For Doug

A passer-by found Kate slumped, tongue thick, clumsy, hands turning, turning the wheel, eyes flying apart in small, bright pieces. Your shell lay broken over the hood of her Camaro. The parking garage’s concrete blocks were splashed with drying blood that painted the unfinished portrait of a young man.

Dangerous men had forced Kate behind the windshield now dotted with carnage, told her to confess if she valued her breath. They placed her on point after they broke you, leaned you over the chrome bumper, and pressed her foot to the pedal.

You’d heard too much. The final lesson of this life was taught by men who laughed as they ended yours. You’d turned the corner in the wrong room in a moment perfect for dying, ignorant that the clock was ticking this last hour.

Had it only been someone else, a deaf man, one who walked with a white cane tipped red, a drunk splayed on the sidewalk cadging strangers for change…. If only, my friend, you had not overheard their plans. Your jokes would still welcome me over long-distance calls, your redhead’s skin still sunburn on trips to Michigan’s dunes, your mother not weep for her lost only child, your son grow up without a parent.

Only mute Kate knew their faces as she collected despair in small, speechless increments, her mother sipping Chianti and laughing her smoker’s laugh with those who had killed you. Your first girl could have won tardy justice for you. Instead, Kate fashioned prison sheets as a noose, fixed them to the bars, and purpled her face in shame.

*********This story made the top fifteen stories in the International Flash Fiction Day Flashmob Competition. Thanks to Michelle Elvy, Linda Simoni-Wastila, and Christopher Allen for organizing such a fun competition and including the world.


Pink Quartet

Ben and Sarah walked down the cathedral’s slate steps, Ben cradling Sarah’s elbow as she tried not to slide on the fresh stain of snow covering the stone. The rest of the mourners gave them room, waiting to follow until the black-clad parents rounded the building and trudged through the ornate wrought-iron gate, its finials topped with winged gargoyles. The sky spit ashy flakes on the mound of dirt waiting near the opened ground. Two men dressed in green cover-alls and caps waited discreetly behind the temporary overhang, shovels grasped in gloved fists. A whiff of cigarette smoke dissipated on the chill air. The couple found their seats as the rest of the gathering wandered in behind them. Four men, their shoulders bowed, but not by the weight they carried, set a tiny coffin on the straps above the hole. One bent down and removed a silk blanket protecting the white enameled lid, folding its lambs and little girls into a square, he handed it to Sarah. She pressed its softness hard against her face, each figure sewn in different shades of pink.


When Sarah tossed back shots of rum, she often woke dehydrated and lost in someone else’s bed, smelling of stale perfume and borrowed cigarettes. This morning was different. She came to lying against the delivery door on the back dock of The Flying Cactus Bar and Grill, shirtless and wrapped in an unfamiliar cloak. Early morning dewed her sunken cheeks. She’d lost an earring and when she felt the lobe, her hand came away streaked with blood. Grasping the knob, she pulled herself to her feet, every movement after midnight a mystery to her foggy brain. Digging car keys from the back pocket of her unzipped Wrangler’s, Sarah tottered under a newborn sun toward the parking lot, clutching the cloak around her naked breasts, hoping the pint was still in her glove compartment, long hair aflame in different shades of pink.


The room no longer welcomed cigarettes, so Sarah smoked them outside, leaning against the brick of the back wall before meetings. She came in early every Friday to help make coffee, set up the chairs, and place the blue books around the table. There was always a box or two of tissues handy for the newer members as they learned to put one foot in front of the other, gaining balance through the testimony of others. Sarah took one day at a time as she prepared lesson plans and graded essays in her one bedroom near campus. She hadn’t yet found the courage to call Ben but knew there would be time to make amends. She often drank tea with honey before driving to a meeting where she could safely examine the scars of her past in the night room, surrounded by friends. When it was her turn to tell her story, even now her face sometimes betrayed her, coloring in different shades of pink.


When her waist-length hair fell out in tangled clumps, Sarah thought she’d never show herself in public again. After a few weeks, the lack of hair slowly became tolerable; she purchased a stack of gorgeous scarves and found she had a flair for tying knots and twirls. When she walked into her classroom after a month of substitutes who taught Chaucer and Milton while she puked and writhed on the floor of her bathroom, she was prepared for mumbled condolences, false assurances that she looked great, or even gasps. Instead, she entered a room full of students with bald, shining skulls, mile-wide grins, and Ben standing next to her desk, the surface covered with caps: snap-brimmed, wide-brimmed, double-flapped, each one dyed in different shades of pink.

Published by Orion Headless, January, 2013

Off the Beaten Path

Father Unick makes love to Dick’s elegy from the stone pulpit. Prayers for the dead man are decanted like sacrificial wine. We four, three exes and one current, perch quietly, past beatings undetected, broken bones healed, elation unnoticed by the well-dressed mourners. For better or worse, we gaze through Unick, having exhausted our year-long discussion of the power of latent anger, the solutions we could have chosen. A heady idea, these choices one can make.

We could have been pulp. Buried. Compost. Maybe there in that wood. Instead, the bastard’s life was over before he could throw another punch. The arrow exploded skin. Eve’s always been a fine shot, and Sally and Dick’s final hunting trip a brilliant strategy. Flaps of bloody belly hung through Dick’s torn camo. Birds startled as the weapon whistled its Darwinian intent through air followed closely by odd, woman-sounding whoops that echoed over the deserted hunting ground. Dick toppled to the loess, a goon unfit for survival. Drool wet his chins as a great, mortal roar beat the blood-misted air.

Ex-wives and widow, we congregate. Diddle our rosaries. Spit-shine the twenty-third psalm through Altoid-scented breath. Afterward, other people’s tongues move thickly with, “terrible accident.” and “Yes, just awful.” Our Oakley’s shade glances that compare old bruises. Practiced deceit directs our muscles in bodies freed of torment by Eve’s deeply planted barb. We pat people’s hands, wipe away tears.

Later, as one, we empty Dick’s urn over the waterside cliff. Back at the church, Father Unick counts Dick’s money– his lucrative cameo concluded. Sally, Dick’s last punching bag, has access to the accounts. We share a final chance to fondle, sift through Dick’s ashes for bits of bone and toss them into the sea. Broken pieces of charred fist sink to lie on beds of sand. Our smooth worry stones are cast after them. Stepping over old scars on the path, we lock arms and head toward a smoky single malt.

First published at A-Minor in 2012: Nominated for Best of the Net.


We linger in the vague, blue hum of another summer. The sudden plummet from the middle dulls our senses and bends our spines closer toward some final ground. Bad decisions, mistakes, hard luck: scar tissue tightens in welts beneath the flesh in wishbone arcs. Deep wounds are always palpable, and blood sport rarely passes without lingering pain. Sparrows dive from the eaves, their love cries filter through the shuttered windows to disturb the white webs we’ve spun like shrouds around our skulls.

In the night kitchen, we pass in silence as televisions flicker, ghostly in the empty rooms beyond. Each morning breaks its fingers against the granite of our prison; no light enters here. Leaves hang from red oaks, quiver in surrender, a dusty patina settles over each moisture-starved vein. Tendons curl inward on themselves, and still the cleansing rain denies us relief. Yellow weeds choke garden space. There will be weeds next year, too.

We scavenge for crumbs in a world that rejects us, subsist side-by-side in a house of separation, crouch over screens in dark rooms, painting our pain into cartoon frameworks. Our lips recoil from touch. Tongues lie flat and silent through the hours. Necessary words flutter and fall like broken wings from our mouths. Unspoken, words like touch and kiss and love lie trapped between the curving bone while barbed words catch and pull at the air to carve more space between us.

Each blue grows muted within these walls, while outside, a red desert descends. The arm of a flagpole furls no flag, a dog run is undogged, a man buys a country, his currency the face of fear, another buys an arsenal to camouflage his impotence.

A June bug struggles on its back, its legs wave, frantic to climb the ladder of sun. A small boy tilts a magnifying glass over its fumbling trunk, his face passive in the numbness of this mossy age. The bronze carapace cracks and bubbles beneath the glitter that beams from his unforgiving hand. Lips spread in a death’s-head grin, the boy wanders off to seek another game to play.

A windlass creaks over a half empty well, its water wafts a lonely, brackish smell. I finger the pennies singing in my pocket. I close my eyes. I toss them in.

First published at Pithead Chapel, 2012:

Lex Talionis

In the City of Angels, you lean in shadowed entryways, the smell of piss and taco stand grease wafting past your face. Traffic slides by as you search for a special woman, the secret of her existence hidden deep inside each whore’s bitch-sharp eyes.

You’ve learned to hustle a special cut of meat down here on the tenderloin. You go with one of them; his back offers bright stripes of color to carrion eaters like you, so you prepare, wear the hood, crack the whip.

The old man’s face haunts your waking hours. The bubbling spittle that flecked his lips, the calloused hand that became one with the whip, and the smell like rotted meat that blew from his open shirtfront with each swing:

“Gotta watch that sinnin’ Bird-boy. Might be more damnation in your soul than I can fix with this striper. Sweet salvation rests in prayer and repentance. There’s virtue in sufferin’, blackbird. Tears are for sissies.”

In dreams, you see the dark hand that grabbed at his crotch, hips pumping in a frenzied dance at your eye level. You see black half-moons under yellow fingernails. “This here root made you, and I damn sure can take you out.”

He’d tie your mouth shut, your spit freeing the taste of his sweat on the kerchief, your ears tingling with the music of the whip down your spine, the grunts of pleasure erupting from his throat as your little boy skin split in ribbons across your back.

You can’t remember when it wasn’t so, the Root man swinging pig leather that sang in measured meter while your thin wrists, tied with gut, hung from the bedposts. Before the fire, you focused on your thickening strength as you ate anything you could steal from the kitchen before the nights when your back swayed to the music of the whip and blood ran down the edge of the ruined mattress.

Tonight you lie on a foreign mattress far from the Piney woods. The sour tang of Wild Turkey slides across your lips as you try over and over to master this dialectic he offered in return for your soul.

After you flew you wondered about the woman who twinned with the Root man to deposit you there. He’d get shitty-ass drunk, point west, and mumble “Good riddance to a bad whore.” Where is the mother who should have stopped the thick leather from tearing your childhood from you, leaving you to bleed with a bible as schooling and vengeance the Root man’s only release?

In a rented room off a boulevard a thousand miles west, you still hear him some nights, shouting from the log-walled living room, the humidity clawing at the rips in the screens, bugs sizzling and popping under the flames, the kerosene fire licking at his tethered feet as you ran through the Mississippi pines, your legs slippery with yellow ooze. Cold showers can’t quench the heat of his screams burning into your head:

“Think you bested me? I’ll never let you be. You ain’t never been nothin’ to no one. You motherless bastard. I’ll come after you. One way or other, you ain’t never gonna be free.”

The real hunt begins tonight, after the final burning swallow of bourbon. You’ll search for her through the darkness and the neon. A leather strop waits coiled and ready in a pocket for a woman who ran west and left nothing but a bible and hellfire behind.

©JP Reese First published at eunoia review, 2011


In the last two years, Louise has discovered many frightening changes in her body. First, the Zoloft her doctor prescribed her could no longer do the job without a helpful Abilify booster.  Next, her eyes turned red and dry, but luckily, she discovered Restasis, and even though her skin has begun to sag around the jaw line, she realizes that along with a daily dose of Oracea for the rosacea that pinks her cheeks, she can slather on Olay Regenerist.  Yes, these last two years have been a learning experience.  Louise never imagined the risks she’d been taking by only seeing her internist once a year for a physical.

Even suffering all of these conditions, Louise considers herself one of the lucky ones, as she’s learned there are pills, drops, and creams for all of her problems.  Her doctor is happy to prescribe the new medications she hears about during breaks in the nightly news shows she watches religiously. Tests he scheduled even managed to find a few more problems Louise had not yet considered, so now she’s taking care of her cholesterol and high blood pressure with Caduet and her high triglycerides are under control with Lovaza. Because some of these meds give her a severe case of dry mouth, her doctor suggested OraMoist patches: problem solved! She has Blue Cross/Blue Shield with a low deductible for both prescription medications and her regular doctor’s visits, so even though she’s practically falling apart, she has no worries.

All the trouble began right after Bud walked out two years ago, the day before her fiftieth birthday. Before that day, Louise had never taken a prescription in her life and had always been healthy as a horse.   Maybe Bud sensed she was on the cusp of a physical apocalypse when she mentioned one morning over coffee she might have that restless leg syndrome they saw on the TV the night before; maybe that’s why he took off with only the clothes on his back and his Joe Montana signed football.   He never called or came by the house for any of his other things.   After fifteen good years!   Imagine. Whatever.

Louise does not mourn Bud’s disappearance; she has her daily schedule of pill taking to keep her busy.   Who knows what might happen if she forgets to take any one of these little miracle workers?  These days, she watches the nightly news mostly for the commercials, trying to keep ahead of whatever new malady might be creeping up on her.   Bombings in Pakistan take a back seat to overactive bladder; global warming is a pale worry compared to potential hypoglycemia.

She’s considering switching to Centrum Silver after she saw their ad during Brian Williams’ broadcast.   The woman in the ad’s hair was so beautiful, and she looked so happy! And thank heaven she switched to Scott Pelley and caught the last of the Boniva ad with that cute Sally Field, or she never would have considered bone loss and called for an appointment this morning.   Tonight, she’ll watch Diane Sawyer on ABC to make sure she is up to date with all the help available out there for people like her.

Louise makes a list of errands to run after the doctor, writing Walmart at the top of the pad and adding Refills underneath, including Nasonex (allergy season again!), Imitrex (for those blinding headaches that come whenever she tries to clean out Bud’s closet), Zicam,  because cold and flu season is right around the corner, and she writes down Boniva? in case she’s right and the doctor gives her a prescription for bone loss too.   Finally, Louise writes down, ask Dr. Walton about Lyrica for the pain, and Lunesta?!!! because she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months and that beautiful big green moth is so relaxing as it hovers over that sleeping woman’s face on the commercial.   She checks her supply of Vaniqua, a miracle cream for removing all those pesky menopausal hairs that have begun to spring up in odd places, and she counts her OraMoist dry mouth patches. Plenty left.

Louise wonders if she’ll ever have to buy tampons again, thinks she ought to ask the doctor for some Viagra just in case Bud ever realizes the huge mistake he’s made and decides to come home. She’s smarter now than she was in all those years before he left, knows now she should have agreed with him that trying Viagra might have helped them both, but back then she’d never realized how much help there was for any problem if a person just studied commercials between the news stories.

She smiles to herself as she grabs her purse and keys from the hook by the back door, knowing no matter what happens from now on, there will always be a pill for that.

© JP Reese: First published in The Winter Issue of The Smoking Poet


I pour your espresso as though you are a guest, slide the lemon twist to spread its oil along the rim of the delicate cup, use the best china for your requisite yogurt and dates.

“Won’t you eat?” you ask me, glancing at the single place setting.

“I ate before the light.” I say. Your eyebrow climbs your forehead, suggesting my approach to breakfast, along with the hundred other errors I make daily, is an oddity. We are wondrous in our formality these mornings.

Your hand fondles your bare head and rests there for a moment. I almost laugh, then resist the urge. A blind habit, your palm always looks like a nightcap you’ve forgotten to remove. When you were twenty-five and I fourteen, your sable hair gleamed under the Iranian desert sun and smelled of anise.

I do not laugh; you hate to look absurd.

French doors open to the chill September day, I carry your tray to the balcony. A faint scent of almonds trails from your cup as the breeze ruffles the Belgian lace cloth spread over the table. I set your meal in front of you. A hint of perfume lifts from your skin when I stoop near your cheek; its Asian spice is not mine. I back away, almost knocking over the demitasse, then recover myself.

Your lips pressed into a thin white line, you shake your head and look down as if I am a mongrel dog who has pissed the Tabriz and say, “Your toenail polish is chipped.”

The pages of your paper rustle over your belly as you clear your throat of me. I stand with my back turned and gaze five floors down to the gypsy world of the Saturday market two blocks away, its chatter of women in their rainbow of shawls and sensible shoes floats lightly on the air. They waddle through the colorful tents and stalls poised at the edge of the Black Sea bargaining for turnips and greens in a language I will never understand. An airport taxi pulls into a space just outside the entry doors below.

I know you plan to be gone again tonight when you say “My tan suit is at the cleaners. Please pick it up before five.” I think of brown leather bags, packed with cash I have hidden in the extra room.

As you take the first sip, my vision constricts as if I am sighting through a lens this moment, this place. Here on this terrace it is just you and me and the potted date palm we smuggled from Iran so long ago. Its knife-like leaves flutter shadows across the rictus of your astonished face. I turn my back on you, walk through the apartment to the extra room to collect my bags. My imperfect feet and I have a flight to catch and connections we must not miss.

Published at eunoia review, 2012
©JP Reese, 2012