by Adam “Bucho” Rodenberg
In an abandoned office building across the street from a café, a man sits patiently at a window, waiting. The room is devoid of furniture, but walls shellacked with weeks-old bullet holes surround him. The building is a skeletal carcass of the skirmishes that have grown in number over the past months.
No one has come to clean the building, nor will they ever. The smart and the fearful have already fled the city. The dumb and the fearless remain, sometimes at odds with each other, sometimes hand in hand. Avarice, vice, persistence, and sometimes the rare bit of true altruism…these are what run the city now. These are what have caused the gaping chasms across the neighborhoods.
Singed papers lay strewn about, tinged with black and faded map-orange along their edges. Light fixtures hang like dead limbs from the ceiling, creaking in the breeze from open windows elsewhere in the shattered office. The smell of concrete and copper permeates the room, but the man doesn’t care. He’s been around more blood than has pooled up and dried on these carpeted floors.
The blinds of the window are pock-marked with holes as well, but still allow a veil of secrecy. A telescope, with microphone attachment stands, pointed down at the café through one of the largest gaps in the abused slats. Wires from the microphone dish spill out onto the floor, coil up and then snake over to a makeshift table where they insert themselves into a lightweight, but expensive, recording device. The man travels light. At the first sign of a problem, all but the digital camera in his hand and the recorder can be left behind. Take what’s important, leave what’s irrelevant. A thing is a thing and most often replaced, but information is invaluable.
He checks his watch; the client won’t arrive for another half hour, so he gets up and moves around. A chair in the corner lies on its back with cushion stuffing spilling out from the seat. It’s hard to see the dried blood on the seatback against the deep mahogany color, but it’s there in brownish puddle stain. Cloudy daylight spills across the surfaces of broken doors hanging on a single hinge.
On the back wall, a hole slightly larger than his head. It is ringed by paint melt and sludge singe, an imperfect circle that shows him the hallway, the office beyond, and another hallway beyond that. The wall there is blackened and soot-tarnished and he imagines he can smell the screams of whatever rocketed through the clutter.
In the next room over, a corner office missing two walls. There is no sign of any carpet having been here other than the dirt and dust that spirals around in tiny wind devils.
This destruction is the new reality. This is how one comes full circle as long as you can stomach it.
He sits back down near the window and waits.
She used to say that revolution could come from birdsong in the morning, that it could be done through propaganda. She said revolution, more often than not, came from pulling a single metal pin and setting the world on fire for an evening. “Imagine the Earth,” she’d say in that far off voice, as if she were imagining it herself. “Now think about flames licking their way up from the southern hemisphere. Forget how much heat it would actually take to set the South Pole on fire and just picture it burning the world like an old map from the bottom up. Fire brings death, death brings life, and hopefully we get it right the next time around.”
Like most mornings in the city, the day was mausoleum quiet. The random sound of thunder across town never portended rain (which hadn’t come in months), but instead warned of another skirmish somewhere nearby. A car exploding, a firecracker distraction, a gas station imploding from below, a building finally giving way beneath a throttled foundation. Today, however, only the sound of my dress shoes clip-clopping across debris-littered sidewalks and crumbling parkways echoed up and out against the buildings still left standing like half-burned cigarettes. The echo came back sideways and off, sounding strange and screechy against my ears. The sound unnerved me, made my spine tingle improperly and my palms moistened. Just being out in the open made me skittish. Why in the world had I decided to wear a suit today?
Habit, of course. I’m from the old guard. Up until the world had capsized and decided to feed on itself, I remained persistent in being well-groomed and well-dressed. The generations that followed after me had lost that sense of style, that sense of class that men were supposed to carry on their shoulders once they were done making the mistakes of being uneducated adolescents. So much so that even when I had a housekeeper, I would starch and iron my own dress shirts, buff my own shoes at the end of every day, and lint-rolled each suit by hand.
Order. Routine. These things that I depended on became obsolete once the populace revolted against the faceless machine of the city, a machine that I had become a part of over the years. I hadn’t worked so hard for decades only to watch it disintegrate before my eyes, no. Who were they to say that I had been wrong in building up my small empire just because they were incapable of doing the same? Were they lazy? Unintelligent? I don’t know and never truly speculated that deeply on the matter, but I stayed when everyone else left, when they jumped off the sinking ship of commerce and let it rot at the bottom of this concrete ocean I walk across now.
I had a towncar once. And a driver. These were niceties I could afford and I enjoyed them both. I remember when you could actually drive down these streets, when they were clear of stonework and chaos but full of the dirty and unclean, always with their hands out as if I had the power to save them all. By that time, money was irrelevant and people dealt in drugs, death, or information. If you didn’t have one of those, you either left the city or you died beneath its crumbling edifices. I don’t know that I’d ever want to know the true number of the dead hidden under so much rubbled concrete.
I turned a corner and saw the café several blocks down. The wrought-iron furniture out front seemed out of place, cozy and casual, against the backdrop of the crumbling edifices surrounding the shop. I ducked into a darkened doorway and waited, watched, slowed my breathing down to nothing and chameleoned myself against the rough brick wall in the dark. If I had learned one thing over the years, it was that playing the slow game was always the smart bet.
She slalomed the bike quickly through an alleyway, riding away from the explosion behind her. Molls had set the timer wrong, had gotten too antsy to watch something burn as if they’d never have another chance to make that happen. Had she not had her bike, she would have been so much blood and skin pollacked on the wall just like Molls. Stupid, stupid Molls.
The problem with true revolt is that it, too, can be infiltrated by the wrong people. People so hell-bent on ideology that they never see the moment as part of a larger history or take the time to weed out the misinformation from the truth.
This is why she had moved up in the ranks of the faux army; she understood both concepts better than most of the older folks who had been fighting longer, the ones who had lost more than she had ever conceived of losing in her lifetime. While they sat around makeshift barrel fires swapping origin stories and overly biased opinions, she had kept her history quiet. An interloper by their standards, there was no way she would ever earn their respect if they had known about her upbringing, so she remained quiet and loyal. Diligent. Always the first to volunteer as a new angel of death.
They gave her missions, she came back victorious.
They gave her a gun, she came back with an arsenal.
They gave her explosives, she made them bigger and louder.
The thick clinking of metal in her shoulder-bag reminded her to slow down. Full of tweaked grenades acquired in a previous skirmish, it was good that Moll had passed the bag onto her before setting the charge. They were too valuable to have been lost in such a shoddily completed mission. A weapons cache was a hard thing to build up, much less stumble across these days. One only needed to look at the city to see that so many had already been used. How much could be left now?
She had become their scythe-wielder, their black-veiled goddess of the night, their hell on wheels.
She turned down an alleyway and saw part of the café. She stood her bike up next to a demolished trash bin and walked the rest of the way, always looking up and around for trouble as she kicked the rubble out of her path absent-mindedly.
She said she felt dirty here and still did on occasion. “I got used to the money just always being there, being around me. After awhile, even the trees smelled like greed and I had to go. That was when I realized I wanted to do something more than consume for selfish reasons. I want to conceive for selfless reasons now.”
“You just want to watch the world burn.”
“No,” she said. “I want to watch it grow back into something real. I want to take from those that don’t deserve it and put it in the hands of those that do. We stand in the middle of the era of inevitability. This is how things end. This is how it’s supposed to be. This is how things will continue to be until we’ve turned the tide of unreason back into something that works for everyone.”
“And what of the people? You can’t eliminate them all in the name of some abstract cause. You aren’t the only ones with answers.”
“No, but we lack complacency.”
Down at the café, the client arrives and sits at the agreed upon table. It is not so much a café as it is an old bookstore with wrought-iron tables and chairs out front and a barely working coffee machine inside. A meeting place for the wary and the suspicious out in the open, right in the middle of madness. The man sits up, adjusts the microphone and begins snapping pictures. The client wears a suit and nice shoes. A ridiculous outfit considering the setting. He will most likely find himself buried in it, but only because he will most likely die in it.
The girl approaches on a bike from the west. She rides close to the walls in the few shadows that splotch the street. She is smarter than the client in this way. She is dressed to move and move quickly. Even the bike shows better planning than the client’s own desire to walk here on his own.
The man snaps pictures of the girl. He snaps pictures of the client. He puts the digital camera down and takes a bite of the warm sandwich on his lap. A breeze wails through broken windows and fractured blinds, the haunted moan of a dead city and a dying populace.
The girl sits across from the client. A younger man brings them both coffee and scurries back inside the bookstore, shutting the door behind him. They drink. She smiles. The client does not.
The patchy shadows of clouds above the café patio washed her face – first in dark, then in light. It was hard to tell what she was thinking as her smile seemed to change with the elements. She sipped her espresso. I made fun of her for the pinky she always extended when drinking. “An old habit from my younger years,” she’d say, as if protesters and firebugs had no place growing up in the upper echelons of society.
I could feel the coffee thickening against my teeth and immediately wished for a toothbrush. “So what’s in this for you?” I asked quietly.
She set her cup down on the saucer, a sound like heavy coins falling into a glass jar. “I get the notoriety I need, you get an automatic way to make a change. My people will believe they’re making a difference and you get a second chance. It’s a win-win for everyone as long as there’s no one inside when we make our move.” She stared at me, waiting for my eyes to give her the go ahead.
“Will you need my assistance if anything goes awry?”
She shook her head and grinned. “We’ve gotten pretty good at making our own exits. Plus, we don’t want there to be any ties linking us together. A clean break makes for fewer places for them to explore,” she said getting up and grabbing her satchel. “You remember how to leave me the message?” she asked.
I nodded as a camera click-click-clicked from the building across the street. My own quiet insurance plan in case anything happened. I am a businessman after all.
“Until then, I suppose,” she sighed. “Bye, Dad.”
Adam “Bucho” Rodenberg is a novelist graduating from the USF MFA in Writing Program. He welcomes your comments at dj_bucho[at]yahoo.com.
photo by Mark Kelley
by Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal
To be the sweet-voiced
quetzal bird singing
songs of the heart…
Would the fumes intoxicate me?
I grieve for our earth.
I see it destroyed in dreams
as the quetzal bird weeping.
I am angry in my dreams.
The stars are smoking hot
in my dreams of destruction.
Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal is a California-based writer. He welcomes your comments at cuatemochi[at]aol.com.
photo by brettocop
by Clyde Liffey
The doorbell’s ring – I didn’t even know it still worked – interrupted what had begun as one of the best afternoons of my life. Karen harrumphed.
“Do you have to answer that?”
The bell rang again, followed by some loud raps on the door.
“I’m afraid so. Besides, I wilted.”
She slowly dismounted, trudged around the room looking for her clothes, disappeared into the bathroom with most of them. I glanced behind the couch: the curtains were only half-closed, they were still at the door. I fumbled for the remote on the end table next to the couch, found it, turned off the football game, and took a swig of beer, warming in its can. Fortunately my pants were still near my feet where I had left them.
Still shirtless I answered the door.
“Who is it?” Karen called from the bathroom.
“I don’t know. Jehovah’s Witnesses, I guess, though I don’t see any Bibles.” The well-scrubbed young men in front of me wore neat V-neck sweaters over their shirts and ties. Each carried some kind of ledger and a stack of pamphlets. The taller of the two – he looked familiar but I couldn’t remember where I saw him before – was looking in the direction of the bathroom.
“We’re here to talk about this Tuesday’s election,” the shorter man said. “May we come in?”
I regarded the disordered clothes scattered about the floor in front of the couch, the empty beer cans strewn near the end tables, the overflowing ashtray on the table nearer the door. I saw a few brown oak leaves, the last of autumn, scudding behind them in my ugly front yard.
“I’m a little indisposed at the moment. We can discuss our business here.” I rested my hand on the doorjamb.
The taller man regained his composure. I noticed they both wore their straight black hair combed back from their pale foreheads.
“We’re here to discuss the election. Our father is running for County Comptroller. As you know our county has run up a sizable debt in the past few years. These pamphlets explain how he’ll implement a plan to reduce that debt and lower your taxes, especially your real estate taxes.”
“I rent this place.”
We were interrupted by Karen’s arrival in the front room. She looked at the taller man, then the shorter. “Mitt? Tim?”
“What kind of name is Mitt?” I asked, trying to recall my disused German.
Karen frowned. “Mitt is short for Mitchell – my maiden name, his middle name.”
“What are you doing here?” Tim asked.
I looked over at Karen and she looked past me to the leaves in the yard.
“Your father spends a lot of time campaigning,” she said. “I got bored one night and went out for a drink.”
Here we go, I thought, and I would have liked to explain how this was my ex-wife’s weekend with the kids, how I met Karen last month at a bar, that sure she was a more than a few years older than me but she was funny and a good lay, but Karen kept on talking.
“I know he’s short and not even good-looking but he’s younger than me, attentive, and,” looking down at me, “he holds out a little longer than –”
“Is this serious?” Mitt, I think, asked.
“Ha! Of course not.” The other one said.
“Our poor dad. He would never.”
Karen narrowed her eyes.
“What about the fundraiser tonight?”
“I have plenty of time to get dolled up if one of you handsome young men will give me a lift.”
“Will he say anything?” Mitt’s jaw indicated me.
Karen placed an affectionate hand on my shoulder. “My John,” I’m not sure why she couldn’t remember my name, “won’t say a word.”
“Of course not.” I shivered as a sudden gust of wind blew some more leaves around the yard.
The boys followed my gaze, reconnoitering the area, wary of photographers or anyone who might recognize their mother. Not likely, I thought, not in my low-rent neighborhood.
Karen gathered her things. She semi-furtively blew me a kiss on her way down the lane.
I peeked at the photo of the happy family on the cover of the top pamphlet.
Clyde Liffey lives near the river.
photo by Bedtime Champ
by John Grey
The felling, the chopping,
the gathering has all been done.
The wood’s stacked up
at the back of the house.
It’s dampened by rain.
It’s dried out by the sun.
It’s chilled to the bone,
swollen by the heat.
It’s privy to the peculiarities
of this northern weather.
On a fall day,
the trees, the pastel colors
of a grandmother’s dressing gown,
the wood feels the touch of one leaf
then another, then a cluster of
of these dying beauties,
until it’s buried in debris.
When the winds start
blowing in from Canada,
it’s hauled into the house,
an armful at a time,
dropped down by the hearth,
ready for the match,
the bits of paper, kindling,
the tools of the fire-starter’s trade.
Eventually, the wood burns,
splits its fate between
smoke up the chimney
and ashes in the grate,
all in the name
of a house’s abiding warmth.
The axes are sharpened.
Soon it’s time for felling, chopping,
A year of a family
has ten thousand story tellers.
This time it is the wood’s turn.
John Grey is an Australian born poet and US resident since the late seventies. He works as financial systems analyst. Recently published in Xavier Review, White Wall Review and Writer’s Bloc with work upcoming in Poem, Prism International and the Cider Press Review.
photo by bildungsr0man