The Modern Oz

The modern Tin Man is fueled by

snake oil,

having given away freely his

heart

for an Amazon discount

and a podcast peacemaker of

conspiracy theories.

The Scarecrow has lost his brain

in a broken trade deal,

having pawned it off to pay for

tariffs

while he stuffs the breadbasket with

soybeans,

laying down,

at long last, beneath his

thresher

to return to a simpler time.

The Cowardly Lion roars

with hashtags on Twitter,

Instagramming a fierce photo

while, between posts, shuddering

in the dark of his

lock-down apartment.

The Wizard sits on a

golden toilet

behind the puppeteer curtain,

vociferating loudly

like an orange talking head

to distract from the sounds he makes as he

drops another turd in the swampy toilet bowl,

refusing to flush it.

Dorothy, meanwhile, has been picking fights

with the little people,

accusing them of being

illegal immigrants

while she ignores the tornado of

historical currents

that had brought her to this golden city

upon a hill.

And the

Wicked Witch of the West

sips Tea Party tea,

caterwauling as her flying monkeys busily

troll online,

copy/pasting disinformation for

a ruble a post.

And poor Toto is nothing but

roadkill

splattered along the Yellow Brick Road.

(Non bene pro Toto libertas venditur auro).

Simple Life, Sinful Death

The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life.  The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees.  The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones.  The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes.  Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things.  And so he was contented.  His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.

 And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.

 As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple.  Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night.  He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain.  Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.

 But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders.  He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat.  He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden.  When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging.  He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.

 And his mind began to fail him.  He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned.  Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.

 And then the shadows began to come to him.

 They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer.  They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue.  The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue.  The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth.  The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.

 The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements.  He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes.  He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination.  He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.

 But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling.  They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.

 Simply staring.

 And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form.  They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.

 Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.

 Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself.  He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow.  Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself.  That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead.  It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.

  “You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward?  Aches and pains and old age. ”

 The old monk responded with a level voice.   “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”

 The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity.   “And yet you have not achieved Satori.  So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”

 Again the old monk replied with a level voice.   “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said.   “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”

 The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple.   “We shall see what answers you when given temptations.  Yes!  Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”

 The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng.  It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown.  No, two women!  They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them.  They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight.  They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands.  Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy.  The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.

  “You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said.   “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”

 The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire.  Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.

  “No, ” he said, his voice quivering.   “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”

 Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont.  The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.

 There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly.  Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple.  Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.

  “You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom!  Buy two!  You would live in comfort and . ”

 The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly.  Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.

 Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over.  He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been.  But he felt shame.

  “A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures.  Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap.  Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens.  Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”

 The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon.  The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled.  After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth.  The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.

 Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki.  It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron.  The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen.  Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.

 The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.

  “You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”

 The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know.  His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple.  The monk moaned silently, but did not move.  At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.

  “A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”

 The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously.  Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down.  Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.

  “So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked.   “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”

 He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind.  When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.

  “Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk.   “Choose to indulge or abstain.  It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care.  No one cares, except yourself. ”

 The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha.  With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.

 What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.

      ***

 It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple.  When he arrived he found it deserted.  There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds.  The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment.  The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next.  For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again.  He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor.  Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own.  Whose it was, he did not know.  When he glanced around, he saw no one.  Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.

 For a time.

Dead Dreams

Koi Moon

The lonely Koi in the pond

slowly swam unseen, unsung,

below the new Moon, beyond

all glimpses, alone among

a garden long neglected,

a house lost and forgotten,

and so the Koi reflected

on his little life, caught in

this clandestine little pool,

wishing to be with others,

to be free, or in a school

with his sisters and brothers,

just to swim broader waters,

to follow his own streams

and beget sons and daughters

and what he could of such dreams,

for he felt the subtle song

of the Moon, that coy mistress

and, thus, longed and longed ere long

she caused him much in distress,

for the Moon governs all fish

in pond, lake, river and sea,

and he felt keenly the wish

to be elsewhere—to be free.

Nonetheless, he died alone,

belly up in the small pond,

his deep dreams never his own—

hopeless as each new day dawned.

Fallen Leaves

In the smirksome depths of Saki

I find a handful of dead dreams:

some slips slipping out to mock me,

business cards and their stillborn schemes.

“Marshall Arts,” the little cards read,

with my phone number down beneath,

the cards now only serving need

as cheap bookmarks between each leaf.

I was once an entrepreneur,

both an artist and optimist,

who saw flowers in all manure,

but needed an optometrist.

I told myself I was sober

about my prospects and my “skill”,

but like a man in October

planting seeds when the winds go chill

I hoped an Indian Summer

would save me from the coming Fall,

but that proved me all the dumber

as leaves fell for a fallow haul.

Debt begets debt, lest we forget,

and excuses lose all value

as we spend them, more and more, yet

there is wisdom gained in one’s view,

meanwhile menial labors call

and these cards are but dreams deferred,

throwaway slips of paper, all—

my dreams dying still, word by word.

Chase The Horizon

The Zen master and the student sat on the steps of the monastery, gazing down the mountainside upon which the monastery sat.  The master’s face was serene, his forehead relaxed above his gray eyebrows.  The student’s brow was wrinkled with frustration, his young face troubled after a long morning of lessons.

“I do not think I can contain so much knowledge,” the young student said.  “It is too much.”

“You need only to broaden your mind,” the Zen master said, placidly.  “Then all knowledge and understanding can be contained.”

The student shook his head doubtfully.  “It is too difficult,” he said.  “There is nothing more difficult.”

The Zen master smiled sadly.  “Ah, but there is something much more difficult.  To broaden one’s heart.”

The young student frowned, perplexed.  “How so?”

“To broaden one’s heart, one must widen it to the edge of the horizon.”

The student shrugged, surveying the landscape that sprawled below the mountain, and stretched out to the forests and mountains beyond.

“That does not seem far,” the student remarked.  “A few miles at most.”

The Zen master chuckled.  “Then chase the horizon, young one, and broaden your heart.”

And, so, the young student did.  He chased the horizon the whole day, and the whole night, and slept the following morning.  Then he began again, following the horizon as it rolled ever closer and ever farther from him.  When he came to the sea, he took a boat, and when he came to another shore he walked once again.  To many places he came and went; many people he met and grew to know.  For three decades he chased the horizon, sometimes in haste, sometimes in leisure, and eventually he found himself returned to the monastery, standing before his much-aged master.

“Master,” he said, “I have returned, but I have not reached the edge of the horizon.  It eludes me even now.”

His master smiled proudly nonetheless.  “But how did your travels go?  Whom did you meet?”

“Many people, master,” the student said.  “People of all colors and customs and beliefs.”  There were tears in his eyes.  “Many friends whom I love as I would any brother or sister.”

“Then you have caught the horizon,” the Zen master said.  “For your heart now reaches from one horizon to the next, enveloping the world as a whole, and not just the small part where you are.”

The Zen master invited his student to sit down and drink tea with him, and to tell him of the people and the places he had come to know.  The student spoke happily all morning, and into the evening.  Other monks in the monastery sat down, too, and listened upon the steps that overlooked the world.

And as they listened to the student recount his travels—-student, now a master in his own right—-they felt their own hearts broadening from horizon to horizon also.

Editor’s Note

A good editor sacrifices the
author
for the story,
castrating the pride and ego
with an impassive scalpel
to sterilize the dominating old bull
so easily misled by his crown of horns;
a good editor
culls the herd
and promotes more virile progeny;
he
brings down the
slaughterhouse hammer
on the bullish head of
stubbornness,
letting the author’s vanity die
so that his stories may live, lest the
juggernaut rampage,
trammeling newborn calfskin
under haughty, overbearing hooves.

Suicide Is Painless

(Explicit Warning Sexual Themes, Violence, Language)

 

 

 

That suicide is painless

It brings on many changes

And I can take or leave it if I please…

Johnny Mandel

 

 

 The man in the hooded robe escorted Austen through the dark underground corridor of ancient stone, holding aloft a torch that licked at the vaulted ceiling.  The robed man said nothing, nor did Austen say anything.  The latter held his breath in nervous excitement and existential terror, and a little embarrassment.  His dream was about to come true, in a certain fashion.  And then his life would end, but wouldn t it end while he was young and happy, which was more than he could have expected if he lived a long, lonely life?

 A chill breeze wormed through the wet corridor, carrying strange whispers and echoes of times bygone and unguessed.  It smelled of damp earth and old bones and death.  Austen shivered, trembling in his hoodie and putting his hands in his jean pockets, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.  His ears were small, and underdeveloped, and unflattering, much like his chin or so he always thought.  To compensate for these weak features, Austen s nose was overly prominent, long and slightly hooked.  Pale blue eyes world-weary and insomniac stared sadly out from above that bold nose.  In highschool he was called Toucan  because of his nose.  The name stuck and when people thought of him, should they have thought of him at all, thought of him automatically as Toucan .  No one called him by his actual name; not even his teachers.  They did not talk to him at all.

 The stone passageway descended stone stairs.  Austen followed the hooded man until they came to a door.  It was an oddly modern door.  The robed figure beckoned Austen to the door, and so Austen turned the knob, opening of his own free will the door and leaving the ancient, dark corridor behind.  He entered a room bleached with bright white light.  Eyes adjusting as he stepped forward, he heard the door close behind him and went to meet his destiny.

 It was a waiting room, not unlike what he would have expected in a doctor s office or ambulatory care.  There were somewhat-comfortable chairs arranged around a room tiled in gleaming, checkered linoleum.  Some framed photos lined the walls, and paintings, depicting eldritch symbols and locations, such as the Plains of Leng and the tourist town of Dunwich and the Bermuda Triangle, and there were a few potted plants which breathed in the various corners of the room.  To the far wall was a door and beside the door was a large glass window behind which was partitioned the receptionist s desk.  To this Austen went first, unsure of himself (as always) and looking for reassurance.

  Hello,  he said meekly.   I…I m Austen Blackwell.  I have an appointment.

  Sign in,  said the hooded man behind the window.  He was busy doodling eldritch abominations on some scrap paper.  Without looking up he took a clipboard up and handed through the slot in the window.  A large stack of forms was bulging out from under the clip.   Take these and fill them out, signing where marked in green, and return them to me as soon as you are finished.

  Thank you?  Austen said, unsure what his response should have been.

 The hooded receptionist ignored him, focusing instead on drawing tentacles.

 Austen signed in on the arrival sheet, just in case, and then took the clipboard with its bulging stack of forms and went to a corner of the waiting room, taking a seat as far away from the other men in the room as possible.  There were several other men in the waiting room.  They were of various ages and ethnicities, but all of them seemed like they spent too much time stooped over a computer or a cellphone.  Several of them were stooping over their cellphones presently, or filling out the necessary forms.  Some were watching porn.  Austen could hear women moaning and gasping in various volumes while men grunted and groaned.  Others were looking through Facebook for women.

  Rachel Pennington was such a bitch in highschool,  someone said.   I can t wait to fuck her stupid.  Stick my dick down her stuck-up throat and cum till it comes out her nose.  See if she laughs at me then…

 Austen wondered about these men in this waiting room; wondered if he had communicated with any of them on the online forums and 4chan.  Maybe they were the faces for the familiar online names he had come to know on a daily basis.  Rejectotron79.  Incellularzzz.  Chadbitchboy45.  None of them posted photos online except when someone wanted to be roasted, and that was infrequent.  Austen thought about posting his own photo in the forum, just to confirm his own worst fears (that no girl on earth would want to date him, let alone marry him and reproduce with him), but he had chickened out.  He had scoured his own features enough to know, without phrenological debate, that he was a hopeless specimen.  He didn t need strangers to tell him what he had known since he was a child.

 Austen focused on the paperwork.

  Hey,  someone said.   What s yours going to be?

 Austen looked up.  A large man with freckles in a fat face smiled mirthlessly down at him, his glasses white circles of hot light.

  Audrey Hepburn,  Austen said automatically.  He wanted the ginger-haired man of an indeterminate age to go away.

  Classy and classical,  the ginger-haired man said.   But a little too skinny for me.  No tits at all, either.   He plopped down in the chair next to Austen s, pulling out a cellphone.   Look at mine,  he said, grinning slimily.   They re to die for, man.

 Austen humored him, hoping he would go away more quickly.

  See?  the ginger-haired man said.   I got several. You can have several, if you want. I m going to start off with Halle Berry.  Then go to Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and finish with Mariah Carey while she sings You ll Always Be My Baby .  See?  That s how you should do it.  Really go all out.  With a bang.   He smiled a far-off smile.   That s the way to go.  Go big.

  Man, shut up,  said another man in the waiting room.   Your spiel is getting old.   This man had a black beard, likely to cover what Austen suspected to be a weak jawline, and to make him appear older and more mature.   You re so beta you should have been born castrated.  Bragging like that, you probably won t even last past Halle Berry.  You ll cream your pants before you can even stick it in.  Then It will laugh at you, like all of the other girls who ve known you.

  Fuck you,  the ginger-haired man said.   You don t even want to share what yours is.  Probably because you re a pedo wanting to rape Shirley Temple.

  Fuck you, asshole,  the bearded man said.   I m no pedo.  You re just projecting.

 Another man creepier than the other two started chuckling.   I m fucking Veruca Salt,  he volunteered with a slanted grin.  He was in his fifties and bald with a large pate that rose like a hill atop his head.  He was overweight, his body swollen beneath his white T-shirt.   I don t give a shit who knows.  Won t matter afterward anyway.

  You re a sick piece of shit,  the bearded man said.

  A real sick piece of shit,  the ginger-haired man agreed.

  We re all sick pieces of shit,  the bald man said, unfazed.   I mean, It s not even human anyway, so you re all a bunch of sick fucks, too.  It s like beastiality.  You re fucking something that isn t human.

 There was an awkward silence in the waiting room.  Austen had tried to focus on his paperwork throughout this exchange, but now he stopped, his hand trembling as it held the pen above a list of check-boxes asking about allergies.  He was having second thoughts, not just about his singular choice of Audrey Hepburn, but the whole appointment.

 A hooded man appeared from within the inner door of the waiting room.

  Appointment #A4b269?  he called.

 A young man with dirty blonde hair rose, quietly, as if he could camouflage himself with silence as he hurried to the door.  He followed the robed man out of the waiting room.  Several of the men watched him go with a mixture of envy and dread.

  He s a hero,  someone joked, breaking the silence.  He whistled Taps for a moment, but lost the melody.

 The bald man resumed his argument from before, leering.

  It s not human,  he said, and so all of you are basically just goat-fuckers as far as I am concerned.  No better than me.

  It s not Shub-Niggurath,  the ginger-haired man said defensively.   Genetically, it can become anything.

  It can mimic anything,  the bearded man said.  He scowled at the bald pedophile.   Luckily for this sick fuck, otherwise I d fucking slit his goddamn pig throat for abusing kids.

 The bald fat man laughed.   Mr White Knight has a problem with me diddling little girls.

  I have a little sister, you asshole!

 The bald man smiled in oleaginous self-satisfaction.   But you re still going to fuck that Shoggoth, aren t you?

 The bearded man went silent.  He stared with a heated hatred at the bald man, but his scruffy jaw could not move in defiance of what he had said.  Austen watched it, rapt, feeling like he should say something on the bearded man s behalf, and on his own behalf, and to wipe that smirk off the bald man s face, but, as always, words failed him, his confidence failed him, and he went back to filling in information and signing his name in the green-markered sections.

  My little sister is not a bitch like most women,  the bearded man said at length.   She s like…what s her name?  Lucy from Narnia.  She s not a real woman yet, and so she s innocent.

  And that s why I like fucking them in the ass,  the bald man said.   Because they re innocent .

 The bearded man leapt up from his seat and dashed across the room, striking the bald man in the face.  His fist was small, and his wrist weak, and the bald man was large.  An audible smack slapped the air, but the bald man s face barely moved.  He stood up and grabbed hold of the bearded man s head within the crook of one arm.

  If I had a picture of your little sister,  the bald man said, I d show it to the Shoggoth and fuck It while It screamed your name.  You little bitch.  I might even show It a picture of you and fuck you in the ass.  You d like that, wouldn t you?  You little faggot.

 The bearded man struggled, red-faced and screaming in frustration and helplessness.  Eventually two robed figures entered the waiting room and separated the two men.  The bald man was relocated to one side of the room smirking with great satisfaction even as a welt rose on his cheek while the bearded man was relocated to the opposite side.  The latter stared in shame and humiliation down at his lap.  The robed men left.

  Hoo boy,  the ginger-haired man sighed.

 The next ten minutes passed in tense silence.  Austen continued filling out the forms.  It seemed like someone was playing a prank on him, so thick was the stack of papers.  He was on the page about deferrals for litigation and class action lawsuits when the inner door opened again.  A hooded figure called the next appointment.

  Appointment # 3R45u21.

 The bald man lurched to his feet, waddling eagerly toward the door.  He was sweating in anticipation.

  Veruca Salt s about to get it,  he said, leering.  He grinned at the bearded man.   I m going to fuck your little sister, too.

 He disappeared through the door.  A shiver of disgust went about the waiting room.

  Should be castrated,  the bearded man said, scowling.

  Pretty much will be,  the ginger-haired man said.   And then some.

  But he ll go out happy,  the bearded man said, which is more than he fucking deserves.

  Don t worry,  the ginger-haired man said after a while.   It s not really anything that can feel, anyway, whatever It s form is.  It s a biological construct.  It s like a Real Doll, but fancier.  More advanced.  A fleshlight made by the Elder Things.  It just…costs more.

  Yeah, an arm and a leg,  someone else said.   And everything else.

 The ginger-haired man nodded, his curly red hair bouncing.  He then shrugged with one shoulder, lazily.   None of us could get with a real woman, anyway,  They re too busy throwing their pussies away to Chads.  Dumb bitches.

  Fucking Nature, man,  another commiserated.   But at least I won t be involuntarily celibate  after today.

  Yeah,  said someone else.   You won t be anything at all, except, maybe, Shoggoth shit.

 Another fearful silence fell over the waiting room.  Austen s pen paused in the middle of a word.  He had forgotten what he was writing, his mind baulking at untold horrors.  The spell was broken all at once.

  I m going to fuck Tinkerbell,  someone volunteered, maliciously.

 The black-bearded man scoffed.   Man, your dick must be the size of a fucking peanut.

  It is,  the other guy said.   That s why no girl wants it.  But I bet Tinkerbell cries when I stick it in.  She better.  I wrote down that I want her to cry while I m fucking her.  And It s gotta do what you write down.”

Austen just so happened to come to the section concerning behavior.  He did not know what to write especially after hearing the guy talk about Tinkerbell so he just wrote Have a good time.

  Well,  someone else said.   I guess if you re going to go, you might as well go for weird freaky shit.  I mean, I m no Furry, but I was thinking about that one blue chick from that Avatar movie.  Ya know?  Or maybe one of the weird looking Star Wars chicks with the tentacles on their heads.

  They are fucking hot,  someone else agreed whole-heartedly.   But they re not Furries.  I mean, they re an alien race.  Not the same.

  There are aliens that are Furries,  someone else argued.   Chewbacca s race is nothing but Furries.

  They re Yorkie sasquatches,  the bearded man said.   So, yeah, they re pretty much Furries.

  But nobody wants to fuck them,  someone added, doubtfully. I hope they don t, at least.

  Oh, I m sure somebody does,  someone else argued.

  I think it s fucking nasty,  the ginger-haired man said.

  Don t kink-shame,  the bearded man said.   Mr. Mariah Carey.

  I m going with anime chicks,  another guy said, happily.   Rei from Neon Genesis.  And Lust from Full Metal Alchemist.

  That s a bit on the nose, isn t it?  the bearded man said.  But he was searching on his phone.   Maybe if I show It a video It can become Lara Croft.  From the old games, I mean.  But not the old, old games.  I don t like triangle tits.

  Yeah, I m going for Cammy, too,  the other guy said.   From Street Fighter.  And Chun Li.  That ass, man!  I ll probably go through the whole roster of Capcom women.

  Street Fighter sucks,  another guy said.   Dead Or Alive all the way.

  Tekken has some pretty hot bitches, too,  another guy said.

  Metal Gear Solid has the best,  a guy in glasses said.

  Jill Valentine!  the ginger-haired guy suddenly exclaimed, slapping his freckled forehead.  He feverishly tapped on his phone.   She s the polygon girl I want!

  Which version?  the bearded man said.

  All of them,  he answered.   Make a Jill sandwich  out of them.

 He waited, expectantly, for someone to laugh at his joke.  No one did.

  Five out of five S.T.A.R.S.,  he added, glancing around with a desperate grin.

 No one laughed.  They were too busy scouring the internet to add to their wish lists.  But Austen remained fixated on one woman and one woman only.  He signed his name several more times, dedicating his life to the Old Ones and waiving all potential legal recourse his family might attempt against the Eldritch Sect.  By the time he made it halfway through the stack, the man who spoke of Tinkerbell was called.  He went eagerly.  The remaining men watched him with a mixture of envy and dread on their faces.

  Oh hell,  the ginger-haired man said.   I might as well add Taylor Swift to the list.  I mean, you only live once, right?  It s not like I have to listen to her sing.  She doesn t have to make any noises at all, if I don t want her to.

  Yeah, the perfect woman,  a new arrival said, taking a seat.   Only talks when you want the bitch to.

  Only, she s not a woman,  the ginger-haired man said, smiling sardonically.  He adjusted his glasses.   Just a biologically engineered simulacrum.  None of us could get a real woman.  That s why we re here.

 Silent nods all around.

 

 Austen finished his paperwork, then turned it in at the receptionist window.  He was given an appointment number on a ticket and told to wait until he was called.  He found another seat in another corner, farther from the gregarious ginger-headed man.  As he passed one man he happened to glance at someone s phone.  The man was scrolling through images of reptilian women and vulpine women and bovine women, all quasi-humanoid and naked and bestial.  He felt embarrassed on the stranger s behalf, btu the stranger did not seem to care who saw.  Even so, it made Austen feel more disgusted with himself.  He sat down and watched clips of Audrey Hepburn and her various movies.  He had a bad taste in his mouth, and throughout his whole being.

 The bearded man was called back, and then the ginger-haired man, and various others.  Refreshments were offered by hooded acolytes, as well as alcohol and drugs to ease the normal nervousness of the appointment.   Austen took no drugs, but he did drink water.  His throat was very dry.  His stomach was full of frenzied butterflies.

 And then the inner door opened, and the hooded acolyte called Austen s ticket number.

  U352j6t?

 Austen found himself frozen in his chair.

  U352j6t?  the hooded man repeated impatiently.

 Austen s body rose stiffly and he went to the door, feeling a strange sense of detachment from himself.  It was not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather the same disembodied feeling he had whenever he had been humiliated in school or rejected by a girl he had asked on a date, his tongue fumbling over the words.

  Me,  was all he could say.

 The acolyte escorted Austen down another stone corridor leading deeper into the earth.  The air became chillier, and the smell of soil stronger.  The walk was long, and the corridor had a few doors along its walls, some open to reveal other hooded men sitting around, smoking and drinking and talking.  Thee corridor and these rooms were illuminated by modern lighting.

 At length, the corridor terminated at a single door.  The acolyte opened this door and, without further ado, beckoned Austen in.  Austen went in, more out of obedience than real desire, and the door shut behind him.  He was alone in the room, or so it seemed.  There were no exits.  It was a dead end.  Dark and cool, it.  No trace of the others that had come before could be seen.  There was a king-sized bed in the middle of the room, and nothing more.

 Except yellow eyes.  They glowed in the shadows of a corner. They reminded him of owl eyes.  They came forward, presenting a perfect facsimile of Audrey Hepburn s slim, petite, and utterly graceful personage.  It smiled  that small, restrained, pixie-sort of smile that Austen had seen in many of her movies and he felt his heart melt within the credence of the illusion.  Her chocolate brown hair was pinned back in a  ponytail, her bangs modest above the bold strokes of her eyebrows, all accenting her lovely forehead and her elfin features.  She wore a simple white blouse, a rippled Midi skirt, and a silk scarf tied around her fawn-like neck, much like on the movie Roman Holiday .

  Hello, Austen,  It said with perfect intonation.   How do you like me?  AmI not simply the most picturesque idol of fancy and form?

  Yes,  was all Austen could say.

 It smiled with Audrey s small, almost-secretive smile.   I love how polite you are,  It said, starting to strip off It s white blouse.   And so well-mannered.

 He had specified It s attitude, It s dress, and her loquaciousness on the forms, but there was a note on the form that said It would respond in realtime to whatever whim or suggestion demanded of It.  And so Austen spoke up.

  Not so fast1″ he said, waving his hands.   Don t…don t undress yet.  I just want to…to talk for a while.

 He took It by the hands, awkwardly, and led It to the bed, sitting It down.

  As you wish, Austen,  It said, smiling that pixie smile that had left him staring idiotically so often when watching Audrey Hepburn s old films.   What would you like to talk about, dear?

 Austen baulked.  This was the same feeling of crisis he had felt whenever he had ever wanted to talk to a girl.  It was like being plunged into the middle of the ocean, and not knowing how to even doggie-paddle.

  What…what do you want to talk about?  he asked, desperately.

 It titled It s head to the side, arching her slender neck like a curious bird.   Oh, but whatever you wish to talk about, dear!  Very much so!

 Again Austen was flummoxed.  He was no Humphrey Bogart.  He had no natural rapport with women, or most people for that matter.. He did not possess the cool, casual ease of conversation that Bogart, and most other Hollywood men, seemed to possess.  He would have rather spoken to a hungry lion than a pretty woman.  Either way, he told himself, he would have been torn to shreds, but at least the lion would seem happy about it, and satisfied.

  How…?  he began.   How do I talk to women?

  Well, that is quite the question!  It remarked, batting its eyes in mock-astonishment.   With your tongue and your mouth and your vocal cords, naturally.

 Austen sighed in frustration.   No, I mean how do I talk to them copesetically?  Competently?  How do I speak to them without feeling all flustered and knotted up inside? And without fucking everything up?

 It s yellow eyes never blinked fully, but It batted It s eyelashes again and reached for his belt buckle, starting to strip off his pants.  Austen pulled away from It, standing up.  Pacing back and forth across the dimly lit room, he stared at the floor.

  Is there any woman that would want me?  he begged the air.   I don t even want to be me.  That s why I m here1″

 The thing imitating Audrey Hepburn silently watched him pace, her head rotating automatically as she followed him with her yellow eyes, like a cat watching a mouse.

  It s so unfair!  he moaned.   There are guys born to look better than me and stronger than me and smarter than me!  I can t even roleplay with you because I am still me!  I don t even want sex!  I just want to have tea with you and maybe dance together!  Maybe kiss.  But I can t dance, and I definitely can t kiss worth a damn!  I ve never kissed anyone before, except my grandma!

 It stood up, then, and took him with a powerful grip by the shoulders, pulling him to It, and kissing him.  He started to cry and tried to push her away, but It was too strong.  It pulled him toward the bed.

  No!  he yelled, yanking himself away from her.   Audrey wasn t like this!   He shook his head, and wiped away the tears in his eyes.   She wouldn t…she wouldn t have liked me at all!

 Anger flashed across his face and he shoved It onto the bed, It s skirt undulating open to reveal pale legs and white panties.

  Maybe I should fuck you!  he snarled.   Maybe I should just bang your brains out and let it end all at once!  No one would miss me!  I wouldn t even miss myself!

 His anger dissolved into self-pity and sobs as he staggered back, leaning against a wall. He did not even see It take off It s panties and lay back, gyrating It s hips gratuitously.  Austen glanced at the intimacy revealed in all its falsity and turned away.

 Still crying, Austen headed to the door.  The acolyte was surprised to see him.

  Sir, you cannot leave without…   He saw Austen s tears and snorted.   What a beta.  Go, then, you little simp.

 Austen headed down the long corridor, weeping as he went.  He came again to the waiting room.  Opening the door, he saw new faces through his tears.  They sniggered, cruelly, and mocked him.

  Little limp-dick.

  Baby.

  Beta bitch.

  Simp.

  Couldn t even go through with it.

  Go suck Chad s giant dick, you fag.

Austen left through the long, stone corridor eventually emerging into a moonlit night.  He walked slowly, staring over his hooked nose at his penguin-shuffling feet.  His belt was still unbuckled and jingled as he walked.  He was too sad to care.

 

      ***

 

 Austen met Becky one day while at the public library.  They were looking through the Graphic Novels at the same time, and by a strange chance struck up a conversation.  Neither could remember who spoke first, but they found the conversation easy and addictive.  Becky was tall, and a little chubby, and had a round face with flat lips.  But her smile was pretty and she was nice to him.  She did not mind his hooked nose or his scrawny arms.  She liked his voice, she said, and his eyes.  She looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn, and Austen was all the happier for it.

The Sweep Of History

On curtains, corners, chairs, and table cloth,

amassed together in piles, or diffuse,

powdery like the wings of a white moth,

the dust is swept; a sad thing of disuse.

I dreamt, last night, that I met John McCain

in the Oval Office, a dismayed ghost,

and though dead, the man was also in pain;

I tried to calm him, like a concerned host,

for there was a tyrant in those great halls

that pushed about the men who had served us,

commanding them all like impotent thralls,

however small or great, with idle fuss—

it was the bristles of a careless broom

that went sweep, sweep, sweep, left, right, to and fro,

apathetic as it cleared that proud room

of history’s fallen, as the winds blow.

“I voted for Barack,” I told him, then,

and he did not seem to mind much, for I said

that I admired him for all the times when

he put America in his own stead.

He nodded sadly and vanished as dust,

and I woke to tears trickling down my cheeks,

for the tyrant sweeps aside what it must

to make space when the vox populi speaks.

 

Personal Note: I have not always agreed with John McCain in the past, whether it was in pursuit of war in the Middle East or his desire to engage Russia in a war for Ukraine.  He was always too much a War Hawk for my inclination.  That said, he had principles, and he was a man who thought the greatest honor was to serve.  I am still grateful for his attempts with John Kerry at passing Campaign Finance Reform in the United States.  Alas, Mitch McConnell would not allow the bipartisan bill to reach the Senate floor and so we have, in this country, legislation that is written by Corporations rather than by legislators who are premised in looking after the best interests of the United States.  Even so, principles matter.  Morals matter, even if they amount to no more than dust in a corner of a once-proud office now brought to ruin.  And when I saw John McCain give the Senate the crippling down-vote against the Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, I had never felt so proud of a man who I had, shamefully, vehemently disliked during his campaign against Barack Obama.  Tribalism is destroying the United States.  Trump is destroying the United States, also, by sullying its reputation and demonizing its diverse demographics, just as he demeaned John McCain as a human being.  And, yes, I did, in fact, have this dream as recorded above.  Naturally, it was not in meter, and was much sadder than mere words could ever express.  And I admit, without shame, that I did wake up with tears in my eyes, for not only John McCain, but for the United States and for humanity as a whole.  Tribalism—being a sin of my own—will destroy our species someday, unless principles guide us upon a better path.

Reflections

As you grow old, then older,

the waking world seems less real,

the new Summers are colder

and there is less you can feel.

You lose more loved ones each year,

(those most sacred anchor points)

and life drifts far, death draws near,

his claws deep in creaky joints.

Waking life is like a dream

and you dream of things now gone—

the years long past which now seem

truer than any new dawn

till you think this world untrue,

a dream from which none awake,

all things drifting far from you

like waves on a restless lake.

Now watch!  The ripples reflect

a mirrored world solely known

as that which we must reject

for the distortions thus shown—

distortions of the essence

twisting memories askew,

images making less sense

and bringing nightmares anew.

Waking world, you’re for the young

while the old see what’s not there:

a foggy looking glass hung

above a stained napping chair.

Celebrity Half-Life

Lost in social media solipsism

lost between all selves, the dividing schism

of identity seen through Photoshop,

man and woman distilled as proto Pop;

forged from flesh and digital revision,

splitting essence, influencer fission.

Two lives in parallel, but neither true

on either side of the camera view;

master and slave being one and the same,

a false character under a screen name

that separates and grants immunity,

posting and hosting with impunity

while burning bridges beyond the firewall,

forsaking dial-up life like a thrall

enslaved to the clicks and the hashtag brag,

a doppelganger suffering jetlag

as they try to keep up with their own trend,

millions of followers, but not one friend,

turning up the wi-fi hi-fi volume

of fickle, fleeting visitors, all whom

glance over their sprawling media flow

that gushes everywhere, yet shallow

and so dissipating in the next wave

of celebrity summer, for they crave

always what s fresh, what s Hip, the next new rage

deftly curated on his or her page

until boredom, noise, or distraction drives

them elsewhere, the ADHD half-lives

dissolving all such idols to mere rust,

as with all that cycles from boom to bust,

leaving them with themselves, so that they feel

split by the screen between online  and real

Veilluminous

Veil, vellum, luminous

such words may bloom in us

insight, a needful light

to burn throughout this night.

Beneath my escritoire

and the candlelit noir,

shadows darken, bleeding

like these words, quill needing

to carve shadowy ink

to trace the things I think,

scrawling truth with such lies

as revealed with veiled eyes;

to dream awake what is within

dark and light, black ink on calfskin.