This month we have 2 features: a fictional piece and a poem! Jump to the poem here!
Human Walls by River Larson
Sean bit into the sandwich and chewed once before spitting. Turning it over, he lifted the bottom piece of bread, revealing a dark red stain. He set it down in the white and black wax paper wrapping in front of him as he choked down the bloody mouthful. His left hand shook for a moment, and he grasped it with his right to hold it still. The walls of the sandwich shop were made of a grime-stained wood. A black and white photograph of a heavyset man with a shaved head and tattoo sleeves hung in a crooked frame beside the drink dispenser. He was smiling at the camera while smearing mayo on a piece of bread. Taped to the wall below the frame was a piece of paper that read, “Sam Olson 1948-1999.” Aside from the photograph, the walls were bare. The room was empty besides a few tables and a dehydrated house plant in the corner. Sean was sitting at a table by the window at the front of the deli. Outside, sweaty half-naked pedestrians passed by, their faces languid masks, each of them on the edge of fainting in the sweltering heat. Liquid haze hung over the sunblasted tar of the street, distorting the shapes of slouching bodies on the other side. A group of children ran across the street halfheartedly, and a dark red sedan screamed to a stop as the driver blared the horn at them. Sean looked down at his book for a moment. It was a paperback with a pastel image of three blindfolded men standing before a firing squad. He looked out the window again. His eyes followed a tabby that moved from entryway to entryway seeking shade. It appeared around the corner of the brick exterior of a coffee shop down the block. It shyly slinked along the ground in a crouch, pulling itself up the steps and resting for a moment before the door swung open, and a black and red skate shoe nudged it from its perch. It looked back grudgingly and paced down the block, stepping lightly on the hot asphalt. The cat turned into the vacant space between two buildings across the street from the deli. It slumped beneath a dried-out shrub. Sean picked up his book and read. After a few minutes of silence, the small bell above the entrance chimed. Sean raised his head. A cop entered the deli. He had on a pair of black aviator sunglasses and a pitch-black uniform. The cop looked at Sean for a moment before looking through him, then to the counter. The cop walked across the checkered floor toward the back of the room. He raised his sunglasses from his eyes to the top of his buzzcut as he scanned the menu. A dead-eyed teenager was leaning against the wall behind the counter. He stepped forward. “Welcome to Wicked Sam’s, home of Slam Sam.” “I’ll have an Italian on white,” the cop said. “What do you want on it?” “Mayo, lettuce, tomato, black olives, and American cheese. And a cup of coffee." “You bet.” The teenager filled a paper cup with burnt coffee, the oily black liquid accompanied by trails of steam. “Ten-seventy-six.” The officer pulled a wallet from his back pocket, took out a twenty, and handed it to the cashier. As the teenager counted the change, the officer turned toward Sean. He looked at Sean’s sandwich. “How’s the tenderloin?” Sean looked up, not saying anything. Resting his eyes on his book again, he said, “Best I’ve had in a while. You should try it.” The cop turned back toward the teenager. “I changed my mind. I’ll have a pork tenderloin on white.” “What do you want on it?” “Lettuce, tomato, red onion, and barbecue.” “Yes sir,” the cashier said, recalculating the change owed. He pulled the bills and coins from the register and handed them to the officer. Turning to Sean again, the cop asked, “What are you reading?” “A book of fairytales,” Sean answered. “Ohhh,” said the officer, grinning. Sean kept his eyes on the page. The cop continued to stare at Sean. “Why did you dye your hair such an unpleasant color? Didn't like the color God gave you?" “I guess.” “You could always shave it off. Start from scratch.” “I suppose I could do that,” Sean answered. The teenager returned. “Here’s your sandwich.” “There it is.” The cop took the sandwich from him, and as he turned to leave, he looked at Sean. He strode out of the deli, ringing the bell above the door again. Sean did not look up. After a while, Sean set the book down. He took a napkin from the metal box on the table and tucked a chunk of fatty pig meat into it. In a gargling pull, he drained his soda from the disposable cup before removing the lid. With a pocketknife he removed from his jeans, he punctured the side of the cup and worked the knife around, cutting the cup in half. Taking his things, he stood and walked to the drink dispenser in front of the teenager who was staring off into space. As he pressed the cup against a metal lever, the machine spat two ice cubes into the cup. He filled the empty space around the ice cubes with water and walked to the door. Carefully cradling the cup of water in the crook of his arm, Sean opened the door and stepped outside. The air was thick. A large red SUV sped by. A golden retriever hung its head out the rear driver-side window, its tongue flapping in the wind. Sean pulled at the collar of his T-shirt with his free hand. Looking both ways, he hustled across the street. His hand shook again for a moment, and he spilled some of the ice-water on his shirt. On the other side, he walked to the vacant space where the cat had taken shelter. The ground was covered in loose gravel and cigarette butts. There was an old picnic table of splintered gray wood with a few patches of blue paint that had mostly peeled away. Beyond the picnic table, the cat was lying beneath the bush. Sean knelt down in front of it. The tabby looked at him cautiously, adjusting its posture for flight. “Hey, buddy,” Sean said, smiling. The cat looked at him, still untrusting. Sean slowly set the cup down on the ground in front of it. He set the napkin with pig meat beside the cup and stepped back. The cat looked at the cup, then at Sean. Staying low to the ground, it stepped forward, lifting its head slightly to inspect the inside of the cup. It reached a paw forward and touched it. Standing, it shyly lowered its face into the water. The cat drank, draining the water, tipping over the cup as it removed its face. It looked at the napkin and took the pig meat in its mouth. It chewed quickly and swallowed. A shadow appeared over the cat. It looked up before dashing off around the corner on the other end of the vacant lot. “Pick that up.” Sean turned. The cop from the deli was standing behind him. Beads of sweat rolled down his sunburnt forehead. “Pick up what?” Sean asked. “That garbage on the ground there,” the cop said, pointing to the cup. “You can’t just go leaving garbage lying around. Pick it up and throw it away.” “I didn’t put it there.” “I saw you put it there. Now pick it up.” “No, sir.” Sean’s hand began to shake. “Okay, well, I’m going to have to cite you.” He removed a booklet from his pants and flipped it open. “Do what you need to do,” Sean said. “I don’t need to do it, but you’re refusing to pick up the trash.” Sean stood, turning toward the cop. “Look around. This alley is filled with trash. I’m not—” “Don’t worry about the other trash. Pick up the cup or I’m going to have to cite you,” the officer said, raising his voice. Sean took one step toward the cop. “I know what this is. You watched me walk over here and waited for an excuse to ruin my day. I’m not picking up the cup, and if you cite me, I’ll see you in court.” His hand continued to shake. The cop looked down at the trembling hand. He put the book back in his pocket and pulled a black can from his belt. “I’m going to need you to calm down,” the officer said, holding the can at his hip. “What? Are you going to pepper spray me? I didn’t do anything.” “I’m going to need you to take a step back,” said the cop, pointing a finger at Sean. “What’s your badge number?” Sean asked. “I’m going to—” “Don’t worry about my badge number. Just step back.” Behind the officer, people were gathering, some trading hushed words, others staring silently. The cop looked back for a moment. Some of the spectators had their phones out, directed at Sean and the cop. “You aren’t paid to intimidate people,” Sean said. “Son, take a step back.” “I will not.” Dozens of spectators gathered at the ends of the vacant lot until they formed human walls, boxing in Sean and the officer. They all had their phones out. The officer looked back and forth and ran his hand over the top of his head, flinging droplets of sweat from his saturated buzzcut into the air. “What are you going to do, officer? I know my rights,” Sean said, glaring. “This isn’t—” “Don’t worry about what I’m going to do. Take a step back. I won’t ask you again.” Sean did not move. “You didn’t ask me anything. You ordered me. I’ll stand where I please. It’s a free country. You can take a step back if you feel like this is too close,” he said, thrusting his index finger toward the cop. “I’ll ask you again. What is your badge number?” “Don’t worry about my badge number,” said the cop. Both ends of the lot were entirely blocked off with people, and the space was filling with the dull rumble of voices. A “Fuck you, pig!” rang out over the din, followed by collective support. A tense, red panic appeared on the cop’s face, and he brushed his shoulder across his forehead, soaking up the sweat with his sleeve. Sean pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket with his shaking hand, stuck one between his lips, and lit the end of it with a butane lighter. Removing the cigarette and releasing a plume of smoke, he raised his hand to cast a shadow over his eyes, and he looked into his reflection in the cop’s sunglasses. “What are you going to do?” The cop was shouting now. “I’m not going to ask you again. Step back.” He raised the pepper spray toward Sean’s face. Sean stayed still. The cop pressed the top of the can, releasing a narrow, hissing stream of white foam into Sean’s eyes. Sean didn’t make a sound. He fell to the ground, holding his face, and dropped his book in the dirt, the pastel faces on the cover scraping against the sharp gravel. The voices of the crowd faded to silence. Sean stayed still, his hands over his face. After a moment, he sat up. Pieces of gravel clung to his skin, some falling to the ground as he raised himself. His eyes were swollen shut. Still, he said nothing. The cop ran forward, spun Sean around by the shoulders, and shoved him to the ground. He held him there, twisting Sean’s arms behind his back, pressing his knee into his spine. “I am placing you under arrest for disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer.” The cop clicked the cuffs around Sean’s wrists. Gripping the inside of Sean’s left arm, the cop marched him toward the street. Faces of heatstroke rage and tired concern blocked their path to the street. “Excuse me,” the cop said. “Move out of the way.” An elderly man with a halo of white hair stood at the front of the crowd. He answered the cop. “Not until you take those cuffs off that man and let him go. Something’s wrong with him. Look at his hand. He needs a doctor.” The cop kept his eyes on the old man. “Don’t worry about his hand. Let me through.” “No, sir. I saw the whole thing, and you have no good reason to arrest him.” The old man looked at Sean. “Are you all right, young man?” Sean said nothing. His head hung from his shoulders like a wilted plant. His eyes were crusted over, and his hand continued to shake. The cop raised his voice at the old man. “If you don’t move, I’ll have to arrest you for obstruction of justice.” The old man’s face relaxed as he answered. “I’m sorry, officer, but I can’t do that. Let him go, and I’ll happily let you pass.” A boy squeezed through the wall of people on the other side of the vacant lot and ran out into the open space. His shoes kicked bits of gravel into the air, releasing clouds of peach gray dust with each step. He knelt where Sean had fallen and picked up the book. The boy rose with it and continued toward the cop’s back. As the sound of footsteps approached the cop from behind, he shoved Sean to the ground and drew his gun from its holster. He turned and fired.
River Larson is a creative writing student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He is a musician, songwriter, and tutor, and has worked as a plumber’s assistant and farm hand. His genres include dystopian and crime fiction, poetry, and political essays. Common themes found in his work include environmentalism, social justice, poverty, love, greed, and addiction. You can follow him on Twitter @InfiniteJester8.
Against Rhythm by Liam Strong
there's a pedagogy or methodology for this somewhere on the internet. probably many -ologies. musicology! it sounds like we're observing invisible sixteenth notes beneath a microscope lens. it sounds silly, like it's actually nothing, not worth our paychecks. do you know what makes a half rest sound different from a whole rest? the space between your mouth and your lips. think about it. we couldn't ever get in sync. not syncopation. we'd need to be able to play off each other to do that. no. i mean we've got nothing to measure ourselves with other than a handful of quiet where you tell me we're worth loving as a duet. as a pastiche to some old sheet music by Richard Saucedo or Count Basie. as ambient drone with no time signature. you could place any rhythm under that & call it a song. i'm tired of hearing the same pop songs. Z93 says it's new but i know it's not. i keep hearing Ed Sheeran swoon about the shape of you & I think about our geometry, a pattern of unlikely components mashed together. we don't call it noise for some reason. i sound like my grandfather complaining about The Clash. there should be a good beat, a repeated progression, building up to something unexpected. maybe i'm tone deaf or just not listening hard enough. i once taught you how to hear ghost notes from a snare drum, but there's nothing more than dead air between us. i don't know how to make it come alive again, but it sounds like you do.
Liam Strong is a Pushcart Prize-nominated queer writer and studies writing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. They are the former editor of NMC Magazine and currently the Chapbook Editor for Michigan Writers Cooperative Press (MWCP). Their music and literature criticism can be found at The Promethean and White Pine Press (Northwestern Michigan College). You can find their essays and poetry in Impossible Archetype, Rathalla Review, Glass Mountain, Lunch Ticket, Chiron Review, Panoply, Prairie Margins, and The 3288 Review. They live in Traverse City, Michigan.