Reading 1, done up on November 5, 200, featured Laura Moulton, Don McIntosh, Greg Purcell, Zach Dundas, and a little of me. Larry Yes was the musical guest. The theme was PROGENY. It went like this:
The prompts for this section were to include the phrase, “it took me months to place the smell,” and the words tinfoil, terrible, and sneak.
This is what a dead mouse smells like:
Rust, curing leather, old barbeque on tinfoil. A small scent, but terrible. While I was pregnant, I had a superhero’s sense of smell – better than canine. I smelled the fish that flipped out of the aquarium and expired behind the tank. I rooted out the dead bird under our bed – more bone and feathers than any substance.
And the mice. Mouse after mouse, ferried in through the cat door, courtesy of our cat, and then set free – a kind of reverse catch-and-release program. I smelled them in the grates, behind the oven. Everywhere.
The boy was sleeping, so we whispered to each other at the foot of the bed:
“I think we have another dead mouse problem,” I said.
Ben said, “No way.”
“Yes way – it took me months to place the smell, but when I find it now, there’s no doubt.”
He crouched down and stuck his head into the closet, above the tumble of shoes and boots, and shined his little blue reading light around.
I whispered “It looks like the Blair Witch Project when you do that.”
“Ugh, you’re right.” Ben fished the thing out by its tail. A big one, and rank.
He stepped out and I sat on the edge of the bed thinking dishes in the sink, laundry pile growing, and now wildlife moldering in the closet. And I hugged myself hard, so that from behind maybe it looked like someone else’s arms.
My baby’s head used to smell like yeast, caramel, a celestial baking above the nascent brain of Hungry #1, the miss who was eviscerating the “I” out of family, woodchuck, monkey, little chicken we called her. She aged and ate: avocado, rice cereal, lead dust, it turned out, as a white-knuckle blue-streak scream of a blood test proved. I have never known such terror as loving the helpless—I like my love, typically, unrequited and difficult, I like to be overmatched, rejected, and petitioning. Now Ramona says Mama, and when I ask, Where is Your Baby, she teeters off young Godzilla style toward the likely Chinese made, likely poisonous seven-dollar plastic newborn with uncanny open-close eyes, which she seizes up and roughly presses to her breast, saying, be-bee, be-bee.
My baby’s head now smells like a concert t-shirt, specifically, the brand-new number I paid $18 for at my first concert ever, a black one screened with Robert Smith’s leer, oversized to hide the excruciating abundance of my 14th year. A smell new and chemical: at Pine Knob, the ancient 19 year old in the next seat, all bones and disaffection, had sneaked in a whole bunch of pot, and lit up during set breaks, carefully replacing the darkening roach in a nest of tinfoil he tucked in his pocket.
My life has changed so much, and so little. It is as though my version of the bell jar is still there, but I have fitted it out with cushions and good magazines.
It took me months to place the smell—the acrid whiff wreathing the cardboard boxes packed with my brother’s so-called “effects.” I received the boxes in June, and left them in the basement until New Year’s, a terrible leaning tower I just couldn’t bring myself to sift through. Every time I hauled laundry to washing machine, stowed a crate of newly archived propaganda posters or tanned a fresh-killed hide, the smell said—in a voice very much like Karl’s—open us, you pussy. Open us.
On January 1, my blood was, of course, a stream of half-metabolized alcohol. I wandered downstairs in the super-lucid fugue of hangover to clean my Ruger Super Blackhawk. (I often seek solace in firearms.) I tried to force oxygen to my clotted brain, and in one inhale I figured it out.
Charred chalk. Incinerated paper. Pencils, desks and old-fashioned yardsticks turned kindling. It was the smell of our school, William Tecumseh Sherman High (home, ironically, of the Fighting Scorchers), in flames, combusting against the night sky.
My mind flashed back a decade, to clandestine nights when we—Karl, Natasha, Sligo, Rakavich, Esselin and I—would sneak through our suburb on missions of small-scale destruction. I recalled the concussive snap of pipe bombs. I saw the tiny nine-pointed stars, cut from tinfoil and stapled to our jackets, marking us as members of the feared teenage cultural-terror gang, the Sons of Night. I remembered the night Sherman High burned. And at last I knew: my brother did it. Alone.
Between the monkey-type things we were and the bigheaded things we’re to become there stands you, son. The genetic roller-coaster ride we call heterosexuality. I guess you just couldn’t wait. When’s she due, you say? Six months. Well, with that skinny little meth addict frame of hers I guess it wasn’t going to be too much longer before we figured it out for ourselves.
Upward and outward, tits and hair. Spawning. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t freak me out, kiddo, the way you blew up. I always thought I’d be kind of interesting to do one of those stop-motion jobs on a baby, just set it in a corner of the room and film it for 18 years, give it lots of food. I suspect you could pass it around to enemy countries and watch their birthrates shrink. With the kind of cameras they’ve got now, I guess it wouldn’t be hard to do. Have you decided on a hospital? Oh, so now she’s a Catholic? Or she always was. Well, she’s the one heaving on the hospital bed. What the lady wants the lady gets, right? I suspect the free morphine will be a plus. Christ, I need a beer. You want a beer, pal?
We’re hurtling towards our graves, me more than you, but that’s just the numbers. And hey, anything we can do that doesn’t involve money or fluids, just let me know. I guess that sounds kind of weird. Just, you know, congratulations.
For this section, the writers had to use the phrase “it was with an uneasy confidence that I began” and the words nebula, mineral, and ostensibly
It was with uneasy confidence that I began to pry the six-inch shard of glass—a splinter with the rococo curves of a Turkish dagger—out of my mother’s eye socket. The tapered end had somehow found its way under her eyeball, deep into her skull. There was lots of blood, but I felt that a steady tug would pull it free. I tried to proceed with a certain sangfroid. Still, it was a delicate scenario—especially, I must say, given my mother’s condition.
“I am seeing some shit right now,” she announced as I eased the glass out about a millimeter. “It’s like a nebula, like a supernova, like a superterrestrial light show designed by God!”
Ostensibly she had suffered an unlikely and unfortunate kitchen accident. (So we would tell the insurance people.) In reality, she was on hallucinogenic mushrooms. She would likely be in contact with the “spirit world” for some time.
“Quiet, Mom,” I said. “This is sort of…tricky.”
“And, like, the feeling,” she continued. “I can really feel the essential mineral origins of the glass—its granularity.”
“Granularity, eh? Please stop talking.”
As she often does, she became suddenly accusatory. “You, of all people, should recognize the transformative value of opening the doors of perception. Are you or are you not a psychonautical explorer?”
“Actually, Mom, I’m a mortgage specialist. You know this. When you caught me dropping acid in high school, I didn’t realize it would give you ideas.”
“Well, it did. It did.”
“I know, Mom. Hold still.”
It was with an uneasy confidence that I began leaving the house again
after the boy was two months old. Old enough that someone else could
care for him. I realized how much better I liked him when I’d had
time away. So I took my neighbor Julia to a garden store: seventy-
six, diabetic, mostly blind, head hard as a mineral, with a life
philosophy that could be boiled down to: Root lil’ pig, or die poor.
I started the car and waited until she’d buckled in.
“I’m a free woman,” I said. I tried not to bite my
“Where’s the boy?”
“He’s sleeping. I nursed him good, so we’ve probably
got 2 hours.”
Julia shook her head. “He’ll wake up to a stranger.”
“Well, actually it’s a babysitter we know, she’s helped us
“But it’s not mama.”
Ostensibly I was doing this woman a favor, driving her across town to
buy flowers. Flowers that I would most likely plant for her, given
her stiff joints.
She looked out the window. “Well I don’t know, but on the news you
hear of babysitters doing terrible things to the babies they tending.”
“Yeah, well I’d never leave him with somebody I didn’t
“Like shakin’ ‘em real hard,” she said. “You see on the x-ray
machine how they been shook. Brain like a milkshake.”
At the nursery later, she picked up a tray and said “Is this one-a
those nebula you got in your rock garden?”
“Lobelia,” I said.
Son, you ask at what point did you go from the proverbial gleam in my eye to the animal, vegetable or mineral product basting in neurochemical processes you see slack-jawed in the bathroom mirror every night. That whole gleam business has been oversold, I think. It suggests a charm and vitality at odds with the whole experience.
It was with an uneasy confidence that I began to court your mother. Ostensibly there were knife stabs at the back of my neck and for every two calculable steps I took away from her moist areas, the knifes stabs would prick me forward in turn. This went on for a few months, and if as a result either her eyes or my eyes were gleaming in the backseat of that Ford Thunderbird I didn’t see it. We were at odd angles anyway, my head folded into the space between the back seat and the window roller, her head sort dribbling condensation onto my sternum. Stars may have stuttered and blinked out, Poseidon might have kicked in the great rubber plug at the bottom of the sea, and whole space-type nebulas might have billowed forward like bedsheets far out of sight, yet by my watch the whole thing took between a minute and a half and two minutes. There was squirting. Soon after, tears, recriminations.
We walked the aisle three months later. There was surely a gleam in your grandmother’s eye that day, because I saw it, fixed to me like a rifle.
For this section the writers had to employ the phrase “they have pills now for nearly everything,” and the words tornado, fungible, and forlorn
They have pills now for nearly everything. Rectal polyps, ennui,
double vision. But nothing to make your kid sleep in on a Sunday.
Nothing legal, anyway. That winter when he turned one, he’d crow from
his crib into the frosty dark. We’d lie still, each waiting for the
other until one of us gave in, sighed forlornly and put bare feet
onto the chilly wood floor. Our strategy was simple: deposit boy in
the next room with a pile of toys, and keep the doors open in case he
needed us. Then crash back into bed. To his credit, he wasn’t
offended by the brush-off. Wasn’t clingy. But ever generous, he hated
to exclude us from his projects, so he ferried items into our room
and deposited them next to us on our pillows. Back and forth, leaving
a tornado’s wake behind him, until our bed was piled with items. A
stuffed dog here, books there, diapers and oversized Legos. One time
I raised up groggily to discover the toilet brush next to my head on
Now almost four, he still wakes early, but often entertains himself
in his room – we hear him chanting his own rhyming nonsense while he
plays: dungible, fungible, kungible. And now I find I miss him a
little, the part of him that called out in the dark to us. Maybe I
need a pill that that cures nostalgia, one that will summon those
dark mornings and remind me of the cold.
They have pills now for nearly everything. And yet my sister and I can find nothing to convince my father that he was not the Fifth Beatle. Pharmacology doesn’t help. Logic is useless. My father likes to talk about how “that bastard McCartney fucked me outta my share.” This is what he says. We point out that he does so with no Liverpudlian accent. We point out that perhaps this is because he spent 40 years as a contractor in the forlorn corner of Oklahoma where he was born.
My father is undeterred. “They fucked me after Hamburg,” he says. “I was their secret weapon. A bunch of half-fags from England? They needed my American balls—that’s right, balls.”
My father’s sense of self has always been…let’s say fungible. He sank a bunch of money into racing the regional funny-car circuit. He became a serious player in evangelical Republican politics, but then lost interest. Et cetera. He made a lot of money in his career—we suffer a lot of tornado damage around here. Now he is retired and frequently flies to England, where he stands in front of the famous Cavern Club, handing out fliers pressing his case.
“Epstein takes over, and suddenly old Clyde’s out,” he’ll say. “And you know why? I know too much—about McCartney. That pervert would fuck anything that moves. Little boys, anything. Epstein feared me. I knew too much. Hamburg…that cesspool…”
It has been like this since my mother died. I don’t think it will change.
Here’s something the president of Tanzania once said. He said, “the greatest contraceptive one can have in the developing world is the knowledge your children will live.” Well, that may just be true for darkest Africa, where folks still have large backyards in which to weep over the death of their tenth, eleventh, twelfth little tadpole, oh hell, out there gurgling from typhus or the hanta virus or tornadoes or whatever it is they can’t tamp down in those hotter climates. I do feel forlorn, thinking of the burdens those sophisticates must bear.
Yet for this here developed world, I would say the greatest contraceptive one can have is a Saturday afternoon trip to the K-Mart. Seeing so many children in one place does give the lie to any argument on behalf of natural freedoms of the inalienable order. The plain fact of their fungability, this one drooling, this one kicking, indistinguishable, one to the next: it’s like you can see democracy dying right there in the diaper aisle. What’s more, I read somewhere that it does affect your generative parts on a biological level to see a lot of babies in one place. This is why they’ve got the negative population growth in Japan, which to Japan must be like finally breathing after enjoying a large hotdog meal.
Will America suffer negative population growth owing to K-marts, alongside other-type stores? Well, they do have pills going the one way, so I suppose they have pills now for nearly everything.
To begin the final prompt, Don McIntosh, who wrote a whole story, read his 1,000 words all at once. The fourth prompt required use of the phrase “before this I knew nothing of terror,” and the words freestyle, unctuous, preening, and jack.
He pushed her dusty body against the naked tree trunk. She straddled
him. He stood, thrusting. They smelled of sweat and cannabis.
Great and terrible, Nature possessed them: Dirty hippies, they danced
at the altar of Eros.
His seed snuck into her woody undergrowth and found a soft, wet place.
She marked him, too, with the stain of her wildness. Those shiny shrubs
she'd pissed on during their walk in the woods? Poison oak. Now the
venomous sap was on him, where his outer leg rubbed her inner thigh.
Both felt inflamed, but her swelling ran on. Nine months later, a
daughter entered the world, in a tub full of water, but also of blood
They named her Bohemia. Bohemia Bentley, after his last name.
Bentley-Ordonez would have been like scones and chorizo, or a mouthful
At first the child was to him a crying, drooling blob, eyes unfocused,
unseeing. It slept a lot, but it woke a lot too. Soon she grew and
formed a personality. Bohemia had the will of a weed; her parents
exposed her to the light; pruned, but not too much; and gave her water
and nutrients and lots of warmth.
A free spirit, Bohemia was rebellious when ruled, and brilliant when
And echoing the moment of conception, her skin was full of splotches.
Not birthmarks, but allergies, angry rashes, and the little girl would
scratch them raw, but never complain.
It took Bohemia’s father months to place the smell.
Bohemia’s breath smelled earthy, musky, like a mushroom. Ostensibly a
human child, she was in spirit a wild thing. She was not afraid of the
dark, and felt at home in quiet places. She laughed to see other
children’s terror at snakes and insects.
She seldom spoke, but when she said something, she meant it.
Very early on, Bohemia declared her love for animals, and would take
their sides in any argument. She hated to hear them disrespected in any
way, including failure to give praise when eating their eggs, milk and
flesh. For it was their individuality she respected.
If you offered her milk, Bohemia would say, "yes, cow's milk please."
When you asked her "would you like some eggs?" she would answer, "Yes,
chicken eggs," as if to correct.
Moreover, it wasn't just any chicken whose egg one was eating, but that
of a particular chicken, whose sacrifice should be acknowledged,
thought young Bohemia.
And if her parents tried to ground her flights of fancy with the
shackles of reason, she would explode like a nebula of angry energy.
You could corral her with effort, but Bohemia was incapable of true
She was 14 when she met her first peer, a boy at school. He was two
years older, a scrawny junior, and a feral loner, but smarter than the
It was with uneasy confidence that she began to walk up to him, drawn
by the glint of mineral in the flinty glance he'd given her.
When she got to him, with a forlorn expression, she punched him in the
arm as hard as she could. They became fast friends.
Aside from Lukas, Bohemia had no time for teenage boys. She was too
busy with older men.
To meet them, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and when she found those
men too tame, she switched to Narcotics Anonymous. She drew an
arbitrary age limit of 42, and told them all she was 18.
It was a brilliant stratagem: How could her parents forbid her efforts
at voluntary rehabilitation? How strange that they never found alcohol
or narcotics in her room, nor required evidence that her life had been
buffeted by the tornado of addiction.
As for risks with the men, well, if something went wrong they have
pills now for nearly everything. And nothing went wrong, because she
didn't have THAT kind of sex.
She was a virgin, she explained to them, and they respected that
boundary, because, though they never asked to see identification, they
didn't truly believe she was 18.
At 14, Bohemia was still a hard peach warming to the sun.
Not till her first year of college did she ripen.
She was quite indifferent to the dorm social scene. She found most of
her classmates fungible, one gum-chewing blank-eyed desk-sitter the
same as the next. She majored in art, of course, and was obsessed with
discomforting ideas about beauty.
She made a plan to lose her virginity on Samhainn, the Celtic pagan
Disappointingly, the boy she selected for the task turned chicken,
saying it was too planned out, too contrived. In truth, he feared that
his preening cock would wilt in the grip of such a self-sure young
No matter. Slender, dark-haired Bohemia, in boots and jeans, drew other
Samhainn passed, but Beltane was coming, and Jackie — Jack for short
volunteered to perform the rites. Bohemia would be deflowered, not by a
prince, but by a rather husky Amazon.
They drove to the Gorge in Jack’s beat-up pickup, and hiked to the
forested glen of Bohemia’s conception.
The act would defy all moralist fairy tales. The woods had been
forbidden to Goldilocks and Little Red Hiding Hood. The woods were to
be feared, though not because of the wild things that dwelt there. The
woods were to be feared because of the wild things that dwelt within.
So it was that Bohemia, like a migratory fish, swam freestyle on the
ground where she had been spawned.
Before this, Bohemia knew nothing of terror. But fear flashed on her
face as Jack’s hands and tongue disappeared in the place where
Bohemia's pale thin legs came together. Bohemia's hands, flailing,
gripped the nearby wildflowers at their base, pulling them up in tufts.
An unctuous issue flowed out of Bohemia, and mixed with saliva,
trickled down to anoint the soil below.
To a late-blooming seed, it was the kiss of life.
On that spot a flower grew. Prickly. Proud. Distinctive.
A wild flower.
The six-year-old—my niece, Sarah, daughter of my sister, Amy—sat on my filth-encrusted couch, evaluating the litter of empty beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays and overturned bongs with a cool eye. “It’s dirty in here,” she observed.
“Yes,” I said. “It is sort of.” I looked back down at my sister’s handwritten letter.
…I know this will come as a shock but it is the right thing, I know it.
Amy always takes a freestyle approach to grammar and punctuation—not to mention logic and life.
I am doing this for my daughter, I look at her and see all the good things about humanity but something must be done NOW and it won’t happen if I just stay home with an unctuous—
Did Amy know what “unctuous” meant? I did not.
—husband and hang around with his preening corporate friends.
Two days before, my sister had jacked a sport utility vehicle as it sat idling at a stoplight in our hometown. I was told the driver, though shot twice, would live. (Girls. Such a weakness for low-caliber weapons.) She had left a note declaring her intention to join the Green Liberation Army, some kind of eco-guerilla outfit. The carjacking was the first act of her personal war against capitalism. Her second act, it seemed, was to stick her daughter on a Greyhound, with a ticket to my college town and my address.
I know you’ll care for Sarah even if I am dead.
Before this, I knew nothing of terror.
I’ll conclude this little speech, firstly, by saying it’s the unctuous freestyle preening that gets me about the teens these days, and secondly, by asking you to grab me another beer from the fridge. Fine, then. Would you like to see how quickly I can drink this, when confronted with great care-fruited responsibilities? Or otherwise, in a state of bonhomie and direct statesmanship? Here it goes. (Drains can, looks at it.) Ah. Before this, I knew nothing of terror. Bonhomie, I mean. Statesmanship.
Now, fine, you tell me to go screw myself and I’ll accept that, because I’m your father. It’s what I told my father eons ago, back when screwing was criminal all the way down to the evocation of it. Now you go on the internet and tell it to yourself. It’s a culture of endless two-minute screwing and saying screwing. These little mangas they’ve got. Japanese boobies. The locked-room jack-off sessions, which are like jazz for you dummies.
In my day we fondled ourselves like men, out in the public arena, at baseball games and directly into public fountains, even the women. We had hairdos that would blend back into the crowd afterwards so we wouldn’t get arrested. Well I didn’t have that type of hairdo, but my father did, which shows you how far afield we’re getting.
Son, you’re pregnant. Or you did it, made it, whatever. Give whatshername my best. You kids have my burstings, blessings, beers and ripe hosannas. How about a drink?
Marguerite Duras wrote about the “unctuousness” of blood in The
Lover. Young French girl losing her virginity to the older Chinese
man, in French Indochina, somewhere tucked away in a room with din
and dust outside. She: a little bird preening her feathers and he: a
black bathrobe, the smell of whisky, English cigarettes. That’s what
I wanted: to be a lean girl in a silk dress, elbows resting on the
rails of a ship, arms draped, with a straw hat like she had. It’s
what I got, only it was in Hong Kong, and instead of a silk dress, it
was khaki shorts and I wasn’t waify-looking so much as a little
chunky. And instead of looking dreamy to attract attention, I spilled
a bunch of change out my pockets; the coins rolled many different
directions on the deck, freestyle. And the man I met was Swiss, not
So blood was unctuous, a French girl, Duras – years
later it all came back to me when the boy fell down and rose up
wounded. Before this I knew nothing of terror. He walked along
holding the couch edge, since he couldn’t yet walk on his own, and
suddenly he tripped, my little jack-be-not-very-nimble. I grabbed him
up and looked into his face, watched the yawn of his cry fill with
blood and saw he’d pierced his tongue with his one tooth. Dial-a-
nurse said “It will heal. It has already started to heal.” And it