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**PRINT: COLD WAS THE GROUND, by Chicago's Scott Stealey, is No. 34 in our broadsheet series. Gina, protagonist, a rather lonely condo dweller/office manager, strikes up a fleeting friendship with one Porgo, an Eastern European construction worker who is burying on her property what Gina takes for a time capsule. But the metaphorical fix is in -- Porgo, an ESL student, may be leading Gina in directions she canít exactly get her head all the way around. Enjoy. Chicago writer Stealey is editor of the Please Donít online mag.

**WEB: THE BRIDGE Lisa Grayson
CRUISING Eric Sasson
WING & FLY: Bubbling up in Nashville, gassing it to Chicago | Todd Dills
CHARLIE's TRAIN a novella by Heather Palmer

Lisa Grayson

Grayson lives and writes from Chicago, where she also works as a translator and editor. Her published work ranges from publications in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to Mother Jones. She holds a writing master's degree from Northwestern, and she is the best (and, perhaps, only) drag musical Saddam Hussein impersonator in the Western Hemisphere. Watch for her at a Nerves of Steel coming to a bar near you.

Skin. Hair. Blood. Bone. Every seven years, the body destroys and replenishes itself, or so I've heard. My cells are therefore three times cancelled and renewed since that night Jim McNeil found Sooney Carter's splattered body moving downstream from the bridge. I am not the same person I was. I am a fresh regenerated man.

Columbia College Fiction Writing Department

Jim McNeil had a plate in his head and spooky eyes like agate marbles, blue with a jagged white bolt through the center. Now and then the plate bruised him and put the fear of God in him, Jim McNeil said; the plate was alive and conducted lightning, shocked him and punched him and burnt him, prodded and crackled and told him sweet lies. Then his metal mind drove him from his trailer to listen to the restless fish break the river surface. So lots of people did not think him the most reliable witness. But when he stood barefoot on the snowy river rocks that Saturday night, the splash of Sooney's body falling from the bridge sent a shockwave through the plate that captured it true.

Sooney Carter was free of wit or cunning, not what you'd call a complex individual. Sooney Carter was a rusty knife, barely sharp enough to be harmful, more likely to damage through corrosion. I'd known him all my life, and hated him for most of it. So did everybody who knew him, including Jim McNeil.

Jim McNeil used to work with my dad at the paper mill, and sometimes he'd go fishing with me and my dad and my brother Ed. One cold March Sunday we were trying to catch steelhead, and it seemed only natural to ask what happened to him. The plate snapped right on to the flat part of his brain, Jim said, as his knotted black-nailed finger traced Ed's blond crew-cut, right where the ear meets the temple and supports the weight of the mind, on the right side, where it's bony and hollow and fragile, like a hen's eggshell. Ed swallowed hard while Jim cradled his skull. All those computations and fears and wants and memory, he said, they're electricity, and you know how metal conducts current, but I'm not a robot, boys, he said, as he tied a ghost fly, a black feathered insect lofted by the wind. And if anybody tells you I'm crazy, or says your dad is crazy for being friends with me, he said, you just remember this afternoon, you just remember that I'm a flesh and blood man with feelings like everybody else.

Sooney's dad died the next Christmas, and Jim McNeil's life followed its own dark current.

Sooney blamed Jim for saying some crazy shit that made his old man shoot himself. But no one should take Jim seriously when he gets like that, and besides, Sooney's dad put away a fifth of Wild Turkey every night and was mean and stupid even when sober. The man had no business owning a water pistol, much less the German shotgun that blew his head off. But Sooney never got over coming home to his mother shrieking like a blue jay over the hunk of blood and meat that used to be his dad, and Jim had paid for it ever since. Sooney'd sneak up behind him at the store, at the Texaco, on the sidewalk, trap Jim's scrawny neck under his lumberjack arm, and twist his index finger on Jim's metal head like a ratchet on a bolt. I'm gonna kill you, you freak, he'd say, all quiet, the snaky vein in his forehead engorged with hate.

When anyone else saw them, Jim just pretended nothing had happened.

So when Jim came flapping into town an hour before sunrise in his hospital scrub pajamas, shaking front doors and frosted windows, cawing Sooney Sooney Sooney's in the water, at first everyone figured it was just another crazy Jim McNeil moment, his electrons gone off the deep end. Ed, who was with the sheriff's department by then, was the only one to open his door. He sat Jim down at the kitchen table, put on an old Buddy Holly record to soothe his nerves, poured him coffee to thaw his face, and finally followed him in the half light out to the bridge. Melting snow was already leeching away the blood.

We have only one bridge in town, the nameless bridge across the Mauston River, which still has clear bits upstream but is really more of a thick grey gully of suet and pulp these days, even after the mill stopped pouring paper bleach and god knows what into the lazy water, water that flows out to Carrsville and Iona and the prettier parts of the county. The bridge rests on a crosshatch of old metal trestles with big rivets the size of my hand. A few of the boards have been replaced over the years, but it's still just a line of planks held to the underpinnings by heavy pins and bolts, and though there's now a metal railing about armpit-high, if you're coming on the bridge straight on from Main Street it looks pretty much the same as it did when my dad and Jim McNeil were kids throwing rocks and flicking ashes into clear water below.

Most people were willing to believe that Sooney was a suicide. Ed's word was good enough, and he swore gravity did it. Anyone could see why he might have decided it just wasn't worth it anymore, a loser like Sooney, full of big ideas with no brains to back them up, and a pink stucco face from acne scars. He got fired for stealing from the ticket window at the Oriental Theater, where he managed to take six thousand two hundred forty-seven dollars, a buck at a time. I oughta know. My family'd been running the place since before the Iona multiplex, since the Ark, since time began.

People want to believe that Sooney couldn't live with the shame of knowing that every time he went to buy a can of pop everyone would be thinking, That's the thief, that's the guy that closed the Oriental. And certain individuals had a right to seethe with fresh steaming fury because the Oriental was the only thing this rat-ass town had going for it. You could escape the heat and the Wal-Mart highway stores and the rest of life in Mauston for only three bucks.

Course Ed had to go hire Sooney five years ago. I hate to do it, Ed told me, but it's not like we have applicants lining up at the door, and unless you want to cut your pay in half and do it yourself, it's Sooney or nobody, and he could double as security for the place cause no one would try anything with a goon like Sooney. Then Ed lowered his eyes, his round face turning beefsteak, looking away from me and the leathery patch on my right cheek shaped like Texas, where Sooney left his mark with a tuna can of battery acid in high school. Just because he could.

Sooney didn't even get grounded by his white-trash mama. And I got this face, this face with the fucking power to induce laughter when I was a kid, and now fear and pity, even worse.

Sixty-two hundred dollars is a lot of money, don't you think? It could buy you a halfway-decent used car, maybe a 98 Corolla. Or it could buy you freedom where the cost of living and the voices of ripe brown women are soothing low, a place like Thailand or Brazil, with blue fish bigger than your head. In a few months a person could start to speak their language well enough to get a construction job and get laid. Because sometimes a man just needs to put a little distance between himself and his shadow.

Of course, Sooney would probably blow it on something stupid, like river casinos or whores or a television the size of Utah. I'd have to walk past his dingy house with that TV all over the picture window, and him shoving cheese corn down that floppy mouth.

March around there can go either way. Sometimes it's soft as eiderdown, other times you need long underwear and waterproof boots like I was wearing, mummied up but able to stand up to cold so bitter your tongue sticks to metal. If you want to use your hands for more than shovels you have to wear knit gloves. You couldn't thread a needle or defuse a bomb, but mostly you can feel what you're doing, feel size, speed, movement. Under that black parka Sooney's back and all its strength were magnified, but just flesh after all; his neck felt just like a store-bought chicken's fresh out of the cavity, rubbery and raw.

I don't suppose I have to tell you what happened when I tore that icicle from the metal strut of the bridge and layers of water fled down my cold blue hands.

Cold weather changes many things. In cop shows and movies a lot of bodies float bloated in the ocean beside a bright beach town. But when a body lands in cold shallow water, a small river iced on the dark edges, it doesn't billow peacefully like some inflated toy. A heavy body can hit the rocky river bottom just a few feet down, and, if it's weighted down by more rocks it won't come bobbing right up, it will just keep lowering itself, even it it's not quite a body yet but still a person, not that I know when one fully becomes the other. That's the sort of thing doctors and preachers have been arguing about for ages, and I'll let them sort it out.

The steelhead is known as great migratory fish or wanderer, and I guess I am too. Sometimes I do not recognize myself. I speak and dream in pretty good Portuguese. Like I said, I am not the same person I was 21 years ago. I have a different head of hair, what's left of it, and thanks to those renewing cells all my corpuscles are fresh and shiny. But the brain? The brain has nowhere to go. It can't shed or break off. Can't slip away from itself. So there it sits, collecting. This I believe accounts for a lot of unhappiness in the world. If we could shed memory, maybe all in one filmy case, like a snake, or even just one dry flake at a time until nothing was left but smooth pinkness, trust me, we'd all be better off.

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