Gossssssip

Kate sat on the subway train, cradling her cell phone to her ear and chatting to Angela about the weekend.
“And you’ll never guess who Sophie went home with Friday night,” she said, her green-as-envy eyes glittering with glee. “Nick Satterly! Yes, Laura’s Nick! They both shared a martini, and several beers, and then Nick gave Sophie a ‘ride home’. To his place, of course. What? No, you know Laura was out of town over the weekend. Some business with her brother.” Kate shifted her cell phone to her other ear, crossing her legs. She could feel her pantyhose chafing her unpleasantly beneath her skirt in her unmentionable place. “No, I’m not jealous,” she said. “Why would I be? I’m not his wife. Laura, on the other hand…”
She fell silent as a woman sat down next to her. On the subway Kate expected someone to sit next to her, eventually, but this woman set off her alarm bells. She had frazzled black hair, dark black eyes, and dark black eyebrows in a long face with narrow slits for a nose. She wore a black dress and was covered like a Christmas Tree in gaudy, cheap Dollar Store jewelry that looped and dangled from her in mad disarray. She looked like a crack-head Cher with a rat-king nesting in her hair. Kate’s nose crinkled in disgust.
“…Well, Laura will probably be mad,” Kate finished lamely, too distracted by the woman to be colorful or hyperbolic about the weekend affair. She listened to Angela for a moment— her excited gasping and wondrous hawing—and then answered her subsequent question. “No, I’m the only one from the office that knows. You, Ben, Arthur, Madeline—everybody else left the bar early. Only I stayed behind and saw them leave together. And then Sophie called me Saturday morning, giving me the low-down. And it was a new low for her, for sure. Down, down, down low…”
Kate tried to giggle, but realized that crack-head Cher was staring at her. Kate turned away from the strange woman, presenting her back as a barrier of privacy. The woman did not seem to take the hint. Rather, she spoke to Kate freely.
“Who is Sophie?” she asked. Her voice was husky, like heady smoke. She smelled of strange, earthy incense—burning fragrance within a deep cave. “Is she your friend?”
Kate sighed in irritation. “What is it to you?” she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief and continuing to talk to Angela. “No, not anyone important. Just some weird lady on the train…”
“You do not speak of her as a friend would,” the woman said.
“Stop harassing me, you rude, smelly crack-whore,” Kate snapped. “Or I will call the police.”
“Deep underground here?” the woman said. Her look of skepticism was replaced by a small, mysterious smile. “This is my world. No one comes unless I wish them to. I am the Pythian priestess.”
“You are a wacko, is what you are,” Kate said. “She’s a druggie,” she then explained to Angela on her phone. She turned toward the woman again, puffing up with anger and righteousness. “I am not going to give you money,” she added. “I don’t even carry change on me. And if you think I am going to give you my credit card, you are badly mistaken.”
The woman’s small smile widened to reveal bright white teeth, flashing all the whiter in the sooty ash that overspread her pale face. She reminded Kate of a gypsy, or the stereotype of a gypsy. Her teeth were so long and narrow that it looked like she had no gums.
“I find no worth in any such thing as that,” the gypsy woman said. “I do wonder about your worth as a friend, however.”
“How dare you!” Kate exclaimed, sliding down a seat away from the woman. “And for the record, Sophie and I are not friends. We are coworkers.” She spoke quickly into the phone. “But Angela and I are besties. Always have been. Always will be.”
“Then it is very unprofessional,” the woman continued. She slid closer to Kate upon the subway seats, crowding Kate against the end of the row. As she slid nearer her cheap jewelry rattled and the fabric of her black dress hissed. “But who am I to say such things? The world is run by unprofessional people. Unprofessional gods, at that! Did you know that prophecy is simply gossip between the gods? It is true. Gossip is divine. Gossip becomes true, even if it isn’t, because the gods demand that it be so.”
The woman then folded her arms, each hand grasping the other forearm. Her skeletal wrists were entwined with many coiled circlets that clanked and jangled like bells.
“Since gossip is divine,” she said, “I will bless you, Kate Huxley. By the deep womb of Delphi, may you speak a sibilant sibyl’s song. May the twin-headed snake seek you in your most private moments…and places.”
Kate stood, then— losing all patience—and walked to the other end of the subway car. When she sat down she glanced back, but the gypsy woman was no longer sitting where she had been. Kate paid it no more mind. Instead, she took up chatting with Angela where she had left off, telling her all of the scandalous details about the affair over the weekened. She became quite happily lost in the lurid flow of it all and never reflected a moment enough to wonder how the weird gypsy woman knew her last name.

***

Kate did not stop talking to Angela on her phone about Nick and Sophie until she was face to face with Angela on the tenth floor of their firm’s office building, and even then she simply turned off her cell pone and spoke to Angela about them directly.
“He did not even pay for her Uber ride,” Kate said, laughingly. “Can you imagine?”
Angela smiled in mild amusement. She was very tall and skinny. “You know Nick’s always been that kind of guy. I think he has dated every woman in this building at one point or another. Not me, of course, but…well…others.” She eyed Kate’s pink sweater sideways while they both walked to their own corner of the floor. Behind them the maze of cubicles spread wide beneath florescent lights. Beyond the windows the sun rose sullenly between the crowding skyscrapers.
“But I’m sure Nick treated the other women better than Sophie,” Kate remarked. Her smile was somewhat bitter. “She said he didn’t even cuddle afterwards. He just sort of…ahem… he just rolled over and…hack…went to sleep…”
Hand to her chest, Kate coughed and hacked.
“Are you all right?” Angela asked.
Kate waved away her coworker’s concern. A moment passed, and so did the congestion. She continued speaking as before.
“What was she thinking?” she said, laughing sardonically. “As if Nick would use her for anything but a few jollies over the weekend! She’s not even sure…huck…that he wore…ack…a condom…”
Hunching over, Kate coughed and gagged, finally expelling something long and slimy from her throat. It slipped out and fell to the carpeted floor in a sinuous heap of scaly coils. Looking down at it in surprise, Kate saw that it was a snake— a small scarlet snake with pearly white fangs. It slithered toward the elevator. She watched it go with a feeling of relief, and an anticipation of mirth. She did not feel disgust or horror, nor did Angela show any.
The elevator doors opened as the snake reached them, and the snake coiled around Sophie’s ankle as she stepped out from the elevator. She did not seem to see it, but her face twinged as the snake bit her calf muscle through her silk pantyhose. Kate paid the snake no further mind, nor did Angela comment upon it at all, and the two women turned to greet Sophie as she walked slowly toward their habitual corner of the office.
Sophie appeared out of sorts and anxious. Her hoop earrings jittered like June bugs on a hot windowpane. Normally she wore makeup, but not today. Her face was sickly green with snake venom.
“Laura’s not here yet, is she?” she asked them.
Kate looked to Angela, and Angela shook her head. “I don’t think so. She’s not supposed to come back until tomorrow. Nick is here, though.”
The look of betrayal on Sophie’s face did not faze Kate in the least. The serpent bit at Sophie’s leg and foot several times, nearly tripping her as she stood upon her wedges.
“Kate,” she said, “you promised not to tell anyone.”
“I only told Angela,” Kate said. “And she’s my best friend. Just like you. Besties trust each other. We’re supposed to share everything.”
Sophie glanced nervously around the labyrinth of cubicles.
“I don’t want anyone else knowing about it,” she said, red-faced and heaving beneath her blouse. “I could lose my job. Nick could, too.”
Kate took Sophie by the hand. “There are plenty of other things to talk about,” she said. “And people. Did you know that Joe Plitschy in Accounting is getting fired? Hank Danforth told me that Joe bungled a few thousand dollars’ worth of numbers in the Hawthorne account. Some people think he’s addicted to pain meds and…hack…he doesn’t think of anything…blahaock… except taking them…”
Bending over, Kate coughed up another snake. It was orange, like fire, and it slithered toward a cubicle on the far side of the cubicles. Neither Angela or Sophie remarked upon it, though they clearly saw it. Kate continued talking as before.
“Anyway,” she said. “They are going to let him go at the end of the day.”
“I always liked Joe,” Angela said. “He reminds me of one of my dead uncles. Not the creepy one. The one that liked to give presents because he had no family of his own.”
“It was probably that back surgery,” Sophie said, still looking nervous as the snake loosened its fangs from her ankle. “I bet he has been in pain ever since returning from medical leave. Sitting at a desk without lumbar support doesn’t help. Even my back hurts sometimes.”
“Weekend activities can make things worse, too,” Kate said, making the snake at Sophie’s ankle bite her again.
Angela opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment saw Joe Plitschy hobbling toward the men’s restroom.
“There’s Joe there,” she said.
Joe’s face was bright red and his brow had broken out in a cascade of sweat. He was a rotund man—misshapenly so—and his girth twisted awkwardly with each cumbersome step he took. The orange snake which Kate had expelled had encoiled his chest. He held a hand against the wall for additional support.
“Going for his pills, I’ll bet,” Kate said. Her eyebrows hopped eagerly and she left the corner of the office, heading to Hank Danforth’s office. Leaning into his office from the door, she spoke to him briefly, then returned to Angela and Sophie. Danforth stepped out of his office and watched Joe Plitschy go into the restroom. He waited a moment and then went into the restroom himself.
“All things in due time, Kate,” Angela said, crossing her arms irritably.
Kate shrugged. “It’s for his own good.”
Shortly afterward, Hank emerged from the restroom. A minute or so later, Joe emerged, his eyes to the floor. He walked more slowly than before. The snake had tightened its coils around his chest, and had buried its fangs deep into the middle of his spine. The balding man cringed with every biting step as he went to his cubicle to pack his things. Eyes from the other cubicles followed him quizzically, then sympathetically. But no one said goodbye to him.
A few minutes later Kate, Angela, and Sophie went to their cubicles. The workday began for everyone except Joe Plitschy.

***

Kate had a lot of business to attend to. Not official work-related business; but social business. She was a confidante for many people in the office building. Ironically, she had earned this dubious station by sharing with everyone what others had shared with her. People felt like they could trust her because she trusted this and that person with another person’s secrets. Even now, when she was supposed to be filling out data tables and spreadsheets, she spent her time reading emails and sending emails concerning salacious information. She felt the snakes roil and coil in her chest, writhing with restless anticipation.
As the workers sat at their cubicles, working on their computers and reading emails, there rose many whispers between the cubicles among that peopled maze. The whispers were hushed, but together sounded like many snakes gathering in a sibilant storm.

***

Lunchtime came, and with it whole rivers of snakes spewing from Kate’s mouth. The multitudinous tangle in her chest uncoiled and spilled from her throat impossibly, like clowns from a clown car. Occasionally she hacked up a large nest of snakes—like a cat coughing up a hairball—and set them loose on the whole HR department, rolling among the cubicles like a pinball in an elaborate machine until it gradually unwound itself, leaving snakes everywhere to await the return of the workers from their break.
For Kate the release felt good. Thrilling. Cathartic. Orgasmic. Each expulsion of a snake was a tectonic rapture. She was the nexus, after all; the convergence and the floodgates of the garrulous flow. She spoke serpents into the world, and it pleased her to do so.
Everyone had a mess of snakes to struggle with as they returned to their cubicles. But no one had more snakes than Sophie as she returned to her desk. Her head hung heavy with snakes. She bowed beneath the weight of them, staring at the ground like a forlorn Medusa. No one spoke to her except Angela. Kate spoke about Sophieincessantly, and subsequently Nick and Laura.
Nick did not seem to mind any of it. He wore his snakes like trophies as he smiled his All-American golden boy smile and joked around with the other guys in the Acquisitions department. He was invulnerable. This did not so much provoke Kate’s ire toward him as much as provoke her ire toward Sophie and Laura. Laura was not there to protest, and Sophie was too overwrought to do anything about the snakes. And to try to fight against them did nothing but antagonize them. The more she tried to disentangle herself, the more riled the snakes became, biting her in waves of discontent.
And then things became worse. To everyone’s surprise, including her husband, Nick, Laura arrived for the latter part of the day. She appeared unhinged, and not only from apparent jetlag. One of her friends in HR had notified her of the affair via email. Everyone expected her to confront Nick and Sophie, and she did, hysterically. Nick hurried her to his office where the door muted her sobbing and screaming minimally. Meanwhile Kate crept nearby, listening at the door. Angela attempted to call her away, but Kate only smirked. There was a mixture of mischief and malice upon her face as she listened.
And then, abruptly, Laura was standing there, looking like a wartime refugee in the florescence of the overhead lights. Her blonde hair was disheveled. Her blouse and skirt were wrinkled and hitched up and down like she had been fighting herself. There were distraught tears streaming from her eyes, yet the look on her face was simple, overwhelming horror. She looked more like a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer rather than a victim of Monday gossip.
“How could you do this to me?” she said, her voice cracking. “Nick and I are getting a divorce now.”
At first Kate did not know to whom she addressed the question. Her surprise gave way quickly to supercilious disavowal.
“Sophie is the one that did it to you,” Kate said. “She slept with your husband.”
“Lots of people have slept with my husband,” Laura said, her voice hollow. “I don’t like it, but it’s the way we work.” The mournful dismay in her blue eyes hardened into ice. “But you…you had to talk about it. You had to spread it around where we work. We don’t have privacy anymore about it. You’ve shamed me more than Nick ever could. Everything is ruined.”
“It’s not my fault you don’t feel any shame about not being able to please your man,” Kate snapped. “You and Nick need to separate. You’ve needed to for a long time. If you had any self-respect you would know that, and do it. Right away.”
“I was happy,” Laura said, ignoring Kate. “We were happy. Happy enough for me. But then you ruined it. You ruined everything with your forked tongue.”
“You should have had your own house in order,” Kate said, smiling with faint satisfaction. “You should have had more self-respect.” She spoke loudly, then, so that everyone in the labyrinth of cubicles could hear her. “You should have divorced Nick for all of the other affairs he’s had. But you just let him walk all over you, and fuck whoever he wanted. You’ve got…hlack…no one…glack…to blame but…ack…yourself…”
Kate bent over, her hands on her knees while she heaved. Her neck bulged and her face reddened and then darkened to purple while her mouth stretched unnaturally wide. A giant python disgorged from her throat, landing heavily upon the floor. It slithered toward Laura and encoiled her. Laura shook her head slowly, ruefully, and let the snake have its fill. She could barely breathe.
“I hate you all,” she said faintly. “I hope you get what you deserve. I hope it comes back to bite you on the ass before it’s over…”
She disappeared into the snake’s unhinged jaws.

***

Kate entered the Ladies restroom. It was the last break before the end of the workday and she needed a moment to take a breather and relieve her bladder. She sat in a stall, tinkling and texting, and soon heard two women enter the restroom, talking. She knew them immediately. They were Angela and Sophie. They did not use the stalls, but stood near the sinks, Angela’s high heels clopping loudly on the bathroom tiles.
“I still feel bad about Laura,” Sophie said. “Friday night was…unplanned. All of us were at the bar and then you guys all left and I had had too much to drink. Kate was hitting on some random guy, trying to show off. I hate her sometimes. And Nick…Nick was so nice to me. I knew better, but I just felt so…so lonely. I hadn’t even been out on a Friday in over a month. I have no life, you know? I’m a loser. A guy hasn’t paid attention to me in forever. And then Nick was so nice and sweet and one thing led to another and I just…I feel awful.”
The water faucet hissed on, and Kate could hear Sophie splashing her face with water.
“Shit happens,” Angela said, “and then you die. We all make mistakes. Several mistakes in a row, too. It’s like playing a scratch-off lottery ticket. You win the jackpot— or Nickpot, I guess—and you are as surprised as anyone.”
“That’s for sure,” Sophie said, sighing. “Drink too much, sleep with a coworker, then tell another coworker about it. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have told Kate anything. She talks too much.”
“That’s because she has no life, either,” Angela said. Kate could virtually see her smirk through the stall door, so strong was the twist of her lips on that sharp tone. “And don’t feel bad about Nick and Laura. Their marriage has been doomed for a while now. You’re not the first woman he has taken back to their marriage bed for a one-night-stand. Last year he and Kate slept together. A couple of times, actually. She wanted him to leave Laura. But he wouldn’t do it. She was just another side-piece. Kate told me about it. Several times. Wouldn’t stop crying over him. God, I dreaded those phone calls.”
“She liked him that much?” Sophie said, incredulous. “But why? He wasn’t even good in bed. I’m not even sure I had an orgasm. It was over so quick…”
Kate did not see the snake slithering under the stall’s door, raising its head toward her spread knees. She was staring at her phone instead, but her mind was attending the conversation at the sink.
“Who knows why?” Angela said. “Kate’s always wanted what other people had, even if it wasn’t that good. Or maybe she hates Nick just like she hates herself and wants the both of them to be miserable together.” Angela tittered like a snake would if it could. “Whatever the reason, Kate is super-jealous of him and whoever he is with; whether it is Laura or some other girl on the side. She didn’t get over him as well as you have.”
“That’s just…sad,” Sophie said.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Angela said. “Afterward she was so upset that she tried to make Nick jealous. She went and got blackout-drunk at a bar and woke up with some guy. He never even told her his name. He left shortly after they had both woken up, but he left a gift for her to remember their romantic evening.”
Angela paused for a long time, and in the meantime Kate felt like she was falling down into the depths of the earth. Things swarmed over her in that terrible darkness.
“Kate has HIV.”
Sophie’s sharp intake of breath was a hiss, and Kate flinched painfully at the revelation. The snake speared itself into her womanhood and slithered its way into her womb.
“Kate has HIV?” Sophie said, aghast. “But she seems so healthy.”
“She’s on really expensive drugs to manage it,” Angela said. “She’s actually running out of money. I gave her a loan myself to help pay for her rent.” Angela tittered again. “It would be a shame if everyone at the firm found out about that, wouldn’t it? But then again, it might be divine comeuppance, too. She’s always been a busybody. Ever since college. Probably ever since she learned to talk. She doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.”
The restroom door opened and the two women left. Kate sat in the stall, stewing in her own venom. Bitterly she stared at nothing, her cell phone loosely gripped in her limp hand. Deep within her, the snake coiled in upon itself, constricting itself into a knot of self-loathing and hatred and despair. It was a two-headed snake and it entwined itself balefully, each end trying to eat the other in an interminable struggle. She wished she had never spoken it into existence.

Caustic

Disclaimer: Adult Content and Gallows Humor.  Some might say this is politically incorrect, but such people are too blinded by career-oriented agendas to read between the lines or to see past their own projection.  It’s all in good fun, even if it is also a little bit, well, caustic.

It was past midnight by the time Daria pulled into the parking lot below the tall apartment complex. She had taken her time that evening in her photography studio, developing several wedding photos before finally making good on Kyle’s invitation to come over. The wedding photos were not an urgency for her. They were for Mr and Mrs Bentley, whom she had started to call Mr and Mrs Getbentley because of their nagging. She always came up with dismissive names for wedding photography clients. She resented such clients most of all.  Still, Daria did not want to drop what she was doing all at once because a boy had called her over for dinner. No, Daria was taking her time developing the wedding photos for their album, giving them their proofs piecemeal and taking pleasure in cutting their faces up for a collage with which to taunt them, like a kidnapper cutting out letters from various magazine ads for a ransom letter. Or perhaps she was more like a serial killer taunting police. The truth was that Daria held nothing but contempt for couples getting married, and resented having to work for them, especially for their weddings.
Daria did not bother to dress up. She wore a black sweater and blue jeans, a pink shade of lipstick, but no makeup otherwise. She had only started seeing Kyle a month ago and she wanted him thirsty and aware of who held the keys to the libido kingdom in the pseudo-relationship. That wasn’t to say that they never had sex—they had sex the first night they met at a mutual friend’s art exhibit after going to his apartment for wine—but she wanted him to know she had full control over the limited resource of her body and that he was not entitled to any of it even though he was a White cisgender male that made six figures a year trading stocks. The amusement park could close at any time, and often did. Last time she came over to his apartment she left prematurely because he wanted to watch a Jackie Chan movie. Totally boring. Hopefully, she thought, he learned his lesson or she would blue-ball him again.
Kyle had already given her card access to the apartment complex. She used it to get into the lobby and to take the elevator up to his floor. On the way up she felt some pressure on her stomach. She belched, her throat burning with bile, and she was glad she was the only one in the elevator. She carried no purse—being a 10th wave feminist—but she did keep a roll of Tums in her pocket. Her gastroenterologist said that Daria suffered from excessive acidity. She called it acidosis. Her gynecologist claimed the same thing, more or less. Too much alcohol, they said, and not enough alkali to balance it out. She told both of them that she ate plenty of cheese with her wine, but cheese also had lactic acid in it, or so they said. Sometimes her skin blistered and rashes bloomed on her knees, elbows, and forehead. She resented makeup, mostly, but used it whenever she had flare-ups. She felt like she was being dipped in acetic acid by someone who did not know the first thing about film development.
Then again, she also knew the bulimia did not help. Eating a carton of ice-cream and then force-vomiting afterwards left canker sores in her mouth. The sores hurt when she talked, which only made her angrier when she had to talk to people she disliked. And she disliked a lot of people.
Kyle had a posh apartment on the upper side of town. He had no taste for movies or art, Daria reflected, but he did have good taste for amenities and material comforts. There was merit in that, at least. And he had good taste in women, obviously, since he was so hopelessly head-over-heels for Daria. He was like a puppy dog around her. Too bad she was a cat person. Still, she thought him useful for passing the time.
The elevator opened and Daria stepped out, popping another Tums tablet into her mouth and chewing it as she walked the long, high-scale hallway that led to Kyle’s apartment. The silence attested to the quality of the apartment complex. Thick walls and solid doors. Someone could be screaming bloody murder and no one would hear it next door, above or below the apartment.
Daria came to room 512 and swallowed whatever bits remained of the Tums tablet. The acidic heat subsided in her throat and stomach. The bile ebbed. The card Kyle gave her to the lobby and elevator did not work on his room, which irritated her. But it was a ritzy apartment building so they had cards for everything. She hated door buzzers and chose to knock instead. Kyle fumbled with the chain a moment.
“I didn’t think you would show up,” he said, both nervous and giddy with apparent joy as he opened the door.
“You sure look like it,” she said, frowning at his boxers, black socks, and white T-shirt. “You getting ready to go to bed? That’s okay. I’ll just go out with some friends if you are tired…”
“No, no,” he said hurriedly. “I just thought it was too late for you to want to come over. I was watching something on tv…”
“Nothing pervy, was it?” she teased, albeit with a tone so flat that he could not tell the difference. Daria disconcerted most people this way, including her own parents when she spoke to them…which was rarely.
“No, just some old sitcoms,” he said. “I like to jump around. MASH. Seinfeld. Frasier…”
“Old White guys sitcoms,” she remarked with a frown. “Whining about their privileged lives.”
Kyle smiled uneasily. He had shaved, which Daria did not like. She preferred him to have stubble on his chin. Since his hair was black it gave him a very Bohemian shade to his look, even if it gave nothing to his milquetoast personality.
“I guess so,” he said. His awkward, nervous laugh died in his throat. “What do you watch for comedy?”
“Nothing before 2010,” she said, walking past him and into his apartment. She went to his living room, which was dark except for the glow of the television and the city beyond the windowpane. “Anything before that is just too Patriarchal for me to stomach.”
“Oh,” he said, closing the door. “I guess I’m not up to date on that stuff.”
She felt bile rising in her throat again.
“Need to use the ladies room,” she said lightly. “Be back in a second.”
Daria went into his bathroom and closed the door behind her. Looking into the mirror she saw, much to her chagrin, that her forehead was broken out with an angry red patch of psoriasis. It was reptilian in its scaliness.
“Should have used makeup after all,” she grumbled.
Her brown hair was pulled back into a stern ponytail. She undid the tie and let her hair fall to her shoulders. Her bangs covered most of the rash. If Kyle kept the lights off then he would not be able to see the rash. She ate another Tums and rinsed down the chalk with some water. The cool water stimulated her bladder. Sitting down on the toilet, she peed. Peeing burned down below and up into her lady bits.
“Great,” she muttered. “Yeast infection. Or a bladder infection. Maybe both, knowing my luck.”
Her gynecologist told her once that condoms could cause infections. Of course, pregnancy was a worse infection—in her estimation anyway—but she really wished men would get more vasectomies. One little snip and that was it. But their pride got in the way of progress. Daria had been known to castrate men with a quip, so it was all a normal procedure for her.
She waited until the burning, and the tinkling, stopped, then washed her hands and went out to the living room. She was annoyed to find that Kyle had turned the lights on.
“No,” she said. “Lights off.”
While Kyle turned the lights off, Daria sat on his leather couch in front of the huge widescreen television. The lights blinked off and Kyle tried to nonchalantly sit beside her—as if he wasn’t under the delusion that Netflix-and-Chill was always a euphemism for sex while throwaway programming cycled in the background.
“No funny business,” she said. “If this was a booty call I’d tell you.”
Kyle eased off of her, leaning toward his side of the sofa.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just…well…I like you a lot.”
“Course you do,” she said. “I am awesome.” She frowned at the television. “This? Not so awesome.” She held her hand up and Kyle surrendered the remote control. She cycled through the Netflix browser. “This looks pretty good,” she said, selecting an Indie art house film.
“I’ve heard the reviews aren’t great,” Kyle said reluctantly.
“Anybody with a keyboard and an internet connection can critique something,” she said, as if explaining to a toddler. “You can’t let other people tell you what to think.” She crossed her legs, kicking impatiently as her nether regions began to burn again. “Now be quiet and watch. You’ll enjoy this.”
But half an hour later and Daria was not enjoying the film anymore than the critics. It was a slow burn— like the burn between her legs and at the back of her throat—and it went nowhere. Yet, Daria’s pride would not let her turn it off. Kyle fell asleep a few times, and she even nodded off once or twice, finally succumbing to sleep at the forty-five minute mark. She woke up later, the credits rolling down the screen. She needed to pee again.
Rushing to the bathroom, Daria relieved herself. It was painful. The bile rose up in her throat again and she spat it into the toilet. Throat, mouth and vagina burning, she examined herself in the mirror. Apart from redness—and the rash on her forehead—she looked fine. She left the bathroom and rejoined Kyle on the couch. They cycled through the browser again, finding nothing. Neither of them was in a mood to watch anything anyway. Kyle yawned, which irritated Daria. She was ready to leave, but then Kyle spoke.
“I met one of your friends today,” he said. “Or ex-friends, I guess. Toni Bower. She’s an intern at the office.”
Daria never laughed, but she did smirk often, and she smirked expansively at this. “I always knew she’d become an office waitress. She sure as hell was a shit photographer.”
Kyle cringed. “Yeah, she seemed nice enough. At first, I mean. But then I told her I was dating you and she looked like I had ran over her cat.”
Why were you talking about me?” she demanded. “And we are not dating. This is just…hanging out with benefits. Sometimes with benefits.”
Kyle raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “She wanted to grab coffee,” he said. “I told her I had a girlfriend so she wouldn’t feel rejected. I thought I had a girlfriend,” he added, looking at a loss.
“That’s pretty presumptuous,” Daria said. “Of both of you.” She eyed Kyle coolly, quite irritated with him and with Toni. Daria had planned on dumping Kyle sooner or later, but now she couldn’t. She didn’t like the idea that Toni would be Kyle’s rebound girl. Toni, she thought, was a damn scraphound.
Leaning toward Kyle, Daria rested her head on his shoulder. He could not see her face, but she was smirking— smirking at him as much as at the thought of Toni Bower working as an intern.
“That bitch has some serious crabs downtown,” she said. “She sleeps with just about any dude with a guitar. He doesn’t even need to know how to play it. In college her panties would drop if she saw a dude with a pick in his hand. She’s basically just a groupie for loser guitarists.”
“You are so caustic,” he said.
“What can I say?” she said. “I am a soup kitchen of sarcasm, and everybody’s in line for a bowl. And that bitch deserves multiple servings. Shit photographer and a shit feminist, too. 3rd Wave washout. She’ll probably be knocked up by one of the janitors there by the end of the year. No, it will be worse. She’ll probably marry one of the janitors. She deserves as much.”
“Toni seemed nice, though,” Kyle said. “Really, she did.”
Daria shrugged with smug self-assurance, then took off her sweater. “You’d be real nice, too, if you would just fuck me and stop talking about Toni Bower.”
At least Kyle was good at foreplay, she thought. Her panties were gushing by the time he put his rubber on. She ignored the burning downstairs, even after he inserted himself and began to thrust away. He was average in every measure, so the burning was not exacerbated too much. For a while, at least. He even managed to give her a couple of decent orgasms, her vagina tantalized into gushing vengefully against the image of Toni Bower crying in a lonely corner of an office building. Daria hated that bitch so much that it made her horny.
It was just before Daria’s third orgasm that Kyle began to grunt and groan and make painful faces. At first Daria thought he was going to orgasm. That irritated her. How selfish! She considered herself a 10th wave feminist— far ahead of the curve— and she did not want a man to finish inside her without giving her what she wanted first. So, she pushed him off of her and, before he could say anything, grabbed him by his ears and dragged his face down in between her legs. She was so wet now. He began to convulse, but she did not let go; no matter how loudly he screamed into her pelvis. When she had finished shaking from her final orgasm she let him fall back, moaning in agony. She was so taken away by climax that she did not care. If the building was on fire she would have just laid there, satisfied and unconcerned. It was when he began crawling across the floor that she realized something was wrong.
“Don’t be such a baby,” she said. “Eating pussy never killed anyone.”
He mumbled something, weeping and pointing to his face and to his penis.
“I am not going to blow you off,” she said. “Go finish yourself in the bathroom.”
He was shaking with sobs now and she lost patience. Sighing angrily, she stood up from the couch and turned on a light. Blood streaked the floor where he had crawled like a worm. He tried to speak, but could only moan ineffectually. His tongue, and his penis, had been melted to bloody nubs.
“Okay,” Daria said, after considering him for a long time. “I suppose Toni can have you if she wants.  Better than a janitor, I guess.”

High Ambitions

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Maggie Greene walked through the school’s lobby, bold as hot molasses on cold grits. Many of the students were waiting in that old, dusty lobby, lingering outside their classroom doors until the clock struck 8:19. There were no warning bells in the Clayton Elementary school. It was an old tottering edifice that once housed nuns before they moved on to a bigger, and more lucrative, county. The clocks barely ran on time, if they ran at all.
Maggie stood, whereas the other students outside of Mrs. Clarke’s classroom sat, looking defeated by the clock and by the dread of another school day. It was Spring and many of them had grass and scuff and mud and manure on their boots. They all longed for Summer, even if it meant hard work for long hours on the farm.
“You got a shine today,” Laura remarked to Maggie.
“Summer’s comin’ up soon,” Maggie said. “And I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
“How’s that?” Laura asked.
“The fairies promised me I would,” Maggie said. Absently, she tucked a stray blonde hair behind her ear.
“Fairies?” Laura said. “You’re not talkin’ right.”
“I’m tellin’ you they said so,” Maggie said. “And the fairies keep their promises.”
By now several other students waiting by Mrs. Clarke’s classroom were listening intently to Maggie, and raising their own objections.
“You must of got kicked in the head by a cow,” Tommy Peterson said. “There ain’t no such thing as fairies.”
“There are, too,” Maggie said, looking with disgust at Tommy as he picked his nose. “They have wings and they fly around your head like horseflies. Only they don’t bite. They talk to you and tell you things.”
“You’re talkin’ about angels,” Brittany Blanford said, authoritatively. “Angels have wings and tell you things. They even save your life, if you’ve got a good soul. My momma says so.”
Maggie stood solidly in her belief, and no one could rock her with his or her opinion, even as more and more students gathered round to listen to her and to doubt her and question her.
“You wait and see,” she said. “I’m gonna’ have the loveliest flowers in all the county. It ain’t that hard, anyhow.  You just gotta’ get down in the dirt to grow good flowers. You got to use the right fertilizer. The flowers will do the rest of the work.”
The students were so caught up in Maggie’s talk that they failed to enter their classes at 8:20. Mrs. Clarke came out to fetch them, and to berate them.
“You children are supposed to have more sense than this,” she said, gesturing them inside as if she was corralling calves into a pen with her brawny arms. “Get on, now. We got your arithmetic to work on.”
“I won’t need to know no more,” Maggie boldly declared, the last to enter the class. “The fairies promised I am goin’ to grow the loveliest flowers in the whole county.”
Mrs. Clarke rolled her eyes. “Stop your nonsense, Miss Greene, and get on in there.”

***

At recess Maggie’s class went outside to play. There wasn’t much of a playground— only a field behind the old schoolhouse, or nunnery hall, and a few things to play with. Jump ropes. Kickballs. The grass was not maintained and grew riot to the knee. Wildflowers grew there, too, and many girls simply spent recess trying to outdo one another’s bouquets. Maggie normally tried, also, but saw no sense in it now.
“My flowers will be the loveliest in Clayton county,” she said while the other girls picked dandelions and phlox and whatever else they could find. “The fairies said so.”
The other girls scowled at her as they stooped and plucked at the stems. The sky was overcast above. Boys shouted and laughed and cried nearby, playing dodgeball or climbing trees at the border of the field.
“It ain’t so hard, really,” Maggie said, walking around with her nose held high. She looked like a prancing doe in a field of clover, too happy to notice the coyote sneers of her peers. “The earth’s got to settle just right,” she continued to say. “But you can’t be too upset about the outcome, otherwise you won’t appreciate what good all of your hard work’s done. Not every seed’s gotta’ grow up big. Sometimes it takes the smaller ones to let the bigger ones shine.”
“You talk all nonsense,” Laura said, plopping down in the grass. She was a tomboy, and so wore jeans instead of a dress like the rest of the girls. “You don’t know the first thing about growing flowers. You’re a do-nothin’ princess. You don’t like to work.”
Maggie’s smile did not falter even a moment. “But I won’t have to do nothin’ to grow my flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so. The flowers will do the growin’ for me.”
“And what kind of flowers are those?” Brittany Blanford demanded.
“Every kind of flower,” Maggie said. “Daisies and petunias and lilies and tulips and lilac. I am even going to grow orchids. The fairies promised.”
“Orchids don’t grow around here,” Brittany said. “My momma’s tried for a long time, but they never do right.”
“Your momma never had fairies promise her nothin’,” Maggie said. She was about to say more, but then she saw Billy Throne approaching. Maggie hated Billy Thorne. He was always teasing her and pulling her hair and slugging her arm and giving her kisses on her cheek. He had a fancy for her, and she had a disgust for him.
“What’s this I hear about you growin’ flowers?” he said, crossing his arms.
“Fairies said I will,” Maggie said, full of sass with her hands on her hips. “Loveliest flowers in the county.”
“You don’t know nothin’ about growin’ flowers,” he said. “You couldn’t even grow weeds.”
“Don’t matter what you say,” she said. “Fairies said I could. It’s the most natural thing to do.”
“Well,” he said with a grin, “I guess if that’s true then they’d be good for the wedding.”
“What wedding?” Maggie said, confused.
Our wedding,” he said. “You and I are gettin’ married.”
Maggie snorted. “That ain’t ever gonna’ happen. I got my flowers to grow. Nothing else matters.”
“We’ll see about that,” Billy said, grinning as he walked away.
“He ain’t ever gonna’ be my prince,” Maggie announced resolutely.

***

The schoolday passed slowly, as it always had done for the children in Clayton County Elementary. Eventually the time for studies was done, though, and the school let out. Maggie was happy and satisfied as she rode the bus home, staring out the window at the blooming fields of corn and wheat and wildflowers passing by.
“It’s a good time to start growing flowers,” she said. “The fairies said so.”
Maggie arrived home. Like the other Clayton county children, she lived on a farm. Her daddy was on his tractor, tilling a field so he could plant carrots and broccoli. He waved at her from among the drifting dust. She waved back.
Maggie met her mother in the kitchen. She was preparing that evening’s supper: cooking beans and biscuits and bacon and peas. She was stirring the beans in a pot.
“See to your chores, Maggie,” her mother said.
“They don’t matter anymore,” Maggie said. “The fairies said so.”
Her mother took instant umbrage. “Now you know better than to sass me, Margaret Greene. You are gonna’ do your chores or your daddy’s gonna’ tan your hide.”
“But the fairies said it doesn’t matter anymore!” Maggie said, wrenching her hands as if to grasp the reason that was so obvious to her and make it visible for her mother. “Nothin’ else matters except me havin’ the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county.”
Her mother shook her head slowly, ruefully, wrath written all over her sun-stained face. It was a face that had not smiled often in its whole life, and the mind behind it had had all childish thoughts and habits burned out of it with hard work and hard luck and hard labor out in the fields.
Maggie’s father came into the kitchen just then. His hair was soaked with sweat under his hat and his blue eyes gazed from faraway, as they always did when he had been working in the heat too long and he needed some cool shade, a nice chair, and a glass of lemonade. His wife brought him the latter as he sat down at the table and fanned himself with his hat. His hair was going white prematurely with work. After he had drank enough, and sighed enough, he grinned at the two most important women in his life.
“Now what’s all this arguin’ about?” he said lightly.
“Your daughter’s refusin’ to do her chores,” his wife said, pointing the bean spoon at Maggie. “And she’s gettin’ mighty high about it!”
“Is that so?” he said. He squinted at his daughter, taking the full measure of her. “But I’d say she hasn’t gotten too high. She’s still pretty short yet.”
Maggie laughed and her mother scowled.
“Joe,” his wife warned, “you need to take this seriously. Half of her problem is that you indulge her too much. My daddy would have belted me good just for speaking out of turn.”
“I know, Patty,” he said, “but your daddy was also one mean son of a bitch.” His smile slipped sideways. “Maggie, don’t repeat that.”
“I know not to, daddy,” Maggie said obediently.
“It’s not bein’ mean to discipline your daughter,” Patty said. “Life is mean, Joe, and if we don’t let her know it she won’t be ready for it. She’s gettin’ all sorts of silly notions in her head. Fairies and flowers? Life ain’t fairies and flowers!”
“The fairies are real!” Maggie said. “And my flowers will be the loveliest in all of Clayton county!”
Her mother was apoplectic with fury; she looked ready to smash the bean pot on the floor. Maggie’s father just chuckled lightly, then sighed.
“Those sound like some mighty high ambitions,” he remarked. He motioned for her to come sit on his knee. Maggie did so happily, for she was a daddy’s girl through and through. “How’d you get such mighty high ambitions into your head?”
“Because nothin’ pretty grows around here,” she said, looking sideways at her mother. “Momma even says so. But the fairies say it’s the easiest, naturalist thing in the world to do.”
“Nothin’ was ever done easily that was worth doin’,” her mother said. “And nothin’ worth doin’ was ever done to be pretty. That’s why flower gardenin’ is a waste of time, Maggie. All that soil and toil ought to be used growin’ useful things, like squash and radishes. Things that keep you from starvin’.”
“I won’t have to worry about starvin’ no more while I’m growin’ my flowers,” Maggie said.
Mother and daughter glowered at one another for a long silent moment. The dust motes swirling around the light through the kitchen window even seemed to feel the tension in the air, for they were sluggish with caution. At length, Maggie’s father spoke, breaking the silence.
“Go on outside, darlin’,” he said. “Your momma and I need to talk.”
Maggie hopped off of his lap and headed down the hall, toward the front door.
“And do your chores!” her mother called after her. She returned to stirring the pot of beans, and stirring her anger at her husband for the proper flavor. She began berating him before Maggie opened the door. “Damn it, Joe, you’re gonna’ ruin her! They already call her princess in church. What’s next? Queen? Her imaginary friends were embarrassing enough, but now she’s goin’ on and on about fairies! It’s that damn fairytale book you got for her.”
“Hey now,” her husband said calmly. “It’s good for her to be readin’. Maybe she’ll be able to get a better job with her readin’ than either of us could have.”
“Oh yeah,” his wife said. “‘Princess of the fairies’ sounds like a great job…”

Maggie left the house. She did not do her chores. Instead, she went directly into the woods. She knew the way by heart. She had been shirking her chores on the farm for weeks and coming to the glade to see the fairies in their ring of toadstools. If she had been sleepwalking or blind she would have known the way.
The fairies greeted her with enthusiastic laughter, flitting around her gaily. Their diaphanous wings sparkled in the scant rays of the sun that punctured intermittently the dense foliage and penumbral shadows. Their bodies were the colors of all kinds of flowers: tulips, daisies, lilies, roses, bluebells. Nearby a tree stood that was different from the oaks and ashes and elms. Red berries hung from it like jewels from the gown of a princess. Only birds could eat them, but many had been plucked.
“Is it time?” Maggie asked the fairies.
The little creatures nodded eagerly, every one of them grinning with mischief. Their grins glistened and their bodies glittered. Many of them were quite small, so it took several of them to carry the wooden cup to Maggie. They were not coordinated well, and the sour red liquid sloshed and spilled here and there. Maggie took the cup carefully from them. They all hovered around her, smiling in expectation.
“So I drink this and I can have the loveliest flowers in all of Clayton county?”
They nodded wildly, glancing sidelong with amusement at one another.
Maggie lifted the cup and drank it dry.

***

Maggie’s father found her just before suppertime. He scooped her up and ran to the house, sobbing and praying to Jesus to return color to her pale cheeks. She was announced dead at the hospital. They buried her in the Clayton Catholic Church graveyard the following Sunday.
It was said that the loveliest flowers grew up from her burial plot, but they all looked like weeds to those who loved her.

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Guts

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A bold, doe-crazed, bounding buck
came toward a fence fanged with barbed wire,
but instead of going around, he tried his luck
by leaping over what divided him from desire.

He caught himself on the coiled thorns of steel,
tearing himself open so that his guts unspooled and fell
to festoon the fence line to thereby reveal
his viscera unveiled from its ragged pell.

The does gazed at him briefly, then looked away,
grazing on grass as they had before—
although he had proven to them his guts that day
he had not proven him possessed of anything more.

The Houndmaster And The King

There was a King who loved the thrills
of hunting beasts with his black powder gun,
and though he boasted sole pride in his kills,
he employed many hounds, also, for his fun.
The King had a Houndmaster who served him true,
staying with the hunting dogs all day and night;
he treated the dogs like his own children, too,
teaching them to sit, run, stay, and never bite.
Yet, the King had his Houndmaster beaten
for each dog that failed in the hunt,
and if no game was gained, nought was eaten
by man or dog—by leader, breeder or runt.
In time the King tired of his old Houndmaster
and gave him one last chance to prove his worth
or else the Houndmaster would not last ere
the next day’s dawn bled upon the earth.
It was evening when the King decreed
that a Hart would be his to stay his wrath
or else the King would thereafter feed
the Houndmaster to his canine riffraff.
The Houndmaster looked at the collared ring
that bound his beloved dogs in hand,
and he remarked, “Power is a fleeting thing,”
before loosing the dogs to scour the land.
The hounds did well, chasing a flighty Hart
toward the King as he took careful aim,
and the biting bullet found the most vital part
to stop the soul and down the game.
But as the King dismounted to peer
at the crowned beast felled by his pride
the hounds circled round and round, drawing near
to take their share from within the hide.
“Get back, you beasts!” the King thus raged,
striking them with his gun’s wooden stock,
“or I shall have you whipped, starved, and caged!”
But out here the pack did not fear such talk.
The hungry hounds growled and paced
round the King whom they did not fear,
eyeing him as they did the Hart they raced
and licking their teeth with a strange leer.
The King realized his deadly isolation
and shouted for help from his old Houndmaster,
but he was trapped, despite his royal station;
however fast was he, the hounds were faster.
He attempted to remount his panicking horse
and flee the bloodthirst he had unwittingly whetted,
but the hounds beset him without remorse:
each meal denied was now a meal regretted.

Before dusk the hounds returned to the castle
to be leashed once again and brought inside,
so the Houndmaster took them, without hassle,
to the kennel, their stomachs satisfied.