back to Five Willows Literary Review main site

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Three short fiction pieces ----- Matt Briggs

Sick Time

I had been sick with something, and I didn’t know what to call it. I had been ill long enough that I couldn’t use my sick leave to address the sickness. If I’d used my sick leave to take sick time, I’d use every hour of my sick time and I’d still be sick. I didn’t use sick time unless my sickness manifested itself in a visible signs. Proper forms involved a limited range of taxonomic symptoms: running nose, cough, nausea, the kind of thing for which tinctures could be purchased off-the-shelf. I expected my coworkers to admonish me. “You’ll make us sick.”

I loitered in the aisle downwind from the chlorine scent of the butchers clearing their blades. I stood in the confluence of shoppers who started at opposite ends of the market. Some started in the Bakery aisle, others started in Produce. The temperament of these two types varied. Produce shoppers fondled purple tubers and yellow roots and clearly understood the nutritional value of variety. Bakery shoppers cuddled discount bread loafs in bulk in plastic pastry bags. I couldn’t find the substance I needed much less a discount that would solve my problems.

“Disease,” I told myself, “was not sickness." I couldn’t take sick time to alleviate a disease. I was diseased, but I didn’t know the name of the syndrome. Without a name, it might not actually exist. I feared it was merely psychosomatic. The symptoms removed the sense that I responded to events. I was at the mercy of an internal climate completely unknown to myself and invisible to anyone who examined me.

When the flu came through the office my healthy, self-absorbed peers became riddled with hacking coughs and other symptoms. Ed was out. Gordon was home with sick children. The e-mails filled the box in the morning, and then in the afternoon, I seeded my immediate equals with the knowledge that I didn’t feel well.

“You don’t look well," one said. In fact, I never looked well.

“I feel a little under the weather. I might go home early,” I said.

At a little before four, I packed my desk. I wiped down my white board. I sniffed the cleaning solvent. Finally, I stood and left without telling anyone. I walked down the stairwell to avoid loitering at the elevator. The cement and steel echoed with my passage. I opened the exit door in the alley between my office building and the next, a narrow space with rhododendrons, a cedar tree, a path that curved in a sine wave from one side to the other. Two police alert poles -- robotic totem poles -- blue with red lights like the blue light specials at K-Mart.

A day off would buy me another day. I had been stuck with a sickness from the day I was born. I wished there was a name for my disorder so I could stop confusing it with my existence. 


The Score

For many years we used to score our orgasms. When we had sex, we worked toward the moment of orgasm. We were goal oriented. The point of having sex was to be closer as a couple, because it was something to do on a Wednesday night, because it felt awesome -- sure -- but there was more to it than that: the score

Yes, the point of sex was also to receive or deliver a high score like a video game. We used a ten point system. My girlfriend was careful in delivering the points. You wanted to leave room above the highest score because it was always possible to discover some knew technique or pressure point on my body, or her body that would unfold into previously unimagined numeric possibilities. We had started very high. It might have begun as these things do after we had sex in the early days in our early twenties, and we were sweaty and tangled in the sheets having just come home from class and not really scheduled for work until the evening and in the long grey hours of the afternoon having sex and then afterward in my post coital slumber and her relaxed and lethargic way she asked, "How was that?" "It was good." "How good?" "A seven," I said and regretted the statement on one hand because a seven was pretty good. A seven was a C. It was more than a passing grade, but it wasn't stellar. She seemed a little put out by the number, I recall. She didn't really like the idea that it was just a passing grade. She was not a C student for one thing. She either dropped the class or got an A or even an A with something extra. I apologized. "I don't know how to calibrate," I said. She smiled and said hers was maybe five. I was happy she had lowered my score somehow. I liked it that there was room. And we worked on it, and gradually the numbers increased to the high eights.

These were indeed fantastic. The build up, amazing. The room flashed. I felt a wave of electrical current pass out of my fingertips. I could not imagine that it could get better. My ratings though stayed in the low eights. We discovered new things. She discovered a pressure point known as the million dollar point on the perineum and pressed when I was very excited, and I was suddenly into a new territory of numbers. The previous system while perfectly good in its day did not do justice to the new order. But, I had to calibrate those numbers between eight and nine. I left the real estate of nine to ten uncharted. Too, I discovered a knot of nerve endings in her vaginal canal, what is known as the G spot, and when she was aroused, for instance if she had a mild say a four or five point orgasm, then the spot was easy to touch while I touched her and she would climb into a realm where the first time she screamed, holyholyholy cow. It was the middle of the day. I'm sure very few people heard her, but if anyone was in the building or on the street, the heard something. We lay in the bed. "Well?" I finally asked. "Oh a ten," she said. We didn't say anything, and then she finally said, "Well, I guess I should say a nine. I suppose it's possible there is something more than that. I don't know what that would be like. But I'm curious to find out someday."

The addition of a baby and then a child into our household altered things such that I no longer slept in her bed. Before, we would find ourselves at home in the afternoon with no money and that is the perfect situation where you say, "I'm bored. What do you want to do?" In the absence of that kind of activity, we began to schedule sex. There was the night I took our daughter out. There was the night I taught night school. There was the night we turned the lights down low. In the regime of scheduled sex, the ranking of orgasms assumed the metrics of a quality control system. They had the precision of inspections at bottle factory. I desperately wanted to have that old-style sex where it was an activity to kill time not something to do like doing laundry, but hell, sex was sex, and I preferred having sex as a chore like laundry over not having sex at all. The ranking of sex no longer came into it. The scores would have been depressing. We did our business. We moaned and caressed each other's hair. We lay in the bed afterwards and said vague things like you would say about a book someone had loaned you that you didn't really feel like reading and hadn't read. "That was awesome." Or "I really needed that." Then return the dishes or laundry or watching the movie we had been watching.

Gradually our daughter became older. She was in school during the day. Our sex became more inventive but hardly any more sustained. It became inventive the way you might get inventive with the same old ingredients, and you were trying to achieve novel flavors out of the same old stuff.
In the last year of our marriage, we became as skilled as chefs working in a time of famine. To rank an orgasm in this last year by the old system would have been impossible because these orgasms left us speechless and addled. They were like drugs or electric shock therapy. We knew each other's bodies as well as we knew the passages of our favorite songs. We knew our kinks and fantasies in the same way. The last time we had sex, I could tell it was the last time. We had fought. I was sad and sitting on the couch. She sat on the other couch, and then sat on my lap and licked my tears. We had sex, and I kept thinking, this is it I guess. I asked her after, “What is the score?” 



We are bathed in a world not visible to the naked eye. Johann Wilhelm Ritter’s discovery of ultraviolet light unsettled the old order. Our own bodies as instruments of observation were not adequate to perceive our world. Silent sounds, invisible light, imperceptibly hostile elements threaten our survival. Radiation pierces the earth. Interstellar storms shot gamma rays through cement.

Although we can't see the invisible we can smell it. The odor of lavender from a cement planter in front of the bagel house where I get my morning coffee reminds me of the woman I've been seeing. She runs lavender scented oil into the back of my legs. I fight not to drift to sleep.

Below even the tier of scent there is the microscopic world that is populated by waterbears. They look like perverse balloon animals handed out at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I dated a woman once who liked me to take her and her son to Chuck E. Cheese’s. While her son played in the secure facility -- how secure is it I asked -- she and I would go back to her van and have sex. We returned breathless and damp to drink Diet Coke from the soda fountain and feed the child another five dollars of tickets. After three months of this I couldn't take the odor of flame retardant and the rattle of alarm bells of the Chuck E. Cheese’s. By association I began to get an erection every time I saw the mouse. I am no more than a lever. Entering the Chuck E. Cheese’s, which has become for me a kind of hedonistic release, an onslaught of filthy sex in a battered old van at the edge of a vast parking lot, I couldn't take it. Only later did I find out she was married. She friended me on Facebook somehow, improbably, a year later. I accepted it remembering only her taking off her shirt in the dim light of the van, and then it all came back to me. I paged back through her timeline and at that time in her life there was of course no mention of me. There were however pictures of her and her son that I'd taken at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Her son looked thrilled to be there. And then within the six months were seeing each other -- I thought dating -- I realized at that moment -- we were merely seeing each other.

Waterbears have a single mouth that folds in and out like a nutrition siphon drawing in the chemicals they need. They are durable little buggers who can survive deep space or the deepest part of the ocean. When we have killed ourselves, when even the cockroaches have been irradiated and mercury poison out of existence, the waterbears will still be here and will no doubt allow new life that can withstand radiation and lead to rise from the slick sludge remains of our uncivilized society.

In comparison we are fragile and vulnerable to infection and death.

Even tiny pieces of bacteria of fungus can find themselves embedded into our skin. I have had hand warts and untreated they grow into a little mountain of contagion and sprout like an old potato hairs, but in this case, long viral hairs. They must be burned off with liquid nitrogen. Hot and cold is like a circle, at the furthest margin of cold, things burn, at the furthest margin of heat you freeze into a block of black carbon.

We are colonized by bacteria that either helps us or kills us. Occasionally enemy bacteria migrate from the environment from contact with another person into our bodies and we need to take medicine or do something to help.

We are at the tail end of the great period of antibacterial medicine. Soon the bacteria will have rerouted itself around this roadblock to their progress and finally they we will become sick. This type of infection does not thrive when it kills, but rather needs to delicately keep the host population alive while also spreading.

I am not, however, a host population.

Before I touch my cock I jump out of bed and wash. I had just my fingers bathed in my woman's private area and she was making a soft noise. I move to the kitchen to quickly wash my hands. The thought on my mind is that I don’t want to mix her fluid on my hands with my fluid coming from my cock -- it would be the same as not wearing a condom. And so this thought was one of hygiene and contagion prevention. I do not think my woman is infected with a contagion but who knows? It is merely a safety precaution.

I worked as a medical lab technical for a while. In training we had a day where we stained our fingers with a water-soluble ink. And then we were told not to touch our face or anything that goes into our mouth. The next day we would be working on what the instructor called 'poop soup,' that is we would be creating slides from our own fecal mater and examining it -- looking at the e.coli and the other bacteria that are always present in feces. Our guts are a savanna of things. And of course within an hour nearly all of the students had a ring of the blue ink around their mouth like a 360 degree mustache. And several of us even had blue tongues.

I caught my woman looking up from the bed, half drowsy, to see me applying a liberal amount of soap. What is it? What are you washing off your hands?

She sat up. She looked at her body as if she were assessing a bag of laundry.

The one thing about the apartment were having sex was that the elderly couple who lived there had carpeted the bathroom. The bathroom was carpeted with a beautiful white carpet, like the skin of a massive a pale plushy, right up to the base of the toilet. It seemed to me like an enormously bad idea to have a carpeted bathroom. I carefully emptied my bladder and then went back to the sink for another round of vigorous hand washing.

The soap came in a beautiful porcelain container with delicate blue flowers on it. I don't know what kind they were. It dispensed a soap that smelled like lavender and my hands smelled like lavender.
After I washed we got back to it, and then about ten minute later she asked me, "And what was that? What did you wash from your hands?"

"There was nothing that I could see on my hands."

I didn't think about it after that except that the next day the soap had drawn the moisture from my hands and they cracked. I bought an ointment to put on my hands.

A few days later she sent me a message and she finally got around to asking, "And what was it that you were washing from your hands? Do I need to wash more?"

I wrote back that sometimes a person just needs to wash their hands even if there is nothing there. Bacteria either helps us or kills us

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Crash test dummies of the 1960s
Ken Sparling

I was thinking of throwing the blanket off my feet. There was a woman living four miles to the east of here who sat in her kitchen waiting. I might have had my feet planted hard on the cold linoleum floor of the kitchen. Or I might have been out in the back yard plagiarizing in a notebook.
He was painting the room white. He got the red out by licking it with his tongue.
But he could not for the life of him get rid of the vestigial traces of blue.

There was a ravine across the road with the smell of weeds and sewage and railroad tracks in it. There were parking garages with flat tops, tarred and graveled. I had to walk to school. Kids threw things at me. Snowballs.
I loved winter. They tried to teach me to smoke. Mom took us out to the ravine and made us take hikes. She got a high school girl to walk me to school. We went for lunch every day at a German lady’s house.

A lot of ladies are falling asleep on the subway. John gets out a pen and a pad of paper and starts writing down the names of people he knows. When he gets to the name Roger the pen runs out of ink. The ‘e’ and the ‘r’ in Roger are hard to read. John looks around the subway car for some place to get rid of the pen.
At the next stop, John gets off. The station is deserted. John tosses the pen, tip first, into the garbage receptacle. A sort of a growling, screeching, purring sound comes out of the garbage receptacle and, a moment later, some kind of hair-covered mammal jumps out of the can with the pen stuck in its neck. The creature runs towards John. John jumps down onto the tracks and runs into the subway tunnel. He is never heard from again.

Although it was very early in the morning, Vera felt that things might be happening. The grocery clerk might be opening up the grocery store. Someone might be eating lettuce. Things were happening. Everything beginning in the core of occurrence, then transpiring out in different directions. Some rays of occurrence were headed toward Vera, she knew. She looked out the kitchen window and waited for a breath of the future to touch her.

The idea was to blow your dummy off the fence and as far back into the cornfield as you could. The guy who blew his dummy furthest back into the field was the winner. First, though, you just blew off a few parts. A finger or an ear. Then, suddenly, you’d just keep firing, pumping bullets into the middle of the dummy, trying to keep it in the air for as long as possible.

B is for big deal. Q is for up.
Ken Sparling

There was a guy on my coffee cup who said things to me. Smelly things.
The little ones should fuck off, he told me. They scratch at the lower parts, reminding us again of Hell, which is where the lower parts go, with heaven reserved for the parts above the armpits but not the smelly mouth.
I was God. God was this guy, Wally Parknow, who owns Wally Parknow’s Bagel and Deli. Wally Parknow was this other guy,Trevor Heidleburg. I don’t know what Trevor does. Trevor Heidleburg was Heidi Heidleburg, and Heidi Heidleburg was a dog named Pinky – no last name.
Snow fell on Mom as she stood on Moon #7, by the shed, shedding.
Thing one, for instance: Jack Spade, landmark guy, boutique owner, is married to a handbag. Designer: Kate Spade.
Some of Ira’s poems are nothing. Others are longish.
Latest thing: Littlest Prince – littler than Little, but bigger than his heart.
Twenty minutes spent on dark-haired Delia. Something red. A fox. Once again going to the shoe stores.
Dolly hung a cloud from Giggles’ hand. The sky fell grey in shreds. One white cloud hurried by, lost.
Wait for it, Giggles. When it comes, we will drown ten places where we already were.
Full of white promise, he would change us into different foods.
Slice our lives anew, till we realize that the place we’re headed now will never quite do.
I keep thinking about sleep. I have visions of lawn chairs.
     I leave the bedroom window open. It is the only hope I have. The air from some far off place comes in through the bedroom window and kisses me gently on my naked ass.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The earth was falling
Ken Sparling

“If you cut their hair off,” he told me, “they grow tits and die.”
I was suddenly very afraid of him… he seemed so empty. The truth is, I am always afraid. But this was a very different kind of fear. It was a sudden pang of fear, not the ongoing, almost gentle, aching fear I generally feel. This guy was whacko. And yet, for some reason, I didn’t want to scare him away. I don’t know why that is. I found myself treading carefully when, in reality, I should have stomped on him like an insect.
I always thought that Tutti and I should get married. So after going out for six years, I asked her. By then, it was like walking a path. You could do it with your eyes closed. Lately, the path has been growing over, though. I’ve had to take detours. Sometimes I come to believe that I’m lost in the forest. I sit on the bathroom floor and weep because I think I’ve lost Tutti. I haven’t, though. It was always my own forest, my own trees. Tutti didn’t even know it existed. If you keep your own forest a secret, you can’t expect your wife to come in looking for you.
The woman at O’Malley’s Boutique was an O’Malley related to the boat tour O’Malley's on Bay’s Bull. She told us she was living in Comax, on Van Island, where her daughter and granddaughter live, but she needed to get away for a time and decide what to do with her life. “My son-in-law is bad,” she said. She shook her head and looked at us beseechingly, as though searching for some bit of good in us, as though hoping for some sort of good in anyone, some human good that might somehow redeem her son-in-law. “He’s just bad,” she said, finally, shaking her head and closing her eyes.
Maybe I don’t have a problem at all. Maybe my only problem lies in thinking I have a problem.
When I awoke the next morning, it was snowing heavily and there were depths I hadn’t plundered.
Oh deepest snow.
Oh snow.
Snow on everything.
After reading the weather reports, I made my decision. Sunday would be a better day to drive back. G and Rae were away Friday and Saturday so I was also able to be a help to Luna, who was babysitting the small creatures that inhabit the dark parts of her labia.
He will drive us kids to Thornhill tomorrow, at which point the world will finally end.
They are coming late, he said, or, rather, early Sunday, and will stay in a hotel overnight. I will call you when I get back.
For our first date, Tutti and I went to the Dairy Queen. I picked her up in my mom’s blue Plymouth Valiant. “My aunt had one of these Valiants,” I told her. “They last forever.”
We drove past Crosby Avenue. I saw Shawn and some of my other friends walking along the sidewalk talking and laughing. “Duck down,” I said to Tutti. I pushed her head down under the dashboard.
I was young. And we were only pretending. It would be bad if anyone saw us together. It would ruin our reputations.
It was sunny.
“Where’s the Beetle?” Tutti wanted to know. She was still under the dashboard.
What I miss most about the Valiant was the bench seat. You don’t get those anymore.
Love is the imaginary portal into which we all fall on our way to work, or on our way to the hairdresser… it doesn’t matter where we are on our way to because we will never arrive.