers. A falcon, maybe. Or a hawk. Then it drops away, likely into the street. As I slam on my brakes, my eyes drift to the median, searching for the bird. The SUV that has been tailgating me for the past mile nearly topples into my rear bumper, swerves around, indicates another sort of bird—as best as I can guess. I cannot see the driver or his gesture. I cannot find the bird’s body in this dimming evening. So I continue on and pull off into the McDonald’s parking lot.

The cashier must think I’m odd, when she comes out cautiously, approaches me circling my car. Frantically searching for any sign of the bird on my hood or grill or windshield.

“Are you OK?” she calls out. “Do you need . . .”

But I can hear the way she swallows her words. Is it my nose? My wrinkled forehead? My tears? What does she see that elicits this reaction? Surely, I am not so drowned in bloody tears that she cannot see what is going on. The bird. That she cannot help me find it.

Joey Hedger lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he edits for an education association. He is author of the chapbook In the Line of a Hurricane, We Wait (Red Bird) and has stories in Flyway Journal, Ghost City Review, and Maudlin House. You can find him at joeyhedger.com.

Gabe Durham

A Fox in the City

What’s the difference between living on the fringes and seeing yourself that way? Once at the cafe, I was so sure it wouldn’t impact my livelihood that I leaned back in my chair and scooped up the remaining mac ‘n’ cheese of a diner who’d left it behind. My attitude was: try and stop me humans.

I’ve known too many people and now see danger where there’s only interest. I did not get chased out with a broom that time, but these days as I patrol the city, my fox tail perks up as I pass tables where I am not even a patron: Taco stands wafting their smokers in daylight. Families on their porches. Somehow they see my hunger and rightly fear my bite.

New People

My dear old friends have nothing on new people. I don’t even know if what a new person is wearing is an outlier or the usual. I want to wow new people with charms they can’t tell are stale, even if I’ve got to cram those charms into conversation through an impression or a song or a quiet dig at dear old friends. There’s a mischief in me new people should see.

To draw in new people, I lower my voice and tell them vulnerable secrets my dear old friends could never handle, or already know, or who cares.

Have you ever noticed how many stiff drinks new people sure can put down? My dear old friends have been taking care of themselves lately, playing the long game, but not new people. I love the smell of cigars I hate the smell of wafting from the yellow lips of boldly dying new people.

I love seeing new people commit unforgivable offenses so I can keep their secret from the cops, proving my loyalty. When new people declare the most horrible things, it reflects on me not at all. I did nothing wrong! Nothing but chant

do it, do it, do it, do it, do it

to a new friend man who should not have done it, and is now in the ER becoming less interesting by the moment, receiving vital fluids from a nurse who while new shuts me down with her eyes as if a dear old friend.

Gabe Durham is the author of three books, including a novel in monologues, FUN CAMP (Publishing Genius, 2013). His writings have appeared in the TLR, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles where he runs Boss Fight Books.

Peter Grandbois

The Hole

He didn’t notice the hole until he was nearly finished painting. But there it was. A large hole in the middle of the wall, three feet by three feet. How could he not have noticed it? He approached the hole and peered through. On the other side lay a field of flowers where a bearded man lay naked, sleeping. What made it odd was that the hole should have led to his living room. Odder still was that the man’s reddish-brown beard nearly covered his entire body like a blanket, shifting and shimmering as the man breathed. It looked almost as if it were alive. He reached his arm into the hole and touched the undulating blanket of a beard. Just as he suspected. Ladybugs. Thousands and thousands of ladybugs. He called to the man, but the bearded man didn’t stir, not the slightest shift in his long, deep breaths. Breaths that made you feel as if you could float away on them. Breaths that could carry you to the cusp of clarity.

He tried to shake the man awake but only succeeded in attracting dozens of ladybugs to his own arm. He scooped one up with his index finger and studied its red shell, counted its spots. Seven. He flicked that one away and scooped another from his forearm. Seven spots again. He checked another, and another. Each one with seven dark, black spots atop that same blood-red shell. He scraped off the rest and watched as they scattered in all directions on the tarp he’d laid to catch the paint. His breathing stuttered. His chest clenched. He had a brief thought that perhaps he was having a heart attack. But no, there was no pain. Just a tightness in his chest. And those seven spots and that red shell. He found himself singing a nursery rhyme he’d learned as a child:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the
warming pan.

Where had that come from? And what happened to Little Anne? Nursery rhymes were never very nice. He ran to the closet, plugged in the vacuum and attached the turbo head to the multi-function hose before the bearded man had scarcely taken another breath.

Standing before the hole, holding the hose in his hand, he watched the ladybugs crawling and strutting over the man as if they owned him. He would let them know he was here. He. Was. Here. He turned on the vacuum and plunged the turbo head into the shimmering mass. They flew by the hundreds through the clear multi-function hose and into the belly of the vacuum. There were so many he worried the machine might clog. But it kept dutifully sucking. Sucking. Normally frugal, he wouldn’t have purchased a top-of-the-line vacuum, but something had compelled him, some premonition of this day, and he was thankful. For now he could see layer upon layer of ladybugs piling up in the clear plastic holding container. Returning with relish to the hole, he plunged the turbo head into the writhing beard over and over again, alternating glances at the vacuum to monitor his progress.

It was only when the overfull vacuum sputtered and died, and he saw that the beard of ladybugs was still unchanged, that he began to panic. He took handfuls and handfuls of the little creatures and shoved them into the turbo head. But they just crawled out and over him. He brushed them onto the tarp. And that’s when he saw it. The ladybugs had arranged themselves in seven large spots on the blood red tarp. The tarp had been white, hadn’t it? He was sure it had been white. Maybe the paint had spilled on it. But no, he’d been painting the walls taupe. Except that the walls of the room were also red. He could see that now. He’d been painting them red all along.

He took his brush and dipped it into the paint can, then painted over the ladybugs forming one of the spots on the tarp. He drenched them in paint, but it didn’t matter because as soon as he’d moved to paint the next spot, more ladybugs climbed on top of the painted bugs in the first spot, turning it a bottomless black once again. He kicked the paint can over and watched as the red paint slowly bled out over the ladybugs on the tarp. He turned to the hole, watched the man lying there deep in sleep, felt the man’s breath sucking in and out, in and out, as if the hole were a mouth. And now the ladybugs were spilling out of that mouth. He had to fill the hole, or at least cover it.

This time, he returned from the closet with duct tape. Tirelessly, he stretched the tape back and forth across the hole in long strips. Just one small patch left to cover, and it would all be over. He tugged on the roll of tape, but only a few more inches remained. Not enough. Still, he applied it religiously, hoping somehow it would do the job. When that failed, he slumped back against the wall, head adjacent to the tiny hole that remained.

One by one the ladybugs crept out of the hole or up from the tarp and onto his face, forming a long beard that undulated over his body as he drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming of a hole he could fill in or cover up so as never to disappear again.

Peter Grandbois is the author of eleven books. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over one hundred journals. His plays have been nominated for several New York Innovative Theatre Awards and have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is poetry editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio. You can find him at www.petergrandbois.com.

Thaddeus Rutkowski

“Get A Life”

While riding my bicycle, I see a man step into the street in front of me. I swing around him—I don’t slow so he can pass. He sees me roll close, and when he is within earshot he says, “Get a light.” Either that, or he says, “Get a life.”

I’m in a hurry. I have a twenty-minute ride before I get to the bridge. It’s dark already, but my red taillight is on. I can’t see it, but it must be blinking in a steady strobe pattern, warning drivers to stay back.

The man couldn’t have seen my taillight—he’s wrong that I need one. As for a life, maybe I need to get one. Maybe I should find a way not to have to ride my bike everywhere, in daylight and darkness, in good weather and bad. Maybe that’s what this ticked-off man was trying to tell me.

I come to an intersection where the avenue forks. I want to go straight, but doing so would mean cutting in front of any vehicle behind me. The traffic lights don’t work in concert here: The green shows on one side of the street before it signals “Go” on the other side. I roll ahead anyway, but when I reach the median, I can’t go any farther. Traffic passes in front of me, so I end up in the middle of the street, in a traffic lane. A package-delivery truck comes up beside me, and the driver yells out his open door, “Red light, man!”

A woman rolls toward me, ringing her bell. She’s working her handlebar button frantically. “Get out of my way!” she yells.

A man on a bicycle passes me from behind and heads toward the woman. When he gets next to her, he reaches out and says, “Wrong way!”

“Don’t touch me!” she says.

Minutes later, I hear the squawk of a siren behind me, then see the blue and red lights of a police car. I hear through a loudspeaker, “Pull over,” but I don’t think it means me—there are plenty of other vehicles on the street.

I make it about a block before the police car comes to a stop ahead of me.

I ride my bicycle around the cruiser, and it quickly gives chase. “Stop right there,” the driver says through his open window.

I park on the street as the officer approaches. “You went through a red light,” he says. “Why did you do that?”

I have no doubt I ran the light, but I don’t know why. Maybe I was looking for oncoming traffic, not at the light. But I don’t want to start a conversation. Any exchange might seem rude, and rudeness would lead to arrest, detainment, and penalty.

“I didn’t realize I went through until you told me,” I say.

“Do you have ID?” the officer asks.

I must not be responding quickly enough, so he says sharply, “ID! Ten hut!”

I come to attention and give him my driver’s license and a card with a photo.

“Do you have two licenses? Is one of these fake?”

“No, one is not a license.”

“Wait here,” he says as he gets back into his car.

Rain is falling as I step onto the sidewalk. My bike balances on its kickstand. Cars pass the police car obediently.

I’m sure I’ll get a ticket, not only for running a red light, but for responding to an order too slowly. I’m guessing the fine will be hundreds of dollars. I could appeal, but I would have to go to court. Which court would that be? Does the local traffic court have a bicycle division? Will the judge be on my side? The cops won’t change their story, and the judge might think that everything a cop says is true.

The arresting officer returns and says, “Your record is clean, so I’m letting you go.”

I stop at every red light on the route to the bridge. I have to cover about three miles before I reach the ramp. The traffic lights slow me down, though I’m still in a hurry.

On the bridge, there are no intersections. I cannot be stopped for proceeding illegally. But the hill is steep. I pedal slowly as I approach the first platform. I almost cannot move forward, but I don’t stop. Near the top of the ramp someone has painted graffiti on the pavement: “Sarah2, Marry Me,” with a superscript “2.” I don’t know what the “2” means. Is this the second Sarah to receive a proposal? Or is she Sarah Squared? Maybe she is a super Sarah. On the other side of the peak, sadder words are spaced at even intervals: “Entropy,” “Self-Obsession,” “Mediocrity,” “Boredom,” “Conflict,” “Revolution.”

I’m coasting fast as I approach the exit, faster than the cars in their lane beside me. I squeeze the brake handles, then release them. I do not use the “death grip”—the motion that would engage the brakes at the risk of my life. The path narrows as I come to the street. I have to get through a space in a wall and ease over a bump. When I pass through the last obstacle, I will be more or less home.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Anthony Schneider


She Was Not

She was not to stare, not even at helicopters or albinos. She was not to yawn in public or cough loudly or chew a chicken bone or break a pencil with her teeth.

She saw a car on fire at the side of the road. She could tell it had not been burning long. There was no smell. A few people watched the blaze. She rode away on her bicycle, and the explosion that she expected did not come.

She was not to smile with any teeth showing. She was not to drop anything, she was not to turn on a light switch without holding her breath to the count of three. She was not to turn off a light switch without first untying a shoe, then immediately afterwards stepping through a doorway and retying the same shoe, or if she was wearing a slip-on, taking the shoe off and then putting it back on. She was not to wear miniskirts or plunging necklines or flip-flops. She was not to show her toes.

She was not to use the word nice. Or hate. She was not to eat rice and broccoli, not even rice pudding, in the same seating.

She was not to cry in public, or remember things that might make her cry, not in the company of others. She was not to talk about the mess we’re in or how bad things had gotten, or divulge when last she spoke to her father. She wondered what she had to learn from whales, trees, small children. She wondered what she wanted. And whether she would recognize change.

She was not to be the loudest, or the last to leave, or the first to speak. She was not to point, she was not to linger, she was not to eat with her mouth open, or burp or fart audibly or sneeze more than twice in a row. She was not to drive over railroad tracks without both feet raised, even when she was driving. She was not to be visibly sweaty, she was not to be dirty or have newspaper ink on her fingers.

She kissed a boy. He bit her tongue. She made an excuse the next time he asked her out.

She spoke to her father on the phone. But when he came to town she said she hadn’t been feeling well and suggested she visit him instead, the next month maybe, or the month after that.

She was not to ask too many questions. She was not to look at anyone askance, especially not men. She was not to braid her hair. Or sing in the shower. There were no roads leading home. There would be no Armageddon.

She was to talk to him, to be civil. She was to comport herself if she saw him. She was not to set fire to anything, no matter how small. She was not to let herself wonder, even for an instant, if she might be better off if she had stabbed him with a steak knife, rather than let those things happen. She was not to bite her fingernails until they bled.

Anthony Schneider has been published in McSweeney’s, BoldType, Driftwood Press, Details, The Believer and other magazines as well as several fiction anthologies. His novel, Repercussions, is published by Penguin South Africa and Permanent Press in the US. He divides his time between New York and London.

Robert Garner McBrearty

The Story of Your Life

The fellow sitting next to me at the bar said, “I went through some rough times. You ought to write the story of my life.”

“I will, John,” I said, ‘I’ll do it right now.”

In those days, I always carried pen and paper with me, and as John told me his story, I wrote: John Springer was born in a small town in Ohio. His father passed away when he was fifteen, and his mother shortly after, and nobody figured out that John was living in the old house alone. He ate what was left in the fridge, and then he turned to cannibalism. He first took down his neighbor, Joe, across the street…

John leaned in. “What do you got so far?”

I read what I’d written and his eyes widened. “This is all wrong. I wasn’t born in Ohio. A cannibal!”

“It’s interpretive, John. This is the descent part. You need the descent before the redemption.”

“You son of a bitch! You’ve made a mockery of my life!” He threw his drink in my face and struck me. We grappled at the bar as I tried to ward him off. The bartenders forced us out on the street. He went off howling down the block. “You’ve ruined my life!” he shouted.

“Come back, John,” I cried. “I love you. I love your life!”

But he went on, bellowing in outrage. Since then, I can’t stand to be alone. I want to tell your story.

Robert Garner McBrearty’s short stories have been published in The Pushcart Prize, Missouri Review, North American Review, New England Review, and many other places, including flash fictions in Opium, Eclectica, Flashfiction.net, and Lowestoft Chronicle. As well, Robert has published three collections of short stories and most recently a novel, The Western Lonesome Society. He’s worked at many different jobs, from dishwasher to college teacher. For more information about Robert’s writing, please see www.robertgamermcbrearty.com.

Zeke Jarvis

Las Vegas

The bum approaching the businessman is covered with grime. He’s wearing an awful lot of clothes for this heat, but everyone knows that bums like to layer. The bum smells terrible. It could be sweat or puke or garbage, knowing the bums here. The businessman that the bum’s approaching looks towards this wretch with his eyes only, keeping his face turned towards the other side of the intersection. The bum mumbles something about spare change, and the businessman shoots back, “Get a job!”

The bum straightens himself. “Look Buddy, I’m a Viet Nam vet. I fought for my country and now they fucking spit on me. You all fucking spit on me! Spit on me and shit on me and leave me to die.” The bum whirls around, pointing at nobody in particular. “I can’t get a job, they won’t let me get myself together. What am I supposed to do?” His voice breaks and he falls to the ground.

There’s silence. Then the businessman laughs and a family a little way down the sidewalk applauds. “Shit is a word you shouldn’t say,” the mother says to her son, but she smiles and gives his shoulder a little squeeze.

The bum rises, smiling, and bows to the family. The businessman hands the bum some money and the family sends their child over with a dollar for him. The bum thanks them both and wobbles a little bit for the child. He belches, softly, and the boy laughs.

“That was good,” says the businessman. “Were you really in Viet Nam?”

The bum folds up the money and stuffs it into a pocket of his innermost shirt. “Nah, it was a little before my time, but I did have an uncle who fought there. Terrible business.”

The businessman nods. “You pulled it off well. Do you have any cards?”

“Cards?”

Just then, the mother from the family interrupts. “Excuse me. Do you think our son could get his picture taken with you?”

“Sure,” the bum says, smiling. “Do you want me to look defeated or menacing?”

“I have to go,” says the businessman, “but I enjoyed your work. If you had a card… or a website, even, I could hook you up with some clients or coworkers who are in town at conventions.”

The man smiles again. “Vegas is a wonderful town for that. I don’t have a card, but I generally work around this casino.”

The businessman nods. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, Sir. Now was that menacing or defeated?”

“Oh,” says the mother, “menacing, please.”

The bum leans in over the child and glowers. The child begins to moan and whimper. The bum relaxes a bit. He points to his shoes, from which his big toes stick out. He wiggles the toes and the child smiles. “Sorry,” says the mother, “We’re from Wisconsin; he’s not used to this.”

“That’s fine,” says the bum, looking now only slightly threatening as the mother takes the picture. “That’s just fine.”

Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in 4 Chambers, Petrichor Machine and Moon City Review, among other places. His books, So Anyway… and In A Family Way were published by Robocup Press and Fomite Press.