Laughing Africa

We know that Africa is not a camera and the continent cannot steal someone’s soul but we know that words, superstitions, and traditions can signify an alternate reality to those who believe.


The fighter remained on the second rung of the ladder about twenty seconds longer than necessary approaching with bated breath.

“Go, go remember Red Hook,” shouted the Anglican right hand side.

“V’amos, v’amos from the left hand side.               

’10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1′ and the roar shoots through the crowd like an elephant raising its trunk.

A jock in the front row licking his lips greedily.

“Hey, Morris,” he screams, “you got another one on the docket like this one?”

‘Naw,’ I say ‘he is one of a kind,’ and I shoot the breeze for awhile enjoying the sound of my big promises hitting the warm wind of the night. Let me introduce myself: I am Morris, alias is Georgio Giacalone aka promoter.

Morris loved his job in the New York ringside of Madison Square Garden. He was always reminded of his idol and nemesis, Norman Mailer….benefactor of the writer and overseer of the infamous book “In the Belly of the Beast.” Morris squinted and looked around with steely determination breathing deeply, he swung his shoulders back, ‘Today, we won,’ he gloated loudly.  ’His mama…may she rest in peace, would have said….’to each his own.’ She had long given up on figuring out what made her boy run. Nana only knew that this one attracted trouble like a rat running in a circular maze never pausing to analyze or change direction. One day, she recounted to her best friend her philosophy of Morris’s movements, “Lena, I raised him to know right from wrong after his father left.

His dad, Silvestre,was gone to the wind.         

Boxing had been the light at the end of the human file cabinet for Morris. After boxing, he became tired of someone using him as a punching bag and was only too happy to trade the gloves for the deal of making money off the bet. Morris was complicated with the raw hungry emotions that often propelled him toward making crazy decisions. Like his Nana, he was superstitious. The night before the fight, he prayed, just like his momma, with her rosary beads.

Morris had learned the art of the deal from Satchmo, a candy store proprietor, albeit a bookie.. Morris used to saunter in while he was on the phone, as Satchmo dipped his challah bread in honey…. munching and running his finger lovingly down the list of horses placing his odds. 

His mama prayed to the good lord that Morris would remain a good boy while Morris prayed that “Satchmo” would teach him everything about the art of the deal. Morris earned a good living and some minor write ups in the Post. Breslin stated in his column “He lives for the game.”  Morris was a character with his high steppin’ arched walk, a hat jauntily slung on his head, a leather jacket slung over his shoulder espousing the curly brown hair peeking out around his face.   

The promised land was an occasional trip to Europe, a nice car, and a better home. Like an agile dancer thrown into the Hudson, he learned to navigate and fare well with his trade.

During one trip to Paris with Nana, she told him:  “Morris, Have I met the woman for you?” She espoused, “I met her at the Quaker Meetings in the 7th arrondisement.         

“Yes, mum,” he mumbled under his breath. He thought aloud quickly, “Tell you what Nana, I will meet her one time for coffee and if you are right,we’ll make a bet. Even down. 10 to 1, if I find her perfect and ask her on a second date, you win the bet.”

Nana laughed thinking of Genevieve. She thought of the long red wavy flowing hair, the long lean slender body which seemed to dance along the street, and the subtle yet careful way she had of voicing her thoughts.  “Deal is on,” and she shook her son’s hand gloating at her victory.“Where does she work, mum?” “She is with the South African Embassy as a secretary for the Diplomat to Paris.”Morris smiled to himself visualizing a stout woman with a poker face and a British accent. “Sure, mum,” he muttered, “whatever you say.”

As Morris was nursing his coffee at the agreed rendez-vous, he noticed a long lean female slinking along like a cat noticing before she plunked herself down a flash of her red hair and a high pitched laugh that made him sit up straighter.“Well, hello,” she blinked her eyes twice, “Are you Morris?”

“Yes, I am.” Dang his mom, she knew his style. He felt lucky, blessed as if she could help grant him every wish he desired. Dollar signs, Vegas, the roulette table, and every gambler’s superstition flitted through his mind as the conversation continued with talk of work, Paris, South Africa, New York. However, Genevieve was not especially interested in him. She later told her best friend “I just wish that I could meet a man I think I could settle down with.” Morris was intuitive as a bookie and since he made his living reading people sensed Genevieve’s disinterest.   

She has other contenders,” he told his mother and paid up his losing bet. 

It was during this time that Morris wandering around the left side of the bank in Paris happened upon a book “Laughing Africa.” He picked it up and idly glanced through the stories until motivated to throw down a couple of dollars for it. The author wrote about the strange and mystical superstitions of Africa. Under one photograph, he read this quote, “Woe to the photographer who tries to capture the soul of the African. Doom and gloom will come to him…..one cannot capture the soul. The soul is the keeper of the man. Without this keeper, one cannot be released. Bad luck and misfortune will follow the one who messes with this. “I get that,” Morris mumbled to himself. One should never duet with the devil. It was around this time that Morris started to have a run of bad luck. Most of his bets fell short; his best protégé trained with him and then left; Jimmy Breslin stopped writing about him; and he moved back in with his mother to save money. He thought to himself ‘I need a good luck charm.’ So he began thinking and he remembered Genevieve.

‘Damm the feeling,’ he said aloud. ‘I felt so good with her beside me.’ And with that thought, he fixated on her.

‘What’s that,’ his mom dozing near his chair inquired. He sighed heavily glanced sideways at his mom, “Nothing, Nana“, he felt as if she was the answer to his long run of bad luck. “And from that moment, I knew I would return to Paris”, he later confided to a friend. Meanwhile, Morris followed Genevieve’s career….through social media, he quietly stalked her.

Morris took a sabbatical to Paris when his mom passed away a few months later. On her death bed, she told him “Morris, I just wish you would settle down.” With this in mind, he returned to Paris. Scouting her neighborhood near the embassy, he was riding an open double decker bus when he spotted that marvelous walk, and the red hair swaying as if to its own catwalk beat. It was Genevieve…in a long wedding dress surrounded by onlookers.

“Stop, stop. Arretez, arretez”, he commanded the bus driver.

Morris lunged off the bus and snatched the camera from the photographer as he was snapping pictures. He tore down the street too embarrassed to stop and then he kept going until he delivered the camera to a store. At least, he reasoned that he would have photographs of Genevieve to cherish. Maybe her visual presence would bring him some much needed luck. As he continued to his hotel, he remembered that strange African fable…when you take a photograph of someone, you steal the soul and so some tribes of Africa do not like to be photographed.

“Is everything alright sir?” questioned the bellhop

“Yes, yes,” Morris yelped, “I will be departing tomorrow at 6 p.m. for the states.”

“Very good,” replied the bellhop moving quickly on. Later, when reporting to the head bellhop, he complained about the strange moods of some foreigners.

Morris pondered all night about stealing the purity of Genevieve’s soul but really he was enraged that she had married someone else. His dreams were very weird full of black creatures disappearing into white fog and then reappearing with a box that resembled a soul. Nervously, he returned for the film. As he stood up at the stand up bar drowning a small cup of very dark espresso, Morris fidgeted impatiently.  it was pouring heavy drenching rain like a Korean monsoon in Paris….cautiously, heart beating, he dashed back the espresso in one shot, banged some money down on the counter, and ran out the door much to the surprise of the proprietor who later told his wife he couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live in the United States. “These people expect everything immediately. They have no patience.”

He ran in the store and paid for the photos opening them with trembling hands. “What happened?” he demanded of the clerk.

The clerk shrugged and moved on to the next customer.

Black, black, all black…there were no images.   

Morris gulped and searched his memory remembering the photographer clicking away; suddenly Morris was unsure of the past, present and the future. It was a signed death warrant….thunder crashed around him and the lightening rolled in…as if his mamma, may she rest in peace, was crying upon his shoulder.  Morris broke out in a cold sweat and left Paris immediately deciding to have no further contact with anyone he knew. Upon arrival in Manhattan, he joined the Concrete Church and became a pall bearer for funerals. He had the opportunity to listen to all sermons on the power of positive thinking. He quit his night job at the Garden and bought a small ice cream business. Slowly and steadily, he became a fixture in the neighborhood. About three years later, he married a pretty high school French teacher, Ava. For their honeymoon, three months later, she begged him for a trip to Paris. With some trepidation, he agreed.

The second day they were walking near the Eiffel Tower when he spotted a woman with gorgeous red hair, and a quick two step pulling a little carriage. Morris realized it was Genevieve.  They stared at one another with surprise: or rather one with delight and the other with despair.

His wife inquired rather suspiciously, “Who is this?”

“Hi, Genevieve,” he stammered.

His palms began to sweat and he had trouble breathing.  Superstitiously, he crossed himself…twice for good luck.  His palms began to sweat…

Congratulations on your marriage,” he heard himself saying as if from a great distance. Genevieve continued talking.  Genevieve and Ava did most of the talking and after awhile, his wife fell silent and looked at him with an accusatory stare.

She was beginning to get suspicious, “who was this lady and what did she mean to him?”                   

Genevieve told his wife,  You may have heard of my marriage to the South African diplomat. We got married in Paris three years ago. I looked your husband up while we were in New York on our honeymoon but there was no record of him.  It was as if he dropped out of sight.  I tried the Garden…” As it was, Ava had no knowledge of his life prior to meeting her, stared suspiciously and quizzically at Morris. 

Morris jumped into the conversation, “Ava and I are newlyweds.  This is our honeymoon.”

Genevieve mentioned that she hoped they had some good photographs of the wedding to remind them of the special occasion. She said with vengeance, “We did have a professional photographer at our wedding but it didn’t work out.”

Belatedly, Morris queried “Why?”                 

Someone ran off with the camera just as the film was put in the cartridge.  The photographer never had a chance to take any photos.  We were mugged on our wedding day by some stranger wearing a cap pulled down to hide his face.”    

Morris asked aloud, “Do you have any idea who could have done such a thing?” Then, an image of his life for the past three years since that fateful day passed before him.  He saw himself lighting a candle at the Concrete Church, the tithing of 20% of his income to the church and to the doctrine of the power of positive thinking. His wife who knew Morris as a successful small business owner quizzically asked him about what Genevieve was referring to when she mentioned “the Garden?

Morris watched as Genevieve said “Chow” and sauntered casually down the boulevard.                          

“Arêtes, arêtes, stop, “he cried in anguish and rushed to the nearest bar.

It only took his wife, the newlywed, Ava, seven days with the help of the American Embassy to locate Morris.  Morris was found reciting his prayers, standing up in a coffee bar outside the Moulin Rouge, drinking black coffee with sides of cognac.

The scenario was later reported by a French writer who happened to be in the bar at the time and wrote an article about the strange behavior of foreigners in Paris…

He concluded this segment by stating “Paris has a strange effect on people, n’est-ce que pas?”

The reporter was very grateful to get the quote from Ava. “He never drinks, never. He does enjoy his banana splits though.” One of his old boxing buddies happened to read the article written by a French journalist reporting on “Foreigners visiting Paris Bastille Day” and laughed uproariously, “That sounds like the Morris I knew,” “People change,” he thought, “but life continues.” He mused, “We are what we are.” He leaned back in his seat wondering what his old friend was doing and what had led to his behavior that day.Then he raised his mug to the television and simultaneously dialed the phone number of his bookie. “Hey, I have a good feeling about this one.”

This one’s for you, Morris. And he winked at the pretty young redhead on the barstool down the way.

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Born in New York City and raised in a small town  in the Catskill Mountains, Mrs. Eve Dobbin’s  favorite quote for inspiration is “Everyone has two eyes but no one has the same view” (Harakeh). Her DNA blueprint defines  her “a likely suspect for baking or travelling in time, or by train, boat or plane.”

Sandhill Review, BellaOnline Literary Review, Down in the Dirt Magazine, The Horror Zine, The Stray Branch, Mused Literary Review, The Literary Yard, Vita Brevis, Anapest, Page & Spine feature her  literary talents. One recent honor was being designated “Poet of the Month” by the Zine.

Looking to submit to us? We’re accepting Poetry, Fiction, Articles and Art! Please get in touch.

A Fair Amount of Ghosts

He plays the trumpet brilliantly on the corner of Grand and Victoria. He doesn’t look like he’s from this era. He’s impeccably dressed, from his crisply fitting suit to his smooth fedora hat. There aren’t many folks that can pull that off. He’s cooler than the freezer aisle on a sweltering summer day. He performs the type of yearning melodies that give you the goosebumps. I’ve never seen anyone put any money into his basket.

There’s a formidable stone house that sits atop Fairmount Hill. It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember. The crooked post sinks deeper into the soil with each passing year. It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in. There’s a dusty rocking chair on the front porch. It’s always rocking. Always rocking. I’m not sure if the chair is occupied by an old soul or if it’s just the wind. Maybe it’s both. I guess the wind is an old soul.

This town is full of posters for Missing Cats. There’s one for a sweet, fluffy Maine Coon named “Bear.” He’s been gone for a while now. I’ve searched through every alleyway, under every porch, and inside of every bush for him. Sometimes I think I see him out of the corner of my eye. But then he’s not there. The rain has pretty much washed away the tattered posters. If he ever turns up, I worry that the posters will be missing.

I met the love of my life in Irvine Park, near the gloriously spouting water fountain, beneath the serene umbrella of oak trees. We spent a small piece of eternity there together. We talked about whether or not the world was coming to an end soon, and if all of our memories will be diminished along with it. After we said our goodbyes and she walked off into the distance, I never saw her again. So I left my heart in Irvine Park.

Zach Murphy is a Hawaii-born writer with a background in cinema. His stories have appeared in Peculiars Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, Emerge Literary Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Ghost City Review, Lotus-eater, Crêpe & Penn, WINK, Drunk Monkeys, and Fat Cat Magazine. He lives with his wonderful wife Kelly in St. Paul, Minnesota

Looking to submit to us? We’re accepting Poetry, Fiction, Articles and Art! Please get in touch.

Umbra’s Wake

KC’s eyes glittered with enthusiasm, shooting stars streaking against a dark blue sky. “Let’s go camping.”

“Camping?” I smiled. “That thing with the bugs and the bears?”

“Bugs build character.”

“And bears?”

“Trust me—anything we meet out there will be more scared of you than you are of it. Come on, it’ll be fun—just the two of us.” KC’s grin looked like it belonged to a superhero.

I should have been more cautious. What kind of person wants to go camping with someone they met only a couple of weeks before? It was barely enough time for a movie and a cup of coffee. But I needed a break from work, and it did sound fun. An adventure in the fresh air and green earth with KC of the glittering eyes.

“All right,” I agreed. “When should we go?”

The sun was bright and warm when we set out for our trip that morning. A light breeze ruffled our hair, birds chirped, squirrels and chipmunks scurried around us—it seemed as though all of us were excited to get going. The ancient deciduous forest lived up to the hype, with the sacred aura of a cathedral at midnight and towering trees like giants, silent sentinels watching over us. Ripples flowed down my back like a waterfall and I realized it was the stress of the week melting away. This. I needed this.

But somewhere between leaving the car behind and reaching the site where we would set up camp, something changed. A chill crept through the trees, the birds went quiet, and the sun disappeared into shadows. The squirrels and chipmunks had long since abandoned us. The ripples down my back twisted and tangled, making my jaw clench as the stress seeped back in. Time passed and we spoke less, until, like the birds, we stopped talking altogether. My pack weighed on me more with each step, as though it were absorbing the atmosphere, soaking in the cold and the tension. The straps dug into my shoulders, laden with more than simply the physical contents they were carrying.

Suddenly, I jumped. “What the—?”

KC stopped, a few steps ahead of me. “What is it?”

“I don’t know.” I stared at the spot where I was sure I’d seen something—movement, a figure. All I saw now were trees and shadows. “I must have imagined it.”

“That happens sometimes. We need to keep moving if we want to set up camp before dark.”

“Is it much farther?” I asked as we started walking again.

“About an hour, maybe a bit more, depending.”

“Depending on what?”

“We don’t want to stop if there are other people around. This trip is about getting away.”

“Sure, but we don’t want to be too isolated, either, right?”

KC didn’t answer. We lapsed back into silence.

Later, after the campsite was set up and night had draped itself over us, we sat around the fire drinking burnt cocoa, the edge of bitterness cutting through the unhealthy amounts of marshmallows we’d added. KC insisted on telling ghost stories, even though I said I wasn’t a fan, so I only half listened as I watched the mist that drifted and swirled around the trees.

“After hearing about the apparition that was said to haunt the house, a man of science known for his reason announced that he would spend the night there and wait to see if the ghost appeared…”

A movement, not quite visible through the trees, caught my eye. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen, or if I’d actually seen anything at all. But the mist in that spot was disturbed, and so was I.

“After waiting patiently late into the night, the man suddenly heard the rattle of chains. When he looked, he saw the ghost of a dishevelled old man with a long, straggly beard. The spectre wailed and rattled the chains that bound his hands and feet…”

The story must have been getting to me because now I thought I heard a rattle. Only, it wasn’t chains—it was something more…organic. A shudder crawled up my back. I sipped my cocoa and tried to ignore it.

“Finally, as the sun rose, the ghost drifted into the garden and sank into the ground with a final wail. The man marked the exact spot where the phantom had disappeared…”

Another movement caught my eye. Then another. I didn’t know what I was seeing but I knew it had to be something causing the chaotic explosion of mist in each spot. Maybe it was insects disturbing the haze. Or mice. Or ghosts. Whatever it was travelled around the circle of the clearing. The next one would be right behind me. I forced myself not to turn around. It was nothing. I was imagining it. Everyone always told me I had an overactive imagination.

“The next day the man returned with a pair of workers, and when they dug in the spot he’d marked—”

A gust of wind out of nowhere, over my shoulder, in my ear. But no, it wasn’t wind. It was long and drawn out. There was a blissful moment of silence where I chided myself for letting the dark and the stories spook me. And then a faint whisper, growing, expanding. The wind was drawing back into itself, like…an inhalation. Something was breathing behind me.

I jumped up, spilling the remnants of my cocoa. I spun around and stared at nothing. Just darkness and trees and some mist along the ground.

“Wow—I didn’t even get to the creepy part,” KC said.

I looked all around, trying to find the source of what I’d seen and heard. “Didn’t you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Breathing.” As soon as I said it, I knew how ridiculous it sounded. But my heart wouldn’t stop thudding like it was trying to escape my rib cage. “I saw something too—in the trees.”

“You’ve been jumpy all day.”

“I feel like something is stalking us.” There, I said it. Even as I felt stupid for admitting it, part of me was relieved to get it out.

KC didn’t look impressed. “Who would even be out there?”

“Not who,” I muttered. “What.”

“Oh? Well in that case…” KC walked up to the edge of the trees.

“What are you doing?” I asked, panic catching in my throat.

“Hey, stalker!” KC called out. “Why don’t you come out where we can see you? Have a cup of cocoa. Do you like marshmallows?”

“Please stop.” I wanted to shout it, but it came out as a whisper.

KC kept going. “No? Well, you’re welcome to join us whenever.”

Another movement to KC’s right. A spot blacker than the blackness around it. The shape was too elongated to be a person, the movements too disjointed and jittery. It was put together wrong. I felt it staring at me.

KC turned to look back at me. “No stalker. Feel better?”

I was still staring into the blackness, but the thing was gone. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”

I didn’t sleep well that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen, or thought I’d seen. Strange shapes seemed to come at me from the corners of the tent. When I did finally drift off, I woke in a panic thinking I heard those rattling breaths again, but it was only KC snoring next to me. I watched as the tent filled with light and decided to get up and start making breakfast.

Cooking put my mind at ease, and the smell of frying eggs and bacon made the weirdness of the night before seem distant and silly. Too much time spent in cities had me jumping at shadows—literally. I shook my head.

Any remnants of anxiety still clinging to me were forgotten as we got busy with the normal routine of getting on with things. We spent the day cleaning up around camp, fishing, making and eating lunch, and then more cleaning. I’d never have guessed how much dishwashing was involved in camping, or that I’d be the lucky one assigned the job. I was off on my own, struggling for what felt like an hour to scrub a burnt bit of fish off the pan, when something in the water caught my eye. I stopped to look into the rocky depths of the creek and saw a flutter, a dark shape bending and unfurling through the current.  

I looked closer and the water that had been bubbling along seemed to still. I saw my reflection, distorted and weak, and underneath it, the dark shape. Elongated. Not moving quite right. I watched, frozen, too scared to stir as it rose through my reflection. I thought it was going to come at me, envelop me, but then I saw in the water’s mirror that it was behind me. It loomed over me, watching while I held my breath, staring at it in the water. It seemed to be pulsating, and then I heard that breathing again. Long wheezes in and out. A loose sound with every inhale and exhale, like jumbled bones being shaken together. A crack appeared where its face might be, if it had one. The crack started out small and spread, stretching across the shadow until there was a line from one side to the other. The gap widened and I saw teeth: long, silvery, sharp needle rows of teeth.

I whirled around and found myself staring into a pair of eyes, silver like mercury, but darker, as though oxidized. They stared back at me and wouldn’t let go. Not that I wanted them to. They were so strange, so beautiful. I forgot all about the teeth.

Suddenly, KC’s voice.

“What’s taking so long—”

The shadow was gone and I was staring at KC. I smiled a smile that was too wide. It stretched across my face and split me apart until there was nothing holding me together.

KC screamed.

I woke up back at the car, the sun shining down on me like nothing had happened. I didn’t know how I got there or even what day it was.  

I wanted to go for help but my legs wouldn’t work. I could move them, but not in the direction I wanted. It didn’t matter anyway; I didn’t have the car keys. I called out until some hikers heard me, my voice shaking, echoing as though it were coming from somewhere else.

After the police arrived, I heard them say that I must have some kind of post-traumatic stress because apparently I wasn’t making much sense. They still managed to find the campsite, though; what was left of it. And KC. Eventually.

I visited KC in the facility once. We didn’t really talk, although I tried. KC just stared at the wall with dull eyes like I wasn’t there. Until I started talking about the trip. Then the screaming started. The nurses hurried me out of the room and sent me home after that. They said KC needed calm. They said it would probably be better if I stayed away.

I still don’t really remember what happened by the creek. Bits and pieces come to me sometimes but they feel like someone else’s memories, and most of it makes no sense. I have dreams that something is next to me at night, breathing, wheezing in my ear, but when I wake up I’m alone. Maybe the police were right about the trauma. But I feel okay most of the time. Good, even. Other than the restlessness. I can’t seem to sit still. I catch people staring at me when my arms twitch and my legs shake. They leave in a hurry when they see me looking at them.

The city bothers me now, the noise, the buildings. Why is there so much concrete? It stifles. I need to fill my lungs with fresh air. I need the freedom of the forest, the dark, cool places where I can stretch my limbs and glide through the shadows. I’m thinking of going back soon. I think it would soothe me. Maybe it’ll help me remember. I know a spot that’s popular with campers. Maybe they can help me.

Photo by Drew Rae from Pexels


Aspasía S. Bissas writes about pretend monsters and real fears. She is the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding. Find out more at her website.  She is also available on Facebook and Twitter.

Looking to submit to us? We’re accepting Poetry, Fiction, Articles and Art! Please get in touch.

The Guitar Hero Goes Home

An angel came to me when I was just a little boy. I was in my bed. A winter morning was just barely creeping through the window shades. It was quite early. My little brother was sound asleep in the bed across the room from me.

She was blonde, the angel, and just so pretty. And she told me things I eagerly believed. All about destiny and dreams manifesting, hearts rejoicing and being fulfilled. She told me this in pictures, you know; not words, as such.

It had something to do with a guitar.

So I begged my dad to buy me one. He said no. I begged again. He said no. I begged some more and he said, “If you don’t shut the fuck up, Christmas is never gonna come.” And he kicked me.

Right on my little shin. My left shin. It hurt like hell. I was just a little boy.

But Christmas morning came and there it was. A big red bow stuck on it and everything. A beautiful acoustic guitar. I don’t know how he afforded it. He worked, and all that, but, man, booze is expensive and he was always drunk.

And then he helped me learn how to play.

He sat me right down on the couch in the front room there, and he taught me C, D, and G. And he said, “These are easy chords. You learn ‘em and you can play about 50% of everything. So just learn ‘em.”

I was stunned, you know? I had no idea he knew how to play a guitar. There were no musical instruments in our house at all. Nothing to indicate I’d come from any sort of musical lineage.

But that Christmas morning, he lit a cigarette, sat down on the couch with my brand new guitar and said, “Sit right next to me here so you can see.” And so I sat down next to him.

He put the neck of the guitar in front of me, his arm came around me – a man who never even hugged me or got demonstrative in any way. His arm goes around me and he takes my little left hand in his and with his what seemed to me to be huge fingers, he helped me shape the chords right there on the frets of the guitar. And by lunch time on Christmas Day, I was playing it. Really playing it, you know?

Because he was right. You can play 50% of everything that’s worth playing in rock & roll with those three chords.

“Oh yeah, your daddy used to play,” my mama said a little while later, while she and I were sitting at the kitchen table, alone. “He played all the time when we were first dating.”

This, of course, was startling news to me. “But it bothered him, you know,” she went on.

“Because his daddy – your grandpa, who you never met because he died so young – was a drunk. He drank himself to death when he was 49 years old. And all he did when he was alive was haul your daddy around with him – a beat-up guitar and your daddy. And he’d go hang out in this little bar called the Pissin’ Weasel.” My mama laughed then. She was so pretty when she laughed. “It wasn’t really called that. It was something like the Piston Wheel, or something similar. But your daddy always called it the Pissin’ Weasel. Your daddy’s so funny.”

My daddy was funny? The same man who kicked me on my left shin because my wanting a guitar had irritated him?

“Well, your grandpa would play that guitar for hours on end in that bar and just get so drunk. Made your daddy stay there with him, hour after hour, listening to your grandpa sing those old hillbilly songs. Your daddy didn’t call it singing, though. He called it caterwauling like a drunk skunk in a steel leg-hold trap. And then when it got near closing time, your grandpa would make your daddy drive them both home. Your daddy was just a child. A little boy. He could barely see above the steering wheel!”

My mama went on to explain that it hadn’t mattered at all how angry that whole scene had made my daddy as a little boy, he still grew up playing the guitar. And before long, he was playing it and singing in bars.

“And that’s what he was doing when we met,” she said. “I thought he was the best-looking young man I had ever seen. And the way he sang could just melt your heart. I always tried to dress up as pretty as I could – well, as I could afford to, at any rate. And I’d go listen to your daddy sing and hope that he would notice me. And of course, he did. Because I was always there. And then, you know…”

She sat there at the kitchen table and smiled at me in the most beautiful and yet peculiar way. And in the softest, prettiest voice, she said: “Now, don’t you ever tell anybody on Earth that I told you this. But it was right around the time that your daddy and me got married – right around that time; very, very close – we found out I was gonna have you.”

Then she winked at me! I was way too young to have any clue what she’d meant by that.

That cute little wink just stumped me. I’d never seen my mama do a thing like that before. It wasn’t until I was a little older and just by accident happened to do the math regarding their wedding day and my birthday. Then it all came together and made great big sense.

They’d been doing it before they got married.

And I was the reason they’d gotten married.

And having a new mouth to feed is what caused my daddy to quit playing his guitar and singing in bars and to go to work at a regular job, because he didn’t want to end up like his own father had – a drunk, caterwauling in a bar, dragging his son around so that he could get a sober ride home at closing time. But instead, my daddy became a drunk who had a regular job that bored him to tears and dreams so dead it filled him with nothing but anger.

Anger and a little rage.

But that Christmas morning, he was patient with me. For the first and last time, if I remember right.

He took my fingers in his and pressed them down on the strings against the frets and said, “No, son, like this. Press a bit harder. Let each of those notes really ring. It’ll hurt, at first, but you’ll get callouses and it’ll be fun to play. You won’t notice any pain.”

Right away, I started writing songs. But I didn’t tell anybody. My brother knew, but I made him swear not to tell a soul. I’m not sure why it bothered me that I was writing so many songs, or why I didn’t want anyone to know. I guess because, down in my heart, I knew I really, really wanted to go hang out in bars and sing and play my guitar. And I knew that wasn’t gonna go over at all in my house. Just not at all. And I was right. Because as soon as I got just a little bit older and started playing music with my buddies and practicing out in the garage like everybody else was doing back then, it pissed my daddy off to no end.

Even though he let us use our garage most of the time. I could tell it made him mad. My grades were suffering and he could see I had no thought in my head about getting a regular job, or going to college, or anything like that.

When I was 18, I left home with my guitar and a couple of the guys I’d been playing music with around town, and my girlfriend – who later became my first wife. We were all going to New York because I was gonna go get famous. I knew I would. I knew I had it in me. I knew my songs were good. But when I was leaving, my daddy took me aside and said, “Just try to keep it in your pants, son. Because there’s no quicker way to kill a dream. You will kill it quick and hard if she gets knocked up. It costs money to feed a kid. More money than you’ve ever seen.”

We all piled into the van and I left my daddy standing there in the driveway, just standing there, staring at me, a look on his face that seemed to say that, even though my little brother had eventually come along, too, and my little sister after that, it was me; I was the one whose mouth had been impossible to feed. I was the one whose hunger had cost him more money than my daddy had ever seen.

When I got a record deal, and when my songs got on the radio, and I got written up in magazines – it made my dad happy. It did. You had to know him pretty well to see it. It wasn’t easy to see the difference in my daddy looking drunk and angry and my daddy looking proud of me. But I knew the difference, and that’s what mattered.

By the time my daddy died, I was really famous. Famous, with two little girls who always had food in front of them whenever they sat down at the table. Girls who’d been conceived in love. Who were sheltered by love. Who were nothing but love to me.

It didn’t hardly cost me anything to feed those girls.


Photo by 42 North from Pexels

Marilyn Jaye Lewis is an American writer of novels, short stories, memoirs, screenplays, and theatrical plays. Her work has won numerous literary awards and has been translated into many different languages. “The Guitar Hero Goes Home” is excerpted from her newest experimental novel, Blessed By Light.

You can find her online at Marilyn’s Room. Follow her on Instagram; Facebook and Amazon.

EPIC

Epic, by Jeannine A. Cook

They weren’t dead, but they were almost dead. Brenda was the one I wished would die first. Her hair was cornrowed down to her neck. She’d slap gel and poop and piss between her braids. When Grandma couldn’t take her client Brenda’s shenanigans, Grandma would stuff a dirty tennis ball in Brenda’s mouth and cover it with duct tape. Grandma used to be a nurse so she knew how to tie Brenda’s arms to the bed with ropes. She was the reason we kept locks on the refrigerator. I laughed at Brenda when she got tied up. She laughed at me when she got free. I hated Brenda.

And then there was Kitty. Kitty had one arm and no legs, but she’d talk to me until I napped at her feet. She told me to never ask what happened to her. Just remember this is what happens when people try to get away. I told Kitty everything. She knew how much I wanted my mother. I’d draw pictures of what I thought she might look like, but Grandma threw them away. If I got caught speaking about my mom, Grandma tied me to the bed tight. I had pain. Kitty had a more pain. When she was hurting her eyes went big and her skin went tight. Her short curly hair filled with sweat. Grandma said Kitty talked too much. ‘The pills made her shut the hell up and stay the hell still.’ But the more pills we gave her, the crazier Kitty got. 

“Epic. Epic. Get grandma. Get your graaaaaaandma. Tell her I’m hurting. Tell her I am in pain. Help me, Epic. Help me.” She scream-whispered down the hall. The pain made Kitty talk through her teeth. She’d spit on me when I got too close. “Epic. Epic. Can you hear me, Epic? Can you? I need help.” She spoke fast and slow. 

“Grandma, Kitty needs pills,” I’d say. Grandma would pull out a baggie of multi-colored pills. 

“Make sure she takes them all.” 

I stuffed them in Kitty’s mouth and fed her water. I hid a few for later. In case Kitty needed them.

“And tell her to shut that mouth or she’ll get the muzzle,” Grandma screamed through the walls a few minutes later.

I didn’t like watching Kitty cry. She was my friend. She was a Scuba Girl. She had the tshirt and gloves to prove it. Kitty hollered for another hour even after I gave her the pills.

I hate Brenda’s stupid hyena laugh. Once, when she still could talk, she grabbed me while I was walking to the bathroom, and tried to make me sit on her lap. 

“Sit on me, Epic,” she said. “Play with me.” I peed right on her feet. She pointed at her pee covered socks and laughed. She got tied to the bedpost for that and I got tied to the bedpost too. Even though I hate Brenda, her laugh reminds me of my mom.

Grandma came out of her bedroom in a towel and slippers agitated. Her boyfriend waved at me from the room when she opened the door. I didn’t wave back. He flashed the middle finger at me as he left. I flashed the middle finger right back. 

“Dinner time,” Grandma sung. Forced the blue pills down Brenda’s throat with her fingers and followed it with duct tape. She gave me orange pills and spanked my butt with a hanger. ‘I spank you for what you might do. Get your ass in that bed.’ We all went to sleep.

I woke up coughing in a room full of smoke. When I opened my eyes, Brenda was pointing at Grandma’s room with both hands and laughing. Duct tape hung from one side of her mouth and she had a lighter in her hands. When Brenda gets out of bed, we all have to get the water board. 

“Go back to bed, Brenda. You ugly stinking, asswi….” I started. 

Brenda kept laughing. Doubled over even. And then I couldn’t catch my breath from the fumes. I shoved Brenda trying to run to find my Grandma. Brenda shoved me back and I noticed the ashes and cigarette butts in her hair.

“Grandma,” I called out before the smoke stole my air. 

“Grandma,” Brenda mimicked me jumping up and down not letting me by.

“Stop it, Brenda you ole fat stupid dum…,” I managed before my chest overheated. 

On my way to Grandma’s room, Kitty called out my name. 

“Epic, please help me first,” Kitty coughed. “Crawl to me, Epic. Get on your knees and crawl to Kitty. Don’t inhale the smoke. Grandma will be ok. Come help Kitty.” 

I got on all fours holding my breath like a diver. Deep breath from the bottom of your lungs like Kitty always said. Brenda did what I did only laughing wildly.

“Hold your breath, Epic.” Kitty hollered from her room. 

“I am coming…” I started to crawl when ugly nasty stinking Brenda snatched my leg from under me. She held it in one hand and wouldn’t let go. She held it high and low. I tried to turn over and hit her in the face. But she wouldn’t stop. She yoyo-ed me up and yoyo-ed me down. The more I fought, the more she laughed, the more I cried for my mom. 

“Brenda,” Kitty called sternly from the other room– somehow knowing what was happening. “Brenda listen to me, let him go.”

Brenda beat her chest with one arm and held my ankle in the other. With my free foot, I cocked back and kicked in her top lip. Her head jerked back and her mouth bled. She smiled harder. Using the hand that was holding my foot, she stopped the blood. 

“Epic. You have to get me off this bed,” Kitty called again. 

“I am coming, Kitty. I am coming.” I crawled to her room.

At the same time, Grandma called out too. “Epic. Epic. Help me.” 

I put Kitty’s chair on the side of her bed, climbed on and pushed and pushed at her wiggling misshapen midsection until she was in her chair. When we both got to the hallway, I started towards Grandma’s room, but Kitty was going the other way. 

“You getting your Grandma?” She asked confused.

“Yes. I said.” 

“Give her these pills then,” Kitty told me. “They’ll make her shut the hell up for once,” and then Kitty used her lips to roll her chair to the front door. 

“Ok.” 

I stayed on all fours through the maze of a house. Through the kitchen, across the living room, down the hallway into Grandma’s room. 

Her eyes were filled with tears. She was staring at the sky gasping for air.

“It’s gonna be ok, Grandma.” I lied. 

“Grandma, I promise,” I lied some more. I climbed her bed and held her hand. Then sat above her on the pillow placing her head on my lap. I held her head as she stared at me.

I woke up to Grandma’s cold body jerking back and forth. 

Brenda had her hands around Grandma’s throat and she was laughing from her gut. Grandma’s eyes rolled back into his head. 

“Grandma,” I couldn’t shake her loose from Brenda’s grip.

“Brenda,” I mustered. “Brenda you doo doo hair wearing, french fry eating, fish butt smelling, dragon breath breathing…” On the word breathing I hauled my whole body at her neck. She landed on her back. I stayed on top her grabbing her hair and beating her head into the ground. She snarled and spit at me. I scratched her eyes and bit her cheek. When i was about to butt her in the nose with my head, the emergency workers burst in. 

“She was trying to hurt her,” I explained still kicking as they peeled me off of Brenda’s neck. “Brenda tried to choke Grandma,” I explained. 

My heart pumped blood through my chest. They adjusted Grandma. Checked for her pulse.  

Gushes of water spraying through our house puddling on the floors.

“Son, I am going to get you some help,”  the worker bent over to my eye level and picked me up. “No one should be living like this.”

They loaded Kitty, Brenda, and now me into a van. Brenda’s bloodied mouth snickered when she saw me. 

“Is there anyone we can call for you,” the officer faked a smile. “Do you have a mom or a dad we can contact?” He avoided everyone else but me. 

Kitty spoke up. “Officer this is his mother,” she said pointing at Brenda. The officer looked confused and so did I. 

“But how…”

“How wha?”

“Well ma’am, she, uhh…”

“She’s my sister,” Kitty replied. “I’m his aunt. And that monster right there.” She paused. “That’s my mom.”

When I looked to the right, I saw the emergency workers wheeling out a body covered head to toe in a thin white blanket. My Grandma’s manicured pink toes poked through.

“We did it,” Kitty said turning to the Brenda and then me. 

We did?” I asked. 

Brenda burst into laughter and opened her arms for a hug.

For the last 10 years Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is also a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several national with and international news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, Ebony, BET, Barcroft TV and Daily Mail. She is a proud educator and mother  8 years of teaching creative writing in alternative schools. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. Jeannine has shared her “out of the box” approach to organizing through guerilla creative writing with over 1000 schools, neighborhoods, community groups, and organizations in Philadelphia. She considers herself a visual ethnographer because she often collaborates with hidden communities to recover a suppressed history. She writes about the complex intersections of single motherhood, activism, and community arts. Her pieces are featured in several publications including Mothering Magazine, Girl God, Mahogany Baby, Good Mother Project, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. Jeannine is currently producing an art installation of her writings deconstructed into paper art sculptures, collages, and calligrams called Conversations With Harriett.

website: jeannineacook.com
twitter: @jeannineacook instagram: @itsmetheyfollow