Little Chapel of Wronged Women

You read the travel brochure in the truck stop display: twenty miles off I-82, just past Paducah, east of St. Ivanson’s, stands the little chapel with a red roof and the graveyard full of ghosts.

There, the brochure says, visitors will find more than plenty weeping widows and hanged maidens and brides murdered on their wedding night. More than anyone could need. For the more intrepid connoisseurs there’s a few wailing adulteresses, headless maids, bloody schoolmistresses. The brochure tells you to watch among the headstones for signs of the melancholy fiancé, the dejected debutante, the tearful opera singer, the despondent niece. Look closely and you’ll find graves for the dismembered administrator, the gutted fishmonger, the assassinated scholar. If you’re lucky, the brochure says, you might catch sight of the rarer phantoms: the spider-legged crone, the tall ones, the mother of eyes.

Stop for the night and throw breadcrumbs about the graves, the brochure says. Watch the ghosts scramble.

Don’t turn your back on them, the brochure says.

Stop for lunch or put your feet up at the nearby Manor House museum-hotel. There’s a summer beer garden and corn-hole tournaments every weekend. Make time for the annual Little Chapel Lilac Festival in the Spring! Lodging includes brunch and easter egg hunts for the kids.

You stare at the photos in the brochure. A crooked little church with a red roof. Figures among the graves, shadowed. Children stooped over to scoop into their baskets little things they’ve found scattered about the earth: plastic eggs, flowers, pebbles and lost teeth, bits of stray bones.


the last last weekend

We throw our laptops
off the overpass and watch
them break apart, a million
green-and-silver pieces
while the horizon burns.

Jack-booted thugs walk
the streets, with their no-knock
warrants, their flesh-peeled faces,
their teeth in bone smiles.

We whistle tunes from old shows
no longer streaming.

We count the teeth
in our pockets and wonder
what will these buy? A crack
of sunrise, a few twinkies.
The slow and inevitable
heat death of stars.


Poem my kid wrote while playing a madlibs style game on family game night

I have: the universe.

I need: you.


A Sky Unwholesome

Toby Hankins burned the books on Sunday. He started the fire behind Aunt Edna’s house on Cattledrive Road.

By the time all was ready the sky had turned red with dusk. Toby unpacked the wood from his truck and Edna watched him out the back window of her house. She wore the purple scarf embroidered in stars her sweetheart gave her before the war.

Toby did not look Edna in the eye. He stacked the salvage wood in a bonfire pyramid and put the books at the bottom.

The wind rifled their paperback covers.

His hands shook to strike the wood match. He tried and failed to light it many times. The red sunlight turned purpleblack and gave way to a sky unwholesome. Not a cloud, not a star above. The sky looked as though a hand had been cupped over the world and Toby thought sooner or later something would peek through the purpleblack fingers and he’d look up to see the glimmer of some strange, great eye.

The pages whispered.

Toby sprayed haphazard the lighter fluid and droplets soaked his jeans. The liquid like crystal settled into the fissures and cracks of his hands. He thought I’ll go up too. He flung the match and the wind almost stole it away. Not again would he look up.

The cover of the first paperback with its strange stars printed in purple and red began to burn against its wishes. Slowly slowly took the fire onto itself but did not crinkle or turn black. Orange ghosts of flame danced atop the covers with curled hips. Toby Hankins thought surely fire would not betray him. Surely fire was the thing, the last thing he had, the only weapon left among the remains of a ravaged arsenal with which he may betray the gods and by the way he would not look up again.

Aunt Edna called out and he did not turn around. He squirted lighter fluid and whispered old hymns, one he recalled from Edna’s funeral in ’82. When he sang it the wind stole the words.

The night was dark now and the sky open. Aunt Edna looked out from the window, eyes and mouth dark and open. The books refused to burn.


The Things that Possessed Her

First it was a real demon, a good one, a Great Duke and Earl of Hell, who yearned to teach philosophy and oblige souls of the dead to appear (it hadn’t had much to do since Copernicus).

Then it was a small demon, one made of shadows and fiction, with stark eyes and bad makeup, taken from a movie she’d watched too many times (it grumbled about Mothers and hell but mostly kept to itself).

Then it was an old demon, a dusty one, that took every opportunity to point out that the word demon in Greek meant power, agency, (and in the proto-European, provider, which pleased it to no end).

Then it was the last demon, a trembling little wispish one tucked inside the drawer of some childhood fear, some backward, tiny, half-forgotten pain that despite its insignificance took hold of everything she thought and did. (This demon, the worst of them all, whispered to her, let’s go somewhere we can be alone).


A Room of Dusty Bones

They found a hidden room in the abandoned old house: they didn’t own the house but they had to be there, workers who opened things up, replaced and fixed things. The house always was a sore thumb in the neighborhood, a strange castle, and everyone always thought bad things happened there—murders, madness, miscarriages—and they were right, at least the workers found when they opened up the walls and found the hidden room, with the antique wallpaper in the faded saffron (the kind that had arsenic in it) and the chains rusted on the walks and the bathtub (clawfoot) and a box of stained knives and a more than a few dusty bones. And it wasn’t a good idea to be in there, they knew, but they were told to go in, bring everything down. But when they went in the walls cracked open, and they found more hidden doors leading to more hidden rooms; passages, catacombs, dungeons, with naked horrors still screaming, and they realized the place wasn’t abandoned at all.


What Happened in the Yard

Her husband cut his hand off and wouldn’t tell her how it happened, and in the days after the hospital he was antsy, kept an eye over his shoulder. He said only it was sharp. She threw away the buzzsaw and the arch welder and the sander, and when that didn’t put him at ease she also threw away the kitchen knives. Still he didn’t sleep. At night he sat on the edge of the bed and stared out the window at the back yard, where the bushes had overgrown, and she asked, did it happen with the loppers? She didn’t recall him doing yardwork that day. She did recalled a storm that rustled the leaves over the ground and made it sound in the house all day like something whispered. She had dreams of things that looked in from outside, bright eyes in the windows like cats in headlights. They said do you know what he did? And she said she didn’t know and he wouldn’t tell her. After that when she went outside to take out the trash she tread quite softly and watched the mounds of earth below those bushes pulsate and throb as though something were about to break loose.


She Vomited Lost Things

At first, it was only simple misplacements: lost letters, single socks, missing car keys, couch change in the form of hay pennies and rare silver dollars. Then it was things our family had wondered about for years: lost photos, deeds to shotgun houses, records from Ellis Island, books of poetry grandmother wrote, bayonets used by cousins in the war. A great many things thought gone forever pushed their way up her esophagus, straining her throat muscles to the point of near tearing. So much blood when it happened (but so much it couldn’t possibly be all hers). When another thing came up she would stumble gagging to the bathroom, her throat a froggish bulge, her body heaving in great labor, and we all thought surely, surely it wasn’t our fault. No, it must have been someone else’s curse, something she did to create such a void in her innards that summoned things from a shadow world. It could not be, our family whispered, as the wet sounds echoed from the bathroom, it could not be because we had forgotten we put those things inside her. Our family whispered many things to themselves, muttering as they searched for mis-addressed letters, their broken car keys, their rare change. They whispered many things, but then they quickly lost their train of thought.


A Ritual for the Dying

Close the windows. Cover the doors in crepe. Light a candle on the floor. Tie coins to the ceiling and leave three eggs in the yard under a new moon. Sing softly. Chase out the flies. Collect all their papers and cross out their names. Open the crypt and air it out. Count the moths. Circle three times widdershins and don’t look them in the eye as they go. (They could take your soul with them as they go.) Turn off the fans. Leave a plate of oranges. Sweep the corners. Open the windows. Close the windows. (Don’t look.) Open the windows. Close the windows. (Don’t

fiction sketches

The Cult in the Woods Sends You Flowers

The cult in the woods sends you flowers on your birthday and engages in community programs. (They volunteered to pick up all the trash on the highway by mile marker 6, but no one saw anyone out there, no robed figures with strange gaunt faces or anything. The trash was just gone the morning after). The cult in the woods brings plates for the Lions’ Club annual pancake feed to benefit the local children’s hospital, and they are quiet neighbors, so no one can tell when their rituals actually occur. The cult in the woods fixes fences and paints houses and got an award last year from the mayor after their Toys for Tots drive supplied every foster care home in a hundred miles with new bikes, helmets and elbow pads and all. (During the award ceremony, no one showed up on the podium, but a strange breeze wafted in from the woods. The audience could swear they felt eyes on them.) Although there used to be some trouble from the cult in the woods, some talk of copulating with spirits and demons, some talk of impregnating sleeping residents with demonic seed, none of that happens anymore, not for at least the last thirty, twenty, ten years. Or so. They are reformed, they say. They never, they say, sneak into our rooms at night and whisper (son, daughter) and smile from the shadows at the foot of the bed.

fiction sketches

A Bucket of Tiny Madnesses

It sits on your desk: a bucket, not too big but big enough, filled with tiny, squirming madnesses.

It’s full of spindly-armed things with bulbous eyes; sluggish long things with tapeworm mouths; round little winged things that bite with an unfurled proboscis.

At times, they spill over the edge, tumbling with bumble legs to skitter or slurp across your desk, but you scoop them back up (their little teeth pinch) and dump them back into their bucket. When you press them down, you hear their angry little squeals.

Do they leave the bucket when you’re not looking? You think maybe, yes. They might use the cover of night to sneak under bedsheets, nestle in tennis shoes and ears, but how can you be sure? (In your sleep, you hear chittering, you feel soft barbed toes against your cheek, but those are dreams of course.) They’re always in their bucket the next morning.

You know you should get rid of the bucket (take it to a professional, for instance, or maybe a dumpster), but you’re afraid that would mean trading it in for a larger madness, one that would sit on your lap and yowl to be fed.

So you’ll take your small things; they like their bucket. They’ve never, not once, (okay, maybe a few times) built up the courage to start a good swarm.

fiction sketches

All her Killers

After “High Beams,” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Schwartz, p. 66

In the back seat of her car grew a portal, one that spat out serial killers: hitchhikers with switchblades in their sleeves; charming young men with sharp smiles and freezers full of hearts; clowns with homemade costumes and barbed wire balloons; nurses with air-filled syringes in their little white caps; pale people with long limbs and black suits; santas with axes; step parents with strychnine pies; government agents with pockets full of chemicals destined for the river; antivaxxers; four star generals; bad doctors; landlords; cancer in one large lumpy alien spit out from the cosmos; high-fructose corn syrup; and one, dirty-kneed stow away with a fear of the light and an old-fashioned razor blade.

They packed on top of each other. She tightened her grip on the wheel. They poked each other with their blades, spread their blood on the windows. She kept driving all night, the dome light left on, ignoring their grumbling, the are-we-there-yet, ignoring the flash of lights in her rear view mirror.