August 02, 2008

August 2008, Vol. 7, Issue 8

Welcome back to another summer issue of Truckin'.

1. Even More Existentialist Conversations with Strippers by Paul McGuire
On the third day of Prozac? That pretty much summed up my visit to the afternoon shift. The stripper was drunk, sedated on happy pills, sloppy, and slurring her speech like Albert Finney at happy hour... More

2. Explaining Amphetamines With Words by Sean A. Lovelace
See the thing is an injection is a lot like a bullet from a gun, or words of anger, or like kisses—you can't get it back. And that Valium was working, working its way through his body, his veins, slowing things down, slowing, his pulse, his already pretty-fucking-slow pulse, and then he was, he was, well, he was dead... More

3. Black Hole Sun By Betty Underground
I couldn't get her face out of my head. Blank and full of jealousy. Not directed at me, but me as part of the female species. As a representative of the sex that threatened her the most... More

4. Separate From Things We Didn't Want A Part Of by Philip D. Brown
My friend fell asleep but the girl didn't and though it was dark I could see her watching me. She didn't look capable of sleep or even rest so I told her that I could help. She told me that needles were out of the question because they were an invasion she wasn't willing to accept... More

5. Capistrano By Brad Willis
If the doctor says I'm living, he obviously is lying or seriously misguided. If he tells me I'm living, I'm going to laugh and tell him he better get busy dying for me, because somebody fucking has to... More

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been...

From the Editor's Laptop:

Thanks again to everyone for wasting your leisure time this summer with Truckin'. Some of your favorite writers are back including Betty Underground, Sean Lovelace, and Otis. This July issue marks the debut of Philip Brown and I hope he'll be contributing more stories in the future. And yes, there's another installment of Existentialist Conversations with Strippers from yours truly.

It takes only a few seconds to tell your friends about Truckin', so tell them about your favorite stories. The writers definitely appreciate your support.

Also, if you know anyone who is interested in being added to the mailing list, well, please shoot me an e-mail.

Before I go... I can never thank the writers enough for writing for free and exposing their guts, blood, and soul to the universe. Their art and dedication inspires me and I hope it inspires you too.

Be good,

"All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant's revolving door." - Paul Camus

Pain: Even More Existentialist Conversations with Strippers

By Paul McGuire © 2008

"I'm addicted to pain," slurred the stripper as she slowly turned her arm to expose her left wrist. Through the faint light I could see several marks. She pulled my hand towards her wrist and I felt the roughness of her scars.

"It took me almost ten years, but I finally figured out that I'm addicted to pain. I love misery. I can't be happy unless I'm hurting."

Never swing at the first pitch.

That was one of the few words of advice my father gave me. However, when we walked into the Rhino a little after 2 p.m., MeanGene, BadBlood and myself were swarmed with strippers as we enacted part two of the Procedure. It was a routine invented and perfected by BadBlood back in G-Vegas.

Booze + Strippers + Poker = The Procedure.

I had only done it once before with BadBlood and Grubby last December. The magic worked for us. We all played a tournament at the Venetian. Grubby made the final table and I bubbled off the final table when Grubby busted me.

Luckily for me, my girlfriend is totally cool with me frequenting strip clubs. It was even her birthday and I got a pass. She even gave me $225... which I quickly blew on overpriced watered down cocktails and the cover charge.

One moment we sauntered through the front door of the Rhino and the next moment we each had a girl on our arm. I headed to the bar to get a better look. The bar at the Rhino has the best lighting in the joint. If there's one place to inspect the goods, that's it.

She was drunk when she grabbed me and led me to the bar. I bought a round while she hung on my hip. I could smell the booze on her breath. Great, how the hell did I attract the drunk stripper? Karma? Lack of karma? Or simply bad luck?

I originally had a choice. Stripper A or Stripper B. Since I politely turned down the first stripper, I went with Stripper B. Looking back, I should have swung at the first pitch.

"I've only been taking Prozac for three days," she screamed over an AC/DC song.

On the third day of Prozac? That pretty much summed up my visit to the afternoon shift. The stripper was drunk, sedated on happy pills, sloppy, and slurring her speech like Albert Finney at happy hour.

Her name was Dylan.

"Like the singer?" I asked.

"No, like the 90210 character," she said.


"Yes. Oh my God, I'm on the South Beach diet," she blurted out.

She could never stay on the same topic for more than ninety seconds before the conversation had more multiple plot twists than a M. Night Shyamalan flick, except she didn't see dead people.
Dylan was also OCD, ADD, and definitely suicidal. She had model looks with the mental stability of Courtney Love.

"People think I'm really fucked up," she said.

"Why? Did you kill your husband, fake the suicide note, and then squeeze his band members out of millions of dollars in royalties?"


"Never mind. So where you from?"

"Oklahoma. Oh my God, the last time I went home, I had not been there in seven or eight years, I saw some old friends from high school and you know what they were doing?"

"Cooking up a fresh batch of crank?"

"Almost. They were huffing propane. Driving around in a car, smoking cigarettes, and huffing propane."

"Did you join them?"

"Hell no."

The first fifteen minutes of our encounter were interesting and fascinating. Some strippers reveal very little and ask lots of questions and let you talk. Others will tell you all of their problems. Dylan unloaded on me. As I said, the first few minutes were great as I soaked up her life story and hung on every word. Part of the fun of hanging out with strippers is trying to dig deep and figure out what makes them tick. What tragic event in their life led them down the path towards the pole? With Dylan, I didn't get to play the game. She was so drunk that she spilled the beans and then some.

Former gymnast. Majored in English at some college in Denton, TX. Got knocked up at 20 and dropped out of school. Had a botched back-alley abortion and can't have kids. Her step-father murdered her mother and knocked up her half-sister. She was a real life Jerry Springer episode gyrating on my lap and spilling Grey Goose all over my Ecco shoes.

She kept telling me that she was a gymnast. It was like when a former high-school athlete can not stop living in the glory days and they tell you the same old stories about how they hit the winning shot to win the league championship. The drunk stripper had her mind frozen on the happiest time of her life... senior year in high school.

"Since I was such an awesome gymnast, I could do all these cool tricks on the pole," she bragged. "But I like to drink, so I don't do them. Oh my God, the last time I tried to get super fancy and show off to my friend Becky, I was so fuckin' wasted that I slipped and fell flat on my face. I chipped a tooth and I got seven stitches in my chin."

She lifted up her chin and let me feel those scars.

"Did you get off on the pain?"

"Yeah. I love the sight of my own blood."

"Do you have a livejournal page?"

"What's that? I'm on Myspace. Oh my God, did you Saturday Night Live this week? I love that show."

I looked over and BadBlood had a tall exotic Nordic woman sitting on his lap. To my right was a happy MeanGene. On his lap sat a dominatrix-looking chick who could have been an extra from the freaky S&M inspired party scene at Zion from the last Matrix flick. All she was missing were a few firearms.

"Oh, but she definitely had some guns," mentioned MeanGene.

At the time, he had the top four buttons of his shirt undone. She slipped one hand inside and did some sort of scratching motion. That's when I noticed Stripper A had joined us. She said she was from Italy and looked like Kate Hudson. I did my best to bring her into my conversation. At some point I plotted the switcheroo. I desperately wanted to ditch the drunk and go for the quiet European one. Every time I tried to shift the conversation, the drunk girl interrupted. I kept making eye contact with Stripper A but she didn't get it and left. I had a second chance at her and blew it again. The result? More depressing and soused ramblings from Stripper B... the happy-pill popping, drunk, former gymnast who had a sister with a daughter/sister. Wait a sec, wasn't that the plot from Chinatown?

I asked to go into the VIP room because I thought it would shut her up. Nope. Didn't work. She still kept yammering and would stop in the middle of a dance to yap about something totally annoying. That was a sick bad beat.

"I used to love Xanax," she said. "When I first took it, I would be sleepy and pass out. Then after a while I took so much that all I felt was..."

"You felt normal?"

"Yeah, how did you know? You sound like you have a lot experience with pills. What do you do again?"

"I'm a psychiatrist."

Forty minutes in, she had not asked me my name nor what I did. I was a little bummed out. We already made up cover stories before we went to the Rhino. BadBlood stuck with his usual cover... hot air balloon pilot. My cover? A psychiatrist from San Diego named Geno Papageorgio.

MeanGene was a last minute addition to the team. He had never done the Procedure before. He didn't even know he was going to a strip club. He made an impulsive decision at the last moment. He didn't even have a cover story planned and scrambled to come up with one during the taxi ride to the club. He decided to make it simple and told the truth... that he was a freelance writer who traveled the world. That made all chicks wet.

The VIP room with the drunk stripper was such a letdown. Nothing is more disappointing in life than getting a horrible lap dance. I couldn't wait to leave because she wouldn't stop talking. She kept bombarding me with her life's bad beat stories. It was totally depressing and I almost wanted to put on the new Coldplay album then kill myself.

As we left the VIP room, Dylan had the balls to ask for a tip.

"Why would I tip? You did a shitty job. You are lucky I didn't ask for my money back. I should have ditched you the moment we met, but I felt sorry for you."

For the first time since she latched herself onto me, she was dead silent. Freedom at last.

I left the VIP room and noticed that MeanGene and BadBlood were still inside. Day 2 of the 50K HORSE event was about to start and I needed to get MeanGene back to the Rio. BadBlood eventually finished up and joined me outside. I had to tip the bouncer to boot MeanGene out of the VIP room. The massive looking guy who could have been a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders trudged over to the corner and told MeanGene that it was time to leave.

MeanGene and his girl were holding hands as they left the room.

"Heya Doc, can I'm a little short. Can I borrow a few bucks?"

"Sure thing," I said and turned to his stripper. "How much does he owe you? $40? $60?"

"$300," she said.

What the fuck? Geno, you sex-pot. I turned to him and mouthed, "300?"

MeanGene smirked and shrugged his shoulders as I peeled off three Benjamins and handed it to the latex-laden stripper.

"Oh and don't forget a tip," she said.

I handed her a $20 bill and she gave MeanGene a kiss on the cheek. She turned around and disappeared into the darkness of the Rhino.

We were nearly blinded by the blazing sun when we left the Rhino. As soon as my vision cleared up, I noticed that MeanGene's hair was messy. He had random scratch marks all over his neck and several lipstick smudges all over his cheek.

"At least I got her number," he said as a devious grin illuminated his face.

Paul McGuire is a writer originally from New York City.

Explaining Amphetamines With Words

By Sean A. Lovelace © 2008

A difficulty, explaining amphetamines with words. I could say it's like dancing about architecture, but Elvis Costello already turned that clever phrase. At least I think it was him, but either way we're still flailing for explanation of experience, trying to suture this with an impossible that, to sculpt the stomach-flop of taking a hill at 100 in an ambulance, to sketch the hot anxiety of kissing a co-worker in a supply closet, to direct a teleplay about the moment you stand over a waxy blue body and it hits you: "We are definitely, no doubt, for sure, put on this earth to eventually die," and now we've come full circle, the rim of a glass vial, a stethoscope bell, or the mind-swim of sprawling on the break room floor and staring at the ceiling for long minutes, no beginning, no ending, only a place to pull from…

I could say this about amphetamines:

I could say, "Well, it's like driving home at dawn from 3rd shift, the graveyard, awake all night, headlights passing the world of well-slept humanity. Your steering wheel floats warm and knobby, twice its size in your hand. You squint, everything all bug-swept, all smeary."

I could say, "Hollow bones."

I could say, "It's like humans, who have notoriously selective insight, and so have rabbits for pets and us with predator features—inset eyes, canine teeth—and rabbits are born as prey, evolutionary prey for eons, and every time you pick one up or put your human face near its cage you are SCARING THE SHIT out of the rabbit."

I could say, "Cold sweating 16 ounce gas station can of beer."

But why would I say any of this, since amphetamines aren't like driving around with an inflated steering wheel or osteocavernosis or unknowingly preying on rabbits. And they certainly aren't cold beer, not even close, not even on an empty stomach, and here we are-are-are again, Elvis Costelloing.

I used to own a rabbit, I did, a little fuzzy angora the color of wet sand. I used to buy a single can of beer for breakfast, every morning on my drive home, while my stereo crackled out Elvis Costello. I used to do a lot of things. Example: med school, in West Virginia, and really that's where the whole amphetamine thing began: all day classes, all night hospital rounds, 36 hours shifts. In some ways that explains amphetamines. In some ways... I remember my first day of this one rotation, Medical Outreach, which is just bullshit code for the crappy rural health centers no doctor ever wants to work (no prestige, no insurance, no $$$) so they always send a team of students—this was right before I quit, I would eventually quit the whole damn thing—and it was late evening or so and the whole time I'm thinking I hope nothing happens, hope nothing happens, because you know we're just a bunch of students and a resident, all book sense and bravado, and I can say personally I knew NOTHING and the last thing I wanted is to have this resident and all these other med-heads figure out is I knew NOTHING. And so it's fine, fine, you know, a coal miner with chest pain, a woman dropping by for a lithium refill, a little girl who swallowed a birthday balloon (the resident scoped her trachea; plucked it out), a lanky farmer stabbed in the elbow by his drunken wife (Novocain, seven stitches, discharge), basically nothing, nothing we couldn't handle. Nothing our resident couldn't... And then he says to us, "I'm going to run and get a Big Mac" and we say go ahead, Doc, you deserve a break today, and get us some fries, super size, etc., and five minutes later this fat cop ambles in with this old Mexican dude, one of those dark sun-shriveled guys that small towns hire for two dollars an hour to do the shitty jobs, picking berries or mixing concrete or shoveling chicken shit out the chicken factories, and the cop says, "This hombre here was walking the highway," which isn’t apparently allowed if you’re Mexican in small town America, and we say, “What’s your point?” and the cop answers, "He ain't got nowhere to stay," and I'm about to go into this whole the health center is not a hotel/homeless shelter and why doesn't this fucking town have any social services and what exactly is the function of all these churches on every street corner and all this other kind of opinionated crap-trap and then BAM! the Mexican dude locks up, spins a tight loop, flops his arms, starts gurgling and choking and hissing, spittle flying all over, eyes spinning to tilt, and then flat out drops to the floor—nearly dead. Nearly, and I should know: I took his pulse, or lack of.

And all hell breaks loose!

Where the fuck's the resident? And then, Where the fuck's the crash cart!? And this ninety-thousand year old scarecrow of an LPN rolls out this sad-ass crash cart, this broken toy, this sick joke, all wobbly and squeaking and wheels clattering and looking like the defibrillator paddles haven't been charged in two decades and the oxygen tubing wrapped in kinks and crazy snakes and the suction clogged with some gray lint-looking shit and here we are standing around this maybe dead guy and the cop leaning against the wall with an expression like, "This should be fun." And so I say, Somebody get his fucking pulse (this ends up being me) and then I say, Somebody charge the defibrillator (ditto) and Somebody get the Ambu bag (ditto) and Somebody turn the fucking heart monitor on (ditto) and finally I can see—actually see in these little green zigzag lines on this dust-covered TV the size of a deck of playing cards—that the guy does have a pulse, a thready pulse, weak and flickering, but a pulse. The man is of the living.

"Okay," I say. "Okay."

That's all I have, really, as far as leadership, all the yelling and this word, okay, and I can feel in the periphery this kind of panic, this blur of running feet and kneeling legs and ripping open surgical kits and snapping on latex gloves and whispering and muttering and stumbling over each other and then finally, finally somebody other than me remembers we are here as a medical team, as givers of care, as doctors to be; yes, all of us. So somebody else does something—this cute girl, name of Sarah, a great kisser—who grabs this hypodermic syringe and jabs it straight through the guy's mud-smeared jeans, right into his Vastus Lateralis—into his fucking thigh.

"What was that?" I ask her.

"Valium," she says, "for the seizures."

"For the seizures? Who the fuck ordered valium? What seizures? The guy is dying here!"

"Well, sor-ry," she says and gives me this glare like I'm the idiot who can't see the word MALPRACTICE lit up like a neon sign above us.

See the thing is an injection is a lot like a bullet from a gun, or words of anger, or like kisses—you can't get it back. And that Valium was working, working its way through his body, his veins, slowing things down, slowing, his pulse, his already pretty-fucking-slow pulse, and then he was, he was, well, he was dead.

Because we just killed him.

And my entire life zooming above my head, beneath my eyelids, crackling and sparkling and shivering, and I take this shallow breath, this non-breath, and I place the Ambu bag over this dead guy's mouth and pump and pump and the damn thing explodes—Pow!—from dry rot! and then that's it, I'm giving this old Mexican dude rescue breathing, mouth to mouth, lip to lip, and everyone yelling and cursing and screaming, and I join in: "Shock this fucker!" and I get the paddles and it's CLEAR! and BAM! And we got nothing! So, CLEAR! and BAM! And still nothing but a green line, a horizon, a flat green horizon, and I'm shouting, "CLEAR, mother fuckers, CLEAR!" and it's BAM! BAM! and his body flopping like some giant fish and I'm breathing into this dead guy's mouth, his lips blue and scaly, his tomato saltines beer hint of urine (urine?) breath, and Sarah's beating the hell out of his chest and the others join in, beating on him, his arms and legs, scissoring off his flannel shirt, shredding his jeans, sticking him with this and that, epinephrine, atropine, magnesium, whatever's in reach, then beating on him some more, just pissed off beating on this guy, and hitting him with the paddles—CLEAR! and BAM! CLEAR! and BAM!—and Sarah's ramming this needle, trying to draw ABGs, any ABGs, any-fucking-where, brachial or femoral or whatever artery she can remember from her textbook diagrams, and blood now spurting all over, just geysers and spray, and me trying breath after breath after breath, and people shouting and crying and praying and CLEAR! and BAM! CLEAR! and BAM! BAM! BAM! and nobody documenting the code or paging the resident or tracking the meds or following any known procedure we were clearly, clearly, clearly and repeatedly, taught to do in this exact emergency situation.
BAM! And nobody said a damn thing about CLEAR and we're all thrown aside like sparks off a fire. And he coughs! He fucking coughs! He coughs up this white frothy liquid, globs of it bubbling down his chin, and his whole body shakes, his fists clench, unclench, and he bolts upright, sits upright, this with IV lines spiraling off and needles sticking out and blood all over and his skin flushed and all these nasty splotches from getting shocked and beat to hell and him naked, chest heaving, belly sagging, and he takes this long shuddering breath and rolls his head to and fro and gives this dreamy grin and says slowly, so slowly, "Vivo?" Vivo. Alive.... And the cop is like, "Holy shit, you guys just saved his life. I'm actually impressed." And there it is, there it fucking is, the resident strolling in, pausing, head hidden behind this crazy stack of McDonald's bags, this big aroma-wave of French fry, and everyone saying, "I think we just saved this guy's life," no mention of us killing him earlier, obviously, and the resident just nodding, just casually folding a fry into his mouth, taking it all in, medical students, a cop, a Mexican guy, a hell of a mess on the floor, but obviously everyone alive, and so then a loopy wave, turning for the break room, for the TV and the Nintendo and the dusty couch.

For whatever reason, the Mexican guy had swallowed a condom full of cocaine and it ruptured in his stomach. That's why his body went spastic, that's why he almost died, I mean before we killed him. But we didn't find any of this out until later. At the time we all just sat there on the cold floor, all huddled up and rocking back and forth and sweating for breath and giving each other these What the Fuck? looks, sitting there in a sea of IV bags and bloody catheters and open needles and trach tubes and sterile wrappings and ampoules and stethoscopes, all of it spread about like a fucking medical nightmare piƱata had exploded, and I remember just leaning back, head on the cold tile wall, just dazed, thoughts, synapses, adrenaline spinning, spiraling and throbbing, and me smiling, no idea why, feeling as low and as high and as low as a goddamn parade of the blues and I was seriously thinking, I am going to quit this shit, I am going to quit this, I am going to quit... which I did.

So, I guess that's one way to explain amphetamines.

I mean with words.

Sean Lovelace is on a river right now. He has a spinning rod and a beer. Other times he teaches at Ball State University. He recently won the CrazyHorse fiction prize, and his works have appeared in Diagram, Puerto del Sol, Willow Springs, and so on.

Separate From Things We Didn't Want A Part Of

By Philip D. Brown © 2008

They had left my brother slumped in his chair and the rest of him on the wall. Two of them drove to town and turned themselves in though neither of them had tripped the trigger. The one who had called me. It had been an accident. He didn't ask for it but I gave him my forgiveness.

I wasn't there. I didn't have to witness it but I had done enough drugs so I could imagine it perfectly. The perfect moment of explosion when the top of his head tore away and the rest of the fools sat there stunned, stupid and silent. I picked up the friend who killed my brother and we drove out of town.

By the time the sun came up we had reached Moline. We abandoned the car in an alley and started to walk and when we got tired we sat down and held out our thumbs. A rusted out Toyota stopped and we climbed in. It carried us across the river that ran beneath us and we passed through Davenport and moved into the quiet Iowa farmland.

The people who picked us up were people like us. That is what they thought. I could tell. They thought certain things tied us together but they couldn't see the thoughts we carried in our heads. They didn't know about my brother. They never saw the syringe.

The one who drove the Toyota listened to country radio and shared his dope. I sat in the front which put me in the middle as I passed the pipe to my left and then behind me and again to my left. Until it was gone. When he pulled into a rest area and decided to sleep on a table I drove his car away. As I pulled out I changed the station on his radio. The friend who killed my brother climbed over the seat and offered me a cigarette.

We had never talked much and that didn't change. I didn't ask him what it felt like watching a head explode while you were tripping. If the trigger felt warm or cold. We left the Toyota in Des Moines. We were making good time. The dope we had smoked wasn't very strong.

A professor who drove a Honda picked us up and brought us into Ames in a rainstorm that made it difficult to see. He dropped us at a hostel where we signed papers which stated we weren't in possession of drugs or wanted by the law. They didn't ask for I.D. and I signed my brother's name.

That night he brought out the syringe and I brought out the Seconal. After we melted it down he did us both because he did it better and we slept through to morning.

In the morning they fed us cereal that ground against our teeth like bits of sand and after a cup of coffee we left. But not before we thanked them and they wished us well. The rain had stopped and we didn't wait long before a farmer with a ponytail let us ride with him south to the interstate where we sat for two hours until a van hesitated and then pulled over.

The brother drove and the sister talked. They were on vacation and happy to give us a ride but only to Council Bluffs where they had planned to stop for the day. They didn't say why and it wasn't in my power to imagine. The sister made us tuna fish sandwiches which I ate but didn't enjoy. I ate because I was hungry and while I ate I thought of my parents who I had not seen in three years and I wondered what my mother would wear to the funeral. If I had seen the dress. It occurred to me that the wake would have to be closed-casket.

We had put enough distance between us and my brother and we were thirsty so we found a bar and had a drink. It was the middle of the afternoon and the bar was dark and cool. The beer cost fifty cents a glass. The whiskey a dollar. It was a cheap place to take the edge off the day though I wasn't feeling any particular edge.

Baseball was on the television and the bartender talked about it like it mattered to him. It had once to me when I had played with my brother and this friend before things changed and we took a liking to different things. But I could speak the language and its currency bought us a drink.

When we left the bar the sun was going down and I could feel the alcohol but not enough for it to matter. We walked a couple of miles until we reached the highway where we sat and watched the sun fall farther into the west.

The kid who picked us up wasn't going far but thirty miles is thirty miles so we couldn't complain. Where he left us wasn't hopeful but there was an overpass and we climbed up the concrete and laid down to wait for morning.

We had eaten some peanuts in the bar but that and the tuna didn't add up to much and hunger kept me awake. Something else would have helped but we were out of drugs though we still had the syringe. We would be able to deliver them when we found them and I felt confident we would.

The traffic was sparse enough so that when it came it came as a surprise. My friend had fallen asleep and I listened to his dreams and the rumble of cars and trucks as they passed a few feet above us. I couldn't know his dreams but as I fell asleep I was grateful they weren't mine.

A rancher who drove a pickup with two gas tanks carried us across Nebraska and we only stopped once and that was for food. We had money but he bought us lunch because he said we reminded him of his son who was in jail in North Platte. It was the son he was going to see and why we had gotten the ride.

The son was in for drugs and the father said he suspected we had used them. He wanted to know the attraction. I told him they made the day pass in a more acceptable manner and kept us separate from things we didn't want a part of. He said that was a sad way to live but that he had seen enough so as not to pass judgement.

He left us on what passed for Main Street and we wished him luck with his son and his travels. He seemed like a good man and I understood his trouble.

We walked to a park where we bought drugs from people who gather in places like that and recognize their kind when they see them. The drugs were heroin and cocaine which are a good combination but we planned to do them separately so they would last a little longer though it was never long enough.

There was no reason to wait so we moved off to where we could be private and ran some of the cocaine because it's better to start high and then move low. The cocaine was stronger than we had hoped from that small of a town. When we left I was grinding my teeth so it may have been cut with some speed.

It took us another day and three more rides to reach Denver and then another to Boulder. We had some near accidents between Sterling and Denver with an Army kid who picked us up and couldn't get enough dope into his lungs until finally he reached his limit and couldn't help but fall asleep. My friend who sat in the back kept an eye on the driver's head and when it started to drop he gave it a whack and that brought him around. The driver didn't seem to mind this and neither did we since he shared his dope and it was strong and that was what mattered.

We met some people in Boulder and we decided to stay. The people we met called themselves The Family which is an odd thing to call yourself when it looks like that is what you are trying to escape. Our first night there we followed them to a party at a house near the university where five dollars entitled you to all the beer you could drink but I don't think they had imagined people with such a thirst. I drank my share and so did my friend but the ones who called themselves The Family were another matter all together.

I watched them and this is what I saw. They drank until they could drink no more and then went outside and forced themselves to throw it all up and then went back to drink some more and then they did it again. It seemed they intended to get their money's worth and had developed a system and it looked like it worked.

After the party they drove us up in the mountains where it was cold and windy especially for us who were without sleeping bags or even a change of clothes. They quickly passed out and we built a fire which helped with the cold but not as much as the heroin we fixed and then ran. Nodding out I stared at the sky where the stars seemed too close and looked like pins anxious to prick.

In the morning I smelled like smoke and felt deeply cold. It made me even colder to watch one of them strip down and jump into a stream which couldn't have been far from ice. We decided then that these were interesting people but we would part our ways.

In town we loitered on streets near the university because that is where things seemed to happen. We met a girl and her two friends who were driving around looking for places to crash. The girl was from Boston and so were her friends. She was there to attend school and her friends had helped her with the drive and the move west. There was a problem involving time and schedules and she had three days before she could move into her room. The guys she was with didn't seem to mind and were looking to have a good time. I wasn't sure about them but I liked her accent and the way it made her sound tougher than she looked. I understood that living is mostly acting and how we all get stuck in our parts.

We spotted an empty house and were driving around waiting for it to be late enough to be safe. It was a panel truck and she was driving and when we brought out the heroin they paid attention. He fixed me first and then himself and they watched us and I didn't mind. I could see that her friends had made a decision and that she thought it a bad one but I was seeing and not feeling so it didn't matter to me.

The girl's friends were determined and once things start they seem to play out. We ignored their innocent questions and did one and then the other and they both got sick as we knew they would. We had to help them into the house and after we made sure they were breathing we laid them down so they could sleep it off. They had a story they could tell when they got back home and that is all most people need or want.

My friend fell asleep but the girl didn't and though it was dark I could see her watching me. She didn't look capable of sleep or even rest so I told her that I could help. She told me that needles were out of the question because they were an invasion she wasn't willing to accept.

I showed her another way and she snorted two lines because I said it was all right and that once wouldn't make her an addict. She curled up against a wall and I listened to her dream and her dreams were loud and violent. I didn't sleep at all and before any of them woke I left.

I continued west alone because that is the direction I had been heading. I don't know how many rides it took because I had stopped counting as numbers just add up and in the end add up to nothing. The rides brought me to San Francisco where it was colder than anywhere I had been except for the mountains.

The last ride left me on Market in the middle of a parade which seemed more like a party though not very orderly. I asked and a man told me it was the 4th of July which is Independence Day and that is what they were celebrating. The day surprised me as I had not kept track but I remembered the year and knew it marked two hundred.

I left the parade and walked on and when it grew dark I was on the wharf. I had stopped to buy a pint and in a public rest room I did the last of the heroin. I no longer had the syringe so when I did it I snorted it off the back of my hand as I had shown the girl from Boston. When I thought of her I hoped that she got her room and that her dreams had let her be.

I must have fallen asleep and when I did I didn't dream though I thought I was when I heard the strange sounds. They were words spoken in Japanese. A mother talking to her baby who in this case was a boy. She was holding a small flag and pointing to the sky where the fireworks' burning trails lit up the bay. She noticed me watching her and nodded her head as if I were part of it too. I didn't understand her words but I remembered the emotion and that was a start. I heard the boom and looked up at the sky and watched the rockets burn down toward the water.

Philip D. Brown's short stories have been published in literary mags. One of which won a Pen Syndicated Fiction Award. He lives in Chicago where he plays poker and continues to look for the angle out.

Black Hole Sun

By Betty Underground © 2008

I can't remember how we became friends. We worked for the same company. He had a crush on my best friend at the time. Still, our paths were not even parallel. I think the friendship came at a time when I had become a relationship guru. Avoiding my own shortcomings and turning my efforts to advising others.

Michael was an oddly skinny man. Probably the same age as me but not covering the grey as insistently as I was. He had a full case of it, and it was boofy. Making his head look awkwardly large on his narrow shoulders and slight frame. Not unattractive, but just not enough of him to have me frothing at the gash. I like men with a little meat on his bones and I certainly don't want to outweigh them.

He wore glasses. An intellectual nerdy type who had been trying to break into acting his whole life. He had some luck with voice overs, but he couldn't find a niche for his unique "character" look. So, he worked in technology to pay the bills.

And, he smoked. In his car. With the windows rolled up. In his house, with the windows closed. I imagined his curtains stained yellow. I had never been inside. Dropped him off a few times. His cat sitting in the window, desperate for a gasp of fresh air. He smoked so much, his skin smelled like an ashtray. Even when we would meet for morning coffee. Fresh out of the shower, his skin still smelled. A cloud followed him, so all our interactions took place outside. We would sit for hours and drink coffee and chat. Good conversation and he was kind enough to not smoke when I was trying to quit. But the smell. It was in his pores. The phlegmy cough triggered my gag reflex. He would spit into his empty ice coffee cup. The clear ones.

He had come off a rough break-up with a long time live-in girlfriend. He had over extended himself getting a two bedroom place and helping her finish law school. She worked part time. Selling subscriptions over the phone. So it would be safe to say he supplemented more than the rent. One day, out of the blue, she left him. High and dry. Ran off. Couldn't take it anymore and was out. Never knew why. Something got to the boiling point and she high-tailed it out. Leaving him with the lease.

He was bitter. I don't know if it was justified because I only heard his half. Of course, it was all her fault. But, he was also desperate to love. Wanted that companionship so bad. He was a great guy. Smart. Creative. Making good money at his tech job. Waiting to be discovered. He had potential. He even had social skills. He could easily "woo" a gal. Maybe easier if he quit smoking but I have a thing about smells. Not everyone does.

One day, we were doing our coffee talk thing, and he busted it out. He had met someone. Head. Over. Heels. Came out of left field. He had been waiting until he was sure. Until she confirmed she was there as well. On the same page.

So he started from the beginning. He had meet her at her work. Had gone in one night for a drink and a light nibble. He was drawn to her. Magnetic as he described it. When she got off work, she sat with him. They talked for hours. He felt inspired. They came from the same struggles. She had come from Arizona with a guitar and a dream. She was going to make it big in Hollywood. Still thought she might, but like him, her dreams were hard to bring to reality.

A producer took advantage of her. Took her cash with the promise of a demo tape and head shots. She had nothing. Except her looks and rent 15 days past due.

Down near LAX was a strip of joints full of girls just like her. She started just serving drinks but the draw of the money she could make on stage was too great. A few months and she could build a nest egg. Get ahead on her rent. New head shots and a real demo tape. It would only be for a few months. Then she would quit and put her all back into her music. Give Hollywood another chance.

That was seven years before he met her. The money was addicting even if the work turned her stomach inside out. She set her goals higher. Further from reach. Further from her dream. It turned into stuff. Getting stuff. A house. A BMW. Shopping on Rodeo Dr. without a care. Things. These things that would make her complete.

Her dreams of stardom, crushed beneath lucite stilettos.

He told me he wanted to pull her back into the sunlight. Her spirit was strong and he trusted her talent was too. He fell hard and fast that first night. His eyes enveloped her as he watched her dance. Her breath impressed on his heart when she sat, for hours, just talking. Together, they would put their dreams back on course. All this, in the first night. The night he met her at the strip club where she worked. A stripper. Talking to him after work. Wanting nothing from him.

Why did I have trouble wrapping my head around it? In typical fashion I was skeptical. He wasn't shelling out cash for her. Except when she was on stage. He visited her every night she worked. Her protector. Sitting in the dark corner.

She didn't need his money. She appeared to enjoy his time. They saw each other a few times outside of work. Dated. Nothing physical. She even told him her real name. Susie. That is something. Right? Still, there was something that smelled fowl.

I caught a strong whiff when he told me she lost her lease. Because she declined advances from the apartment manager. I know those Hollywood scum-bag types. It was likely completely true. She didn't feel right staying and needed a place to stay. ASAP. Michael offered his apartment. He had two bedrooms and could really use the help with the rent. A financially responsible decision. It would help them both out. Strictly platonic but he hoped if they played house, something more might come of it.

He made a key for her. She moved in while he was at work and when he got home, a full spread on the living room floor. A picnic of home cooked food to say thank you. She did this most every night for him. Made him a hot meal and if their paths didn't cross before she headed out to the club, she left it in the microwave for him. With heating instructions.

I was ready to stand corrected. Hell, I was even liking her.

Then, I met her.

Just for coffee on a Sunday. Our place was in the heart of the parade of beautiful people in Hollywood. I loved it there. The people watching unparalleled. He and I would guess what theirs lives were like when they passed by. Judged. It was a game. An equation. The number of gaudy designer labels divisible by their debt-to-income ratio and you could peg them with in a digit of their zip code. We summed up everyone. As we did, jealousy bubbled in her. Rage, suppressed. Quivering each time he turned his head to look. Gazelle like women with super model looks. If one glanced back and him, she latched to him. Tighter. It was uncomfortable to sit across from.

He headed off to an acting class and I avoided the awkwardness of remaining behind with her by offering up the excuse of needing to get to the market. She smiled. Hugged me. As I turned away from her I noticed her eyes. They had gone black. Cold and empty. Glazed over. Freaked me out.

Men, she controlled. Their wanton desire in her hands. Eating out of them. They gave her money to feel whole. With women, she competed for that money. Competed for the desire of men. In her job. But she could not separate it from life outside the dark, twinkle-lit stage, of the strip joint. Lining the street to LAX. The road to escape.

I couldn't get her face out of my head. Blank and full of jealousy. Not directed at me, but me as part of the female species. As a representative of the sex that threatened her the most.

That was the last time I spoke to Michael. I left town shortly after and wondered, for a little while, about what might have become of them both. Then something told me, I didn't want to know. Los Angeles can be unkind to the weak hearted. The devil lives in those streets. Grabbing at the ankles of the impressionable. Leading them to the rewards of temptation.

I knew a few strippers in the years I was there. The level headed kind. It was a job and pleasure was never mixed in. They were clean. No drugs. No booze and houses in the Hollywood Hills. Dare, I say, they were respected. Had great stories. Like Vegas Pit-Bosses. Stories of temptation and poor judgment. Stupidity and loss. You couldn't help but laugh at how gullible men were. And sad ones. Stories of girls that the devil swallowed and spit out. Black hearted and covered in distrust. Girls that might have had a chance if someone hadn't taken advantage of them. Stories about girls like Susie.

Betty Underground is a writer from Northern California.


By Brad Willis © 2008

I can't swallow food. I don't know why. It could be cancer of the esophagus. It could be acid reflux. It could be that I've eaten as much as I should in one lifetime. Either way, I'm probably going to die. I haven't bothered going to a doctor, because he will only tell me if I'm living or dying. If I'm dying, as I suspect, I might as well go on living while I go about the dying. If the doctor says I'm living, he obviously is lying or seriously misguided. If he tells me I'm living, I'm going to laugh and tell him he better get busy dying for me, because somebody fucking has to.

Because I can't eat, I'm drinking. It will kill me too, but I won't feel it so pointedly. It's a smooth death. Like dry downing in a wet county, and certainly better than wet drowning in a dry county. If I went to a doctor, he would tell me that the drinking isn't going to do anything to help the dying. He'd try to get me to drink more water. I'd say something about my body and the earth being made up of 80% water and how they are already both shot straight to hell. He'd give me a doctor look and ask me again if I wanted some antidepressants. I'd take the script, fill it, and leave the full bottle in my cabinet until it expired. Just like last time.

There is no getting around the downer of having your throat closed up. It's just another version of writer's block. When you want to eat and can't, it feels like when you want to write and can't. Nothing sounds good--the words suck, the food smells like a Pulitzer, and the booze is just a way to pass the time until you finally call it a day. No matter, though, because anti-depressants are worse than booze. At least after six or twelve good drinks, I can feel how much it sucks to be completely fucking void of focused talent and think about how I'm wasting what little amount of skill I have. Anti-depressants are a quick trip to feeling nothing all the time. I'd rather hate myself than feel okay with everything.

So, fuck going to the doctor. Last time I saw him, it was because I thought my brains were trying to eat through my skull. I laid awake in a fetal position until I nearly cried. I went to the doctor and he told me he couldn't find anything wrong. I must be crazy, he thought. He didn't say as much. "Have you been stressed?" he asked, wrote on a pad, and gave me pills. Even the trip to the emergency room got me stoned and made me think I was in love with a chubby nurse who shot my ass full of hard core narcotics. An Indian doctor with a sigh in his eyes and a ready prescription pad was never going to win my love, no matter how many times he stuck his finger in my ass.

Brad Willis is a writer from Greenville, South Carolina.