I Am Santo

Fiction, poetry, music and mindscape pictures by creative artist Jason Santo

Stucco and Stone

Wood and tile. It was all she knew. Wood and tile, stucco and stone. The night had pulsed long past late dusk, revelers waving their limbs about in heightened, feigned ecstasies they hoped might escalate and consume them, like dry brush waiting for fire. So many nights like this one over the years, evenings where cologne mixed with spilled beer and smoked tobacco blossomed in pockets around doorways into the clear, dry air. She always took a moment to herself shortly before festivities petered out and had begun to wonder if her mini wedding-siestas were like drought to a river, somehow draining the evening of its nourishing tempo. Behind her, Francisco called over the throbbing beat of another dance song but she pretended not to hear him and instead moved gracefully into evening, her heels finding the tile of the patio with a clack counter to the fading beat. Boom, clack, boom, boom, clack. That smooth tile, she wanted to press her hot face to it and allow the coolness to leach into her skin. She didn’t, of course, but instead kept walking until she found a quiet spot around the far side of the reception hall where a breeze stroked her skin like a lover she’d never meet. All this stucco and stone, that wood and tile, and living within it all those same intentions and predictable desires. Good people living good lives, but all of them colored by long days in the sun and the watchful eye of a God demanding routine, safety.

She sighed, thinking about the bride and her resignation, a mirror of herself twenty-two years ago when she sat at the head table next to Francisco, then thin and handsome, and endured the chants of their friends and family to kiss again and again, the clanging of forks to crystal beckoning like clarion warnings of the dullness to come. She knew then what she knew now; how do you find true love among this stucco and stone, wood and tile? You don’t. It’s simply a matter of taking a hand that’s good enough to last the long years of life without making it all more intolerable.

And it wasn’t bad, but it was devoid of passion and took so much distraction, little obsessions with propriety and decisions made by cousins, families, parents, youth that should have been smarter, better, more in line with God, faith and what everyone else was doing. It was ok, though. The bride would find happiness in the slow pace of married life, the conviviality of sunset get togethers with family and friends, the cooking of lavish dinners for her husband and sips of wine before bed while reading of lives far more fantastic than hers. She would raise children as she was raised, among this wood and tile, stucco and stone, and she might steal moments of pause for herself, where the chill of the firmament blanketed the plains, and would dream of climbing into a car and driving to cities crafted only for visiting, never for living. She might even convince her husband someday to leave, but that would be later, after the children and when she’d already lost her comeliness like children do their favorite toys; one day there, the next forgotten.

She lifted her long, floral print dress to check on a blister the strap of her high heels was urging on her Achille’s and noticed how smooth her legs looked in the dim light. Youth was escaping her, no doubt, but slower than compared to others her age, a drip instead of a flood. She still had her the tight skin and vitality she remembered her mother having, there was still time for… A voice cracked her thought, low and gruff like a phlegm-choked cough.

She turned and saw Francisco stepping from the envelope of night into the flickering orange glow of the overhead streetlight, his thick shoulders and neck and rotund belly unmistakeable even in the dimmest light. “You ok?” he asked as if he wanted to know the time or what the weather might be tomorrow. She nodded and stepped his way with a smile, wanting to thread her arm into his own but instead letting him turn and walk in front of her a few paces as she always did.

Out Riding

His name was Carlos, or so he’d said. Min-jung honestly didn’t care. He was young, strong and beautiful and he believed her when she said her name was Areum, so all things being equal, he had every right to be Carlos, Juan, Victor or Pablo. She didn’t mind as long as he held her again the way he had last night, when the moon slipped from murky clouds and lit the alley and his grin in a blue devil’s light. His stubble raked her chin and neck and her body surged with yearning to feel the hardness of his stomach against the soft flesh of her own belly. She’d inhaled a piss-stained quaff of air when he slid his hand inside her jeans and traced the swelling beneath her underwear gently with thick fingers, but she didn’t wince, didn’t wrinkle her nose. Instead she kissed him harder. All the alleys of El Gotico – of most of this brick and chiseled stone requiem of a city – reeked of drunken incontinence. Barcelona was sin dressed as Saint, the lurk of desires like lava beneath the centuries old crust of Catholic worship, and in her six months here she’d worn white and waved silent crosses while dreaming of nights like last night, of nights like what she hoped would happen tonight. Cammie, a carrot-haired girl with skin like a rice bowl that was in her class and from the U.S. immediately started her terms abroad with a swarthy local named Miquel. He was lean, muscular and smiled as if every day were a joke, every evening a punchline. Min-jung had caught him on several occasions looking at her own exposed legs when Cammie wasn’t looking, and so she began wearing her shortest skirts whenever he was around to see his reaction. On Saturday nights when Cammie would stay out late with Miguel, Min-jung would lie awake, her hand moving beneath the sheets, feeding what was increasingly hungry low and inside her, imagining the contrast of their skin in dark light, the rhythm of their kisses and their slow moans and sighs, like those she heard from gomo with her boyfriends over the years back home.

Her father’s sister Kyong had many suitors while she lived with them after jobu and jomu died in a car accident when gomo was only 17. The loss of their parents freed Kyong from their discipline but strained the relationship between her and appa, and in the mornings when she did not come home, Min-jung would hear her father whisper angrily about her over the running water of mother’s dishwashing: gul-leh-gat-eun-nyun. Every time she learned a new language, she’d learn a new word for Kyong, who did manage to calm down and marry in her twenties. Puta. Puttana. Whore. And as such, Min-jung worried about her own desires and tried to remain uninterested in Cammie’s kiss-and-tell with Miguel, a feral dog hiding from tantalizing bones. But the hourglass sands of her stay in Barcelona were expiring and the simmering lusts she’d felt while there watching handsome men study her had turned to a boil. Last night the pot bubbled over and tonight, in just an hour or so, she was going to allow Carlos to kiss every inch of her, to touch wherever he wanted however he wanted because for one night, she was her gomo and Cammie and herself. She was Areum, legs wide and shirt off, skin scalding. She started noticing the bike seat rubbing against her softening sex, and the self-conscious feelings she had about looking silly on the rental, peddling in new high heels and and the high blue dress she’d bought that morning, dissolved into pulsing desire.

Tourists swarmed around her, but she only thought of Carlos and what he might do to her, how he’d control her for the night by looming above her, lying beneath her, thrusting behind her. And as her mind swam in lust, her peddling kept the pace of their intimacy, the hardness of the seat growing more arousing with each pump of her legs. The way to Carlos’s place was winding, uphill and often over stones that made the bike vibrate, and soon she was breathless and sweating from the seat’s diligent friction. Halfway there, Min-jung pumped harder and gripped the handlebars while blank-eyed strangers huddling all around her studied crumbling palace walls, tapas menus and leather bags. Her knuckles whitened, thighs tightening and the bloom of release spread like a cresting wave over the beach of her belly, chest and neck.

She didn’t anticipate or want this flush of satisfaction, but welcomed it among the many buzzing around her and shook on her bike, nearly falling into a Dutch or German father herding his children out of a store stuffed with tchotchke bulls and miniature replicas of of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família. Min-jung steadied herself and then continued in to the base of Carlos’s apartment building, a conventional stone edifice with more history than style framing it.

Her legs were shaky but she continued on despite her bliss for it was won weakly, alone. It was no different than the late night rhapsodies she sung solo with her fingers hitting each note of her yearning, only this time it was the rough seat of her bike. She was too awake now to turn back, so she parked the bike, chained it, then walked up the thick concrete steps to the double wooden door, stepped inside the humid lobby and pressed the button for the unit he’d instructed. After a moment his voice crackled over the speaker above the buzzer and the door shrilly sang entry. Min-jung pulled it open, feeling a residual tingle between her thighs and thought about Cassie and gomo Kyong; the gul-leh-gat-eun-nyun, las putas, le puttane, the whores.

They were none of this, she thought as she mounted the stairs. They were simply human and filled with eagerness to feel human. Just like her. Just like anyone with a leash removed and the courage to bark.

One Way

Gail had lost the bet with herself, an irony not lost on her. Lev’s decision didn’t surprise, but it irritated her the way a stain did when soup was ordered instead of a burger to avoid dripping grease on a new blouse. Still a drop blemished. Had she known how quickly Lev was going to head to the Casino upon arriving in New Orleans, she would have elected to have just gone to Vegas as originally planned. It seemed the more satisfying option of the two cities to her palette and either way she’d end up feeling like she was wearing ruin. It had been six years since she’d figured out his addiction to gambling, but when he won big last year in Atlantic City after losing nearly as mightily, she’d slammed the breaks on his behavior, the freight of their twenty-two years together thrusting hard against them as if they were a sixteen-wheeler on a rain-slicked freeway coming to a dead stop. Either Lev quit it or she quit them. It was simple. And he did, for a time, the gray-sky peril of their retirement dissipating into the clear blue tomorrows Gail had long believed would be theirs. Only she could feel a bigger storm brewing, percolating somewhere just over the horizon due to the El Niño of Gabe’s revelation that he was a homosexual.

Lev hadn’t handled the news of their only son being gay well at all, and as Gail stepped further down Bourbon Street gripping her plastic Hurricaine glass by the waist, she wondered if this was the kind of place Gabe felt at home in. There were men dressed in leather that looked like runner-ups at a Village People audition and several older, portly guys wearing pastel short-sleeve button-ups and wide smiles, their voices lilting in the still air. Everyone seemed happy, and Gail thought of the term, “gay.” It seemed appropriate, at least in this sweaty corner of the French Quarter.

She looked up at a corner to check for a street sign and instead was greeted by a black and white “One Way” sign that had been re-stickered with two G’s; one before the word “One” and one placed over the “W” in “Way.” Gone Gay. She laughed and a tall fella, mid-forties with dirty blond, wind-tunnel tested hair sitting on a stoop one house down with an old gray shnauzer looked toward her, grinning. Gail pointed at the sign and nodded her head and he chuckled with her for a moment before returning his attention to his dog.

Despite the gray of the day, Gail could tell it was getting late and that she should probably head to the Casino to check on Lev. But the thought of him hunched over green felt, nervously sweating while absently stirring a Jack and Coke made her stomach lurch. No. This was better. Rather than take a right, she kept walking down the “Gone Gay,” taking a moment to pet the shnauzer named “Benny” while his master cordially asked where was from. She told him Maine and he mentioned having been to Ogunquit which was South of where she and Lev lived, but where Gabe hung out a lot now with his friends and, presumably, lovers. Lev called it “Fag Town.” Gail had only been through the place on the way to other destinations, but after being here and speaking to the man while running her fingers through Benny’s soft fur atop his head, she decided she wanted to see it. There was something calm underlying the craziness of New Oleans in this neighborhood; a sense of belonging and security. Gail liked it. She thought about Lev in the casino and how he would say this place was an aberration, how it was drenched in sin and sickness. And yet there he was actually sinning and sick, staring at the back of cards, wagering their years together against increasingly bad odds, hungrily trying to recapture the feeling of that first big win.

Gail reached the end of Bourbon where it met the wide spread of Esplanade right as she reached the end of her rope and the end of her drink. She’d braved a one way and decided to leave it that way and not return up Bourbon, back to the bawdy madness that was brewing even at this early hour at the mouth of the street. Instead she wanted to stay down here, in a swirl of humidity, rum and rumination. She wished her son was here with her so she could see the comfort in his eyes being among people he understood and Gail decided they would visit together sometime after she and Lev split up so she wouldn’t have to hear his noise about it, suffer his hypocrisy. She took a right onto Esplanade, studying the lush green trees and small gardens exploding from the gated, postage-stamp yards in front of bold white houses that she felt looked like Colonel Sanders. Somewhere men hooted and hollared, bringing in the night, a sound both drunk and happy. Gail held up her empty glass to them, whether gay or not, and toasted. “To your health,” she said aloud as she continued on her way, deciding she liked New Orleans more than Vegas already.


at Bourbon St, New Orleans

Anger Keep Out

Gasik stepped down the drop-off toward the water and breathed shallow, the sulfur of the pond stinging even against his effort. The place was a swollen lesion on the ass of the town; a chained-up, fenced-in, sign-posted swath of embarrassment that was the subject of children’s dares and adult’s dark grumbling. Gasik’s own child has come here though and now it was his annual turn to visit, enduring gnat clouds and the soggy muck that sucked at his shoes as he miss-stepped. Every year it was the same thing, shoes caked in mud, face red with insect irritation and a soul leaking as if he were a balloon stuck by the sharp pin of memory. But he came, never planned, but always around the same time when the trees sprung back to green and the air vibrated with cricket lust. He’d see the sign suddenly while at work, reviewing a legal memorandum or listening to a client drone on about their fair share of assets and he’d know it was time to disobey again that warning. “Danger Keep Out.” Only now it was “anger” he was warned to keep away from by chipped green paint and rotten wood. Because the danger had been ignored, a bold little boy with a head full of nothing and curiosity greater than any cat’s ducking under the chain, dismissing the sign he barely could read. And now it was anger that Gasik had to steel himself against, as his bile rose equally from the stench of the waste filthing the air here and the thoughts of his son losing his footing where he should never had set foot. Tears now, there they were. He shook his head as if the thoughts clinging to him were gnats. But they stuck like bad promises, tenacious as the brier to his now ruined slacks.

Who cares?

He pressed on, feet damp, feeling the will of the swamp exacting on him with every step as if there were whispers of forgiveness in the knowing rustle of leaves. He stepped onward, shoes cupped by the poison marsh, legs straining against its murky grip, until he reached the edge of the water, a calm pane of glass rippling under the dance of water bugs that likely would die soon from what had been dumped here. It was quiet but for the sounds of woods like any other. He frowned. This was nothing like any other woods.

He considered wading in. The pants were ruined by thorns anyhow, his shoes too. Why not? Gasik could see himself going in, working his way through slick strands of algae looking to wrap themselves around him in final embrace as if they were snakes with long enough memory to know the taste of his bloodline. “Oh,” they’d hiss. “We know you.”

It should have been enough to thrust him into their tangle. He could give in, find himself trapped and then, slowly, feel himself eaten by the mess of this horrid Hell he’d defended twelve years ago for the biggest money he ever made in his career. Bentol Solutions had come and gone as had the house Gasik bought for he and Sheila after he’d cleared the corporation of any legal wrongdoing. Now Sheila was in Chicago and he wrote settlements for rich divorcees. And Luke was here, not really but still. Here. Among the quagmire of choking Earth that he’d wandered into past a five dollar, rotten sign and a rope chain no more daunting than a weak parent’s suggestion.

“Stay outta there,” he recalled telling Luke once or twice when Sheila requested his stern voice assist with discipline. The boy would flinch as if a hand had been raised, and Gasik felt the sharp poke of guilt before returning to his iPad to finish reading the latest outrage. Of course the kid didn’t listen. If anything, he was driven to do the opposite of what he was told because his parents were always nose down in their phones, tablets, work, bullshit. At that time Gasik was seeing Arielle on the side, so maybe he was texting her what he wanted to do to her next time they met when Luke slinked off unnoticed and headed to Wraith Pond with his bear, Donny, and a backpack full of the kind of supplies only a five year-old would know to bring for a journey. They’d found Donny first, fur clumped with equal parts grime and blight, the part of him that has been submerged bleached from brown into a caustic white. They told him he didn’t have to see Luke, that the clothes, the articles found, the blood sample all proved who the boy was. He agreed, never seeing his boy before they buried what was left of him. Now Gasik wondered if he should just slink under the iridescent water and breath as deep as he could, soaking up every sin he was paid for and that he paid for. But like always, he got wet, got stung, got sad and after a while of sulking, he lurched back out of the slop, removed most of his clothes and drove home in his underwear. Next year. Next year he would walk further and face Luke’s final moments, welcoming danger and anger. Next year, Gasik thought. Next year.

What Creezus Knew

She’d listened to Gary long enough, but couldn’t let go. Even before coming here, Marla knew they were nearly done, her nights in bed by his snoring side becoming an interminable endurance test. They made love infrequently, life painting them into separate corners with its financial redecoration of who they’d been when they met four years ago. Gary quit working with kids about six months after their first date, crossing into telephone tech support on the advice of his buddy Frank because there was more money in it. It changed him, his face pulled into frowns naturally during their quiet time together on the couch rather than the smile he wore when they first met. A few weeks after they moved in together, he punched the wall when Creezus wouldn’t stop meowing in the middle of the night, his fist leaving a dent in the drywall of their bedroom. Creezus didn’t like him right off, her black cat that was always cautious but usually warmed up to people never warming to him. Marla knew now she should have trusted the cat’s instincts, she’d named him after Jesus Christ, she joked, because the cat was as black as the real deal and hated water so much he could walk on it. But the real reason was that Creezus was sage, cool, caring. It was sad irony that he died with Gary present, the man’s hand gently stroking the cat’s dark fur while he wrapped his other arm around her shuddering. It was one of Gary’s best moments, the last occasion he’d truly risen for Marla. The rest of the past year had been as flaccid between them as the nights he didn’t visit the strip club before coming home late.

At first she didn’t mind. He’d gotten a promotion at work and the pressure of being a manager weighed heavy on him, bags puffing under his tired eyes as if each new responsibility was a landed left hook. The money was better though, and he felt proud as she did for him. They started paying off bills, bought new furniture and she managed to have a few weeks off to look for a better job after working for a tyrant the past two years.

Gary started treating his stress by hanging out with his coworkers at Bare Assets on Route 11. Bitching, beers and boobs seemed to improve his mood and his attention to Marla, and that was a Hell of a lot better than him grousing endlessly at home about, at best, work and, at worst, her ever-increasing waistline. The first night he’d arrived home tipsy and hard, it was a late-inning revelation, a walk-off home run in bed that left her breathless for the first time in over a year. She panted as she rolled off him and he grinned, although Marla saw distance in his satisfied gaze. It was as if he’d traveled briefly to a better life, a prettier woman with a trimmer belly, higher tits and tighter thighs straddling him to bliss. And Marla didn’t care because it was better, he was better.

But this was not better. They’d only been in New Orleans for a few hours, enough time to get to the hotel, check in and drop off their bags before hitting Bourbon Street and ending up at the first strip club Gary saw. It was as if it was any other bar to him and he didn’t care about Marla’s reluctance, the way he had to tug her as if she were a stubborn, cold, heavy fish. They flopped into chairs at the foot of the stage next to another couple, a ridden-hard-and-put-away-dirty biker dude and his lady puffing cloyingly sweet grape vapors from e-cigarettes. The bikers smiled as if their bellies were full of canary, the man with skin more leather than his riding cut blatantly studying Marla’s modest curves the way vultures study the starving.

She averted her gaze to the empty stage as the waitress showed up, tight white t-shirt with a scoop neck revealing the tops of her large breasts and stretched taut. Marla watched Gary grin as he ordered himself a Bud and her rum and Coke. His smirk, the light in his eyes, it held as he glanced over at the Leathers, then as the next dancer took the stage, barely clothed, tone and surgically proportioned. It had been the way he looked at Marla when they’d first met, but now it was for the bitch bringing him overpriced drinks, the whore on the stage, any slit that paid him attention that wasn’t Marla. Her face flushed.

When the drinks arrived, she gulped hers down and waved for another to Fetchy McStretchTits, Gary barely noticing. The alcohol did little more than add to the brushfire at the sides of Marla’s face and she looked down at the scratches and nicks on the table, trying to rebalance the memories tilting inside her like countless dishes in the sink, fragile and ready to slip, chip, crack against the hardened edge of a sinking reality.

She sighed hard. Gary glanced at her. They’d gone to Bare Assets together a few times with his work friends, but this was different. She felt exposed and frustrated. She wanted out, out of this and out of the looks of disapproval he cast when she stepped from the shower, when she brought dinner to the table, when she spoke about her day at work, or what her friends did on vacation or what her nephew Snapchatted her. Miserable fuck. Tired, average, low and unappreciative miserable fuck. McStretchTits brought over Marla’s second drink and she gunned that one down too, as if dousing the rage stacking, flourishing, burning inside of her. Marla wanted to throw it into Gary’s lap, but she drank it all, let it slide and burn her throat. She was buzzing already and the edges of her off-kilter dirty-dish thoughts were dulling, falling into line. She looked up at the dancer on the stage, now topless and wearing nothing but a g-string as she writhed before them and felt a pang of remorse for the girl. Sure, it had to suck to be ogled by men four-to-eight hours a day, but how much worse was it to be hate-stared at by the women ignored by those same men. Maybe she didn’t care, but Marla doubted that anyone was fully immune to such laser derision. Her body may be perfect, but somewhere there were burn holes all throughout this girl’s soul.

Two more dancers came on. Marla finished a third rum and Coke before Gary got his second Bud, but then she stopped drinking, letting mild dizziness carry her like a tide might driftwood. Gary kept grinning, although not as wide, and Marla’s care faded until Lady Leatherskin called over to them, her own smile splayed across her face with switchblade tenderness. She spoke in a rasp, clearly a vaper only after years of the real thing ravaged her voice, but the intention was obvious regardless of how distorted her words sounded. She wanted to know if they were swingers and DTF. Marla felt icy fear swell up from her belly and she turned quickly to Gary who was looking the Leathers’ way. The fear turned hot. Gary’s grin was in full force, a twinkle of desire in his eye. The dishes tumbled. Marla stood, face red with alcohol and rage, Gary looking up at her like a kid that had set fire in a patch of dry grass that now consumed an entire forest. She broke his wide-eyed stare by walking toward the exit, trying to figure out how she was going to get home early. She would just go back to the hotel, grab her stuff and head to the airport. She wasn’t stuck. She could get out.

When she got outside, the humid air leeched into her cool, air conditioned skin and her contacts burned from a well of angry tears. She looked left, started to walk and missed the sidewalk, her sandled foot scraping the edge of the curb. Marla cursed and started to walk when suddenly Gary’s strong arm was on her, pulling her up onto the sidewalk. She thought about how he held her as Creezus passed away and her tears spilled over her ruddy cheeks.

Gary attempted to speak with calm, but she wanted his face to go away, just go back to its grinning state at the foot of stages where he could distantly dream of better than her. She looked up at him, felt his concern as his words assured like cooling breezes and she shuddered. Marla knew she wasn’t going anywhere, at least not then. When they got home, maybe, but she couldn’t leave now. She didn’t have the strength. So she listened and nodded, cried at his apologies and then they walked together arm in arm while crowds of revelers stumbled from clubs with loud voices and hard-ons. Gary catered to her and she slowly got her voice back, the red of her anger fading to pink, then dull beige. She knew they weren’t fixed by his sudden tenderness, but it was aloe on a sunburn. Turning onto the quiet artfulness of Royal Street, arms still encircling each other, Marla thought that when they got home she’d get another cat. And this time she’d heed any intuition, although she already knew what he would think of Gary.

True Grace

Photo by @moniblanco

McKenna remembered the day well, although she hadn’t thought of it in many years. The way the wet sand held together beneath her feet, seawater seeping up from the edges of each step as she sloppily pirouetted to the melody of her freedom; it still resonated within her. Sometimes she’d lie still at night and listen to what she swore was a thrumming in her bones, like that time she’d stuck a butterknife in her mother’s toaster to fetch a jammed English muffin. This electrocution was independence, the shock of wind and surf on her as she twirled away from a past of hurt, neglect and then, most painfully, demands that she get better, shake free of the cobweb depression that gripped her since she was a child. They’d tried drugs first. She’d barely talked to the sharp-faced woman with the short-length blonde and gray hair before a prescription had been written. But the pills seemed like little white lies to be ingested, believed. All was allegedly better if she couldn’t feel as much, so McKenna went numbly through years while her mother ranted at her about how McKenna’s presence in her life held her back from so many goals. Mom never finished her associates degree, couldn’t find a good man to date, could only afford the one-bedroom basement apartment they shared, all because of McKenna. And on the other side, Dad was rarely seen but too often felt, hands too greedy, mouth too curious. She knew their relationship was wrong, but there was nothing she felt she could do because at that point she felt very little except the dark, a void slowly spilling into her detachment the way high tide took the beach on stormy days.

She blended more gray onto the canvas, appropriate for these recollections and in stark contrast to the auburn hair of her dancing figure on the shore. It was overcast that first day out of the home, roiling clouds threatening to spit but holding back their say. She stepped into day, expecting rain to purge the place and the two years of brainwashing perpetrated on her under the guise of faith-based healing, but that would have been too easy, too predictable. Instead McKenna was left with the months of their intrusion into her memories, those early weeks when she was stripped of her meds and all connection to the outside world while left to pray to a faceless power that held sway over all. It had been her idea. She’d started planning for the home when she was sixteen because it wouldn’t cost her anything and she’d already turned to God when she was very young to stop her father’s visits. That was the one time He’d ever answered her as Dad died when she was fourteen, only the memory of his Old Spice and the hair of his body haunting her after his upended ’89 Cutless Supreme was found in a ditch. She thanked God then, felt indebted and she wanted to open up more to Him. But home proved to be little more than an absuive Bible camp masquerading as a safe place for damaged women. McKenna was starved off her meds as soon as she walked in, and the shift in her life away from the haze of her mother’s house felt like hammers beating at her limbs and chest. It seemed young women were wallpaper there, many of them crying more than breathing, and the place smelled of lemon bleach, the glare off the floors from the overhead lights like ghosts chasing her through hallways. She started to believe her father had guided her there when the room councilors started staring at her too long, chubby hands shifting in their pockets. She tried to do as her doctors said, focus on faith, allow God’s guidance and love to heal her woe. But everything was too intense, the sorrow echoing off white walls too loud to imagine God, her God anyway, having anything to do with the place.

McKenna battled for that day on the beach, the first year like a feral cat caught in a cage, the next as a docile drone. Her bared claws and teeth were sheathed by lose fists and a feigned, close-lipped smile and she nodded in acceptance of their narrative spun for her which grew her father’s role from sick, broken alcoholic to malicious child sex trafficker. Her mother too was made complicit in his lecherous dealings, an accomplice to farming her out to neighborhood men for money and only God, their God, could reveal all McKenna had repressed, pulling her away from torment with His boundless love and forgiveness and placing her there, between the safe walls of home with its kind grins, bland food, daily prayer circles and unlicensed white coats. Deliverance was compliance, acceptance, and so McKenna flew the path of the righteous like a bumblebee in Spring, zigzagging from one fictional trauma to the next and pollenating each with sterile intentions. Then at night in her room, she would take out the paints and pastels she stole during their rancid art therapy hours spent making crude renderings of flowers in vases, fruit baskets and Christ and she would pour her rage onto blank sheets, clearing her memory of forced wrongs and rights and treating her exit from the home as a epiphanous light at the end of one of their shimmery hallways where a figure, her, was always standing silhouetted.

That gray morning arrived and she went through the motions as always, smiling bigger though, her teeth shining. She collected her things, including her stash of hidden art, and was picked up by her mother who too was smiling but from a face that seemed dried equally by cigarettes and life. She asked McKenna where she wanted to go and without thinking the young, free woman said “the beach.” They drove in silence and when McKenna reached the tide line she kicked off her shoes and hollared into the wind, twirling her skirt and impulsively tearing her blouse off. Mom admonished, but McKenna grinned and told her that it was no different than a bathing suit and she continued along the surf, feet stinging in the cold water.

It was all here now, on the canvas, a mix of gray tones and wonder from a day twenty years ago that she’d suddenly felt compelled to revisit while holding her brush. She thought about the home, her mother, Dad, and God and saw it all playing out before her in oily reverie, good and bad, truth and lies, captivity and freedom: a lone figure dancing in an ocean breeze, hair wild and arms open. The painting was the first time McKenna understood fully what the home had really done to her. By taking away her God, she found reason in His absence. To let go. To forgive. To live. She wouldn’t sell this one, she knew, but would give it to her daughter Maisie who was twelve now and showing signs of the darkness that inked her mother’s adolescent years. They would talk about it, and McKenna would tell her the story of the girl on the beach that learned freedom was the ultimate blessing, the truest grace they had being alive.

Grave: Part 3

Abel Petty listened for a moment, then mumbled an inaudible agreement and snapped the phone closed. He then stood for a long moment and stared at the wisps of clouds burning off in the heat of the late day. There was probably an hour left of full daylight, then the shadows were going to grow long and in two hours headlights would be needed. He had to be sure Duncan would move fast with this and that everything they needed to do went  according to plan.

He didn’t turn when he heard Creamer start digging again, and he didn’t want to face the fat man. He had only met him recently, and he ran him through the usual hazing by showing him who was boss at home that morning when Creamer picked him up from Luellen’s shack. She got mouthy, just as he’d predicted and he was pretty sure he would’ve cracked her tooth had he exerted a touch more force when he clocked her in full view of Creamer. Lu was used to the violence, and more than once asked from it during sex. So he knew the knock wouldn’t cause any permanent damage to her or to them. What he did know was that it would send a message to this new partners in crime; Abel Petty gets his way. That’s the way of things. Always has been, always will be. And if the fat trucker who’d graduated from Tokena a couple years behind him was going to partake in this deal, he was damn well going to respect Abel’s role as leader.

“Are you seriously going to have us dig two graves?” Creamer asked. He sounded winded. Abel didn’t turn but kept watching the clouds disappear.

“I let you catch me off guard once, Creamer,” he said in a flat tone. “Don’t think I’ll let it happen again. Keep working and everything will be fine. Think… money.”

The sound of digging stopped and Abel realized this wasn’t going away as easily as those distant clouds. He sighed.

“We have to do this by the book. No witnesses was the agreement and Duncan said he didn’t have his mask on when the girl saw him.” His voice lowered and he couldn’t help allowing some degree of sympathy. He’d known Lorna back when the world was still new. Back before she started smack and turning tricks to keep herself in the habit. But she’d mostly cleaned up until this whole mess went down with MacDonald. Now she was dead, and soon her eight year-old would be joining her.

“It’s his fault,” Abel added to excuse himself for the judgement he had to make.

Creamer didn’t say anything at first, and the men stood in silence as if quietly mourning the dead for whom they were responsible. Then his voice came, stern and clear.

“Call him back.”

Grave: Part 2

“Good! Fine!” Petty conceded and Benson could feel the fight drain from the pinned man’s body. He was tempted to give another twist to the foot, but then remembered they were supposed to be working together, something that Petty had quickly forgotten.

“Right,” Benson said, and in a quick motion he stood, scooping the spade from the ground – partly because there was more work to do and partly because he didn’t know if Petty might try charging again.

As the man on the ground was slow to rise, Benson knew the spade would be used for its intended purpose. Part of him was disappointed by this fact. He relished the chance to clear out Petty’s bell tower with it. Unfortunately, the pretty boy was crucial to their plan and to their getting paid at the end of this sordid adventure.

“Duncan was right about you,” Petty laughed, a bit of his charm leaking out.

Benson turned and struck the ground with the spade again. Probably another twenty-five or thirty minutes of digging and the spot would be deep enough.

“He told me you were a tough S.O.B.,” he stressed each letter by dragging them into a long breath, then paused, spitting into the dust. “And he said you patient. To a point.”

Benson kept digging, but the bait was too strong for him to leave.

“To a point. Yes,” he said slowly. “But I grow impatient for a good, deserving come-uppance. And you’ve been asking for one all damn day.”

He punctuated his statement with a shovel full of dust, turned, and tossed it at Petty’s feel. The good-looking fella, ex-football star and all-around ladies’ man who somehow lost everything thanks to a love for dice, smiled.

“That’s just the way I get to know the real character of the people with whom I do business,” he paused, smiling big and toothy, adding: “Mr. Creamer.”

Benson sighed and returned to his digging, wondering when Duncan would be back with the body. As if his old friend had heard his thoughts from across the flat county, a cell phone rang. Pre-paid, and with Duncan being the only one who had the number, it was a genuine coincidence.

Petty pulled the phone to his ear. “Is it done?” he asked.

Benson stood, studying pretty boy Petty and he quickly realized the news coming on the other end of the line wasn’t good. Petty avoided eye contact.

“No witnesses, man. We all agreed to that. Sure as shit,” he spoke at last.  Benson suddenly felt a huge weight settle on his shoulders. Someone saw Duncan.

Petty turned and looked off toward the dying horizon, but he could still be heard clear as day when he relayed his next order.

“Kill her, man. She’s seen something that’ll never allow her to be okay anyhow. Kill her because that’s the merciful thing to do.”

Benson didn’t flinch, but his heart plummeted. Lorna’s daughter saw the murder.


Grave: Part 1

“This isn’t a holiday, Kramer,” Petty said, his green eyes stinging as much as his words, a snarl on his face that curled his lip into a ghastly visage that seemed impossible for a man almost universally declared as handsome. Strong jaw, peppered with sandy stubble, he stared long at Benson with anger in his every aspect, and Benson knew then it didn’t matter how great looking Nature might have made a man; all were capable of looking like animals, especially when they were acting like them. He felt his neck grow hot.

“I realize that, Petty,” Benson spat back. “ And my name is Creamer, like dairy. Like what you put in your coffee.”

He turned and struck the ground hard with the spade, tearing loose soil and rocks from this diseased spot of land. An ugly job, Benson Creamer knew it had to be done.

Petty stepped back, presumably gauging the the degree of his next torture, but Benson expected nothing nearly as painful as the fast chop to the back of his calf., his right leg buckling with sudden shock and a muscle piercing ache. that son-of-a-bitch had sucker-punched him and, dead-legged, he lost his balance, crumbling on the edge of the hole he’d dug.

“I take my coffee black, you wise-ass fuck.” Petty bent down and Benson could smell what he’d suspected. The bastard had been drinking all the while he and Duncan had been working on their plan. Their sweat traded for his nips at a flask. And yet here they were, all splitting the bounty equally.

“Talk back to me, yeah? I’ll destroy you,” Petty hissed. “You know that, right?”

Benson shrugged.

“I doubt that highly.”

He wasn’t afraid of this pretty boy regardless of how mean a face he could pull on. He’d beaten much tougher guys while blind drunk and right now he was stone-cold sober. And holding a spade.

“Oh you’re just so tough. Aren’t you, Kramer?” he chided, and when the boot came at him, Benson caught it with both hands, leaving the spade for this chance to surprise the pretty boy. Petty responded fast, a quick pull away from Benson, but the big man in the dirt held on, twisting Petty’s ankle with half force, just enough to send a fresh jolt of white hot pain up his leg. Petty winced and swore, and then Benson kicked at the man’s other leg, landing his boot squarely into the pretty boy’s shin. A scream of anger – more than pain – filled the still air of the meadow and Petty fell in a heap onto his stomach as Benson kept twisting the foot in his hands, moving fast onto Petty’s back.

He pinned the man, keeping his leg bent and the foot under his arm. Another, harder, twist forced another scream out of the good-looking fool.

“We good? “ asked Benson, ready and waiting to turn the ankle enough to break it. “Or do you want me to send your cut to the hospital I’m going to put you in?”

Thin Skin

The venom wasn’t fatal. Breath would be drawn after the countless strikes at a fragile ego, but whatever course had been originally settled upon shifted suddenly and irrevocably. Nothing fit afterward, as if the world was composed of incongruous shapes that bore no relation to each other and floated in unfixed points throughout each day creating a sense of constant unfamiliarity.

Time passed regardless, breaths often saddled with the additional labor of sighs laced with exhaustion and frustration. To navigate in this world was to be pulled from the comforts of a hometown and dropped into into an unknown geography filled with obtuse motives and ceaseless duty, smiles defying purpose, guards posted at every turn to enforce incarceration. It became a colorless existence, not the world itself which still seemed to radiate constant, unforgiving brilliance that stabbed while suggesting times before, but the internal spectrum, desaturated and left a lean gray ensuring every emotion bled pale; apparitions hinting at feeling.

The poison had effectively robbed joy from laughter, replacing each distinct comedy with edgeless banality drawing equally characterless, reflexive chuckles as insincere as they sounded. Tears similarly would well, but never spill. The heart had lost its capacity to beat and claim its center, and blood thrust through veins on the steady rhythm of a soulless song caught in an unending loop.

This was a permanent sentence handed down because earnestness lost to savvy, honesty suffered attack with derision and crafty fingers moved to dethrone a mogul of an artificial kingdom, seen as a tyrant when intention spoke of assistance.  Yet hanging was forfeit for a prolonged torture, robbing a disciplined monarch of the ability to transform, to take to air and paint with motion and color. Regression burned wings, melting promised talent and cell walls locked even as guillotines fell on the necks of conspirators, silencing the hiss of their resentment. Yet the order cast cripples, a hush falling over the restless ferocity of constant creation leaving behind bleary eyes fixed, unblinking on the designs of accomplished peers.

Blessed with skin thick enough to crack fangs, and equally gifted with greater thirst for the waters lying  at the arduous journey’s close, their orchestrations trace familiar strains and over time their melodies remind and awaken the quiet convict. Asleep with vulnerable eyes, a drop of pigment stains the sea of monochrome and a fresh storm threatens to crumble shackles made strong not by the judgments passed by others, but by the solemn deposed.