American Anti-Intellectualism

Carl Sagan Cosmos

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” — Carl Sagan

Yes, President Obama brought this quote to the fore recently, but I lead with Sagan intentionally … it’s an apolitical point. American anti-intellectualism has been weighing heavy on me lately. When professors are scared to lead class discussions on gender or race because their college students demand a safe space free of emotional triggers, this is anti-intellectualism. When we reject solid science because the finding doesn’t fit with our belief system or is economically inconvenient, this is anti-intellectualism. When supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump start throwing fists because they can’t emotionally manage a challenge to their worldview, this is anti-intellectualism.

A post like this is not much better than shouting into the void, but the vast majority of my friends are well educated or smart people (sometimes both). I hope my conservative friends will insist that facts lead your issues, not bluster that feels good as an ends-justifies-the-means path to #winning despite the fact that it’s intellectually bankrupt. And to my liberal friends: I hope you wipe the smug, holier-than-thou looks off your faces, because our set is not exactly trending positive, even if it feels like liberal mob wisdom is on the good side of history while rationalizing another instance of muzzling free speech.

Mr. Sagan was right about the means by which we can judge progress. And by those measures, we’re going the opposite direction of progress. With the last 500 years more or less on the side of progress, I’ve always had the sense that it is inevitable. But the current tide against progress, rising from both sides, society acting like a stubborn family that insists on riding out a storm in their barrier island home while the sands shift away and the sea pinches in from east and west, is a black mark in the ledger that says inevitable progress is a myth. It reminds me that 1,000 years of medieval Europe came after the progress of Greece and Rome.

Anti-intellectualism is a frightening trend that any thinking person has a vested interest combating. President Obama is right: the rejection of facts, of reason and science, is the path to decline. If the fact President Obama made that statement causes you any desire to reject the sentiment out of hand, you need to think hard about who you are and what kind of person you want to be.

Mike Judge made a very silly movie about American anti-intellectualism in 2006 called Idiocracy. In what is truly sweet irony, the guy who created Beavis and Butthead satirically predicted that America would devolve into an unthinking society guided pliably by dumbed-down marketing and specious ideas within 500 years. Just 10 years later, what seems most silly is that Mr. Judge thought it would take that long.

giphy

Wankers published in The Legendary

Bernie

Of all the short stories I’ve written, “Wankers” is my absolute favorite. It’s also now published in one of my absolute favorite lit mags, The Legendary. The Legendary specializes in sharp, edgy writing and was set to publish “Wankers” back in June, but then took a break to do a complete relaunch of the site.

Well, now the site is live and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the relaunch. The timing worked out pretty well, too. I wrote “Wankers” back in December 2013 when Occupy Wall Street was fresh in my mind, then “Wolf of Wall Street” came out and “Wankers” seemed derivative, even though it was written well before the movie came out. But now, with the U.S. presidential campaign in full swing and Bernie Sanders conjuring up a populist movement with his anti-Wall Street fervor — much of it based on the Street’s greed and arrogance — the story feels timely and relevant again.

“Wankers” at its core is a gross and intentional exaggeration, but it still says something (in my opinion). It speaks to the image problem these guys (and they are mostly guys) have created for themselves through years of indifference in their Ivory Towers, and why ordinary people harbor so much anger toward them.

Here’s the intro to “Wankers” and you can read it on The Legendary by clicking here. Caution: There is not one inch of this story that’s not ripe with awful, terrible things and horrible potty mouth. These characters are not good people, folks.

How we get down

Dickhead Pete’s ‘We Are the 1% Party’ got a little bit out of hand last night. Cristal Beirut. Belvedere Unfiltered Jello shots (for the ladies, natch). Johnny Walker Blue. Ice luge. Hot new interns (dude interns not invited, natch). Anorexic models. Spin the bottle. Fuck the bottle. Prude intern exit stage left. Anorexic transvestite model. Fist fight. Lines of coke. Eli Manning. Lines of coke with Eli Manning. Bad head: non-prude hot intern. Puke on non-prude hot intern. Exit stage left. Good head: anorexic transvestite model. 4:30 a.m.: pass out. 5:15 a.m.: alarm. 5:33 a.m.: break alarm. Shit-shower-shave. Visine. Advil. More Visine. Boot coked-up models (tranvestite and original recipe). Depart Tribeca bachelor pad. Red Bull. 5:59 a.m.: arrive at office.

Not bad for a Wednesday night.

DP lives for this shit. The last time he showed up at work this bombed, Ron Chancellor called him into his office. Ron was starting up a new division – Innovative Investments – and he wanted DP to be his lead dog, his general in the field.

Memory:

Ron: “So what do you say, DP? You game?”

DP: “Who are you talking to, boss? Fuck yeah I’m game.”

Ron was a legend at Goldlynch. You don’t turn that dude down when he comes calling. And Innovative Investments was like nothing the bank had ever done. No limitations. No asset classifications. Most important, no questions. Mission: max returns. The recession was over, investors were tired of conservative bullshit, asset-backed securities were dead. Goldlynch needed to invent a new game to keep their good name as the smartest guys in the room. Innovative Investments was it.

“DP, you are a tremendous dickhead,” Ron said. “But you’ve got the touch. You shit money. Pick your team. You get a blank check this quarter. Get me 15 percent-plus returns and you get another one next quarter. See how we play this game?”

Good times.

 

 

By Anonymous

Poem

I haven’t posted in a while — not since May, actually — but it hasn’t been for lack of time, content or want-to. I just decided my next post was going to share a short story that’s scheduled to be published … sometime. It was originally supposed to be published on June 20, but the issue was delayed. And delayed. And (I’ll give you one guess) delayed. It’s understandable. Most literary magazines these days are run on zero budget by people who receive no reward other than the good feeling in their bellies for helping bring new fiction to the world. So here I am three post-less months later when the subject of this post literally blew into my front yard. The wife and I were out doing yard work today when she found the two shreds of paper pictured above and discovered it was someone’s abandoned poem.

I have always been an awful poet. The only poetry I’ve ever written exists in a folder on my computer, and this folder is titled: Very Bad Poetry. The folder does not lie. If a digital file storage space could be burned, I would douse Very Bad Poetry in lighter fluid and watch those miserable words float back into the atmosphere. As it is, I just need to try that double delete thing. So, all that is to say, I understand this mystery poet’s frustration with her or his words. I don’t know the full content of this poem, whether it was bad or good or meaningful or trite. I only know what was left on two quarters of paper. But poems are pretty incomplete creatures by nature. To sound like more of a lit wonk than I am, their meaning is in the space between the words. Well, if that’s the case, then I thought maybe these shards of a poem are the poem.

And with that, I’d like to present:

A Poem

by Anonymous

Of this divine

Each born are the

Forever to love

Each born bare the

forever look often

To the heavens

endless thoughts of

describe

To the heavens I

endless thoughts of

divine Nature

I can only compare

‘The Swindler’ published in Pythia Journal

I’m incredibly psyched today that my short story, “The Swindler,” is appearing in the inaugural issue of the Pythia Journal. Pythia is a “journal of arts, literature and spirituality” featuring fiction, poetry, art, essays and interviews. It is housed at Bryn Athyn College near Philadelphia and put together by students.

Best of luck to Pythia, the current student staff and all those that will follow. It is very cool to be featured in a journal’s first issue. I look forward to seeing Pythia’s prestige grow, and hope to say I contributed in some small part to its success one day.

Here’s the intro to “The Swindler.” You can read the full story at Pythia by clicking here.

hold em

They walked into his old Cape Cod on Sycamore Court with their heads hung low, sullen, not a word spared between the lot of them. Perfect victims.

“They’re all yours, Mr. Ronson. Thank you so much for taking an interest in Syracuse’s homeless community. These gentlemen are really looking forward to learning how to play bridge. I’ll be back this evening. Just call me if you have any problems.”

“I doubt that will be necessary, Latisha. We’re going to have a great time.” He closed the door in her face. Jon Ronson didn’t want the fat pig driver from Syracuse Open Doors for the Destitute hanging around any longer than necessary. He only had three hours to rob the bums blind.

If there was one thing Ronson knew when he saw it, it was a bunch of dupes. SODD was one cherry-flavored gang of suckers. They never even asked why he wanted to help these four specifically. They were just happy someone would give them a warm place to stay once a week and pump them full of coffee during Syracuse’s brutal winter days. But SODD wasn’t the mark. The dirty, putrid, babbling whack jobs loitering under the yellow light in his hallway were the marks. They didn’t have much, but they had enough to make it worth taking. And all the better, even the people purporting to look after them didn’t really care what happened to them.

Click here to continue reading.

Oregon (and fiction) is weird (just how it should be)

Author’s note: Humor, satire, adventure, fantasy, crime, really weird shit — all genres of fiction I feel pretty comfortable swimming around in. On the other hand, the nebulous thing known as “literary fiction” (for which I don’t believe a single person on the planet has a firm definition  … it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing or a label earned if the writing/writer seem intelligent enough) is entirely alien to me. In my humble opinion, fiction intended to be literary feels unforgivably put on and obnoxiously pretentious. However, fiction that you know is “literary” when you read it tends to be very enjoyable. So I hesitate to say the manuscript from which the following passage was pinched is from my first crack at “literary fiction,” but I was trying to write a novel-length work that played in the worlds of theme and imagery and metaphor more than I’ve done before. The problem I’m having is that making writing more intelligent is REALLY DIFFICULT (It’s like you need to be smart to do it, or something)! Maybe I’ve discovered why so many works marketed as “literary fiction” feel like they’re trying too hard. Below, I’m sharing one scene from this particular manuscript that I feel good doesn’t try to be literary fiction at all, and yet in the grander scheme of the book does a lot of work advancing themes and character development (hopefully without the reader ever knowing because the last thing I ever want a reader thinking is, “Hey, nice character development bro!.”) As always, thanks for reading — Jay

Ninkasi

The folks in the capital of Texas like to say “Keep Austin Weird,” but they might blanche if they knew just how weird weird could get. The people of Eugene know the limitlessness of the thing. Eugenites embrace it with a colorful flourish.

It’s not that embracing weirdness and diversity is unique to Eugene. It’s a flavor of the Pacific Northwest as distinctive to the whole region as the hoppy bitterness of their pale ales. Similar cultures thrive in Portland, Seattle, and a good many of the seaside towns that dot the coast as far down as Humboldt Bay in California. They generally have many things in common. Passionate love of the environment, nature, trees you hug, trees you smoke. But the color of it is a slightly different tint of weird in each town.

Art and Amelia prided themselves on being open-minded. But amid the amazing dance of weirdness moving around them as they strolled down the street to Ninkasi Brewing Company’s downtown tasting room, they couldn’t help but judge. Dressed in their yuppie hiking duds, Eugene judged them right back.

Sitting outside having a pint together were two women: a neonblue-haired goth punk tattooed from neck to toe, dressed all in black and beetlejuice leggings, and a naturally bluegrey-haired hippie all in flannels and hemp. Like twins, their heads turned in tandem to take in Art and Amelia walking up the street. They turned back toward each other and passed mischievous grins. In unison, the goth and the hippie fought to stifle harmonic snorts of derision in their pints. Then they noticed Apple. They faced each other again, took mirroring sips of beer, and agreed that they must be OK if they owned a pitty without ever saying a word. Symbiotic weirdness telepathy. It’s science. They continued to eye the newcomers as they meandered onto the tasting room’s patio and sidled up to the outdoor tap bar.

“What do you have?” Art asked. “We’re just visiting, but we heard Ninkasi is great.”

She stared at Art a moment. Choked down a sigh. Then she recited the beer list in the exact order they were written in large pink and white chalk letters on a chalkboard over her shoulder. “Total Domination IPA, Tricerahops Double IPA, Quantum Pale Ale, Spring Reign American Pale Ale, Maiden The Shade IPA.”

“Folks really like their pale ales up here. Do you have anything that’s not super hoppy? My wife’s not a big fan of hoppy beers.”

“I’ll have the Tricerahops, please,” Amelia said.

“OK, never mind. My wife will have the Tricerahops. In that case, I’m not a big fan of hoppy beers.”

“Oatis.”

“What’s that?”

“Oatmeal stout.”

“Sure. Sounds great.”

“Vanilla?”

“What?”

“Vanilla Oatis or regular Oatis?”

Art asked her what the difference was, but the bartender had stopped paying attention. Her pale cheeks were suddenly flush and her eyes were sparkling as she asked a guy with a matching stocking cap and cascading dreadlocks if the dog was his. Apple was winning over more locals. She’d be ready to run for political office before the day was done. In a town like Eugene, she might could win.

When their beers were finally in hand, Art and Amelia slid in at a communal high top table next to the synthetic blue-hair goth punk and naturally bluegrey-hair hippie.

“Did you know we just met today at a coffee shop? We’re both lesbians and we both play the ukulele. You’re not a lesbian, are you?” the hippie said to Art as he sat down next to her.

Art stammered for a reply. “I’m a guy. I can’t be a lesbian.”

“Oh honey, you can be anything you want to be. We don’t believe in assigning gender classifications here,” the woman said. Her voice was cheerful.

“I, um, no then, unfortunately, I am not a lesbian. I appreciate and respect vaginas, though. I mean my wife’s vagina. I mean all vaginas, but I’m exclusive to my wife’s.”

“Oh God, you’re an idiot,” Amelia said.

The older woman laughed. “I’m just taking the piss out of you, young fella. Nothing’s more entertaining for an old dyke than a young straight guy. See what I mean, Jean?” Jean was the blue-haired goth.

“I guess you could consider it charming. But they’re so awkward about everything. That’s what turned me off about men. The awkwardness, not penises. Dicks are ok,” Jean said.

“I’m still sitting right here, you know.”

“Are we making you uncomfortable, honey? I’m sorry. Eugene restaurants don’t have special seating sections for discriminators.”

Amelia sat back and enjoyed the show as Art drowned himself in shallow water.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Oh my, relax, honey. You’re too easy. I’m Betty and this beautiful angel is Jean. Like I said, we just met today, but we share the same twisted sense of humor. You’re just going to have to deal with it until you can down that sissy beer of yours. What is that, Oatis?”

“Vanilla Oatis.”

“May gays forgive me for calling you a sissy. I’ve insulted us all. So what brings you to Eugene, Mr. Man? You’re not from around here.”

“We’re on a road trip for a few weeks. I guess we’re going for sort of a reset in life, trying to focus on what’s important.”

“And what have you found out?”

“About what?”

“What’s important in life.”

“I’m not sure yet.”

Amelia reached out to touch Art’s hand. “We’re figuring things out as we go. It’s just hard to put in words.”

“Well,” Betty said. “Eugene is a good place to learn about what’s important in life. It’ll teach you a few things. Love Mother Nature, first. Materialism is a disease, second. Just look around. People are poor here, but we’re happy. We’ve got old shit cars and we live in old shit houses, but we take care of each other. We’ve got enough thrift stores to clothe us all. The cost of living is so low we can still afford an overpriced beer at Ninkasi. And all the entertainment is free. Just go for a hike in the woods. Nothing could be better.”

“What about you?” Art asked Jean. “What do you like to do?”

“Are you talking to me, uterus defiler?”

Art was stunned into silence. Jean burst out laughing.

“Oh my God, Betty, that is fun. Holy shit, dude, lighten up. I hike, too. You don’t think I like to hike because of how I look. I get it. You’re from someplace on the East Coast, right?”

“New Jersey. Near Princeton.”

“Exactly. It doesn’t matter what anybody looks like out here. We’re here to live the lifestyle. I spend a little more time fucking and Betty spends a little more time hiking, but I think we like them the same. The only people who don’t live the lifestyle are some of the yuppie sellouts. You’re not a sellout, are you?”

“I’m unemployed. We all are, even the dog.”

“Good for you,” Jean said. “Yuppie jobs are shackles. They weigh you down. It happened to my parents. Hey, are you going to drink that Tricerahops?”

Amelia shook her head no. It didn’t look like the beer had been touched. Art questioned her with a raised eyebrow. She shrugged her shoulders and his face transformed into patronizing ‘I-told-you-so’ mode.

“It’s all yours, Jean. My wife does not come with the beer.”

“What?”

Art stammered again, unable to crack the code of acceptable lesbian humor.

“You know what, Art, I’m actually pretty hungry,” Amelia said. “Why don’t we head out for dinner?”

Art wasn’t quite sure what the urgency was all about. They had virtually just gotten there, but the tone in her voice made his heart skip two beats and then squeeze through a painful murmur to get back on track. He made his apologies to Betty and Jean and was surprised by the warmth of their farewell.

Betty smothered Art with a musty hug when he stood up, her ancient flannel transmitting its peculiar scent of natural body odor and fresh herbs onto his shirt. In the town of Eugene, a shared beer and a little understanding is all it takes to earn a new friend.

Mythological Monster Madness: Breaking Down the Field

I wrote this little ditty last March in a shameless attempt to use March Madness to get published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and because, well, because I was in grad school and had nothing better to do. Ah, halcyon days. Since McSweeney’s didn’t want it, you get to read it on my blog every March from now until eternity! Enjoy this oldie but goldie!

The Mythological Monster Madness bracket is set, but not all competitors are created equal. We break down the field to separate the real contenders from the pretenders in this year’s edition of the greatest sporting competition in the mythological history of the world.

Asia Pacific Region

drop bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 China: Chinese Dragon

No. 4 Nepal: Yeti

Expect the imperial Chinese Dragon to wear down Nepal’s Yeti with waves of cultural hegemony and feigned friendly diplomatic overtures, setting up its famed “Maoist backdoor cut” all day long. China has to be seen as favorites to win the whole tournament as its greatest symbol of power is backed up by the deepest bench in the field, 1 billion-plus Chinese laborers.

No. 2 Japan: Pikachu

No. 3 Australia: Drop Bear

If Japan can get past Australia’s Drop Bear, it could be a tricky match up for the Chinese Dragon thanks to Pikachu’s electric conductivity making it highly flame retardant. That will be no easy feat, though, as Drop Bear – a giant, flesh eating koala – will look to down Pikachu like so much eucalyptus. The Selection Committee dealt a crucial blow to Japan’s hopes when it denied Pikachu’s appeal to evolve into Raichu, stating that Raichu did not appear on Japan’s official roster.

British Isles Region

unicorn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Scotland: Unicorn

No. 4 England: Pixie

England once again brings a big reputation and little substance to the tournament as the Pixie relies exclusively on its strategy of leading opponents to the woods and leaving them there lost, which should pose no problems for Scotland’s Unicorn – a native of woodland habitats. The Unicorn is the only competitor that is not only its nation’s most prized mythological creature but also the actual national animal. Bald Eagle doesn’t seem so great anymore, does it? The only thing standing between Scotland and a title run is the Unicorn’s blood – instant immortality will make any opponent that drinks it a real challenge. A potential Final Four match up with Vladimir Putin could spell international disaster should the Russian Dictator, er, President get hold of the Unicorn’s horn.

No. 2 Wales: Welsh Dragon

No. 3 Ireland: Leprechaun

Lacking the wisdom and strategery of the Chinese Dragon and relying more on brute force, the Welsh Dragon boasts perhaps the best offense in the field. However, Ireland’s Leprechaun will look to exploit the Welsh Dragon’s uncontrollable gold lust with its own damnably-frustrating-to-steal pot o’ the shiny stuff. Should Ireland advance, it would surely fall to Scotland. The Unicorn’s ability to completely disorient the Leprechaun by farting a maze of rainbows would nullify its famous shiftiness.

Europe Region

Krampus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Russia: Vladimir Putin

No. 4 Austria: Krampus

What, we ask, is more mythological than Vladimir Putin? This legend has hugged polar bears, rode horseback shirtless through the Siberian wilderness, shot whales with a crossbow, saved a TV crew from an escaped tiger, flown on a hang glider with migratory cranes and distracted the world from his impending invasion of Ukraine with a little event symbolizing world peace known as the Olympics. After an excellent season of terrorizing Alpine children, Austria’s lovable horned pseudo-Pagan-Christian Christmas demon Krampus stands little chance against the world’s greatest living myth left after the passing of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.

No. 2 Greece: Minotaur

No. 3 Germany: Wolpertinger

What better creature to survive the labyrinth of the world’s most competitive conference tournament than the Minotaur? Besting such rivals as Cyclops, the Titans, Hydra and Cerberus to make it this far, the “Cretan Beacon” is a strong hope for perennial power Greece. However, the brutal Greek Conference left the Minotaur bloodied and vulnerable after Theseus beheaded it in the waning moments of the league championship game. Having no head with which to see should play right into the paws of Germany’s Wolpertinger, the deer antlered, bird winged rabbit-wolf creature whose main skill involves hiding from drunken Bavarian hunters.

Americas Region

elsombreron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Argentina: Diego Maradona

No. 4 Guatemala: El Sombreron

The former child street urchin and cocaine addict is worshiped as a god by many in his soccer loving nation. The people call him Golden Boy and Hand of God, but his most famous nickname came from a radio commentator who wondered aloud on air after a Maradona goal, “Cosmic Kite, what planet have you come from?” The egomaniacal mighty mite’s greatest power is perhaps his unflinching hyperinflated belief in his own legend. Underdog El Sombreron from Guatemala is the feel good story of the tournament, a silver guitar-playing bogeyman in a big sombrero who stalks women by ceaselessly serenading them, trying to braid their hair, and putting dirt in their food so they’re always hungry and can’t sleep. Unfortunately, those skills mirror Maradona’s, and El Sombreron doesn’t kick a soccer ball nearly so well.

No. 2 Egypt: Mummy

No. 3 USA: Chupacabra

America’s best hope was squashed when the Selection Committee ruled that Chuck Norris was not eligible for mythological competition because all acts of greatness ascribed to him were, indeed, 100% factual. That opened the door for the upstart goat-eating Chupacabra out of Puerto Rico, the first tourney contestant to carry the flag for an imperial overlord. Egypt back-doored its way into the tournament by virtue of an American archaeologist’s early 20th century theft of a cursed mummy. The Committee ruled that the Mummy’s 100-year residence in the basement of a small New York college library qualified it to compete on behalf of its original nation in its new home region. The Mummy is coached by the legendary Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, and may be able to upset Maradona in the second round by convincing him of the benefits of embalmment.

Biggest tourney snubs

troll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Norwegian Troll

The struggles in recent years of Norway’s legendary Troll have led to a drastic drop in fuzzy-headed troll keychain sales as its stock falls faster than Duck Dynasty ratings, leading some to label it the Kentucky Wildcats UCLA Bruins1 of mythological sport.

2. Polite Frenchman

Perhaps the strongest mythological entity to be left out of the field in centuries. The Polite Frenchman is so rare that it is rumored the Committee extended him a bid, but he was never located to accept it.

3. Africa

Africa’s mythological sport leagues continue to languish under the Eurocentric Selection Committee bylaws excluding these nations from competing on the grandest stage. A history of racism and bias against oral folklore once again casts a shadow over this great tournament, and we expect more African nations will follow Egypt’s lead finding alternative routes into the field through gross cultural appropriation by Europe and the United States. To wit, former NBA star, Old Spice pitch man and Dikembe Mutumbo Saves the World hero Dikembe Mutumbo is rumored to be in training to compete on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Congo next season.

1 Boy, how times change fast. When I wrote this in March 2014, Kentucky was coming off a first round NIT exit and slipped into the 2014 NCAA Tournament as an 8 seed. One improbable run to the tournament final and an undefeated season later, I couldn’t pass on updating that out-of-date cheap shot. 

The Swindler and the dwindler

“The Swindler” is the name of a new short story I’ve managed to write since coming home to the U.S. from Edinburgh. “The dwindler” is me, the guy whose prolific production of fiction has dwindled a good bit since returning to the realities of the real world — bills, the need to do “real” work to pay said bills, a lack of access to low-interest student loans to pay for everything, and (gasp!) the need to pay…actually PAY…for healthcare. Oh blessed innocent days of Scottish grad school, how I miss thee.

Alas, despite getting back into the swing of hard workin’ American life, I actually have stayed fairly productive writing fiction. I just haven’t been able to share much here because fiction magazine editors don’t much appreciate when you post your work to your own blog before they have a chance to publish it. So most of my new short stories are in the dreaded “submission queue” waiting for their fates to be decided by the overwhelmed editors of the world’s bootstrapped lit fiction mags. Still, a little sample of one short story I’m rather fond of won’t hurt…

From “The Swindler:”

hold em

They walked into his old Cape Cod on Sycamore Court with their heads hung low, sullen, not a word spared between the lot of them. Perfect victims.

“They’re all yours, Mr. Ronson. Thank you so much for taking an interest in Syracuse’s homeless community. These gentlemen are really looking forward to learning how to play Bridge. I’ll be back this evening. Just call me if you have any problems.”

“I doubt that will be necessary, Latisha. We’re going to have a great time.” He closed the door in her face. Jon Ronson didn’t want the fat pig driver from Syracuse Open Doors for the Destitute hanging around any longer than necessary. He only had three hours to rob the bums blind.

If there was one thing Ronson knew when he saw it, it was a bunch of dupes. SODD was one cherry-flavored gang of suckers. They never even asked why he wanted to help these four specifically. They were just happy someone would give them a warm place to stay once a week and pump them full of coffee during Syracuse’s brutal winter days. But SODD wasn’t the mark. The dirty, putrid, babbling whack jobs loitering under the yellow light in his hallway were the marks. They didn’t have much, but they had enough to make it worth taking. And all the better, even the people purporting to look after them didn’t really care what happened to them.

Jon had scouted out these four on downtown street corners for weeks, studying their habits, their disabilities. They were all mentally ill. And they were all rolling in coins. It was disgusting how much people dropped in their battered paper cups each week; the savvy beggars always filling their pockets before the cup ever got more than a quarter full. They collected $100, $200 dollars a week, easy. They kept all of it on them. Where else would they put it? They were so predictable, stuffing it deep inside their ripped down jackets, the feathery guts orbiting around them like asteroids wherever they went.

They never took off those coats. Not even now, sitting around the table in Ronson’s uncomfortably warm kitchen. The room had an amber glow with the warm light from the incandescent bulbs reflecting off the cigarette tar-stained walls and coloring every last one of them like hepatitis victims with jaundiced eyes and skin.

What an impressive array of human misery. There was the bald white one, Mort, with a patchy beard of ginger and white, suffering major depression. He was too defeated by life to feed himself properly or shave or shower or probably wipe his own ass, given how much he stank like dry shit. There was Danny, the young white one with bloodshot eyes. He looked strung out, like a junky, always fidgeting, but it was a severe anxiety disorder. Danny looked over his shoulders constantly, like he expected someone to be there ready to take him away or worse. Then there was the fat man who went by Berg, some sort of Heinz 57 mixed from generations of poor and crazy irrespective of race. He was the perfect find, with an obsessive compulsive disorder that made him fixate on a desire to see everything. Ronson had seen it manifest a dozen times, but none worse than the time the man was digging through a box of oranges stacked outside a produce store. The owner tried to run him off, accusing him of trying to steal, but Berg fought back. It ended with Berg in the back of a police car having a full mental breakdown. Poor asshole wasn’t trying to steal anything, he just had to see the last oranges at the bottom of the box. Lastly, there was Tick, the dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic, always at the bottom of a bottle of the hard stuff. Fill him up with booze, and he’d be too stupid drunk to know he was getting taken.

That’s all Ronson knew about them. That’s all he needed to know.

Editor’s note: What is that scoundrel Ronson up to, eh?

Deathbook

My thanks to Eunoia Review for publishing ‘Deathbook,’ flash speculative fiction on what could happen by entrusting our digital lives to Facebook.

Eunoia Review

‘Incoming message. Subject: E-bill reminder from Facebook. Message: Mr. Caputo – To renew your deceased family memorial package for calendar year 2074 at a cost of 450 bitunits, say ‘Package 1’. For a 24-month renewal at a cost of 850 bitunits, say ‘Package 2’. If you would like to terminate your deceased family memorial package and lose access to all Pics, Vids, Files, updates, comments and data posted to Facebook by your registered deceased family members, say ‘Terminate.’

‘Package 2, you heartless bloodsucking cunts.’

What choice do I have? This is what Mom and Dad said they wanted. No funeral, they said, nobody does funerals anymore. Just cremate us, spread our ashes over the lake, and tell us you love us on our Facebook Memorial Pages every once in a while. How could they have known 20 years ago that Facebook was on its last legs, that the Chinese were…

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Sweet rejection

Generally, rejection sucks. Rejection is also really (REALLY) common for writers. Combine those two facts together and two things become clear: 1) Authors have a lot more bad business days than good ones; 2) Authors have good cause for all that whisky-soaked sorrow drowning we’re famous for.

I’ve discovered there are three tiers of rejection when you’ve sent an unsolicited short story or manuscript out. First, there’s the form rejection (Something to the effect of: Thanks for letting us read your work. We would appreciate if you don’t bother wasting the electricity required to send us an email in the future. The globe is warming, you know. If you’re not foaming at the mouth from the utter rage of our impersonal response, consider subscribing to our magazine. Only $79.00 for two issues!). Second, there’s the personal rejection (Usually something the likes of: Hey, your work is really good and I enjoyed reading it, but we just couldn’t fit it in/it’s not quite right for us. Consider making changes X, Y and Z. Good luck getting it published elsewhere. I really hope you submit to us again in the future.). Those second tier rejections feel not quite soul crushing. It’s enough encouragement to believe that MAYBE you’re good enough to get something published in the next decade.

Then there’s tier three, which I didn’t know existed until I received the following email from a very kind fiction editor the other day. I would just like to offer a very public Internet thank you to this editor. Your notes of encouragement, even in rejection, count for a lot. (For the record, the racial issues mentioned live with some very awful, immoral characters and I stand by how I wrote the story, but there was an immense amount of offensive conduct and I understand why some publications would hesitate to print the story).

Dear Jay,

This is one of the hardest letters I have had to write in a long time. I thought “[REDACTED]” was brilliant, but it is going to have to be a no for us.

This piece generated so much (heated) discussion. We brought it to the table twice. People were either in love with it or completely offended by it. As fiction editor, I wanted it very much and I went to bat for it, but other editors were concerned that the racial issues, especially the Asian accent dialogue, would be too much for [REDACTED].

Please send us something else. Our next reading period opens in January, but if you like, you can attach a word doc in an email at this email address at any time and I will hold it.

I laughed out loud in several parts, as did others I read the piece to. I am sure it will find a home, and I am sorry it won’t be with us.

[REDACTED], Fiction Editor
[A UNIVERSITY-AFFILIATED LITERARY MAGAZINE]

Now appearing in Oblong Magazine: ‘Isle of Soay’

Isle of Soay

An old Scottish sea captain’s lament reveals how a life of utter isolation on the Isle of Soay begins to change the island’s only two other residents.

“I suppose the strangest thing about them is their telephone booth. When they moved to Soay, they brought with them on their boat one of the old red telephone booths. Part and parcel as they may be to the London cityscape or even Edinburgh, it’s quite strange to see one standing alone in the middle of a field with pink puffs of blooming thistle grown half way up the sides.”

It’s often said reality is stranger than fiction. I completely agree. This very short story (only 570 words) pulls much more from a specific experience than my usual stories. I’ve done my best to appropriate the voice of a captain I met on a boat trip off the Isle of Skye. He actually was one of only three permanent residents of the Isle of Soay. The dog was a genuine wildlife spotter. The rest is my own pondering over how that level of extreme isolation would dredge up deep and personal truths about ourselves.

I hope you enjoy it! And please give Oblong Magazine a like on Facebook, a follow on Twitter and read some of the other great stories published at oblongmagazine.com every Tuesday.