Table of Contents, Issue #27
Dispatch sent me to a house in the Tucson foothills. It was a typical foothills community full of upper class false-adobe houses all painted the same sallow desert tan. No real color was allowed by the neighborhood ordinance. It was 111 degrees and there hadn’t even been a cloud in 4 days.
When I arrived in my cab I heard loud music inside the house. I didn’t see anybody. No phone number had been provided. I got out of the cab and knocked on the door several times. A man grunted: “RIGHT OUT!” I waited on the sunny driveway and looked at my watch: 2:15 p.m.
The door opened and a Rottweiller leaped out at me. A man inside caught the dog by the scruff of the neck.
“You son of a BITCH!” he screamed, and kicked the dog viciously back inside.
He was Hispanic, around fifty, black hair slicked back into a tiny, perfectly tight ponytail. He wore sunglasses, brown wool sports jacket, new blue jeans and walnut colored dress shoes. And he was BUILT. Not tall, but wide. He had a confidence. He held a glass of beer and walked toward the cab.
In the cab, he said: “I’m Carlos.”
“Very sad about Big John,” Carlos said.
Big John had been a cab driver for many years. He had died a few weeks before of a kidney infection. He had complained about pain for days but he wouldn’t go to the doctor, he said he didn’t have the money. That’s what sitting in these vehicles day after day can do to you. One day he drove his cab to the hospital and walked into the emergency room. He was dead 7 hours later.
“He was a friend of yours?” I said.
“Of course!” Carlos said. “He was my driver for ten years. I’ve been…out of town. I just heard about his death. Big John was a good man.”
I had never liked Big John much.
“Where we headed?” I said.
Carlos looked at me as if he had been offended.
“Craycroft and Pima.”
The east side. That meant at least thirty five dollars on the meter.
“You want me to take the freeway?” I said.
“Whatever you want.”
“Or maybe Skyline Drive?”
I sat there a moment. I was nervous. I was just a middle aged guy with a studio apartment, I didn’t want any trouble. Carlos took a hand gun out of his coat pocket and sat it on the seat beside him.
“I’ll take the freeway,” I said.
Carlos had cans of beer in the pockets of his sports jacket. He finished his glass and took a can out and filled it again. He was perfectly shaved except for a little hair under the middle of his lower lip.
A piece of rubber tire came upon us on the highway. I swerved to miss it and Carlos nearly spilled his beer.
“Take it easy,” he said.
Halfway there Carlos said, “Next time take Skyline.”
Carlos told me to pull into the parking lot of a pawn shop. He got out slowly and strutted into the store. He stayed inside for at least twenty minutes. My palms were wet. I should leave, I should leave, I thought. Carlos had taken his gun with him.
After a while, I got out of the cab and looked in the glass doors of the pawn shop. At that moment Carlos came out, almost hitting me in the nose with the door.
“I see how you are,” Carlos said.
“Just checking my hair,” I told him.
“I need a beer,” Carlos said. “Take me to the south side.”
The south side was another twenty minutes away, and once we got there he wanted me to go to a gas station, where he bought a twelve pack of beer. Then he instructed me to park in an alley looking out onto the street, right next to a Mexican guy selling corn out of the back of his truck. The corn nearly steamed in its husks sitting there in boxes in the sun. The meter clicked more slowly as we sat. I watched it like the doomsday clock.
Carlos drank his beer.
I turned around and looked at him.
“Can I ask a question?” I said. Carlos nodded and lifted his hand.
“What exactly are we doing?” I said.
Carlos smiled and shook his head.
“In life you must be flexible,” he said.
“But what is our ultimate destination?”
“You’ll have to ask God that question, my friend. Just drive.”
He wanted me to drive when he told me to drive and to turn where he told me to turn and to listen when he talked. Carlos measured my reactions.
“You have a girlfriend?” Carlos asked.
“Are you a man, or what?” he said.
“I think so.”
“I have four girlfriends,” Carlos said. “One in New York, one in Brazil, and two in Mexico.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Not really,” he said.
“They like the money,” I said.
“No!” Carlos said. “It’s more than the money.”
Carlos wanted the music turned up. Then he talked in whispers.
“A man needs to have some fun once in a while,” he said.
I knew what he meant.
“You know what I mean?” he said.
The whole thing was some kind of test.
“Can you keep a secret?” Carlos said.
I didn’t want any secrets, I’d had enough of secrets. My heart was racing and I was sweating all over. My fear was mixed with anger.
“I mean,” he said, “you know where I live, you know all this about me.”
“You haven’t told me anything.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were stupid.”
“I don’t want to wake up with an ice pick in the back of my neck,” Carlos said. “You have to be careful. Just like driving this cab around, you never know who you’re going to pick up.”
“Can you keep your mouth shut is what I’m asking you,” Carlos said.
“If I have to.”
“One day a man might come up to you,” Carlos said.
“This man may look just like me, this man may even claim to be me. What will you tell him?”
“Nothing, Carlos.”“Pull over here.”
We sat on 12th Ave., which was Carlos’s street. He “ran” it. One of the perks of running a street is he never had to pay for anything and could supposedly walk up to any woman he saw and take her to a hotel.
It was all about something he called “protection”. Big John had been his driver for nearly ten years. Carlos was never in Tucson long enough to have his own car, so he used Big John. Big John was driving a cab around hell right about then, which was probably not much hotter than Tucson.
“Nobody’s gonna take care of you,” Carlos said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself. A man’s got to take care of himself, you know what I mean?”
“Look around you,” he said. “That guy selling corn out of the back of his god damned truck back there, he’s got an old lady at home and four kids, man. Who’s gonna take care of them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me!” Carlos said. “Nobody else is gonna do it! I take care of them. They are like my children. I would do anything for them. I mean, sometimes you gotta kick ass, but that’s just how it goes.”
He held out his right arm and flexed his biceps.
“Go ahead,” he said, “feel it. Eighteen fucking inches.”
Carlos looked at me. He liked me, but he didn’t like me.
“You don’t understand anything, do you?”
“I’m not from this world,” I said.
Carlos laughed. He shook my hand about twenty times and said he wanted me to be his new driver. My hand was still sweaty and when Carlos let go, he wiped his hand on his jeans and smiled viciously.
Intimidation vibrated from Carlos. He sat back there, ensconced in malignant ego, completely full of himself, ready to kill at any moment, or ready to die. He was a man you just did not fuck with. And his gun sat there the whole time.
The next part of the afternoon was spent going to various places. He kept barking at me.
“Pull over there! Not here, there! Do what I tell you!”
At one point I pulled the cab over outside of a little taco stand. I told Carlos he was wearing me out, and that I was tired of his mouth. My fear had been exhausted and I was just plain pissed. Plus I was hungry. Carlos looked at me with shock. I figured I was done for. But Carlos softened. He grinned and patted me on the shoulder.
“You have some balls after all, my friend,” he said.
After that, he was quiet, and more polite.
We stopped at many pawn shops and bars, so Carlos could collect protection money or just throw his weight around. He was never in these places more than a few minutes. Sometimes he returned slightly winded or with a layer of perspiration on his upper lip. Other times I heard loud voices from inside the buildings, and one time a muffled gun shot. I sat behind the wheel and stared through my sunglasses into the sunshine, at the palms and cactus and dusty alleys. I just could not leave. Carlos knew what company I worked for and unless I was willing to leave the city, I was afraid Carlos would find me if I just drove off and left him.
Outside of one Mexican restaurants there were four Mexican musicians unloading their musical instruments from a truck. Four old Mexican men, dressed like farmers. They were preparing to play in the restaurant.
“Stop the car,” Carlos said.
He got out and walked over to the musicians, snapped something in Spanish. They jumped like Satan’s jesters. Carlos walked back and climbed into the cab, leaving the door open. The windows were down. The musicians scrambled over and stood right next to the cab. Carlos named a song and they exploded into it. They played their hearts out. The instruments that they strummed and pounded were held together by duct tape and carpentry nails, too beat up and old to even interest a pawn shop.
They were more scared than I was. They knew this Carlos. I could see it on their faces. They were all sweating in the afternoon sun. Everybody was sweating except Carlos. There was no joy in that music, only fear of hitting a wrong note. After about five songs, Carlos tired of them, waved them off. Not a dime tip.
When he walked out of yet another pawn shop, he told me he would be staying there for a while, and that I was free to leave. I had been held hostage for over four hours.
“Whatever you want,” I said.
“I’m a man,” Carlos said. “I do what I want.”
The rest of his twelve pack of beer sat on the floor of the cab.
“You want your beer?”
“Fuck the beer.”
“You’re my driver, right?” Carlos said. “You will take me here and there, sometimes?”
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.
The fare was one hundred and eighty dollars. Carlos took out an inch-thick fold of bills and handed me the exact amount. Then he made theatrics about giving me a five dollar tip.
“I always pay my debts,” he said. “Remember that.”
He said he would be calling, and warned me again about keeping my mouth shut. I drove, my heart beating like a rabbit’s, very much alive. I found a shady spot on the north side of town, rolled the window down and turned off the engine. I sat there thinking about those skin-and-bone musicians, their strained smiles, their yellow teeth, their long brown fingers plucking the guitar strings, tapping the drum, holding the horn that shined golden in the sun. The sweat rolling down their faces like laborers in a field. The lone singer who closed his eyes and lifted his head and prayed his voice would not crack. I could not remember the songs he sang, not a word of them, not a note, only his courage, his bared throat.
In the summer of 2010, I moved from New York City back to my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Having recently published a novel and a collection of short stories, I hoped to contribute something to the literary culture of Birmingham. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if there was a literary culture in Birmingham. When I had left seventeen years prior, there was not much.
Upon returning, I found that The University of Alabama-Birmingham had two journals that have shown longevity–Birmingham Poetry Review and PMS, (now Nelle). An organization called Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO) was showing great promise with creative writing workshops for youth based on the model of Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia. I thought that if I could pull together an online journal that would focus on Southern writers, it might make an impact.
I have been thrilled with the response. After 27 online issues and 4 print issues, it’s time for me to move on. My teaching and writing responsibilities have made it too difficult to keep up the quality of work with STR that our readers have come to expect. I have had help from co-founders Mike and Matt, some of my colleagues at UAB, and an intern or two here and there, but all of us have a lot on our plate. It just isn’t possible right now for any of us to make STR our priority.
The website will remain active indefinitely, as long as I have the little bit of cash it takes to renew the domain every year. If my life looks a little different in the future, I would consider relaunching or rebranding the website. For right now, though, we are no longer accepting submissions.
It’s been a great run. Please enjoy this final (?) online issue.
This is a story about boys, which means it’s a story about Zachary.
Sebastian was the lead singer of a band, which thrilled me, as I never grew out of being a sixteen year old girl. He had a Deathly Hallows symbol on one forearm, and the Zelda triforce on the other. His first tattoo was an All Time Low skull, and he had The Used’s album art just below his shoulder. He never blinked his eyes. They were light brown, the kind that looks like honey in natural light. He would climb on top of me and stare, and I would close my own in order to pretend that his were, too. Once, we lay in bed for hours, and when the stare was too much, I would look at his arms (an emo museum of sorts), and I would trace the shitty tattoos encasing him from wrist to shoulder. When I left him, I didn’t tell him about his stare, or how I couldn’t help but judge his choice of ink. I didn’t tell him that it bothered me how much he liked me, or how I pictured blue-gray eyes and a scarred knuckle when I looked at him; I just left.
Jose had an Angry Bird right below his appendix scar. It looked like one of those temporary tattoos, small and sloppily placed. He got it when all his military buddies decided they’d get shitty Angry Bird tattoos together. Just a little inked bird, right on the side of his stomach. I know he didn’t want it, but he’d never been good at standing up for himself. Later, after I started dating Zachary instead of him, he got a shitty chest piece, one with an angel in the middle and a clock that was unfinished at the top, since he wasn’t allowed to show any ink in his uniform. I haven’t seen him since he left the Marines, but I imagine the clock still open, the twelve at the top slightly cut off. Sometimes, when he calls me in the middle of the night, even five years later, I wonder if I’m the angel, ugly in black and white lines and curves, permanently etched across his chest, as frozen in time as the hands on the left-open clock. Sometimes, less frequently, I realize how presumptuous this is. Jose’s never forgiven me, but he hasn’t forgotten me, either.
Jared had so many, all shitty. We’d see each other once or twice a month, and each time, I’d swear he had at least one more than before. The sugar skull with Elvis hair was his newest one, but the most memorable to me was the Raichu with the leg sticking out at an odd angle. I would have been in middle school when he got his Jack Skellington tattoo, and I can imagine how much thirteen-year-old me would have liked it. I was always calling him pretentious, since he only listened to “deep” bands and read The Virgin Suicides for fun, but he was always quick to point out that I was, too. It was hard to argue, since I’d borrow his copy of the book and read it while he traced the matching Brand New tattoos sitting jauntily on either side of my left ankle. On one thumb, he had a tooth and on the other, a nail. I’d watch him slide his hands over my skin and puzzle at the reason for the ink just below his thumbs, wondering what they meant, if they even meant anything at all. But I never asked about them. I’d kiss him and hold those hands in my own, and watch them slip inside me, but never ask him what they meant. It felt like I was learning him through each shitty tattoo, each line inking his story to me, more so than talking to him ever did.
I met Thomas at a show, both of us drunk and slurring. He was in the band, and he held my hand because I asked him to. I traced the huge bass clef on his forearm and pretended to like it. Later, he’d trace the crescent on my neck, the lotus on my thigh. I’d kiss his huge, unabashed Type 1 Diabetes tattoo, colorful and ornate across his wrist, and I would imagine a tattoo on my own and shiver. How nervous it made me, that he could show the world his disease so easily, with such pride, something I couldn’t imagine or understand. How unfairly jealous I was that he could push insulin into his body and immediately avoid catastrophe, while I struggled through therapy before giving up entirely. I stayed with him month after month, an endless back and forth of insults and just this once, only to fall right back in, looking into eyes that were almost the right shade of blue.
I had a crush on Martin, the kind giggly girls in sitcoms have. He had dark hair, tight jeans, and the Nintendo logo on his arm. He had a Charmander inked on the other, and later, when I met Jared, I briefly panicked, thinking I might have a thing for men with shitty Pokémon tattoos. Like with Jared, Martin and I never said very much about anything that mattered. He pierced my nose and kissed me in his red and black bedroom, and I’d chatter about anything just to fill the quiet of the next morning, touching the sugar skull on his shin whenever I’d run out of things to say. He was twenty-five, but his black sheets and red curtains reminded me of older days, of Zachary straightening his hair in my parents’ bathroom, Bullet For My Valentine shirt one size too big. Martin’s brown irises never quite looked directly into my eyes, but I guess it was only fair.
Zachary didn’t have tattoos. This was often an argument, as I had a few, and I was always begging him not to get any. My defense, as always, was that he wouldn’t pick out the right one. Guys are known for shitty tattoos, I’d say, and he would roll his eyes, before telling me (unironically) that he wanted an anchor or some shitty Morrissey quote circa 1984. I would cringe, and soon it would become a battle of which was worse, an overused Beatles quote on his clavicle or the overused Harry Potter quote on my left wrist. We were together five years, and he never got one, even though sometimes he went as far as making an appointment. He would sit with guitar in hand, and I would watch him and imagine an anchor on his shoulder, a quote across his chest, a ring on my left finger. He’d play me a melody until I memorized every note, just as I did every word he ever told me. With him, I never stopped talking. I’d watch his hand, the one with the tooth-shaped scar, and I would think about how it would never really fade, just as the ones on my wrists cannot be completely hidden by ink. I’d watch him and think about his blue-gray eyes and unmarked body, the blank canvas of flesh. He didn’t need tattoos for me to know him.
Charlotte Covey is from St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. She has poetry published or forthcoming in journals such as The Normal School, Salamander Review, CALYX Journal, the minnesota review, and Sonora Review, among others. In 2015, she was nominated for an AWP Intro Journal Award. She is co-editor-in-chief of Milk Journal and an assistant editor for Natural Bridge.
When your mother told me about
how you used to lay along the sidewalk
and pet blades of grass, I knew that
our children would be good. Their souls
would stem hope from your
familial roots. They would build homes
from cushions and wear blankets
as capes to fight off villains made from
tree trunks and strange shadows. Your
bravery would flow through their blood.
And even when they cried, we would
laugh at your faces and hold onto
jokes told only by fathers. I loved how
they loved you, and held onto the promise
that you would come home soon.
we bought our hearts
in recreational explosives,
lit them with the ends
of our cigarettes, and shot them
from car windows.
Out of gas on highway 78,
grass grew through tractors,
and blue jays watched.
Landry pulled and I shot
empty cans silver-speckled with a 22.
The wood linage was half-green,
half-spiked as desire.
Over boring fields, a blood fox
shimmied and bobbed.
The jars of corn liquor gone dry,
I bet Landry 50 bucks he couldn’t
hold an M-60 through the boom.
He lost a pinky and bent up his ring.
When the buzzards came,
their wings opened like glossy
brush strokes, sloppy with paint.
They cloaked themselves,
bundled in the pine branches.
What had died? We wondered
as we set the ’76 Mustang to fire.
Fed by breath and silence,
it burned with a star’s fury
beside prodigal constellations.
Jesse Breite’s recent poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Spillway, Crab Orchard Review, The Briar Cliff Review, and Prairie Schooner. He has been featured in Town Creek Poetry and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia. FutureCycle Press published his first chapbook, The Knife Collector, in 2013.
If the world ends while I’m on campus If we could hold Neyland Stadium in a zombie apocalypse we’d have plenty of gates fences concessions to raid clothing too Most people wouldn’t survive the first wave, of course, campus would stink of the dead the rotten eaten and eating but if we survived made the first crucial days We’d need to focus on survival. The end-game. We could farm on the football field corn on the twenty yard line peas at the ten forage from student center, the Strip That sucker is huge We’d need a team enough people for watch-duty in sky box, guards at the entrances, work on fortifications Outside the world goes to pot zombies munching their way through fraternities under giant We bleed orange billboards We’d sleep safely at night despite the screams find haven on the cheap seats burn old playbooks We’d discuss our old departments stay alive, gain an education.
Keri Withington is an educator and poet who lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, surrounded by TVA controlled lakes and rivers. Her work has previously appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, recently including Blue Fifth Review, Feminine Inquiry, and New Plains Review. Keri enjoys beating her partner at board games, watching nature documentaries with her kids, and going on adventures.