NIGHT SHIFT: An Excerpt from Spark Park by Alex Kudera

Super shifts and settles and starts the story mid-fry. “Lemme me rap it out for you, Zacharia. This is the sad tale of Shakin’ the Bad. Shakin’ was my main man, used to visit me most every night back in the day. This was three years past, and I was still a young chump workin’ the night shift. He so inspired me that I wrote the whole sad shit down and memorized it. So let me lay it down from the start.

“Once upon a time, in some summer hiatus away from secondary school, I worked my first slave. It was the graveyard stint at the Gas N Grub convenience shop. From nine at night to seven in the morning, I bagged first, rang second cashier, cashed in on $3.35 per hour—at the time, I was thinkin’ it’s all for four future years of school. Man, I see now my ass was probably worth five, six, or seven times as much. Brotha, I toiled sedulously, often extremely fatigued, through those convenient sixty-six minute hours—boss was payin’ nine hours of cash money dough for a ten-hour shift! What with low pay, jammed register, broken slushee machine, and all them complaining coed bitties—I was an adolescent poet-to-be who’d already found his inferno. 

“My clientele consisted mainly of a certain upper-class import. That hollow suburbanite borne of old roots, the heritage that permits four or five frenzied years of over-ripening. These were the barren business majors and the bruised fruit of banker fathers. They conserved their limited intellectual energy for economics finals, efficiently using the mandatory apple with the hard drive, the submissive cherry with the soft touch. And because computerized exams came but twice a year, students entertained themselves with contested entrances to local bars of ambiguous laws. ’Round the way, as in around the corner, parched jocks, testy young gents, and liberated, if thirsty, women all queued outside the collegiate speakeasy, preparing for the just bouncer’s long query. 

“‘Got college ID?’ was grumbled to fingers and feet shuffling through the sophomoric, if not sophomoreless, carding, their occasional snaps and taps the impatient accompaniment to a nervous fumbler at the front. And when frequent fast-talkers, would be easyspeakees, appealed that the motion,” and Sup gives the ump’s upright thumb evincing ejection, “be stricken in favor of flow toward settlement—based upon precedent’s law of eternal returns—emergency procedure was in order such as an ambulance chase to the convenience store. Runners burst into the Gas N Grub. Even as they grabbed tin-foiled chips, they contemplated and rejected sandwiches because preparation meant lonesome lingering by the microwave. Instead, in a state of pre-lawless drunkenness, they demanded nervously to me and King that purchased prophylactics be bagged separately from assorted potato chips, nachos, and pretzels. 

“‘Regular or ridges, salt-’n-vinegar lubricant, or sour-cream-’n-onion scent, Sir?’ At the register, we countered effusively. Shit, Zak, if the boy had hopes of getting some, he need not be spared. Every young Westphalian knows how he ought to unembarassedly embrace the publicity. So we, the young sellers of safe sex, supposed, and so our eyes matched the glow of the shiny packages. 

“These runners hurried in and out, occupying the store until bar-closing time. Then, en masse, a herd of Joe-college stragglers arrived at the Gas N Grub, their faces flushed from a drunkenness ordered only in the burgeoning of proof, and further enlightened by a joint rolled and lit true along the way. By some struggled-for right of diplomatic immunity, imported college students are never hassled for small-fry illegalities in the same cities where permanent residents, the darker ones in particular, are considered players in a ruthless drug war. Yes, we all nod knowingly, but nothing is ever done.”

Sup pauses for effect. 

Zak wonders who is to blame or what is to be done while he peels some dried cheese goo off the wax paper. He nods as he nibbles, and then sees the storyteller is ready to resume. 

“How the intense munchies of unintelligible intellectuals kept me and King busy for a not-so-happy hour or so. From two to three in the morning, the place was packed with college kids. Domestic flatus was in poor taste, so they strolled flatulent from foreign brews, burped hibiscus, and hiccupped through the aisles. They rarely paused to research ingredients while rummaging over shelves for that elusive aphrodisiac needed to reinspire the young night. Indelicate lovers headed for red-hot barbecued onion rings or tortilla chips garnished with oozing spiced cheese product. Saccharine addicts faked around the ice creams, opting for artificially sweetened and colored ice milk. Drunk radicals nuked, in effigy, burritos shaped like squarish former Presidents, while feminists of every girth and tone chanced upon one-calorie, no-caffeine, cola-colored, well-watered soft drinks. They hardly cared that these no-sugar sodas left an aftertaste worse than a beer-drenched, nicotined-stained frat-house couch met in escape from a resident tongue. But it was somethin’ inside ’em instead of sugar, that when mixed with liquor, supplied the high which wiped away any remaining lip-sticked inhibitions. 

“This prime-time hour featured me, the Superman, as host to a show of game contestants who were loudly demanding Slush Puppies for ninety-nine, cigs for two singles, cluing in to varied cravings, for some, consolation prizes for an evening ending empty-handed. Dude, I was baggin’ the night away, my register on autopilot, driven by fingers which had long ago preprogrammed prices,” and Sup spread-eagles his hands for Zak to see, “a head equipped to delete rudeness,” and points to his pleasant dome, “and nerves unafraid to file five- to ten-percent overcharge for excessively mean input.” Here, Sup pinches an ear lobe as proof he can take the pain. 

“It was only a rich priss’s swipe of some silly magazine that broke the rhythm of my register rhyme. These comely collegiate crooks received my angry, question-pocked stares—rich blends of sadness, resentment, and a tinge of lust for the loaded mag-snatchers because it’s all them busty sorority bitches at the counter with that same false grin. Word up, homey, I had to ignore much orthodontist-approved sympathy. Actually, I took the drunken monied breasts for granted I saw so many, and with a yawn,” and Sup yawns, “I retrieved the requested filter-free soft pack, thanked the frat chick, next-pleased the gearneck, and never a thief was revealed.”

Super performs a pantomime of pulling a secret from his shirt sleeve and displays it to Zak. 

“Believe me, Zak, betwixt these precious pundit packs, I served some very strange locals. Mostly poor folk, the diverse hometown crowd interrupted the impoverished homogeneity of the college kids. There was old Caesar the afterhours apostolic who, in recompense for his nightly half pound of coleslaw, regularly uttered the biblical bit, ‘Gotsta give unta Caesar what Caesar’s, ramembah dat, Supa.’ He wouldn’t leave the counter until I gave a goodbye, ‘Yessuh’ which slurred came to ‘yeah, sure.’ Homeboy King was never sure why that cabbage-head geezer always spoke of salad dressing. There was hoagie-head Javon, his homeboy grape-juice Jawan, Jawan’s sister lemon-pie Lashawn, and her cousin melon-tart Tameka—a double-dating quartet appearing before and after each Friday’s midnight kung-fu flick.” With that last bit, Sup slams down a vicious karate chop, causing Zak to jump, as he halves what’s left of the communal fries. 

“And old Harry Clyde, would come, always sneaking a peek at the horoscope, joking with the boys, plugging his nose with his once-big, now-butchered thumb and making weird gyrations at some college girl, the King and I receiving his most lascivious wink, giving the young woman the whistle. He’d sometimes do in-and-outs with his nose-stuffed thumb, then hold out his tongue for the all-finished, wide-lick effect. He’d then rip off the wrapper of the best candy bar in the house, and casually creep out the door. His last words were always somethin’ like, ‘Needs my energies for the night shift, boys,’ or, ‘You can cuts your thumbs slicin’ meats, but never ever cut your meat.’  To which King spat the generic reply, ‘You ain’t worked an honest day, never mind a humid night, in years. Go chop your wood, you ol’ yeoman.’

“And beepered dealers would buy cream puffs for their pale powder puffers, often sickly strawberries incapable of enflaming any counter passions. These wealthier neighbors were good for business unless Frank Malarky stopped in. Some said he’d been a real copper back in the day, and others claimed that he’d missed the force by flunking the friggin’ test, but he didn’t want anyone to know about it. It was rumored that he had panic attacks whenever he gnoshed a doughnut or Danish and went off about drug dealers and addicts.     

“This dude Frank’s a card. He lived, or should I say ‘lives’ ’cause I seen his hairy ass just last week lecturing a pit bull for growling at police. Anyways, back in the day, he lived his whole sorry-ass life in shaded reality, graying as a security guard, almost young again come any dawn which revealed him waving a night stick at shadows. Whereas his turquoise uniform deviated from regulation blue, his short, wide neck was the normal shade of lobster-red. His means of surveillance was a black and white tube depicting rerun copycat crimes (with the same old crack-pot kingpins killed), reception limited to network stations despite his knight-of-the-desk rank at Sardonick and McKahn Cable. Frank would come to the Gas N Grub for coffee and sassafras slush (a bitter taste of deviance), whistling his favorite part of the company tune, ‘Get S&M in Your Box.’ Zak, methinks I still remember that dope beat.”

Super takes a deep breath and sings for the entire, if empty, steakery to hear:

We chain up wires to all teles we seize

Whip up our cable, give a twist to your tube

The way you ain’t had it, yeah, TV non-stop!

Pumping in sixty-nine shows is a breeze

With channels galore, you’ll get higher-res cube

For nineteen ninety-five, you’ll scream, “Don’t Stop!”

In a jiffy, Sup finishes the jingle and is back to storyline.

“Occasionally, in one of Frank’s more colorful racist fits, he’d forget his failings, assume policeman’s stature, and play Gas N Grub security guard. Dude’d hover around the door of the shop, long black billy club in hand, no doubt swiped from a real copper, and he’d whisper to me, as if my counter status implied ethnic immunity, ‘Man, if I see one of ’em leave the store with somethin’, I’ll break his fuckin’ head.’ Malarky’s stance lasted until, say, some blonde issue, likely a biochemist-to-be, pinched his left butt cheek while pinching an issue of TVWeek. Maybe Frank’d have toned down his act if he’d made the force, or fought to stay on and stuck the star through his crimson heart.” 

Sup pauses to catch his breath.

“Didn’t mean to get all worked up, Zak. I better shy away from such meanderings anyways. This is my tale of Shakin’, and besides, dear dumb Frank won’t be up for the police exam again until September. Shit, Zak, my cheesesteak has gotten cold, and Shakin’s tale is hardly told. So anyways, you wanna know who’s Shakin’?”

Zak, immersed, nods, “Yeah.”


ALEX KUDERA’S award-winning adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books), was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea. In 2016, he published Auggie’s Revenge with Beating Windward Press as well as a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day with Hard Ball Press. The e-singles “Frade Killed Ellen” (Dutch Kills Press), “Turquoise Truck” (Mendicant Bookworks), and “The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity” (Gone Dog Press) are available most anywhere books are downloaded. His published short stories include “Awash in Barach and Bolano” (The Agonist), “My Father’s Great Recession” (Heavy Feather Review), and “Over Fifty Billion Kafkas Served” (Eclectica Magazine).

DUTCH by Roy Christopher

Dutch

[Note: The following documents were included in the liner notes to Bad Flag’s history-spanning boxset, Dutch, released by Bright Little Light in 2019.]

Fiery Tale: A Brief History of Bad Flag

“A work of art has to exist in a world as an object, as real as the sun, grass, a rock, water, and so on. It must also possess a slight error. In other words, to be right, it has to be a little bit wrong, a tad strange, and thereby, truly real.” — Kharms

“They were literally the best,” says one fan with the measured reverence usually reserved for religious worship. “It’s really too bad more people don’t know about them.”

“No, it’s not,” another counters. “I’m glad no one knows about them. People ruin things.”

The latter fan expresses the prevailing attitude of the underground’s old guard. It’s a mixture of ownership, selfishness, and elitism that says, This is ours, and you can’t have it. You don’t deserve it.

Whether or not you agree, there is a certain cachet that is diminished when something gets too big. When everyone knows about a cultural phenomenon, its allure is lost. Cool doesn’t scale.

Though they were once approached by the A&R of a major label, Bad Flag were never in danger of getting too big.

“I saw them open for someone at the Off Ramp in Seattle in 1994,” Nils Bernstein tells me. “I can’t remember who it was. They were on their way out by then I’ve been told, but you certainly couldn’t tell by the way they played. They erased the headliner from my head!” Bernstein worked in publicity at Sub Pop Records from 1991 to 1997. At the time Sub Pop was expanding rapidly. Flush with Nirvana revenue, they were diversifying their roster and had recently signed a wave of successful indie bands, many at the behest of Bernstein. “On their way out or not, they’re still easily the best live band I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of bands… The records really don’t capture the lightning of their live show.” He trails off. “Hands down. The best.”

Bad Flag broke up in December of 1994, so Bernstein saw one of their last shows. The records he’s referring to, of which he has two, are a scant series of seven-inch singles the band put out. Depending on who you ask, the sum of the band’s output is either three or five seven inches, one demo cassette, a rehearsal tape, and two live bootlegs. Some say the demo is just a bad copy of their early singles, but no one can explain the extra song that only appears there.

“I picked up the only two records they had with them at that show,” Bernstein continues. He pulls the two records out of a steel box to the side of his racks of vinyl. I try to see what else is in there, but he quickly closes it. He holds out the two pristine artifacts, both sheathed in thick plastic sleeves. “I played them both only once, and then only to record them to tape. I mean, okay, I had to play ‘All the Way Down’ twice because I forgot to unpause the recording, but that’s it.”

“All the Way Down” is the third act, the B-side to the three-song seven inch, “Man Amok” (Bright Little Light, 1995), which marked a conceptual turn in the band’s songwriting. Acts 1 and 2, “Where the Day Goes to Die” and “Good God Gone Bad,” are on the A-side. It’s probably their best-known trilogy of songs. It was their last, and the only recording not released by the band themselves—or without their knowledge. The change is subtle but significant enough to make one wonder what would have come next.

“They didn’t really seem interested in selling them,” adds Bernstein “and when I told them who I was, they packed up and retreated backstage. I didn’t even get a chance to bring them to the attention of the label.”

Waving Radiant: Who is Bad Flag?

If ever there were a band deserving of the designation power trio, it is Bad Flag. Their music is a mathematics, an algorithm. It’s a process in progress that they are neither enjoying nor enduring but exacting, like an angry surgeon. It’s as heady as it is heavy. The three in question are the affable oaf, Dutch McNeal (drums), the cryptic yet quotable Sam Sports (bass, vocals), and the even-keeled Will Wilson, Jr. (guitar, backing vocals).

Don’t let their name and logo (the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger) fool you, their lyrics are written and sung by a young man worldly beyond his home and wise beyond his home-schooling. In one song, he can go from lines about “the stress-free skin of the unperturbed” to a string of expletives lacking rhyme, rhythm, and reason. One reviewer wrote of their first 7”, “No one should have it, and no one should be without it. That’s how controversial it is.”

Bad Flag was formed in the forges of Chicago during a particularly hot time. “Sam and I have known each other since middle school,” Will tells me over the phone. “We met Dutch in college.” By college, he means the University of Chicago. After forming, dissolving, and playing in several other bands throughout school in the Chicagoland suburbs, Sam and Will moved to Hyde Park together, hell bent on starting something new. Paul Morley’s summation of Joy Division from June of 1980 could just as easily have been written about Bad Flag:

Good rock music—the palatable, topical stuff—is an amusement and an entertainment. But the very best rock music is created by individuals and musicians obsessive and eloquent enough to inspect and judge destinies and systems with artistic totality and sometimes tragic necessity; music with laws of its own, a drama of its own. The face of rock music is changed by those who introduce to the language new tones, new tunes, and new visions.

“We had a vision that never manifested in any of the other bands we’d been in,” says Sam.

“It wasn’t like we were trying to start a revolution,” Will adds, “but we were trying to realize something we hadn’t heard anywhere else, for ourselves.” Their vision included starting with the basics—vocals, guitar, bass, and drums—and building up. “We wanted the constraints of a regular band,” says Will, “but we wanted to push on them as hard as we could.”

And push they did. Dutch seemed the missing piece. His drumming is propulsive, steady yet organic. As precise as he could be, Dutch was not a machine. He was an animal.

Sam’s songwriting might be the thing everyone remembers or writes about, but Will and Dutch are essential. “Bad Flag is the three of us,” Sam insists. “And no one else.”

Bad Flag emerged on the Chicago club scene seemingly fully formed. Their first show, opening on a three-band bill that included their heroes the Jesus Lizard and local powerhouse Tar at the Lounge Ax in 1991, was plagued with sound problems, but they played almost flawlessly. It was a performance that didn’t go unnoticed.

“We weren’t ready for them,” says Tar’s John Mohr. “I thought we were bound by tension! Those guys seem ready to snap the second they plug in.”

“There was a lot of amazing music in our circles at the time,” Steve Albini remembers. “Tortoise, Tar, Naked Raygun, the Jesus Lizard… Brise-Glace, anything with David Grubbs in it, or Jim O’Rourke… It was hard to stand out, but Bad Flag was a revelation.” Albini ended up recording all of their official releases. “I spent every session trying to recapture the magic of that first show,” he claims.

“I think he came pretty close a couple of times,” says Russ Corey, owner of Bright Little Light, who put out the band’s last 7” record. “Even on the later material, which we were over-the-moon to release, where they stretched out more than ever before… What a band…”

Though those few recordings are bought and sold like gold, everyone knows these rare documents don’t capture the caged beast that was Bad Flag live. In between that first Lounge Ax show in 1991 and the posthumous Man Amok 7” in 1995, there were two brief tours in the Anything Grows flower shop van. In 1993, Bad Flag headed east, and in 1994, they headed west.

“The tour in 1993 was mainly to go to DC,” Will tells me. “We felt like, outside of Chicago, Olympia and DC were where our kindred bands lived. So, we booked that tour aiming to spend a couple of days in DC. We’d sent Ian [MacKaye of Fugazi and Dischord Records] our records, and he got us on a show at the 9:30 Club with Jawbox.” They also played with Five-Eight at the 40 Watt in Athens, Mary’s Pet Rock at the Nick in Birmingham, Polvo at the Cat’s Cradle in Carborro, and scattered shows by themselves in between.

Their second tour was the other direction. Setting out for the Cascades, they seem to have found a second family in the Northwest.

“We bonded instantly with a lot of the bands out there,” Will says. “I mean, we have at least as much in common with Hush Harbor and 30.06 as we do with Slint and Gastr del Sol.” It’s true. As much as Bad Flag fit in with the Chicago bands they played with, it’s not difficult to imagine them coming up in Portland, Olympia, or Seattle.

“Some Velvet Sidewalk? Unwound? Lync?” Dutch added. “We could’ve easily been on K Records or Kill Rock Stars and no one would bat an eye.”

The band ended with that tour. They announced their break-up before they got back. The final performance at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago was an emotional affair. Thankfully someone recorded it. Like seemingly every show, they played it like it was their last. This time they were right.

Bad Flag Interview, March 17, 1993:

The following brief interview was conducted shortly after Bad Flag released their third seven-inch record, “Get Off the X” b/w “Dogspine” (Vortex Shedding, 1993), and just before they went on their first tour.

So, are those your real names?

Dutch: “Yep.”

Will: “They’re real enough.”

“Sam Sports,” really? You don’t seem like the sporting type.

Sam: “’Irony’ is my middle name.”

Dutch: “It is!”

Will: “He legally changed it.”

Sports seems like more of a Dutch McNeal thing.

Will: “He played in high school.”

Dutch: “Yep. Linebacker.”

What about the band’s name, “Bad Flag”?

Will: “That was also Sam’s doing.”

Dutch: “Yeah, blame Sam.” [laughs]

Sam: “We were young when we started. I know you can’t hear any Bad Religion, Bad Brains, or Black Flag in our sound, but those were my favorite bands when I first started thinking about making music myself.”

Will: “I remember, you were so excited. You couldn’t believe no one had taken that name!”

Sam: “Yeah, it seems silly now of course, childish even, but the meaning of the name has evolved for me as we’ve gotten older as people and existed and progressed as a band.”

How so?

Sam: “Just the idea of flags in general… crosses, logos, signs… We imbue these things with meaning…”

Will: “…and then the meaning gets lost.”

Sam: “Yeah, so by having a silly name and logo, we kind of avoided that, subverted it somewhat.”

Dutch: “Put it this way: If you’re not familiar with our music, and you see our name on a flier, your impression is probably not going to be accurate, and you’re not going to expect what we do.”

Sam: “By the same token you don’t want to regularly do something that looks like something else. Eventually you’ll be answering to the worst suspicions… Your symbols won’t save you.”

Speaking of signs, do you guys believe in Astrology?

Will: “No.”

Dutch: “Really, Will? You don’t think the stars and planets have any bearing on your life?

Will: “No.”

Dutch: “Then why do you go to sleep when this one is facing away from the sun and wake up when it turns back?”

Will: “Going to bed when it’s nighttime and believing in Astrology are not the same thing.”

Dutch: “Whatever.”

Sam: “No one cops so to their misgivings so easily, but they look good on the side of a bus.”

You’re about to go on your first tour. Tell me about that.

Will: “We’re headed east, to DC, then dipping south to Chapel Hill, Athens…”

Dutch: “Yeah, we’re gonna hit all the hot spots out there, stop off in Alabama to see some friends and visit my family, and then come back home.”

You have a reputation for covering some unlikely and very difficult songs, from other underground bands like Johnboy, Table, Butterfly Train, Lungfish, Scratch Acid, and of course, Big Black. How do you choose the songs you cover?

Dutch: “It’s just what we like. Sometimes it’s someone that influenced us, but it’s always a song by a band that we like.”

Will: “Yeah, especially where our contemporaries are concerned. We try to put our own spin on all of them, but yeah, it’s usually just because we like the song and the band.”

Sam: “Immolation is the sincerest form of flammability.”

A Possible Bad Flag Discography

“Present Tension” b/w “Fragile Fists” (Vortex Shedding, 1991)

“Bury the Butterflies” b/w “Haunted Halo” (Vortex Shedding, 1991)

“Get Off the X” b/w “Dogspine” (Vortex Shedding, 1993)

Born with the Safety Off (Demo Cassette, 1991)

A:

“Present Tension”

“Fragile Fists”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Haunted Halo”

B:

“Get Off the X”

“Dogspine”

“Wiser” (Coffin Break)

“Spotlight” (Candy Machine)

Rehearsal Bootleg (Cassette, 1993)

A:

“Get Off the X”

“Present Tension”

“Dogspine”

“Fiery Tale”

“Fragile Fists”

“Fish Fry” (Big Black)

“Walking the King” (Tar)

“Untitled/Entitled”

B:

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Good God Gone Bad”

“All the Way Down”

“Creeping Tender” b/w “Max Perlich” (Vortex Shedding, 1994)

Live from the Near-Death Experience (Last show, Fireside Bowl, 1994)

(Live Bootleg, Cassette, 1995; CDR, 1997)

“Get Off the X”

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Managing the Damage”

“Present Tension”

“Dogspine”

“Weightless Waitlist”

“Max Perlich”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Gag Box” (Table)

“Fiery Tale”

“Fragile Fists”

“Untitled/Entitled”

Encore:

“Aluminum Siding” (Crackerbash)

“Bob and Cindy” (Johnboy)

“Feral Future”

Man Amok 7” (Bright Little Light, 1995)

A: “Where the Day Goes to Die,” “Good God Gone Bad”

B: “All the Way Down”

Beating Hearts: Interview with Will Wilson, Jr. and Sam Sports of Bad Flag, 2019

Bad Flag broke up in December of 1994, and they stayed broken up. Not only was a reunion never on the table, now it’s not even possible: Their loud and lovable drummer Dutch McNeal was killed in a mass shooting in his hometown last year.

The last time I interviewed them in 1993, they were still an active and enthusiastic band. Little did any of us know that they’d break up two years later. They flared up and flared out, but they don’t come off as bitter or jaded. If you read that old interview, you may have noticed Sam’s penchant for aphorisms. If he seemed a little too ready with a handy quotation, that hasn’t changed either.

Bright Little Light is hereby releasing a full Bad Flag discography. The 3-CD, 5-LP Dutch includes remastered versions of all of the band’s seven inches, a set of bonus cover versions, and a proper remaster of their last show at the Fireside Bowl in 1994. In Dutch’s honor, I caught up with the remaining members of one of the greatest bands to ever meld minds through music.

Not to start off imprudently, but looking back, some of the quotations in our previous interview seem fake. I’ve even had a few people tell me as much.

Will: “We liked messing with interviewers, especially Sam or where Sam was concerned. He was the lyricist, so people relate to the words and want to know more. We shielded him to protect that, and sometimes it got out of hand.”

Sam: “Yeah, at some point, you’re not a trickster, you’re just a troll.”

That’s a distinction not a lot of people are going to take the time or effort to make.

Will: “Even still, it becomes something else.”

Sam: “Gossips never follow up.”

That’s not exactly fair.

Will: “Well, it cut both ways. There were a lot of misconceptions about us because of the way we dealt with the media, both by being loose and by being closed off. So, we paid for it.”

Sam: “With your walls up, it’s easier for someone to sneak up on you.”

I was sorry to hear about Dutch.

Will: “Thank you. Crazy days.”

Sam: “Yeah, I miss him.”

Will: “We all still talked regularly. It’s a weird world now.”

Really cool of you to name the boxset after him.

Will: “It seemed only right.”

Sam: “As younger men, I was always off in my head, and Will was all about the business.”

Will: “Dutch was the emotional center of the band.”

Sam: “He was the beating heart.”

Will: “He really was.”

Sam: “It’s in tribute to him, of course, but it also has other meanings.”

Like?

Sam: “It also means dander or trouble, going it alone… Looking at the world from a tilted perspective.”

Will: “It was also Reagan’s nickname, which I believe is where Dutch’s parents got it.”

Sam: “So, even if you didn’t know Dutch, it still has meaning.”

Speaking of going it alone, tell me about the break-up. You guys planned that ahead of time, right?

Sam: “Yeah, it was the difference between it ending and its having an ending.”

Will: “It was hard, but it had to happen. We were best friends from middle school to college, and it got to the point where we could either be in the band or continue to be best friends, but there was no way we could be both. We chose to stay best friends.”

Sam: “It’s easier meeting people than it is letting them go.”

If you were able to stay together as a band, what do you think about being a band in the current state of the music industry?

Will: “Certain parts of it are great! The ability to distribute your music online is amazing.”

And other things?

Sam: “You mean social media?”

Yeah.

Will: “Ugh. For the bands, it never ends. And as a user, it’s like the food in the refrigerator: You keep looking like you’re expecting something new to be in there, because you’re hungry. That’s what social media is. You keep checking, and it’s still the same leftovers… I’m so glad that stuff wasn’t around when we were a band.”

Sam: “I agree. It seems like a lot to maintain but complaining about how different things are now betrays a profound and malignant kind of stupid.”

Will: “We’d also have to change our name to ‘Dad Flag.’”

On the back of the Man Amok seven inch, it reads “Bad Flag supports the destruction of mankind.” That seems a little extreme, even for you guys.

Will: “That came from when we were recording. We were at Albini’s house.”

Sam: “Yeah, his girlfriend Heather was really into Norwegian Black Metal, and she had procured this Black Metal magazine from Norway called Nordic Vision. In their introduction, it said, ‘Nordic Vision supports the destruction of mankind’. It became a running joke during the sessions. It fits that record thematically as well.”

Will: “But we also just thought it was funny, so we put it on the record.”

And what about all the cover songs in the box? You guys were known for doing covers live, but where did the new recordings come from?

Will: “That was thanks to Steve. We’d always warm up in the studio with cover songs, and he’d always record them. We hadn’t planned on doing anything with them, but then it became a thing. There are even several that survived that we rarely did live.”

Sam: “One might even say a few classics.”

How do you feel about your legacy?

Will: “I feel great about it. We get mentioned in conversations that surprise me, but it’s usually in a positive way.”

Like what?

Will: “Sometimes we’re mentioned in a certain lineage that I’m not sure we were really a part of. It’s something much bigger than we were or were intending to be. A lot of it comes from hindsight and the lack of historical context, but it also comes from an intellectual tradition of taking the wrong things seriously.”

Sam: “And rushing to shelve things in the right category according to questionable or outmoded criteria.”

Will: “Yeah, that too.”

Sam: “They’re using wine theory to analyze grapes.”

Will: “We had ambitions, and a lot of the specific goals we had in mind we achieved. We started playing live sharing the stage with our heroes, and along the way we shared stages with many more of them, from the Jesus Lizard and Tar that first night to Unwound, Hush Harbor, Engine Kid, A Minor Forest, Candy Machine…”

Sam: “Lync, Christopher Robin… We played with them on the same night!”

Will: “Yeah, it was at the Velvet Elvis in Seattle… Wait, wasn’t Candy Machine out there on tour too?”

Sam: “Yeah, it was us, Hush Harbor, Modest Mouse, Christopher Robin… Candy Machine, and Lync. It was Lync’s last show. James Bertram got us on that show.”

Will: “Schneider set his drums on fire.”

Sam: “That’s right… What a night! Shout out to Steve and James and Sam and Peter and all those bands.”

Will: “Remember that place we stayed in Portland the next night?”

Sam: ”With the big, brown stain on the carpet?”

Will: “Yeah, and the—”

Sam: “Our host tried to assuage our concerns by saying that it wasn’t shit, it was blood.”

Will: “So, yeah… We played with our heroes, we put out some records, we recorded with Albini… We thought we might do a record for Touch & Go.”

Sam: “But that was never the point.”

Will: “Well, no…”

Sam: “We learned early on that all we could control was the music we were making.”

Even so, you guys are still revered as a band that maintained the underground ethos when everyone around you was groping for the brass ring.

Will: “We appreciate that, but we don’t really deserve it. I mean, this band did more than we ever expected. The records, the tours, the songs… That’s all we wanted.”

Sam: “It’s easy to maintain your integrity when no one is offering to buy it.”

Will: “Besides, some people still think we were uptight curmudgeons, old men before our time.”

I mean, you guys were straight-edge, vegan teetotalers – still are! What do you say to people who think you’re no fun?

Sam: “They say that you have to know the difference between a party and a problem. We never even had a party.”

Bad Flag Dutch

(boxset, Bright Little Light, 2019)

Disc One: Seven-Inch Discography

“Present Tension”

“Fragile Fists”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Haunted Halo”

“Get Off the X”

“Dogspine”

“Creeping Tender”

“Max Perlich”

Man Amok:

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Good God Gone Bad”

“All the Way Down”

Disc Two: Covers

“Wiser” (Coffin Break)

“Spotlight” (Candy Machine)

“Aluminum Siding” (Crackerbash)

“Bob and Cindy” (Johnboy)

“Speed for Gavin” (A Minor Forest)

“Good Morning, Captain” (Slint)

“Walking the King” (Tar)

“Darjeeling” (Rodan)

“Natural’s Not in It” (Gang of Four)

“A Farewell to Kings” (Rush)

“Huck” (30.06)

“Friend to Friend in Endtime” (Lungfish)

“Windshield” (Engine Kid)

“Fish Fry” (Big Black)

Disc Three: Last Show Live, Fireside Bowl, 1994

“Get Off the X”

“Where the Day Goes to Die”

“Managing the Damage”

“Present Tension”

“Dogspine”

“Weightless Waitlist”

“Max Perlich”

“Bury the Butterflies”

“Gag Box” (Table cover)

“Fiery Tale”

“Fragile Fists”

“Untitled/Entitled”

Encore:

“Aluminum Siding” (Crackerbash cover)

“Bob and Cindy” (Johnboy cover)

“Feral Future”

[This story is dedicated to the memory of Sam Jayne.]


ROY CHRISTOPHER is an aging BMX and skateboarding zine kid. That’s where he learned to turn events and interviews into pages with staples. He has since written about music, media, and culture for everything from books and blogs to national magazines and academic journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. As a child, he solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively.

THE FRIENDLY BEAST by Willie Davis

After last call at The Friendly Beast, Celena Lyon picked up the glasses and swept away the straggler barflies while her boss stayed in the back room with his fingers in his ears so as not to hear himself sing. It was a gimmick bar, one meant to capitalize on a long dead fame. In another time, in another part of America, The Friendly Beast wasn’t a bar at all, but a band, fronted by her boss, Riley Holcomb. Riley bristled at the label “country,” but country claimed him, and for the course of one full moon to the next, the country music machine made him a semi-star. While the band didn’t last, The Friendly Beast translated perfectly to a country-themed bar, even if customers sometimes had to squint to find any theme at all. It fit snugly in the space all music rests when it’s lived in too long—the junction where a song about depression could transform into depression. At the end of the night, someone would inevitably load up the jukebox with his songs, and that set Riley in a rage.

“How did I create a bar for old men?” Riley said, bursting out of the back room when the music stopped. “‘Titans of a new sound.’ Spin said we were ‘titans of a new sound in country music.’ Now I serve these arthritic fossils, fingers as stiff as a fourteen year-old’s dick, lifespans as short and disappointing as a fourteen year-old’s dick.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “And I don’t want to alarm you, but I think I might be bad at metaphors.”

“How drunk are you?” Celena asked. “You’re eyes look as red and swollen with blood as—well, I can’t think of it right now.”

Riley leaned against a counter and opened a Cherry Pepsi. Celena thought about how every detail about Riley felt either too old or too young for his age. He put Bryllcream on his shoes, and his breath smelled like watermelon gum. Tonight, he looked older, which he attributed to lack of sleep. His son had started a fight at breakfast because he was unhappy with his birthday. “He was born June 11th, 2002,” he said. “Exactly nine months after 9/11. Says if we humped while the towers were burning, it means we’re unfeeling.”

“Tell him you were doing research for that country song.” Celena rubbed sanitizer into her hands. “You know, ‘I’ll stick my son in your vag, it’s the American way.’”

“He don’t even like country,” Riley said. “I told him pregnancies don’t last exactly nine months.”

“Well?” she said. “Did you screw his mom on 9/11?”

“Who can remember?” Riley said.

“You approach that day differently than the rest of us.”

This was in Baltimore, neither of their homes. Celena came from West Virginia, and while she never saw Riley on stage in person, skinny as a shadow, singing bitter love songs and sappy vendettas, she remembered listening to his music as a girl, staring at the mountains lining her town, mouthing his lyrics as a way of understanding the dark. In that way, Riley, acted like her busted compass, unreliable but pointing her toward home.

The same song that made The Friendly Beast famous wound up unraveling it. Riley’s single “Seek God In Volume” shot up the country charts. It gained a second life almost immediately when a folk trio from Bend, Oregon covered it, removing Riley’s yowling twang and adding a second part to the harmony. The song was a tribute to Riley’s father, a notorious country crooner himself. “Seek God in volume,” was the last thing he said to fifteen year-old Riley before walking onto a stage in Blacksburg, Virginia and shooting himself in front of a horrified crowd.

“There is a home for little boys who lie each time they pray, the uninitiated call it hell/It’s not as bad as advertised, just very far away/They can only hear you when you yell.” Riley ends with a chorus with his father’s inexplicable advice. “Seek God in volume/Shout at the sky/Whatever the answer, call it goodbye.”

Country fans liked the song, but they loved the story. Knowing the title was advice from a doomed man gave retroactive weight to the words. Even though Riley was thirty when he sang it, people looked at him like the fifteen year-old keener on the side of his stage, watching his world disappear out of the back of his father’s head. It was dark and halfway pretty, and vague enough for everyone to pretend it was their favorite type of love song. “I’ve almost got a second album,” he told a Nashville DJ. “All that’s missing is for Mom to shoot herself in public, so I’ll have material. I think it’ll be relatable.” People even took that seriously, lauding him as a troubled kid of bottomless depths, a broken mirror reflecting hard truths.

He almost rode that image into a noble obscurity, but then came the song’s third life, its dark life. A young couple in Pittsburgh taped themselves singing the song to each other before holding hands and leaping off the Roberto Clemente Bridge. They left their camcorder running, and it was twenty minutes before anyone thought to turn it off. The song played on repeat on a portable CD player in the background, serving as an explanation. Then within a year, the ukulele player of the folk trio was night-swimming while whiskeyed to the gills, and she caught her foot under a stone. Her friends said she didn’t scream for help, just smiled and ducked her head underwater. Two months after that, a Church Camp bus in Athens, Georgia flipped over, killing four and injuring sixteen. A counselor was videotaping the ride, and the campers were singing “Seek God In Volume” when the driver lost control of his vehicle. The students sang the song tunelessly, as if reciting a catechism, and then the screen turned upside down.

“A cursed song?” Riley said at the time. “Thirty people on that bus and twenty-six survive. If God can’t kill better than 13% of them He’s cursed, then, I’m sorry, He’s lost his fastball.”

By then, it was too late. Rumors spread that it was the favorite song of school-shooters and spree-killers. Even the mentally ill aren’t original. The curse became trendy, so people quoted it in their manifestos, their suicide noes, or their demands to the media. Riley wanted out. “When country singers outlive their career, they open a church, a chicken restaurant, or a bar,” he told Celena. “I love drumsticks and gravy and telling people they’ll rot in hell, but one of those three’s cooler with drinking at work.”

Riley didn’t believe in the curse at first. “I left all that in Nashville,” he said, like he believed in ghosts but not ones that could cross the state line. But twenty years of daily shame had weakened his nerves. When “Seek God In Volume” came on at the end of the night, he’d come out of his backroom depressed and paranoid. “It’s coming right?” he said. “They’re going to roast my ass like a hobo roasts a snow tire.”

“Listen to yourself,” Celena said. “Homeless people burn snow tires for heat or as a protest against the snow tire industry. What’s anybody got against you?”

He worked a crick out of his neck. “Someone’s following me,” he said from the side of his mouth, like he didn’t have the heart to fully open his lips. “Mint green Mustang, purple pine tree air freshener. Didn’t get a look at the driver.”

“Then how’d you see the air freshener?”

He took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and unfolded it in front of her. “I found this at my door.” The note read, “I Know. You Know. Everyone Knows.” Next to the words was a drawing of a stick-figure in a necktie bleeding profusely from the nose.

“Is that you with the nosebleed?” she asked. “Are they threatening to give you cocaine?”

“I shouldn’t be laying all this on you.” Riley poured them both a glass of pale ale. “I just need to talk. Believe it or not, there are men in the world who just want to talk.”

“Believe it or not, there are women in the world who don’t want to listen.” She raised her glass in cheers. “That which does not kill us makes us linger.”

“I can’t lose my son,” Riley said. “He’s a teenager, I get it, and teenagers are assholes, but he cares about everything, takes it all personal, like he feels too much. He’s like the polar opposite of an asshole.”

Celena leaned forward. “An ass-pile?”

Riley tapped the note. “This is what they can’t forgive. I’ve been a bad husband, a bad friend. I 86’d The Friendly Beast when the rest of the band needed money. For all that, this is what they’ll kill me for. I wrote that song. They won’t be happy until I see Dad’s body each time I close my eyes. Hear the echo of the shot, the way his band kept playing for a split second. That’s the only way I can undo this curse.”

“There are no curses,” Celena said. “There’s only us.” She squeezed the back of his knuckles. It sounded right, but she was lying. Of course he was cursed.

In her home in West Virginia, her parents played music constantly. These were traditional ballads, ones older than America. The meanness of the songs stuck with Celena. Not only did Barbara Allen die of bitterness, but the world saw the thorn growing from her heart. A ghost returns to steal his wife from her house carpenter husband, and only after she agrees, he reveals he’s taking her to hell. A Civil War Captain tells the girl he loves, who hesitates in loving him back, “If ever I return, all your cities I will burn.” In their world, love wasn’t pleasant—it’s what kept the monster chained an inch away from the damsel’s face. Celena didn’t think these songs were cursed as much as they were curses—small hatreds turned beautiful.

“Your songs used to scare me,” she told him. She remembered the fuzzy radio turned low, whispering his voice as she stared out the window, at the moon lighting the mountaintops. “I didn’t know about the bullshit that followed, but hearing you sing in an accent like mine, it made me want to stay inside and turn on all the lights. In the mountain darkness, even the quiet has fangs.”

Riley looked up and past her. “I never wanted anyone to stay inside. No one writes songs where the moral is to stay inside. That’s not how I wanted it to end.”

His lips were stained with red wine and dead skin. Her own voice was still ringing in her skull. Darkness is different in the mountains, she thought. So is silence. It doesn’t feel like a sound or a sight, more like a waiting, like you’ve stepped in the center of an enormous jaw about to snap shut. Maybe that’s what Riley’s father meant by “Seek God In Volume.” Whatever drowns out that endless yawp of the mountains, that constant lip-licking threat, that’s where you’ll find God.

She thought of Riley’s son. He said he didn’t want to lose him, but people are never lost. They’re obliterated, deformed, revealed, abandoned, but never lost. The body leaves ink, and ink turns to evidence.

Celena had no kids of her own, but she’d been pregnant once. During those nights, with one foot in her dream, she’d tell herself, Everything is doubled now. Your body has two hearts, two livers, two bloodstreams, and two brains working at two different purposes. In the fight against extinction, numbers are our only weapon. That’s all Riley was suffering from, a desire for the double-life. One life where his song was forgotten and blameless; one life where his song was powerful enough to crack the sky. One life where he felt everything, like his son, and one life where he felt nothing, like his father.

She remembered her comic books when she was a girl. The traveler to Mars would see two moons, one on either side of the sky. Who wouldn’t want the double-mooned night? One to follow and one to light the path. To always be leaving and always returning. If all we have is life, why not heap it on our plate? God grant us our gluttony.

She felt a distant desire to sing. It didn’t matter which song, just something loud and clear that was impossible to explain there’s only one moral to any song—to survive long enough to be the singer and not the subject. The world will destroy what it can’t quiet, so use a breath to make melody, and the bystanders will mistake it for survival.


WILLIE DAVIS, from Whitesburg, Kentucky, is the winner of The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, The Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and a fellowship from The Kentucky Arts Council. His fiction has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, The Kenyon Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. He is the author of the novel Nightwolf. 

 

 

15 THINGS I LEARNED BY WATCHING NORDIC NOIR by Howie Good

How to pick a lock, hotwire a car, climb a rope of smoke uncoiling from the muzzle of a gun. How to attend if not conduct an autopsy without throwing up. How to arrange photos of prime suspects in a kind of mosaic on your office or even living room wall. How to take a beating with casual grace, dispose of a corpse so it won’t ever be found. How to evaluate a shipment of heroin just by rubbing a fingertip dipped in the powder on your gums. How to dress for chilly scenes of winter, do good by behaving alarmingly bad, crack wise while actually crying inside. How to function on a regimen of vending machine coffee and no sleep. How to be a closet alcoholic, a recovering alcoholic, a violent alcoholic. How to pursue vengeance with the relentlessness of a cancer cell. How to endure the world reflected in a dead man’s eye.


HOWIE GOOD’S latest poetry collection, Gun Metal Sky, is due in early 2021 from Thirty West Publishing.

SILENCE REIGNS IN THE GARDEN, poetry by Steve Passey

We get high because it feels good.
We get high to manage our memories.
The high times, they are too few, and not quiet enough.
There are too many other people around,
but
it is better than the silence and
the loneliness of poverty.
When we win that small lottery and
quit our jobs, or when we find cash
in a brown paper bag left in a ditch,
we’ll stay high and quiet for a week,
or even for a whole month,
and it will be the best thing
we almost remember,
and, like Avalon or Eden,
the best thing that we will ever believe
to have been true.


STEVE PASSEY is from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the collections Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock and Cemetery Blackbirds, and many other individual things.

ABOVE HUMAN, fiction by Nancy K. Dobson

When Lyle Sherman attended a meeting of the Star Seekers, he brought along his list of questions. Lyle liked lists. He had them all over his house, but this one was special. Ever since his childhood encounter in the field behind Sav-Mart, Lyle had longed to find other likeminded believers in the extraterrestrial realm. After seeing the flyer for tonight’s meeting, Lyle had carefully written down the questions. He’d spent his life searching the stars for answers. 

The informational meeting was held in the narrow, buff colored Oasis room at the Doubletree. There were five rigid rows of beige padded chairs, the first three occupied by a few people of various ages. One man had a bushy head of gray hair and a tangled beard. A woman sat up front, wrapped in a camel coat. In the back row, a young woman with purple boots and bright yellow hair, an unnatural and garish shade, caught Lyle’s eye. She had one leg crossed over the other, jiggling her foot, while a bored look poisoned her face. As he passed, she narrowed her heavily made-up eyes at Lyle, seeming to study him as if he was a collectible on eBay. He clutched his Next Generation messenger bag and moved quickly to sit in the empty row ahead of her. He could feel her eyes on the back of his neck as he sat down. In the vanilla room, the woman stood out like an obnoxious weed in an otherwise tidy garden. Why was she scrutinizing him like an appraiser? Hopefully she wouldn’t speak to him. This meeting would be one of the most important occasions of his life. Lyle couldn’t afford to be distracted. 

Besides, his interest in women had all but diminished since Tina. In their six months together, Tina had often remarked on Lyle’s penchant for sci-fi. She’d once asked why he liked outer space so much. Outer space? Lyle still withered inside at the memory of Tina’s derisive laughter as she tried to open his Star Trek Communicator. Lyle yelped, then snatched his mint in box treasure from her hands and the next day she moved out. 

After another minute, the man and woman seated at the front of the room nodded to each other. The woman rose and moved fluidly, as if she glided, to the ivory doors of the Oasis room. Lyle glanced back to see her carefully close each panel, as if she was wrapping a present and wanted to keep the paper from creasing. At the front of the room, the man stood silently, motionless except to fold one pale, veiny hand over the other. The woman slid back to her place beside the man and Lyle saw how similar they looked. Perhaps they were brother and sister. Both were slender, dressed in loose fitting blue slacks and blue button up shirts. Their hair was cut in a short style that was anything but stylish. The woman wore no makeup or jewelry. She was remarkable in that she was quite unremarkable, but she seemed to possess a self-assured air, and the man seemed to look for her approval more than she sought his. On the table in front of them a stack of lemon-yellow sheets of paper sat on one corner, as if someone had just made copies.  There was also a stack of paperback books. Lyle recognized several he had read: Chariots of the Gods, Flying Saucer Pilgrimage, and Communion. Seeing that flyer outside the library had been no accident. Lyle was sure he’d been lead here, to this room, to this moment. The excitement caused his stomach to churn the same as it did before he rode a roller coaster. 

The woman spoke first. “I am Cen and this is Vig. We are seekers.” She gestured to her companion, with a curious expression of her hand, palm up, fingers pressed together as if she was cupping water. She eyed the room as she continued speaking. “We are travelers and guides. Our purpose here, today, is to humbly present our mission and offer you an opportunity to join us. There is much truth, and many lies, in this world, on this planet. We believe the path to truth begins here, on Earth, but leads those who believe, those who seek . . .” She paused for a few seconds. “. . . those who are worthy of transcending their physical bodies to reach beyond this earthly realm. There is a perfect place hidden within the stars. Those who are chosen may ascend to this level, a state we refer to as, ‘above human’.”

She nodded to Vig and he began speaking in a smooth voice, one step below baritone. It was a measured tone that was easy to listen to, like a telemarketer. Lyle had always secretly enjoyed their polished pitches, though he rarely bought anything. Vig spoke for several minutes, then Cen chimed in again. Her voice was reassuring with a tinge of honey as Lyle imagined a grandmother’s would be. He had never known any of his grandparents, though he had heard stories of his mother’s mother and her penchant for tarot cards. Lyle felt sure his lineage was significant and had helped guide him to the Oasis room tonight. 

Vig and Cen spoke for nearly an hour about Earth, and the heavens, and most importantly, the divine beings who lived on an astral plane beyond what most of humanity could comprehend. When Cen asked if anyone in the room had ever had an encounter with an extraterrestrial presence, or heavenly life form, Lyle felt buoyed. Here it was, his moment to reveal his worthiness. He tried to answer out loud, but his shallow breathing made his throat constrict. He could only nod his head. Yes, yes. Other attendees did the same, and a feeling of euphoria came over Lyle. Screw Tina and her negativity. Here, in this room, were the people Lyle had always hoped to find.

The presentation continued. Cen was describing an unusual encounter she had as a young girl in Canton, Ohio that led her to seek truth when Lyle felt a tap on his shoulder. He glimpsed the yellow haired woman in his peripheral vision. She poked at him rather emphatically, as if Lyle were in her way. He frowned. The woman leaned forward, and Lyle felt her breath on his cheek. Her exhalation had a hint of citrus and the intimacy of the moment embarrassed Lyle. He pushed his glasses up his nose with one hand, balling the other into a tight fist in his lap. 

“Wanna bet this is when they parade a dead alien in front of us?” The woman snickered and the ugly snort that punctuated the end of her laugh was loud enough to draw attention from everyone in the room. 

Lyle reddened as everyone looked in his direction. He nearly wet himself as he realized Cen had stopped speaking. He spun around and shot the woman a look as malicious as he could muster, then gripped his messenger bag and shifted two seats to the left. He hoped that his obvious displeasure would show the presenters he was not aligned with this horrible shrew. 

Cen and Vig’s reaction to the woman surprised Lyle. Cen signaled to her with the same high sign she had used earlier. The overhead lights flickered, and Lyle felt the energy in the room change. Vig raised his hand to the woman also. Though Lyle could not see one, it felt like an invisible beam extended from their hands, penetrating the woman in the back row, drawing her in.

“Are you a seeker, Miss?” Cen asked. 

Lyle twisted in his seat to see the woman’s mouth hanging open. 

“Yes,” she murmured in a softer tone than the sandpaper that had grated his ears a minute ago. She sounded like a different person. 

Cen’s lips curved upward into something close to a smile. Beside her, Vig nodded and bowed his head. Then they regarded each other for a long moment. Lyle wondered if they were telepathic. Imagine if such a skill could be learned. More than anything he wished to have an ability like that. Then he would know he was special.  

Cen still directed her cupped palm toward the woman. But to Lyle’s dismay, she did not sweep her arm across the room in a smooth arc of inclusion for the rest of the small audience. Cen and Vig had singled the young woman out. 

“We find that the true seekers are those who have questions, but more importantly possess reservations. Discernment indicates the highest level of human intelligence. We believe you are one of us. Please allow us to speak with you after the presentation.” 

Others in the room nodded, seemingly pleased at this declaration, their heads dipping like Lyle’s prized Gort bobblehead. The woman in the camel coat clutched her hands to her chest and gasped audibly. Lyle thought of his list of questions. Cen had declared they were not as important as expressing doubt. He glanced back to see the woman’s expression had changed. Now she gazed at Cen and Vig with a blank face, her eyes moist. Her vision was fixed on the seekers, and she appeared to have forgotten Lyle, or anyone else in the room. 

When the meeting ended, Lyle crept toward the exit quietly. Before exiting the room, he turned to see the yellow haired woman standing with Cen and Vig at the front of the room. The Star Seekers’ eyes shone like constellations, faces open, and their cupped hands held out, as if they were saluting her. He’d seen that expression before, in the eyes of a man who’d placed the winning bid for Captain Kirk’s original Starfleet tunic. The seekers looked at the woman with recognition and wonder, as if she was the bright star they had been waiting for.   

 


 

NANCY K. DOBSON enjoys writing both poetry and fiction. She’s been published in a variety of journals including Quince, Capsule Stories, and Madcap Review. Her perfect day includes yoga, a chai latte, and some cocktail jazz. Twitter @nancy_dobson.

 

 

AWAKE, fiction by Janet Savage

 

My wife dropped the lid of our wedding gift box and gasped.

“You remember it, don’t you?” her aged father said, taking the old doll out of the box. “You slept with it every night.” He thrust the doll towards Jane, expecting her to embrace it.

She did not. His shaking hands fumbled the doll and it tumbled to the floor. Its dress quietly settled over its head and torso, revealing peach fabric legs that were capped by painted on black shoes. She blushed.

A wind, cold and bittersweet with leaf mold, slammed the front door open and into the one room cabin. She stared past her father’s shoulder and into the forest. Decayed, bloody brown leaves, raised by a gust, swept through the air and skittered across the floor. A moist leaf, ragged and veined, hit and stuck momentarily to her chest.

Suddenly, she fled past her father, into the forest and the wilding wind storm. He turned around and peered into the storm. He ran after her.

I stepped over the threshold and into their wake. She was running, straight and true, a cyclone of leaves kicking up at her heels. She was already very far away. Her father was well behind her, his thin legs going more sideways than forward like a grotesque string puppet. I followed.

I quickly caught up with her father, yet I couldn’t pass him no matter how hard I tried. Her father was calling her name, but his voice was drowned by the wind. He reached towards her, then jerked his arms out to the side to keep his balance in the tangled rushing carpet of leaves and fallen boughs.

She stopped and turned towards us. A blast pushed us back. Masses of her wavy, dark hair blew steadily across her face leaving only bits of her pale skin, red lips and one eye exposed. She looked like a slashed portrait. Vividly, her lips formed the word “No!”

She started running away again. Faster this time. He and I ran harder, but still remained far behind. Her father screamed “I’m sorr!” The wind growled just then, nearly knocking us off our feet. He buried his face in his gnarled, blue-lined hands. “I’m sorry!” He stretched his arms out to her.

He and I started to run side by side again. I looked back and forth from him to her. She got caught momentarily by a branch that hung low, perhaps to whisper its own demoralizing tale. Her blouse was now drenched and ripped. A large piece of the back flapped in the wind.

I fell hard to the ground. She had stopped running. The edge of the forest was in sight behind her. Looking back, I saw that I had stumbled over her shoe. Her father staggered just ahead of me. She turned towards us, crouched and put her hands on her knees. Her back arched up and down with her heavy breaths.

“It’s too late,” her lips said.

“Never!” he cried. “I loved you! I love you!”

“No! That wasn’t love!”  I could hear her. I could hear her!

She sank onto her knees, her head bowed, her wavy hair drawing a curtain on her face.

He said, “I loved you. That was al…”. The wind took his words. He walked towards her. She looked up and moved her hair aside.

“You never did! I loved you!” Her voice howled across the wet field between us. 

She took off again towards the forest’s edge. I got to my feet, pulling myself towards her on a magical, warm current that travelled the space between us like a magic rope. I had to reach her before he did. As the distance closed between us, I saw her hair coming undone. Her skirt sagged. Her breath was fast and hard even though she was slowing down. She wobbled over the crest of a hillock and fell out of sight.

The wind calmed. I kneeled beside her twisted body. She lay on her side and her chin rested on her chest. One arm was tucked underneath her and the other was thrown back and away from her body, palm upward. Her legs were curved into an unnatural knot. The loose flap of blouse ruffled in the breeze, exposing her scratched back. Her bare foot was shoed with mud. I straightened her skirt and pushed her hair away from her blackened eye and the split in her lip. She was broken. She had been broken.

Now she was whole.

 


 

JANET SAVAGE lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two dogs. Previous work has been accepted for  publication in Every Day Fiction, A Harvard Magazine for FairyTales, and Stanford Magazine.

 

TRIBAL WISDOM, poetry by Larry Smith

“We are walking backward into the future.
We have to turn around.” — Inuit tribal leader

 

We run a tab at the store
forgetting to make a payment.

Columbia Records Club keeps calling
asking to be paid, but Mom hands us the phone.

It’s time to trade in the Buick for a hybrid
but Dad won’t hear of it.

We kids are tired of rear window watching,
can’t wait to drive this thing,

set our feet on solid ground and
move into our own place soon.

 


 

LARRY SMITH is a poet, fiction writer, and editor-director of Bottom Dog Press. A native of the Ohio River Valley, his work echoes back to his sense of Appalachia, then and now. He is a professor emeritus of Bowling Green State University living peacefully along the shores of Lake Erie.

HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, fiction by Tobi Alfier

Years ago, when I was two years younger than everyone in my grade, Tony Almeja sat in front of me in art, first period after lunch. Tony was a bad boy on his way to getting badder, or so we thought. Word was he’d read all the Carlos Castaneda books, and that every day at lunch he’d put a stamp-sized cube of acid on his tongue, then spend all of art class drawing in his notebook.

It didn’t matter what our teacher said, Tony drew. He ignored the double-wide lines on his notebook paper, the graph paper in the cupboard, construction paper too. I liked bad boys then, and spent most of the hour watching the muscles in Tony’s back gently move, the way a branch touches a windowpane so tenderly it can’t be heard.

I got a D in art and Tony got gone. I’d of put my phone number in his yearbook but he wasn’t a yearbook kinda guy. Perfectly white t-shirts, Levis, and shiny hair, like an extra in West Side Story, with the tang of lunchtime tobacco and booze. High as a kite, drawing his imagination in his notebook and then he was gone.

Until the day I was in the desert, shipped off to relatives during my “uncontrollable years.” I looked up from the chile verde I had just placed in front of a customer, and swear I saw Tony. He was going into the “Cirrus and Stormcloud Tattoos” just across the mud-dusted street. An odd shop for a town of blue-hairs but I knew from waitressing—a lot of bikers came by too. I’d never met a one who didn’t have room for more ink on him.

I peeked in the window on break. Lining the walls were boatloads of pictures, some drawn on the big roll of plain paper at the end of a desk, a row of teeth like a shark at the end to tear it nice, some on the double-wide, three–hole–punched paper from the old days. I knew. And even though I was still young, the years had turned my mind wicked. The day I turned eighteen I cashed in all my tips from months of table waitin’ and went over there with a wad of money stuffed in my pocket.

His smile slipped a bit when I walked through the door—he must’ve thought I was the angel from Christmas’s past. And even though I would’ve given every dime I had to feel his fingers glide across places untouched, I’m a sucker for cherry blossoms and Tony was too—I could tell from his many drawings from school. That tree in full bloom fit perfectly on my shoulder, the trunk winding down my arm like Rapunzel’s hair in the enchanted forest, right onto the plates I was serving up customers.

Don’t let it fool you. The bad boys don’t always get badder. It’s the quiet schoolgirls you have to watch out for. I know.

 


 

TOBI ALFIER is a multiple Pushcart nominee and multiple Best of the Net nominee. Slices of Alice & Other Character Studies was published by Cholla Needles Press. Symmetry: earth and sky was published by Main Street Rag. She is co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).

 

 

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE LIGHT, fiction by D.S.G. Burke

The darkest part of the ocean is not the coldest part. At the deepest deep part of the ocean the warm core heats up a layer of water through the thinnest part of the earth’s crust. 

No, the coldest part of the ocean was the space between his lips and her ears.

He said, “Sometimes I wonder if you are having an affair.”

She said, “Your lips are literally fused to my belly.”

“There is room down here for one more. Have you been turning your light on?”

“Again, you would know, wouldn’t you? You are right here, always right here. I never get a moment alone with my thoughts because you are constantly talking. I can hear your chatter through my bones. If I could plug my ears and spend some time not hearing you, I would. The last thing I want is a second voice in my head.”

“Geez. Wow. That was incredibly rude. You think I like this situation? You think I’m happy down here? If you can hear me all the time, how come you never listen to me? I say swim up, you go down. I say right, you go left. We haven’t eaten in a week and I’m starving. I haven’t felt this hungry and neglected since you were pregnant.”

“You think you know where the food is? Really? Since when did you become the great food finder? Do tell.”

“I hate when you get like this. Fine. Ask all your shitty questions that have been simmering for just this moment. Burn yourself out. I’ll wait. I’ll be right here when you are ready to have a conversation.”

The female coruscated her light on and off, on and off.

Below, the male hung off her belly petulantly–which appeared no different than when he hung off her belly enthusiastically or demurely. He tried to recall what it was like to be alone. He stretched his neglected fins and shuddered at the creak of scales rubbing against calcinated cartilage. His fins spoke of a time before her. When the male first woke up alone in the dark. He’d had a hunger that started in his belly and hollowed out his nose. The pulse of predator fish nearby shuddered through his bones. He could smell how much bigger they were than him. He didn’t know what his eyes were for, what light was, until he saw her lure. His fins flapped stronger at the scent of her. One final sprint. They were thin and brittle, but they only needed to propel him so far, just from the place he was born to her light. 

She was older, much older than him. When she was born, she’d smelled the bigger fish too, but she wasn’t afraid. She was hungry. She wanted to taste everything. Her teeth came in soft and small at first but then became sharp and unwieldy. They angled away from her jaw until she could not shut her mouth. Flavors and smells rolled constantly over her tongue, giving her streams of data. She listened to this information. She listened and she learned. Her head grew a light that dangled just far away enough to avoid illuminating her talons. When she was hungry, and she was always hungry, she turned on her light. The fish that lived above sometimes dove too far below. These stupid fish swam right up to her light. It was only in the strange warm place, deep in the ocean, she tasted something flowing through her jaws that she did not want to eat. 

It was the male. 

This permanent bubble of water near the thin part of the ocean floor stays perennially warm. Many have described the experience of swimming through a spot right after a whale peed. Once a dead whale actually fell to that exact spot. The dead whale smell was intensified by the discordant heat pocket in this part of the deep. A whole ecosystem of the dark ocean society gorged themselves on this whale for a month. They got fat, swam slower, and fed the larger fish, who in turn fed the larger fish. 

The female angler fish knew what it felt like to be full for a little while. Maybe that was why she was able to smell the male just at that moment when he came swimming by on his sad little fins, barely propelling a body that would look emaciated for a sardine. He was almost too small to eat, had she wanted to. She discovered that she needed him.

She said, “It hurt me when you latched on.”

He said, “I lost myself that day. I became a part of you, but you remained yourself.”

The dead whale’s bones, picked dry, were nearly buried in the sandy ocean floor by then.

 


 

D.S.G. BURKE (she/her) lives and writes in New York City. Her writing has appeared in the Seattle Times, 3Elements Literary Review, and Stinger Stories. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram: @dsgburke.