Advertise | Newsletter | About/Subscribe | Art Walk | Books

**PRINT: No. 34.2: Part dictionary of the outrageous, part chronicle of the manic twists and turns of American life, Atlanta writer Jamie Iredell's BOOK OF FREAKS (due fall 2010 from Future Tense) is A+ material, the best of its bits spawning raucous laughter and righteous anger read after read after. Check out several of the "freaks" in this issue, part of our mini-broadsheets series, along with Nashville-based Gabe Durham's similarly structured selections from "Fun Camp," a work in progress, on the back side. Durham is Keyhole Magazine's new editor.

**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: WERT'S DEATH Michael Peck
FORBIDDEN FRUIT Steven Schutzman
MY ALIBI Kevin O'Cuinn

Michael Peck

Peck lives and writes from Port Henry, N.Y.

The back staircase was unlit and it was like climbing up a tunnel, and at the top of the tunnel there was a sliver of yellow light under the door where some of the green shag carpet spat out a quarter inch into the hall. A little wreath was hung on a nail and it said Welcome in the lacuna. The walls brushed at the wide girth of Jack's shoulders, and if he'd been a little wider he would have had to come up sideways. Somebody was crying inside, then gagging and crying and someone else raised his voice and a hard chair released a croak and the crying grew distant. You notice things like this, Jack thought, when you're about to see death and don't know quite how to handle it within yourself. It wasn't raining, but a slow, continuous leak smacked onto the toe of his shoe while he considered the best way to open a door. He twisted the knob and the darkness of the staircase limped away.

The men were in the room, and Jack smelled a woman and the sadness of a woman, which is like the absence of every thought of anything else. Wert was dying on the couch. Don and Pitkin were beside him looking down at his white face not sorrowfully but seriously, as though death were meant for far humbler sentiments than sorrow could supply.

Bohemian Pupil Press, Chicago publishers of the South Side Trilogy

He's here, Pitkin said to the man who had entered and stood listening to the pipes of the old building. Pitkin was sallow and funny, although tonight he was sallower and considerably less funny. Over behind the head of the couch Don was holding a white mug that could have been filled with tears, though likely it was rye he wasn't drinking. He was short and tan, with a flattened nose that scared people away who weren't aware he'd been born with it and was not a recent prizefighter.

How is he? Jack asked.

Well he ain't on the verge of life, Pitkin said.

Shut that shit up. We'll laugh later, Don said, and when he said it he put the mug to his mouth -- but didn't drink from it -- and lowered it reverently.

Big clean blankets were bundled around Wert and a stack of pillows was piled beneath his head. Wert was 54, and his glossy red face, the only thing visible in the bundle, was washed in cold sweat that hadn't dried away in the humid room. His eyes were partly open though squinting out some terrible image the others were too alive to see.

Somebody give him something? Jack asked.

Don set the mug down on a card table by the bed, where the wrinkled skeletons of cigarette packets had scattered a dusting of tobacco onto the floor.

No, Don said.

Somebody going to?

We don't have anything. We were waiting on you.

Check the medicine cabinets?

Pitkin nodded. Cleaned out. Some aspirin but what the hell is aspirin going to do for him? Pitkin's voice was jerky and dumped out of his throat like the knotted gasping of some writhing amphibian.

The woman came into the room, a heavy-set fortyish lady who looked like she should have been busy scrubbing cum stains off some pointless bathroom wall in some motel somewhere. Gray faded roots were obvious underneath the botched brunette job a roommate had inflicted on her. Without glancing at anyone she knelt on the floor next to the dying man and trembled awhile.

She was with him, Pitkin managed.

Anybody know who she is?

Not much, Don said. She's been with him most of the night according to her.

I'm right here, the woman said.

I asked if anybody knows who she is? Jack repeated.

She just said she was here.

Don't take a woman's word for it.

Jack lowered himself onto his haunches, letting his black raincoat dangle on the tan rug under the couch.

So what happened?

The woman swayed back a moment, her mouth jutting.

Nothing. He coughed once and dropped down.

How do you know Wert?

I just met him tonight.

Wert was a good man, Jack informed her and himself. Generally he was a good man, he elaborated.

He straightened and his limbs cracked.

Get him some tea or something, Jack said.

What good will that do him? she asked.

It'll get you out of the room.

She went into the kitchen. Don sat in an armchair after removing a few magazines from the seat and slapping them on the floor, and over by the window Pitkin was contemplating the angular shadows of the disused rail-yard. The room was sparse and fresh, the abode of a man who has a place for everything with just enough empty space left over to make it permanent.

Wert started snoring.

Is that normal? Pitkin asked.

Why not? Don said.

That he's snoring?

Why shouldn't he snore?

It doesn't seem right, does it? And Pitkin hadn't looked away from the window as Don got to his feet and crossed over to the mantle, where a few photographs were tacked above it, snapped of people none of them had ever met. One or two looked familiar but most people look familiar when they're pressed onto celluloid and not present.

Does anybody know any fucking thing? Jack asked. Anything at all?

The dying man chortled and his breath amplified, as though he were trying to say Sure but couldn't wrap his mouth around the exact shape of the words or the words had edges that hurt his lips trying to say them.

Maybe he's suffering in there, Pitkin said.

You don't suffer in your dreams, asshole, Don said.

I've suffered in plenty of dreams.

The woman returned with a cup of tea. She'd had just enough time to weep and conceal it with her sleeve.

What am I supposed to do with it? she asked. Pour it down his throat and hope some of it catches?

I was kidding about the tea, Jack said, and he was about to say something clever when he caught a real and puzzled and frightened look in her dark eyes. I'll take it, he said. He took a sip of the bitter shit and walked slowly into the small kitchen, emptied it in the sink feeling bad that he'd put her through the trouble.

Call somebody, Jack said. He'd had time to slick down his hair in the bathroom mirror as he passed it and he controlled enough confidence now to take responsibility and order people around.

Like who? Don said, still by the mantle with his arm slung over the eave like it was an ancient drunken friend, watching Pitkin stare into the reflection of himself expressionless in the window.

You called me, Jack said, And I don't know what the fuck to do. Wert's there dying and he's not going to admire another sunset, so -- Jack paused as Wert gasped and grimaced hard. He must have shit himself because the stench was foul. No one would mention it immediately, though, and by then they would all be accustomed to Wert's dying rejections as though the smell had always been there.

Call Ambrose.

He's in Jersey, one of the men said, as Jack tried to get the air out of his nostrils.

Don't they have phones in Jersey?

We can't call just any number and say is Ambrose there, Jack.

Ambrose have a goddamn cell phone or a goddamn mother?

Thing is Ambrose don't come around anymore after Memphis.

That pussy's had a thousand Memphises and now this one is just too much?

Would somebody light a fucking candle or something? Pitkin said, struggling to hoist the window. Cool mid-November breeze staggered into the room.

The woman reached under the blankets and Jack rushed to stop her from doing something obscene then relaxed when she brought out a pack of unfiltereds and shook a couple out for each man, even though Jack had quit smoking and Pitkin had never started, although he told people he had. So they all huddled around the woman and a single lit match was passed from hand to hand and long sonorous inhalations were followed by letting the smoke out easy. A drifting cloud filled the room and slipped in a thin stream out the window.

What about the German, Jack asked.


Cal? Cal's around, isn't he?

Cal took the back of his head off during a fight with his wife.

I haven't been around in a while, Jack said, and he felt vaguely impotent for not knowing these biographical details.

What about Sammy?

Which one?

Sammy Foster. Drake's son. The one with the missing thumb.

Prison, Don said.

Both Sammys were put away, Pitkin enumerated.

So what the fuck?

How about a doctor? The woman said.

They turned to her like she had rabies.

What's he done so bad, she said, That you can't call a doctor?

Jack broke from the Marlboro vigil around Wert.

I said he was a good man. I didn't specify which kind of good man. There are plenty. In your business you should probably know that good men come in different varieties and shapes.

And which kind was he? she asked wryly.

He was the one who knew how bad he could be. Minor character flaws leftover from at some point being a fucking asshole. But you can't blame a man for that.

Well, I guess he didn't break my jaw, the woman said.

So let's leave it at that.

Wert screwed around with his life for another two hours and died at 4:15 a.m. Jack carefully wrote the time on a napkin and placed it in his pocket. The men stayed with Wert because they didn't know what else to do and figured it didn't really matter anyway.

This is somebody's fault, Jack said weakly.

Only Wert's, Pitkin said. And he's dead.

There was a flicker of relief in his passing, yet they wouldn't dare leave until each one was certain no disrespect was intended. The woman said she had to go feed her Rottweiler or bird or something, and as she was putting her arms in the sleeves of her black windbreaker Jack suddenly wished he'd known her better or at the very least had never seen her. None of the men knew what they should do about Wert or how they should do it. Jack pulled a sheet over him and tucked it over Wert's head, but the sheet was thin and nearly transparent; the outline of Wert's nose kept it taut across his face and Jack plumped a pillow and balanced it there. Now Wert's body looked worse than ever, yet there wasn't much else that could be done this side of desecrating him further.

Pitkin fell asleep on the floor and Don was twiddling the spent cigarette between his fingers and pacing, too tired for anything except being fully awake. Jack took Wert's bed and slept pretty well on the stripped mattress.

On the staircase the woman listened at the door for a couple of strained minutes. She walked four blocks before taking Wert's wallet out of her purse and counting out $18, then dropping the wallet down into a mailbox. It wasn't much, but it was enough for a cab if she could find one.


**SUBSCRIBE TO THE2NDHAND if you like reading our our respective broadsheet and online series -- any donation above $30 gets you a LIFETIME SUBSCRIPTION to THE2NDHAND's quarterly broadsheet. See this page or send a payment through PayPal here: