Sensitive Skin Magazine Post-beat, pre-apocalyptic art, writing and what-not Fri, 23 Jan 2015 03:24:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Nightmare Code, directed by Mark Netter – A Review by Franklin Mount Fri, 23 Jan 2015 02:24:44 +0000 Nightmare Code, directed by Mark Netter, starring Andrew J. West, Mei Melançon, and Googy Gress, written by M.J. Rotondi and Mark Netter. We start with a troubled young man (Andrew J. West, best known for his portrayal as the leader of the yuppie cannibal startup in this season’s Walking Dead), feigning nonchalance about serious charges... Read more »

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Nightmare Code, directed by Mark Netter, starring Andrew J. West, Mei Melançon, and Googy Gress, written by M.J. Rotondi and Mark Netter.

We start with a troubled young man (Andrew J. West, best known for his portrayal as the leader of the yuppie cannibal startup in this season’s Walking Dead), feigning nonchalance about serious charges to some forceful people given to issuing threats. Jail, and such. We know about the disaster in Chicago.

He’s Brett Desmond, married, with a five-year old daughter Lacey (Isabella Cuda) whose birthday party he will miss, due to work, and desperation. His loving wife Jennifer (Caitlyn Folley) radiates concern and fear. As we will learn, Desmond is a bit of a Snowdeneseque figure, just not in Moscow under Putin’s protection. Desmond’s expensive lawyers (he’s running out of money to pay them) are concerned.


Much of the film is shown in “quadrants.” The screen is divided into quarters, so we are looking at four views of the action, although not every quadrant is filled in every frame. This type of view is familiar to anyone who has worked in an office or shopped in a convenience store. Watching the film, one has to look from one quadrant to another. Although it does take a little bit of getting used to, it proves to be a very effective technique, and an essential–and revealing–part of the story.

We’re made aware of a software project called ROPER, which a behavioral program which will spot “bank robbers and terrorists”; Desmond must shepherd ROPER to completion. A wealthy investor, Alex Chou (Ivan Shaw) is pressuring him, with the promise of solving Desmond’s legal problems if he delivers. His colleague (Ericka Schickel) promises him jail time if he fails like “he did in Chicago.” Just get it done.

The action takes place in the vague and detached world of the international professional class, a world composed of interchangeable parts. One does not see the outside world very often; occasionally we look out of a window at a cityscape with trees, office buildings, and urban air; a few times we see the entrance of an office building, with key cards required for admittance. When we see a contractor who is later revealed to be in Mumbai, the only clue we have at first that he might be half-way around the world is a depiction of a Hindu goddess on the wall behind him, and a slight Indian accent. Mucht of the time, it’s not clear what time of day it is. Not a lot of sunlight shines onto these generic offices and their generic office furniture; it all looks alike. A lot of us work in such places nowadays. And the preferred mode of communication is video calls on PCs.

And it’s also the work culture of today, with the young attractive well-dressed sales executive proclaiming, “I want that guy gone,” the guy being Foster Cotton (Googy Gress), an older yet essential coder, he is overweight, and probably makes more than she does. The sales exec doesn’t like the way he looks at her. Cotton is a man with an obsession he’s had since he wrote his first program in Basic. And a fair amount of anger.

Cotton loses it; violence ensues, and Cotton and several others are gone. Desmond faces the task of breaking into and figuring out Cotton’s code, before he can embark on the digital death march to complete ROPER and save his ass. He turns to his old friend, Anton Yurigarian (Bret Roberts), who’s in hiding somewhere with his Russian girlfriend (Tonya Kay) who does not wear much other than some pervy jewelry. Acting as a sane counterpart to Desmond’s paranoia is Nora Huntsman (Mei Melançon). Very expressive and soulful as she holds the crew of dysfunctional coders together, Melançon is a delight. As the film progresses, it gradually dawns on her–and us–that there is something really wrong with this whole ROPER thing.

In the quadrant views, we frequently see people’s faces overlaid with points and lines and labels, names and feelings, seemingly the working of some sort of program attempting to identify the person and classify their emotions and intentions. Today we all live with the knowledge that we’re under video surveillance for a large portion of our lives, especially at work and in our cities’ business districts, transportation hubs–everywhere. But what’s this all about?

From the advance notice, I was under the impression that Nightmare Code was about the national security state, sort of a techie The Lives of Others. It’s not that; Nightmare Code is more fundamental. It’s about what technology does to us. We love technology; it helps and delights us; but it takes away part of our humanity. Nightmare Code is heir to 2001 and the tradition of fear and loathing of technology that goes back through Metropolis all the way to Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Nightmare Code is a low-budget, indie production, but you’d never know it from the look of the film and cinematography, which is superb. As the movie progresses, we become increasingly anxious about the characters’ predicaments, until their situation becomes deeply scary.

Department of Full Disclosure: I went to college with the director, and remain friends to this day; I also kicked in a modest sum to the Indiegogo campaign. And, notably for an indie film, one doesn’t feel that one is looking at actors and acting choices. Nightmare Code creates a world, as movies should. That’s why we go.

–Franklin Mount

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Gladyss of the Hunt by Arthur Nersesian – A Review by Jim Feast Mon, 19 Jan 2015 21:32:52 +0000 Gladyss of the Hunt by Arthur Nersesian (Verse Chorus Press, 2014) The title of Arthur Nersesian’s new book, Gladyss of the Hunt, might seem a peculiar one for a detective novel. However, the author, like the book’s protagonist, is after bigger game than simply bringing down a serial killer or describing how that is accomplished.... Read more »

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Gladyss of the Hunt by Arthur Nersesian (Verse Chorus Press, 2014)

The title of Arthur Nersesian’s new book, Gladyss of the Hunt, might seem a peculiar one for a detective novel. However, the author, like the book’s protagonist, is after bigger game than simply bringing down a serial killer or describing how that is accomplished.

“Of the Hunt” refers the reader to the classical goddess Diana (the huntress), but not so much to the one in Greek legend as to a statue of her that used to stand atop a New York landmark building, and so has become part of the city’s mythology. In the book, this statue is found on a postcard and is described by a history buff as modeled on Evelyn Nesbit. “She was the It girl about a hundred years ago, and a lot of people think she posed for that statue, because of the way the story’s told in that novel Ragtime. The statue used to be on top of the old Madison Square Garden.”


In the book, the statue of Diana has a double significance. For one, the narrator, rookie cop Gladyss, who has been temporarily assigned to a homicide team that is searching for a murderer who offs prostitutes in Times Square fleabags, identifies with, no, communes with the goddess, hoping for intuitive flashes that will help solve the case. (In a bit of oddball syncretism, Gladyss attunes herself to the Greek pantheon via the techniques of Kundalini yoga!)

However, secondly, the fact that the statue was on the roof of a historically important, now-demolished building points to the book’s underlying theme, a lament. New York City in 2003 and Times Square in particular are places that have become part of a real estate demolition derby, which is hell bent on replacing intricately designed, complexly ornamented high-rise buildings with anonymous skyscrapers, immense sheaths of glass, which resemble nothing so much as in-place condoms. In fact, these new constructions are not only “faceless” but downright menacing. As the author vigorously describes, “The awning in front of the Condé Nast building looked like the shiny scoop from a monster garbage truck, ready to claw unsuspecting tourists into its lobby, which was funnel-shaped like a giant meat grinder.” The hero’s partner, veteran cop Bernie Farrell, tells her he sees such monstrosities of new architecture as if the buildings were “giant Cusinarts just waiting to slice and dice us.”

The destruction of older New York buildings, which goes hand and hand with the displacement of its ethnic, quirky masses by homogenous yuppies, is not a vague background to the mystery tale but front and center. It turns out the killer, a nostalgia buff himself, is trying to recreate “genuine New York murders, your usual streetwalker whores [murdered] in the last of the bona fida New York dives.” So, to catch this guy, the cops will have to appreciate vintage New York, which leads them to grasp how much is lost as the metropolis is being steered by the elite into becoming just another lifeless global brand.

But there is more to this. All of Nersesian’s books, from The Fuck Up on, are partially coming of age stories. This one is slightly different in that the narrator not only grows up to become a good cop (as well as gets deflowered), but, and this is the hardest thing of all for young people maturing today, she gains a sense of history.

As one character explains, it’s only by looking backward that we can measure what is missing and what we need to reclaim. He says, in a passage that deserves to be quoted at length.

There was a time when, if you went someplace, you saw distinctive things just there. People dressed in a certain way, each place had different music, different food, people spoke a different language. People even behaved a certain way that was their way. I mean, once you homogenize the world until every place is just like every other place, you destroy those distinctions; you destroy the beauty of the place. Yeah, New York was dirty and dangerous back then, but that kept the rich assholes away. And it allowed for a very unique style and character all its own. Times Square was the epicenter of that, at least for me.

I should emphasize — and this is another key Neresesian trait — all these themes are worn lightly, carried along in a high-velocity, engaging, intense story in which Gladyss not only has to adjust to her irritable and irritating partner and catch a killer, but, meeting him in the course of the case, gets wined, dined and romance by a matinee idol.

As is typical for Nersesian texts, there is no let up. Indeed, in this book the intense pacing is less of a surprise than in his other novels. After all, this is an action-packed murder mystery. The rapid pace is actually more astounding in other Nersesian books for he is able to achieve a high velocity in stories about, for instance, the everyday life of a street book seller or a porn theater projectionist. But let me clarify that word “velocity.” I don’t mean the writer sacrifices everything for cheap thrills. Rather he manufactures a story in which all that happens to the main character is, while still plausible, somehow unexpected. Each curve of the plot brings a pleasurable shock.

On these counts, the novel combines a riveting story in the hunt for a demented serial killer, a psychologically acute tale of a woman’s gradual maturation, and a thoughtful meditation on New York City’s sad decline into a tourist-friendly, Disneyfied version of a Gotham that has become a stranger to itself.

–Jim Feast

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Sensitive Skin Most Best of 2014 More Favorites or Whenever Mon, 12 Jan 2015 01:41:54 +0000 Hopefully the new year is "going smoothly" for you! Here's what some of our editors and contributors thought was the best of 2014, or some other year, or at least they liked it, or whatever.

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I thought it would be fun to ask some Sensitive Skin editors and contributors what they thought was the best of 2014 – not necessarily the “best of” the year—what they liked best during the year, whenever it came out. So I did. Some of them responded. So here you go. OK, fuggit, me first.

Nightcrawler – A modern day Taxi Driver, if Travis Bickle was trawling the streets looking for a career instead of love. A perfect movie for the Year of the Uber-CEO.

Jodorowsky’s Dune – the non-making of the greatest science fiction film never made. Immensely entertaining. What a nut, I love that guy!

Disgrace, by J. M. Coetze – an academic is forced out of his position at university in utter disgrace. Then things get bad. Beautifully written, not for the faint of heart.

Double Indemnity, by J. M. Cain – wonderfully hinky.

Best moments from a TV show
Some were critical over writer/showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s liberal “borrowings” from Thomas Ligotti. But the real horror story was the show’s tearing back of the American afterimage. All of that aside, the final 6 minutes of the fourth episode is perhaps the greatest single sequence in the history of television. Unfortunately, director Cary Fukunaga will not be part of season 2.

Black Mirror: the segment with Oona Chaplin from the “White Christmas” episode. In a little more than 12 minutes, the sequence delivered scathing social commentary on white privilege, torture, corporate sociopaths, American exceptionalism and runaway capitalism.

Honorable Mention: The Strain, when the vampire-hair-metal rocker’s dick fell off, and he didn’t even care, from the well-titled episode “Gone Smooth.” This show was godawful but man I loved every crappy moment of it.


I think it was Greil Marcus who said, when Columbia released the first “official” Basement Tapes collection almost 30 years ago, that it was “the best album of both 1967 and 1975.” And, with the release of the remastered The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, of 2014 as well. Weird, wonderful and delirious, so much better with the ’75-edition overdubs and Band songs removed. Tiny Montgomery says to say hello. Editor’s Note: normal people should get the 2-CD “best of” compilation, which costs about 1/6 as much. Unless you really need to hear 2 versions of “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg.”

Best Exhibitions
Five Summer Suns,” group show featuring Stephen Lack & James Romberger @ Dorian Grey, NYC; PUNK: CONVULSIVE BEAUTY, Ruby Ray and Winston Smith @ iheartnorthbeach, San Francisco; Martial Raysse @ Centre Pompidou, Paris; The Brooklyn Bridge, group show featuring Julie Torres and many others @ George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco.

-Bernard Meisler

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel and The Strange Library, both by Haruki Murakami. Two well written and wonderfully packaged books. The bookstore I work at, Posman Books, is going out of business on New Year’s Eve, so I finished off my Murakami collection while I still could. This was the year I read his book, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, about the sarin gas attacks on the Japanese transit system. I highly recommend it.

-Ron Kolm

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

- Deborah Pintonelli

Film: Check out The Paperboy. That shit is a scream. Though it is not categorized as a comedy.

TV: My Name Is Earl. I haven’t watched TV in 10 years or more. I like this.

Books:G ot an autographed copy of the 1946 reprint edition of The Autobiography of a Yogi for a dollar. Was not expecting that.

- Darius James

If television in all its digital incarnations is for us what movies were in the last century, and novels in the one before that, then the big discovery stateside in 2014 was Charlier Brooker’s Black Mirror. The six one-hour episodes finally arrived HD on DirecTV (and, momentarily, LowD on YouTube, then passed around as movie files on disk) and just this last month on NetFlix, and the “White Christmas” special with John Hamm was just as fantastic as the best of those episodes.

Brooker’s commitment to un-settling endings and the foregone corruption of human behavior by today’s breakneck technology is a lonely black mirror held up to the audience, always mind-expanding, always a gut-punch ending. This is the real good stuff – mini–movies that stand up next to any recent theatrical sci-fi film, all of it highly re-watchable.

And when you’re finished watching an episode and turn off the TV or PC or iPad or Galaxy, you’re left staring at your own face in the black mirror of the empty screen.

-Mark Netter

1. Book- Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture
2. Book – Radio Benjamin, Walter Benjamin
3. Book – Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present
4. Film – Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg
5. Film – Red Hollywood, Thom Andersen & Noel Burch
6. Film – Birdman
7. TV – Transparent, Pilot episode, Jill Soloway
8. TV- Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, December 10, 2014 “America’s Got Torture/ Everything Is Awesome”
9. TV – True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto
10. Exhibition – Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe

- Marian St. Laurent

I’ve read a few books this year, but hardly as many as I would like to read. Lately, most of the books I’m reading are for research. And while these can be rewarding, they may not be suited for general consumption. As usual, I buy more books than I manage to finish reading, ever a guilty pursuit. Of those I managed to pore through, I’ll list three.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

While not a literary triumph, Herland (1915, reissued November 2012, Canada, Broadview Press.) offers a compelling blueprint for the structure of a utopian society. Originally serialized in her periodical, The Forerunner, the book stayed out of print until 1979 (Pantheon), and reads as such, with several passages serving as recaps of what’s been written earlier. The story follows the discovery by three occidental males of a mountaintop community populated solely by women who reproduce through parthenogenesis (the details of which she understandably skirts). Key to the matrilineal society is the art of child-rearing and education, although the women are superior builders and accomplished agronomists who cultivate forests and gardens, rather than crops. Conflict derives from one of the visitors’ incurable machismo, although his departure is contrasted with the women’s acceptance of another man’s wish to remain. The narrator is sympathetic to the society’s unique identity and also stays on for a while, but eventually leaves to share his account. Gilman’s own life story is also instructive, but I’ve yet to read The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. (New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935; NY: Arno Press, 1972; and Harper & Row, 1975.)

I seem to go through a weightier tome each year since reading Moby Dick in 2012. The Adventures of Don Quixote is poised to fill that habit in 2015. While I started Roberto Bolano’s 2066 in 2014, I failed to complete it, although I thoroughly enjoyed every page I got through, wishing the whole time I was reading the Spanish original. I’ll do it this year, translation dictionary by my side. That said, the thousand page opus I pounded through, teeth clenched in agony, was Hugh Thomas’s detailed history, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440–1870 (1997; Simon and Schuster). You probably think you know the story, but you don’t. The question is: do you want to know? Of course, you do. From an introductory chapter on slavery before the European incursion into the Americas to the post-Civil War century of illegal slavery, this book is chock full of details that chart the course of free labor. It’s definitely a tear-jerker, and not for those who are unwilling to comprehend the barbaric ethos that made capitalism king today.

Speaking of weighty volumes, I can’t resist including The Oxford English Dictionary here. A few of you may have noticed that the lion’s share of my Facebook statuses are conceived around a word of the day delivered to my inbox from the reference work’s faceless compilers. While the words are seemingly random save those that appear on noted holidays or especially literary birthdates (e.g., Graham Greene, James Joyce), I’ve been repeatedly startled by their uncanny synchronicity with my personal, inner tides and external exploits. Beyond this dubious oracular perception of mine, I’ve always enjoyed dictionaries, and for over thirty years I prized a copy of the two-volume Shorter OED given to me by a dear old pal as my single long-term possession, until it finally fell irreparably apart this past fall. Once in Detroit, I strolled into the four-story warehouse dba John King Books and found a pristine copy of the third Shorter edition in two volumes for only fifty bucks, foregoing a vintage edition for ninety-five. If you read without a dictionary, that’s your business. If you write without a dictionary, there’s probably a word for that, too.

-Norman Douglas

Best concert of the year by a country mile: Einsturzende Neubauten doing ‘Lament’ at Le Trianon, Paris, 17/11/14.

-David West

In Case We Die
, by Danny Bland, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz, Homeboy, by Seth Morgan (pub: 1990)

A Most Wanted Man, The Lunchbox, The Grand Budapest

Music: Wasted Years, by OFF!

Social Media Failure: Ello

-Patrick O’Neil

2014 was something of a refocus on classics for me.

Some books reread: Huckleberry Finn, Dubliners, The Killer Inside Me, Portnoy’s Complaint.

Dominating the turntable: The Beatles, Dexter Gordon on Blue Note, Sonny Rollins on Contemporary, The Emerson String Quartet performing Mozart.

- JD King

Gretchen Faust – Random titles, position, focus, size, numbering, with no explanation. Crazy, man. And gorgeous.

Arguendo, by Elevator Repair Service, featuring Susie Sokol (far left) as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


- Jenny Wade


The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (had to watch a bootleg earlier this year; available from Netflix as of December 2014).

Critics who are only slightly familiar with gialli have opined that this is a soporific pastiche of Dario Argento. Those who actually know the genre have explained that this is an homage to many giallo directors, but mostly to Sergio Martino; that the title references What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body? by Giuliano Carnimeo; and that the nonlinear narrative and editing get more interesting with each viewing. Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog editor and author of the most important book about Mario Bava to date, told me that he never watches a current film twice but is now on his third viewing of Strange Color.

The only sad thing about Strange Color is that Trish Keenan didn’t live long enough to collaborate on the soundtrack, since it would have been a much better legacy from her than Berberian Sound Studio.

Herzog Blaubarts Burg (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), by Michael Powell (based on the opera by Bela Bartok).

This flick was uploaded to YouTube in 2012 and taken down almost immediately; it reemerged in 2014. Watch it while you can.

After seeing Herzog Blaubarts Burg in the ’90s at the Walter Reade Theater and judging it to be one of Powell’s four greatest films, I spoke to star Norman Foster’s widow about the lack of distribution. She told me the film, which Foster had convinced Powell to make and then produced, likely would be in licensing limbo for the next forty years. I repeat: See it while you can.


Released in 2014:

The Body (produced by the Haxan Cloak): I Shall Die Here

Polar Inertia: Secret 13, Mix 131

Aphex Twin: Syro

On My Playlists:

Wiltold Lutosławski, Musique funebre, Cello Concerto No. 2, Preludes and Fugue for 13 Solo Strings, Concerto for Orchestra — esp. the Passacaille, Symphony No. 4
All of the first music dating from his adoption of his post-chromatic method.

Henry Purcell, “Dido’s Lament,” from Dido and Aeneas, in this new performance by Christina Schaefer:

Hans Werner Henze, “Being Beauteous,” on the poem from Illuminations by Rimbaud, for soprano, four celli and two harps (Edda Moser, soprano)

Jackie McClean:
A Fickle Sonance (esp. the title cut)
One Step Beyond (esp. “Ghost Town”)

Alban Berg:
The final scene from Lulu — over and over, every year — with Kathryn Harries as Countess Geschwitz and Christina Schafer as Lulu

Bud Powell:
The Amazing Bud Powell, Vols 1-2.

Music Video:
Azealia Banks, “Yung Rapunxel”

Writing (none of it published in 2014):

Gallant, Mavis: Montreal Stories
Sebald, W.G., The Emigrants
Ligotti, Thomas: Noctuary; Teatro Grottesco
Cixious,Helene: Stigmata
Bolaño, Roberto: The Return
Aickman, Robert: Cold Hand in Mine
Hardin, John Wesley: The Life of John Wesley Hardin
Riley, Denise: Mop Mop Georgette
Loy, Mina: Stories and Essays
Schecter, Harold: Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer [i.e., Jane Toppan]
Nirenberg, David: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. I have it on my OnePlus One and read about ten pages on the subway every day. so important and so infuriating.

Poetry Performance:
Ingeborg Bachmann, “Exiles”

Video Game: J.T. (free demo for the PS4 on PSN)

- Rob Hardin

Sin Eater by Angela Hibbs (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2014) poetry
Afghanistan: from Herat to Balkh and Back Again (New York: Fly By Night, 2014) poetry
Suburban Ambush by Ron Kolm (New York: Autonomedia, 2014) poetry
A Private Mythology by Stephen Morrissey (Victoria:Ekstasis Editions, 2014) poetry
Kali’s Day by Bonny Finberg (New York: Unbearable Books / Autonomedia, 2014) fiction
Weather’s Feather by Mitch Corber (New York: Fly By Night, 2014) poetry
One Dead Tree by David Menear (Ottawa: DevilHousePress, an imprint of AngelHousePress, 2014) fiction
Butterfly in Amber by Kenneth Radu (Montreal: DC Books, 2014) fiction
Remote Life by Edward Anki (Hamilton: BareBackPress, 2014) poetry

- Mark McCawley

My reading never keeps up. Anyway, my favorite books of last year:

Georges Battaille, The Accursed Share, Volume 1. The discussion of why Aztecs utilized human sacrifice is very powerful.

Phillip K. Dick, two of his druggie books, Now Wait For Last Year, in which a drug temporarily throws you into a past time, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, in which a person who is obsessed with you can take you into his/her drug trip.

Linked to Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial, which is mainly about the Holocaust, and centrally about the “negative hallucination,”in which you don’t see something right in front of your face.

- Jim Feast

‘Song’ -Allen Ginsberg
‘Kindness’-Naomi Shihab Nye

Paris When It’s Naked- Etel Adnan
The Luminous and the Grey- David Batchelor
The Book of Dis-quiet- Fernando Pessoa
Prisoners of Childhood- Alice Miller
Ahead of all Parting- Rainer Maria Rilke

‘Life and Death of Speech’- Julia Kristeva
‘Beauty: The Depressive’s Other Realm’- Julia Kristeva
‘In Praise of Boredom” – Joseph Brodsky

Nostalgia for the Light – Patricio Guzman
Nymphomaniac Vol 1&2 – Lars von Trier (spoiler: it is not about sex….)
Collateral- Michael Mann (the only good thing Tom Cruise ever did, and the cinematography is beautiful)
The Past - Asghar Farhadi

Homeland ( chin chin to parallel universes!)

PUSH – Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant
1980 – Pina Bausch

Sigmar Polke retrospective
Jeremy Deller
Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin
Etel Adnan

Vexations – Erik Satie
James Blake
Grinnin’ In Your Face – Son House

“…all speech based on concept becomes an indiscretion; one can only really exchange what is mutually understood. In this sense every work of art is an indiscretion – but a calculated indiscretion” – L. Durrell.

“For it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” – Nietzsche

“With the death of each individual an entire universe vanishes.” – Alan Little

Seeing a sparrowhawk and a weasel in the garden.

- Gretchen Faust

Gilmore Girls / Boyhood

2014 was stressful; I needed a harder drug, and what’s harder than adolescent hormones? I had to regress. When Gilmore Girls, which ran from 2000-2007, began streaming on Netflix in October, I opened my crabby heart and now I totally, totally get it. Amy Sherman Palladino’s Stars Hollow is bedrock Americana, familiar and hellish, and just in time for the insane new century. Binge hard. Couple with Richard Linklater’s lovely Boyhood, which I found less to do with boyhood than with lightness, patience and love.

- Peter Shear

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The “I Love Everbody” Tour Diaries Mon, 05 Jan 2015 00:57:37 +0000 We’re leaving on tour in a few hours. Me and Pat and Julia will ride in Julia’s big black truck and Steve and Keith, the Road Manager, will ride in the “Boy Car,” a little white rental car. It’s not deliberate gender division, just worked out that way.

Steve likes to drive at the speed limit and make very few stops. Us girls like to go 90 miles an hour, pee every 40 minutes and go to malls we find along the way. Neither Pat, Julia or I grew up around malls, so we’re making up for that now.

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Last year, shortly after Maggie’s passing, we published part one of her tour diaries. Here’s part two of her adventures with Hole, The Beastie Boys and more, from Sensitive Skin Number 11, which we dedicated to Maggie.

October 5th, 1994

We’re leaving on tour in a few hours. Me and Pat and Julia will ride in Julia’s big black truck and Steve and Keith, the Road Manager, will ride in the “Boy Car,” a little white rental car. It’s not deliberate gender division, just worked out that way.

Steve likes to drive at the speed limit and make very few stops. Us girls like to go 90 miles an hour, pee every 40 minutes and go to malls we find along the way. Neither Pat, Julia or I grew up around malls, so we’re making up for that now.


Later, October 5th, Boston

We’re sitting at the club in Boston eating Middle Eastern food. It’s not that good, but it’s free. We just soundchecked, and the sound was horrible and muddy, so we got depressed about our appaling working conditions and Julia said: “Why play? Let’s just kill ourselves now.”

October 6th, Northampton

We didn’t kill ourselves. We played. It was kind of weird. We have the goofiest audience in the world. They’re anywhere from 12 to 50 years old, and the only common thread is that they’re total freaks, and they think I’m the Queen of the Freaks.

This 40ish fat woman gave me a bunch of pairs of panties. She was with her son, who was about 15 with a lot of pimples and a Bon Jovi shirt. He gave me a fruitcake. I don’t know how that’s supposed to make me feel.

This really cute, tall boy came up to me and said: “May I kiss your boots?” I laughed and said: “Oh, sure.” Then, incredibly enough, he got down on his knees and really did kiss my boots. Then he stood up and walked away. I was, like, “Wait, where you going? Come back,” but he just wanted my boots, not me.

October 7th, Montreal

So we eventually got to Canada and the Canadians are sexy, so it was worth it all. We got to the club and a dozen cute Canadians were waiting to help us lug our gear inside. Usually club people just stand around watching you hump gear, but these Canadians are great. We love them.

My fan Dominick the Accountant came to the show. Came backstage after we played. He had a briefcase, and in it he had all these accountant papers that he wanted me to autograph, but then he saw Pat and decided he was in love with her instead, and he stalked her all night. Meanwhile, Pat had seen this 50-year-old woman with grey hair hanging out in the bookstore next door, and she’d gotten a big crush on the woman because she was reading a book on Spirituality. Pat has this big thing for 50-year-old women who have grey hair and read books on Spirituality. I guess it’s an acquired taste. Anyway, Pat wasn’t into the accountant, and he finally left, depressed and in love with a spiritual lesbian guitar player.

October 10th, Rochester w/ Hole

It was our first gig opening for Hole, and now I never want to play for 100 deadbeats again.

We walked onstage, and 2000 writhing teenagers started screaming and trying to touch us. The front row was all girls, and they all had that tight-t- shirt-and-barrettes-in-the-hair look. I don’t really understand the barrette thing. Little pink plastic barrettes were a bad idea when I was 7, and they’re a much worse idea now. But it’s OK; the barrette girls loved us, and their boyfriends kept pawing me and Julia’s legs. They started moshing when we played “Fuck Me. “This was the first time anyone had moshed to us. So that was good.

After playing, we lounged in the dressing room waiting for Hole to go on. Little Frances Bean Cobain was poking around back there, and it was eerie because she actually looks like Kurt Cobain. She was wearing big huge earmuffs so the loud music wouldn’t scorch her little ears. Eventually, Courtney came in and she and Frances Bean and Eric, the guitarist, and Drew Barrymore, his girlfriend, all started throwing hunks of cantalope out at the audience.

Courtney is the indisputable Goddess of Rock. She was wearing a pale blue, see-through mini night gown, 9-inch, black patent-leather spike heels and frilly white underwear that peered out from under her pale blue nightgown. Her mouth was painted a big crimson slash, and she strode onstage, sneered, propped her long leg on the monitor, and started howling into the microphone. Little Frances Bean Cobain stood on the side of the stage, waving and saying: “Mommy! Mommy!”

?, Buffalo

There we were onstage, doing “Hey Baby,” and I just went blank, completely forgot what the words were and just stood there on the stage looking confused. So the set was kind of downhill from there. The Barrette Squad still moshed, but I felt like a retard anyway.

After the show, we sat around in the dressing room saying, “Maybe we should just kill ourselves now.” I know suicide’s not supposed to be funny, but for some reason it is. So is bulemia; we’ve got this running gag about changing the name of our band from I Love Everybody to That Bulemic Moment. Or we could call the band Maggie Estep and Am I Fat?.

So we joked about suicide and bulemia, and then we got on the road and drove all night. The malls were all closed and America was asleep. We listened to Johnny Cash and ate half a dozen tootsie pops.

October 28th, On a Plane to Memphis

I’m flying to meet the band in Memphis because I just detoured for 2 days to play a 17-year-old poet in this low budget movie in Delaware. I’d never acted in my life, and I’m 31, so I guess it was a stretch. But they put barrettes in my hair, made me wear some ill-fitting pants, a tight t-shirt and some pink lipstick and presto, I was 17. My first line was: “Haven’t you heard of me? I’m really famous.”

And I pulled that off just fine. So now I”m flying to Memphis.

I’m stuck in the middle seat between an army guy and a guy who does some kind of urinary tract business. The guy is reading a report on the subject of Sphincter Urological Prosthesis, I’m not kidding. I don’t know what a prosthesis in the sphincter would feel like, but I wouldn’t think it would be nice, and can you possibly imagine devoting your life to that kind of thing?

October 29th, Memphis

Courtney was indisposed last night and cancelled the show, but we played anyway, and so did the other opening band, Veruca Salt. The singer girl from Veruca Salt is a big snotball. The rest of Veruca Salt are nice though. So we went first, then them. The Barrette Squad ended up giving me all the flowers and stuffed animals they had brought for Courtney so I made out just fine.

Before the show, me and Pat and Julia went into a weird Pizza place on Beale Street which is this famous blues Street. I hate the blues, but of course Pat and Julia love the blues, so we walked down Beale Street. We went into this little pizza joint. They were playing James Brown, and the place was empty but for a few old skinny black men sitting in a corner squinting and smoking. The lady at the counter was really mean to me because I ordered a sandwich, as opposed to pizza, and that meant she actually had to make something. She slathered it in mayonnaise even though I asked for no mayonnaise. So then I stood by a table wiping off mayonnaise, and all the skinny old black men stared at me. James brown was singing “Sex Machine.”

Some kids found me after the show and made me autograph dollar bills and flyers and stuff. One boy had me sign his forehead.

October 29th, New Orleans

We had a really long drive down to New Orleans, and we hate all the CDs we have, so we ended up listening to a voodoo seminar on talk radio. We found a mall, but we didn’t have much time so it was the quickest mall expedition in history. Me and Julia raced into Victoria’s Secret and fanatically tried on lingerie, bought none, then raced back out to meet Pat in the parking lot. Pat had bought a book on spirituality.

Now we’re in this weird hotel in the suburbs of New Orleans. We almost didn’t find it because it looks like a hospital. Then it turned out it actually is a hospital. It’s a hotel adjoining a hospital. They think of everything down here.

We passed through the bayou country on the way here, and it was beautiful: washed-out wood houses propped on top of the water, and shrimping boats everywhere. Old people sitting around with crinkled faces, just sitting there, watching the sun go down on the bayou.

October 30th, New Orleans

Last night’s show was pretty weird. The audience stared at us. I know they’re supposed to stare at us, but it wasn’t a good stare.

Afterwards, we were hanging in the dressing room, and our friend Kate from New York showed up. She had Michael the Rock Critic with her and also this guy Tony, who’s a journalist from Atlanta, and looks like he should have been in Interview with the Vampire.

Me and Julia and Pat and Steve were depressed and only half-heartedly joking about suicide and bulemia, but Kate and company cheered us considerably. Tony the Vampire amused me by playing with Hole’s deli platter, and making sandwiches out of white bread, potato chips and mint jelly.

Courtney came into the dressing room after our set, and she gave me a dirty look. Some girl was there who follows Hole around everywhere. She was wearing this interesting see-through maroon dress and Courtney said, “I like that dress.”

So the girl took it off, and Courtney took her own dress off, and they traded dresses. There were about 20 people in there, but both girls stripped down to their garter belts and black lace bras anyway. Courtney’s body is like a superhero’s: enormous tits, no hips or ass and legs that go on for miles. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched Courtney in her underwear.

October 31st, Highway in Texas

We just stopped at a horrible diner, where me and Pat ordered shrimp gumbo which was really disgusting and looked like raw sewage. Julia ordered catfish and it came smeared in paprika. The only thing that was really good was the peas. The waitress hated us because we kept ordering side orders of peas.

Truck drivers in Mac trucks were fucking with us all night. They kept trying to push Julia off the road. “Julia, I think they want you off the road because you’re driving slower than them, and they want to rush home and put on big bunny suits and have sex with their wives.”

“No,” Julia said, “They want to pull off at the next rest stop and put on big bunny suits and sodomize each other.”

“That’s not funny,” Pat said. Maybe there’s a bunny suit in her past. I don’t know.

We pulled into a Holiday Inn and slept for a while before getting back on the road, then me and Julia had a big fight, and she called me a “little bitch tyrant” because I got mad that she and Pat were late getting up.

November 2nd, Austin

I checked my messages, and I’d gotten a message from my little sister, saying she got her tongue pierced. She could barely talk because her tongue was swollen. I called her back and asked her if it was a sexual thing. “What do you mean?” she said

“Well, don’t people get their tongue pierced as a sexual thing?”

“No, I just did it ’cause it looks good,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

“Well, I gotta go Maggie,” she said then, clearly thinking I was a total moron for not knowing why she got her tongue pierced.

We had an OK show last night. They didn’t start moshing till the very end of the set though. Then a bunch of 12 year olds were looking for us trying to make us autograph their foreheads, and I escaped into the dressing room and ended up sitting on the couch talking to Patti, the drummer from Hole. She had this great fuzzy backpack and we ended up comparing the contents of our backpacks. Mine was all practical stuff: a hairbrush, paper, a pen, lipstick and tootsie pops. In hers, she had a huge plastic rat autographed by Anne Rice, a miniature plastic rat with a bow around its neck, three pairs of boxer shorts and a picture of Jodie Foster. “That’s what I would like for dessert,” Pattie said, pointing to the picture of Jodie Foster. “Oh,” I said.

“What would you like for dessert?” Patti asked.

“Cake,” I said. I guess I’m boring.

Julia and Jim, the drummer from Veruca Salt, were off in a corner flirting. Julia’s been turned on by him since she found out he went to Yale. It’s not so much that he went to Yale, but rather the combination of being a drummer and having gone to Yale. Keith, our road manager, thinks there should be a Playgirl spread of Ivy League drummers. Our own drummer Steve is an Ivy League drummer, and Keith is a drummer in a band and he’s an Ivy Leaguer too. Personally, I don’t go for Ivy League Drummers. I guess it’s an acquired taste.

So, Hole went on stage and Courtney spent 2/3rds of the show talking to the audience: “I’ve had it with you little fucks! Everytime I try to stage dive, somebody sticks their finger up my ass. Then they go, ‘Oooh, I had my finger up Courtney’s ass and it stinks.’”

I’m not sure the Barrette Squad really ever stick their fingers up her ass, but I guess it’s something to talk about.

November 2nd, Dallas

We all sat around in the dressing room, playing our favorite new game, which is to come up with new band names.

We’re getting tired of “Maggie Estep and Am I Fat?” So Pat has a new one: “Maggie Estep and Gay Sex.” Pat saw the headline “Gay Sex” on the cover of The National Enquirer, “Nicole Simpson’s Last Days: Gay Sex, Drugs and an Affair with OJ’s Best Friend.” Pat, who of course is gay, thinks that “Gay Sex” is just the funniest phrase in the world. Now when we’re hanging out backstage, we talk about Gay Sex. It’s a sure way to get the mean Veruca Salt girl out of the dressing room.

November 3rd, Plane from Dallas

Last night was the best gig so far. I think we actually did better than Hole. The audience threw condoms and cigarettes at us, and I threw water on them, and we all bonded so much it was like a having a huge orgy with 2000 teenagers. So that was good.

Now we’re done with the Hole tour. This woman sitting next to me on the airplane just asked me if I was in Dallas on business—which freaks me out because that means, I look like I do business.

“Yes,” I said, “I was in Dallas on Business. I’m in a Rock band called Maggie Estep and Gay Sex. We’re really good.” That wiped the smile right off her face. She pinched her lips and turned back to reading Vogue Magazine where there was a big spread of fashion models with little plastic barrettes in their hair.

Excerpt From Lollapalooza Tour Diaries

August 24th, 1994, Phoenix, AZ

It’s 120 degrees here, and the sky is huge. In spite of the heat, they seem to be big on poetry in Phoenix. I read four poems then almost passed out from the heat. My t-shirt was soaked with sweat and some weird fan boy started following me around, trying to buy my t-shirt. Finally, I was saved by Torment the Drag Queen, who is now the official poetry tent MC. Torment came and stood between me and my loopy fan boy and told the fan: “Get down on your knees and lick my shoes, then we’ll see about Maggie’s t-shirt. “

The guy scratched his head for a second then turned and walked away. I kissed Torment’s powdered cheek and lay down on the dirty grass and tried to recover from borderline heat exhaustion.

August 25th, San Diego

I performed a bunch of times, but nothing all that exciting happened.

I was lying on a couch in the Breeders’ dressing room when Evan (the guy whose job it is to make juice for The Beastie Boys) saw me and said I looked sick, so he brought me into the Beasties’ dressing room and made me a huge carrot juice.

The Beastie Boy I Have a Crush On was hanging out and we talked for a while. He told me he thought he’d seen me in an airport three days earlier. I said it wasn’t me, but I was secretely pleased that he was hallucinating visions of me in strange airports.

Liz the Poet and I ate together. The catering tent was set up inside an indoor parking structure and all the food smelled like gasoline.

Liz was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a kitten on it. Above the kitten Liz had written “LIZ: Poet, Cunt, Whore.” Liz is not one to mince words. She has a poem called “All Women are Whores.” And one called “My Country, My Cunt,” which she and Torment, the Drag Queen, do as a duet. Liz says “My Country” and Torment says “My Cunt.”

Liz is having an affair with a guy named Joe. Joe’s official job title is “Snowman Roadie.” He’s in charge of the 8-foot paper-mache Snowman that L7 have on stage with them. He and Liz are crazy in love.

Now it’s about 9pm and I’m riding with The Breeders on their tour bus and we’re heading for L.A. Me and Levi, the Breeders Road Manager, are having a love affair, but we’re trying to keep it a secret so I’m not going to write about it.

August 27th, San Francisco

Performed four times today, and it went pretty well. I taped a copy of me and my band’s CD to my ass every time I went onstage. Then I’d turn my back to the audience, point at my ass and say: “This is my promotional device, and this is my CD. Please buy it.”

I went to do a set on the Second Stage. Sterolab were going on right after me, and right in the middle of my piece, their guitar player started checking his guitar tone really loudly, so I couldn’t hear myself. I turned around and gestured for him to please hold it for a minute, but he just made a snotty face and hit a power chord. I finished my piece, threw the microphone at him, and stormed away. I hate Stereolab.

I stormed into the catering tent to tank up on coffee and bumped into Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins Guy. He was in an expansive mood. He gave me this big hug, sat me down and asked what the matter was.

I told him all my problems, and he gave me career advice, then said he’d come play guitar for me during one of my sets. Then, my fellow poets Wammo and Shappy appeared, sat down with me and quizzed me in depth about Kim and Kelly Deal, who they worship. So I told them about how Kim doesn’t ever change her pants but is really a sweetheart. That was the clincher for Shappy. He doesn’t change his pants either. Now he’s got this big fantasy about him and Kim breeding and frolicking and never changing their pants.

September 2nd, Los Angeles, Day Off

Last night me and Levi and the Breeders caught a plane from Seattle to LA. The tour bus dropped us at the airport in Seattle, and Kim Deal didn’t want to get off the bus. She was holed up in the back lounge, burning candles and figuring out Hank Williams songs on guitar. All the rest of us piled off the bus. Finally, Levi had to practically pull Kim off the bus.

The whole sorry bunch of us traipsed through the airport.

Everybody stared at us. By this point, Kim hadn’t changed her pants in probably two months. And I don’t really think she’d bathed, either. I don’t know why. She still seems to sing and play guitar just fine though.

We got to The Roosevelt Hotel around 2am. Me and Levi have this big suite with a view of Hollywood Boulevard and a throbbing neon sign that says “Roosevelt.”

September 4th, LA

I hate LA. I can’t go anywhere because I don’t know how to drive and Levi is busy doing important road manager business.

Last night I got really stir crazy so I went down to the pool and furiously swam laps. Back and forth and back and forth, and then all of a sudden, I see this hand in the water. I totally freak out, swallow huge gulps of water, then come up gasping for air. Then I see that it’s only Wammo the Poet, sticking his hand in the water, trying to get my attention.

“Wammo, what the fuck are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to rescue you. Liz told me you were stranded here so here I am.”

So I went up to the room and put clothes on then went off with Wammo and Shappy and a few guys from the Lollapalooza coffee booth. They were driving around in this huge Ryder truck where the coffee people store all their coffee-making supplies in, and also live in.

We tooled down Hollywood Boulevard in the coffee truck. We went over to Liz’s house and from there walked to Liz’s friend Joan’s house. Liz’s friend Joan really liked me even though I was in a surly mood.

She gave me three cups of coffee and some bananas ,and quizzed me about my brief acquaintance with Courtney Love, who she worked with a few years back.

Wammo got drunk. Liz and Joe the Snowman Roadie were kissing in a corner. The coffee boys got drunk. Me and Joan talked. The sun started to come up, the sky turned pale blue over the palm trees. I felt better. Joan’s friend gave me a ride back to the Roosevelt. Levi was sound alseep.

September 5th, LA, the Last Show

I have a horrible cold and performed only once. Billy from the Pumpkins played guitar for me. He was wearing a big straw hat that obscured his face and I introduced him merely as “My love slave Bob” but the audience wasn’t completely fooled, and spent the whole time trying to figure out if that was indeed Billy Corgan, and they didn’t pay attention to the fine subtleties of my new poem called “Your Poetry Sucks.”

I watched The Beastie Boys for the last time and for the last time watched the way The Beastie Boy I Have a Crush On’s pants sagged loosely over his very small butt. And maybe this is what I got out of Lollapalooza, a bunch of crazy new poet friends, and a possible sequel to the Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With: “The Beastie Boy I Have A Crush On Who Wears Ill-Fitting Pants That Sag Loosely Over His Small Perfect Ass And Basically Doesn’t Give Me The Time Of Day But I Don’t Really Give A Shit Because Frankly I’ve Evolved Beyond My Obsessive Phase And Besides, I Got Bigger Fish To Fry.”

Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I got from Lollapalooza. What more could a girl want?

–Maggie Estep

Buy issue #11 in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.

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on the b-38 Tue, 30 Dec 2014 02:42:53 +0000 on the b-38 what are you waiting for / get covered / start here / a gift of happiness or risky listening? ya never can tell / drivin 26 yrs / 47 / nice humble guy surprised / caught a heart attack / here today gone tomorrow let them do the work / short trips... Read more »

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on the b-38

what are you waiting for / get covered / start here /
a gift of happiness or risky listening?
ya never can tell / drivin 26 yrs / 47 / nice humble guy
surprised / caught a heart attack / here today gone tomorrow
let them do the work / short trips / i had the last one
old man got shot just like that / lost his life / just like that
bird cage / i can’t use that bird cage / like the door closed
i feel so claustrophobic / 14 yr olds with 350 magnums

& they call the b-7
7th heaven
it’s a good run.

–Steve Dalachinsky


photograph by Evelyn Bencicova

Buy issue #11 in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.

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Lambs to the Laughter Fri, 26 Dec 2014 06:37:04 +0000 I have the kind of mind that would kill me if it didn’t need me for transportation. In this case to Ireland. I had no conscious desire to go anywhere near the place but somehow I found myself sucked into the subway, placed on a plane and bundled onto a bus for Kilkenny. Before I... Read more »

The post Lambs to the Laughter appeared first on Sensitive Skin Magazine.

I have the kind of mind that would kill me if it didn’t need me for transportation.

In this case to Ireland.

I had no conscious desire to go anywhere near the place but somehow I found myself sucked into the subway, placed on a plane and bundled onto a bus for Kilkenny. Before I was even fully awake, I was faced with the house I grew up in and a sky cracked with crows. Would I be welcome? Had I any right to be there? Why was I so nervous? Who was that in the upstairs window? I was thrilled to see it was my oldest brother Brian. It meant that I wouldn’t have to sound the alarm-like doorbell and wake the rest of them up.


painting by Julie Torres

Anticipating his sarcastic signature handshake, in which a folded index finger wiggled against the interior of my palm, I selected my wryest smile. But it was wasted, since his hand merely gestured where I’d be staying. I’d be sleeping on a little fold-up camper-bed nudged against a radiator that, as far as I could remember, had never felt heat. This was because the good room was reserved for visiting priests and was therefore rarely used. Placement here defined you as an outsider.

I normally slept upstairs, but since Connor, my other brother, had moved back a few months previously, my old room was now his. Vapor leapt in and out of Brian’s throat. As a dedicated member of datemedotcom, I was relieved to hear that thanks to his online poker habit, there was now quite a decent Internet connection in the house. I had already sent countless cut-and-paste emails to childless women under 34, no taller than 5’8”, with bodies described as thin, presenting my trip home as a sort of voluntary international one-man rescue mission. I looked forward to checking my inbox for the gush of approval that would surely follow.

I unpacked my “Williamsburg bestseller” debut novel and my “cure for second-book-syndrome” and arranged them carefully on a chair by the camper-bed. They would ward off evil. Almost immediately a shadow fell over them and a figure filled the doorway as the good room got one degree colder. Was I expected to believe this was Connor? He was so very changed and old-looking. Squeezing the hardened hand he offered me, I felt his index finger tickle my palm.

“She’s too much, I’m going to have to move back to New York.”

I had no idea how to react, since the handshake seemed to ironize the information. It didn’t help that we’d hardly spoken in ten years. A phone call at Christmas, if that.

“Welcome home,” he said, “such as it is,” and released my hand at last. Unable to think of anything to say, I nodded far too cheerfully.

“We’ll need forty Euros for the kitty at some point, but don’t worry about it now.”

He was referring to the communal fund for groceries he’d put himself in charge of.

“Why? Do we have a cat now?” I said and immediately regretted it.

“I hope you come up with better lines than that in your books,” he said, nodding at my little library. I produced the rashers and eggs I’d bought for breakfast.

“Oh that’ll go down well. We’ll deduct it from your weekly amount. You don’t have the receipt do you?”

I confessed that I did not. He nodded professionally, as if making a mental note of a new employee. One to watch out for. It wasn’t official yet because he was still waiting for a means test and an interview but there was a very good chance that Connor would get paid a salary to pretend he gave a shit about his mother. It was a phenomenon reverently referred to in social service circles as A Carer’s Allowance.

“So you’re a writer now.”

The sarcasm was conspicuously absent.

“I suppose so yeah.”

“I went to a play the other night and I definitely got the bug. So you might find I’ll be getting into the writing game meself. . . . Ahh, yes, the thee-at-tur.”

It was irritating to hear him go on about how he’d already been writing for years, as if I were the one copying him. He had always been viciously competitive and, even now, looking depleted enough to be one of mother’s contemporaries, he could siphon up my insecurities. What if he managed to write something decent? How mortifying for me. Could he actually do it? He also talked about doing stand-up. This was something he might actually be able to pull off. The Annual Kilkenny Comedy Festival would provide the perfect platform for his talents—talents that were still very much in evidence. Over a breakfast of rashers and eggs, Brian, the least talented storyteller in our family, took it upon himself to relate how one night a fucking hipster made the mistake of bragging to them in the local pub.

“I co-own an arts collective,” he says. And guess what Connor said?”

I shook my head.

“We co-couldn’t give a fuck.”

Connor held my gaze as Brian enthused but there was no pleasure in it for him. I felt deep shame over my kitty comment and sympathy for the hipster. I knew what it was like to be broadsided by Connor. The familiar feeling of humiliation warmed me up.

I was home.

At least he wasn’t talking about converting the house into a bed and breakfast.

He had always talked about how the Yanks would pay a fortune to stay in an Irish house. Lose this wall, it wasn’t load-bearing anyway, and re-hang those doors to face the front, bung in a few extra beds and you’d be all set. There was no mention of how he drank his own house from under himself in the Bronx.

If I could just get through the following few weeks I’d be back in New York where I hoped to get a play of my own happening. A Broadway producer had asked me to adapt Diary of an Oxygen Thief for the stage. It was where my attention belonged. All I had to do was soak up some authentic Irish heritage and nod convincingly left and right for a few weeks and there’d be no need to show my face for another six years.

Maybe even longer.

Meanwhile Brian’s email describing mother as frail and bitchy proved accurate.

“Oh, there he is. Is he still bald?”

“Yes ma he is.” I started to remove my woolen hat.

“Oh Jesus leave it on I don’t want to see it. Who bought the rashers?”

She had deflated since I’d seen her last. Her knuckles were new to me.

“Turn on the television. It might warm up the room.”

Every program talked about the economy or the lack of it and how to conserve energy or the lack of it and who was bankrupt and how generally fucked we all were and how maybe we deserved it for being so fucking cocky in the first place. Even Gay Byrne had been jolted out of retirement to do interviews with fellow fuck-ups who lost all their money to bad investments. Drunk driving was no longer tolerated (one pint and you lost your license) and smoking was actually banned from pubs. Lavish banquets in legendary venues went unattended, since punters preferred to hold parties at home. Strange days indeed when an Irish pub went unsuckled. It made me wonder how Connor could still afford to drink. And smoke.

The answer was right in front of me. I pretended to be preoccupied with my phone as he supervised the signing over of our mother’s pension to him. Had he waited for me to be present to do this? Was I in fact a witness? Her signature authorized him to withdraw a weekly cash-payment from the post office. She was getting too old to pick it up herself and this supposedly saved her the trip. He was also newly empowered to pick up her weekly doctor’s prescription from the chemist. Representing in excess of four hundred Euros a week and an endless supply of free drugs, I’d have thought he’d be a little more civil, but her refusal to wear a hearing aid was an invitation, not just to shout at her but at all of us. Opening the door to the hallway, Brian gestured to me to follow. The shouting continued from the kitchen as he lowered his voice to a whisper.

“It was worse when first came home, he came home rat-arsed one night looking for his cab fare after losing seven hundred Euros playing poker. “You brought two addictions home with you,” I said. “Drinking and gambling; either you stop or you can fuck off back to the States.”

He let this sink in.

“He’s been a bit better since.”

I shivered at the thought of Connor leeching off a life that even our mother didn’t want. She longed to be with her late husband. To her, the very act of eating postponed their reunion.

“He’s hoping to hold out until his allowance comes through,” I said. “In the meantime he’ll get by on her prescriptions.

It was my turn to let it sink in.

“I see this all the time in AA. Someone’s mother gets cancer and the son drops everything to come home and help out with the free supply of morphine patches.”

Brian looked as if the idea was ridiculous. But not impossible.

“You think he’s that bad?”

I had plenty more to say but decided instead to get myself to a meeting. The town’s depressing atmosphere was refreshed almost hourly by what appeared to be grey paint drizzling from the sky. At every turn I was confronted with stunningly beautiful girls smiling from inside carefully lit posters. Girls so far removed from the reality of what wobbled past me on the streets of Kilkenny, someone should have been prosecuted for fraud.

When I got back, I was told that mother had fallen and hit her head on the downstairs bathroom sink. Brian bandaged her with what he could find: kitchen-towels and sellotape. I didn’t ask where Connor was.

My sister Grainne was due for a quick visit but she never stayed in the house. Over the years she’d learned to make other arrangements, partly because there was no room and partly because the house was so cold but mostly because her husband was so unwelcome. She stayed across the road at the Shannondale Hotel. Rates were even lower than normal now since the country was more bankrupt than usual. I fantasized about using the shower over there. No way I was ever taking my jacket off in that house so the idea of stepping naked into a shower was laughable. Even in my creaky little bed I wore my woolen hat and socks. I couldn’t think of worse conditions for an eighty-six-year-old woman; a freezing house with two life-sized parasites feeding off her.

Three, if you counted me.

But within a half-hour of Grainne’s arrival, mother soiled herself on the threshold of the upstairs bathroom. The smell was strangely sweet and disgusting at the same time. She had almost made it. Ordinarily she used the downstairs toilet but perhaps wanting to impress her well-to-do daughter she had embarked on the ardous expedition upstairs.

I had to admit I was glad to have been at another meeting at the time (I was going to one every day now) and Brian had to be happy to be at work. The Carer was not available for comment, which meant Grainne wasn’t home an hour before she had tears in her eyes and shit on her hands. She had lost her unpopular husband to cancer the year before and was somehow expected to take this in her stride because Grainne was a trooper and nothing gets Grainne down.

It should have been unbearably sad but I had become hardened. My own tribulations of heartbreak and penury in New York had inspired all manner of fortification to the point that I was now pretty much unbreachable. My priority was to inflect Grainne’s understanding in the same way I had done with Brian.

“An alcoholic will steal your money and help you look for it,” I said.

“You should know,” she said quickly.

Connor and Grainne had always been close.

Every evening after dinner Connor and Brian flanked their mother with identical laptops and headphones playing online poker while she watched mostly news on TV. I edited them both out of my carefully crafted cut-and-paste messages that portrayed me as the heroically returned son who could be relied on by his poor ailing mother for at least the rest of the month. The fireplace was worried over like a sick child and gave out about as much heat.

But all I got was one hesitant response from a shapely looking tutor of French literature and film. I was far from procuring the sexual attention I had hoped since my brutally honest, tell-all fictionalised memoir had become a liability. She had no desire, she said, to become the “latest conquest in a darkly hilarious cult classic.” Fair enough, but what was the point of writing a book if it didn’t get you laid?

I began to master the art of sleeping.

The solution was simple. When the various inmates tottered off to their cells, you sleep in the common room. Brian frowned when I brought up the idea of sharing Grainne’s hotel room for a few nights.

“Don’t put her in that position.”

Pretty rich coming from a guy living off his mother but I was happy to hear the firmness in his voice since it meant that he might stand up to Connor when the time came. As the eldest brother, he was the natural father figure and I was secretly happy that he seemed OK with this. I was a child all over again testing out the barriers of what I could and could not get away with and it was a relief to reach the limits of my rebellion. He did however approve of my using the shower. The very idea. A hot shower in a warm bathroom with fluffy white towels and . . .

“Don’t forget you still owe me forty Euros.” Connor’s voice was urgent behind me.

It might have been jetlag or sleeplessness or frustration at being harassed for a debatable debt, but my mouth opened and out it jumped.

“Go fuck . . .”

He had smoked me out. The real me, the one he knew I was hiding. The old me. The real me. His suspicions were confirmed. All my AA bullshit was just an act. And he had yet to hold me up to ridicule for being arrogant enough to announce myself as a writer. The laughable idea that the thoughts and ideas slithering around in my wet brain were worthy of preservation. I steeled myself. Surely this was his chance. But no tirade came.

Instead I was allowed to marinate in my own juices.

Was it a ploy? He was preparing the ground for his own writing career. Any success I had would pave the way for his own. The moment I heard he’d moved back home I wanted to cancel my trip but it would have been too obvious and anyway I had already booked it. Ever since I quit drinking we were deeply uncomfortable in each other’s presence. And there he stood not quite looking at me but allowing me to look at him. The better to register his disappointment.

I needed a wash.

Brian got up at 7am every morning and drank a cup of tea in the gloom. Having denied himself electric light and the warmth of a gas heater he was only just worthy of the power it took to boil the kettle. I had just finished stowing away my camper bed when a letter shoved itself surreally through the letter-box. Immediately apparent were the three blue castles of the Kilkenny County Council logo. I placed it on the kitchen table where Brian would see it when he turned around.

“Do you want to bring it up to him?”

It was a sly suggestion that might help diffuse the built-up tension between his younger brothers but I only agreed because there was a good chance it contained a rejection. The exhaled stink of alcohol and tobacco was thick in the air as I approached the hump of blankets on top of what used to be my bed. I waited for him to wake up and curse me but instead he was uncharacteristically polite as he fingered the letter open. I stood there like a royal messenger looking directly ahead and there on the wall was a picture of myself at twelve years old making my Holy Communion. The word freak was written in biro across my forehead.

He was approved to proceed to the next stage of his application. Means-test and interview date to follow. Within seconds he began to worry that my presence in the house would affect his chances.

“You’re not mentioned anywhere in the application, it could get tricky if . . .”

If what? Was I supposed to agree that I was in the way? Would I have to pretend to be a fucking lodger? A tenant from the States. I’d lost weight since I stopped drinking and as a result I now looked more like my brothers than ever before. For years there had been a standing joke that because I was so unlike my siblings I had to have been fathered by the milkman. Mother would shriek with delighted laughter at this, especially since the milkman was no oil painting. She could be an evil little fucker when she wanted to be. A few weeks before I arrived home while waiting for Connor to have his neck looked at by her doctor (on her insurance) she had grown impatient.

“What’s he doing in there?” she asked the receptionist. “Fucking him?”

Connor told this story as evidence of the hardships he’d had to endure and yes he might have made it up but she was capable of it.

I consoled myself that there had to be a great Irish play in all of this.

It had all the prerequisites of misery, penury, rivalry and alcoholism.

Granted, someone might need to starve to death or drown in a river but with three weeks left there was every reason to be optimistic.

As the narrator of the play I’d make it clear that though I portrayed my brothers as living off my mother I too was guilty of mining the situation for all the Hibernian hubris I could scrape onto a page. In this way the very subject of the play would become evidence of an Irish mother’s innate ability to provide for her sons.

Something to ponder on the way to another meeting.

Later that evening Grainne dragged her mother across the road for a free dinner at the Shannondale Hotel. This left all three brothers to dine together for the first time without maternal supervision. A terrible silence descended over the dinner table. We were like strangers forced to sit together in a very bad restaurant. Brian was the first to break the silence.


He could have been agreeing with something one of us had said but we hadn’t.

No one could say he hadn’t kept up his end of the conversation. I felt Connor’s eyes on me like guns. He was not what you’d call a good cook but he was extremely sensitive so it was necessary to take great care which expression you wore while eating.

“Hmmm,” said Brian again or maybe this time it was “Mmmm.”

I volunteered to wash the dishes because I knew this was something that would receive universal approval. It inspired another “Hmmm” from Brian, but the carer was less enthusiastic.

“You’ll still have to pay your share of the kitty though.”

I diverted my rage onto the plates and pots.

The next morning, as I waited for Debbie Barrington to drive in from Thomastown to meet me for breakfast, I studied my face in the window of the High Street Café. Only a week home and I already looked like a rasher-faced culchie. I felt better when she entered though. Her face looked even more ruddy and spud-stuffed than mine.

Her body was a different matter.

It was the product of a different culture. A potato-free democracy that the engnomed inhabitants of Ireland only saw on telly. Its hostess was a youngish history professor who, ignoring the sexual etiquette of the rooms, began chatting to me after an East Village AA meeting. Being newly sober she voiced concerns about an upcoming trip to Ireland to research a book on Oliver Cromwell. Because I knew she’d need staying sober in a country whose national emblem was indistinguishable from a Guinness logo we exchanged details. More to the point I wanted to do to that body what Cromwell did to Ireland.

After a comparatively pagan breakfast relying on the combined sacrifices of an average Irish farmyard (everything but the farmer) we toyed with the idea of making Cromwell a more sympathetic character. Maybe he was just an over-enthusiastic philanthropist. Could he have been ahead of his time? An early proponent of euthanasia, perhaps? A precursor to Doctor Kevorkian. A misunderstood enabler of voluntary and or assisted suicide. Surely the fact that he was associated with so many dead only proved how sought after his services were. It was common knowledge that sixteenth-century medical care was nonexistent and so the majority of his patients would already have been suffering from all manner of terminal illnesses. It might well transpire that the much-maligned General, far from being the cause of woe, had instead facilitated an end to much suffering. In light of these findings Professor Deborah and I might feel duty-bound to petition for his canonization.

“Blessed Oliver Cromwell would certainly be a provocative title.”

“You got me out of bed today,” she said, still laughing.

“Which is ironic,” I mewed, ”because my intention was to do the opposite.”

She bought two signed copies of my books and paid for breakfast.

Connor needed to keep mother alive in the same way a kidnapper needed to keep a hostage healthy. Brian needed to keep a close eye on Connor in case he drank the house out from under all three of them. Mother welcomed the presence of both sons, especially since the alternative was a nursing home.

Son number three suckled on the narrative possibilities.

Maybe Connor’s play would interrupt mine in mid-performance. Choreographed to perfection, there would be a sudden but elegant exchange of characters. The actor playing me would now be uglier and considerably fatter, while Connor’s new ambassador would be noticeably more muscular, not so much old now as wise. He’d start getting all the good lines while I spent more time downstage only feebly lit by an iPhone. Brian’s role would no longer be that of paternal compass but of a weak-willed and easily-led man-child. The hearts and minds of the audience would be drawn to center stage, where Connor’s soothing voice helped us navigate the quagmire we had created around him. Brian’s failed marriage. Me and my alcoholic self-obsession. Thank God for an embattled hero who sacrifices the freedom and independence of New York so that his mother might enjoy some peace in her final days on this troubled earth.

Or maybe I wouldn’t even get a mention, like on the application form.

He didn’t appear in my so-called tell-it-all fictionalised memoir, so why should I expect to be featured in his hilariously charming, heartrendingly honest play?

But one character would be consistent in both productions.

The old woman melting into her chair.

Back in the real world, Connor, angry at the very air around him, bellowed left and right while mashing potatoes like the heads of enemies. Apparently he had not been looking forward to my coming home. According to mother he was jealous of me. Even more so, now that I resembled a younger version of him. It occurred to me that whenever I had played down my successes it had always been at her insistence, not his. Was she pitting us against each other? This had been going on for years. It was true he got all the love. What there was of it.

Brian signed up for a speed-dating event but instead of meeting a girl he came home with a friend called Kevin. He announced that he and “Kev” planned to order Chinese that Friday night so there would be one less person to cook for. Connor, grateful for the advance notice, could now more effectively manage expectations of the event.


I caressed my return ticket. If I could just get through the following nine days I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. I was just a visitor. All I had to do was breathe from the stomach. In. Out. In. Out.

But then he asked for money again.

At first I was calm. I replied reasonably that I’d rather pay my own way and remain separate from the kitty. Not very practical, of course, but I hated the idea of being under his command. It wasn’t about me, or him or the kitty any more. It was about his active disease of alcoholism versus my active solution for it. I represented the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous here. I was a diplomat. I had to show him he couldn’t get away with manipulating me or my mother or the situation.

“Fuck you . . . and your fucking kitty.”

He stood back, the better to regard me.

“You expect to stay here for free? Is that it? Fine, I’ll pay for your food. Would that be OK with you?”

This was delivered, for maximum effect, with mother still in the room but because I was still smiling he took a different tack.

“You’re so cheap, so fucking chee—”

“Where’s Connor?”

His face quivered.

“What have you done with him? I mean who the fuck are you?”

He nodded sadly to himself.

“OK, I see . . . you know what? I don’t need this shit either. You can do it . . . see how you fucking like it. I’ll go up to Grainne for the week, get the fuck out of this madhouse.”

“Fine . . . fuck off up to Grainne, at least we’ll have some peace.”

“Fine. You can do the cooking, see how thankless a job it is.”

Mother spoke suddenly.

“She doesn’t want you either.”

There was no time to react to this because the gas heater started to sputter.

“Now . . . see? That’s more money.”

The unbearable pressures of professional carer were back in his face.

“That’s another thirty Euros for a new bottle but you don’t have to worry, you’re outside the kitty, we’ll pay for your heating, too, don’t worry.”

Now that I was effectively excluded from not just the kitty but the family itself he felt comfortable enough to ignore me.

“Ma, do you have thirty Euros for a bottle of gas?”

Vibrating inside her cardigan, she prepared for the epic inconvenience of standing up.

“You can just tell me where it is, I’ll get it for you.”

His voice was pleading. I couldn’t tell if it was a son’s frustration at the sight of his immobilized mother or an addict’s panic at the notion of money he couldn’t get to.

“No,” she said too emphatically. “I’ll get it meself.”

“A houseful of fucking lunatics,” he said, genuinely perplexed.

Up until now he had been comparatively content. Yes, he was loud and angry and frustrated and flustered, but things were generally going his way. His strategy up to that moment had been to conspicuously position himself as indispensable and, generally speaking, he had succeeded. But here was a battle best fought covertly. While he enjoyed a well-earned week off, I’d be invited to disgrace myself further by failing as the resident carer. He and Grainne would discuss the sorry situation over free drinks while he went after the deeds to the house.

I was astounded at how quickly I metamorphosed into my eleven-year-old self. Connor sneering at me with his vicious fight-starting face. Revulsion at the very sight of me. But instead of taking it all on like I used to when I was a boy I saw the man behind the mask instead. The clever frightened bully. The master manipulator capable of making the very puppets he controlled love him for it. And then I saw my own behavior in him and I didn’t like that at all. No wonder I’d gone into advertising. It was the perfect occupation for someone trained in the art of covert manipulation. As the ridicule rained down I remembered my father’s courage when he resisted my vicious alcoholic fits of rage. Even through the befogged windscreen of my careering juggernaut, I remembered being impressed to see that there was someone willing to stand up to my bullshit. Could I provide my brother with a similar epiphany?

It was official. He was gone for the week.

Brian dropped him at the bus station so he could go and annoy Grainne in Ballina. Meanwhile it quickly became obvious that the newly liberated territory would require careful governing and exhaustive administration, and though I was unsure about how to proceed, I was determined not to complain about it. Sacrifice and service. That was the AA code. Try to be of service. I had nothing better to do for my last week anyway and it was more practical and much cheaper than going on my own.

Mother was surprisingly mercenary about the whole thing. It didn’t seem to matter who did what as long as she was taken care of. She began kissing me. Quick little pecks like an inexperienced girlfriend. She had never been so affectionate when she was alive. Brian became stoic and set his jaw against the inevitable battles ahead. I googled Alanon Ireland (for the relatives of alcoholics) and found a meeting for him on Tuesday nights at 8:30pm. Not that he’d attend. He’d continue to spend his evenings couch-bound and blue-hued in front of his card game. Why would anyone volunteer themselves bodily to the cold wet walls of that house? What did he lack in himself that he allowed it? And who was really in charge here? I began to feel tricked. Like someone was laughing at me. Maybe I’d been wrong-footed into doing exactly what Connor wanted.

Was he that good?

Either way I had a tough week ahead.

Mother demonstrated an almost clairvoyant knack for waiting until I was about to sit down before demanding that a door be closed or an orange be brought or fuel be fetched for the fire. I had to remind myself that it was she who put together the original program that controlled all our interpretations of events. She was almost literally the motherboard. No wonder she was so good at finding sensitive spots to prod.

“Will you be getting an apple tart?” she asked innocently as I psyched myself up for the weekly shopping trip.

“Maybe. Yeah I’ll look for one. We’ll see.”

“Because I‘m not making one,” she said before the chance to hurt evaporated.

Even in her half-alive state she could still instinctively orchestrate a one-two punch like this. She hadn’t forgotten my near-obsessive fondness for her apple tarts and, having reawakened my hopes the day before that she might actually bake one for me like she used to in the old days, she was now effectively denying any such conversation ever took place. It was a test perhaps to see if the subject had any emotional currency still attached. I hid my disappointment without really knowing why. I couldn’t allow her to know it was a sore subject because it might encourage her to bring it up again. This was how I remembered my adolescence. Never give her anything to work with. Keep it all in.

The doorbell shook me.

I had always been stupefied by her slick transformation when visitors dropped by and now, a quarter of a century later as I noticed a small white-haired woman through the hall door, Medusa drew a hairnet over her snakes.

“Answer that will ya pet?”

My nervousness concerning the imminent weekly shopping excursion was alleviated by the news that I was to be accompanied by my mother’s one remaining friend, Shiela. I was a source of great surprise to Shiela, since she’d been told I was fat and bald.

Even so I was invited into her little green car.

“I’m taking you downtown,” she said, mimicking a thirties detective. Or at least I think she was mimicking.

Compared to mother she was spritely, probably in her seventies. If I was going to succeed as the new carer, I needed her know-how. And she certainly knew how. Which biscuits were preferred, what brand of tea to come home with, the approved sweets, the correct lettuce, the accepted shade of brown for the bread. Connor had managed to make the weekly shopping excursion sound so intricate and stressful it was like diffusing a nuclear device. For once he hadn’t exaggerated.

And I wasn’t aware that mother’s first appearance each morning was heralded by the ceremonial dropping of boots, handbag and walking-stick from the upstairs landing. The heart-stopping phump as they hit the hall floor exploded in my mind in the form of a self-centered thought: She had fallen and died and I’d be blamed for her death.

Did she do it on purpose? While I was fetching tea and biscuits for them both, (“Fill it up halfway with hot water and leave the teabag in it you clown.”) I heard her tell Shiela that she was breaking me in. And as she descended the creaking stairs I learned how I had managed to fuck up her precious electric blanket settings and as a result she hadn’t even had “.. . . . one . . . fecking . . . wink . . . all . . . night.”

She witheld the punch-line for the foot of the stairs.

“Oh I wish Connor was here.”

“Good morning,” I said, determined not to rise to the bait.

But I wished he was here too.

Could I really take a week of this? After all, in New York I lived alone. Nobody bothered me. I’d broken up with countless women in favor of privacy and now here I was tethered to a relentlessly needy old hag who not only smelled of piss at the best of times but took an almost sexual pleasure in pointing out my defects. We might have been married. Something occurred to me. Had Connor tampered with the settings on her electric blanket? Why leave your constituency in good shape for the new regional president? Obviously I would now need to call him after only his second day away and beg him to come back. How gentle his journey home, confident in the knowledge that I had fucked up where he was already proven. He’d be magnanimous and forgiving. Let bygones be bygones. No need to rub salt into wounds. My last week would be a week of humiliation and ridicule by omission. There was no fucking way I was letting that happen.

But it was like being shoved onto a live cookery show without a script.

Suddenly I was baking lamb chops for three and fretting about whether to baste, marinade, season or grill. I googled recipies feverishly. Were my lampchops boring? Careful. Don’t get too tricksy, she’d spit it out if it got too trendy. Incinerate and serve. That was the way ahead. I needed a meeting.

A Latvian who insisted on saying Jaysus every few seconds gave me a lift home. It probably made him feel more Irish than he had a right to. I had already walked halfway before he caught up with me in his car. How could he afford a car when he had just shared in the meeting that he was on disability? It turned out he’d been hit by a truck when he was drunk and had broken his back, after which he spent three years in a wheelchair and two more in physical therapy and now he was three weeks sober.

“Jaysus,” I said.

He looked over at me approvingly.

Ashamed of my high-class problems I was grateful to him for a lot more than just the ride home. We shook hands meaningfully. In Ireland, a recovering alcoholic is like an undercover agent in enemy territory.

“One day at a time,” I said, slamming the door heroically.

I immediately tripped over something and fell. Since my last visit home rubbish bags had become the subject of careful curation. New European regulations required them to be reverently positioned for weekly collection. Heavy fines encouraged compliance. And since bonfires could now be spotted from the sky households risked retribution meted out with almost divine accuracy. Mother related these concerns with the awed conviction of a medieval villager. The result was that sacrifices were dutifully placed beneath twinkling sky and under the feet of mortals such as myself. The neighbors probably thought I was back on the booze.

Neighbor 1: “He was always fond of a drop.”

Neighbor 2: “The same fella would drink off a sore leg.”

The next day I heard my name called from the living room and when I walked in my mother was sitting on the ground like a fifties starlet smiling sweetly up at me. She’d fallen over again. I waited for the gush of guilt and remorse that would surely follow but none came. She might have been a piece of furniture that I lifted and replaced. If I ever wrenched an accomplishment from the jaws of adversity like a job or a raise or an award, her response had always been the same.

“Oh that’s great, but don’t tell Connor or he’ll be jealous.”

When I was growing up Connor was my idol. Maybe this explained the depth of my rage towards him. There was a sense of betrayal involved. Like I’d been lied to. He was the reason I went into advertising. I’d make it big and then we’d fucking see. But all the awards and the six-figure salaries were useless if I couldn’t brag about them. So yes, fuck him and his kitty.

My phone vibrated.

It was a message from jacquleine124.

“The irony is not lost on me that my limp was caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.”

This referred to the title of my first book, Diary of an Oxygen Thief, and its source was a pretty girl from datemedotcom who was already insisting on picking me up from the airport. Why was the idea of a girl with a limp such a turn-on? Perhaps because it meant the normal rituals could be dispensed with. If she was damaged, I could be my unadorned self. Her facebook page provided me with more pictures and yes she had a lovely body. All creamy-skinned, long-haired and ladylike.

But with a limp.

We began to correspond. She had married impetuously because she felt lucky to be asked. I allowed this to mean she’d never been fucked properly. I certainly hoped so. While I let her wait the prerequisite hour for a reply I emailed a fantasy scenario to the tutor of French film: We are browsing in an East Village bookshop . . . . Between the shelves you hold my gaze and provocatively lick your fingers but instead of turning the page your hand descends under your skirt . . . . The book tips forward . . . .”

If she replied even halfheartedly to such overt filth, sex would be agreed to before we even met.

“Monsieur, I love the idea of holding your . . . erm . . . gaze in a bookshop.”

But even so Jackie jostled the Francophile sideways with her limp.

Her approach was darker somehow and she required less lying to.

I walked over to the farm where I’d spent my summers as a laborer and even got misty-eyed at some of the memories I found there. Mons Hanarahan, so-called because he was a mountain of a man, able to achieve in a day what a crane would take a week to do. He drowned himself in the River Nore after his beloved greyhounds cannabalised each other while he walked them. He jumped between the frenzied dogs and ended up with a perforated eyelid. Even with his eyes closed one pupil was visible. But the barn we built was still standing. A Taj Mahal to wheat and potatoes.

The rest of the day passed unnoticed until late afternoon, when I couldn’t get the oven to work. Flashback to an ad agency in London. The crucial presentation is in two hours, the printer is jammed and the client is en route. I dusted off my mantra: Panic Beautifully. But back then it had only been my salary at risk. Now it was my entire way of life. If I couldn’t at least match Connor’s coping skills I was nothing more than a bad ad for AA. And having already invested twenty years of my life in its manifesto, failure was not an option. Mercifully, Brian called to say he’d been delayed at work, and this being one of the few acceptable reasons in mother’s mind for a delayed dinner, I used the precious time to refry the pork with a plate covering the pan, effectively creating an improvised oven. It was the equivalent of using the color copier instead of the printer.

But would it be done enough for her scorched palette?

Later as she shuffled back to the living room leaning more heavily than usual on her walking stick she managed to blame my cooking for her latest ailment.

“That shite went straight to me knee.”

My first task on awakening each morning was to remove any evidence of being there. Having stowed away my camper-bed, duvet, pillows and sheets in the good room, I cleaned and reset the fireplace; actual ignition required authorization.

Rummaging through the firebox for newspapers to bundle up and burn I found a familiar-looking handwritten letter that began, “Dear Ma . . . ”

I felt the thrill of reading someone’s private thoughts. Maybe it was from Connor. If so, I’d be exonerated for reading it since I needed to understand him better if I was going to help with his addiction. But as I looked for a postcode or an address I realized why it looked so familiar. I’d written it. A couple of years earlier while still in the process of breaking up with Marian, I put my thoughts down on paper. Nothing unusual about this ,since I kept a journal, but this was the only time I put those selfsame unedited thoughts in an envelope and mailed them to my mother. I blushed as I read a particularly sensitive passage. Embarrassment gave way to rage. Most mothers would treasure such a record of their son’s tribulations and preserve them in the unknowable compartment of a handbag. But not this one. Here it was with the rest of the discarded reading material waiting to be burned. More worrying was the fact that ordinarily Connor lit the fire. He’d probably already memorized the juicier bits. I might well have supplied him with enough material for an uproarious comedy routine.

It would have been the last straw if I hadn’t already given up on the place.

Instead it confirmed my decision to treat my remaining time there as service. An activity-holiday. Like working on a farm or volunteering a week of your time to help the less fortunate. I checked and rechecked the train times to Dublin like a miser counting cash. I was prepared to stay up all night rather than oversleep and miss the earliest train. I couldn’t believe it had all gotten as overt as it did. In the past I’d always managed to hide my disgust for the duration of my visit. In fact that was exactly what I’d done for the first week but I just couldn’t withstand the accumulation. My pipes burst. Disgust was too weak a word for it. Pure undistilled vitriol surged inside me looking for an outlet and Connor instinctively knew how to provide it. As my older cooler brother he had as much influence in my creation as my parents, if not more.

He had been the one I emulated.

I taught myself to play drums because of him. I went to art school to impress him. I yearned to be him. I saw how effortlessly popular he was and, yes, if I’m honest, how good-looking. Better looking than me. Better looking than any of us. And most of all I saw how mother worshipped him. All he had to do was appear in a doorway and the sound of her happy laughter filled the room. It was as if they were having an affair while the rest of us pretended not to notice.

And it didn’t help that I was told on more than one occasion that I was unintentional.

A mistake.

There was a suspicious gap of seven years between Grainne and I while they were all born within a year of each other. Should I even be here? And yet here I was all these years later still competing for a turn at the wizened maternal nipple. Instinctively, I shoved the letter into my pocket when I heard the sickening phump in the hallway and my name pronounced with obvious annoyance by the enfeebled little shithead already halfway down the stairs.

“Why’re you so grim?”

There had been an actual smile on her face when I first appeared because a quick survey of her realm from the upstairs window confirmed that the precious rubbish sacks were correctly placed outside the castle walls. She was probably about to praise me for having done something right but I couldn’t take the credit since it was almost certainly Brian’s doing. I could have used the good PR but I couldn’t risk the scandal. I looked at her standing there half-dead. Was I just a thin-skinned alcoholic seeking new reasons to feel sorry for myself or was this in fact a gnomish little cunt?

Six more dinners to cook and five more fires to light before being released back into the world. What was I thinking? Why was I even doing this? I began to blame my AA sponsor for the needlessly long duration of my visit. I would never have stayed so long had it not been for his suggestion.

“It’ll be good for your mom to see her son . . . and not just for a few days.”

But that was before I knew Connor would be home. I had no doubt that it would have been a more kindly remembered visit if I had left after the first week. Maybe it was a good thing that it all came out into the open. And mom could have cared less who was there as long as she was taken care of. As long as she wasn’t put in a home. I needed another meeting.

Meanwhile mother soiled herself again.

Thankfully I was in the middle of my meeting when it happened. Brian tried to help but had apparently made the situation worse by complaining about the stink. So much so that mother was in tears when I got back. I tried to console her but even as she leaned against me for what might have been the beginnings of a hug I detected the bittersweet scent of piss and shit slicing at my nostrils.

I couldn’t see Connor mopping up shit.

A life lived in Ireland consists of being passed from the publican to the priest and the priest to the publican until such time as they both handed you off to the undertaker. Sheila revealed, as she drove me in her green car to the chemist to pick up mother’s weekly supply of pills, that her late husband had been a Funeral Director. It was understood that his funeral would be an advertisement for her taking over the business. The idea had a certain gothic elegance to it and while I fretted about how best to work this into my woe-torn Irish play it took a few moments for me to realise that my eighty-six-year old mother’s best friend was an undertaker.

Did she make similar visits to numerous other octogenarians? On one level it was selflessness cheerfully volunteered, but on another it was classic salesmanship. A decent funeral would cost at least eight thousand Euros. Not to be sniffed at in any economy. Did it matter? If you were going to be buried and someone had to be paid to do it then why not let your best friend have the gig? But how long had Shiela been my mother’s best friend? Only recently as far as I could tell. Did she have any younger friends? She dropped me off at our house and I watched her drive away, a vulture in a headscarf.

And I couldn’t help noticing two large bottles of Valium on mother’s list of otherwise unpronounceable drugs for which Connor would no doubt find a use when the hangovers got to be too much. I handed over the bag and she took an uncharacteristic moment out of her busy schedule as cunt-in-residence to thank me for everything I’d done since I’d been home.

“Thanks pet you’ve been a brick.”

Either I had shown it was possible for someone to achieve the impossible standards Connor had set or, like a war criminal sensing armistice, she was making terms.

Meanwhile the girl with the limp continued to enthuse.

Having read my books she knew how much importance I attached to a shapely ass and she fretted now that I wouldn’t like hers. I already knew it would pass muster since I’d looked up her Facebook page and found a photo of her wearing shorts. I bowed my head the better to inspect it. Tabernacle and supplicant.

And through no fault of her own Madmoiselle Julie began to behave like my girlfriend. I confessed that I had a desire to have children that spoke French. The language, already beautiful, became even more musical to me emitting from the tiniest of throats. But when she replied that she absolutely loved this idea, I immediately felt married. This was when I agreed to allow Jackie, her ass and her limp to meet me at the airport the next day.

It was a good time to talk to mother about how best to handle Connor. I helped her feel better about the fact that the house wasn’t worth quite so much in the present economy and that this meant he had less incentive to carve it up into a bed-and-breakfast.

“Why? D’ya think he’d . . . ?”

“All I’m saying is, you should make sure you know where your check book is, OK?”

“That’s what Brian said . . . ahh no he’s not like that. He’s jealous of you, you know?”

She was playing me.

But I was able to look more kindly on her now that I felt grateful to be leaving.

It was becoming obvious that caring for someone else’s mother was a simpler proposition than caring for your own. Maybe Connor would get sober. That would solve everything And then it occurred to me almost as quickly that this was the last thing I wanted to happen. If he got sober I’d no longer have the moral high ground. I’d just be the mistake who visited every few years and he would once again be the golden boy. As it was he effectively shamed himself every time he drank and I was the last person to want that to stop.

I had actually begun to enjoy lighting the fire and preparing the food and even cleaning the house. These chores acted like stabilizers in my day, correcting the wobble. Did we have enough tomatoes? What about the fire? Was there enough coal in? Eggs? More Ambrosia rice? She likes her Ambrosia rice. Tea bags? What was I missing? Lettuce. Was there lettuce? Did she have enough sweets? How were we for potatoes? Had I butter enough for the following day? Sheila was due for another grocery trip . . . but hang on . . . an understocked kitchen would make Connor’s return all the more awkward. Mother now talked about getting rid of him. She even sanctioned my brilliant idea of anonymously calling the social services to condemn him as an alcoholic. This would immediately render him ineligible. A devastating coup de grâce dealt from the comfort of a Bus Eireann window seat and all in the name of protecting my defenceless mother from her manipulative son.

But which one?

I had spent one week in Connor’s shoes and only just managed it. Why shouldn’t he come home and take care of his mother? And why shouldn’t he get some money for it? Who was I to decide how someone lived? Or died, for that matter. Better an imperfect son than a hospice full of strangers. My motives were much more murky than I wanted to admit. I have the kind of mind that would kill me if it didn’t need me for transportation.

In this case to New York.


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Dennis Gordon – Photographs Sun, 21 Dec 2014 21:49:50 +0000 I’ve been drawn to abandoned buildings all my life. When I was a boy, the allure was breaking into forbidden places without getting caught, the adventure of making new discoveries. Later, when I became a firefighter in 1978 in the South Bronx, entering and navigating vacant structures became both a full time job and a... Read more »

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I’ve been drawn to abandoned buildings all my life. When I was a boy, the allure was breaking into forbidden places without getting caught, the adventure of making new discoveries. Later, when I became a firefighter in 1978 in the South Bronx, entering and navigating vacant structures became both a full time job and a passion. Around the same time, I moved to the Lower East Side, where I was surrounded by blocks of vacant tenements dating back to the early 1900s. Despite how dangerous this was, I spent much of my time inside exploring. Over the years my attraction to abandoned spaces grew and I fell in love with turn-of-the-century industries: mills, warehouses, foundries, loft buildings and factories. This includes former institutions, such as asylums, prisons, schools and hospitals. And also foreclosed homes.

Photographing these emptied spaces, I began to feel comfortable in the midst of the neglect and decay. The abandonment, loneliness and isolation inside the structures grounded me. I discovered an escape from the boredom of inhabited spaces, growing lost within the wealth of bygone architecture and design. Here, I feel like I’m participating in some grand installation of living art. The decay is dynamic and the interiors will be different when I revisit them in a year. New levels of rust and mold. Brick disintegrating and nature slowly prevailing, replacing manmade elements. Where some people see eyesores, I see the labor of architects, craftsmen and assemblymen who used complex machines built as durably as the products they made. To me, each abandoned building tells a story about our past, and all these buildings tell a collective story of our present, an era of greed when everything—from architecture to wares to art—is disposable, replaceable.

My artwork recreates and memorializes the emotional experience of seeing and exploring these structures. I also want to pay tribute to the quality of manufacturing we once had and the domestic jobs it created.

–Dennis Gordon.

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Afro-Surreal Excerpt Wed, 17 Dec 2014 22:03:23 +0000 Let me tell you how I met Sham Black. West Virginia, Dunbar Jr. High School football field, 123rd Annual Commode Bowl, Riverside Rats versus The Hillside Rams. photograph by Kym Ghee Every Thanksgiving morning the men of Dunbar, on both sides of the railroad tracks that split through the town (Riverside and Hillside) begin to... Read more »

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Let me tell you how I met Sham Black.

West Virginia, Dunbar Jr. High School football field, 123rd Annual Commode Bowl, Riverside Rats versus The Hillside Rams.


photograph by Kym Ghee

Every Thanksgiving morning the men of Dunbar, on both sides of the railroad tracks that split through the town (Riverside and Hillside) begin to drink. At ten o’clock, they stagger into their F-1s, Monte Carlos, and Firebirds (“Quality car there, buddy!”), and honk their horns in a slow, drunken parade down Dunbar Avenue, cold beer in hand, until they reach the football field at the end of town near the river. Then they soak the field until it’s nothing but a mud pool. Then they get drunk. Then they try to play football. I was sitting at the top of the bleachers nursing my father’s flask for a pre-supper buzz.

“. . .” this black guy in a leather peacoat and blue and white wool hat said from the top of the bleachers.

“Pardon me?” He motioned me up to where he was sitting. I went up.

“They’re doing a version of an ancient ritual. Early agricultural tribes had orgies in the fields right before planting. It was supposed to be good for both the crops and the tribe. Been around for thousands of years.”

“Who are you, Mr. Wizard? Looks like a bunch of drunk rednecks rolling in the mud to me.”

“Just because they don’t know they do it don’t mean they ain’t doing it. I’ve a feeling that somebody back 100 years ago knew. See that guy over there?”

He pointed to “Big” John Gillaspell, town paralytic, who had just taken off his mud-covered shirt and was spinning it around over his head like a helicopter blade. His sagging basketball shorts were caked to black, and contrasted starkly with the fish-belly paleness of the fifteen pounds of flaccid flab flapping and swaying side to side in his drunken victory stumble upfield.

“Whoooooooo!” Big John wailed until a ball of phlegm choked him to a silent hobbit-like trot.

“That guy and his good wife are going to go home tonight full of beer and hubris. He is not going to bathe and she’s not going to ask him to. They’re going to put on their favorite soul album and they’re going to roll around in the all that dirt and mud. They’re going to fuck—”

I laughed. “No,” I said with a guffaw, loud and drunken.

“They’re going to fuck like they haven’t in 364 days. And tomorrow morning, they’ll feel cleaner, stronger and clearer than they have since last year, without shame, long before they’ve showered and changed the sheets. And come the next harvest cycle a new crop of football players and plant workers will be born, with a healthy green field to play, drink, and fuck on. It’s been that way for a long, long time. There’s a lot going on behind the veil.”

I took another sip from my flask and let the Rapid Cur warm away the chill. I liked the way he talked. I wanted to talk like that one day. With the words just coming out like that and shit. I would have definitely talked more if I could have talked like that back then.


“Yeah, thanks. Yo, man, what is that?!”

“Tupac Pez Dispenser. You don’t get these?”

“That is so dope! Hell, no.”

“They got Biggie, too. Want another one?”

“Thanks. That is too ill.”

“Been making them for nearly twenty years where I’m from.”

“Where you from?”

“Knot Frum Hear.”

“I know that. But where you from?”

He just smiled at me. “Hey, you smoke la?”


“Herbs. You indulge in sacred herbs?”

“Naw, man. And I don’t know nobody either.”

“I’m not looking. I’m saying I got smoke.” He pulled out a fat joint and lit it right there. At the top of the bleachers. In front of everybody.

“What are you doing?!” I started to get up. It was the stinkiest pot I’d ever smelled in my life. Smelt like someone was brewing a batch of skunk tea.

“The cops are right there, man. You’re on your own partner. I don’t even know you.”

“It’s cool man, this ain’t weed, frop.” He coughed. “Look.” He blew a cloud of smoke in the direction of the cluster of plaid parka-wearing Wall Mall shoppers. They didn’t even turn their heads. Cautiously, I watched him collect another cloud of thick gray smoke in his cheeks and expel it, where it hung heavily and deliberately over the crowd.

“Besides, nobody round here would have the imagination to do this. You cats still smoking dirt out this way, this isn’t anywhere near weed to these people. Wouldn’t be nothing to you if I hadn’t of told you. And nobody smokes weed in the bleachers, right? So, I’m nobody right now. Get it? Have a seat, little brother, and hit this.” I reached for it. Handing it over, he let me get the sticky cigarette to my lips.

“Before you take a hit, understand this: Only I am nobody. You are somebody. They are everybody else. That’s your nature, their nature and my preference. I repeat, you are not nobody or everybody, so you will not do the things that nobody does or the things that everybody does. Rather, you will do the things that nobody does not do and not everything that everybody does. You are somebody, not nobody and damn sure ain’t everybody. You are Myself. See what I’m saying? How does the old saying go? I find Myself, mate, generate, gestate, huh, Myself, birth from the hearth, Myself. See?”

“You’re saying I am somebody.”

“Say it!”

“I AM—”

“Say it!”



We both laughed and I took a deep pull of the joint and began to cough immediately. They were deep, deep coughs that seemed to start in my stomach and wrench through my lungs. I couldn’t catch my, catch my, breath. And, and, I felt my throat constrict as my tongue strained from mouth, mouth, my mouth. Spittle and snot sprayed from every hole in my head, my head. I gagged, gagged, gagged, gagged, and emptied the contents of my stomach through the slats through the below my feet onto the gravel below through the slats . . . .

“See,” he said, rubbing my back. “You were thinking you were nobody. You are somebody, only I am nobody. For you, hitting that like me made you sick. Nobody smokes like me. Work with nobody and everybody will never know. If you want to be somebody, remember that.”

“Who are you, fuck, man, man?”

“Sham, Black, Black Sham Black.” He extended his leather-clad arm, stuck out his hand, still wearing that smile. I shook it, trying to get a glimpse of his tattoo.

“Hey, scene seen one won of these deez before for?” He held out his forearm. The tattoo was the outline of a black heart. The crowns curved slightly into curlicues at the top with roots forming a base at the bottom.

“Yeah, Janet Jackson’s got one on her ass.”

“It’s on her back, but butt you ewe seen it be four right write?”


“How many thymes?”

“Shit, I don’t know. A couple dozen.”

“No whut it is?”

“It is what it is. Nope.”

“It’s a Sankofa. An Adinkra symbol from the ancient language of the Akan people of Ghana. It means ‘Go back and fetch it.’ Means go back and reclaim the past passed, dig? Get the essence of the culture’s knowledge and wisdom and use it as a tool for the future. How many times you seen it?”

“I would say, excluding ogling the Velvet Rope, four. But I’ve heard that word before. How you say it?”


“Yeah, I’ve heard that word before somewhere. Man that’s some good shit. Got me all paranoid. That word scares the shit out of me.”

“There’s a reason for that. Great horrors were done to the place and the people to put that kind of poison into the Word word. Sankofa. Look it up, millions of people were slaughtered in and around the word the Word so you’ll get psychically ill eel when you here it. Isn’t that fucked up? This,” he pointed at his tattoo, “came first. But when eye say the Word you don’t hear ‘go back and fetch it’ here, you see images of the holocaust. Which would discourage you from going back and fetching it, even if ewe new, huh? Why would somebody want to do that?”

“Could be a coincidence.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“You like my pops, huh? He doesn’t believe in coincidences either.”

“I believe in coincidences, just that they can be planned.”

“What the fuck that mean?”

“Living without a creation myth contributes to the subtle but pervasive quality of disorientation in modem life as anomie: the sense of not fitting in, which is an inescapable condition of those who have no conception of what they are supposed to fit into. That’s about alienation. I red it in a book called Maps of Time by a scientist named David Christian. You reed?”

“Well, yeah.”

“You seemed ashamed that you read.”

“I’m not ashamed of shit, man.” I went to take another sip when I realized that I didn’t need it. I was higher than giraffe pussy.

“Ever read Fahrenheit 451?

“Bradbury, sure.”

“What if someone thought that instead of getting rid of the books, getting rid of the readers would be more cost-effective? Readers write books, right? These daze with all the word processors and voice-activated pages.”

“I never heard of that,” I say.

“It’s knew. You can speak into a mic and the words just print out on the page.”


“Yeah, but writing is going to get easier and easier. There are going to be more and more books out there, more than ever before. Too many! Too many books, can you believe it? So many books coming so fast that you can’t tell what’s enriching and what’s draining you, making you tired. The hard thing is going be the reading. Remembering what we do it for, you know?”

“Yeah.” I looked up at him. I did know what he meant. I really knew. For a second, it was like we were in a vacuum and it was just me and him. I really looked at him. He looked like a hairy version of my dad. Strong jaw, covered in a trimmed beard, smiling at me. This nigga loved me. Loved me in such a way that I’d never felt before or since. It wasn’t a sexual thing or anything like that. It was some deep shit, like the kind of love you get for someone after being pinned down in some shit together, but deeper. That’s what I saw in those eyes, when I felt what he meant when he said “reading.”

He stood and stretched.

“Well youngblood, nice meeting you.” He was about to leave me, stoned, on the bleachers thinking about these mud-covered puds having hot, brown love.

I remember seeing the orgy taking place before my eyes. The muddy, breasted men rolling over each other in a slick tangle for the ball. Their wives and children screeching from the sides in a frenzied Bacchanal. The center bending, the QB mounting, and the clashing of wet muddy flesh beginning anew. Satyrs and nymphs poking, licking, prodding, grunting like pigs, braying like mules, barking, wailing, in the mud, officiated by Ted from the Stop and Shop who provided the kegs and his own whistle.

“OK, Sham. See you around?” I wanted to tell him that I noticed that all of the players were semi-erect, but what the fuck would that have sounded like?

“Probably not. Say, do you swim?”

“Doggy paddle.”

“Not good enough. Living off a river like this, you could really learn how to swim.”

“Sounds good.” It did.

“All soul. All feet.” And he walked off the bleachers and out of Dunbar forever.

–D. Scot Miller

Buy issue #11 in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.

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Gretchen Faust – Photographs Sun, 14 Dec 2014 20:55:36 +0000 Photographs by Gretchen Faust.

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all photographs by Gretchen Faust.

Buy issue #11 in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.

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The Year of Our Lord Quetzalcoatl Fri, 12 Dec 2014 05:17:02 +0000 The morning of the first day in the Dark Zone, I wake, still dreaming in black and white. I am Joan Crawford. I am Mildred Pierce. In the black of night, a storm is raging. I am in a bungalow by the ocean. The white foam waves crash on the beach. I dress frantically in... Read more »

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The morning of the first day in the Dark Zone, I wake, still dreaming in black and white. I am Joan Crawford. I am Mildred Pierce. In the black of night, a storm is raging. I am in a bungalow by the ocean. The white foam waves crash on the beach. I dress frantically in the dark and run out the front door.

Significant Other is behind me shouting and grumbling, slowing me down. It’s noon. Epic lines are forming at the pizzerias where gas-burning ovens are cooking in the dark. We walk westward along St. Mark’s Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. I remind myself that, as a post-modern woman, I know how to starve. Throngs of curious people are out looking about. Everyone has a camera. Not cell phones but big proper cameras are hanging around people’s necks as they traverse the streets. Sig‘s eyes are soft and sad, observant, downcast.


#88 No Logo, painting by David de Biasio

“This is the fourth one of these that I’ve lived through,” Sig says.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. The lights aren’t back on yet,” I reply.

“My father died in the 1977 blackout. His respirator failed.”

“I was four in 1977. You would have been arrested for child molestation.” Sig looks over at my face and smiles.

We arrive at St. Mark’s Bookshop and it is closed. Owner is nowhere to be found. I stand peering through the front door, rattling the keys in my hand, wondering whether to go in. I decide it’s pointless. Some of the Cooper Union Maintenance Crew are in front of the dorm. They call out to us and wave. We return to the apartment on 4th and First.

Our super is standing sentinel at the front door and Sig joins him while I go upstairs to shower quickly in the dark and wash my longish, dirty hair. We have hot water. Super’s eyes are also observant but worried. Sig and he do that thing that men do where they cite the obvious to one another and call it an exchange of vital information.

My mother is upstairs knitting in half-light with a candle burning. I dress intentionally. I put on rain boots even though it’s not raining anymore and exit the apartment to rejoin Sig who asks what the hell has taken me so long. Sig’s twin brother, Ass Grabber, and his wife Stripper Brows, have migrated north from Chinatown in search of supplies. It’s impressive that they’ve found us since no one’s cell phone works. Stripper Brows emerges from the bowels of our local deli’s darkened corners, with hard salami triumphantly raised over her head in one hand like a Sandinista holding up an AK-47. Her black Brussels Griffin is in the other. A can of tuna is pressed awkwardly to her chest. The focus turns to acquiring alcohol and it’s decided that the only liquor store which could be open is in Chinatown by the Manhattan Bridge. We all take a walk down there. I stand half-listening to their decisions and not focusing on their conversation, resenting that I have to be swept up in a crowd when I have concerns of my own. They prattle on about how to plan the first night. They talk about dinner. They always talk about dinner.

I meditate on how to get in contact with Owner. I stand staring into my hand, flexing it open then closing it into a knot, trying to remember life before cell phones. Being teenage in the Village and traveling in packs from park to park, packs of urchins in search of love or drugs. My teenage voice appears in my head in a shadowy memory. We’ll be on the benches in Tompkins Square Park, it says to someone somewhere in time. Calling my mother on a payphone at 1am loaded, screaming, I’m not dead! Please open the door when I knock? There used to be a way of calling for free by unfurling a paper clip and sticking one end into a hole of the receiver’s mouthpiece and the other end into the key slot in the square metal drawer that the quarters are deposited into. The paper clip forms a conduit between these two holes. Something short-circuits and you hear a click. Then you can call the world.

“Ah, shit, I’m a moron,” I mutter rhetorically, bolting across the street ignoring disaster-tourism traffic—cars from outside the Dark Zone driving with no traffic lights just for thrills. I’d forgotten about payphones. I dig through my wallet for quarters left over from preemptive hurricane laundry, fish out my planner, look up the number.

“Hello?” A woman’s voice comes on the phone.

“Hey! Hi! Owner’s Wife?! It’s Margarita. Is Owner there? You’re on 14th, no? Are you blacked out? I stopped by the shop. Are you OK?” She starts to respond, then Owner comes on the line in mid-sentence.

“Hi, Margarita. We’re all right but we’re in a high rise. No water or power. It’s OK though, because we’re just on the second floor so I can come and go.” Heroic Owner has arthritis. Heroic Owner’s Wife is battling cancer.

“What do you want to do? Are we going to open?”


“OK. But I’m here. Sig has offered to volunteer for the cause. I texted with TLS Hipster last night, I bet I can find him. Plus we can probably figure a way of getting in contact with SoHo-Anonymous. And there’s you and Owner No. 2. That makes six. Are you sure you don’t want to open?”

“No. Wait until the power’s back on.”

* * *

Wednesday morning the sun rises and floods my mother’s living room. I wake slowly, nuzzling into Sig’s hairy chest and out of habit gently reach for his soft Sphinx cat penis curled in slumber. I throw on leggings and a cotton sweater then stumble into the kitchen to make coffee. We’re all a little hung over from screwdrivers, compliments of Sig, and drinks and dinner at Ass Grabber’s place the night before. Sig, mother and I are triangulating between the three apartments out of necessity. Yesterday afternoon Sig led me into a liquor store unprompted and picked out the biggest bottle of Stoli he could find. “People! Alcohol! Civilization!” I squealed, clapping my hands as we entered the darkened shop on Grand Street.

I pack a flask and we go out to see the transformer, Sig and I. There are cars marooned at weird angles all along eastern most 14th Street, by Stuyvesant Town. We see a lime-green VW bug with driftwood through its passenger window at a diagonal to the curb.

“Should we all like, be taking Chlorella tablets or something?” I remark, looking at the Con Ed structure struggling back to life.

“What, you mean Fukushima? That was a nuclear power plant. We’re fine.”

“Yeah? What powers the power station, then? What does that thing run on? What does it eat? Sig, it blew up and we’re right on top of it.”

East River Park is trashed and blocked off by police cars. We turn south on C. No one in the neighborhood can get cell service and only ground lines work. I keep hearing passers-by in the street saying, “That cheap-ass MetroPCs still works.” I turn to Sig and mutter, “I have MetroPCs and my cheap-as-shit ghetto service is not working.”

There is a pocket of reception on the SW corner of Avenue C and 9th Street. About 30 people are crowded together yelling “I’m all right!” to somebody, somewhere. The crowd grows as more people passing by stop to inquire why we’re all standing there, then retrieve their cell phones and smile relieved at being able to make contact with the world outside the Dark Zone.

Eateries take it to the street and serve hot food from aluminum containers warmed by gel fuel canisters. Sig buys himself a taco with rice and beans. He hands me a second fork and I pick from it nervously while we walk. Bars and restaurants are open by candlelight and flames glow and jump about illuminating smiling profiles as we pass. C Squat, a/k/a the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on Avenue C, has taken its generator onto the street and is cooking food for the neighborhood, recharging phones. Anarchist punk squatters know how to survive and well, Sig and I comment to one another and beam old-skool neighborhood pride at them. We continue along Avenue C and Sig comments on piles of furniture at the curbside with CDs and DVDs stacked on top of a sofa.

“Is that Bowie?”

“Yeah, but it’s late Bowie.” I reply.

A middle-aged woman in serious rain-boots and a gray slicker walking up the block overhears us and starts laughing. “That’s my stuff.” She resembles a fisherman. Sig apologizes for perusing her belongings and returns the CD.

“You got flooded?” He asks the obvious.

“Yeah,” she says, turning toward a below-street-level apartment in a very low-rise tenement the front door of which is wide open. “Water wrecked the place. We had to pump it. All this shit is ruined. Oh, well. It’s just stuff, right? You can keep the Bowie.”

We continue along Avenue C and notice generators loudly pumping basements of businesses and restaurants, water flowing freely down the block, opposite of the way it came. The sun is setting and the streets are turning a murky grey. Flashlights begin to appear on the streets in loose wrists. Rays of light shine left to right across the pavement. Bright beams of light blind us as we approach. Nocturnal vision kicks into full gear.

“It’ll be night soon. What do you want to do about dinner?” Sig asks randomly. “Do you want to go to Brooklyn to buy food? We can walk over the Williamsburg Bridge. Then go back to your mom’s place and cook.” Sig and I have an electric stove while mother’s is gas.

“Yeah, let’s do that. Sig, listen, I think we should go to Spoonbill & Sugartown. They’re our friends. We’ll ask to recharge our phones and maybe they’ll even let us use their internet. Maybe we’ll even see Chelsea Girl or run into TLS Hipster there. I want news really badly right now.”

“Me too,” he says, kissing me on the forehead and we sway east and further south to the bridge, which at that moment is the most crowded I’ve ever seen it in my entire life with the possible exceptions of 9/11 and the MTA strikes.

We’re in a blackout in lower Manhattan. We walk through an autumnal gloaming. Williamsburg is bright and lovely and alive with power. Their electricity is not being held hostage. The bridge is literally half lit. The lights lining the bridge on the Brooklyn side are on beginning precisely in the middle of its long red torso’s expanse four hundred feet above the East River. Light beckons from Brooklyn as night falls fast. We pass from Manhattan into Brooklyn as though we’re walking out of a dark cave into the light, a parade of refugees going toward salvation. We turn left onto Bedford Avenue. Something knocks into my leg and I look down.

A tiny ballerina has pirouetted out of control. A woman wearing a black leather jacket, a silver eye-mask and cat whiskers apologizes and pulls the little tulle thing by the hand out of my way. Tiny Firemen, little Supermen, miniscule Batmen come at us as a mob led by adults with cat tails and strollers appear. “Awww, was that a munchkin Silver Surfer?” I ask looking back as Sig pulls me along. A roadkill traffic cop with a mangled face barking directions at a small laughing witch and a spinning unicorn knocking into one another appear as a frontline before us.

All the traffic lights are on. The street is illuminated by shop windows. All of a sudden there is so much light—multicolored neon of blues and yellows and reds and noise and people and the exuberant voices of children, everywhere. A swarm of tiny cheering, discombobulated things hopped up on sugar, somehow simultaneously wandering in circles while being ushered forward by their minders. They hold plastic orange pumpkin head pails out at tiny arm’s length to every passing stranger. Bedford has been taken over. It is impenetrable. They spill into the street bringing oncoming traffic to a halt. My head reels. I feel like I’m tripping—all the colors, all the lights, all the noise—but in a bad way and it’s all happening way too fast.

“Sig, it’s Halloween. I’d forgotten about Halloween. Lower Manhattan must have thrown up every last tiny costumed beastie to panhandle candy on Bedford.” I look up and realize that I’m talking to no one and feel nervous that the breeders might take offense and turn on me. Sig is half a block ahead. I run negotiating the masses and noise to catch up and grab his corduroyed arm, letting him lead while I look back as we continue along Bedford.

Collagist looks up from behind the register when we enter Spoonbill & Sugartown. Her big warm eyes soften and smile a greeting at us. “Hi,” Sig and I mutter one after the other, smirking pathetically, a little embarrassed for some reason.

The store is packed.

“Collagist, would it be awful if we recharged our phones?”

“Oh, of course not,” she says reassuringly, gesturing for us to come behind the counter where Sig is already sniffing around for an outlet.

“Would it be too much to ask if I could possibly get online, too? Actually and, more importantly, have you seen TLS Hipster?” My speech is a nervous staccato. She laughs softly. “He’s here, in back. Go ahead. Just behind the curtain. Go on.” She draws back the curtain to reveal TLS Hipster slouching face-first into the Mac’s large flatscreen. He turns his head after a minute, then rises and approaches, says my name and we hug like survivors reunited in a refugee camp.

“What’s the good word?” I ask, gesturing toward the Mac.

“There are all these terrible fires in parts of the Rockaways. Breezy Point burned down. Coney Island got hit hard too. All the high rises are blacked out,” Hip responds.

“Isn’t Breezy Point that weird community with all the awful zoning and parking regulations that pretend they’re a gated community with a private beach but really aren’t?”

“Yes,” Hip responds.

“Those people are assholes,” I mutter.

“Still, no one deserves that,” Hip gently admonishes me.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I say, lowering my head and nodding. “We have to call Owner, TLS. Have you been in contact?”

“Yeah, I’ve called him every day so far. I have a ground line.”

“Right. Right! I’ve spoken to him, too. I want to open, Hip.” His simultaneous response of “—Open! Let’s call him. We’ll call in the mall.” His focus shifts abruptly. We’re standing behind the counter of Spoonbill as a young man approaches to make a purchase. He is accompanied by a nondescript but attractive male cohort and a beautiful disaffected skinny woman with pin-straight blonde hair. “Margarita! This is Xeno’s friend Siberia! I must! Introduce you,” TLS Hipster says emphatically. “Hello, it’s so nice to meet you. I’m Siberia,” the beautiful young man says in Russian while reaching over the counter and extending his hand. He looks exceptionally Russo-Asiatic. Fashionably dressed in tight dark blue jeans and a black leather jacket that hits the waist, with a knit black cap over jet-black silky hair and thin slits revealing ice blue eyes, his skin all rosewater, his features all pointing east. “Huh?” I ask, distracted. “Yes, hello. I’m Margarita.” I respond too formally, weakly shaking his hand while moving away from the counter.

“And there’s Xeno! You’ve never really met,” Hip says, leading me between the bookcases. Xeno is an adorable nerd boy synth player who tours prolifically and internationally. He was a Russophile before he discovered Hungary. “Xeno is learning Russian!” Hip exclaims. “No, I’m not touring Russia! I’m going to Hungary,” Xeno yells over the noise of the teeming crowd and loud synth music. We can all mostly hear one another but are losing track of the conversation. “Hungarian is one of the weirdo languages. If you speak Russ, that won’t make sense for learning Hungarian, Estonia or Finnish,” I mutter absentmindedly but loudly, making myself semi-heard while scanning the room, plotting a course to the street. “Yeah, I know that. That’s why I’m learning Hungarian!” Xeno shouts. I’m making my exit with my eye on the front door as he makes an attempt at noble conversation in Russian: “Yes, Margarita. I’ve heard much about you from TLS Hipster. I’m getting ready to tour Europe. What do you think about . . . ” He’s at my side and I turn to face him.

“Xeno,” I say in plain English. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time, too. I really dig your music, truly, but I have to apologize. I need to . . . just get some water. I’m just going to the store. I don’t mean to be rude. I’m a little over-stimulated right now. And I really want water. I apologize.” He looks at me oddly and backs off as I run toward the front door traversing beautiful Brooklyn’s prosperous American refugees who’ve fled the heart of the country for the heart of the world. They’ve packed the store. They browse in unison.

I bolt through the front door into Halloween child madness and blessed fresh air, navigating through them. They are oblivious, staring up into the night’s light and yelling nonsensically at parents and friends. I walk past stores until I find one that makes sense, enter and buy a bottle of lime seltzer, cracking the seal to drink while standing on line. Children barge in between each exchange, screaming – “TRICK OR TREAT!!! TRICK OR TREAT!!!” I walk back slow, taking my time, sipping seltzer and wondering when begging candy off of grocery stores became acceptable.

When I return, Hipster touches my arm gently and we retreat through the second entrance of Spoonbill into the mall area, where tiny panhandling children knock into us as 20-something gazelles in full make-up shout audibly about their hook-ups and booty calls and party plans for the night in voices and personalities indistinguishable from one another.

“You look beautiful!”

“No! You! Look beautiful…!”

“Text hime already!!!”

I turn my head back to Hip as he dials Heroic Owner’s number while my own cell phone is left unattended recharging somewhere behind the counter of the bookstore. We exchange looks in dim amber light by the entrance to the mall and entreat them to open the shop to no avail. Hip points out to Owner that Spoonbill is doing amazing business while we’re bleeding money. We encourage Owner to at the very least take his wife, leave their apartment and cab it to Brooklyn or Midtown for a hot meal in a restaurant, but they have that distinctly provincial quality that older Manhattanites who’ve lived in the same neighborhood for decades acquire. Brooklyn may as well be Beijing and north of 14th Street Helsinki. Hip clips his mobile shut and we return to Spoonbill stopping at their wall of art books.

Spectacle Theatre enters with his remarkable hair. Sig and Xeno walk over to join us. “Awww, look who’s here,” Hip announces and we all greet TLS Hipster’s thin ex-girlfriend, Butterscotch Lick, as she approaches smiling in all her cerebral adorableness. We begin catching up on one another’s ordeals. The Brooklynites interrogating the Manhattanites admit sheepishly that all is well and normal, even dull, in their neck of the woods.

TLS Hipster turns to Sig and me: “Are you two walking back to Manhattan now?”

“Yeah, as soon as our phones are charged, we’re going to get food, then walk back over the bridge before it gets too late,” Sig replies.

“Stick to the main roads, and all that. You can gentrify the shit out of it all you want but it’s still the LES in a blackout and tonight’s Halloween,” I add.

“Man! It’s like the fucking Warriors!” Spectacle exclaims and I can’t help but hold up two fingers and the thumb of one hand and tap them together menacingly—“Clink! Clink! Clink! Clink! Warr-i-ors. Come out to pla-y-ay. Warr-i-ors! Come out to pla-y-ay! WARR-I-ORS!” Suddenly we’re all screeching it in unison until the word devolves into laughter.

“I have no idea what any of you are doing.” A confused, wide-eyed Butterscotch Lick says, surveying us as though we’ve all gone mad.

“Awww, man!” Spectacle begins, “You’ve never seen The Warriors? It’s a movie. A classic! They’re in this gang, right?”

“Their gang is called the Warriors,” TLS adds, smiling softly at her.

“They’re from Coney Island but they go all the way up to the Bronx to some like, UN peace, gang accord, rally thingy,” I continue.

“Nooo! Not peace, Cyrus is trying to unify the gangs to take over New York,” TLS says, correcting him.

“It takes place in 1979, when New York almost went bankrupt,” Sig offers.

“But Cyrus is shot during his big speech and the Warriors are framed for his murder. Escape from New York is another amazing movie from that era,” Spectacle continues.

“So they have to get home, all the way from the Bronx down to Coney Island, through three boroughs and, in the process, they have to go through every single other gang’s territory. And everybody is after them because there’s a call out to avenge Cyrus’s murder. They have to fight their way through. But all the other gangs are really silly,” I add.

“Like the Furies,” TLS says, laughing in spite of himself as Butterscotch furrows her brow and takes it all in very seriously nodding as though at a grad level critical theory lecture.

“Which are the Furies?” Sig asks.

“Oh, they’re on rollerskates with Kiss face paint and baseball bats wearing those Babe Ruth uniforms,” TLS explains.

“The Warriors are led by this really good-looking tortured shirtless blonde dude wearing a leather vest named Swan,” I add.

“They’re all shirtless. They’re all wearing leather vests,” Sig says rolling his eyes.

“Swan—How hot is that?!” I smile suggestively and nod at Butterscotch.

“That’s Michael Beck. Walter Hill directed it.” Sig adds.

“Michael Beck was also in the classic, Xanadu,” TLS says sarcastically.

“I LOVE XANADU!” I squeal as everyone bursts out laughing and Butterscotch gets even more confused. “It’s about the seven muses, you know, from Greek mythology and one of them, played by Olivia Newton John, falls in love with Swan in a roller rink, but Zeus, her father, totally does not approve. It’s a musical. Xan-a-duuuu,” I start singing.

“Isn’t The Warriors based on a novel?” Sig asks.

“Sol Yurick!” TLS directs the response back at him.

“Maybe I should screen The Warriors,” Spectacle Theatre says thoughtfully.

“Oh! With Xanadu! A Swan double feature,” I chime in.

“Alright, it’s time for us to go. This one’s getting a little . . .” Sig says, leading me away by the arm.

We say our goodbyes and Sig, TLS and I walk up Bedford toward the bridge foraging for food at various stores along the way to the Williamsburg Bridge. Butterscotch accompanies us midway and leaves us at the point on the Bridge where the Dark Zone begins on the Manhattan side. A man and a woman dressed as Magi fall into step with us while walking their bicycles across. My ever untrusting Sig eyes them suspiciously as they try to make conversation.

“Are you supposed to be Magi or two wise men?” I ask. “Yeah, something like that,” the male Magi answers. Only assholes say—something like that—and anyway, it was a trick question, I think silently to myself as I hug Butterscotch Lick goodbye at the line of demarcation.

We exit the bridge onto Delancey Street and are met by large NYPD lights powered by portable generators illuminating the roadway of the vehicular exit/entrance to the bridge. “Why is anyone driving?” I anunciate with annoyance.

“Disaster tourism,” Sig replies.

“I’ll bet none of those people are brain surgeons on call or lawyers with clients on death row. We don’t even have the fucking death penalty here! They have no reason to be out. It’s dangerous. Especially for us, since we live here,” I muttered, growing irritated.

“Who really knows what’s going on down here,” Sig responds.

“Why are those lights on, for instance?” Hip asks, pointing south as we walk along Delancey.

“That’s Seward Park High School. It’s been designated an emergency shelter. There are a lot of disabled, elderly and infirm people out here in the NYCHA projects. I bet someone’s on a respirator,” I say, looking over at Sig.

“And that other building over there?” Hip asks, pointing at the only other tall structure that has its lights on.

“Don’t know,” Sig responds.

“It’s Gouverneur Hospital. It’s really just a glorified high-rise clinic, but they probably have a backup generator. It might be the only thing we have close to a hospital down here, but I don’t think they even have an emergency room. St. Vincent’s is closed now, so that leaves Beth Israel on 14th, and Bellevue. Is NY Downtown in the Financial District still open?” They both shake their heads contemplatively. “Hey! Do I know my neighborhood, or do I?” I ask, smiling proudly in an attempt to antagonize the boys and keep spirits high as we walk further and further into darkness.

“This is where I leave you,” Hip says, turning to face north on Essex. I hug TLS Hipster goodbye as Sig waves.

“Stick to large streets,” I shout after him as he disappears into the night. I can’t see Houston and Essex from Delancey as he walks away from us and the silhouette of his form merges with the blackness.

Sig and I turn south on Essex and proceed back to my mother’s apartment with the spoils of our foraging. We traverse the blackened hallway and enter the apartment where my mother is nervously knitting by candlelight. Well, she didn’t burn the place down, I think, silently reassured.

Sig proceeds to light candles, making the small apartment come alive and cozy as I mix screwdrivers and prepare a meal of cannelloni beans and quinoa with turmeric. It’s Spartan but quick, filling and hot. Everyone’s now slightly tipsy, says ‘yum’ and praises the little meal, but I suspect it’s just emotional and physical exhaustion, and the dark heightening our senses, that makes us more appreciative. The dark is making us devolve, or perhaps evolve, depending on how you look at it.

We finish eating and I clear the plates while making more screwdrivers. Sig had laughed at me for buying a whole container of orange juice in Brooklyn and lugging it home over the bridge. He’d made a comment about my having all the wrong priorities, but we’re happy to have it now. “Well, you bought us that big pretty jug of Stoli!” I shout toward the living room from the kitchen, laughing at him as he enjoys his blackout cocktail. “What did you expect me to do with it? Is good, no?!” I mock him in an ambiguous Pan-Caucasus semi-Russian accent.

“Horrorshow.” Sig replies, nodding drunkenly and making an attempt at remembering the word for good in Russian using phonetic transference.

Sig entertains us by making up a trivia quiz, but it doesn’t last long since he alone knows all the answers to his own questions. Mom and I accuse him of cheating. The game falls apart when I return to the living room, having scraped the dishes clean in the kitchen, putting the trash into sealed plastic bags and tying them. My mother retreats to bed.

I look out the window at the buildings across from us and see beams from flashlights and the dancing flames of candles in some of the other windows. He approaches and stands behind me, cupping his hands around my upper arms, reassuringly.

“We have the best lit place in the apocalypse,” I say softly, looking up at Sig behind me. We are surrounded by silence and stillness.

He removes his clothes unprompted, dropping them on the armchair to the right of the window flanked by paintings and climbs into bed on the pullout couch. I touch the plants to the left of the windowsill, watching my neighbors’ lights flicker, then I walk through the apartment to make sure every last candle has been extinguished. I undress in the dark, placing my clothes adjacent to his and climb onto the pullout couch, curling fetal under the blankets. I close my eyes and make my internal darkness one with the darkness that surrounds us.

an excerpt from The Year of Our Lord Quetzalcoatl

–Margarita Shalina

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