“Pumpkin spooge squished in the girl’s hand when she squeezed and twisted. Pulling out the guts
and pulp means we can bake the seeds and eat them.”
By Norjuan Q. Austin
I wrestle with actual demons, not metaphorical placeholders for an addiction to drugs,
sex, and an adolescence gone wrong still haunting—a past life violating a present one. No. My demons seem more real
than this, though in truth I am sure they are not. Perhaps it is simply my experience or vantage point which magnifies them,
or maybe my very small stature is to blame for my warped conception. Nonetheless, they seem more real to me than the demons
that must haunt you.
There is temporary relief at this moment, as they are away. Where they
go when they are not tormenting me is anyone’s guess. I simply enjoy the relief, or at least that’s what I’d
like to believe. The unfortunate and inconvenient truth of the matter is that I feel quite lonely without their twisted torture.
Their voices tell me of the day when my worrisome worst fears will materialize right in front of me, just as I suspected they
would. Of how I am better off because I never allowed myself to hope for the happiness that seems to have captured the imagination
of the rest of the world: peace, prosperity, love, marriage and two point five children, and a graceful old age. “Fiction,”
they scoff, “—anger, suffering, want, unfaithfulness, barren wombs, and a life cut short by a diseased body—is
the true nature of the world.” I feel self-conscious when they leave, like a hostage beginning to bond with his captors.
When set free, I illogically begin to wonder “what’s wrong with me that they became bored tormenting me?”
Am I no longer a good captive? Do I not suffer well enough, long enough, visible enough? Do I not perform in the role of the
victim correctly? I seem to have too little self worth to even suffer properly.
I’ve come to depend on them, seeking their advice, knowing they
are right…about a great many things. My life, you understand, has shown me the error of hopefulness. From simple losses
like the love of a woman to the loss of a loved one, life always seems to undercut its own potential to be what God must have
imagined: “life will be Me expressing myself in My grandest form […]. And man? Why, We shall create him in our
My looking-glass mirror isn’t working properly. My mirror reflects
less of God in me than the Black children sitting in a white Mississippi Elementary school classroom in 1961; less God than
there is bread for hungry children in my city, your city, my country, your country, my planet, your planet; less God than
there is mercy for the weak and elderly as they are shipped away to special “communities” for the aged and intolerable;
less God than losing my sweet, black grandfather but never getting to know him in my youth while, as a grown man, never knowing
if I would ever see him again; less God than witnessing the loss of Beverly Bars and not knowing how to comfort the daughter
she left behind just as she was becoming her own woman; less God than there is ice water in hell.
God seems to speak to man only in the shower, behind the curtain, where
the senses are confused by steam, heat, and lightheadedness, where the eyes sting with soapy water and man is unsure if he
heard what the Lord Sayeth correctly, but he will swear by it and kill for it seconds later. My Demons speak clearly, loudly,
articulately, everywhere, except in the shower. That’s when I get my five minutes with God. Five minutes…while
I’m trying to get ready to face the world on this dark, dark planet, in an abandoned part of the universe about which
God regularly forgets, musing to himself, “Earth is still around? Wow, that is so retro!” My Demons get more airtime.
They have better sponsors.
But why not listen to God
more closely, given I only have five minutes with Him each day? Would not any time be cherished, any moment with Him golden,
any higher perspective better? Perhaps. Though what is interesting is what my Demons say about God. They seem to be big fans.
They tell me to look for Him everywhere in everyone. They flash into my head pictures of history, global and local, and demand,
“Find God here!” “Find God in him” “Find God in her.” “Find God in this!”
“Where is Our God?” They seem just as interested in his dissociation as I am, as if they were once like me: vulnerable.
Take for example that simple
and perverse moment when you finally see age in your parents’ eyes, when you realize they are torn, tired, ragged, and
that raising you is partly at fault. That they are no longer as able to fight against life’s obstacles as you now do,
and that they can no longer help or protect you anymore than you can protect them. They are not immortal as you once believed.
Their youth was full of additions to feed, misplaced aggressions, wasted talents, and loss.; they are human and must and will
die, leaving you looking for meaning, as they often did, in-between showers. At that moment, you become aware that the super-strong
black mother who suffered in silence to protect your youth and the ego of her counterpart is obviously a mythological byproduct
of surviving oppression. She is no longer strong. She was never built for that kind of wear. And now, way past warranty, she
continues her story, assured that the good Lord sees her suffer in silence, and that she will be repaid—that her road
will be repaved. “She’s foolish,” say the Demons. “We will not let you become what she is.”
“Hers was a wasted life,” they continue, “we will make you stronger.” And they have.
I wrestle with them, “conditioning”
as they call it. I train my body not to expect nourishment so it is never shocked into rejecting anything. Chic-Fil-A and
Wingstop are two out of three meals. I ignore the feelings of any woman who offers her body up for gratification. I simply
consume and move forward, not caring. She is simply the third meal of the day, nothing nourishing per se. I don’t feel
or care about the subconscious goings on or sacrifices, deals, and barters she must have made with her own ideologies, religion,
her concepts of self-worth, or that she has risked rejection from her God by letting me enter her body anymore than the Demons
consider these things when they enter mine. I care not what her shower will be like after our deed is done. I find no God
in her. I am strong.
I ignore the call of my
planet, whose immune system is fighting back and attempting to kill me off with antibodies like Katrina. I am now the virus,
the sickness. No longer is man in his vulnerable state, no longer God in His own image. I am strong. I feel nothing.
I am empty, and need not be filled by anything. I am wish-less, hoping
for nothing. And still, I will not give up. I am strong.
My body is trained to ignore
the need for sleep and my brain will release consciousness only when prompted by Ambien CR. When the mind is filled with unrest
and unwelcomed voices, sleep can be just as much a torment as a relief.
Yet, I still strive and
look for God, listen for his voice, pray to him for guidance, though I am all but sure he cannot hear me. I never gave up
on God, but I have felt his absence many times. I remind myself of the poem Footprints. You know, when the speaker asks God
why there were only one set of footprints in the sand when life got hard. God then replies, in riddle-like form, “those
were the times I carried you.” But I don’t feel carried. Not ever, not in the shower. I just feel wet.
Now exhausted from fighting,
my captors have ironically taught me a simple truth. Perhaps it is as simple and complex as this: the Demons serve a purpose.
Maybe they are so loud so as to force me to listen harder for God’s voice. Maybe understanding is gained only through
toil. That is a horrible thought for one as lazy as I am, but maybe, just maybe, that is exactly what is happening. I’d
like to think that my Demons are more real than yours, stronger than yours, louder than yours, but in reality this simply
isn’t true. We are connected, you and I, in the never-ending journey toward understanding. Me, you, God, the shower,
the Demons are all a part of this search that will never end with understanding. Therein lies the paradox of both the unfortunate
truth and the everlasting hope we often believe is no longer inside of us, the world, the universe, or the mirror.
I’ll leave my laptop
open for my mentors’/tormentor’s return. I’ll be in the shower with ear plugs, not listening. I don’t
want to hear. I just want to feel. Maybe God is in the water and if you mix him with two-parts soap, there is peace. Perhaps
the search is the joy not the solution; the journey and not the destination is the joy, the reflection in the mirror prompting
me to judge my lack of progress an untruth.
Yes, my laptop will be open for the return of my teachers. And when
they demand, “Find God in this writing, meaning in this writing, salvation in this writing,” I will reply, “No.”
You find that meaning is not here. That Salvation and God must be absent in order to be found, and that the joy, the true
joy of a life completely lived lies embedded in the search and the journey and in the wonderful certainty that God is too
complex to ever be figured or found out completely.
I am strong. And dry.
Norjuan Q. Austin is Assistant Professor of English at Stephen
F. Austin State
University. He teaches courses in Children’s Literature, English
Education, and African-American Literature.
Cigars Under the Stars
By Derek A. Schneider
I can still recall my first cigar.
Eighteen was several months away and the October sky was crisp
and clear with a slight chill that rode upon a wispy breeze. My father led me out through the side door of the house, into
the carport, and past the old ’78 Malibu that sat broken and sad like the lost fossil of some long dead creature left
to decay in its loneliness. Out on the driveway, he turned to me with a beer in his right hand and two cigars in his left.
With a smile he held one of the cigars out to me and said, “Want one?”
With a little apprehension that led to a slight hesitation, I
held out my hand and took the stogie between my fingers. It felt tight and solid, yet held a fragility that was foreign to
my hand. My father put his to his nose and sniffed at the cylindrical shape. I mimicked this ritual and experienced for the
first time the pleasant smell of cherry mingled with tobacco.
“Not bad, eh?” he said as he studied my face. “Smooth
as a prom queen’s thighs, only not quite so risky.”
A quote from a Clint Eastwood movie was nothing rare from Dad.
He dug into the pocket of his sweatpants and pulled out a book of matches. Striking one, he held it up to the cigar in his
mouth and puffed on it repeatedly until the tip glowed the ember orange of a winter sunset. He exhaled with a delighted sigh
and handed the matches over to me.
“That’s the way you light it,” he said. “Were
you paying attention? You got to do it just like that.”
I struck my own match and copied what my father had done, feeling
the smooth taste of the cigar invade my mouth. And then I let it out with slow satisfaction. I’d had my share of experiences
with cigarettes as a boy, but I stopped at age thirteen, when the trouble they brought me far outweighed any small pleasure
So, we smoked our cigars there, under a blanket of stars, and
my father began to point out the constellations across the night sky as he often did when I was only a child, fascinated by
space and its mysteries. We talked for a while of astronomy, but the gears switched as always to politics, and my father spoke
of his beliefs in the same manner he always spoke of everything: with passion, with anger, with a sarcastic and disbelieving
sense of humor at the cost of those who claimed to be our leaders.
All the while we smoked.
By the time midnight was a distant memory we had moved on to the
many complicated complexities and inconsistencies of religion and those who practiced it. Then it was movies, classic rock,
and women. As late as it was, there was always time for women. It was the first of many nights spent with a good cigar and
Now, seventeen years later, we still have those conversations,
more often than not on a golf course or at a family get-together. But, every time I walk out onto my own driveway with the
smoke from my cigar swirling in the air like the vague image of a dancing spirit, I look up at the stars and think of those
long ago nights when stood outside smoking with my father. And then I wonder if my boys will be as keen to the idea of sharing
a cigar and shooting the shit with their old man when they get to be old enough.
Derek A. Schneider is the author of several works of fiction, including
the critically acclaimed Seasons Change Series of vampire books and the new horror
novel, The 9 Ghosts of Samen’s Bane. An aspiring artist for several years,
Derek was the illustrator of an independent comic book that was eventually shelved and never saw publication. In the aftermath,
he turned to writing and has produced four books and several short stories in the horror genre, most of which hold Indiana
connections. Derek makes his home in Indianapolis with his wife and their two mischievous little boys.
project, so long in its development, turned out a total success, so of course it could not be used.
de la Monet, that universally beloved and acclaimed, if rarely solicited, director, had been laboring under it nearly all
his life, from his earliest artistic forays as a pudgepot of eight years, through the era of 9.5 mm film and the Midas projector,
to the waste of digital cameras and too-infinite perspective, emerging from his sixth decade as a thin-bodied, thin-faced
man, cold, with the usual glance of informal regret.
de la Monet’s career had been one of supreme dedication, if lacking in passion. He had identified early on his artistic
perception, and latching on to moving film as the medium by which his views would be expressed, he proceeded unerringly and
without joy into the world of professional filmmaking. Not surprisingly, he earned his reputation as a stoic and deeply purposeful
director, which is to say that none of his films made any money. Every so often, some critical body sent an award or cash
grant his way, which dulled his hunger, kept his name on the tongues of film students, film professors, and closet virgins
for the sixty-plus years of his career, and enabled Pierre to avoid the early death that would have guaranteed
him artistic nobility.
grand project was rather simple, even by the filmmaker’s austere standards. No script, no actors, no memorized lines,
no music but the natural sort played by rustling grass, sat-in furniture, cleared throats, and buzzing televisions. Had it
been released, it would, like all of Pierre de la Monet’s films, have been labeled a documentary and suffered the usual
fate. The film’s star and sole cast member was none other than Pierre de la Monet’s younger brother, Frank.
ten years after his older brother, Frank came into the world at just about the time Pierre
had learned to both control his third-hand Midas and to shoplift the necessary reels for it. This could not be a coincidence,
thought young Pierre, and in such a manner the grand project
filming schedule was rigorous if not particularly selective. Through Frank’s infancy, he immortalized his twists and
gurgles for an hour or two daily, beginning a stack of film canisters in the corner of his bedroom that physically edged him
out of the room by the time he reached twenty-seven years, the age which his parents evicted him from their premises and the
local camera shop went out of business, having suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of theft over the past seventeen
years. This, too, could be no coincidence, and Pierre was
content to leave home, returning every other week or so to invest a few thousand meters of film (35 mm now, fed through an
N&S Auto Kine) in his younger brother’s activities.
now, Frank was deep into adolescence, the vast majority of his formative experiences behind him. Besides the invaluable reels
of baby Frank’s gurgles, wails, and pukes, Pierre had collected marathon-length strips depicting an abbreviated battle
with childhood asthma, the breathless loss of a beloved Cocker Spaniel, countless beatings at the fists and feet of local
bullies and his older brother (Pierre’s sole cameo in any of his own films), furtive attempts at prepubescent masturbation,
and various other enlightening episodes, all faithfully documented through Pierre’s steady camera hand and stealthy
so the grand project continued until the morning of Pierre’s
seventy-first birthday, when the filmmaker received a wonderful gift: Frank had perished during the night. Moreover, by a
beneficent stroke of chance, Pierre had set-up the tripod
in his younger brother’s bedroom the night before, giving him a perfect, if a bit shadowy, depiction of his subject’s
death. Thought Frank’s passing was a mystery to all, Pierre
found he could at last set his tired eyes to the process of editing.
he endured was simultaneously tragic and tedious. From the black-and-whited burst of Mrs. de la Monet’s crowning extended
years of footage. Yet, for all Pierre could see, he had filmed
his autobiography. The brothers’ resemblance was uncanny. While Frank had not been gifted with his brother’s immaculate
artistic perception, he had managed a fair job imitating him, his vain pursuits and petty triumphs encased in hissing polymer.
the four years consumed watching his younger brother’s life unfold, Pierre
saw nothing new. The same burdens shouldered, the same wagers made, the same paths carved, with nary a word of gratitude or
complaint. From screaming infant to blanketed cadaver, Frank de la Monet had not put up much of a fight.
not a bit of the grand project could be edited out: it was all vital. And with that revelation, Pierre was at last done; after
more than sixty years of unwavering dedication, he had finished his life’s work.
this point, Pierre de la Monet determined that the truth contained within his masterwork was too horrible to share; therefore
he collected all the footage and put it to torch, the remaining few days of its creator’s own gray life a gaping chasm
“D” is silent) Gold is a California native, transplanted to Boston. A paid business journalist, Django is an unpaid writer of fiction of all types.