Hello published writers of dead links…

Going through my own list of published links, I realized some of my favorite on-line markets are no longer on-line. I didn’t know how to feel about this. Should I re-submit my work or let it be?  It felt like a part of my writing history died, well, because it did.

So, coincidentally, Rusty Barnes, author and editor, posted on Facebook that he had 50-60 stories in purgatory. So I thought of something–We are not alone.

so, THIS

After your story was published in that on-line journal that died, I’ll post it here, submit to ctgager37@gmail.com with proof of work being previously published from a dead market. (Original e-mail of acceptance, dead or link from your webpage that leads to nothing.)

Timothy Gager, Editor, www.timothygager.com

GUIDELINES Send all submissions to ctgager37@gmail.com

1. Send previously published works of fiction or poetry as a .doc, along with proof of dead link, as stated above.

2. To qualify, market must no longer exist, or they’ve not archived their work.

3. If you’ve re-posted it on your blog or on places like Fictionaut, or if I can google it, then it won’t qualify to be posted.

two from jmww

Not that they went under but their archives go to dead links. So here are two stories; “This Tornado Loves You”, Summer 2012 and “How to Give Dating Advice as a State Social Worker”


This Tornado Loves You

The next time the plane landed he didn’t run out to meet her like he used to. They still drove back to the house and made love but when they were finished his eyes focused out the window at the empty sky, the rusted car in her backyard and some squirrel that would only run off a few minutes later. The monthly bills she threw out the window whipped up into a circle and he said, “They chase each other around and around like a game of Ring around the Rosie. It was something believed was fun when you were a kid, but if you listen carefully to the song, it’s about a lot of people dying.”

“I’d heard it had nothing to do with that,” Sarah said.

He came every few weeks, and blew into Sarah’s life. The moment he left, her head was as disheveled as her small apartment; overturned and foreign to the controlled way she kept it. Even though he said he loved her, Sarah could never be a storm chaser because it felt too much like a game, a dangerous one at that. She couldn’t bring herself to wrap the idea of him, no matter how much she wanted to, around herself. She’d rather hang in her basement with her arms tightly clutched over a bent down neck.

It had always been like that. When she was a girl, she pitched penny into a well. When her father asked her what she wished for, she told him, “Another penny, so I could buy a piece of Bazooka.” He frowned, said, “You should have wished for a dime then.” Nothing was good enough.

Then, during the summer she spent in Missouri as a teenager with her mother, a tornado blew through. She wished it would dance across the field and lift the motel off the ground and take her far way to a new place; a new life. She wanted that badly, but it didn’t happen so Sarah ran out in the aftermath of the storm and dropped to her knees, the wind still strong enough for her to feel a fine coating of dust spraying onto her face.

Now the sky was turning a dark and sickly green when the taxi honked for him. He pulled up the suitcase up by the handles and later when the wind started to rise, Sarah realized how quickly things are destroyed.

How to Give Dating Advice as a State Social Worker

A meeting has to happen as Henry has an IQ of 86 along with extenuating circumstances in his file—as a teenager he had fucked his eleven year old sister. Official assessment: He didn’t know right from wrong. At the time he stated, “I am a bear.”

I’m no bear. Today Henry says, “It’s been a year already since I saw you?” I’m passive. He didn’t get arrested winter, spring, or summer, nor did he die. So I’m here now. It’s autumn. Henry’s therapist, Leslie Czchowski, sits with us in a basement that has cracked yellow and red paint floors. She has big round neutral glasses, a fat beaded necklace, and a sack-of-potatoes dress. Henry wants to put her picture in his cell phone for her ringer ID, which is labeled “who ja-ma ding/” “You can’t go there,” she says.

I tell him if he wants to impress a girl he should learn to cook. He shifts his body. I add, crab cakes work well. He rocks down hard, his head misses his knee, as he practically falls off the chair. “Dude, she’ll have to run to the bathroom.” He laughs again, “Doooode.”

Then he stops, “Sometimes I don’t shit for days.” Just when I think I hear “shit for brains” he says, “I’m sorry.”

Suss: Another Literary Journal, 11/07/09

“Somewhere On The Edge by Timothy Gager

While Katrina was at rehab, she found someone else. On Wednesday, I lost her pet monkey when my hands shook and couldn’t hold onto the leash. I called out for an hour, went home, drank and made posters. I had no pictures because I had torn every photo of her I owned; most of them included Pluto. What I taped to poles were just words. “Help Find Pluto” and Katrina’s phone number.

On Thursday, it was misting, but I’d never seen Katrina so crisp and clear.

“How’s Pluto?”

“We should have a drink.”


It was early, but we talked the waitress into making Bloody Marys while she yapped about her children getting ready for school, by themselves. Katrina was crying. “9:00 AM and I have to deal with this.” She gulped her drink and her tears rolled onto the lip of the glass. I touched her hand. “Damn, you,” she said, pulled away, then stopped and moved hers back on top of mine.

Something across the street scampered in the corner of my eye and I bolted up. As I raced toward an alley, I knew there was no escape; the wet bricks shot my feet over my head and I flew onto my back. Katrina was a few seconds behind but the monkey stepped over me and leaped onto her back.

“I think he’s home. I don’t think it’s easy out here,” I said.

“Daniel,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave.”

Bottom of the World Literary Review, April 13, 2007

“End of Season” By Joseph Grant

He had come back to that city of his youth, almost on a whim, a dare of memory, to see if it still existed, if it ever actually existed in the way he had once remembered.

Winter had come early that year. The streets were still wet from the hard, cold rain the night before. Ahead of him lay the austere, brown and thickly verdant mountains and the forest that had stopped the city in its nascent tracks and ceased it from becoming better known and better managed as its neighboring sister cities.

The downpour that had fallen had left snow deeper up into the mountains and the evergreens that lined the nearby ridges were silhouetted by the pristine, frozen tundra behind them. It was a picture perfect Ansel Adams postcard, if Adams had ever been thus inspired to photograph mediocrity.

Heavy mist hung in the air, chilling those who walked the wet streets below on this overcast, but brisk day. A cold wind bit down from the white mountains, compounding the raw effect, detaining the damp footprints of long-gone passersby on the gray sidewalk below.

The last time Jack had been in the city was when he was newly wed to his wife as well as many things that spring long ago. Many things had changed since as had the many seasons that had brought them.

Leaves scurried past him, whipped in miniature whirlpools by the wind at his back and he noticed how they landed in the wet and abandoned flowerpots that lined the café railing where the footsteps of many chose to walk past, but his own footsteps he chose to leave inside.

He maneuvered through the empty tables, their white, plastic chairs gathered and stacked together in the corner, a requiem to another season passed. The ashtrays were full of rainwater, the brown and tan checkered tablecloths sopped with water, limply clung against the marble table tops.

He followed a lone set of drying footprints into the warm and smoky café. Sunlight knifed down diagonally onto three large brown and green picture frames on the orange and red brick wall. Incense burned on the bar and gave off a pungent sensory memory of being back at church as a child. His boot heels echoed on the stone tiled floor the way they did in church as the proprietor looked up at him from behind the counter.

“Hello.” The man said pleasantly, but vacantly. Jack nodded.

“Hello, Phil.” He smiled. “It’s been a long time since being back here, you probably don’t remember me.”

“You used to come in here with that whole literary crowd. Of course, I remember.”

“That’s good.” Jack said and looked around. “It’s good to see the place hasn’t changed a bit.”

“No.” The man shook his head. “Change can stay outside the door, as far as I’m concerned.”

“That’s a good way to be.” Jack agreed. “Does Desiree still work here?”


“The brunette, the one who used to work here in the mornings.”

“I’m not sure who you mean.” He said and stopped.

“You know, the nice-looking brunette. She had the nicest smile.”

“Oh her.” He remembered. “No, she got pregnant and married some guy. Still sends Christmas cards. You want me to say hello for you?”

“Nah, she probably wouldn’t remember me, anyway. She was just very nice to me, that’s all. When I couldn’t afford to eat, she’d slip me a piece of pie or a free coffee. Like I said, she was nice to me.”

“Well, I could try. I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”

“Jack.” He said. “Jack Bennington.” He said, now figuring out that the offer to say hello was probably a ruse to get him to say his name, which the man had apparently forgotten after all this time.

“Jack, that’s right, of course.” He nodded. “Now, I remember. What can I get you?” He said, moving away from the counter and the small talk.

“Caffe Latte, as usual.” Jack said, seeing if the guy would con him and say that he remembered as well.

“Caffe Latte it is!” He said and went about making the drink.

Absent-minded Christmas decorations hung overhead, even though New Year’s had been weeks past. Only three of the eight overhead lights were lit, the first, the fourth and the fifth, Jack noted. He had no idea why the others were not lit or why he had even cared. He looked to the wall for the infamous nude paintings, but they were gone and had been replaced by some awful reverberation of modern art.

“Tell me, Philippe, did you ever sell those paintings your brother-in-law did, you know the nudes dancing, like the ones in the Monet painting?”

“No, Señor.” He said with a look of painful resolution. “They never sold. They were put in storage.” He said and went back to making the steamed milk for the latte.

“Did your brother ever make a name for himself painting?”

“My brother is dead, Señor. He was a great painter. He sold many paintings during his life. Those I could never get sold.”

“I’m sorry, Philippe. I didn’t know.” Jack said. “My brother was a painter, too. I was reminded of the paintings by these on the wall. I remember when your brother’s paintings hung on the wall and the students from the Christian University came in from down the street and asked if you would take them down because they were offended by them.”

“Wasn’t it the magazines in the magazine rack?”

“No, it was the paintings. They found the nudity offensive and you told them: ‘Go somewhere else!’ I always found that amusing.”

“I don’t recall it being the paintings; it was a few years ago. I thought it was the magazines. Do you wish to buy them?”

“What? The magazines?” Jack asked, confused.

“No, Señor. The paintings.”

“That’s okay, Philippe.” He begged off.

“You could surprise that girl you brought in here every now and then. They could make a nice present for her, you know, the brunette. She was beautiful. Your wife, no?”

“No.” Jack said and looked at Philippe who stared at him perplexed. “Well, not any more I should say. We got divorced awhile back.” He said awkwardly. “Thanks, she was beautiful. Besides, I have no place to put the paintings in my new place.”

“That’s okay, Señor.” He shrugged. “You seemed interested and I know you always liked them. They’re just gathering dust in my garage. It was a thought, anyway.” He offered. “Here’s your latte. That will be five-thirty, please.”

Jack paid and sat down at a table. He spread out his notebook and took a pen from his jacket pocket and remembered all of the times he sat and wrote at the café. He smiled at the memory of the paintings and those ignorant students. College was for expanding one’s horizons, not limiting them.

The table in front of him was a large parquet-style table and sipped at the steaming latte. He had spent many hours at this very table when he dreamt of writing short stories for a public who apparently no longer read, who got their literature from audio books, who read autobiographies from the latest 15 minutes and counting no name, no talent celebrity or would-be celebutante, which was probably ghost written, anyway, he smiled smugly. He had since moved on to journalism, then to real estate where fiction-writing was a well-paid art form. He wasn’t happy and wished he could write but he had traded in his dreams for a stable paycheck and a man without dreams is a man without a reason to wake up in the morning.

The clock outside tolled. It was not the bell on the nearby church that rang; that had been broken for as long as he remembered, but the bell on the bank next door. It always struck Jack as if God had ceased to remind people of their hourly time here on earth, that the people were responsible for themselves and that if they did not attend church, then that was their business and in that, the bank had the only bell that rang, for time was money.

The only thing that could not change was the mountains. Or so he had once thought, as he bristled with a pained memory. He remembered how they had dammed up his favorite river in the mountains and subsequently, relocated the fish elsewhere.

He noticed that many of the same prints still hung in the café, the Chinese print of the Master of War pulling into Bangkok Harbor and the way the bricks on the inside were still chalk-marked to keep the ants off the wall and tables against them. He remembered that Philippe was a Buddhist and wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone an ant. He recognized the full length curtains that hung from the poles suspended out from the ceiling, demarcating the public front area from the more intimate, darker ‘regulars’ area by the back fireplace.

Jack reflected on the many changes that had taken place since he last sat near the fireplace and held court with his literary crowd and how he had showcased many a short story there to good and sometimes not so well-received reviews.

He had buried his brother, a true artist of the mind and talent given if there ever was one and he thought of him and how he loved him and how he, along with all his hopes and dreams had one day ceased to be. It was that simple. It was also that complicated. He remembered the early morning his other brother had called and his wife had picked up the phone and his brother intoned: “I don’t know any other way to say this. Doug’s dead.” and then hung up. Those five seconds changed him.

He thought of her, the one he had loved more than any, even when it was not supposed to be, but it finally happened and went on fantastically for a while and then one day, too ceased to be. Death of love was also in some ways the same as the death of that person, as they stopped being who they were to you and this, in turn, makes you change and everything is changed because of it; whether the change is welcome, a long time in coming, unexpected or changes nothing for the other or in fact, everything it touches. The point is that the change has come at all and the person whom you have loved with every fire of your being loves somebody other and the love they had for you is as cold and as dead as the winter outside your door and as dead as the ashes that have welled up inside you and choked you from the relentlessly stoked embers that once were the flames of her love.

Jack thought of how everyone is surrounded by little deaths in life. Of how there is little permanence in who we are, what we do, how we live or where we go in life. It is that sense of love that creates importance, creates memory and with each person we love, we carry a piece of them with us and that makes us part of who we are, what we do, how we live and where we go and when that love is taken from us, we are once again alone, cut adrift from the umbilical.

Which is why Jack was once again in the city of his youth. Life has many seasons and each one of them different. People entered, stayed for the duration, left in mid-scene, reappeared in the last act or just had that one memorable walk-on part, never to be seen again. It was emotion that tied all the scenery, the entire plot, the people, all of the errata, however intricate or trivially woven together. Whether the emotion was one of happiness, sadness, a strong abiding love or an equal cistern of hate or worse yet, indifference, it made us who we were, defined what we did, taught us how we lived and only absence of love in one’s life affected that season.

A cold steady rain began to fall outside. Jack thought of his brother lying dead in the frozen ground and felt a twinge of guilt sitting inside the warm café. But that had happened before the war. A lot of young men were dying this winter.

He thought of his marriage and how it too had died and how the love his wife once had for him had died and how it had been reborn with someone else. The saying went that what did not kill one made one stronger. But when the one you loved more than any other, loved honestly and loved more than life itself no longer loved you in return, it was as if you had died instead of them.

Jack wondered why he had even stopped here to begin with, as this had been their place. No stone had been left unturned by her in his collective memory. The more he stayed, the more it would remind him of what had been lost to another’s kiss. The town hid too many ghosts, held all too many dreams un-tethered.

‘Would you like anything else?” Philippe asked, his voice echoing from the darkness.

“No.” Jack shook his head. It was a loaded question in a city that left too many answers from his past. “I’ll see you next time, Philippe.”



“It was good that you came. I’m closing down the café, Señor.


“No one comes around anymore.”

Jack nodded and slipped a couple of bucks onto the copper bar and waved goodbye to his friend, Philippe. As he left the café, a hard rain began to beat down on the cement, erasing the steps of those who had been. The rain could come down as hard as it wanted, as far as he was concerned, as it was only a fleeting moment in the season.

When he got in his car, he decided he would not stay, would not bear witness to another rainy season without her. In a few weeks’ time the rain would dissipate into memory and recall the mountainside lush and green as the first time he had seen it with her. It had been a mistake to come back here, to revisit the past, he knew that now.

The coming of the new season would find him far from here, while the coming seasons changed around him almost imperceptibly, one day to claim him dead many seasons on. But for now, Jack continued oblivious, unabated and unaware in the late summer of his life, the love that would define him awaiting only a season and a half off, erasing the pedestrian footsteps of all those who had come before. The cycle would begin anew and the seasons would continue with him and one day, without him.

THIS literary magazine, 7/28/11, also nominated for a Pushcart

“The Year of the Dog” by Andrew Stancek

The year I was seven, I moved in with my parents and they killed my dog.

My grandparents had been coddling me in their villa on the outskirts of Bratislava since I was born but I longed for something else.  I wanted a father who would carry me on his shoulders, pretending to be a wild bronco.  I wanted a mother who would ruffle my hair and hand me a big slab of bublanina, a cherry sponge-cake.  But most of all I wanted the greatest possession of every kid in the world:   a dog.

Grandmother put her foot down:  “I have quite enough of other people’s cast-offs without having to put up with a mangy cur.”   Grandfather shrugged.  He had fights with her every day but knew he could not win that one.  I did not like being called a cast-off though nobody ever said my parents would come back for me.  Grandmother made desserts every day, and let me lick the remnants of milk chocolate or whipped cream from the spoon.  She let me play with my minicars under the kitchen table while she cooked.  She bandaged my scraped knees and wiped my tears.  But when she seemed worn down by my incessant questioning about Mami and Oci, I asked about getting a dog, even a small one.   She sighed and shook her head saying, “I have too much to deal with as it is.”  She handed me a muffin, still hot out of the oven and sent me to play in the garden.

Grandfather cleared his throat after our nightly checkers game and I knew that he had an announcement.  He’d hugged me hard when he returned from work; his play had been inattentive.  “Slavko, you know how much Grandmother and I love you.”  I nodded.  “We will always love you, always.”  His eyes were tearing up.  He petted the top of my head.  “We would like everything to continue the way it has been but your father is back.  He was cleared and they released him.  He and your mother have an apartment now in the center of town and…they are taking you to live with them.”  He could no longer disguise the tears dropping on the checker board.  “You will come to visit every weekend, they promised me that.  We will still be together.”

I hugged him.  My chest was also tightening, eyes were welling up.  But then, a grin was on my face. “Maybe we’ll get a dog for the apartment?  Maybe it needs to be guarded?”  He blew his nose, chuckled at my persistence.  Suddenly I did not think the prospect so bad.

The apartment we moved into was on the third floor of a decrepit building in the center of Bratislava.  The streets were narrow and winding, most of the streetlights broken by gangs.  Tattered Soviet and Czechoslovak flags fluttered from flagpoles; the everpresent banners proclaiming “With the Soviet Union Forever” were covered with graffiti.  Scraps of ripped newspapers were blown around along with greasy cardboard cones and pieces of chestnut shell. The dark passageways reeked of urine; wet sand and cement dust crunched underfoot.  After dark no one ventured out. People spoke in whispers of robberies, rapes and beatings of pedestrians.  Policemen were seen in the daylight, directing traffic, but never at night.  Grim soldiers marched in formation throughout the squares. I was frightened, not only at night, but in the daytime as well, unless I was walking with protective adults.  Yet I was also happier than I had ever been. I had, surprisingly, made friends among the hundreds of kids crammed into the other apartments, in buildings just like ours. I had an Oci and a Mami. All I needed now was a dog.

My mother was not normal like my friend Jana’s.  Mami loathed cooking.  She would sooner enter a plane than a kitchen; to her bublanina was a foreign term.  All our cooking was done by hired “aunts”.  Father never carried me on his shoulders; he only ever got home after I was asleep.  But on several weekends he took me into the woods, where we crept through the brush and gathered mushrooms.  He carved a slingshot out of a tree branch and supervised my practice shooting.  He showed me his old army gun and promised that one day he would teach me how to use it.  He did not roll his eyes or laugh at me when I told him I needed a dog.  He nodded.

“Of course you do,” he said.

Every night I regaled Mami with the adventures of neighborhood dogs.  She took to greeting me with “Not another dog story.  Not today.”  I did not listen.  What else was I going to tell her about, the heroic exploits of Slovak partisans in the war, that I learned about in school?  “Maybe a gerbil, one day,” she finally conceded.   A gerbil was a mouse as far as I was concerned.  Mice were food for real pets.  A big German Shepherd, that was a pet.  A husky maybe.  A lab.  Or, a mixture of all the breeds.  Being a pet owner was about a collar, a pink tongue to lick your face, a tail to wag when you walked by. I kept on with my stories.

The evening arrived when my father, for the first time in living memory, appeared before supper, whistling one of his endless Slovak folk tunes. My mother was in a foul mood.  Her work had not gone well.  State Radio refused to air the interview she had been refining for two weeks.  “Glorifying the first violin of the State Orchestra was absolutely out of the question,” the Party commander decreed.  “No single musician, even one in the State Orchestra, can be held above the others. Not in the interests of the State.”  My mother had already raged at me for not getting perfect on my Slovak dictation, even before my Oci arrived, and was set to storm at him simply for being there. “What the hell do you have to whistle about, Milos?” she snapped.  “There won’t be enough food for supper.  You didn’t say you’d be home.”  Then she noticed the basket, covered with his coat.  Presents always warmed her heart. She was beginning to smile when he whipped off the coat.

It was everything I had dreamed of.  Spots, wagging tail, and he licked me, licked my face. “Whroof, whroof,” the puppy yelped.  Mami leaned back to hang onto the sink. “What in Christ’s name have you done now?”

“Now Blanka, before you make up your mind, let’s just talk about it.”  I was already at the basket, having my face. licked   Its short tail was wagging.  One ear was cocked, its eyes full of hope.

“Oooh, look at those spots.  Can I keep him, Mami?  I can, can’t I?  I can, right? Where did you get him, Oci? Can I name him? Can he be mine? Can I go show him to the guys? Isn’t he perfect, Mami?  It’s exactly what I wanted.”  My mother glowered.

“Could you have done anything stupider, Milos?”

“Now look at the boy, Blanka; look at him.  It won’t be any trouble, you’ll see.”

“Yeah, for you, maybe.  For you it will be no trouble at all. You breeze in, drop it off.  Once in a blue moon you might deign to honor us with your presence.  Who is going to take care of it, feed it, clean up after it?”  As if on cue a whizz.  My father laughed.  The dog looked at him and woofed.  He smelled his pee, shook his head.  I cracked up laughing.

“Oh Oci, he peed, he peed in the basket; what do we do?”  My mother glared at me and slammed the door.

Like nearly everyone in the big city, we had a little plot of land out in the country, about an hour’s trip by streetcar, where we grew tulips, daffodils and narcissi, and harvested pears and walnuts. Whenever we could, we slept in the two-room garden shack with its three decrepit beds and Mami looked after her beloved flowers.  The dog, whom I named Napoleon, would be banished there. On the way, my father told me the story of how his friend Anton had brought the pup to work and plopped it onto Oci’s desk.  “You will love it, and so will your boy.  You know you both want one.”  They shared two shots of slivovica, then one more for the road, and the deal was sealed.  My father borrowed a discarded doghouse that I decorated with blue, red and white crepe and hand in hand the two of us dropped off my dream. “I didn’t want the damn thing in the first place,” my mother decreed.  “For now, until we decide what to do with it… You arrange the feeding.  You look after it. You set up the dog run on the far end of the garden.  I won’t have it in the house.”

Saturday with Napoleon was blissful. We crisscrossed the garden on the run.  I filled his bowl with water and when no one was looking we slurped out of it together.  He grabbed my sleeve in his clenched teeth and would not let go but the rip was only a small one and I knew my mother would not notice.  When he started digging holes with his front paws, I did it, too.   His hole was much better, though.  My father, trimming the lilacs, kept looking over, laughing.   Napoleon was the best dog ever.  “Isn’t he real smart, Mami, did you see how smart he is?  I will teach him to fetch, I will.  He is really good at digging holes, isn’t he?” My mother, on the verge of tears, could not respond. The holes we’d made had dug up bulbs, imported through connected acquaintances directly from Holland.  “Yeah, real smart, real great dog,” she finally sobbed.   “Let’s just go.”  Leaving, I hugged my best friend and whispered into his floppy ear that I would come see him very soon.

On Sunday my aunt Zuzka was celebrating a birthday at my grandparents’ house so Mother said we could not go to the Koliba garden. My father had a good excuse. “We have a dog and someone has to go down to feed and walk him.  That someone is me.”  More than anything I wanted to go with him, to be with Napoleon.  But missing a family celebration was not an option. “We have so few family occasions together anymore,” my grandfather had sighed more than once.  “I am not getting any younger.”  We had to be there.  It also meant wonderful food:  wienerschnitzel, potato salad, my grandma’s special Sachertorte.  I was promised I would see Napoleon again next weekend.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be back for supper,” my father assured us, winking at me.  “I’ll just feed him, give him a good run, and be back.”

Mami and I travelled to my grandparents’ place, ate cake, and Mami, as always, had a huge fight with her mother.  My grandfather, normally the most peaceful of men, actually raised his voice.  “Just for once, can you not let it be?” he yelled.  “Can we not have one family celebration in peace?”  My grandmother waddled off into the kitchen in tears, slamming dishes, banging forks against the heavy pot in the soapy dishwater.  My mother sat next to my stretched-out grandfather, brought out the Opoldekl ointment and massaged his forehead.  “Has it been bad recently?” I heard her whispering.  He sighed.  We left soon after and came home to wait for my father.

It was a long wait.  Much past our dinner time Mother finally went ahead and warmed up the meal prepared by one of the “aunts”.  The smell of burnt cabbage wafted into the room where I was building a castle.  In the kitchen Mami threw something against the wall.  “Hnusna mrcha,” I heard her yell.

“No, you cannot stay up for him,” she said when I came in to check up on her.

“But, Mami, he has to tell me about Napoleon.  He promised.  You promised.  Wasn’t he supposed to be back already?  Are you sure nothing happened to him?”

“Stop your asking.  He probably ran into some friends.”  Even at seven I knew that most of my father’s friends wore skirts. “The two of us will eat without him and then you have to go to bed,” she decreed.  “You have school tomorrow.  God only knows when he’ll be back.  I will tell him to kiss you good-night when he gets in.” I stood staring out the window, trembling, hearing the Blue Church bell outside strike seven.

We were finally sitting down to eat without him when we heard a heavy thump against the front door, followed by a creak.  My father swayed against the frame, sobbing.  Stinking of liquor he looked down, hit the door with his palm, shuddered.

“Dead,” he sobbed.  He leaned against the door, slid down, fell over.

“Oci, Oci, what happened?” I cried.

He coughed, hiccupped, coughed again.  His eyes shifted from me to my mother and back, saw no easy mercy. “I bought him a treat at the butcher’s.  Enough of this prepackaged food, I figured.  He is a big dog; he needs real food, real nutrition.  So I went and bought a hunk of meat on a bone, good meat for a big dog.  He was all excited to see me, jumping up and down.  I threw him the treat. Still in midair he caught it.  Then he gagged, gagged….I could not help him.  I tried, I really did.  I got my hand into his throat, pulled.  He wheezed, wheezed, I could not do it.  He just shook.  It was too far down.” I approached my father, sprawled on the floor, shirt sleeve torn.  “You didn’t mean to, Oci.  We loved Napoleon, you and I.” He reeked of distillery, death, drunken appeal for forgiveness.  He reached up to put his arm around me.  I leaned back. My dog was dead.  His arm fell down.   “I am sorry, Slavko, I am so sorry.”

My mother snorted.  “Supper is ruined, too. Get yourselves cleaned up, both of you. We’ll eat together for once, even if it’s burnt.”

Less than six months later my father was gone, too, moving out to the Koliba shack.  Throughout my visits in subsequent years, the dog house in the far corner of the overgrown garden remained vacant.

Darkest Before Dawn Literary Review, 7/20/09

“The Loneliest Mile” By Joseph Grant

The drizzle was refreshing and felt good upon his sweaty skin as he sprinted, his running shoes pounding against the asphalt with more of a pronounced slap, than the dull thump they had been making only ten minutes before. Even though it had been almost unseasonably humid, no one had predicted rain. He found it amusing, as the newspapers and weather forecasters had all gotten it wrong and he smiled at man’s inconsistency with all his technological advances to still get the weather wrong.

Either way, he welcomed the mist as it gave him a chance to cool off but he knew that if it continued he could become sick from the fluctuation in temperatures and running in damp clothing didn’t help, either. He was just a few weeks out from getting over his bout with walking pneumonia, a result of training indoors while everyone around him was sick with the flu.

His chest felt good for the first time in weeks, he mused and he knew that he had benefitted from eating and training right, even if to the point of exhaustion.  It ultimately helped him get over his illness, he knew. It hadn’t always been the case.

As a child, Brad Conrad had been unhealthy, having been a preemie at birth. This was complicated by the fact that he was also born with hypoglycemia and bronchial asthma; his chances of making it to the finish line of being released from the hospital were slim to none. He was given the last rites of the Catholic faith three times before leaving Saint Barnabas’ Children’s Hospital in New York and all agreed it had been nothing short of a miracle he left the hospital alive at all.

This is not to say that life became easier for Conrad in the interim. Due to his low blood sugar, he went into hypoglycemic shock and into a coma at age three and in a rather messianic turn, it occurred on Good Friday and he did not rise from this near death experience until the same Easter Sunday two days later.

He remembered coming out of the coma and seeing a Western with the Duke on tv. He recalled the nurse’s excitement at seeing this young child awake and out of harm’s way. He also recalled his father, mother and brother visiting him and the toy his twin brother handed to him; an Easter egg where you pushed the bottom, making the eggshell open and the sides spin to reveal a plastic yellow chick inside.

He smiled at the memory as he ran but his smile faded as he thought of his twin now dead and his father, the rock of the family just the same; gone in a flash, gone before the last quarter mile of life in the same fleeting moment the way the scenery flashed by  as he ran.

If there was anyone who should not have been here, it was him, he thought.  He had been shot at twice, a knife pulled on him, impaled with a sharp metal stick a childhood friend threw at him as a joke. He looked at the slight scar upon his chest and remembered standing there on the junk pile, aghast at the metal pipe sticking straight out of his chest and pulling the lance from his skin with a sickening sucking sound and the blood pouring forth from the wound and chasing his friend, he chuckled as he thought back upon it.

His mind also raced back to coming out of the World Trade Center and hearing a loud thump and finding out only much later that the very area he had been walking through twenty minutes before had been leveled by a terrorist’s truck bomb. He recalled the office workers wandering past him in a daze with smudges of soot around their noses and mouths and the strange sight of the Towers being half-darkened at night as a result of the attack. It was indeed a strange spectacle he remembered, but not as nightmarish as the Towers not actually being there eight years later.

It was typical of a runner like Conrad to reflect upon his life as life was a race and running put it all neatly behind him, in sort of a rear-view perspective where he literally placed enough distance between himself and his past to see things clearly now, giving him the unique acuity of hindsight as he jogged ahead.

Running also strengthened his lungs. It was the reason why he took up running in the first place. His asthma bothered him less and less when he ran and it kept him healthy and in decent shape, when most guys his age were not running or even in shape, but run down. Running also allowed him the stamina not only in life but in the bedroom and didn’t damage your balls the way cycling did, he knew. Constant jogging did have an effect on your knees though and there were mornings where he could do without it, as he could feel it now when he ran.

He likened the pain to age as much as repetition over thirty years, but he also knew that any pain he experienced would be diminished by the runner’s high as it was called, when the body’s endorphins kicked in and fill him with adrenalin. When that occurred, there was no turning back or even slowing down. When it hit, he would feel as though he could run forever.

Sprinting also allowed him freedom to jog outside of the endless nine-to-five treadmill around him. There were hardly any freedoms left in the world that weren’t regulated to death, save for sailing, he thought to himself, even though he’d never been able to afford a sailboat. It allowed him to get out in the world and meet new people, see new towns and faces he might have otherwise never seen. His obsession was not without its detractors. Too many times he had to jump back onto the side of the road or onto the grass when pinheaded drivers would shout at him to get out of the road, as if they owned it or just fuck with him, veer their vehicles right at him, as if just to prove there were pricks still left in the world.

As much as running permitted him to see the worst in people, it also allotted him the hindsight of seeing the best, as well. Many times people smiled or waved at him or called out hello and if there was a race on as there was one now, spectators were warm and gracious in their wishes and offered him water and ice as he jogged. Otherwise, he would try to focus on the race ahead of him.

He was well ahead of the others. There had been Bill Randall, winner of the Boston Marathon and the same sprinter who came in second only to Nuyuri Mumbai in New York City but he hadn’t seen Randall in a long while  and wondered if his old knee injury had flared up again and made him drop out. Jack Brown had trotted alongside him for the longest time and little by little he could hear him losing ground, until his breathing became fainter and then he trailed so far behind Conrad could no longer hear him. He had read about Brown in last year’s Runner’s Digest and had great respect for him and regarded him as his best opponent in the competition, as he knew Randall would burn them both and that Mumbai was not running today on account of a genocide in his village.

As he continued, he noticed that the crowds of spectators, usually four or five deep, had dwindled to a few dedicated onlookers. This was what runners called “no man’s land” as it was too far out from the starting line and not close enough to the finish to elicit the curious, only the devoted. Only those diehards would be out here, cheering Conrad and the others on. As he progressed, he noticed there was hardly anyone. He smiled and joked to himself that he had somehow gone off-course and then after a few minutes, the idea began to bother him.

It was impossible, he thought, as he had run a straight track with a curve here or a dip there and an occasional bend in the road, but nothing that would divert him. Besides, he had raced this exact same course a few years earlier with similar effect. At one point he felt irretrievably lost and one way or another in a strange place but then he regained his bearings and finished with no problem. That was the year they discovered the blockage near his heart and had fixed it with stints. That was his first heart attack. His age was catching up with him. He knew that was one race he couldn’t win.

Of late, his euphoria was replaced by a confusion and disorientation when running but he chalked this up to his age. In his mind, he charted the course correctly, knowing full well if he turned back he could be disqualified so he continued his momentum. The rain had stopped and the sun began to peek through the battleship gray clouds that clung co-dependently to the baby blue sky.

He groaned as the sun was often the runner’s worst enemy. While it dried the precipitation beneath his feet, making his footsteps more assured, it also heated the black asphalt and his core as he ran and weakened him in the long run. An athlete sweats more to keep his body temperature regulated and cool, thereby using more energy than if it was raining and tire him out quicker. His muscles would contract more doggedly to the change and tend to become more rigid, giving the runner a pulled ligament or worse, shin splints. When the winter arrived, the effect was the opposite as the body desperately tried to stave off the cold by burning more calories and a runner was at greater risk for physical exhaustion than if it had been pleasant weather. All of this factored on whether the athlete took care of themselves and stayed in shape. In many cases, the runner’s worst enemy was not only the elements, but often himself.

One of the psychological downfalls to a runner like Conrad was the abject loneliness and isolation of the sport. He could think of no other activity wherein the athlete competed in such a solitary manner. Conrad called this “The Loneliest Mile”. In all other sports, one faced their opponent but in long-distance running, the competitors started together but soon dispersed and ran it alone on the measure of their ability as an athlete. Surely, there were times when the athletes were neck and neck, but those instances were far and few between as had been the case with Randall and Brown, but for the most part, the runner had to concentrate on the end result and keep the focus from the mind-numbing boredom in-between.

Conrad’s mind drifted back to a memory that had taken place over twenty years before. He smiled at the vagarity of memory and knew that the mind sometimes took you to strange, forgotten ruins, but usually with a purpose rather than being an inadvertent tourist.

He met her during his first year at Boston U. She was in his communications class. As he ran, he struggled to remember her name, Dana? Dianne? Dora? Delilah?, he wondered and chuckled. It may as well have been Delilah for the way things turned out, he mused, but he was no Samson of hers, no that honor went to the football player she married; some guy with a mullet who ended up divorcing Donna after cheating on her. Donna! That was her name.

A forgotten smile slowly crept across his lips as he remembered the copper-kettle red of her hair, the same as the setting sun and the gentle freckling of cinnamon upon her pretty face, neck, shoulders, breasts, arms, stomach, hips and thighs, all the loveliness that made her a beautiful young woman besides her essence.

He had loved her then, the same way he had loved his first wife and they ended quite the same; heartbreakingly, although the latter proved more expensive in the end.

Donna was a shy and insecure girl but nevertheless, one that would mark him forever for all those who came after. He loved her most and like no other even if she loved him for awhile and then, not as much.

He winced at the painful remembrance and the adolescent stupidity of first love and for a moment, thought he felt his face flush. He wasn’t certain if this was due to the memory or over-exertion while running. He shook his head with a remorseful smile as he remembered one incident in particular.

In his twenty-first year, exactly three years to the day that they had been dating, he decided to surprise Donna. During summer break she had gotten a job as a waitress at one of the venerable old hotels on Cape Cod.

Things had been rocky between the young couple at the time and the last time he had called her, she had hung up on him; something she had never done before. He didn’t think twice about it, as he was giving her a hard time about taking the job when they hardly saw each other any more and he was a little drunk, he smirked.

He recalled his foolish decision to ride his new cross-country Bianchi-Volpe with steel frame and Shimano cantilever brakes with Poise suspension just to see her. He knew she would be impressed by such a feat. He begged his parents to buy him this bike so he could take it all the way to see her, as if to prove his worth to her by bicycling all the way from his parent’s Dobb’s Ferry house in Upstate New York to the Cape.

His parents thought it was ludicrous for him to act so irrationally over a girl and even offered to drive the determined and lovelorn young man or in the least, pay for his train fare, but their impassioned son wouldn’t hear of it. So, he took off from their house in a light morning mist that would later turn into a torrential downpour.

As he jogged he remembered the purity and compulsion of his heart as he cycled in the North Eastern rain those many years ago. He rode through the bad weather, mud, slop and drivers honking at him and determined to drive him off the road, much in the same way they did still as he ran and he recalled pulling off to the side of some rest stop along the Connecticut Turnpike and waking to find his sneakers stolen, but curiously not his expensive bike. He could never quite figure out why someone would steal sneakers off of his feet and leave his bike there, but life was full of peculiar mysteries, he was well aware. Like the time someone bashed in his father’s truck window, only to steal two dollar sunglasses, but not the gold watch next to them. He shrugged as he abandoned his socks after they were made threadbare from the pedals and rode south to the I-95 in the searing sunshine towards Stamford. He remembered from some bygone history class about how this had once been the Old Post Road that the colonists used to get from New York to Boston and smiled as he saw that he was leaving Fairfield County. He would stop and rest again when he hit New Haven. When he entered Mystic, he knew he would be more than halfway there.

Plagued by wind, rain, sun, insects flying into his eyes and mouth, he strove on and was even attacked for lack of better terminology by a group of punks throwing rocks. As he rode triumphantly towards the halfway point of Mystic, a homeless guy saw fit to mark the occasion by pissing off a one lane bridge onto him. Such was the gratitude bestowed of a modern day Romeo, he growled.

When he made it into Boston Proper on his third day, he was met by an early morning snarl of traffic that seemed to make mincemeat of his asthmatic lungs and once or twice the thought of stopping tempted him. He narrowly escaped being beat up by a group of neighborhood thugs in New Bedford who stopped him and demanded his bike, but the nearby siren of a police car sent the would-be toughs scattering and he quickly rode off, but not before one of them picked up a piece of dog shit and hurled it at him, hitting him in the shoulder with it. At least, he hoped it was dog shit, he said to himself. What was the difference, he later griped, shit was shit, either way.

After that, Massachusetts opened up to him as he rode through the lovely rocky coastline and he breathed in the clean sea air as he stopped to embrace the beautiful scenery for a brief respite.

Having secured the exact address from Donna’s sister during an intense and desperate phone call where he all but agreed to fix his friend up with Donna’s overweight sister, he rode upon the sloping drive of the grand old hotel on the Cape, The Duchess. The Duchess was a charming old lady, the kind they just didn’t build anymore and was a Victorian holdover from that bygone era of lush seaside resort hotels. One could easily imagine the rich strolling these very grounds in full evening attire, gloves, top hats and coats. The evening attire was long gone, but the rich remained and came just the same as they had for over one hundred years. With a sense of relief, Conrad rolled the last few feet past the rich guests in elated triumph and victoriously dismounted his weary body from the aluminum frame.

He was a decided outcast in his grimy sweat shirt, mud-caked gym shorts and legs, along with three-day growth of stubble, but this had nothing on the effect that the young man created when he wandered in his dirty bare feet off the soft and summer-sticky asphalt into the posh, red-carpeted lobby inside. Brad ambled up to the front desk where, like a madman, he demanded to be waited on and alarmed by the disheveled, wild-eyed intruder who was neither a guest nor a potential guest, the front desk girl summoned security. As the frightened girl waited, he refused to leave unless he spoke to a hotel employee named Donna Patterson.

Finally exhibiting a semblance of rationale and proving by student I.D. that he was more of a lovelorn suitor than a home-grown nut, the angry guards allowed him to stay on hotel grounds in an off-the-way courtyard where he was less likely to draw stares from their elegant clientele while Donna was summoned.

“Great, she’s here!” He said proudly as he saw her walking quickly down the lighted path of the garden in front of him. He knew her well, he smiled. “All she has to do is take one look at me and she’ll fall over laughing.” He said to himself as he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window. He saw how she was hurrying towards him. She probably couldn’t wait to see him. It had been such a long time; too long. He knew that all he’d have to do is grab a quick shower and shave and maybe a change of clothes and she’d be all over him like old times.  She had always told him he cleaned up well, he beamed. Just you wait, he said to his reflection.

“What the hell are you doing here?” A voice snapped behind him. “Who in the hell are you talking to?”


“Brad, what the hell? Are you trying to get me fired?”

“Donna, I…”

“Are you trying to embarrass me? You can’t just come up here like this! We have rules against having guests just showing up. We have to get it approved by our boss, Mrs. Lincoln and then security has to do a background check. Did you know you were almost arrested for trespassing?”

“What?” He asked. “Donna, I…I wanted to see you.”

“And this is how you do it?” She snapped. “You look like crap. And you smell like it too, I hate to say, but you do. Come over here, away from the window, Brad.”

“Why, are you embarrassed to be seen with me or something?”

“Brad, you look like a homeless person. Are you doing drugs? You’ve been behaving very weird lately.”

“No, I’m not doing drugs! I’ve been weird? You’re the one who’s not returning my phone calls.”

“Look, you’re going to get me in trouble.” She fretted with a furrowed brow. “You’re going to have to leave.”

“Leave?” He scoffed. “I just got here. Donna, do you know what it took me to get here?”

“Not really.” She made a face. “Right now, I’m so pissed off that I don’t really care, either.”

“Pissed off?” Brad spat. “At what?”

“Look, you can’t just come up here unannounced.”

“Donna…” He moved towards her. She backed away.

“Brad, you smell like crap, literally.” She waved her hand at him. “I am not going to touch you.”

“Donna, don’t say that.” He motioned towards her as she backed away again. “Please.”

“Seriously, you stink.”

“Please, Donna. It’s a long story.” He began. “I rode my mountain bike all the way from Dobb’s Ferry.”

“Why on earth did you do that?” She balked. “I hope you didn’t do it just for me.” She said icily. “Why can’t you just take the train like normal people?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did my parents put you up to this? You know I hate being checked up on.”

Your parents? No, I came up here out of the goodness of my heart to see you.” He smiled.

“I’m not in a joking mood. Why do you always feel the necessity to prove yourself to me?”

“I…I don’t know.” He shook his head.

“Is that all you can stand there and say?” She wondered out loud. “Be a man for once. Say something at least.”

“I didn’t realize I was on trial!” He shouted.

“Lower your voice, Brad!” She said and then wailed in frustration. “Brad, you are not on trial! Would you please stop with this “poor me” scenario? Okay?”

“But I came all this way just to see you.”

“This is exactly what broke us up. This irrational behavior, this obsessive need to see me, 24/7 or call me all the time. You don’t have to tell me where you are every minute of the day or where you’re going and you don’t need to know where I am or where I’m going or who I’m with. It’s annoying. Do yourself a favor. Next girlfriend you get? Lie to her! Women love to be lied to. It keeps the mystery, get it?”

“We broke up?” He asked in a confused manner.

“Yes, oh-my-god, why do you think I stopped returning your phone calls?”

“I thought you just needed time to be by yourself.”

“Yes, to be away from you.” She said bluntly. “This is embarrassing, Brad, look, really embarrassing, even for you. I thought it was obvious. I can’t believe you.”

“But I came all this way.”

“Look, most girls would be flattered, really they would. But as you know by now, I’m not most girls. Believe me, there’s a girl out there for you. It’s just not me, anymore. But we can still be friends.” She offered.

“But I don’t want to be just friends. I cycled through rain, mud, drivers trying to run me off the road, I was almost mugged, I…”

“Brad, you’re not listening. Stop with the laundry list of accomplishments.”

“I came all this way, Donna.”

“Look, you’re not making this easy.”

“All this way to see you.”


Hundreds of miles, Donna. Three whole days of riding, just to see you.”

“I never asked you to.” She said matter-of-factly to him.

“That’s cold, Donna, real cold.”

“Brad, I never asked you to come here to see me.” She repeated calmly.

“But I love you, Donna!” He swallowed and felt the dryness in his throat.

“God, don’t say that! That’s the last thing I want to hear right now.” She threw her hands up in the air and backed away. “I don’t love you, Brad.”

“Don’t say that. You know you do. You told me once at your parents.”

“I was drunk. I thought I did love you at one time, but I don’t anymore.”

“You’re saying you lied to me?”

“I just wanted to get some.”

“Don’t say it like that, Donna. You’re making it sound cheap.”

“Well, you were all shy and wouldn’t make a move on me and you were telling me you couldn’t. Imagine how awkward it was for me to practically beg you. I need a guy who will take charge.”

“I can take charge.”

“No you can’t.”

“Yes, I can.” Brad protested. “I can change. I came up all this way, didn’t I? The old Brad wouldn’t have done this.”

“Stop being a martyr. I never asked you to.”

“All this way, Donna.” He repeated as the realization and failure set in.

“And again, I never asked you to. Drop it.”

“But don’t you find it noble and romantic and all of that?”

“No, I find it psychotic and obsessive and self-indulgent that you thought you had to come up here like some white knight and sweep me off my feet. I find it rather insulting that you think such a cheap stunt would work.”

“You know what?” He started to pace. “Wow, I really see who you are at this moment. Really, thank you for this. Wow, you’re cold, Donna, really cold. You must have ice water running through your veins!”

“Whatever. No one ever asked you to come all the way up here on your bike.” She mocked. “Most guys would have driven a car. You still haven’t changed. You’re still a boy. I need a man, Brad, a man. Can you grasp that? This whole bike idea of yours and coming up here? You can’t blame me for it. You did this on your own. You know I hate surprises.”

“You’re not going to give me a second chance, are you?”

“Nope.” She shook her head in a way he once found cute, but was now incredibly cruel.

“Well, can I at least stay overnight? I’m exhausted.”

“Do you have a room?”

“No, I mean with you.”

“No, of course not! No way!” She refused. “You can’t stay with me!”

“Why? We used to do sleepovers with each other all the time!”

“That was then. I was younger. It’s different now.”

“Oh, please, it was last year.” He sneered. “How? How is it different now?”

“I don’t have to go into it. It’s personal.”

“Whaddya mean, it’s personal?” He asked. “How much more personal cane it be? I know you inside and out in many ways that your parents don’t want to know and you’re telling me it’s personal?”

“Don’t be gross.”

Me being gross? If your parents knew half the things you were into with me…”

“Stop bringing up my parents!”

“Why don’t you just say it? Why don’t you just tell me you’ve got another boyfriend?”

“That’s none of your business.” She turned away and then back again. “Look, I don’t have time for this, for you, for your childish games. I have to get back to work. Go home, Brad, go home. Grow up.”

“I can’t believe you’re cheating on me.”

“Cheating on you? There’s nothing to cheat on, we’re not together any more.” She sounded out each word.

“Can’t believe you’d do this, Donna, I thought we had something.” He mumbled.

“Can’t believe I’d do what? It’s over, Bradley. We don’t have anything. It’s over. Get on your bike and go home. No one asked you to try to be a hero and come all the way up here. This is another one of your guilt parties, but the difference is, you’re the only invited guest this time. Goodbye, Bradley.”

“Wow. That’s incredibly heartless.” He muttered as she stormed away. “Fine, go to your boyfriend. You’re such a whore. Can’t believe it. Not even a thank you or an apology, geez.”

“Cos I did nothing wrong. So long, loser.”

The experience still stung as he thought about it all these many years later. To this day, she managed to evoke anger in him unlike any other when he thought about how badly it had ended. It’s correct to think, even though plausibly one will deny it to the full extent, should anyone ask at all, that truth of the matter is this: One is never over their first, truest love. No matter how many times one denies it, thinks about it, tries not to think about it, how many years or experiences they endure. The first love is the most memorable and all who come after will be judged by its early merits and its inevitable abject failure. One can put entire continents between heartache and bad memories but the heart will always find its way back home no matter how many ways one does to admit otherwise. Love can be broken by another’s kiss or a lover’s lie. But as love ties together two it cannot be without tether as it is eternal. Not even death can end love. Brad wondered if it were she whom he had been running from all of these years.

His feet padded upon the road and he saw the finish line up ahead. He felt his blood boiling as he thought about her. Both of them would have still been together had she just listened, took a breath and thought about things, he found himself seething out loud. There would have been no future mistakes, no complications, no attorney’s fees, endless alimony or visitation rights to be fought over if she had not been so dense and full of herself, he grumbled.

As he ran he felt faint and his chest began to feel tight. He wondered if it was a side effect from the medication he had been taking or maybe the pneumonia. Whatever it was, he was fighting for breath and the air seemed to come in thick clumps at the back of his throat. His legs and arms ached from forward momentum and his torso began to ache. His hands reached slowly in front of him as if swimming under water and his chest cavity felt as if it would split open and he slowed his gate considerably, almost down to a stride. He wondered if he was having another heart attack.

The strangest thing was that there were no runners at the end of the race, no cheering crowds, not one photographer. It was eerily quiet. He collapsed as he crossed the finish line, thinking how this was the strangest race he had ever been in. He sighed, closed his eyes and opened them once again. A figure stood over him and introduced himself as Death. For Brad Conrad the race was finally over.

Bananafish, 2010

“The Suicide Lie” by Nathaniel Tower    
My life is a sham. You’ve heard of people living a lie before, but mine has to take the cake. I’m a suicide prevention counselor for teens. Most of the time I answer phones and tell kids not to kill themselves over their boyfriends and girlfriends and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, etc. I’m not even sure what the number is—1-800-DONT-DIE or something like that. To date, I figure I’ve “prevented” a few hundred teens from killing themselves, but there is no way of knowing for sure. We don’t take names, so it’s not like we can go check the obits later in the week. There is really nothing to keep us accountable. The boss can’t come up and say, “Tommy, you killed another one. It looks like I’m gonna have to fire you.” In reality, I could just tell all the kids to shoot themselves.

The whole idea of suicide fascinates me. To be quite honest, I’m glad it exists. Without it, I don’t know what I would do for a living. In fact, I’ve come to love suicide so much that I am going to kill myself today.

I thought about talking myself out of it, but I know there’s no point. I understand fully, did from the beginning, that everything I say is just a load of crap. I’m only allowed to give pre-written responses to the kids. I have a manual of about 1000 pages outlining every possible situation any teenager could ever think of. Whoever wrote the manual must have either had a lot of suicidal thoughts or known a lot of people who wanted to kill themselves.

The manual is a mix of compelling questions that show we care and a list of responses that offer potential hope for the betterment of their lives. There are lots of people who love you. The world is a better place with you. Sometimes it takes awhile to find who we really are. Everything works out for the best in the end. Your life is worth living. That’s just some of the crap I have to say to these kids. I hardly believe anything I say anymore. I could have a kid tell me that he wants to slit his wrists because his parents just got divorced, he is failing all his classes, his girlfriend dumped him, his favorite band broke up, his dog just died, everyone forgot his birthday, his car was totaled, he was fired from his job at the local frozen custard stand, and he was voted ugliest kid as his school, and I still have to tell him “There are lots of people who love you.” Sometimes I just laugh to myself.

One of my favorite questions to ask the kids is “Have you planned how you are going to do it?” It’s a question we’re supposed to ask to see how serious they are, or if this is one of those fake cries for attention. I’ve heard all kinds of things. Of course there’s the standard stuff like hanging, wrist slitting, shooting yourself in the mouth, running the car with the garage door closed, and drinking bleach or another household poison. Whenever I hear a kid say one of those things, I yawn to myself. Now I know why you’re killing yourself, I think. You don’t even have any creative energy. Be a little original. Do something that’s gonna make people remember you, I say. Actually, it’s what I think, although I did slip up once.

“Have you planned how you are going to do it?” I asked while looking at page 104 of the manual under the section titled “How to Gauge the Seriousness of the Threat”.

“No,” he told me through heaving sobs (the manual says that sobbing is usually a sign that they are just seeking attention. The truly depressed, those that really want to off themselves, never cry. They hold it all in until the final act).

“Well, then it’s not too late,” I said into the phone in my best you-can-do-it voice.

“Not too late for what?” he sobbed.

The manual didn’t expect that question. No one was supposed to respond to the generic pick-me-up attempt. I flipped through the pages quickly, remembering the rule that I wasn’t supposed to have more than five seconds of silence at any time while the “client” (as if he were using a paid service) was on the phone.

“Well, it’s not too late to do something that will make the world remember you.”

“Thanks,” he told me as he hung up rather abruptly.

I didn’t think anything of it until the next day when I read about the naked boy who hanged himself with a thick chain from an interstate overpass holding a sign that read “Now You’ll Remember Me”. I can’t say with certainty that he was the youth I had spoken with, but I’ve always suspected it. That was just too coincidental to be a coincidence.

Sometimes I just want to tell these kids to stop whining about it and do it. Have some guts, I want to say. Quit thinking about it and just do it. You obviously aren’t that serious or you wouldn’t have called me. But, by rule, I usually stick to the manual.

Most of them don’t have much of a plan. They haven’t really been thinking about it for long. Me personally, I’ve been planning mine for awhile. Suicide is one of those things that really takes a lot of thought. You don’t just walk up to a knife and say, “Hmmm, I think I’ll kill myself right now.” You sit there and stew over it for days and weeks and months and years. You let all of the terrible things about your life just soak up until you’re so full that the only release is self-inflicted death.

My suicide is far better than any I have heard these kids mention. No manual could ever know how to respond to this one. I’ve concocted the plan, ironically, at work during the past six months, and only now do I think that it is good enough. The way I see it, the worse your life, the better your suicide better be.

Of course my life was bound to be bad when I took on a job that has no evidence of success. No one calls me three years later and says, “Hey, thanks, I haven’t killed myself yet even though my life still sucks.” And I know their lives do still suck. Things like that don’t turn around very quickly. Once you’ve got a sucky life going, the only thing that can really turn it around is getting a new life. That’s why suicide rates have skyrocketed. One of the fastest growing jobs in the country is suicide prevention counselor. That’s one thing I have going for me: job security. I know I’ll never be fired, not unless one of the kids calls my supervisor and blows out his brains over the phone after doing a little name dropping. But anyone willing to do that is more vengeful than suicidal, so they would be much more likely to just find me and kill me.

So anyway, today is the big day. I’m going to kill myself. I’m staring at my own plan, tucked in the pages of the manual like a schoolboy hiding his dirty magazine in his book, when the phone rings. It’s the twelfth call of the day. Something about Fridays seems to make people want to kill themselves.

“Suicide prevention hotline,” I say warmly, “your life is worth saving.” That’s our slogan. We have to start and end every call with it. Seems so phony. If I called one of these stupid numbers, I would kill myself as soon as I heard the voice say that.

“I’m going to kill myself today,” the somber voice on the other end replies.

“Have you planned how you are going to—”

“Yes, I have. I am going to fall down the stairs on to a knife. That way people will wonder if it is an accident. Years later, my parents will find a note when they are finally finished clearing out my stuff.”

This is an idea I haven’t heard before, and I am intrigued. It’s my last day on the job, so I don’t really try to stop him. I pull out my own plans and shut the manual.

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“Excuse me,” the voice says in surprise.

“What if you don’t die?”

“Aren’t you supposed to try to talk me out of this?”

“Nah, not today. I’m gonna kill myself when I get home,” I say proudly, hoping he will ask for my plan.

There is a long pause. More than five seconds pass. Possibly more than ten. I’m pretty certain that he’s gone off to kill himself.

“Why? Are you a mastery of irony or something? That’s idiotic. Think of all the things you have to live for.” The kid sounds very concerned.

“Name one. You don’t know anything about me kid.”

“I know you care enough to answer the phone when someone who wants to kill himself calls.”

Five more seconds pass. “Oh yeah. Well maybe I only answer the phone to tell kids to kill themselves. Maybe this is really the suicide encouragement hotline. You’re life is worthless. Go ahead and kill yourself. You’re gonna be my fourth victim of the day.”

“I can see right through your act,” the kid immediately retorts, not an ounce of depression in his voice. “You’re just crying out for attention. You’ve hit a rough spot in life, and you’re afraid it’s going to get worse. Well, if you knew half the shit I’d gone through then you would run through the streets kissing every man, woman and child you saw.”

Fifteen seconds pass. This is just unprecedented now. I’m sitting there listening to the silence, waiting for the scream that follows the landing on the knife. I think about asking him what’s so bad, but I’m worried that it will only make me realize that my life really is okay.

“Hello?” he asks.

“Yeah, I’m still here,” I respond, not knowing what else to say.

“For the record, I wasn’t going to kill myself. But I do have a shitty life. I’m just a lonely loser and I saw your ad on the back of a bus and I thought it would make for a good conversation.”

“I figured as much,” I manage to spit, my voice cracking.

“Alright, well, I’m gonna go now. Good luck with the suicide. What’s it going to be? Gunshot? Drown yourself in the toilet? Impale yourself with the phone?”

“Thanks for calling the suicide prevention hotline. Your life is worth saving,” I hear myself say robotically. I don’t wait for him to respond. I hang up the phone, pissed that a kid has just shown me how to do a job that took four years of college, three years of graduate studies and a year of training. My life can’t possibly get any worse at this point. This is the apex of the pitifulness of my life.

I crumple up the pages in front of me. I decide I’m going to need a new plan.

Brave Blue Mice, 8/15/11

“Polite Notes of the Dinnertime Neighborly Etiquette Apocalypse” by David S. Atkinson

To: The Steak to the left on Roger Ebert’s dinner plate

From: The Baked Potato on the aforementioned dinner plate

Dear Steak:

This note is just to let you know that your juices are running over into my area of the plate. My personal space, if you will. I’m sure this is something that you simply have not noticed as of yet. As such, I wanted to bring your attention to this problem.

Lord knows, I do not want to be one of “those neighbors.” You know, those busybodies that complain about every little thing. I try my best to be and let be. We all have our different habits that someone is sure to not be fond of. If we cannot be at least a little tolerant then we will never be able to have a harmonious community.

However, I cannot ignore the flood on my portion of the plate. I tried to, I assure you I did, but finally I felt something had to be done, even at the risk of being one of “those neighbors.”

At first there were just a few clear yet red-tinged rivulets, glistening with streaks of your melted salty fat. But now my area is drenched, completely covered in a gigantic coagulating deluge. Your juice has even started soaking into me and I fear that I shall become soggy.

As I mentioned before, I am certain that this has merely escaped your attention. If you had been aware that this was going on, I have no doubt that you would have already corrected the problem. Thus, I only wanted to bring this matter to your notice so that you would have the opportunity to act upon it.

I look forward to many more pleasant years in this community and to having such a good neighbor as you. After all, we are all on this plate together. Please do not hesitate to let me know if there is anything I can do to assist.

Sincerely, your neighbor to the right,

The Baked Potato


To: The Steak to the left on big fat Roger Ebert’s dinner plate

From: The Baked Potato directly to the right on that plate


Your response to my note, if in all generosity it can be termed a response, shocked me. Frankly, it was rude- perhaps worse. I mean, you actually wrote “Dude, chillax! What’s your problem?”? What am I supposed to make of that?

As for my response, if I can even properly formulate one, is that I will not “chillax.” This is a legitimate problem. I will not ignore it. I will not go away. Honestly, I could take this to court, if it came to that. I am trying to be good neighbor, though, and be civil.

However, do not think I will not go to court if this is not resolved.

Regardless, your inquiry as to exactly what my problem is made me think that maybe you really might not grasp my situation. Perhaps we might make some headway if I can make you understand. You see, I am not just complaining because I am uncomfortable. Being wet (of course) is no fun, but I could survive if that was the extent of it. However, you have to appreciate what I have been doing over here.

For once I managed to get myself, after ensuring that absolutely all dirt and other particles were washed from my russet skin, perfectly cooked. You have no idea how difficult that is. Being just slightly undercooked will yield a flavor reminiscent of sour milk. Overcooked results in a better taste, though the mushiness and paste-like after reside is no picnic either. However, this time my cooking turned out perfectly.

After that, I split my topside just enough to release a small amount of heat so as not to burn our diner, but not so much that I would go cold too quickly. Then I threw in just a small amount of butter, a liberal amount of the best sour cream, and exactly the right colorful amount of diced green onions. I am talking about angelic-level perfection here, perfection and a tremendous amount of work.

However, the flood is ruining all my efforts. Your juices are soaking deep into my translucent white flesh, dissolving my consistency and destroying my perfect flavor. I realize you think dumping warm juices over everything just makes things taste better, but I, for one, do not agree. That is just not what I have worked for.

Of course, I do not expect you to fully appreciate this. Your opinion is that taste should be simple and uncomplicated, not so much craft and work. A simple tip cut crusted with salt and pepper, fried a few minutes on each side in peanut oil and flipped once in a while. Still, I hope that you can get where I’m coming from now and that this might make you more responsive.

I appreciate it if you at least made an effort to understand. Regardless, this situation is your responsibility and I implore you to take it seriously and correct the problem.

Regards, your neighbor to, and in, the right,

The Baked Potato


To: The Steak to the left on the hungry natural disaster that is Roger Ebert’s dinner plate

From: The Baked Potato on a more fortunate portion of that plate

Neighbor Steak:

Please accept my sympathy regarding your present predicament. It is unfortunate and I feel for you. I am sure that having pieces of you methodically sliced off is very traumatic. To then have those severed pieces chewed, swallowed, and subsequently digested only adds injury to existing injury.

However, though I commiserate, I must still think of myself. I cannot simply overlook things because you are going through a difficult patch. After all, we all have troubles. My life is certainly not free from them.

Take my sour cream as an example. I suspect that the temperature of the dining room has caused my sour cream to separate. Unpleasantly, a layer of water appears to be forming and I have to do something about it. Regardless, my sour cream problem would not excuse me should I harm you. No, I would still have to make you whole.

Of course, my problems might not be as pressing as yours. I do admit that. However, I am certain that even with your present position you might still find a way to ameliorate your spillage. Then, if there is any assistance I can offer you, I will certainly do so.

With best wishes for you in your trying times, your plate co-resident,

The Baked Potato


To: The Green Beans to my right on that bastard Roger Ebert’s dinner plate

From: The Baked Potato left on that lonelier plate

Dearest Green Beans:

Please accept the sincerest condolences that I can possibly convey. My heart goes out to you at hearing of the loss of your beloved Steak. I know my words cannot possibly assuage the hurt that you are feeling right now, but I have nothing to offer you that will and so I offer them anyway.

I am utterly beside myself. I had no idea that Steak’s situation was so dire. Here I was, firing off rounds of missives, worrying about a petty property line issue, and Steak was struggling through his (?) final moments. And now, Steak is gone. My behavior was unconscionable. I did nothing to help him (?) in his (?) greatest hour of need and I will never forgive myself.

Worse, to have my puerile complaint find you in the midst of you grief was an insult that I cannot even fully comprehend. I was not even aware that you and Steak were together. Looking back with what I know now, I find my actions staggering. I can only assure you, though I expect that you already know, that I never intended this result. I would never have written that last note if I had suspected.

As such, I am afraid that I will have to decline your gracious invitation to attend Steak’s service. Truth be told, other than this recent dispute I did not know Steak very well. He (?) was a good neighbor other than the juice river problem, but we simply did not have the opportunity to be closely acquainted. Given that most of my contact was in the form of these now hateful notes, I think it would be disrespect Steak’s memory if I were to attend. Again, though, my heart goes out to you right now. I do not expect that this hurt will soon fade, but I do ask someday you try not to think too badly of me.

Frankly, I am not adept at handling these sort of times in life. Roger Ebert is a mysterious sort of being in his ways and I do not understand why these things have to be the way they do. Why are we made if we are only to eventually be eaten? Is Roger Ebert just cruel?

Of course, there are no answers to such questions. All we can do is try to live the best lives we can, treat each other as decently as is possible, and hope all that is enough. As I have said before, we are, after all, on this dinner plate together.

Your humbled servant, your neighbor definitely on the left and not in the right,

The Baked Potato