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By Jessy Randall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul’s First Kill

By John Grey

He said it seemed like a good idea at the time.

His father hunted so why shouldn’t he.

And the old man never did lock away his shotgun.

Besides, what other purpose did the surrounding woods serve

than to provide targets for sharp eyes and steady nerves.

 

No, it wasn’t as if he was being threatened.

The creature was a raccoon sleeping high up in the fork of a tree.

His first shot missed altogether.

That furry bandit stirred but not quickly enough.

The second and third shot hit it in the head.

The corpse dropped at his feet.

 

He’d never seen anything dead before.

Blood oozed from the side of the head.

Dark eyes stared unblinking at the barrel of his gun.

Does it have a family, he wondered.

And what about a soul?

 

The dead raccoon was his guilty secret for a whole seven days.

The way his face mobilized so pale and furtive,

his mother knew something was up.

His father didn’t notice however.

He didn’t once check on his rifle to see that it had been fired.

 

His mother finally grabbed him by the shoulders,

shook his body until the lies spilling from his mouth

couldn’t help but speak the truth.

He was burning with shame

while she trembled in fear.

“You could have killed yourself,” she said angrily.

It was no doubt a reproach

but, for a moment there, it sounded like an instruction.

 

___

John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Examined Life Journal, Studio One and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Leading Edge, Poetry East and Midwest Quarterly.

Within a Frame

By Jeanine Stevens

            Photo of Jean Cocteau by Man Ray 1922

 

Skin shines over thin knuckles.

A young Jean peers through an empty frame.

 

Smart suit of clothes expertly tailored,

collar starched polar white, so bright it must be new.

 

Hair fluffed high with pomade, I detect

expensive cologne,

yet a solemn expression

perhaps to discount his idle nickname:

“The frivolous prince.”

 

On his left wrist, a twisted string,

one of those devices to remember which day it is,

which appointment to keep, when

other Bohemians, his coterie of friends,

will meet at his favorite bar,

Le Boeuf sur le Toit.

 

In the blurred background, bust on a pedestal,

nondescript, an unknown face

a prop?

Is everything in art intentional?

 

Perhaps shadow to his persona; hidden brilliance

creating a “beast house”

where door knockers grimace and latches grin.

 

I saw La Belle et la Bête around 1979.

Is this the same young man who designed

screaming keyholes, animated portraits?

 

___

Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento. She has advanced degrees in Anthropology and Education. Her second poetry collection, Inheritor, was published by Future Cycle Press, 2016. Recent winner of the WOMR Cape Cod National Poetry Competition and the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award, 2017. She just received her fifth Pushcart Nomination. Poems have been published in South Dakota Review, Pearl, Evansville Review, Valparaiso Poetry Journal, Forge, Rosebud, Verse Wisconsin, Stoneboat and others. Jeanine also enjoys collage and Tai Chi. Raised in Indiana, she now divides her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Winter Coat Tinged Platinum

By Jeanine Stevens

  South Lake Tahoe

 

To the city yard for sand bags to plug

the hole where the raccoon dug under the cabin.

Between flurries, a walk in the pines.

 

Ahead, 100 yards, a coyote crosses the road,

fluffy white, yellow, gray like a big blond fox.

I stop, raise my arm in salute

not sure if this is a right gesture.

 

Watching, turning

toward me, a long time.

 

(Something familiar, head and shoulders foreshortened

like the giraffe pictograph, the Fezzan,

North Africa, 100 B.C.

Same stance, hesitation,

no threat, something beyond,      curiosity?)

 

I look back to see if I’m being followed.

No.

He trots on, probably to trash bins

behind Safeway,

winter coat tinged platinum,

curved back mimics

Mount Rose in the distance.

 

Later, sitting by the woodstove snapping cedar,

what to make of contact with topaz eyes,

wild fur, the edge of things?

I think artifact

look at my Washoe basket, buck saw,

map of prehistoric game trails.

 

The cabin warms; ice chunks slide

from the tin roof.

On the Tamarack, a Red-headed woodpecker

chisels out another unwritten code.

 

___

Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento. She has advanced degrees in Anthropology and Education. Her second poetry collection, Inheritor, was published by Future Cycle Press, 2016. Recent winner of the WOMR Cape Cod National Poetry Competition and the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award, 2017. She just received her fifth Pushcart Nomination. Poems have been published in South Dakota Review, Pearl, Evansville Review, Valparaiso Poetry Journal, Forge, Rosebud, Verse Wisconsin, Stoneboat and others. Jeanine also enjoys collage and Tai Chi. Raised in Indiana, she now divides her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Ornate Persona

By Jeanine Stevens

Bow lips burnished bronze, lids violet or sable,

Is face the body’s icon? colorized

flesh: blue, red, black,

eyes swimming in gold flecks?

 

On stalwart stems, face of the rose

rests her head above threadlike roots,

black tangles resembling witches’ hair.

 

The real body—turbulent, defiant.

In grief, feelers find their way to epidermis

—wince, sunken eye, pursed lips,

universal grimace,

universal prosopon.

 

A mystic once said, “Wear a mask too long,

find you have no face.”

 

The ornate Venetian: Salome, Scaramouche,

Capricornus— how many years will they last,

peeling, sloughing through time?

 

___

Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento. She has advanced degrees in Anthropology and Education. Her second poetry collection, Inheritor, was published by Future Cycle Press, 2016. Recent winner of the WOMR Cape Cod National Poetry Competition and the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award, 2017. She just received her fifth Pushcart Nomination. Poems have been published in South Dakota Review, Pearl, Evansville Review, Valparaiso Poetry Journal, Forge, Rosebud, Verse Wisconsin, Stoneboat and others. Jeanine also enjoys collage and Tai Chi. Raised in Indiana, she now divides her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Firestorm in the House of Birds

By Jeanine Stevens

 Coventry Cathedral

 

Blistered pinnacles rise from the perimeter,

shattered, yet delicate as mica.

Like up-ended swallows tails they elongate, reach

toward the sun.

Inside, puddles of rain reflect

a collage of shreds, war’s fallen flock.

 

And I am back in 1940 with parishioners

on wooden pews for song, then

Sunday lunch and later,

near the radio for the weekly newscast.

Another cloudburst creates

a dazzling mirror image

in the gutted grater; glittering glassine

embellishing the earth.

Resting under a lintel, I consume

my sack lunch, grateful

for cheese, bread and hard green apple.

 

I recall recent attempts to blow up gods

and deities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Not so easily shattered—

do they patiently wait

for a new a plinth, a new cornerstone?

 

Leaving, I note a raven’s nest

high on a damaged spire—birds watchful,

birds in no hurry.

 

At the exit, souvenir pin, a cross—

twisted nails salvaged

from splintered beams.

 

___

Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento. She has advanced degrees in Anthropology and Education. Her second poetry collection, Inheritor, was published by Future Cycle Press, 2016. Recent winner of the WOMR Cape Cod National Poetry Competition and the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award, 2017. She just received her fifth Pushcart Nomination. Poems have been published in South Dakota Review, Pearl, Evansville Review, Valparaiso Poetry Journal, Forge, Rosebud, Verse Wisconsin, Stoneboat and others. Jeanine also enjoys collage and Tai Chi. Raised in Indiana, she now divides her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Caught Summer

By Jeanine Stevens

  ~a Cento

 

 

People are forever leaving Proust

behind in summer cottages.

 

I sit in my suntan oil alone,

a jay chirks news of impending drouth.

But under my feet as I tan,

a light brown paisley made of seed wings.

 

Parallels of color

on bare canvas of time-by-the-sea.

Fishes float with new-repaired scale.

 

Linen-clean

the air… serpentine

swipe of the sea.

 

A smoky rain batters the panes

of the shore hotel and the hope-for summer

chills and fails.

 

The summer people sigh,

“Is this July?”

 

And next summer they find

someone else’s Proust

in the new place they rent

 

Caught summer

…always an imagined time.

 

 

 

From: Roy Blount Jr. “Summer and the Reading is Easy.”

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, “The Sweet Season.”

Mona Van Duyn, “The End of May.” May Swenson,

“Flag of Summer.” Richard Wilbur, “My Father Paints the Summer.”

 

___

Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento. She has advanced degrees in Anthropology and Education. Her second poetry collection, Inheritor, was published by Future Cycle Press, 2016. Recent winner of the WOMR Cape Cod National Poetry Competition and the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Award, 2017. She just received her fifth Pushcart Nomination. Poems have been published in South Dakota Review, Pearl, Evansville Review, Valparaiso Poetry Journal, Forge, Rosebud, Verse Wisconsin, Stoneboat and others. Jeanine also enjoys collage and Tai Chi. Raised in Indiana, she now divides her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

12 Selected Poems

By Simon Perchik

*

As if a rope, half bone

half pulled from your chest

the way this dead branch

 

tells you everything then closes

though the wood won’t burn

–so many things are made from doorways

 

and she was left inside

with nothing to sit on or a stone

that will fall by itself, broken off

 

to die alone, whispering goodbye

for two and this dirt not yet

just another hole that weighs too much.

 

 

*

You don’t read how weak it was

though this wind torn composition book

steadies its lettering for afternoons

 

the way beginners wave their arms

making room for the Honor Roll

mixed with stone, not yet the pages

 

–these dead are used to it :words

put together by a still warm crayon

and you too no longer move

 

leave them nothing except an after all

in writing and on these sheets

hillsides to fit inside your name

 

holding it between your fingers, higher

and from the struggling dirt, over and over

making mountains, clocks, emptiness.

 

 

*

You caress this dust as if it’s stuck

drains under ripples and sap though all goodbyes

keep warm in a dark lake at sunset, reek

 

from varnish, hunted down by small stones

by dying wood and from the rot

and enormous rain paws the scent open

 

the way she once stood still –the room

is familiar, shattered by lips, cheeks

–as for you it’s just another door

 

somehow dry, no longer the one by one

you leaned against then left behind

away from everything, both hands at once

 

and yours is the only loneliness still leaving

–what you smell is when she first came in

and stayed without turning her head.

 

 

*

You walk past as if the first death

was a bird –enormous feathers

half stone, half outworn, one by one

 

though they still need more time

could calm these dead, spread out

airborne, older than the number 10

 

than this hillside letting its small footsteps

fall standing erect, frightened

–you come here to listen for eggs

 

for echoes, for brothers, sisters –it’s useless

flying so close, wing tip to wing tip

till a moon is all that’s left

 

bringing you its black, covers you

already one hand on your shoulder

counting your fingers out loud to 0.

 

 

 

*

It’s a simple thing, you weep

and though your eyes are silent

they don’t reach –what you see

 

is your heart covered with stones

that have no mornings either

except far off where all mist starts

 

the oceans are grieving on the bottom

holding down your forehead

–so easy a flower could do it

 

say in its face-up way, Leave!

there will be no more kisses

and from your mouth all Earth

 

overflows, becomes lips and distances

–that’s why nobody asks you

lets you imagine you see her clearly

 

knitting a blanket, a white one

rusted needles in both hands, you

walking by, already thorns, roots.

 

 

 

*

Exhausted, on its back the sun

–from so far, brought down

by its unbearable weight

 

not sure it can be lifted

cool, become the moon again

and without stopping, listens

 

for the darkness, holds on

to all that’s left –you look for her

as if every night is mixed with mud

 

and mountains not yet ashes

though you can make out her shoulders

still warm in this enormous silence

 

split in two, growing hair

and lips and flowers, holes

madness and nothing else.

 

*

So many dead! let this pebble find her

and its own never ending emptiness

to guide you through these graves

 

–you almost hear her undress, far off

half matted hair, half as if each cave

is filled with echoes –bats are good at it

 

shoulder to shoulder the way your shadow

wing over wing is uprooted, worm eaten

no longer the whisper between your fingers

 

and her breasts –such a small thing, a pebble

coming in low, brought down by a death

left standing, holding fast to lakes

 

oceans, sleep –you sleep on the ground now

alongside weeds and her comb still warm

from edges, corners and mornings.

 

 

*

It’s a struggle though your legs

inhale the vague heaviness

walking around your heart

 

no longer breathe out

or lower you to where the night

comes down from the ceiling

 

as dirt mixed with silence

and wood –you’re too weak

to walk the streets –the dresses

 

are empty and your skin

takes in too much air

would float the way a plank

 

is salvaged from a shipwreck

to make a likeness, a clearing

you can fall on and her shoes too

 

will dry –you sit on this bed

as if both pockets are stuffed

with waves, rocks and further apart.

 

 

*

This carpet dropped at your feet

welcomes you though every path

is due a clear reason trailing along

 

–speak up! spread out, walk

the way great oceans break into foam

just to count while every one here

 

is devoured trying to go on

as an endless shoreline –we know why

with our fingers reaching up

 

you turn your head –louder! talk

as if these leaves will never dry

are waiting for you to make a sound

 

that’s not another number

added to ours –for you silence is enough

but we too have a mouth –tell us how

 

draw out a breath that will have a place

as if nothing happened –every death

is named for you, isn’t this enough.

 

 

 

*

You point as if your shadow

dug its way out, cools

surfacing at last in a darkness

 

once melted down for rain

and one last time

though it’s your finger

 

splitting open the Earth

lifting it from the bottom

that’s no longer a morning

 

covered with mud

and distances, has your legs

your arms, your eyes.

 

 

 

*

What you still carry to bed

is this water coming from a well

icing over, masks your cheeks

 

and though there’s no pillow

it’s your mouth that’s melting

filling the hole where she used to sleep

 

–in such a darkness say what you want

this sheet took the white from your eyes

that look at nothing but walls

 

–you are washing your face with a room

emptied out to freeze her half

where there are no mornings left.

 

 

*

Only slower, that same song, word by word

lowered into your coffin each evening

forwards at first, then backward

 

for some off-center memory kept smoldering

but why the blanket –face to face

you can hardly tell it’s a lullaby, a voice

 

still warm, tucked into your crib from a tree

that’s lifted from the bottom, covered

with doves stuffed with darkness –try

 

listen the way you once did

though this fairy-like hush finds you

again on your back, jumping and running

 

and under the soft mud some vague happiness

is coming to an end –try! at least remember

the mouth that opened over the wood and ate.

 

 

___

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by box of chalk, 2017. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

Who Was Gregorio Cortez

By Dee Redfearn

hree weeks after the Fourth of July, the people of Realitos settled into their customary niches, all except for Chu Cho Gonzalez Cortez. He stood on the curb, watching a cobalt-blue wagon lolling toward Main and First. The wagon had seen better days. Frayed gold tassels fringed each corner. The yellowed cover advertised a sideshow, stenciled in bold red print: Tea remedies, readings by Tillie, a Gypsy dancer, and more. Although unable to upstage the flatbed that followed, the and more boggled Chu Cho’s mind, a mind much in need of sobriety.

Moby, the Fish was scrawled on corrugated cardboard in red letters and attached to an enormous crate. The truck traveled slowly; its motor hummed with the weight it hauled and drew a crowd. A tarp, not quite large enough to cover the sides, cloaked the tank that held—what? Two men stepped up to help with the unveiling, then backed off with what they saw.

This was the first time Chu Cho, or anyone else in Realitos, had seen a whale. A 1,200-pound, 11-foot calf whale stared at him through the glass. Not quite believing the stare was meant for him, Chu Cho looked over his shoulder. Suddenly he took center stage. It felt like one of those rare moments when man, drunk or sober, ready or not, comes face-to-face with his fate. Sensing that half the town stood gawking, Chu Cho turned.

“What…?” he said.

What a magnificent creature of silver-gray fish skin and a ribbed belly of perfect symmetry. The eye darted this way and that before their gazes locked.

“Que loco,” Chu Cho said and backed away.

Barabbas, the name tattooed on the truck driver’s arm, cleared his throat. Cartons of shrimp and squid, packed in dry ice, lay near his feet. He said the boxes had been shipped from Port Isabelle, where the whale had been transported from Baja, then lifted by helicopter onto the truck. Somehow the calf had gotten separated from its mother. A pod like hers (according to marine science calculations) was due to cross the Gulf of Mexico at the end of this week. Barabbas had inherited the job from his cousin, a marine biologist, who had arranged Moby’s release near Corpus Christi Bay. Everyone watched while he explained his mission and set up an elaborate contraption plugged into a generator that kept water circulating at a certain temperature. For a creature so enormous, so full of life, the whale looked listless, floating in the tank of murky seawater.

“Did he say they had to get her there in time to meet up with her kind?” someone nudged Chu Cho and asked. He shrugged.

“How can that happen? Someone’s really got to know what they’re doing. And be lucky.”

The man on his left moved in for a closer look.

*   *   *

“That’s it, folks. Take a good look. Harmless, you ask?” Smoke streamed from Barabbas’s lips as he spoke. He flexed his muscle to expand the tattoo on his bicep. “Now don’t let that high-pitched tone scare you. She’s just singing a fish song, of love maybe, yearning to get back to the deep blue. Maybe she just needs company.” He took off his cap, whose band read, “Save the Whales.” He held it to his heart before passing it around.

“Ladies and gents, you obviously know how much shrimp cost.” He eyed the crowd. “Or maybe you don’t. In either case, reach down into your hearts and help Moby out here.”

To view a whale was a first, let alone pass the hat to save one, unless this cause was for Barabbas to jangle a bit of change in his pocket; some had seen his kind before. No le hace. It didn’t matter; he might be sincere. Some reached into their pockets; some shook their heads before walking away. The clinking of quarters and pennies blended with the clanks and clunks of Chu Cho’s rake and hoe that he tossed in the trunk of his car. He was late for work, but he turned back to have another look and to toss in a quarter.

“Hey, you.”

Chu Cho pointed to himself.

Barabbas nodded. “Don’t forget the show. Eight o’clock tonight. Be there.”

*   *   *

The and more had lingered. Not knowing if it was Moby or the Gypsy woman that lured, he found himself in front of the cobalt-blue wagon at eight sharp. Whatever the reason, the Gypsy woman did not disappoint. Her plump stature was as unfit for the small stage attached to the wagon in back of the truck. People gathered around her wagon to watch.

She wore a black satin skirt, a jute blouse secured at the waist with a purple sash, and gold earrings. Gypsy’s face was staged to attract: cheeks powdered, hair hennaed, nails painted. She fingered cymbals that blinged with each bang of her hips and inspired applause and intermittent whistles. After the crowd thinned, several passed by the tank, eyes cast down, as if viewing a casket. They plunked pennies, quarters, whatever change they had into Barabbas’s hat.

Chu Cho took a swig. He looked at the crowd before turning his attention toward the tank. He blinked his eyes; Moby appeared blurred. He staggered in the direction of a light that caught his eye, and somehow he ended up in Gypsy’s tent. He was there out of curiosity, out of a need for company, or just out of not wanting to face another immense night alone. He’d never had a reading and couldn’t imagine that a reading could last the night. But it did. He remembered vaguely the word “adventure” whispered, and the queen of hearts turning up repeatedly, and so it went. Embarrassingly so.

*   *   *

Going about minding his own business, the garbage man saw, or thought he saw, Chu Cho leave Gypsy’s tent at five in the morning. And more, he saw Chu Cho kiss the tank; that’s right, kiss. The morning sun would stoke embers of speculation that made ears blush: Some would say Chu Cho was in love. But who with? Gypsy woman? A fish? Rumors started at dawn. Things that happened in and around the cobalt-blue wagon created a spark in the otherwise dull town of Realitos.

What had really happened that night? Had Chu Cho spent the night in her bed? Had he really kissed a fish? When all was said and done, the state of affairs sounded unbelievable, even unnatural. When someone flat asked him, “Que pasó, Chu Cho?” he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, remember.

*   *   *

That night, the click of a lamp was the last thing Chu Cho heard.

“Where the hell am I?” Chu Cho opened one eye and then the other to find his head nestled in a cushy set of pink teats. “Oh, my God.” He eased himself away from the heat of Tillie’s body and drew the cover to his chin. “Is it night?”

“No. It’s 4 a.m.”

“What happened?”

Hand to mouth, Tillie yawned. “Relax.”

How? he thought but didn’t say. Here he lay in a tent beside a woman he hardly knew. She could well be a thief or worse. His mother had warned him of Gypsies when he was a boy. They steal children, she had used to say, and have their way with them. And here he was in bed with Tillie, a Gypsy. Good God. He must have been desperate. Chu Cho, who never wore a watch, checked the wrist. “Where does the time go?” He reached for excuses. “Aha, poor Lucy. I’ve gotta run.”

“Lucy who?” Tillie’s brow knitted into a worried look.

“Lucinda, my goat. If I don’t milk her, well,” he gestured, “it’s horrible.”

Tillie sighed, a deep, rather pitiful sigh, and upon release allowed her coverlet to slip from one shoulder.

Chu Cho shut his eyes. Upon slowly opening them, two exposed mounds of pink flesh presented themselves, with attentive nipples. Chu Cho stared hard at the freckle on Tillie’s shoulder.

“My love,” Tillie began, “ju are wonderful, and funny.”

“I’m funny?” he asked, making the effort to keep eyes-front. Really?

“You sing, you dance.” She continued, “Oh, yes. You’re a hopeless romantic, Chu Cho. Last night, you professed love.”

“Professed? Did I say profess?”

“Not exactly.” She tilted her chin in his direction.

“No, no way am I funny. Funny’s not me.”

“Well, I think you are my copita de miel. In a very charming way.”

“No, no, no. I’m not charming. I’m, I’m”—he scratched the back of his head—“I’m a drunk. Ask anybody. I drink. A lot. And look.” He reached for his threadbare khaki pants, wadded and tossed on the nightstand. “What sort would wear pants like these?”

“Ju,” she smiled.

He reached for the first thing he could find to cover up—a crocheted tablecloth.

She gave his shoulders a gentle push. “Ju, stay right where you are. I will brew you a cup of mint tea.” (The thought of mint tea sounded nauseating.) “No sugar, of course,” she added. “Ju are sweet enough.” Wrapped in her coverlet, sarong-style, her enormous hips rhythmically bounced from side to side. Her legs, a pair of oversize ninepins, couldn’t possibly find balance on such tiny feet in black slippers, but somehow she managed.

“Oh, God,” he said and laid his head in the palms of his hands to ease the throbbing. Last night when she danced in her purple sash, with her earrings dangling and finger cymbals jangling, she had looked pretty good, but in the cold light of day…

“Listen, Gypsy, the first thing you need to know is that in Realitos there’s nothing to do but talk, talk, talk. Better to pretend nothing happened. Deny, deny, deny—what happened to happen didn’t happen. You know? People talk in small towns.”

“But why?”

Chu Cho drew a blank. “Because,” he began, “…because there is reputation to consider. I’m not thinking about myself, but you’re a woman, a single woman.”

“Chu Cho, who cares what people think?” she said.

*   *   *

In a way, she was right. Of course, his mother would have cared, were she alive. But she wasn’t, and who was he kidding? He had no friends. Most of his buddies were dead and gone in the war. The fact that he came back from Nam was not a pleasant thought. So at night he drank. He hated doing things he regretted later, but here he was. He couldn’t even remember if he’d reduced himself to a brute, forcing himself upon this poor woman.

“That’s it. No more. No more booze.”

“Chu Cho, you’re so hard on yourself. You’re not at fault. Practicality is. I have but one bed; the reading took longer than expected. It was late, and you were drunk as a skunk.”

“Drunk?” Chu Cho sat straight up. “How drunk?”

“Plenty drunk.”

Maybe he was too hard on himself. Maybe being drunk wasn’t so bad. His mother would have disagreed. She had expected more from him. He’d played the cards he was dealt. Things hadn’t worked out for him, that’s all. It does for some, and for others, well, others stay in Realitos, Texas, and never know the difference.

“Chu Cho, I have something to tell you. You are a perfect gentleman. For forty years I’ve been saving myself for someone like ju.”

“Someone like me?” The compliment was nice, but the source—well, face it, had the evening called for gentlemanlike behavior? Had he given her the wrong impression? Possible. But what could he say not to lead her on and, at the same time, to get himself out of this mess? He had to think, think, think. He grabbed his pants off the side table. How could he speak harsh words in a gentle manner? This woman was, after all, nice in spite of herself.

“Maybe,” he began, measuring his words, “we should cool it. Take our time. What rises fast, falls quickly. In thinking about myself, I, too, have been saving myself.”

“Oh, Chu Cho, that’s a sign.”

“A sign?” The only sign he could think of was the one attached to the cobalt-blue wagon that he remembered to read: and more. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign not to start something we can’t finish.”

“No. No, no. Quite the contrary. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take a chance.” She pulled a silk, fuchsia scarf out of nowhere and ran it across his face. It smelled of lavender and felt smooth, like a healing balm.

“Oh my God, Lucy, and my work. I can hear the grass growing.” He checked his wrist. “Ha, I’m late.” He stood to maneuver into one pant leg, then the other.

“But the tea.”

“You drink it.” He buttoned the first and last button of his shirt, threw open the flap of her tent to check that the coast was clear.

He looked from side to side to make sure the lot was empty.

He passed near the tank. Moby’s listless stare drew him to her. “It looks like you’ve had better days. Yeah, me too. I had no business staying the night, I drank too much, and I don’t feel like going to work.” He felt sorry for this beautiful creature and felt something more he couldn’t put into words. “Look at me.” Moby’s eye met Chu Cho’s; he pressed his forehead against the plate glass. “Look at you, a big fish in a little pond like Realitos. That’s something.” Pressing his head against the tank, he felt the coolness, and against his cheek, the smoothness, and closer still, his lips felt the cold and smooth glass tank.

What the hell was he doing? A 36-year-old man kissing a fish. “Loco. Plain loco.”

*   *   *

Chu Cho eased himself into his chair, which featured a well-defined imprint of his rear in the center of the cushion. The furniture stood exactly where his mother had left it. Even the dust hadn’t stirred, with the exception of an occasional paw print left by Princess, his cat, who strolled at will, her powder-pink nose turned up and lower lip turned down as if something smelled bad. He sat where he always sat to stare and think. He would sleep it off and work later. He clicked his TV on and got up to adjust the rabbit ears. He would show up to work around three. He didn’t want to be too late, like he always was, or not show. Frau Beiterman had been kind to him to hire him as her yardman. She’d hired him in spite of his long hair, which she disapproved of, and his hip-slung britches, which she thought disheveled. But when she checked his driver’s license, she saw his photos. A man who carries a picture of his mother in his wallet and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe couldn’t be bad, she said and hired him on the spot. It was too early to go to work and too late to sleep. But sleep overtook Chu Cho, and he pulled a no-show.

*   *   *

His mother, God rest her soul, had always wanted him to be responsible and to marry well. Who you marry is important in life, she had said. Chu Cho was glad he’d never had to face that decision. He hadn’t particularly wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Poor bastard, always hoping for some opportunity to help him get off the treadmill of life in Realitos, always in hopes someone or something would come along to set him free. Chu Cho remembered hot summer nights when family and neighbors gathered like chicks at his father’s feet, listening to him strum “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” on his guitar. Whoever the hell that Cortez was—a cousin, his father had said. Who knew? Everyone in Realitos claimed any relation that had achieved success or notoriety. Gregorio was known for shooting a sheriff. Hero? Bandito? That depends on who was telling the story.

Chu Cho’s days were passable. It was night that gave him the willies. This night was no exception. He had slept straight through work, and he roamed the streets of Realitos wearing a crumpled felt hat and threadbare khakis wrinkled like an accordion. Chu Cho passed the San Jose Church, crossed himself, pressed his cheek to a nearby lamppost, and hummed “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.”

“Who the hell was Gregorio, anyway?” Chu Cho hiccuped and smiled, pleased to hear his own foul words. “Quien erda, a quién chingo? O lo chingaron?” Humming, he tried to remember the words: “Then said Gregorio Cortez, with his pistol in his hand, ‘Ah, so many Rangers, just to take one Mexican.’”

*   *   *

Bits and pieces of corridos and stories, that’s all that was left. Nothing remained of his family but cairns over hard dirt. Gregorio had been remembered (by at least one man, Chu Cho’s father) as someone worth remembering. What was there left to remember about anyone in the Cortez family, whether named Gregorio or not? Nothing, man, the answer was nothing. Like his war buddies, scattered piece by piece God knows where. And for what? For what? He took a swig and, trying to hum the tune, unzipped his fly, saluting the daisies while he attended to his civic duties. “Chingos,” he said, watering the daises and half-forgetting that he stood in front of the church.

High-pitched sounds pierced the night, like a blues trumpet. It was Moby. Chu Cho leaned his head back, took another swig, and returned Moby’s yelp, with a grito straight from the heart. He’d miss Moby; miss the excitement of something new happening in Realitos. He’d miss having anything happen in Realitos. Which made him think of Gypsy. What had happened between them, anyway? There was a soft light in her little tent. Even if nothing had happened, something could have. He’d met an okay Gypsy woman, who wasn’t all that attractive, but she wasn’t a thief either, and she didn’t steal children. Nearing the tank, Chu Cho answered whale clacks by clicking his own lips. Air spewed from the top wire that protected the tank, and Moby barked a few trumpetlike yelps. The spray cooled his face. He could smell the brine of the ocean, an ocean he hadn’t seen in years. The Gulf wasn’t far, fifty or seventy-five miles. But for some reason he, like everyone else in Realitos, never strayed from home.

Moby’s fish song was as lonely as the ocean, with its unimaginable depths and its shimmering surface lights reflecting phosphorescent life below. Beneath that darkness, always the abyss, the unfathomable. He leaned his head against the glass tank and thought of the dark abyss. Moby didn’t move; her eyes were, in fact, half shut. “You don’t look so good. Where the hell is Barabbas?”

“Barabbas! Barabbas! Donde estás, cabron?

“What is going on?” Gypsy stuck her head out the flap of her tent. “Chu Cho, what are you doing? It’s late.”

“Look here. This big fish don’t look so good. Why?”

“He’s been on one of his binges.” She pointed under the truck. “And it could go on for days.”

“Days? Moby doesn’t have days.”

“It’s worse than that. Moby doesn’t have food.”

“What?”

Gypsy pointed. Barabbas was sprawl-eagle under the truck, empty boxes of shrimp strewn hither and yon.

“Where’s Moby’s food?”

“He sold it.”

“Sold it? What for?”

“For fifty dollars, I think.”

“Pendejo.”

“Worse. He didn’t give me my share.”

“Oh no, Gypsy. You’re not in on this scheme, are you?”

“Maybe it’s not such a good idea, this caravan ride I’ve been on where he gets all the money; I get all the problems. But it’s business. I have a horse to feed. And no money to even buy the old mare a decent headpiece plume.” She pulled the fuchsia scarf from her bosom and dabbed her eyes.

“Don’t.” Chu Cho put his arm around her shoulder. “You don’t have to be with his kind.”

“What’s left for people like me?”

“Anything is better than this, Gypsy. Never forget that.” Chu Cho looked at Barabbas snoring his foul-breathed snores. “Come on, Gypsy. Help me out here.” Chu Cho grabbed the inebriated body by one boot and Gypsy by the other, and together they dragged Barabbas out from under the truck. Chu Cho felt fire in the pit of his gut, out of control, burning. He grabbed Barabbas by the collar.

Bastardo, have you no sense of responsibility? Have you no soul?” Chu Cho shook him till he let out a moan.

“Forget it. He’s out for days.”

“Moby doesn’t have days.” Chu Cho felt his jaws tighten and his fists clinch. “You self-centered, sanctimonious son of a bitche.” He shook him harder. “Who do you think you are, strutting into town like you own the place? Like you own Moby. No one owns anyone. Not that way.” He dropped Barabbas, who lay unfazed with a smile on his lips.

Chu Cho stuck one hand in his hip pocket and brought the other to his head. “Think, man. Think.” He leaned against the glass; Moby’s eyes were closed. “Hey, in there.” He tapped the glass tank. “Do you hear me?” His bottle of whisky lay on the ground. He looked at Moby, then back to Gypsy. Oh, great; a loser, a slacker, and a near-dead fish. Who was the least desirable was up for grabs. He picked up his half-empty bottle and tossed it. The bottle shattered. He leaned his head against the tank. “Oh, man. Oh, man, Moby. You know what? Life is a bag of shit. And try to get rid of a bag of shit. You know what you’re left with?”

“Chu Cho, you’re so hard on yourself.”

“Shut up, Gypsy. Let me think.” Through the glass tank, he heard the slightest bleep, like a submerged submarine, or like a heart monitor before flatlining. Maybe there was time. Maybe there was a way out. Gypsy spoke up.

“You could drive Moby to the Gulf.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You’re crazy. I can’t drive that big truck.”

“You know how to drive a truck.”

“I drive a pickup. A ’52 Chevy pickup.”

“It’s practically the same.”

Chu Cho hopped onto the fender and peered in the truck’s front window. A mass of gearshifts sprouted from the center console like a crop of goldenrods. He jumped down.

“It’s not the same.”

“Well, what’s so hard? There’s got to be a first, second, and third gear somewhere. Chu Cho, try.”

“I guess I could.”

“Yes, yes.” Gypsy rose on the toes of her ballet slippers as if she might twirl; she clapped her hands instead.

“Could I? Could I possibly move this chingos of a flatbed to the Gulf, crack open the crate, and let the force of the water plunge Moby into the Gulf of Mexico? Hey, Moby, you could be a wetback.” He grinned. “Yeah.” He walked toward the truck. “Wait a minute. Wait one minute.” He stopped. “Let’s be practical. So, I give it a go. So I get the damn truck on the highway. One wrong move, and the police stop me. Red lights blinking, sirens blare, y toda la cosa. One look at me, you know what they’ll say. Marijuano! Smuggler. Where, pinche cops? The whale’s belly? they’ll say. Crazy. This plan is crazy, Gypsy. It will never work.”

“What if it does?”

“What if it doesn’t?” Chu Cho scratched the back of his head. “What can be more crazy than the truth? ‘I’m doing the right thing here, Officer. I’m transporting a whale. Yes, in the back of my truck. Some shithead brought it to Realitos en route to the Gulf to meet up with a marine biologist, but he stopped. He stopped to make a buck. Now the whale needs to go home. So let me do what I have to do, Officer.’ What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, Chu Cho. That sounds wonderful. Maybe you’ll get a medal. Maybe you’ll get a police escort.”

“Maybe. Now where the hell are the keys?” Gypsy shrugged. “Oh, great.” Together they scavenged through the driver’s pockets and cargo bags. Nada. They combed the ground near the empty boxes of shrimp. Nada. Chu Cho hopped on the fender and looked into the window on the driver’s side. Moonlight struck the dashboard, and Chu Cho reached in and flicked the key ring full of dangling keys. No excuses now. He jumped into the front seat.

“Chu Cho, wait.” Gypsy hoisted herself on the fender and pursed her lips. Chu Cho, eyes rolled upward, leaned closer to her. “I wanted to say…” She hesitated. “Something happened,” she said and pulled him closer still. She kissed him hard on the lips.

He smiled, hit the ignition, and listened to the engine rev up while he adjusted the side-view mirror and his felt hat. Through the mirror, he could see Gypsy waving her fuchsia scarf, looking a bit forlorn. What did she expect? He was a man with a mission.

“Hang in there, big guy. Don’t give up,” he shouted.

Hearing the slosh of water and a few weak whale yelps, Chu Cho tapped on the rear window. “What do you say, Moby? Let’s go for it.”

___

Dee Redfearn is an honors graduate of the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program in fiction writing, where she was nominated for Best New Voices in 2003 and 2004. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Willow Review and North Dakota Quarterly. She was also published in Vol. XXIII of Green Hills Literary Lantern and more recently in Under the Sun where her essay “The Camino” was nominated for Best American Essays. Dee is a finalist for the New Letter’s Fiction Award.

Damning with Faint Praise

By Lenny Levine

t must have been a hundred degrees in the auditorium. Michael Trowbridge, sweating bullets under his robe and mortarboard cap, strained to hear what the principal was saying. He didn’t want to look like an idiot and miss his name when he was called to the stage.

His friend Ralphie wasn’t helping, trying to tell him a stupid joke about someone giving advice on what to say on a blind date, whispering in his left ear.

“So the guy’s buddy says, ‘You’ve gotta compliment her, right off the bat. You’ve gotta say something nice to her as soon as she opens the door.’” Ralphie giggled in anticipation of the punch line, as Michael desperately tried to ignore him.

“Well, he gets to the girl’s house and she’s ugly as sin, a real porker. I mean, grotesque to the max. But the guy remembers his buddy’s advice, so he says, ‘Hey, you don’t seem to sweat much for a fat girl!’”

Ralphie cracked up laughing as the principal intoned, “And the winner of this year’s award for Perfect Attendance is…Michael Trowbridge.”

“Way to go, genius!” said Ralphie, slapping him on the back and cracking up again.

Michael stood and made his way down the aisle, to the feeble clap-clapping of his parents in the balcony. His fellow graduates watched him impassively as he gingerly mounted the steps to the stage, trying not to trip on his gown and humiliate himself for all eternity.

The Perfect Attendance Award. He’d never known such a thing existed until this morning, when they told him he’d won it. Now, here he was, forced to stand in front of everyone, right along with the Science Award winner, the History Award winner, and all the other brainiacs.

He’d been lucky to even graduate this year. If the gym teacher hadn’t taken pity and given him a B, bringing him up to the required C average, he’d be getting ready for summer school right now.

The principal gave him the plaque and shook his hand, barely glancing at him. Michael took his place between Phil Gennero, the Math Award winner, and Jane Sadowski, the Economics Award winner. Phil Gennero had never spoken a word to Michael before, but he did now.

“They say success is just showing up, so I guess you’re the proof of it.”

Jane Sadowski chuckled softly.

Michael’s face reddened. He looked down at the plaque he was holding and saw that they’d spelled his name “Trobridge.”

He wanted to cry.

Then a thought occurred, unbidden. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?

He had no idea where it came from, or what it meant. Did it have something to do with the dream he had last night, the one that yanked him out of his sleep at two a.m.?

Usually, he remembered nightmares, at least for the first few seconds afterward. But he’d forgotten this one as soon as he opened his eyes. He was wide awake and sitting straight up in bed, unable to go back to sleep and unable to shake a feeling of impending disaster.

The principal was introducing the valedictorian now, a tiny, birdlike girl who seemed almost swallowed up in her gown. He lowered the microphone for her, stepped aside, and she began her speech in a whispery voice.

It was about learning to think independently. Michael barely paid attention, still wondering what he was doing there, feeling like everyone was secretly laughing at him.

The girl was speaking. “And just as you must ignore people who discourage you, you must doubly ignore people who praise you.”

Michael felt a twinge of unease. He didn’t know why, but it made him start listening to her.

“We all love praise,” she went on, in that whispery voice that was starting to sound creepy, “but praise is like candy. It tastes so sweet, you want more and more of it, until you can’t get enough.”

If he was sweating before, now it was pouring out of him. He blinked, trying to clear his vision as the vast auditorium in front of him began swimming before his eyes. What was happening?

“But inside each delicious morsel of praise is a tiny grain of poison. You can’t taste it, but it will fester within you and slowly eat away your soul until it dies.”

Michael fainted.

*   *   *

He lay on a cot in the nurse’s office, a tube running into his right arm for hydration, as his parents stood over him.

“Leave it to you,” his mother said, “spoiling that poor girl’s moment.”

She was an obese woman, whose body practically eclipsed his father’s slight frame as he stood behind her. Ralphie sat across the room, one hand over his mouth to hide the smirk.

“Come on, Edna,” said his father, “it was the heat. Give him a break!”

“I’m sorry, Bill, but he’s always looking for some way to call attention to himself, and it’s not right.”

“He wasn’t trying to…”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“Listen, everybody, I’m fine,” said Michael.

He’d been out for only a second, and he’d immediately tried to get up. But the principal had insisted he lie there until the nurse could come to the stage and examine him, completing his mortification.

“One thing’s for sure,” his mother declared, “you’re calling off that stupid band rehearsal tonight and staying home.”

Ralphie’s smirk vanished. “Hey, no, please, Mrs. Trowbridge, don’t make him do that. We’ve got a manager coming to see us, and…”

“Don’t worry, Ralphie,” Michael interjected, raising his head from the pillow. “We’re not calling off the rehearsal tonight. No friggin’ way.”

“You watch your mouth!” said his mother. “Just ’cause you graduated high school doesn’t mean you get to use foul language.”

“Sorry, Mom, but we really do need to rehearse tonight, especially me. And incidentally, I’m fine.” He looked up at the bag attached to his arm, wishing the nurse would unhook him already, so he could get out of there.

After a few minutes, his wish was granted. She came back into the room, checked his blood pressure and pulse, disconnected the IV, and pronounced him good to go.

“Great!” he said, grabbing his cap and gown, his diploma, and the useless award they’d given him. “Let’s rock and roll!”

But he still didn’t know what came over him on that stage. And he still didn’t know why he had this feeling that something awful was about to happen. Or worse, that it already had.

*   *   *

They called their band The Plug-ins. Ralphie played drums, their friend Steve Philbart played bass, and Michael played guitar and sang. They basically sucked, but he didn’t care. As embarrassed as he’d been during graduation, that’s how liberated Michael felt whenever he was in front of a microphone, croaking out Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi songs off-key on open-mic nights.

The audiences either ignored them or shouted rude remarks. It didn’t matter. Michael would close his eyes and, for a few brief moments, become the Boss, sending a packed stadium into a frenzy.

Last night, maybe because graduation was the next day and they’d been distracted, their set was particularly sloppy. As they were packing up, a short, stocky man wearing a brown suit and a toupee came up and introduced himself as Harry Magnus. He handed each of them a business card that read Magnus Management: We Make Music Legends.

“I’ve seen lots of bands,” he told them, “but I think you guys are something special. If you don’t mind, I’d like to turn you into superstars.”

He claimed to have been instrumental in the careers of such artists as Sting, John Mayer, Bruno Mars, and many others.

“Now, I know you’re gonna Google me, and you’ll think I’m full of shit because you won’t find anything at all. But that’s the way I work, behind the scenes. Deeply behind the scenes.”

“So,” Ralphie asked reasonably, “how do we know you really aren’t full of shit?”

“Because I’ll prove it to you. How would you like to open for Joe Walsh this Saturday night at the Rock Palace?”

“What?!” they said.

“I can do it with a simple call. And I will. Check out the ad for the show in tomorrow’s paper and you’ll see your name there, right under Joe Walsh.”

The three of them nodded slowly.

“In the meantime, I’d like to come to a rehearsal, give you a few pointers. Where do you guys get together?”

“Steve’s parents’ garage,” Michael said and instantly regretted it. This man could be crazy. He sure sounded like he was. Michael wondered if he should’ve told him even that much.

“What’s the address?”

Steve gave it to him before Michael could say anything. The man wrote it down.

“When’s your next rehearsal?”

“Tomorrow night,” said Ralphie, “but this gig you just got us, if it’s real, is only two days away. Do you think we’re ready?”

“Oh, you’re ready,” the man said with a smile. “See you at the rehearsal tomorrow night.”

He shook hands with all of them and departed.

“Wow, how about that?” Ralphie said.

“How about nothing,” said Michael. “This is ridiculous; the guy is certifiable. We’ll check out the paper tomorrow morning, and that’ll be the end of it.”

But unbelievably, in the Friday Entertainment section, there it was:

 

Saturday, June 5th, at 9 P.M., The Rock Palace Presents

An Evening With Joe Walsh!

Then in smaller type, but not much smaller:

 

Special Added Attraction, The Plug-ins!

 

*   *   *

They told no one. They’d agreed to secrecy in hurried whispers as they got ready to march down the aisle with their classmates. If anyone happened to notice the ad in the paper, there was nothing they could do. But most people didn’t even know what their band was called, so they probably didn’t have to worry.

That night, when they got together in the garage, Michael told them he might have figured out what was going on.

“Obviously, there’s another group called The Plug-ins. I mean, it’s not impossible, right? That ad has been in the paper all week. When he noticed our band had the same name, he decided to prank us. I’ll bet if we check yesterday’s paper, we’ll see the same ad as today’s, with our name included.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” said Ralphie, whipping out his phone.

But they couldn’t find any ads for the show in the online version of the paper.

“Shit, we need to find a print version,” said Michael.

“I think I may have one,” said Steve, moving over to the back wall. “My parents always stack the papers and recyclables here in the garage. Wait a minute.”

He rummaged around briefly and came up with it. “Yes!” he said.

The others peered over his shoulder as he turned to the Entertainment section.

The ad referred only to Joe Walsh. No mention of The Plug-ins or anyone else.

“Hey there, guys!”

Harry Magnus was standing in the open garage doorway. He seemed to have just appeared there. They’d been so intent on finding the ad that they hadn’t seen him walking up the driveway, even though it was long and straight, and the exterior lights were on.

“I see you have some pretty crappy equipment here,” he said, stepping inside and looking around. “Not to worry. You’ll have a state-of-the-art setup tomorrow night.”

Michael was the first to find his voice. “Can I ask you something, Mr. Magnus? Why are you doing this? We’re not nearly good enough. In fact, we suck. Anyone who hears us knows that immediately.”

“You mind if I close this?” asked Magnus, reaching up and pushing the button that shuts the garage door. “There, that’s better.”

He stood with his back to it, facing the three of them.

“I know what you think of yourselves. But it’s only because you haven’t begun to work with me yet. It will all change, you’ll see.”

“By tomorrow night?” Michael said.

“Sooner than that. Pick up your instruments and play something for me. Anything.”

Ralphie moved behind the drums while Steve and Michael put on their bass and guitar. They spent a few seconds tuning up, a process that was mostly successful and as close as they usually got.

“What are we gonna play?” Steve asked. “Something Springsteen?”

“Let’s do ‘Dancing in the Dark,’” Michael suggested.

Ralphie counted it off and they launched into it, much faster than the count-off. It immediately became slower, then faster again.

Michael closed his eyes, stepped up to the mic, and let it rip.

I get up in the evening (flat on the last two notes) and I ain’t got nothin’ to say. I come home in the morning (the same two notes now painfully sharp) I go to bed feeling the same way. I ain’t nothin’ but tired…

Steve tilted his bass and whipped his head back to make his hair fly, playing several wrong notes and not noticing.

Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself. Hey there, baby, I could use just a little help…

Ralphie had stopped playing at this point. He was bent over, trying to retrieve one of the sticks he’d dropped trying to twirl it. He picked it up and then did the same with the tempo.

You can’t start a fire, Michael rasped, as Ralphie pulled ahead of him. You can’t start a fire without a spark. This gun’s for hire…

“Okay, stop!” Harry Magnus called out.

He strode across the garage to the drums and stood over Ralphie. “Look me in the eye.” Ralphie blinked and then did as he was told.

“You’re an empty barrel, Ralphie; all you do is make a lot of noise. But not anymore.” Ralphie blinked again. “I’m going to turn you into Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood, and Ginger Baker, all wrapped up in one.”

Michael wondered how he knew Ralphie’s name. They never told him their names, aside from the one reference to Steve’s parents’ garage.

“Give me your sticks, stand up, and move away from the drum set, please.”

Ralphie, with a shrug to the other guys, complied. Magnus sat down at the drums.

“You’re going to watch everything I do,” he said, and suddenly Ralphie was mesmerized.

“Good,” said Magnus.

He then proceeded to play the most incredible drum solo they’d ever heard. It went on for several minutes, with explosive crescendos and intricate polyrhythmic figures. His sticks were a blur, flashing from cymbals to snare to toms and back again with blinding speed, his feet pounding the double bass drums like artillery fire. It concluded with a crash that rattled the garage walls.

“There,” he said, standing up and returning the sticks to Ralphie. “Now sit back down.” Ralphie did so in a daze.

“Steve,” said Magnus, turning to him, “you’re not going through a very good time right now, are you? It’s tough when your parents are getting a divorce.”

“Holy shit, Steve,” Michael blurted out, this being news to him. “Is that true?”

It was news to Ralphie too, but he was still in a trance.

“You feel like you’re alone in the world,” Magnus went on as Steve gaped at him, “because all your parents care about is their hatred for each other. It really sucks, doesn’t it? The only thing that gives you any pleasure at all is that bass around your neck, the one you play so godawful shitty.”

Steve nodded meekly.

“But that’s all in the past, Steve. You’re going to become an amazing bass player, right up there with the greatest musicians who ever played bass. Give me your instrument, please.”

Michael would swear he never saw Steve take off the bass. It seemed to float from his shoulders into Magnus’s hands. “Don’t look away from me,” he said, and Steve instantly became a zombie like Ralphie.

Magnus began playing a funk figure, making the strings pop with percussive sounds, moving to an unexpected chord change and back, laying down an infectious groove. It morphed into a Motown-style bass line that would have been the rock-steady heart of a sixties mega-hit. He kept it going, adding a melody on top with the use of harmonics. Finally, he slipped into a smooth jazz progression that Miles Davis would have been proud to improvise over, before tearing into the dizzying string of descending notes that concluded it.

“You got all that?” he asked Steve, handing him back his bass. “Good.”

“Now, Michael . . .” Michael’s palms went clammy. “Your mother has a pretty low opinion of you, doesn’t she? She says you shouldn’t try to call attention to yourself, because you don’t deserve it. She’s absolutely right, you know.”

Tears sprang to his eyes. He tried to speak, but his lips wouldn’t open.

“Look at yourself. Why should anyone pay attention to you? You barely made it through high school. You can’t sing, you can’t play. All you can do is close your eyes up there and masturbate in front of everyone.”

“Please, don’t…” Michael managed, before his mouth stopped working again.

“And the thing is, you know it. You know it deep down in your soul, and you hate yourself for it. You wish that, somehow, it could all magically change, that by some miracle, you could be like Bruce Springsteen. The glorious object of praise.”

The tears were running down Michael’s face.

“Well, guess what?” said Magnus. “You can. Give me your guitar.”

Michael was unaware of taking it off. The next thing he knew, Magnus was wearing his guitar.

“You will not look away,” Magnus told him, “even for a nanosecond.”

He tore into a rapid-fire solo, his fingers dancing along the strings as the guitar keened and wailed and tore virtual holes in the air. Then he switched to a driving rhythm figure, growling as it boiled.

He began to sing to it, a song Michael had never heard before.

Hey, baby, look at me

The only one you’ll ever see

From now throughout eternity

And that’s the way it’s gonna be

His voice was rough, smooth, mellifluous, and earthy, all at the same time. He repeated the chorus, varying the melody and displaying a vast range that went from deep bass to a screaming falsetto, finally shrieking out the last note.

He took off the guitar and gave it back to a stupefied Michael.

“Okay, fellas,” he said, “let’s hear ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ take two.”

They stared at each other. Then, almost robotically, Ralphie counted it off.

The tempo was locked in now, so tight it squeaked. Steve’s bass lay down a solid foundation for Michael’s guitar, both of them now perfectly in tune and playing off each other. Michael opened his mouth and couldn’t believe what came out.

His voice was pure Springsteen, just like the record, and he wasn’t imagining it. He really sounded that way. Not only that, he was varying the original melody, doing vocal riffs off of it, taking it to another level. The song ended and they stood there in wonder.

“Not too shabby,” said Magnus. “Okay, here’s the deal. You’ll do six songs tomorrow night, all Springsteen. I’ll give you the set list before you go on. Don’t worry, you’ll perform them just as well as you did this one.

“You will not rehearse between now and then because it won’t do you any good. The only time you’ll sound this way is tomorrow night on that stage. After that, we’ll discuss the future.”

“Are you gonna ask us to sign some sort of contract?” Steve asked.

“Nope,” said Magnus. “We all shook hands last night at the club, remember? That’s the only contract I’ve ever needed.”

A wisp of a memory tickled the back of Michael’s brain. It was that dream, and it faded instantly again, replaced by the same feeling of dread, only more of it.

*   *   *

It was an absolute triumph! They did the set list Magnus gave them, starting with “Glory Days” and ending with “Born to Run,” and they played and sang amazingly.

But Michael couldn’t enjoy it, somehow. The strangeness seemed to overwhelm the wonder. He hadn’t told his parents, saying he was going to another rehearsal tonight. His father was curious about why they’d rehearse on a Saturday night, but he didn’t make a thing over it.

Ralphie and Steve hadn’t told anyone either, perhaps in fear that it might turn out to be an embarrassment after all. It was far from it.

The audience, at first, gave them lukewarm applause, but then they really got into it. These were, after all, great Classic Rock songs they were hearing, and Michael sounded exactly like Bruce. By the end, the crowd was on its feet, cheering.

It was surreal, as they drifted off the stage and into the wings. One of Joe Walsh’s roadies, going the other way, complimented Michael on his guitar.

“Nice Strat, dude,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Michael, even though it was just an ordinary Stratocaster and beat up, besides.

A group of girls was standing by the fire exit. “Love your shirt,” one of them said. “Love Springsteen,” said another.

“Thanks,” Michael said again, that ominous feeling growing.

Ralphie and Steve had preceded him into the dressing room. They were oohing and aahing over the buffet that had been left for them while they were onstage.

“This is really something, ain’t it?” said Ralphie, grinning widely.

“I could sure get used to this,” said Steve, picking up a canape and throwing it into his mouth.

Michael had no appetite. He couldn’t stop feeling like something was terribly wrong.

The door opened and Magnus came in.

“Well, guys, how did you like it?”

“It was great!” Ralphie and Steve said together.

“How about you, Michael?”

“Yeah, it was great,” he muttered.

Magnus raised an eyebrow. “I sense some hesitation on your part. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?”

They were the same words he’d thought on stage at graduation, just before the girl started speaking. It made him think of the dream again. It was there now, just beneath his consciousness.

“You wanted praise,” said Magnus. “I got it for you. I even got you that Perfect Attendance award, as a show of good faith.”

“But that’s nothing,” Michael blurted out. “Getting an award for just being there? It’s embarrassing.”

“I can’t help that,” said Magnus. “Didn’t you like what that roadie said to you, or those girls outside the dressing room?”

“He liked my guitar! What’s that got to do with me? And one girl liked my goddamn shirt! And the other one didn’t say anything about me. She just liked Springsteen!”

And then he remembered the dream.

He was standing in a field, and there was a raging fire in the distance. It was getting closer. He knew he had to run, but he couldn’t move. The heat was becoming more and more intense. He could see a face forming in the middle of the flames, Magnus’s face.

It spoke the same words Magnus would use in the garage the next night. About how Michael hated himself and wished his life could magically change, that by some miracle, he could become like Bruce Springsteen, the glorious object of praise. It asked him what he’d give for that.

“Everything,” he’d said.

And that’s when he woke up in a cold sweat.

“I told you guys that after the show we’d discuss the future,” Magnus was now saying. “Well, here’s the future. You’re going back to your lives just as they were. No more rock ’n’ roll acclaim for you. I said I’d turn you into superstars, but I never said for how long. And anyway, who gives a shit about a Bruce Springsteen cover band?

“You will not remember any of this. You’ll go home, and whatever is supposed to happen in your lives will happen. But in the end, even if you don’t think you deserve it, and believe me, nobody thinks they do, I’ll be there. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain. You’ll fulfill yours.”

He gave a malevolent grin and then vanished, leaving a burnt match smell behind.

The three of them stood there, stupefied. They didn’t even hear the knock on the door.

It came again, louder, and the door opened. A bearded man in his thirties stuck his head into the room.

“Hi, my name is Van Simmons,” he said, “and I’m a producer with Parkhill Records. I saw your show just now.” He grinned and shook his head. “Man, I’ve seen lots of rock ’n’ roll bands, but you guys are something special. Each and every one of you has such good posture!”

With a cheery wave, he stepped back outside and closed the door.

___

Lenny Levine attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, he forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He has composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, he performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies.

His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bitter Oleander, The Dirty Goat, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The Griffin, Hobo Pancakes, The Jabberwock Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, Penmen Review, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, Rougarou, Verdad, Westview, and Wild Violet. He received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.