In Memoriam C. E. 1957 – 2014

by Stephen Gibson

                                                                  At the Egyptian Museum of the Vatican

 

I followed a woman from one room into the next.

With light ahead, her dress became transparent.

What was she wearing? Was she pantyless?

I followed the woman from one room into the next.

She stopped at the foot of a female-faced sarcophagus

with gold-leaf and lapis for its final garment—

she wasn’t its Ka appearing in this world from the next—

just a woman, with light ahead, her dress transparent.

A Dog’s Bark (No. 3)

by Kelly Cherry

You think a dog can’t talk?

Listen to his bark.

He says he loves you.

He says, These people are all right

but I want you to myself.

He says, Who cares about politics

philosophy

religion

or global economics?

I care about you

you

you.

You are my heart

my salvation

my everything.

He says these things over and over,

and after awhile, you begin to believe him.

You can trust him.

He has your back.

He says he loves you

and you love him back.

On a Violet

by Kelly Cherry

So commonly we see a single violet

Curated in a simple vase—clay pot

Or shallow dish, the dish perhaps a piece

Of Blue Willow-ware, a practically antique pattern

 

By now. The violet is shy and makes no claim

On the black, moistened earth from which it springs:

A modest flower with modest expectations.

Its tint is carefully calibrated between

 

Red and blue, not quite purple—almost one would say

A color that doesn’t exist in the real world

Except here it is, indisputably real.

What shall we make of this? That the real world

 

Grows more mysterious even as we look at it?

That the more we look at the world, the more we see?

 

Do the violet in the Blue Willow bowl and we who view it

Exist in a conspiracy of perception?

The Visitors

by Kelly Cherry

The light was off, the room black-dark.

In black-dark, the bedroom filled

with the shapes and selves of those I’d known

when they were living. Slowly they filed

 

past me—mother, father, brother

and friends, the friends of a lifetime

and others I’d known for the length of a reading

or conference or academic term.

 

So many gone. They pressed so close

to the bed I thought I might be crushed.

I switched the night lamp on: the room,

as empty as air, was bright and hushed.

It was during a trip beyond the hills

by Rosa Alice Branco. Translated by Alexis Levitin

from Live Concert

 

It was during a trip beyond the hills.

There were paths in our words and the sound of flutes

creeping to the edges of the road. They came from the river,

everything came from the river or from our gaze lit by terraced vineyards

dropping toward their watery reflection. “If we go that way,”

you would say on the map, but we, assiduous, got ourselves lost,

for in each of us deep changes were occurring

and we didn’t want them to leave us.

In each map another one was happening, spreading

in our hands. The flowers beside the road were changing

colors and the fallen trunks were pythons, “don’t laugh, Joni,

I swear they were, laugh your heart out somewhere else.”

Later on you’d say the branch there in the middle of the road,

maybe it was the light, then again, you couldn’t say,

looked fallen from a still-life.

 

It was you who were no more, filling

all the spaces of your absence

Issue 37 – Poetry

It was during a trip beyond the hills by Rosa Alice Branco. Translated by Alexis Levitin

It was during a trip beyond the hills.
There were paths in our words and the sound of flutes
creeping to the edges of the road. They came from the river,

 

The table is dirty by Rosa Alice Branco. Translated by Alexis Levitin

The table is dirty
and the chair has the mortal remains

 

On a Violet by Kelly Cherry

So commonly we see a single violet
Curated in a simple vase—clay pot

 

The Visitors by Kelly Cherry

The light was off, the room black-dark.
In black-dark, the bedroom filled

 

A Dog’s Bark (No. 3) by Kelly Cherry

You think a dog can’t talk?

 

A Dog’s Bark (No. 5) by Kelly Cherry

A dog’s bark is worth a thousand pictures.

 

Diego Rivera Posing with Giant Papier-mâché Devil and Girl by Stephen Gibson

When the papier-mâché devil moves its arms
to fondle the breasts of the papier-mâché girl,

 

In Memoriam C. E. 1957 – 2014 by Stephen Gibson

I followed a woman from one room into the next.
With light ahead, her dress became transparent.

 

trees i by Donald Kuspit

thoughts the waste matter
of wonder,

 

trees ii by Donald Kuspit

what’s left to inspire,
all the gods ground
to dust, the heights leveled,

 

trees iii by Donald Kuspit

not as deeply rooted
as you,
not as beholden
to the sun,

 

trees iv by Donald Kuspit

rise wordlessly,
clouds the only wit
left in the sky,

 

From Sarga 69, Book II of the Ramayana translated by David Slavitt

As Kausálya complained, Bhárata cupped his hands in reverence
and addressed her: “I am guiltless, my lady.  I knew nothing about this.

 

The Love Call of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Alan Soble

Matzoh is the driest bread,
made on the fly, Exodus declares.

 

Stock Trader Steps Outside by Lee Slonimsky

A whistler: one
and a thrummer: two

 

Pythagoras’s Meaning by Lee Slonimsky

When raindrops strike the pond they ripple round,
Pi-scriptured circles perfect as his math;

 

Mnemosyne Meanders by Lewis Turco

Nightlark! How Mnemosyne meanders,

 

Cosmology by Lewis Turco

The scientists say that what is going on
Is still the Bang that first emerged from nothing,

 

Anatomy of a Passing Thought by Lewis Turco

They found a pickled human brain
In a buried human head

 

Ineluctable Blues by Lewis Turco

Well, that’s the way it is, that’s how it was,
Yes, that’s the way it is and how it was—
We heard the sun come up, we hear time buzz

 

Glossary of Snow by Ferral Willcox

1. tracewhist

When the snow is sudden and light and makes a bare hint of an outline on
the world, showing the world to be impure

the tracewist fell, a diagnosis, the land’s in a cancer and cannot rest, the dancer turned out of the dance to mud and rubble,…

 

Meditations on Snow 7: Lost Friend by Ferral Willcox

See her, under ice.  Her drink, sea glass
green, lost chalice of ice. Porcelain clink

 

Meditations on Snow 10: I have your moon by Ferral Willcox

I have your moon.  It rose up over snow as the last rose glow went to mist behind the mountain.  I caught it with my bow, arrowed in and reeled it to my side.  I have your moon, captive in my mind.

 

Apsis

by Billy O’Callaghan

After the dreams have come, the mornings feel like glass around me. Everything looks too bright, too well preserved. My way of coping is to sit in the kitchen in silence and try to wait it out. I don’t close my eyes because the faces hang there, in that darkness, ready to loom, faces that will make me smile to see again but which will also bring deep sadness, knowing that they’ve been lost, that I have let them go. The house is always still then, silent apart from the acceptable sounds, the clicking of pipes in the walls, water running at a murmur, the paper-weight of my own breath and Barbara’s as she idles about small chores, maybe rain against the glass or the crack of snow shifting its weight on the roof. While the coffee percolates, I sit and try not to move or even think, knowing too well the traps and pitfalls that lie in those directions.

I like to watch Barbara buttering toast. It’s a small thing, but it softens the solitude. She scrapes the slices with a knife, then cuts them into triangles. We’re middle-aged, and have dug our rut. But plenty have it worse than us. In a lit kitchen, Queens can be almost anywhere, and the missing things matter less. The butter is a chemically correct shade of yellow and easily spread, but is actually a type of low-salt-content, sunflower-oil substitute. All along its packaging it boasts in outright lies about the remarkably comparable qualities of its taste. And, in keeping with this trend, the bread is not real bread either, at least not my definition of real. Finger-thick slices the colour and flavour of dust, with an elasticity that bloats with every chew and which leaves grains of itself on my tongue and in my teeth even after swallowing. Lately, Barb has been pushing for a switch to one of those pro-biotic spreads. The change will make no great difference, since it is all just pseudo-magic anyway, and empty promises, and I’ll probably give in, but not yet, because I’m stubborn. Healthy diets are all the rage, even among the dying, but I still hold out on a few of the details.

The way my father and my sister live on in my mind is the way I saw them after I’d broken the news of my going: the old man at the table, head bowed over a mug of hot tea, and across the room, in the chair beside the unlit fire, Áine weeping, her fist clenching and relaxing around an old handkerchief that she held pressed to her lips in an effort to quell the tiny rumblings of her sobs. She was already married by then, and pregnant to a point that was just beginning to show; barely twenty but bulked and rubbed to a state of middle-age. Her hands shone pale and alabaster-hard from cold-water work, and her hair, the blackness of soot and wild as briar, hung long to her shoulders. Tears came, in a strained, wrenching way familiar to our kind, and she let them fall.

We waited until she’d gone home before starting on the whiskey. We had a night in early April, the waking part of the season but with the blanched colours of winter still holding sway. Rain had come in with the evening, following a watery sun’s slow traipse across the sky and infusing my last Inishbofin dusk with an ochre tinge that I’d always remember, but it was a soft rain that thinned out with the last of the light and by eight or so there was only darkness. Even the wind had fallen.

I was sixteen, and already broad across the chest, inflicted from time spent on the water and squatting in field corners with a measured stillness and an appreciation of balance in all things. I felt set for the world, innocent enough perhaps to believe in dreams but capable on a blood level and beating like a drum to run, to see cities and know the press of crowds, to meet and dance with women, to drink, fight, work and swear.

At the fireside, I watched pale, powdery beards of ash fringe the turf. A settled redness offered heat but little else to the room, but the level of dark felt right, somehow. Better to keep the details hidden, in case minds should change. I could hear him lumbering through into the pantry for a bottle, the rubber soles of his boots sucking up damp notes from the flagstone floor, every step laid down heavy.

“Here,” he said, his voice all crust, pressing the space. “Get this down you, boy.”

His best whiskey. Two years locked away and still with its seal unbroken. I took the offered glass and raised it for the filling. He poured in splashes, then hauled the other armchair in close to the fire. We’d not long finished clearing the back field of rocks, an acre and a half that had taken the better part of a month, and the pull of such work still lay heavy in our bodies. So it felt good to sit.

“Easy with it,” my father said, watching me in the dark. “Don’t force it down. That’s the trick. Let it find its own way.”

For a while, we drank. I held myself close to the fire, taking the heat against my face even after my skin had acquired a papery stiffness, and tried not to look at him because even in the dark there was too much to see, too many marks. When we spoke at all we kept mainly to the subject of the weather, how bad the winter had been for the fishing and worse, with so much wind, for the soil, our occasionally murmured words rising up in hesitant jabs and then, out of embarrassment, falling away again. The sense of goodbye lay within the night’s grain, and the silence made that a sad thing to bear. But the silence was still easier than words. I was new at that time to whiskey, and it burned and then soothed his mouth. In the low firelight the glass glowed, and the whiskey, warmed from the outside in by the casual inductance of my cupping hands, tasted unexpectedly sweet. Through the fusions of raw and malted barley, a terrific watery cleanness, and then the peaty aftershock. To the end, I braced himself for what I felt certain had to come: the plea to stay, its tune infused with threat or blackmail. But the matter was already decided. By morning, no matter what was said, I’d be on the boat across, and then Dublin, perhaps London, perhaps, in time, New York. No set plans, beyond the running.

It’s natural, of course, to reminisce, especially as we age, and regret is a flavour familiar to anyone who has ever fled one life in the chase for another. I was sixteen when I left, and mired in some half-formed state between childhood and the ways of adults. Most of the time, I cling to this as my excuse. And, most of the time, it is enough. But the truth is that I’d already felt the loom of an end.

Some weeks earlier, we’d been down in the bottom field, laying out a turf rick, and the old man had straightened from his stoop, tossed down the armful of clods that he was holding and went to lean against the wall. His mouth hung open and his staring eyes shone dark against the waxy flats of his face. Weariness was part of it, but levels of exhaustion were facts of our lives and this was something more convoluted, something vampiric.

“We’ll stop a while, boy,” he said, once he felt sure of his breath. “Sure, there’s legs in the day yet.”

His voice retained an element of composure but seemed detached and not quite natural in how it used its air. I averted my gaze, electing instead to consider firstly the rash of cloud that cloaked without quite obliterating the colourless smudge of sun and then, when that wasn’t enough, the rough-cut chunks of turf which lay scattered around my boots. I longed to sit too, and the support of the stone wall looked inviting, but I allowed myself only a minute’s pause before bending again to the chore, knowing that the day would not end for us until the work did. I gathered up the bricks of turf, stacked them as I’d been shown so many times, laying them into place thick-side down, sod-side up so that the rick could waterproof itself over months’ worth of drying time. Working steadily and without much thought, focusing on nothing but the order of the job, focusing least of all on the ache that sunk as a chill into the low of my back. Cold grey mud packed the folds of my neck and coated my hands like a leprous second skin, and I tasted and breathed it, feeling the sourness of its soupy grit between my back teeth whenever I clenched my jaw. There was no way to erase what I’d seen, but island boys and men know well enough what fits the silence and what does not, and the shadow that greyed and blunted him seemed a harbinger, of sorts. My father did not die that day in the field, or even that year, but with the benefit of hindsight, he did seem to skirt a bow of some hill around that time, because what followed was degrees of slow, meticulous disintegration.

That day, stacking the turf, I considered the old man’s blanched expression, the accepted horror within the down-turned eyes, the mouth that sucked and bubbled like a stab wound, rabid for the cold refreshing air, and the image that stormed my mind was of my mother laid out in a lamp-lit bedroom, dead at barely thirty and looking as if she had never lived at all. An aneurysm of some sort, a sudden thunder crack that ripped her from the world and reduced her to that smoke-yellowed mannequin state, mute as space and stiffer than any bone, her raven hair unnaturally flat without the pull of wind to turn it feral, tendrils of fringe boxing in her broad forehead. Because I’d been so young, the details that I remember seem detached from one another and have to be stitched together with lines of logic. After the sun went down the house had quickly filled, but through most of the night people continued to arrive, women carrying cakes or plates of cold sliced meat, men laden with dark unmarked bottles and jugs of stout or hauling sacks of pigs’ trotters that would be left to boil for hours and soften to a state of almost unbelievable sweetness.

Initially, I’d had a place to sit, a piece of couch cushion that I was forced to share with Áine but which still afforded comfort. Then, as the space thinned, I was moved and resettled on the flagstones beside the empty fire and given no choice but to stand. Áine kept me at her side and held my hand, with our fingers tightly entwined. Her intent was to discourage thoughts of escape, but it was an unnecessary precaution. Fear kept me still, fear that was different from the anxiety I felt for strange soundings in the night or those things the darkness masked. Because this time the worst had already happened, and the aftermath lay before me as a hole in the world, gaping and immutable.

My mind that night of my mother’s wake was full of many things, but heaviest in my thoughts was a memory of something she had once told me, months or a year earlier, her voice exasperated and yet full of compassion as she knelt before me and wrapped a piece of cotton gauze around yet another of my badly skinned knees: “You know, Billy,” she’d said, “if you don’t run so much, you won’t fall so much.” Standing holding hands with Áine in that crowded living room, I let those words roll through me again and again, and there was still a sense of calm to be had from the gentle remembered float of her voice. But from the little I’d glimpsed through the bedroom door, the previous night and again that morning, stillness seemed to me a far worse fate than falling. Surely there were times when the feel of all that chasing energy was more than worth the tumble, and the skinned knee. I didn’t fully understand what had happened but sensed enough to realise what death must mean, and it was the reverence that the word earned which made me feel so afraid. Beside me, Áine’s breathing had the thin, put-upon texture of shocked calm, and her fingers between mine were cold and dry, as if some essence of who she was had retreated, taking all her heat with it. But I was glad of the touch, glad of the promised reassurance offered by skin against my skin. We stood there, breathing the good wintry aroma of the sweet-boiling trotters thickening the air and insinuating every pore, afraid to speak but watching the tide of faces that we knew well, neighbours bunched in groups, their cheeks reddened from whiskey, their mood sombre, especially as the light softened and was lost and the time came for lanterns to be lit. Each was sincere in his or her grief, but it was different for them, a passing thing. They were saddened that one of their own had been lost to them, but the equilibrium of their world at least held its level.

Across the room, ignored by everyone, my father sat on the edge of a hard chair, head bowed, weeping. Sometimes, when the packed bodies parted just enough, I could see his big shoulders heaving against the punch of tears, and whenever the murmured conversations hit a lull, the sound of his pain carried throughout the house, forlorn as the lowing of something bestial across a span of valleys and fields. That weeping continued for hours, and through the terrible days that followed. It shook him and shook us all as we huddled together at the heart side of the sloping graveyard’s opened ground while rain lathered our faces, and it continued after we had returned home and were swallowed up once more into that small house’s dense gloom. But at some point it did soften and eventually it stopped all together, to be replaced with the kind of silence that told its own story.

Glimpsed through a doorway left ajar, death for me is and will always be a curtained bedroom yellowed and set off kilter by a burning lantern, and on the bed a face too still, known but no longer quite right, the muscles too relaxed, the shape pulled slack in every wrong direction. Calm, but too still. Once seen, it had felt a thing impossible to forget, or deny, yet somehow and for a long time I managed to find a way of doing both. But that day in the field, the month or so before my leaving, there it was again. Not the same, but with enough similarity to make me remember. I laid the turf in place and thought of how things would be a year from now. And then I thought about running.

People die every day; the world is full of little voids. My mother had slipped from a living, breathing, laughing state to a still and yellowy husk, and part of the overgrown hillside, tucked beneath the winds and crooked stones. And not alone either, but there with her people, the old stock who lived and died before my time as well as the minutes’ worth of nameless younger sister that I’d seen only as a dreamy blueness through a grey, threadbare bed sheet and in my mind, in the darkness, can sometimes see still. That hillside bulged, with my mother and the rest, but still the shadow roamed, insatiable, seeking and marking out, separating weaklings for the cull.

In a city like New York, in a city like Dublin, even, no one thinks this way, not like they can and frequently do in country places and on islands. In the cities, steel and stone are the tangibles, and death is just death, a fact of life and an end to things. No hoods, no scythes, no shadows, no capital letters. In the cities, stories are for the pages of books. Told sometimes to pleasure or to scare, but not believed, at least not to a level where belief gets to dictate. Neither ides nor omens for New York, London, Paris, Dublin, only facts. It has to do with different sets of freedoms.

On those mornings after the dreams have come, Barbara brings coffee and sits with her back to the windows, facing the open kitchen door so that she can see through into the hallway. Always waiting for something, some news from afar, even if it’s just the morning paper. Sometimes she hums little snatches of whatever song she has woken with in her mind. And when the stillness becomes too much, she rises again, and switches on the radio. It is always the same, a grumbling of static, music jerking in and out of tune, and then either a news station or something gentle and innocuous, ’sixties and ’seventies hits, but with the volume kept low. We listen, finish our coffee and toast, then reach for bowls and the cereal. These days, we eat muesli. Eggs are high in cholesterol, and bacon has become like a swear word, but muesli is meant to be good for the heart, or the bowels, or something.

The whole thing is a farce, shadow play. After the dreams have come and the bounds of time have been broken, what is gone feels far more immediate, more enlivened, than what tries to count as the here and now. And such mornings fill me with the sensation of having been cast adrift. I sip the coffee and quietly digest my breakfast, knowing that I properly belong nowhere. As good as New York has been to me, I’ll never understand the city on a conspiratorial level. I was not born for these streets. Barbara, who is full of her own concerns, seems content in leaving me to my silence, but I know that, were she to press me into conversation, my words would come only and ever in Irish.

This would probably amuse and then frighten her, and the thought of it frightens me too, because I sense that once I started there’d be no stopping, that it would be like splitting an artery. I chew the muesli and keep my eyes open, inhaling with care because the bare stone walls of my father’s cottage feel suddenly only a breath away, the small kitchen window coated with the salt and grit of the sea wind and whistling drafts where the sealing putty has crusted and turned to powder. If I try at all, I can feel the heavy wool of an old sweater across my back and shoulders, a thing passed down, the thick shape of it sagging around me several sizes too big, but its weight comforting against the bleak days, its odour filling my mouth with sooty, slightly gamey sweetness, a familiar taste that itches my tongue and lights a fire deep down in my throat. And when the wind catches just right in the eaves, it can pass, almost, for the high keening of Áine, deep in one of the ancient laments she so loved to sing, as she busies herself with collecting breakfast eggs from the small coop or struggles with a slopping pail of water from the communal pump at the bottom of the hill.

Inishbofin is home, even still, but the connections to the place are too long lost, the damage irreparable. My father dead within two years of my leaving, Áine also gone. There were the boys, her sons, my nephews, three of them, steps of stairs, but they are grown men now and have themselves long since abandoned the island. They have my address but none of them have kept in touch, as so often happens. They can’t be blamed. They don’t know me. I’m a name, that’s all, a nowhere man and a nobody. Someone they will have heard their mother mention, someone to look up if they ever happen to find themselves in New York, who can speak, if pressed, as they do and who will offer food and a bed, money, if needs be. I am nothing to their lives, but even though I only know them from the flattened expressions of the photographs that Áine used to send every Christmastime without fail, they are, in a way, everything to me. Because they remain the last surviving links to my past, to who I was before I started trying so hard to be someone else.

Stinkman

by J. T. Townley

Then Jonathon’s up and over the railing, crimson cape flapping in the September breeze.  He falls farther than he expects before hitting the warning track; on impact, he grunts, dropping to a knee.  He eyes the vivid expanse of green stretching out before him, the bright chalk foul line, the red clay of the warning track.  The gravelly surface prickles his open palms.  The air smells of new leather, sweat, and garlic.  Everything seems bigger from this angle.

He’s about to make history.

With Fisher’s help, Jonathon did his homework:  Dodgers vs. Giants, both on a pennant run; Saturday night capacity crowd; warmest part of the cold San Francisco summer; seventh-inning stretch, just after the singalong; national TV coverage.  Fisher even studied the stadium layout, determining the smartest entry point to be down the first base line in right field, between the bullpen and the ball boy.  Jonathon leans into the shadows, hugging the wall, grateful no one’s noticed him.  He takes a deep breath, then another, listening to the last sour strains of singing.

“Hey, buddy,” calls the ball boy.

Jonathon hunches over his knees, hoping his cape will cloak him in invisibility.

“You can’t be here,” he says.

“It’s now or never,” Jonathon whispers.

Then he blasts onto the field, nothing in front of him but meticulously trimmed Bermuda grass.  But he doesn’t make it ten yards before the ball boy screams:

“Come back here!”

The kid’s stronger than he looks, more agile, too.  In one swift movement, he picks up his chair, flips it over, and slings it at Jonathon.  Before it hits him, he dives out of the way, rolling over his right shoulder and coming up on one knee.  Crouching in the outfield grass, he surveys the scene:  ball boy straddling the foul line, chair flung and broken.  The roar from the stands dies down for a moment, as if spectators are all holding their breath.  He knows he’s been spotted.

There’s no turning back now.

Jonathon trots down the foul line toward the infield.  It’s not part of the plan, and he’s not sure what he’s doing.  But he’s not ready for those acres of empty grass.  He wants to be near the empathetic gazes, or gawking stares, of the crowd in the stands.  Security will think he’s taunting them.  As he wanders past the bullpen, the fans go wild, screaming and laughing, elbowing their friends and pointing, snapping photos with every imaginable digital device.  Yet the behemoth, Viking-bearded men in the bullpen seem much less enthused.  They glare and growl, flexing their pecs and deltoids and biceps, tattoos stretching and swelling.  Or, worse, they may not be flexing at all.  Without taking their eyes off him, they stuff their mouths with sunflower seeds, one bag after another, till their cheeks puff out like chipmunks’.  Fisher, strategically positioned in right-center field with his ultra-zoom video camera and bag of crimson-dyed baseballs with the Stinkman logo, must be cursing Jonathon’s headlight-stunned stupidity.

Although the first baseman and umpire both laugh when they notice him, Jonathon takes off before he makes the edge of the infield, running back up the foul line.  He’s about to break for the outfield wall when something stings him.  First on his right thigh, then his neck and cheek and arm.  A quick glance over his right shoulder; an involuntary wince as he’s stung all over his face.  Wasps?  Killer bees?  Nano-techno security drones?  Jonathon squints and blinks just in time, as he’s pelted in the face with a cluster of wet sunflower seeds shot from the mouths of relief pitchers and backup catchers like rounds from a Tommy gun.

He flees into the deep, green sea, settling into a strong rhythm.  He’s glad to get moving, too.  It’s not warm out here.  He never should’ve listened to Fisher, who insisted that the Stinkman costume he’d designed—jeans and retro sneakers and vintage t-shirt to go with the cape and mask—was fine for the graphic novel but wouldn’t work for the Great Streak, as they’d come to call it.

“You gotta spice it up, bro.”

“What do you mean?”

“Show some flesh!”

“What for?”

“That’s what streaking is, man.”

Not that Jonathon was about to ditch his Stinkman costume.  Parading the character in public was at least half the point.  Fisher cooked up all sorts of alternatives—opaque body paint, a flesh-colored full-body stocking—but Jonathon felt squeamish about getting naked in front of thousands of spectators and millions of TV viewers.

So he replaced the retro sneakers with his good running shoes.  He chucked the t-shirt, substituting his bare chest covered in a giant, crimson S!  The jeans went, too, and Jonathon’s glad about that, since they would’ve severely restricted his range of motion.  Of course, he might’ve done better than a jockstrap dyed crimson to match the cape and mask.  But at least he isn’t parading his junk around in public, and he had the tear-away pants for pre-streak warmth.  The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco:  He’s heard the quip a thousand times, but only now, running across the outfield grass, does he truly understand what it means.

Although he’s a little disoriented, Jonathon points himself toward right-center field.  That’s the plan:  aim between the two outfielders and rendezvous with Fisher.  He’s already wasted precious moments dawdling over by the bullpen, so he picks up his pace, from jogging to running, though not sprinting.  He has to keep his legs fresh while he can—for security.  He blows past the right fielder, a gangly All-American with legs like a horse who must be six-five.  When he spots Jonathon coming, the player smirks and nods, then goes right back to throwing long toss.  Jonathon cuts to his left, angling toward the warning track.  The outfield smells of cut grass and Neatsfoot oil.  His pounding pulse and heavy breathing drown out the swelling crowd noise.  The centerfielder all but ignores him, and he makes the outfield wall more quickly than he expects.  Fisher’s right where he’s supposed to be, video camera in hand and rolling.

“What the hell, Jonny?”

“I am Stinkman!” Jonathon says, hamming it up.  “Now drop the stash!”

Fisher passes him the bag, organic cotton dyed Stinkman crimson.  It’s full of baseballs.

“Chop, chop, bro,” says Fisher, gazing back toward the first base dugout.  “Cavalry’s coming.”

Jonathon takes a quick glance.  Fisher’s right:  grounds crew is on their way.  What’s taken them so long is another question; guess he caught them back on their heels, swilling Gordon Biersch and munching garlic fries.  He drags the ball bag, which is heavier than he anticipates, along the wall toward centerfield.  Trotting into the grass, he faces the crowd, then starts chucking crimson baseballs into the stands.  They’re on their feet, arms outstretched, beckoning.  Every time fans come up with a ball, they hold it high, like a trophy.  They don’t always catch them cleanly, and there’s a minor melee as men and women, from their fifties on down to their teens, scramble for each crimson Stinkman souvenir.  Jonathon hurls them as quickly as he can, launching baseballs throughout the outfield stands.  He even chucks one to each Giants outfielder as a peace offering.  They study the balls, gaze at Jonathon, then toss them up into the stands.

When the grounds crew goons start to close in, Jonathon lobs a few balls toward them.  The fans think it’s funny; the goons see the balls but not the humor.  This side of second base, the three of them spread out, one to right field, one to left, the third headed straight toward him.  It’s a well-drilled maneuver designed to hem him in from all sides.  But Jonathon isn’t the easy prey they’re used to.  He’s been a runner for years, even had a scholarship to UCLA, almost, only by then he was sick of the competition and wanted to go to art school.  Jonathon never quit running, though, not even when his artist friends gave him hell.  “It’s meditative,” he’d say.  “And when you get lung cancer from all the cigarettes, I’ll be running marathons.”

Jonathon has serious stamina, and he’s too smart to let himself get cornered.  He sprints for a gap, splitting their attack, then he keeps them moving.  Two of the three look fit, if not exactly athletic, though judging from his love handles, the third, who seems familiar somehow, doesn’t keep himself in shape.  From the beginning, the idea was always to stay out on the field as long as possible.  Jonathon would simply wear them out, a war of attrition.  And it’s working.  He keeps the goons at a safe distance, running them all over the outfield grass.  For a while, he worries that one of the players will grow annoyed with his hijinks, tripping or shouldering him down as he lopes by, Stinkman cape aflutter.  To Jonathon’s surprise, they seem amused by his antics.  When they’ve seen enough, they trot to the infield for a team conference behind the mound, while the pitcher tosses a few to stay warm.

He keeps the grounds crew at bay for a long time.  Longer, he imagines, than anyone expects; much longer.  Makes them look like the Three Stooges.  With the adrenaline surging through his system, he could run all day, or night.  Time seems to slow down and almost stop, and between one passing moment and the next, Jonathon dreams of Stinkman stardom.  Thousands, maybe millions of hits on the website, courtesy of the promotional crimson baseballs.  Millions more thanks to the video Fisher’s shooting of the Great Streak, which they’ll imbed on the website.  It will, as they say, go viral.  His teaser panels from the graphic novel-in-progress will wow his new fans.  Publishers will follow the buzz; a bidding war will ensue.  When it’s published, Stinkman will be met with rave reviews and massive sales.  Jonathon can see it now.  There’ll be so much hype, the movie producers will come knocking, and before he knows it, he’ll negotiate a full-blown Hollywood deal for Stinkman: The Movie, complete with megabuck tie-ins, maybe even Stinkman action figures.

The crowd is still with him, drunk, laughing, enthusiastic about the sustained diversion from this low-scoring pitchers’ duel.  Their clapping and chanting swells:  Stinkman!  Stinkman!  Stinkman!  Though it almost sounds like Streakman?  Or maybe Stickman?  A few even yell Stanfordman, owing, Jonathon guesses, to the S!  and the color and the campus’s close proximity.  Anyway, it’s not important, none of that matters right now.  Once they go to the website, they’ll understand their mistake, then fall in love with the coolest, most original superhero to ever grace the silver screen.  That’s how fast it’ll all happen.  A complete whirlwind.

The longer he spends on the outfield grass, the more frenzied the crowd’s support becomes.  They love when the goons lunge at him and miss.  Along with stamina, Jonathon has lateral quickness and agility.  He can dodge left or right, or feint right and go left, freezing them in their tracks like some star NFL running back.  When he realizes how into it the fans have become, he waves his crimson cape with a flourish, like some crazy matador.  ¡Olé! they yell as another goon whiffs at him, then stumbles and face-plants into the left-centerfield grass, while Jonathon dashes to open ground.

He can’t remember the last time he had this much fun!

Jonathon came up with the idea for a graphic novel when he was seventeen.  It’s taken him all these years to create a simple character with profound, unexpected powers:  the ability to sniff out lies, deceit, and betrayal, the stink of society.  It’s a feat of imaginative genius.  Yet in the end, Jonathon’s an artist first, a writer maybe never, and though over time he’s filled out Stinkman’s backstory, he’s struggled to find the central narrative that could drive an extended storyline.  The eureka moment came last week when Fisher took Jonathon out for his thirtieth birthday.

“Dude, get a grip,” said Fisher, fiddling with his long blond locks.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve been working on this thing for like ten years.”

“Closer to fifteen.”

Fisher slurped from his fifth pint, then said, “That’s what I mean.”

“So?”  Jonathon’s tongue felt fat.  “It’s a labor of love.”

“You finished art school, bro.  You’ve got a sweet job designing for Quake City Skateboards with me.  Time to let it go, right?  Live a little.”

“No, Fish, just the opposite.  I’m getting old, man.  It’s now or never.  And I’m almost there.  I’ve refined my style, and I’ve even got a great arch nemesis.”

“Super-hot super-chick in skin-tight spandex?”

“Blacks and grays, very Goth.  She’s called The Fog.”

“Nice.”  Fisher took another gulp of porter.  “But let me guess:  you’ve got no plot.”

“Nailed it in one.”

Fisher didn’t hesitate:  “Write your own story.”

“Come on, Fish.  Gimme a break, it’s my birthday.”

“You’re not listening, bro.  Just model the thing on your life.  Keep it simple.  Thirty-something dude—”

“Just turned thirty.  Today.”  Jonathon slumped on his stool.  “I’m fucking prehistoric, man.”

“Hey, everyone,” Fisher slurred.  “Meet my good buddy Gerry Hattrick.”

Jonathon faked a laugh.

“Seriously, you’ve got this thirty year-old dude, still lives in his parents’ basement in Berkeley—”

“It’s not that pathetic.  The rent’s cheap.”

“You want my help?  Or you gonna keep interrupting?”

“You’re right,” said Jonathon.  “Sorry.”

“Make him this average dude just like you, Jonny.  No offense.  This art school runner guy, loves to draw and paint and surf and skate.  He’s got a good life, or not bad, but he longs for something more.”

“The graphic novel.”

“Yep.”  Fisher chuckled.  “Only he can’t come up with a story.”

“Thanks for the help, bro.”

“Take it easy, Jonny.  Let me finish.  Until he comes down with your dude’s disease.”

“Condition.  Phantosmia.”

“Fucking drives him nuts, till he realizes he’s not hallucinating.  The stink is real.  It’s everywhere.”

“And so I, or my character based upon me, I become—”

“That’s right.”

Jonathon stood behind his stool and flexed.  At the top of his lungs, he yelled:  “I am Stinkman!”

After bobbing and weaving for a while, toying with the grounds crew, Jonathon sprints for a patch of open grass, then gazes up into the stands.  By now, he’s over in the left field corner.  While he hadn’t noticed it before, everyone in Section 137 sports a Stinkman costume—even the women!  He thinks maybe it’s the glare from the stadium lights, or even lack of oxygen from so much running.

Only his vision isn’t impaired.

And he’s not even breathing hard.

He dodges one goon, then another.  The third grounds guy, the one with the love handles, has all but thrown in the towel, giving half-hearted chase, buckling over, trying to catch his breath, clutching at a side-cramp.

“Have a heart, Steckman,” he says.

Jonathon does a double-take, stumbling a little.

“Holy shit, he yells.  Flooty?”

“The one and only,” the goon gasps.  “Give us a break and come along quietly, okay?  You’re holding up the game.”

Jonathon thinks he’s losing it, right here in front of forty-plus thousand people.  Because that’s where the name originally came from.

Fucking Aaron Flooty.

Sacramento High.  Flooty was captain of the varsity football team, Jonathon a clueless freshman.  It happened in the locker room:  Flooty smashed him against a locker, shoved him to the floor, and pinned his arm behind his back.  Another knuckle-dragger whipped it out and pissed all over him.  They all laughed.  Then Flooty said:

“You stink, Steckman.  So that’s your new name.”

Stinkman.

And it stuck.  For years.  Which really stank.

Later, after Fisher bails him out, Jonathon will tell him all about Flooty.

“He was this bully fuckhead, used to taunt me back in high school.  I was just a scrawny little cross country twerp, man.”

“Tell me about it,” Fisher will say.  “Back at Stockton High, I was a little emo musician wannabe.  Carried my guitar with me everywhere, one of those backpack gig bags?”

“Aaron fucking Flooty.”

“Dude give you swirlies, stuff you in your locker, that kind of shit?”

“Something like that.”

“Knock you around in the hallways, break your guitar, screw the shy, sexy girl you had a monster crush on?”

“Take it easy, Fish.”

Fisher will slow in Bay Bridge traffic, looking pensive.  “Hey, man, at least you reclaimed the name, right?”

When Jonathon glances up, the dozens, or maybe hundreds, of Stinkman lookalikes are still there, cheering and high-fiving as the real Stinkman, the original, works his on-the-field magic.  Then a tall, lanky man of indeterminate age—also sporting Stinkman regalia—comes loping up the third-base line and along the left-field wall.  On stilts.  He sticks to the warning track so he won’t sink into the soft outfield turf.  Fans cheer and holler, though it’s a mystery why, since the guy’s clearly a poseur.  And he’s stealing the limelight, the thieving bastard!  Jonathon wishes he had a crimson baseball or two to knock the guy off his twelve-foot pedestal.

But any publicity is good publicity, right?

Now here comes an old VW Beetle, right across the grass.  How did it even get onto the field?  Jonathon’s sure it must be a security detail sent to crush his shenanigans so the overpaid athletes can finish their game.  Until he notices the bug’s paint job, a floral motif in primary colors.  The car stops in dead centerfield.  For a moment, nothing happens.  Then the doors open, and clown after clown emerges, too many for Jonathon to count on the run.  Yet these are no ordinary circus entertainers.  Maybe they wear multicolored rainbow wigs and bright red fake noses, crazy red-and-white makeup and white gloves.  Some even carry honkers.  But none of them lumbers about in giant shoes and oversized one-piece jumpsuits with stripes or polka-dots and ruffled collars.  No, they all wear matching crimson capes and eye masks, jock straps and running shoes.  And they sprint around their little car like someone called a Chinese fire drill.  Then, more quickly than they arrived, they all pile back into the car and putter across the outfield to a gate in the right-field wall.

Soon everyone will sport superhero crimson.

The network cameramen follow Jonathon’s antics with a keen eye, though it’s policy never to broadcast streakers, lest they become a nightly occurrence, given people’s deep, inexplicable yearning to see themselves on TV.  Their footage won’t play so well for Jonathon on the late-night sports highlights.  He’ll watch it all, eyes glazed with wonder, from a hard bench against the wall of a holding cell of the Southern Precinct station, just him and a pair of patchouli-reeking vato thugs with baggy pants and neck tattoos.  It won’t start out so bad.  They’ll play an opening montage that casts Stinkman in a positive light:  his speed and agility, his strong throwing arm, his ability to make the stadium security detail look so bumbling and foolish the whole thing almost seems rehearsed.  There will even be a slow-mo sequence of Jonathon the matador, waving his cape, side-stepping a goon, every fan in the frame cheering and laughing.

But none of that’s what people will remember.  The end of the highlight reel, which is actually more than half of it, is what will stick.  Those broadcasters will fixate on his eventual apprehension.  They’ll revel in the ways he’s attacked and taken down and hauled off the field.  They’ll play the inevitable conclusion to his streak forwards and backwards, in slow-mo and freeze-frame.  It should all be humiliating, especially with those two thugs in the holding cell laughing it up all the way through.  That’s really you, homes? they’ll say.  Man, you got jacked!  No one will remember his name either, since among all the possibilities—Stinkman and Streakman, Stickman and Steckman—the broadcasters can’t get it right.

But after what Jonathon’s seen, none of it will matter.

Someone upstairs has had enough.  Maybe the Giants front office, maybe all of Major League Baseball, though more likely the execs from the network broadcasting the game.  They’re on the phone not long after Jonathon darts onto the field, a secret cabal of corporate bigwigs by conference call.  He’s making a laughingstock of them.  After much hemming and hawing, they send out six more guys from the grounds crew.  These goons look meaner and more focused than the three who’ve been chasing him around for the past ten minutes.  (A record!)  More athletic, too.  Jonathon fears they’re taking his extended presence in their outfield grass much too personally.  For some reason, Lou Seal, the Giants’ beloved mascot, squeezes through a hidden door in the corner of the left field wall and waddles toward him, waving to the crowd.  More ominous still, a couple of uniformed security guards—or are they actual cops?—trail after the seal, not exactly running, but still covering ground, fists gripping Tasers and Billy clubs.

For a moment, Jonathon tells himself he has nothing to worry about.  He’s a superhero, right?  I am Stinkman!  Maybe he’s been in character too long, or maybe it’s just the adrenaline talking.  Soon, though, he recalls that his power to sniff out deceit won’t be much use to him in his current predicament.  Still, he’s quick, maybe even uncatchable, so he figures he’ll juke and jive for another few minutes at least, crowd roaring.  No such luck.  The goon squad circles him as if they’ve done this a million times before, then closes in on him.  Panicked, Jonathon sprints for a gap that isn’t there.  And he’s blindsided by what feels like a dump truck rolling down a steep hill.  He goes down hard, mask askew.  The rest of the goons pounce on him, pinning his arms behind him, crushing him into the field.  Lou Seal even does a victory dance over him, all gray fur and orange sunglasses, stepping on his head more than once.  He’s overwhelmed by the smell of sod and fertilizer until someone, probably Flooty, starts choking him with his own crimson cape.  A policeman cuffs his wrists.  The goons soak him with obscenities, then hoist him to his feet.

And the crowd erupts.

As the security guards march him off the field, from far left all the way across to first base, the spectators are on their feet, clapping and whistling, hollering and chanting.  As if they understand what he’s about.  As if they know what he stands for.  Jonathon tosses his head back, basking in the delighted glow of thousands of fans.  They’re now his fans, he realizes.  He would throw his arms up in triumph if it weren’t for the handcuffs and the bruising grips of those meaty paws.

Then comes the sinking feeling, an aching hollowness in his gut.  What if they’re cheering because he was caught?  Maybe they’ve all had it up to here:  Enough already!  Let’s finish the game!  Maybe they think he’s the worst flop of a streaker to ever highjack a professional sporting event.  Even Fisher might think he’s taken things too far.

The goons shove him through a gate, down some steps, and into a tunnel beneath the stands.  He’s out of breath.  The crowd noise is muffled.  He squints in the dim light.

It’s worse than he expects.  Stadium security locks him in a room alone, handcuffed to a chair, for forty-five minutes.  It’s more like a closet.  His eyes ache in the fluorescent glare.  He wraps his cape around himself the best he can manage.

Then begins the interrogation, right there on the spot.  It goes on for more than an hour.  Although the guys questioning him flash badges, they’re dressed more like rumpled college professors than cops.  And they’re both midgets, or dwarves.  Little people.  One sports an Amish-looking neck beard, the other a faux-hawk.  They chain-smoke Marlboro Reds.

“Who planned the attack?”

“Do you realize how much damage you’ve caused?”

“Who’re you working for?”

“Do you know how much sod it will take to repair the outfield grass?”

“Who are you?” Jonathon interrupts, chuckling.  “John Deere?”

“Seriously,” says the neck beard.  “Enough about the grass.”

“But the field is trashed!” the faux-hawk exclaims.  “You saw it.  And that was beautiful grass, was it not?”

“That it was,” the neck beard agrees.

“That it was,” echoes Jonathon.

“Keep your mouth shut!” they both yell.

Jonathon does his best to allay their fears about terrorism and lawn destruction.  He has to assure them, again and again, that he has no ties to any anti-government agencies or organizations, including the Lawn Liberation Front, or LLF, whose mission seems to be freeing lawns from their masters.  It all seems insane.

“Oh, it is insane,” faux-hawk concedes.

“But insanity is the new black,” says neck beard.

Jonathon whimpers.  His wrists burn from the cuffs.  A headache blooms behind his eyes.

“It was just a prank,” he tells them, “a publicity stunt.”  He details the whole plan, over and over, until he finally convinces them—and himself—that he’s just your average wacko streaker.

After another twenty minutes of breathing the midgets’ secondhand smoke, two uniformed cops guide Jonathon out an unmarked exit.  One of them sports an emerald eye mask.  As they direct him toward their parked police cruiser, Jonathon says:

“Is there a reason you’re wearing a mask?”

His eyes brighten as he glances at his partner for confirmation, who gives him a quick chin nod.

“It’s for Mardi Gras,” he says.

“But that’s not until February?”

“I’m a little early.  So shoot me.”

They lead him to the car, mumbling about the worsening fog.  Maybe they mean in the mornings?  Because right now it’s so clear you can almost see stars, despite the ballpark lights and circling 747s.  Mardi Gras steps around to the driver’s side door, while the other officer shoves him into the backseat.  Jonathon catches a flash of cobalt spandex protruding from the cop’s uniform sleeve.

“Do you have on a superhero costume?” he asks.

“What, that?”  The officer pushes his sleeve up and smirks.  “Just my union suit, is all.  You know how cold summers are here.”

The other cop, the one in the emerald mask, grins at him in the rearview.  “And we all know,” he says, “how bad The Fog has become.  Right, Stinkman?”

Jonathon feels his eyes saucer.  The cops laugh, though they don’t seem to think anything’s funny.

Then Mardi Gras cranks the engine, and they speed off down King St.