(Ramona and Nobody) –Allan Shapiro

Left turn in .5 miles.”

“Got it, Maggie. Thanks,” Esau says. He is hunched over the steering wheel now. Time is short and sweat is beading. Class-conscious bumper stickers bleeding the streets of friction, causing everything to skate, causing Esau to say, “The roads are more slippery than normal,” causing Maggie to say, “Approaching left turn.”

“Thanks, Maggie,” Esau says mechanically, preparing the approach to the left turn with his left-hand turn signal, checking mirrors, glinting glares and soulless eyes from oncoming traffic.

Left turn. Beep. “Continue on current road.”

“Thanks, Maggie.”

Meanwhile, Ramona, Esau’s four-year-old daughter, has been discussing the inherent flaws of a free-market economy with Nobody while playing Paddycake. The discussion has ranged from the notion of winning, to the reality of losing; the realization of failure and the idealization of success, epitomized by a country of sycophants; that, and why blue is actually a much better color than green, but none can compare, of course, to red; let alone pink, which remains in a category entirely of its own.

“Hey, Ramona,” Esau interrupts.

Ramona looks up from her perpendicular palms. “Yeah, dad?” she asks.

“Ask Nobody if God’s hatred for us is actually his love, and if his love is actually his hate?”

Ramona shakes her head. “Huh?” she says.

Esau uses his hands this time while looking at her in the rearview mirror. “You know,” he says. “If the way God loves us just seems like extreme, horrific abhorrence. You know, maybe we’re just misinterpreting it all. Maybe we’re just seeing it in the wrong context.”

Ramona rolls her eyes as she turns to Nobody. Esau can see her lips twitch with whisper as his own twitch with another smirk. Then Ramona giggles and looks up to the reflected eyes of her father.

“Nobody says,” she says, “that God says that it’s all the same to him,” and ends with a sympathetic shrug of her shoulders.

“Huh,” Esau says.

Approaching destination on the right,” Maggie says.

“Thanks, Maggie,” Esau says, then “Hey, Ramona!”

“Yeah, daddy,” Ramona answers suspiciously.

“Tell Nobody he has to wait in the car.”

But, daddy!”

“Too bad,” Esau says with a shrug of his shoulders.

But daddy,” Ramona continues to whine. “I swear he won’t say a thing.”

Esau is still shaking his head, trying to hide his own amusement at his own insistence that his daughter’s imaginary friend–who is also his brother, Jacob–cannot come to watch him get his back waxed. “I already said no,” he says with a smirk.

“Whatever,” Ramona says, crossing her arms over her chest and staring daggers out the window. “Nobody says shame is for the weak.”

Esau laughs and shakes his head. “Fucking Jacob,” he mutters.

El Niño Walks Into a Bar –Ryan Davidson

Alright, have you heard this one?

El Niño walks into a bar and orders a scotch and soda.

The bar is mostly empty. A priest, a nun, and a rabbi are sitting at a table near the back. The priest is counting in a low voice, “seven-hundred-and-seventeen…seven-hundred-and-eighteen….”

Above the bar, an old TV is tuned to the Weather Channel. A lady reporter with high cheekbones is indicating that El Niño is likely to cause a slight, almost imperceptible shift in ocean temperatures between San Diego and Fresno.

The time in the corner: 11:46 AM.

El Niño is developing a nasty habit of getting drunk before noon.

The bartender picks up the TV remote. He has an eye patch and a nametag that reads: Louis. The remote makes a sticky sound as it tears free from the dark walnut bar. The priest is still counting. Louis changes the channel from weather to football.

“Wait,” says El Niño. “That was the good part.”

“The good part of the weather?”

El Niño feels a little embarrassed. “El Niño is much more dramatic in the Southern hemisphere,” he explains.

Louis looks unconvinced.

“El Niño is not even real,” says a man with a parrot on his shoulder and a Chihuahua dog sitting further down the bar. “Al Gore made it up.”

El Niño takes a long swill of his scotch, cradles his chin in his hands, and stares miserably at himself in the mirror behind the bar.

“Eight-hundred-and-thirty-two…eight-hundred-and-thirty-three….”

“What’s his story?” El Niño asks, gesturing to the counting priest.

Without turning from the game, Louis says, “He comes in every Sunday. I think he’s searching for God in prime numbers.”

“Has he ever found him?”

Louis nods. “Twice.”

“What happens then?”

“Mostly high-fives,” Louis says.

“That’s a fellow with concrete goals,” says the man down the bar.

“Must be nice,” El Niño says, and then he orders another drink. He is waiting for weather news at halftime. He is waiting for someone to notice him. He is waiting to be appreciated.

Unfortunately, that’s the joke.

How I Achieved Maximum Efficiency –Scott Erickson

My main problem with working is that it requires work. Rather than think of myself as “lazy,” I prefer to think of myself as efficient. If efficiency is defined as “how to get more as a result of less work” then maximum efficiency would be “how to get everything as a result of no work.”

Thus, maximum efficiency became my life goal. But how could I achieve it?

Someone in a New Age bookstore introduced me to the book Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. According to the book, all you need to do is visualize your goals, and then your “thought energy” conspires with like-minded energy and manifests your goals in the material realm. No work required!

I visualized night and day. I visualized till the cows came home. I visualized while the cows hung around. I continued visualizing as the cows took off again.

I visualized myself standing proudly in front of my huge Hollywood mansion. I visualized a gold stretch-Cadillac limo pull up the driveway. I visualized Scarlett Johansson stepping out of the limo. I visualized Scarlett Johansson shedding her clothes. This led to further visualizations.

But no matter how much I visualized, none of my thought energy manifested in the material realm. I felt betrayed. I wanted to write an outraged letter to Shakti Gawain, but I couldn’t afford a stamp.

As I was attempting to visualize a first-class postage stamp, I received the insight that changed my life. It struck me with the force of something really forceful: all the effort I was expending to avoid work was—in itself—a form of work.

But what were the implications of this insight? I couldn’t decide if it meant I had to accept the necessity of doing work, or if it meant I had to give up the work of not-working. But could I give up work without working at it? Would it be possible to not work at not working?

At this point, my mental processes looped themselves into self-perpetuating feedback, kind of like amplifier feedback inside my head but with ideas instead of guitar noise. Imagine one thousand Jimi Hendrix guitar solos all at once, but with no sound. Weird, huh? Then everything got quiet. Then everything went dark… for a long time.

Things are better now. Every day I get three decent meals and a clean change of underwear. Someone cuts my hair and trims my nails, since they don’t trust me with sharp instruments. For some reason, they also don’t trust me to bathe myself, so I’m bathed by a nurse who slightly resembles Scarlett Johansson if I squint my eyes a certain way and ignore that it’s a male nurse.

But the important thing is that I have finally achieved my dream of not working. I have finally achieved maximum efficiency. Although—as is usually the case with achieving dreams—there were ramifications I had failed to take into account, such as I’m not allowed to play with Legos because of the choking hazard.

I feel like there’s a moral here… something about how the true purpose of dreams is to transform the person doing the dreaming, or maybe something about being careful what you ask for because you might get it, or maybe something about being careful of any dream that involves Scarlett Johansson.

“Welcome to Fuckedville” from Avow #22 –Keith Rosson

These are nights that stretch their arms wide and last forever. I cannot stop thinking, cannot find closure for this. It’s a metronome that lessens when I’m among friends but never entirely goes away.

I have begun dry-heaving at bus stops from dehydration and lack of sleep, lack of food, everything spinning to the point where I lean against a utility pole so I don’t fall down. Lawyers have begun calling me regarding debts that I owe. I do not know where next month’s rent will come from. I’ve got the most hilariously, insanely raging case of hemorrhoids I’ve ever had in my life – all drink and no food, right – to the point where it feels like someone’s cheerfully driven and then parallel parked a Honda Civic up my asshole. Due to lack of Federal funding in a particular school district, I no longer have a job. My mother has fallen down at work and broken both of her ankles and one of her wrists and is just now beginning to heal. Her vulnerability, her mortality, weighs on me.

I’ve made the trek from my apartment to the Safeway ten, fifteen blocks away, me and the aching Honda I’m carrying around in my fucking drawers and I just want to get in, buy some groceries and get out. I’ve got my little basket and fully recognize that things are going south, things are slipping away from me hard and fast, that I need to get it together. It is the first day or night I haven’t drank in some time and I put bananas, soup, carrots in the basket. I think, I will come away from this somehow, I will make it through. I will begin treating myself better. It is the first sliver of hope that I’ve felt in some time.

And when I am leaning over the green peppers there in Safeway – fragilely adamant that I will make it through all of this wreckage somehow – my nose just begins to gush blood, like someone twisted a spigot. I drop the basket, my hand over my nose, my head raised, warm copper etching the back of my throat. I walk out of the store, begin stork-walking my way home and after a few blocks it’s stopped. I spit thick wads of blood onto the ground, that electric taste of batteries in the back of my throat, hope dismantled fast.

One of those moments that just carves itself into you and brings you right back to exactly where you are, you know?

Spitting blood, I just kept thinking, How did I wind up here? Was there a specific instant that brought me here? What choices have I made that took me right to this moment: in my early thirties, jobless, heart-busted, spitting blood on the sidewalk and stumbling around like an assfucked penguin because I’ve got Gwar-sized hemorrhoids, which has got to be the uncoolest bodily misfunction short of the Weeping Penis? How did this happen? With no real future and a history that it now seems was not what I thought it was at all? How in the shit did this happen?

And all that came back was my own voice, resigned and oddly jubilant:

Welcome to Fuckedville, man. This is where you live now.

I still get pictures from him sometimes. –Jon Lasser

I still get pictures from him sometimes.

Everything was a lie. His taxi medallion. His stint in the army. The police, where he was terminated for unauthorized use of force, unable to stop pounding his fists into the sickly pliant flesh of the man whose daughter lay bloody at his feet. His birthday.

None of that was why I loved him. Because of his liquid eyes just as he woke, placid and sincere. The way he watched everybody watching me. His generosity with his friends, when he could afford it, and how ashamed he was to collect on those debts. I wanted to know him the way you can know a teddy bear only after you unzip it and run your hands through the stuffing.

The wedding was as informal as it was brief. He and I, Mark and Cindy to witness. Ten minutes at the courthouse on a gray Friday morning, both of us in stained blue jeans and white silk shirts. That night we showed up at Alan’s birthday party, and everybody toasted us with plastic flutes half-full of champagne.

After he walked out, I wandered among our friends, numb, seeking an explanation. Even Mark, who knew him best, was just discovering that none of it matched up. None of us knew where he was born—he’d told each of us something different—or even his real name.

Every so often, an envelope in the mail: blurry photo-booth shots. Always alone. No letter, no explanation. Nothing written on the back of the pictures. No return address on the envelope.

Even the postmark smudged beyond legibility.