|Michael Dunn, Masks 7
By Micah Dean Hicks
days after the engineer died, all the engines on the line filled with black smoke. It rose like a ghost out of the fireboxes
and went hissing through the compartments. All trains were stopped until their coal burnt out. Afterward, the soot was crusted
black on everything, oily and smelling like meat, and all the engineers cursed the fireman for what he had done.
Two years before the engineer died, the fireman found a rail rider clinging to the end of the caboose.
The man's body was bent double over the railing in the cold rain. The wind had ripped his clothes apart, and they dragged
behind him like old skins. The fireman went to the cab, the engineer wrapped in coal-dusted denim and eating cigarette after
cigarette while he watched the gauges. The fireman told him about the dead man, and they stopped the train. They took the
rail rider's frozen body, scooped out some rocks under the track, and shoved him under. The engineer wrapped the man's fingers
around the metal rails. “This is railroad burial,” the engineer said. “We have to hold the track up forever.”
He ate a few more cigarettes and they got back on the train. The rail rider braced the track under them.
One year before the engineer died, he found the fireman out on the running board. The moon was
glutted with light. The engineer stank from whiskey and nightmares. Underneath them, the wheels of the train clicked over
the fingers of the dead men holding up the track. The engineer grabbed the fireman's shirt in his fists. “Swear you
won't put me under there when I die, or I'll kill you.”
The day the engineer died, the others came in their coal-blacked denim, offered grease for his
engine, and ate the last of his cigarettes. They asked the fireman if he knew what to do, and he said he did. The fireman
shoved out the ice and stones and placed the engineer under the tracks. He wrapped the man's strong dead fingers around the
rails, and he walked away from his promise.
Fourteen days after the engineer died, the fireman had cowered under nightmares sleeping and waking.
He couldn't take the sound of the wheels cutting across dead fingers anymore. He stole a railcar and rode all up and down
the tracks, but he couldn't tell the engineer from any of the other sun-whitened dead. The fireman peeled back their fingers,
stacked them like logs on the railcar, and rode away. The rails sagged weakly beneath him.
Fifteen days after the engineer died, the fireman was cold and alone. He needed to hide the dead
before the engineers found him. He rode back into the station one night, and working in the dark of the rail yard, he stuffed
the bodies deep into the coal chutes until they were all gone, until his throat was filled with soot, and until it was morning.
Sixteen days after the engineer died, the trains loped back toward the station on the sagging track,
crusted over with soot and stinking like meat. The fireman hiding in the woods saw the rails warping and spreading apart.
He knew the trains would slide off and pile on the trackside, their metal hulls pressing engineers and firemen to death. He
ate his last cigarette and crawled underneath the track. Grabbing the rails in each hand, he held them together and listened
to the black trains shrieking forward out of the night. He squeezed the rails in his hands, and wept. No matter what happened,
it would his fault.
Dean Hicks is a graduate student in the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. His work is forthcoming
in The Rectangle, nibble, and Breadcrumb
Our headmaster, Rama Rao, was known across
the world for his grouchiness. He was a cantankerous old man with a shiny bald head and a lined forehead smeared with sandalwood.
He was also the Volpone of our village—a miser beyond comparison. Whenever
he talked, the rictus of his cavernous mouth pounded a hammer in our chest. We all loathed him, no, we abhorred him and his
inculcating sessions. We hated everything about him—his dirty loin cloth revealing the chunk of his bony thighs, his
betel leaf-stained teeth, his hollow face impressed with a patina of wrinkles, and his thunderous voice.
Every day at
his designated hour he would enter our classroom, raise his eyebrows, scan our faces, and then, suddenly, throw a random mathematical
question to us: “What is the square root of 1024?” or “20 percent of 2 is equal to what?”
We could not
answer his brain-cracking questions and stared blankly at him. Seeing us, Rama Rao would laugh and then take out his wooden
ruler from the drawer of his desk. He would pick one of us—it did not matter which one of us— and slam the ruler
against his back. The child would inevitably begin crying like a newborn within seconds, and Master-ji would throw him out of the class and punish him still more by making him stand the whole day under the blazing
Our school room was built from mud and sundried cow manure. It was
a small room with a straw hut and was five miles away from the village where we lived. Inside the school room there was an
old table and chair for Master-ji; the students had to bring their own floor mats.
of inculcation would begin everyday at nine in the morning and continue till three in the afternoon. Master Rama Rao was the
only literate man in our village, and thus, the only teacher we ever had in our childhood. He taught us history, geography,
Sanskrit, Telegu and mathematics.
not free for us; Rama Rao charged five rupees per head for every drilling period of thirty days, a sum many of us failed to
pay, and on such occasions of non-payment, Rama Rao would visit the respective households and scathe their inmates with
such verbal vituperations that they would be forced to pay him the sum.
And dare you
play truant, Master Rama Rao would head straight to the zamindar, Raghavendra Velama,
and complain about the absentee. The zamindar respected Master-ji for his unique reading, writing ability (and also because he helped the Nayeb,
Munim-ji, to write the official state letters) and would punish the absent
scholar’s family by charging him a certain sum as “absent tax”.
So there was
no escape for us.
On certain good days, Rama Rao would
talk to us about the meaning of education as a process of bringing out the latent creative qualities in a person and the direction
of one’s unfavorable behavior towards socially accepted channels. And for that channelizing to take place, he believed
solely in the adage, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” We would complain
to our parents about Master-ji’s diktat at school, but our parents, most of whom were poor farmers, would not
entertain any of our complaints against the master. They too dreaded him and his crotchety, miserly self. So Rama Rao was
happy and gay, spanking and draining the childhood out of us.
There were many stories in the village about Master-ji. Some said that he turned loony after the death of his
daughter, Leela, many years back,. Some said, no, no, education spelled the doom for him, not the death of his wife by cholera
or the suicide of his daughter, Leela. But some others said that Master-ji was a Yaksha worshipper (demigod
attendant on Kuvera, the god of wealth),
didn’t you know he has a minting machine down in his basement where he would make gold coins and hoard them in
his brass water-pot?
and I believed in the minting machine story, and once, on a new moon night, (people said that he worshipped the Yaksha and
sacrificed one mortal being on his altar on every new moon night) Srinivas, Murli and I decided to visit Master-ji’s
home to see him worship the devil.
After dinner that night, we tiptoed out of our house and headed to the old banyan tree which stood in the middle of
our village and was believed to be around five hundred years old. From there, the unholy trinity walked through a muddle of hedges, crossed the rice field and took the
gravel road that meandered around a small hill, leading them to Master-ji’s
It was a sinister
night. We groped our way in the darkness. An unseen bird screeched at a distance, and we cautiously navigated our way. After
some time, we saw a streak of yellow light coming through a small, mesh window. We hushed each other and walked closer to
the house. An inclined shadow was swaying to and fro; we knew it was him. We stepped on the grass as quietly as possible and
walked even closer to have a better view of the master’s late night activities.
Through the window we saw his room—a
small, almost vacant, living area with an ordinary rope cot with no sheets on it. A couple of threadbare kurtas hung from a hook in the corner. The bare walls desperately needed a coat of paint and looked shabby and
gray from outside. At the bedside, on a wooden stool, sat a brass water pot, and in the middle of the room, next to a hurricane lamp, Master-ji sat writing something on a piece of paper. He looked sick and old.
We examined the
room carefully but didn’t find the devil’s altar. It was getting darker, almost midnight, and we realized that
we shouldn’t be out at such an ominous hour. While hastily trying to retreat, Murli made a loud noise. The master heard
him and hollered at us from inside, “Who’s there? Wait or I will mow you down!”
I caught a glance
of his bloodshot eyes through the window: they looked like burning charcoal. “He is the devil, run, run!” I cried
out to my mates and we ran for our lives.
The next morning, the three of us arrived
early at school so that we could share with the whole class the story of our previous night’s adventure. “We were
lucky, you know, Master-ji could have made rotisseries out of us. He had this big,
red charcoal like eyes. Glad we could escape,” I said to the group of open-mouthed boys.
Murli took the story from there, exaggerated it a bit, added a little color, and held our classmates in breathless
attention. Everybody shouted in unison to cheer our bravery. “Good God! Did you see the minting machine?” one
of them asked.
“We actually didn’t see him mint the coins, but we saw the brass pot where he keeps the money,”
the boy stared at me goggle-eyed.
I relished his
expression and talked more about the night. That day Master-ji didn’t come
to school. We all laughed and jumped and played the whole day, and were happy that for once Master Rama Rao was absent. Nobody
missed him or his sessions and after the school hour, all of us returned home.
Rama Rao never came to school again.
After three consecutive days of his absence, we let our parents know that Master-ji
probably wouldn’t teach us anymore. We were relieved even to think that the painful drilling sessions could be finally
When the joys
of life were on the verge of raining on our lives, we heard the news that Master-ji
had died in his home of some unknown disease the very night we had visited him. I was petrified and so were the others,
but we did not tell the village about our last soiree.
On the day of his cremation ceremony,
all the students of our class went to the burning ghat to pay Master Rama Rao our
last respects. Even though I hated him, that day, as I stood before his corpse wrapped in a white sheet, my soul genuflected
to him. The zamindar of our village
declared that our class would be held in abeyance until he found a new teacher for us.
A couple of days later, the zamindar asked the whole village to gather before the banyan tree at a specific hour for an important announcement.
The whole village gathered at the spot, and the zamindar arrived in his horse-driven
tanga, carrying a brass water-pot and a folded paper in his hand. A young man with flowing hair and a sharp nose accompanied him. The crowd welcomed the landlord and he
raised his hand in a calming gesture to hush the crowd.
“As you all know, our respected
master, Rama Rao, died an unfortunate death a few days back. Today, I would like to express
my heartfelt condolences on the untimely demise of our beloved Rama Rao ji. After his death, while cleaning his home
at the tila, we found a brass water pot and a letter. The master had saved all
the tuition money he received as his salary in this pot. In the letter, written a day or two before his passing, he urges
us to build a good school with modern facilities with this money, and to hire qualified teachers to teach the illiterate crowd
(both parents and children) of the village and thereby sweep away the darkness of illiteracy from our rural community. Master-ji’s noble act will be commemorated soon with the building of a new school at
this very spot, beside the holy banyan tree,” said the zamindar.
He stopped to
take a breath. There were whispers amongst the crowd and everybody was bobbing vigorously. “Srinath Reddy is our new
school teacher,” continued the zamindar, gesturing at the young man who stood
beside him. “He is from the neighboring village, and now he will read to you Master-ji’s
letter.” He motioned to the man to read the letter.
The young man cleared his throat and
began in an effeminate tone, “Namaskaram ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor
for me to be a part of your village and teach you and your children. Master Rama Rao was my teacher too, and it is from him
that I learned all the alphabets dwelling in my vocabulary today. He was a true mentor and a beloved soul; I hope his spirit
rests in peace. In my hand, I hold the letter that Master-ji wrote to all of you.
In this letter you will get a glimpse of the virtuous side of Master-ji. Now I
shall read the letter to you.” Srinath opened the letter and began, “‘Dear Villagers, I have been a tormented
soul all my life. I have tortured your children at school—punished them, berated them and made their lives miserable.
But you endured my idiosyncrasies all these years without uttering a single word of protest. In public gatherings, you have
given me the position and respect of a chieftain and have always been fascinated by my ability to read, write and teach. But
I never reciprocated your feelings, partly because I was a weak soul, and I did not wish to show you my inner fragility, and
partly, because it was mostly out of fear that you sent your children to school or paid me the monthly salary. Fear was my
weapon and I had used that whip to grind you throughout my life. I am sorry for my behavior and I beg your forgiveness. There
was no other way for me to fructify the dream of universal education that I bore in my heart.
“The village of Mayukhpur
is filled with uneducated folks who do not even know how to sign their names. Illiteracy is a gangrene of the soul; it is
a handicap that doesn’t allow complete development of the mind. It is a dark room devoid of even a single ray of light,
and every person has the right to sweep away that darkness of his mind with the radiance of education. I have always wanted
to bring this light of education to you and your children, but the mission was not easy—the children hated me. I lacked
the qualifications of a professional teacher and the knowledge to teach children effectively. My lack of knowledge crippled
my teaching ability, and I failed to be a true teacher. I realized my failure early in my life and cursed myself for it. Then
I chalked another plan—to save the money I earn as my salary, and with that to build a good school in the village with
modern amenities, and to hire professional teachers to teach you and your children. For years, I have lived on pennies. It
has been difficult, and I had often lost my resolve. But then, in such dark moments, I thought of that happy dawn when the
darkness of un-education would be gone forever. What a happy day it would be, when all the villagers would be able to read
and write and express the complex thoughts of their minds in beautiful language! I have always wanted to live to see that
day, but I knew I would not survive that long. I feel weak and tired; I know death is near.
my earnest wish that after my death, the money I have saved in my brass water pot be used to build a proper school.. Education
would be free and universal. I have leeched out a great deal of money from the poor farmers; they have already paid their
“Finally, I hope education will free the minds of my villagers from undue prejudices, fears, and superstitions. I wish
that one day that you become a village of gifted human minds shimmering with the aura of true education. That is my final
the letter and put it in his pocket. “This is what Master-ji had written
in his letter. Let us all close our eyes now and as a mark of respect to the memory of Master
Rama Rao maintain a minute of silence and pray for his soul.”
Twenty-five years have passed by since
our headmaster died. A two-story school has been built since his demise. A life-sized statue of the old master was placed
in the middle of the school playground, and new teachers were hired from various cities and towns.
I finished my
undergraduate degree and joined the Mayukhpur Public School as a teacher. In these twenty-five years since, our village has
attained 100 percent literacy. Sometimes I wonder if this would have been possible if there were no headmaster Rama Rao who
dared to dream of an almost unattainable goal of universal education in an unknown Indian village. I feel sad at times that
when he was alive we never wished to understand the greatness of the man who showed us the beautiful path of knowledge and
dismissed him as a social pariah.
Now, as I stand
in the middle of the school field staring at his statue, I cannot help but thank him for all he had done for us.
Barnali Saha is a creative writer from Kolkata, India. Currently she lives in Nashville,
Tennessee. Her works have been published in various newspapers and magazines in India and also in the United States. "Even
though India is an intellectually growing country, illiteracy is a big problem in the country. A large population of Indian
men and women, especially people from rural India, are under the darkness of illiteracy. As a writer I feel it is my moral
responsibility to try to solve the problem in a creative way. I chose to write the story, The Headmaster, so as to
bring to light the fact that small steps and big dreams can take you to the zenith. One does not need to be overtly powerful
to eradicate illiteracy, one needs to be creative and willing. I hope my country comes out from the eclipse of un-education
and sees a more beautiful world, a world of knowledge."
by Jewel Beth Davis
I stroll by the plate glass window, slowly, trying not to stare, trying to look nonchalant
but it’s tough. There he is behind the counter in his black chef’s outfit with the collar folded down and a red
handkerchief in his front pocket. He has a red pen sticking out of his pocket. I’m beginning to sense a theme here.
His shiny black pelt of hair is chopped very short and I can see the widow’s peak pointing like an arrow to his third
eye. Now, I’ve walked past the restaurant, an Italian bistro. It’s the kind where you can see the kitchen staff
preparing all the food. I turn around and start walking back, pulling my collar up. He doesn’t notice me as I take my
second pass. He’s pointing out the window. He’s using his left hand because he’s a leftie. I know that but
not many would. They wouldn’t know it was tough for him to find left-handed utensils. He’s speaking to a couple
that are clearly tourists, maybe giving directions to the two, who are just finishing up his fantastic linguini carbinara.
Are those red plastic breadbaskets?
How déclassé. And those wooden ladder-back chairs are killer on the ass. No cushions. The lacy diaphanous half curtains cannot
hide the severity of the wooden chairs and tables. This place must be fairly “get em in, get em out.” Was that
a tip jar near the register? No, impossible. Must be for finished orders.
It’s about 4:30 or 5. I’m not sure
because my watch has stopped and I can’t afford a new battery. I can tell the approximate hour because I’m watching
the last remnants of a reverse sunset in the plate glass window. I see the faintest oranges, golds, and pinks reflected in
the window but the sky is deepening into twilight. I turn to see what he’s pointing at, but all I view are the downtown
buildings of a small New England town. Whatever it is, it’s past this reality and into the future and beyond. The sous
chef behind him near the grill has skin the color of chocolate. His eyes seem to be following the direction Jonathan is pointing
but wait. No. Is he looking at me? Shit.
The street lamps have just blinked on. I shift
from foot to foot as the evening chill settles into my bones. I clench my hands under my jacket cuff because I hadn’t
stopped to grab gloves. Jonathan looks the same as he did four years ago in culinary school. No, better. More manly. More
in command. I haven’t seen him since graduation and I can’t believe I’m here, right now. That I’ve
come all this way to stare at him through a plate glass window. I’m afraid to walk in. I’m terrified he won’t
be happy to see me. The way things were left. That he’ll yell at me, or worse, ignore me. I can see the small cleft
in his chin, the solidity of his stance. I feel a yearning in me so deep to push my finger into that cleft once more. I walk
out of sight again, my heart thumping, trying to steady my breath. How many times can I walk by before he spots me? Don’t
I want him to?
I haven’t thought about exactly what I will
say if he sees me. I went all helter-skelter and ran to the train station without a plan. One minute I was in Pittsburgh chopping
onions and the next, standing on a street two blocks from a pier overlooking the water. I hate that I can be so impetuous.
It messes up my life. But I missed him and every night when my shift was over, I had too much time to think. Four years ago,
I left without saying goodbye. He was too serious, too settled. He scared the shit out of me. His passions, his need for me
boiled over. He was so authentic and raw. Always authentic. And I, I was faux. Faux happy, faux in love, faux
confident, faux together. Finally, the faux split at the seams and I started seeping out. So I ran.
And now I stand here shivering and trying to form what I can say to him that isn’t faux.
I begin one more pass and notice there’s a help wanted sign in the window. No. Don’t
think about it. It’s too crazy. He doesn’t see me and if he did, he wouldn’t want to. I feel like
we are stuck in time with him pointing, his widow’s peak pointing, his eyes pointing, everything pointing at me, accusing
me, and me staring at this newer version of Jonathan that I don’t know anymore. Then his sous chef leans forward
and whispers something in his ear, never taking his eyes off me. Jonathan looks up. And I take off running, flying away, because
I can’t stay here. I’m running as if someone is chasing me but no one is, of course, except for me. I hear the
words, “Stop! Wait!” And I obey. Then I realize the words were in my head and not from someone else. It
doesn’t matter because I have to stop. I have to turn around. And there in the doorway of the Bistro is Jonathan, his
body ready to fly, his left hand raised, his energy traveling down the street towards me, his dark widow’s peak pointing
straight at me, like a neon sign for him to follow.
Beth Davis is a writer and award-winning theater artist who lives in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. She has performed, directed
and choreographed professionally throughout the U.S. and British Isles. She teaches writing and theater at Great
Bay Community College and Middlesex Community College. Her play, "Shadow Dancing," won an award from the CT Playwright’s
Collective. Her creative nonfiction and fiction has been published in the Compass Rose, SN Review, Moondance Literary Magazine,
Cezanne’s Carrot, Bent Pin Quarterly, RE: Ports Magazine, READ THIS: MSU’s Literary and Art Publication, The Sylvan
Echo, Poetica Magazine, Midway, Lilith, American Diversity Report, Damselfly, Scribblers on the Roof, and Spirits Literary
Magazine of IU.
by Birute Putrius Serota
In May, the Mikunas family moved into our basement apartment—a young
couple with a son named Julius, who was about ten years old and crippled. His left arm locked in an angle that he couldn’t
seem to straighten. One leg was shorter than the other making him rock back and forth when he walked. I had seen
him listing down the hallway at Precious Blood Elementary, but I never talked to him because I was in third grade and he was
The basement apartment had four rooms with small windows. Behind
the apartment was the laundry room and behind that stood a giant furnace and a coal chute.
“Regina, go introduce yourself to that poor boy,” my mother
urged me to go downstairs, but felt shy.
When I came home from school on laundry day, my mother expected me to
help her with the laundry using our old wringer washing machine. First she soaked the white clothes in the sink with
bluing. My job was to wring the clothes out in the automatic wringer that swung out over the large sink. I’d carefully
put a wet sleeve into the moving rollers and then I’d watch it squeeze the blue water out, and I’d catch the shirt
on the other side. I was scared to death that my fingers would get caught in those double rollers and then it would
flatten my whole hand and arm. Then I’d be a cripple like Julius. I’d be standing there with one flat
cartoon arm uselessly hanging down to my knees.
“Mama, what’s the bluing for?” I asked, watching the
“Makes the clothes whiter,” she said annoyed.
My hands were getting blue all the way up to my elbows and I wasn’t
about to ask her why a bottle blue dye made clothes whiter. This was another of life’s mysteries—those things
that only make sense to grown ups.
I’d nervously poke my undershirts in and catch them, then
Papa’s undershirt, my socks, then mama’s under pants, which fell down on the wet cement floor. I didn’t
want mama to see that I had dropped it, so I quickly bent down to pick it up and rinsed it out in the blue water and didn’t
even notice when that horrible machine sucked in the end of my braid. Next thing I knew, my braid was being pulled into
the rollers. I screamed bloody murder and my mother screamed as turned off the machine, but I was stuck there crying
and screaming, my braid coming out the other end.
“Oh, stop that right now. My nerves are shot as it is.”
My mother’s face grimaced above me.
Her nerves. Always her nerves. What about me? What about
my braid and the fact that the monster washing machine was about to flatten my face? I was hiccupping tears, my eyes
bugged out with fear, my nose running sideways into my ears, when the back door of the apartment opened and Mrs. Mikunas poked
her head out.
“Is everything all right?”
No, you ninny, I wanted to say. I’m stuck in the rollers
and it hurts. Then I heard Julius ask his mother why I was crying. Oh, great. He was sure to tell everyone at school
and I would become the laughing stock of the playground.
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Mikunas when she saw my predicament.
She came over to see if she could help. I looked at her upside down and saw how much younger she was than my own mother.
She had a yellow scarf covering the criss cross bobby pin curls all over her head. I could tell by the way the pins
stuck up through the scarf. She wore lipstick and her eyebrows were drawn on. She smelled of cigarettes and coffee.
“Poor thing,” she said putting her hand on my shoulder. Now I liked her much better because she felt sorry
for me instead of yelling at me. Mama never wasted any pity on any of us.
Julius came over and took one horrified look at me and tried to pull my
braid out. “Owww,” I screeched.
“Get her out of there,” he yelled to my mother.
“She’ll be fine.” Mama turned the machine back on and
I screamed again thinking it was the end of me, but she simply reversed the rollers so that they spit my braid back out.
Thank you angels, saints and ancestors spirits. When I stood back up, I wiped my nose onto my sleeve, and felt my face
slowly reddening right up to my ears in front of Julius. He went back inside before I could thank him.
My mother filled the washer with white sheets, and then she knocked on
the Mikunas back door, dragging me behind her. Mrs. Mikunas answered the door and asked us in. Julius was
tall and awkward and even shyer than me. Every time I tried to say hello, he blushed and stammered and pretended he
was busy with something. “Go play with Regina,” urged his mother with her long horse face with long teeth.
I saw the handsome father with curly brown hair in the front room, smoking and reading the paper. They had just come to Chicago
from Australia where they had fled during the war.
I wondered why anyone would leave a paradise like Australia to come to
grimy and gray Chicago. “Did you see any kangaroos?” I lifted my eyebrows in expectation, preparing myself
for a story.
Julius shook his head and turned a moist red.
His mother corrected him. “Yes, you did. At the zoo.”
She smiled her toothy smile while smoothing a lock of blond hair from his forehead. Julius flinched back from her maternal
gesture and frowned. Everything seemed painfully embarrassing to him.
I sighed. Sometimes making friends was even harder than using the
automatic wringer on our washing machine.
Putrius Serota has published short stories in: Spectrum, West/Word, Segue, New Digressions, Story One, New Hampshire
College Journal, Lituanus, Southern New Hampshire University Journal, Storyglossia, Citadel and in an anthology called
Bless Me, Father. Two of her stories, “Lucy in the Sky” and “Carnival,” have been optioned
for short films by Columbia College in Chicago. She has also translated Lithuanian poems for a book called Roads
Pancakes and Cocktails
by Gary D Aker
She came on to me like a traveling
carnival coochie show.
I said: The end of empire is always
weird; why should this one be any different.
She said: Look at these…
(her breasts jutting out into
the carnival breeze…)
I said: Put those away before someone gets hurt.
She said: All right.
I went home. The forms keep coming,
sliding under my sorry door: verification of existence forms, do you love your Black Emperor forms, what was the last thing you ate
forms…But this one, aghast!, had no return-by date.
What do I do?
This crack in the walls of my fly-by-night
carnival world was all that it took. As it turned out, this end of empire thing was going to be more difficult than even I
I went and stood behind a sign that
said, line forms here, and waited for my name to be called…to speak to someone,
behind a Plexiglas window, who might know anything about something other than the horror I felt upon seeing this form…the
wrong form no less!...slipped under my darkened door at the stroke of midnight, with no return-by date printed in the top
I can’t deal with this. I’m
so tired, I feel like a third world country, like Ghana.
There he goes: He’s Ghana.
I taped the wrong form to my chest—I
didn’t care what time of day or night it was—and wandered through the ghastly, silvery, energy-efficient-bulb
lighted hallway. The stainless steel doors of the elevator sarcophagus opened and swallowed me down.
In the lobby I simply stood there,
staring at the front desk person, with the wrong form taped to my chest.
“What should I do,” I
Later, in this dream, this nightmare, this end of empire, I remember an article
I read about a restaurant that’s going to open this fall that serves pancakes and cocktails.
How could this be true? Even in this haunted tower of doom, inhabited by a thousand
demons, who could sire ten thousand succubae, that I am so lucky to call home, an army of dark thoughts circles me near…so
I think about the restaurant, opening this fall, to comfort me… a place
where the well-heeled can drink fancy cocktails and eat pancakes. Not only eat them, they can flip those flapjacks at their
I am not making this up! I know I read it somewhere. They are
actually going to mix cocktails, pancakes and hot griddles with drunks and see what happens.
I told you: The end of empire, it always gets weird. Do you feel it? Are you
getting weirder too.
Go ahead. Say, it’s just you.
I’m okay with that. I can handle it.
Please consider this: alcohol, pancake batter, drunken people, the smoke alone
should be enough to ward off any thought of this actually succeeding. Burn their first batch, then their second batch and
their third batch…and then the lawsuits when they burn themselves, or their date…or their mother…on Mother’s
It’s the end of empire. And people just aren’t thinking things through.
Like a form that shows up, slipped under a darkened door at the stroke of midnight,
with no return-by date.
So I cash the checks. Spend the funny, urine-colored, banana republic money.
What else am I supposed to do. I try writing it down. Isn’t that why I’m here, to be a witness, to file a report…for
my superiors, who must be reading this, in a room, windowless, energy-efficiency lit…and tonight, after work, my superiors
will have pancakes and cocktails….Pancakes made hot off your own griddle, sitting in the middle of your table.
Christ, there’s a depression going on. Unemployment is running so high,
they don’t report the unemployment figure anymore. Instead, they give the employment figure…
Employment is up this month, running
17 percent, first time it’s been this high since…blah, blah, blah.
This morning, standing in the shower, I almost blacked out. I don’t drink.
I don’t do drugs…of any kind. My legs buckled, mind went blank as I careened against the shower wall. Suddenly
snapped out of it. My legs came underneath me, sound of rushing water returned with a warm hisss. What was that? Some interdimensional
reset button? Ever since then it’s been like this. Maybe I got shifted over to some parallel universe with pancakes
and cocktails. A fifth dimension portal sucked me through…and I’m on the other side of the mirror, looking back…at
I’m shivering cold one minute, the next it’s a hundred and twelve
degrees…and everyone acts like that’s normal. Did I dream this.
Sure it’s 66 this week. It was a 106 last
week. So what’s your point? Go take your medication. Don’t bother us again.
But I’m not on medication.
Well, maybe that’s your problem.
I try going back to sleep. When I wake up, I don’t know which world I’ll
mmmmmmmmmm that’s feeling better. (Her soapy hand rushing into the shower.)
She came on to me like a traveling carnival coochie show. I heard her singing
on the gramophone:
Come with me.
Right this way.
I’ll show you things, terrible, beautiful,
clear as sparkling sun after the rain.
Gary D Aker has completed
two crime novels, and is working on a third, in addition to a book-length memoir, Have
a Nice Day Man; Tales From the Dark Side of the 70s. He writes experimental, surreal memoir. Aker states: “There
is some truth mixed in with the madness, so to speak. In this case, the pancakes-and-cocktails themed restaurant is true.
It has opened and you can hardly get a table there. And that fact inspired the mood—a post-apocalypse carnival in the
midst of these wrecked economic times. And the voice: to simply witness and comment upon this end of empire...like the quintessential
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