Goodbye Jim Harrison

Where are you now? Because I know even a dead man floats. You nearly outlived us all. You stuck it out when others gave in, and you came out on the other side. Is it warm enough for you? You never could quite decide which weather you liked best. Michigan, Arizona, Montana. Cold, hot, somewhere in-between. Wherever you are I bet they have good food. You should’ve been a chef, but you decided to be a poet. Just about the same. Your poems could make a broke man rich and a rich man fall to his knees to lick the dirt. Man, you could make any dad in America like poetry. You’re the Trout Fishing in America Poem King. Where are you, Jim? With your wife whom you wrote about with love? Send us a signal. Here, here is a totally uncontrollable river for you to watch over and keep an eye on. Send us a signal. There you are. Here is something beautiful. Man, Jim, you’re so good you could make a blind man see.

Jack C. Buck, originally from Michigan, lives in Denver, Colorado, where he is a public school teacher. He thanks you for reading his work. His debut book, a collection of flash fiction, will be published in the fall of 2016. You can reach him on Twitter: @Jack_C_Buck.

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Munching on the Moonlight

The door creaked anciently like it was excitedly greeting me. It was the door Sophia slammed on my eleven-year-old fingers, costing me my pinky and ring finger. I could never write right again, but all was forgiven, and at long last, I returned to the place where I spent half of my childhood. I found the entire house now smelled like the basement. The living room appeared to have been subject to high winds, and there was the unmistakable sense of infestation. I walked the shaggy, dog-fur carpet, imagining it would feel crunchy and insidious walking on it in bare feet.

Sophia was the cause of this ruin. She left our childhood home alone to undo itself, about to lose the last of its ability to keep itself together.

The lack of light and life brought a cold to the house on this warm day. I was sickened by its state, angry with myself for not coming sooner, but hopeful that I could save the house from being condemned.

Crying seemed a proper response. I wanted to cry buckets, wash the grimy walls with my tears, and then use the salt of my tears to preserve the place, but the tears were trapped on my waterline, making everything a wet blur.


Sophia came here with her mother in the late summer of 2001. A few weeks later we started the first grade together as already close-knit friends who didn’t have much in common besides that we were seven-year-old girls who loved pretend play and company and had never been to a sleepover until we lived with each other. Sleepovers every night!

Sophia’s mother was gruff and intimidating. She also worked hard and too much, but had too poor of a job to provide much for her daughter. They were just getting by. They lived in our basement, which my father converted to a den when I was a baby, and had a kitchen and bathroom amenities, making it a pleasant living area when Mother chose to rent it out after Dad left that previous autumn.


Mother rented out the whole house to Sophia’s family in 2007. By then the family included her stepfather and stepbrother. I was gone by then, living with Dad and the significantly improved lifestyle it awarded. I wasn’t allowed to talk to Sophia. Her mother had forbidden her, and Mother had forbidden me. We were still at the age where we followed our mother’s orders out of love and loyalty. By the time their words turned meaningless, we no longer meant anything to each other. I thought I no longer mattered to her and feared that reaching out to her would prove me right.

Sophia’s stepfather had been out of the picture for years. Her mother was in Roanoke. For a time, Sophia had the house all to herself. Mother told me Sophia left the house and town. I told her I would check up on the place.


A hallway branched off from the living room, leading to the three bedrooms and the full bathroom. In the master bedroom, once Mother’s bedroom, then Sophia’s mother’s, were heaps of clothes like stalagmites.


My bedroom, at the end of the hall, was filled with things I had left behind: pictures, jewelry, videos, and things that I had no recollection of. I was more ready to assume they came in here on their own than that I ever owned them. Lots of things were likely to be hers. The dirtiness made me hesitant to touch anything. I looked at my surroundings while superimposing the image of what they had been before in my mind. Compare and contrast. It devastated me. There was a part of me that only wanted to leave, but I had already made that mistake; another part of me wondered, assuming she did make the room hers if she left these things for me.

There would be nights I’d lie in bed, the door would creak open, a pink of light would shine on my TV, and Sophia would announce, “It’s me.” I would wordlessly make room for her in my bed.

Sophia always fell asleep in an instant. I would always want to have a conversation or turn the lights on to play a game, but no. The minute her head hit my pillow, she was asleep.


As children, Sophia and I would lie on her noisy springy bed, right below the small window where moonlight streamed, pretending to munch on the moonlight, or open our mouths as wide as we could to create the illusion that we had some lunar power and could shoot beams from our mouths. Sometimes I imagined we were the twin daughters of a moon goddess. We would lie scalp to scalp. I was obligated to drape my legs over the bed frame, and the wood would leave deep impressions of parallel lines on the bottom parts of my thighs.

There was a particular time Sophia said, “Lie down on the bed.” She was eleven. I was ten and happy to be switching positions after all that time of parallel lines and dangling feet. As always, I lay down and opened my mouth. The moonlight was shining. The darkness of my closed eyes was blue. When the light behind my eyelids disappeared, I knew she hovered over me. Her breath touched my face, and I felt the wetness of a mouth breathing inside of mine, with lips pressed against it. Her lips were soft. I could feel her breath hitting my cheek as it left her nostrils. I was in too much shock to move at first, but when I was able to register what was going on I pushed her away and asked her what she was doing.

“I was your first,” she said, running outside and jumping into the in-ground pool fully clothed in mid-September.


Christmas ornaments Sophia’s mother brought with her in 2001 were on top of the shelf above the kitchen island. A figurine of Glenda the Good Witch smiled at me. I smiled at her. I touched her, then jumped at the sight of roaches swarming over her, claiming her. I wanted to set the house on fire. Instead, I ran out from the kitchen through the back door, passing through the stairs to the basement in the process.

The in-ground pool was a cesspool, as I had imagined, but I hadn’t expected so much of the yard to be reclaimed by nature. I began to feel sick to my stomach and thought I was going to vomit. Curious to a fault, I decided to further explore, knowing that I might never return and needing to know what had become of all that was left.


The day I lost my fingers was my birthday. I had told her how the only thing I wanted was to spend one more birthday with Mother and Dad, and in an incredible and rare act of selflessness, she was gracious to me in allowing him to come. Sophia’s mother was working like always, but Dad, Mother, Sophia and I were celebrating my eleventh.

She was there in her oversized T-shirt and polyester, floral short shorts. Her socks to her knees. Her sneakers dyed Pepto-Bismol pink, and I was in my ill-fated dress.

She had just cut her hair. It was choppy and uneven but somehow fitted her. Her mother was gone, but she liked it that way.

We were all having cake. Always the troublemaker, she took a glob of frosting from her cake and put it on my cheek. I chased her into the house. I remember the way we were laughing when she closed the door on me. She did not know my hand was in the doorway, and it took me a second to realize I was in horrible, fiery, stinging pain. My blood dripped all over the porch. When it dried, it looked like chocolate. Sophia helped hold my bleeding hand and the cut frill, repeatedly saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”


The darkness of the stairwell was a sinister creature, a heavy dark that seemed to grow like a fungus the longer I looked at it. In that respect, not much had changed. It didn’t smell like the basement though. It was peculiar in that it seemed to lack any odor. There was no smell. Night had not completely fallen, but the basement had a few small windows.

It’s a tragedy that you must either get rid of what you love or risk watching it rot. Give away your plush toys before they become matted artifacts. Get rid of your car before it can no longer take you anywhere. Leave your house before you can no longer leave.

Night had not completely fallen, but the den of the basement did not let in the most light. I flipped the light switch at the foot of the stairs. The lights to the room were dead, but outside, the basement door gave off light through the window and dinky curtains, and I could see the pink flashlight. Its pink lens looked like a vermillion eye in the faint light. I took it up and turned it on. There were even more stalagmites of stuff in the basement, and I had to carefully navigate my way to her room.

Moonlight shone through her window. The window appeared glazed with grime, and yet, the light radiated onto a now-bare mattress, showing severe signs of aging. I imagined hearing cockroaches crawling within. I lay down, my heart speeding up, thinking of the chance it wasn’t my imagination, but all was still. The moonlight hit me directly in the face.

Still more stalagmites. I ran the pink circle about the room. Its faintness told me it was in need of batteries, but I speculated the metal of the battery compartment was turning to rust.

Soft lace was poking out of one of them like it was a hand. I knew what it was by the dried brown blood on that lovely lace. I thought Mother had thrown the dress away, but maybe I remembered wrong. Yeah, I remember. Mother was going to soak the dress. It went missing before she could soak the blood out.


The birthday incident was not what undid us. A few weeks later, Sophia and I were on the patio swing in the backyard. It was night-time, and she had drawn a large crescent moon on the beige patio before forming her body to look like she was side-straddling it. There was no moon, but a lantern was perched in between the two boughs of the tree the patio was built around.

“We’re nearly adults now,” she said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Can I say something?”

“I never said you couldn’t.”

She faced me. “I want to kiss you.”

I looked at her blankly – empty of expression.

She kissed me. She held onto my face and held her lips there like holding our lips together long enough would cause them to fuse together. The screen door of the back door opened and shut. Mother ran out, told Sophia to get her hands off me and slapped her. Our mothers had a conversation once her mother got off work. We all sat at the dining table we only used for Thanksgiving.

Each of us sat on a side of the table. Sophia and I sat across from each other. I cannot be certain if she looked at me, but I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t stand the sight of the red mark Mother’s hand had left behind. We were both deemed culpable. Sophia’s mother condoned the slap. Actually, she thanked Mother for doing it, acting like Mother had discovered cancer in its earliest stage. Mother turned to me and said at the beginning of the following week I’d be living with father, prohibiting Sophia and I from speaking.


I pulled the dress from the heap, and a roach jumped onto my arm. I smacked it off, did a convulsive dance of disgust and took off, with the plan to return with a garbage truck and a hazmat suit. I would fumigate. I promised myself I would clean the place up. It would be as beautiful as how I had left it, maybe even better. I didn’t think I could ever live in the house, not without feeling like I was living in a ghost, but I could fumigate it and clear it of all those clothes and abandoned items, and my mother could rent it out to another family. This was what I thought about as I moon-bathed on the bed for old times’ sake.

I had my feet dangling off the end of the bed. I was aware of how pathetic I looked, but I wanted to trick myself into feeling like it was pre-adolescence, and I birthed a new timeline in my mind where I managed to stay, where I fought to stay and won. Then I thought of a better one, where our mothers realized we were kids and forgave us, and we all got on with our lives in a super, stupid, feel-good manner. I didn’t stop my fantasy until I felt something crawling on my leg.

With that, I got up, left through the basement door, and left the house before the critters started eating me. At the time, it seemed likely. I took the dress with me. I still have it, and I got rid of the bloodstains.

Ashley Kay Bach is a Pitt student. She reads for Bartleby Snopes and works as a blogging intern at JuxtaProse. Have fun at

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The Matter of the June Beetles

Now it is mid-July and still
the plinks against the windows.
Sometimes a single impact,
the tap of a finger, click
of the safety disengaging.
Perhaps a small wave of them,
the patter of a sudden evening
storm. Or the rat-a-tat of several
at once mingling with the leftover
fireworks, as illegal as they are tardy.

We turn up the sitcom to muffle
so much noise.

The next day, the porch is littered
with them. Brown bodies
curled against the injustice
of sudden death. We are careful
to step over them
as we start our days,
waiting for the wind
to blow them away.

Ruth Kogen Goodwin is a writer and editor. She lives in Southern California with her husband and their daughter. She earned her MFA from American University.

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How Red Worked

On days as dull as this
It is hard not to shudder
And speculate that colour is now an artefact
of a former age
and you can’t remember
how red worked
or if pink was important
and was it yellow or purple
that made you overly sentimental?

On days as dull as this
It becomes hard to bleed
You find your soft skin at the mercy
Of blunted angels
And you think fondly of when
feathered patterns rose upon your arms
and sharpness flooded your mouth
and you knew
how red worked

on days as dull as this
it is hard to entertain
any thoughts of the past that don’t contain
elements of loss
the perfection of pink denim hot pants
the curl of yellow hair
across a brand new purple shirt
and finding a new way
how red worked

Gary Priest writes poetry and short fiction, both of which have been published online and in print. He lives in the UK at the end of a dead-end road, which may explain everything.

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Riding in Cars at Night

I pass the highway exit for Dauphin Island, driving from one southern state to another across Alabama’s toe, dipping south into the Gulf. Every couple of years I have occasion to pass this exit, and it always makes me think of those particular days and nights, among many days and nights spent on the island. My wife sleeps beside me in the car, and I imagine telling her about Dan and about Lotte, at least how it all really got started that day on Dauphin Island, about the kids with the gun, the birds, the blood, all of it.

Dan wasn’t there in my dorm room the afternoon, fifteen years ago, when the acid we’d dropped was kicking in and Lotte was naked in front of me, all of her, glowing from sex, triumphant, smiling.

“Ask me to marry you, Joe Joe,” she said, sunlight falling through the window and pouring down her skin. In the addled light and color, the joy filling my chest, it made sense, what she was saying.

But, “You’ve only known me for, like, five months, Lotte.”

Her smile never left her face, because in that moment she had the answers. “And I know all of you, Joe, and you know all of me. There’s nothing to hide.” In a way, it was true. We’d spent so much time together. We were in theater together, with Dan, and so the three of us were always with each other it seemed, at rehearsals, at meals, hanging out, running lines, whatever. The only times we weren’t together were when we were in class or sleeping. Hell, sometimes even sleeping we’d all pass out on a sofa together, some CDs on repeat on the stereo. And that’s how we’d been, the three of us, just friends, but best friends, except some nights I found myself alone with Lotte and we would kiss and let our hands rove freely. Then that afternoon, for whatever reason, when Craig had come around with the acid and we’d dropped a few hits, Dan wasn’t around. So I was torn, a little.

“So marry you? Now? You’re eighteen. I’m nineteen. Your parents will hate me.”

I hadn’t even met her parents yet. They were back in Arkansas.

Lotte giggled. “I know.”

“Then marry me,” I said, dropping to my knees and pressing my cheek against her stomach, her hands in my hair.

“Yes,” she said.

When night came we ran, our gang, some high, some tripping, a few sober, full speed like nightbirds along the shadowy places between the buildings, under trees, pretending we were criminals, subversives, deviants, fleeing from the campus security guards who we supposed knew what we were up to in our rooms, what we talked about in our huddles on the quad, and we hurdled low, hundred-and-fifty-year-old stone walls, flying into the old Jesuit cemetery where the shadows were darkest and where real honest-to-God ghosts canoodled on moonless nights, glowing along old brick promenades beneath gnarled magnolias. In the shadows among the stones we sank down, waiting for headlight beams and spotlights to pass above us and move on, and then we kissed and smoked before getting up and running again, taking flight to the next shadowy place. Playing at danger. Games.

When the sun rose the next day, I sat on the edge of Dan’s bed in his room, watching him rub his eyes and prop himself up on his elbow to smoke his first cigarette before even getting up to take a piss.

“You what?” he asked, his voice a croak with the labor of being stunned to life so quickly.

“Engaged,” I said, fast, still flying from the night before. “Engaged, Lotte and me, to be married, man and wife, for life, all of that, all of it.”

“Are you insane?”

“You’ll be my best man, and her maid of honor, too,” I said. I laughed. It was all funny, at least at that moment, all of this escape from home, two years away by that point, away from all the seriousness and drudgery and dispute of Meadowview, three hours up the old highway. It had been Dan, one year older, wiser, cooler, who’d pulled me out of my skulking and persistent cheap beer drunkenness my freshman year to go to the theater and try out for plays and then down to Dauphin Island to bodysurf by moonlight, naked to the fish below and bare to the sky above, who insisted I drop my worrying about what was to come and what was past, to just dive into the experience around me at any moment. Everything was funny and alive and full of joy and not to be believed. And then the next year Lotte arrived and we immediately connected with her when she showed up to audition for the play fall semester. The Taming of the Shrew. Lotte was Bianca, the ingénue, and Dan and I, of course, were her suitors, Dan playing Lucentio, who pretends to be Cambio, and I playing Hortensio, who pretends to be Petruchio. All those disguises couldn’t hide us from each other.

A few hours after I woke Dan, under afternoon sun the three of us were in the dunes on the west end of the island, fifteen minutes’ walk past where the road and the rich folks’ houses ended. Dan shucked his T-shirt and ran straight to the waves while I stayed up in the dunes with Lotte and spread our blanket in a shallow hollow between two dune-tops crowned in sea oats. She stood in the full wind, a white cotton skirt swirling around her ankles, a loose black T-shirt falling off one shoulder, dirty blonde hair whipping about her face.

I sat up on the edge of the blanket. “Would you look at that fucking ocean?” I asked Lotte.

“It’s not an ‘ocean,'” she said, “It’s a Gulf. If you’re going to marry me, you’ve got to get that straight.”

The water had kicked up in the late afternoon wind into two series of breakers. Big swells rolled in from the deep Gulf and broke over themselves about thirty yards out where a submerged sandbar rose up, then another zone of closer, smaller, wilder waves stood and fell, tearing from the sandbar the rest of the way up to the broad, white beach.

“So you still up for that?” I asked. “Marriage?”

“Did you think it was the acid talking?”

I looked over my shoulder. Lotte wasn’t looking at me, but had a little smile on her face as she dug through her backpack. Dan was out past the breakers, treading water. I had a joint in my pocket I wanted to smoke, to mellow out the mania and exhaustion of the last twenty-four hours. I wanted Lotte to come over by me, block the wind, share the joint.

Instead, she stood back up. She had a sleeve of crackers in her hand. She dug one out and threw it up toward a passing gull. It caught the cracker in its beak and came closer and hovered, flying against the wind coming off the Gulf. Within seconds, it was joined by more gulls, ten of them in formation. Lotte started breaking the crackers and tossing the pieces up. The seabirds circled, taking turns catching the pieces and rotating to the top of the flock to be replaced by another. I remember the percussive whoosh of feathers beating air, the snap of beaks clamping on crackers, and a tiny laugh like a growl from deep in Lotte’s chest. This early Lotte appears in my mind like a wild goddess, barely separate from the birds.

In the distance we heard a whoop. Back down the spine of the island toward the road-end and the houses, I saw a truck, no more at that distance than a glint of sunshine reflecting off metal and a cloud of dust at least a mile down the rutted, sandy trail that ran along the backside of the dunes. Then we heard the stacatto rap of a gunshot.

At the sound, the flock of birds split open. Some darted toward the ocean, some toward the sheltered water that ran along the backside of the thin-spit barrier island, the rest up toward the sun. Lotte jumped down, put both hands on my shoulders, and pushed me onto the blanket. “Get down,” she said.

She stretched flat beside me and we peeked over the rim of the dune. Locals in pickup trucks wouldn’t give a shit about us, but pretending at danger was our fun, one of the things we did best. The sand shifted beneath our weight. Lotte’s breath was moist in my ear. I smelled her sweat and my sweat. Our hearts beat. The pickup truck approached quickly, its body banging against its chassis as it sped through the ruts and bumps, its tires kicking up sand. Four teenagers, our age probably, were crammed into the cab of the truck, two muscled guys with two girls in between them. Two scrawny, girl-less boys stayed low in the bed, hollering every few seconds.

They passed, and I assumed they were gone another five miles to the end of the island. Lotte kept watching after the truck. I asked her, “What is it?”

“Nothing, but don’t you ever wonder what that’s like? To be them, like those kids. Nothing holding you back. To go all the way to the end?”

“I’ve been there once, with John when he was trying to impress that local girl.” John had an old four-wheel drive Bronco, the only kind of vehicle that could get through the miles of sandy path all the way to the end. Walking it would take hours, and any old car like the ones we drove would never make it, the sand so soft it would swallow them up to the chassis in seconds. I still think about that time John drove us to the tip of the island, and still try to comprehend the place, where old Broncos like his and Jeeps and newer pickups jacked up on huge tires turned perpetual circles in the spinning sand of the wide expanse of beach where the island stopped, water breaking on three sides, girls grouped in the middle around piles of driftwood, old bonfire rings staining the strand, coolers, loud music, a teenage apocalypse of blow jobs and dancing and blackouts and bikini tops and testosterone.

I grabbed Lotte around her waist and pulled her on top of me. I brought my face to hers. “Those kids don’t know what they’ve got,” I said. It was easy back then to pretend to be cool, to say things that didn’t mean anything, to pretend I understood things I didn’t. I rolled Lotte off me and hopped to my feet. I pulled off my shorts, leaving just my boxers.

“I’m going out,” I said. I leaped over the dune rim and ran across the beach.

Lotte yelled after me, “Let’s get a ring tomorrow!” I ran faster, into the waves.

Out past the breakers, I treaded water in the bobbing swells twenty feet away from Dan. I licked the salt from my lips and willed myself not to shiver in the late-March bottom-of-Alabama breeze. Dan swam closer to me.

“Y’all still engaged?” he asked. Back on the beach, Lotte stood atop the dunes, looking west.

“Yes. You’re not so funny, you know.”

“And you’re a weak man.” Dan smiled. The orange light of the late sun softened him.

“Look, you’re the one who always said to stop worrying so much and stop being so serious,” I said, “to ride the wave in front of me.” He did say this, the summer before when I went over to Montgomery to visit him during break, catch a movie, smoke cigarettes, drink beer.

“Marriage is serious!” he yelled as a swell raised him high above me.

“It was a wave,” I yelled back to him. “I’d started tripping, and it was in front of me, Lotte, my whole life, the last five months, the next fifty years, all of it. It was some vivid shit.”

Dan looked over at me. “What, did she just have sex with you or something?” There was an edge to his voice as he asked it.

“Look, you weren’t there. Everything, it was right.” I spit some saltwater out of my mouth. “I was the guy there, and I made the choice.”

Dan stayed quiet. We watched the gathering swells. To the east a ghost-silver sliver of moon slid above the horizon. Fifteen yards from where we treaded a ripple gave way to a tightly winding whorl as a dark shadow swam away from us. A jet trail bisected the sky’s deep blue, clean and quiet, a glint of plane ahead of it. As I watched, I felt my body lifted up to it. Dan let out a yell. We fell quickly down the backside of a huge swell as a wall of blue lifted before us.

“Not yet,” Dan yelled. We went higher on the next wave before plummeting into the chasm behind it. Then Dan yelled, “Turn,” and “Dig!” We pulled hard against the back-current behind the second wave as we were swept fast up the face of the third wave. We hoped to neither be crushed by it nor get left behind as it passed. The break pushed Dan ahead of me. He was carried in front of the wave’s lip. He extended his arms like wings, and his yells came back to me like laughter. I stalled behind him on the wave top, missing the ride. Dan’s legs kicked behind him in the air as the wave rolled beneath his mid-section and flew him beyond the last trough and toward the beach.

I dropped into the trough, and in my disappointment I tried to force the issue. I started swimming again behind that third wave of the set, and the next wave lifted beneath me, against my stomach, against my thighs, and then there was the tension where the water wanted to suck me down and push me to the top at the same time, and when it was done the pushing won, and I was speeding far faster than my own swimming could propel me, but then it was too fast and the whole ride collapsed. The bottom dropped out from beneath my torso and then the wave clutched my ankles and twisted them back over my head and dragged them ahead of the rest of me. I was stuck in the looking-glass side of Dan’s ride. My face hit the sandy bottom and dredged a path toward the shore, and my lungs burned for air until, at once, I was lying in the surf zone at the edge of the beach, a roaring in my ears as the wave receded.

I sat up as Lotte ran up to me. “Stop sitting there, Joe Joe, let’s go!” she yelled. She tapped me on my head then kept running up the beach, a rule-less game of duck, duck, goose. I shook my head and stood, woozy from the surf’s mauling. Fifty yards past Lotte, Dan stood in the shallow surf, facing the two scrawny guys from the back of the pickup truck. They were in T-shirts and cut-off jeans. I looked down at my own skinny, slightly sun-pinked arms and chest, my thin boxers pasted tight against me.

Dan’s arms opened wide and I heard his laughter blowing down the beach on the wind. I jogged up to the dunes and was pulling my shorts on when I heard Lotte yell, “No!”

I looked down the beach and saw the two kids from the truck, Lotte beside them. Dan was still standing in the surf, ankle-deep. Birds were circling around Lotte and the boys like they had when we were up on the dune, but nobody was feeding them. Lotte’s hands were up on her face. One of the kids was holding a gun straight out, aiming wildly from one bird to another, with Dan on the other side of the flock, watching, saying something. The other kid flapped his arms around, dancing with lanky imprecision, as if to make fun of the birds or make them fly off. But they didn’t fly off.

The birds started flying in a tighter circle in front of the gun kid, like they thought he was holding out food to feed them. Dan walked out of the waves behind the birds and started flapping his arms, too. The four of them stood there, Dan on one side and the tall kid on the other, both in their flap-armed dance, Lotte possibly horrified or enthralled, the gun kid steady and still with his gun held out.

I saw gun kid open his mouth, and a split second later heard, “Like a goddamned video arcade,” yelled onto the wind. His head cocked back, then I heard his laugh. He swayed the arm holding the gun in circles with the birds. One gull flew closer to him, dancing with the gun, and reached its beak out toward it. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I looked behind me and around, as if there would be an audience. Then I heard a gunshot and snapped my head back around.

Lotte was stooped over something on the ground. The two kids were standing over her. The birds were gone. I didn’t see Dan.

I jumped off the dune and sprinted across the beach. When I was ten feet from the group, my feet pounding against wet sand, the gun kid turned toward me. His gun glinted in his hand. I launched and hit him square in his abdomen with my shoulders, and we both fell to the ground.

“Get this crazy sonuvabitch off me,” the boy called out.

“Joe, what are you doing?” Lotte asked, behind us.

Someone pulled me off the kid, strong hands on my shoulders, and I heard Dan’s laughter again, like I had heard it the first time from down the beach. I shook out of the grip and turned to see Dan, a bewildered smile on his face and water pouring down him from emerging again from the waves where he had ducked to avoid the gun. “Dan,” I said, “I heard that shot, and I didn’t see you, and I thought…”

“I’m OK,” he said, his laughter dissipating into a concerned smile and a look that said to be careful. “I’m OK.”

I turned to look closer at the kid on the ground. As he got to his feet, he picked a .22 pistol up from the sand, brushed it off, then glared at me. “Fucker,” he said, with no real conviction.

Lotte still crouched on the sand, stroking the dark-stained feathers of a large gull, its eyes night-black, a large hole seeping blood from just above where its wings joined its back.

“Isn’t it amazing, Joe?” she asked. She seemed halfway between a laugh and a cry, a little kid just barely hidden under her young woman’s skin, someone I wanted to hold and protect and share with, everything, always.

“I shot it,” said the gun kid.

“What the fuck,” I said. “Dan, what’s going on?” Another set of large breakers pounded down just this side of the sandbar and rushed toward the beach.

The other kid, the one I hadn’t tackled, spoke up. “Chill out, dude. We’re just having a little fun.”

I took two steps toward the kid who’d just spoken to me. He was taller than the gun kid, taller than me. “Who are you to tell me to chill out?” I asked him. “You and your friend. Where’re your buddies in the truck?”

I was so close to him that we touched, my chest against his chest, my feet overstepping the sand covering his feet.

“On down the beach. We fell out of the truck.” He grinned, like it was OK to fall out of a speeding truck and get left behind by friends, like we’re all forces of nature spinning out of control, rolling into each other until we wash up on some beach with a bunch of fucking lunatics.

I backed away from him. “You could have gotten hurt,” I said, channeling my mother, maybe channeling his, too. He probably appreciated it just as much.

“Dude,” he said, “it’s just a day at the beach. Don’t be so serious.”

I looked behind me at Dan. “Am I being too serious?” I asked him. This was our conversation that the tall kid unwittingly walked into. I even smiled.

Dan said, “Marriage is serious.”

I said, “So are guns, don’t you think?”

“A day at the beach isn’t serious at all, Joe,” he said. We were telling inside jokes; only they weren’t funny to anyone, even to us. I felt the sands shift again, beneath my feet, between my toes. I crouched next to Lotte, who no longer looked so amazed, but only sad.

“What’s wrong, Lot?” I asked, trying to be quiet, imagining I was there with only her. I put my hand on top of hers, which was still resting on the bird’s feathers.

“It’s all so real,” she said, looking from the bird up to me. She pulled her hand out from under mine and my fingers fell onto the feathers. Lotte pressed her hand down on mine, so that I felt beyond the spiky structure of the feathers to the bird’s body, still soft, barest warmth. More blood pushed out of the hole by the bird’s wing.

Gun kid shuffled around and stooped to face us, kicking sand over the bird and onto our hands. He looked relaxed, happy.

“Helluva fucking day,” he said quietly. “Ain’t missed a damn thing I shot at. That never happens. Usually fucking miss something, you know? Mailbox on the way down here. Couple sand crabs. One of them beach mice.”

“You know those are endangered,” Lotte said, getting more agitated.

“Well, they sure are now,” the tall kid laughed. Gun kid laughed with him.

Gun kid continued, “After I hit that damned mouse, figured I might could hit anything. And I hate these damn birds, shitting everywhere, screaming.” Darkness crossed his face.

Behind us, Dan cleared his throat. “Why don’t you put the gun away, all right? Stick it in your pocket.”

The tall kid rushed over to Dan and got in his face the same way I had been in his, though he didn’t tower over Dan the way he did over me. Dan was tall, and strong, even though he didn’t hold himself that way normally.

“The fuck are you to tell us what to do, motherfucker?” tall kid said. Lotte and I stood. Dan didn’t back away.

“Stop it, Dan,” Lotte said beside me. I didn’t know whether to stay by her or to try to intervene. “Leave it be,” she said to Dan, then to gun kid, “You’re fine.”

The gun kid jumped to his feet and let out a loud “Wooooooooooo!” Behind him, the sun was fully red, a fingernail of empty sky separating it from the western horizon. Dan stepped past the tall kid to stand on Lotte’s other side. She grabbed both our hands. These weren’t games anymore. I didn’t know what to do. Yet I felt a dissonant calm. I’d never thought about how I would react when I had an out-of-control kid waving a gun in front of me, until it happened, and when it did all I could think about was the sun and the waves and the blowing sand and Lotte’s hand in mine and Lotte’s hand in Dan’s.

“Fuck!” gun kid said. “I got one bullet left, and I ain’t gonna waste it!” He was pure, scrawny, short-statured joy. “What do you think, Tommy?” he asked the tall kid.

“You ain’t gonna shoot nobody, Hank,” tall kid said. He stepped to the side, where he could watch his friend and watch us.

“Damnit, Tom, it ain’t going to hurt, much,” gun kid said. He rubbed the end of the barrel against his cheek, scratching an itch or chasing a thought.

“Hank?” I said to gun kid, unsure if using his name would help. “Come on, man. Look, we danced with the birds with you, we did this with you. I’ve never had an afternoon like this. Let’s be cool. You’re not going to shoot anyone. That’s not like shooting birds.” Lotte’s hand squeezed mine tighter. I wriggled my hand free, for what I’m not sure.

Gun kid seemed to think harder for a moment, dropping the gun from his face down to his side, but then he looked resolved, and raised his gun up. “The fuck I ain’t gonna shoot,” he said. “Fuck that shit. You don’t tell me what to do.”

“Hank,” tall kid said, “you ain’t gonna do this. You always getting this way when you drink that shit, and you always threatening to shoot people. Leave these fags be, Hank. They don’t know how you are. Look at ’em. They’re scared shitless.” But the worried look on tall kid’s face wasn’t reassuring.

“They better be scared,” gun kid said. “And you stop telling me what I ain’t going to do, Tommy.” Now gun kid was shifting his aim slowly back and forth between us and tall kid. “You all are always saying I won’t do it. You don’t believe in me? Don’t none of you believe I can do this shit?”

“I ain’t saying nothing like that,” tall kid said. “Let’s just go use that last bullet on something else. Something fun.” Tall kid’s hands were raising up by his side.

Gun kid looked at us. “The girl looks pretty fun to me,” he said. “What about you come kiss me, girl, then maybe I won’t shoot one of your faggot boyfriends, how about that?”

“Come on, man,” I said, as if that meant something. A small plane flew overhead, not close enough to witness the scene on our stretch of beach, but enough so that the sputter of its engine caught gun kid’s ear.

He glanced to the sky. This was the moment to jump. But it was Lotte who made the first move.

She let go of Dan’s hand and stepped over the dead bird.

“No, Lotte,” Dan said and moved to grab her. Gun kid shifted his aim toward Dan, and then the tall kid rushed from the other side toward gun kid. He swung the gun around and fired. Another wave pounded, closer. The tall kid jerked back and fell to the ground. Gun kid turned the gun to Lotte, right in front of him, and pulled the trigger again. I flinched. Lotte didn’t. The gun only clicked.

The gun kid looked at his friend on the ground, rolled into a ball, groaning and clutching at his arm. For a flash gun kid looked like a child, scared, but then his features hardened. He turned and ran into the dunes. He kept running toward the west, toward the end of the island.

Dan leaned over the tall kid, but he pushed Dan away and sat up.

“Shit,” he yelled. The right shoulder of his T-shirt was ripped, blotched dark red. I reached my hand out to him, but he ignored it. “Damnit,” he said. “Fucker wouldn’t’ve done nothing.”

“What do you mean?” Lotte asked.

The tall kid struggled to stand. His shirt grew redder, wetter. “Look at me,” he said, pointing to his shirt. “I told him he wouldn’t shoot nobody, and he wasn’t going to, either, you fucking whore. You stepping over to kiss him? You’d’ve fucked him, too?”

Lotte got close in his face. I was sure she was going to spit, but instead she pushed past him and walked back to our little encampment in the dunes. The three of us, Dan, me, and the kid, watched her until she sat down on the blanket and out of our view.

I turned back to the kid. “We should get you to a hospital or something.”

He threw his arms out, wincing and immediately dropping the right one again. “You want to get me in trouble? Get Hank arrested? Stupid rich college kids. You think you know everything and you don’t know shit.” Then he turned and walked off, following the path left by the gun kid, stumbling against larger drifts in the sand as he walked.

Dan and I watched him until he rounded a curve in the beach and was gone. My knees started shaking, then I felt it in my hands, then my gut. All the adrenaline. I was immediately angry and sad at the same time. I’d had no control over the situation. My brain had been static and nothing else. And yet I was still standing.

The sun hit the horizon and melted down in the ocean.

Without turning to me, Dan said, “You know I like Lotte, too. I thought you should know.”

I looked at Dan. It wasn’t a secret. And right then I knew that the engagement was a farce, that we would all talk about it maybe the next day or maybe the next week, and Lotte and I would feel foolish and probably act mad at each other, but then we would be the three of us again, stronger than ever, just less kissing.

I reached my hand out and grabbed Dan around the shoulders and pulled him toward me, watching his eyes for any sign of anger, disgust, anything. I only saw my friend there. We walked back up to where Lotte was rolling up the blanket. The sky was deepening, streaks of cloud still glowing orange across blues and purples. She looked up at me, and her eyes seemed to still hold the light from the sun, glowing golden.

“I want to tell you to leave me alone,” she said.

“But you won’t?”

She stood and kissed my cheek. “Joe Joe, leave me alone. It’s OK.”

The three of us walked down the beach, back toward where we’d left Dan’s car parked at the end of the paved road. We didn’t walk together, but followed each other just close enough we could still hear each other breathing.

Once in the car, an hour drive back to Mobile ahead of us, it was night already. Lotte lay across the back seat. The music played from the car’s speakers heavy with bass, something more majestic than the scrawled-label cassette it came from would suggest. I sat up front next to Dan. Despite the action on the beach, or maybe because of it, Lotte was asleep quickly, or seemed it. The windows were down, and the wind came in like a lover would, with a soft force, a compulsion to press against us, take us over. It ran its fingers through our hair. It reached for the cigarettes clutched in our fingers, whipped sparks out the window and down the road behind us, trailing all the way back to the bridge to the island. It tried to be louder than the music. It tried to steal our words from our mouths before we spoke them. It pulled gently at our clothes, caressed our cheeks, wiped the ocean water dry from our skin, leaving salt.

Here in my own car, fifteen years passed by since that day, I look over at my wife. She shifts in her seat as she sleeps. She doesn’t know anything about that day, or about that crazed kid who could have just as easily ended things for me, one flinch in any direction, a misplaced whim, if maybe I’d jumped before Lotte did, how I’d never have left that beach and made it to the day where I met her. We’ve left the Dauphin Island exit and its memories behind and approach quickly the tunnel that will run us under the Mobile shipping channel. I roll down my window. As we plunge into the fluorescent-lit tube, all sound echoing back on us from the bright-tiled walls, I lick my lips, imagine the water all around us and above us.

Tad Bartlett’s writing has appeared in print or online at Novella-T, The Oxford American, The Carolina Quarterly, Chautauqua, The Writing Disorder, and The Stockholm Review of Literature, among others. He earned an MFA in fiction at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, and is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Tulane University Law School. He is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.

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Applause and Cheers

The gunman from Morocco
zombie-walked, his shirttail hanging.
He hadn’t received an invitation.
After he snatched the bridesmaid’s purse
at her best friend’s wedding, I caught him
on the monitor and chased him
to the hayfield out back, where
we indulged in a fistfight I won.
At the reception, spectators agreed I had.
I would have paid to see that, Champ.
The groom sighed, You were
an animal, but I forgive you.
The cops
cuffed the goon, who threatened to sue.
The new couple interrupted because
of their schedule, We want to spend
the money in these envelopes,
the bride said.
Let’s hope that’s not our ruin, but after
today we’ll survive anything: affairs,
my pregnancy, and Jim chewin’ tobacco.

At that everybody applauded and cheered.

David Spicer has had poems in Mad Swirl, Reed Magazine, Slim Volume, The Laughing Dog, In Between Hangovers, The American Poetry Review, Easy Street, Ploughshares, Bad Acid Laboratories, Inc., Dead Snakes, and elsewhere, and in A Galaxy of Starfish: An Anthology of Modern Surrealism (Salo Press, 2016). He has been nominated for a Pushcart, is the author of one full-length collection of poems and four chapbooks, and is the former editor of Raccoon, Outlaw, and Ion Books. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Midnight Equinox

From my insomniac’s terrace I smoked
a Camel and spit the taste out below,
near the trestle. The first and last time.
I had laughed at you with lust on your 30th
birthday, that summer dress whooshing
up from an El Niño breeze. A visor
on your head, an iris between those
hands the color of coconut milk. Face
reddened like an embarrassed leopard’s,
you told me I needed to shave over a washstand
to scatter the man inside me. At that moment
an osprey flew over the runnel, clouds twisted
over the bay, and Haydn played on the turntable.
You called me a fool, grabbed the cigarette,
inhaling and nibbling my ear to ask
if I knew anything about the equinox.

David Spicer has had poems in Mad Swirl, Reed Magazine, Slim Volume, The Laughing Dog, In Between Hangovers, The American Poetry Review, Easy Street, Ploughshares, Bad Acid Laboratories, Inc., Dead Snakes, and elsewhere, and in A Galaxy of Starfish: An Anthology of Modern Surrealism (Salo Press, 2016). He has been nominated for a Pushcart, is the author of one full-length collection of poems and four chapbooks, and is the former editor of Raccoon, Outlaw, and Ion Books. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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