One of the peculiarities of running a submissions-based magazine is an unexpected one. You end up with pen pals. Lots of them. You’ll know this if you run a magazine that accepts art from around the world. You get oddballs, lots of ‘em, weirdos too. I’m fine with both of those things because I’m happy to fall under both categories myself, even if I’m only reaching to attain the status of weirdo. You get Smart Alecs, I like those too. I think I might be a Smart Alec. And you get those people that wind you the fuck up. Because they moan at you like you’re responsible for the existence of Line Rental, like they’re paying for some sort of service, or like I’m being paid to provide some sort of service. And there are racists, buffoons, clowns, donkeys, doughnuts, and there’s hundreds and thousands of different people telling you about Ruth, Avrim, Marlow, Damian, Kwame, Eustace, Dean, Vershit, Iain, Bet365, Clark, Nicky, Winnie, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy-Anne and then one of them just interests you and you’re not sure why and you’re writing,
Nice to hear from you. I liked the old photo you sent through.
And then you get into it with Clark. You find out that the photo he sent through is from the fifties, which is about the time he started writing. It’s a picture of him in one of his favourite places, Cuba. You talk about Spain, speaking Spanish (you don’t, he does). He wants to know what sort of material you publish and you like that he asks that because it means that Clark’s not the sort to just send his stuff anywhere. He doesn’t want to waste my time and he doesn’t want to waste his time. He says it’s curious that we’ve got a stockist in Havana. That should be an interesting story, he tells you. It sort of is, and you tell him. In detail. Clark is Clark Zlotchew from New Jersey. His Grandparents settled in America from where they called Russia. That part that we now call Ukraine, for now, at least. Like most of us, there’s immigrant in him. He’s Professor of Spanish at a university out in New York, and he retires a year from now, in the Summer of 2017, after seeing work in seven decades. You just like Clark, and you like his short story that he sends through, but it’s already published in a collection of his fiction. So you put it on your website, instead. And people will read it and people will like it and some people won’t like it as much and that suits Clark as much as it suits Sean Preston, you’re sure. It’ll stay there, or somewhere on the Internet, forever, for as long as that is. And in the meantime, you’ll chat about Cuba, Castro, unlikely bookshops, Europe, and whatever else your pen pal wants to chat about, because it feels good to keep talking to people.
– Sean Preston
* * *
Clark Zlotchew is a short fiction writer from New Jersey, USA. The below story is one of the seventeen from his collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort Publishing, 2010). The book was one of three Finalists in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2011.
“It’s one of my favorites. It’s very strange, actually inexplicable, that I never personally knew a man like that lost soul in the story, and I certainly am not like that. Recently, when I re-read it, I feel tremendous emotion, pity for the poor SOB. I didn’t feel it when I wrote it. Weird.” – Clark Zlotchew.
GOING FOR THE GOLD
Joe Sims sat sprawled on his stained and tattered easy chair, a six pack of Budweiser at his feet, one of the bottles in his left hand, the remote in his right. He took a long gulp of beer, laid the remote down next to the pink teddy bear on the metal tray table before him, and reached for the Big Mac. He closed his eyes and savored the succulent beef patties, the cheese, the lettuce, onion, pickles, sesame bun, and the secret recipe “special sauce” that Sims was sure contained mayo, ketchup and relish. He let his taste buds bathe in the savory juices as his teeth and tongue caressed the food before he gulped the mass down. Then he felt its bulk pass satisfyingly all the way to his stomach where it came to rest, producing a feeling of contentment. This contentment faded when he looked at the pink teddy bear. He sighed deeply, then tore his eyes from the stuffed animal.
Joe Sims had just returned from the Lakeland Ice Cream Factory to an empty house. He had sweated the day away on the production line in one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Yet his hands froze numb while packing those ice pops as fast as he could so his supervisor wouldn’t yell at him. In fire and ice, he thought. All that’s missing is the Devil jabbing my ass with a pitchfork.
He felt shame and rage when Mr. Hanson, in front of his co-workers, called him a lazy slug. Just like his father used to do. Except his father would smack him around too, and later tell him it was for his own good, because he loved him. Joe would have dearly enjoyed smashing Hanson’s round, pink face into mush, but he needed the job.
He took another slug of the Bud from this, his third bottle. The first is for the thirst, the second one to make sure, the third is to relax… He felt the bitter effervescence change to sweetness on his tongue, the cold liquid in his mouth to a soothing warmth in his belly. He told himself he felt good. Good food, good drink, and the Olympics on the little screen. Eat, drink and make merry. Or is it Mary? What more could you ask for? He belched contentedly. He unbuckled his belt and unzipped his fly, to give himself breathing space. Hell, in high school he had to put extra holes in his belt so his pants wouldn’t fall down. He still had the muscles, he reassured himself, they just weren’t quite as hard as they used to be. But he could get back into shape easily whenever he wanted.
The men on the T.V. screen were frying fresh-caught fish, drinking beer and smiling ecstatically at each other. Damn commercial. Now, what brand is it? Ah, who gives a flying…? Beer is beer. Screw those fat cats on Madison Avenue. Look at that: those good old boys seem to be having a great time just sitting around, eating, drinking and grinning at each other like assholes. “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” one of them said. What the hell do they know? Bunch of faggots, probably. He tossed the empty bottle onto the floor, one more dead soldier, and reached for the fourth bottle. The fourth is for… Damn, I can’t remember what the hell it is for. Well…The fourth is…to relax even more. He twisted the cap off, skinning his finger, and took a long swallow.
On the screen the runners were burning up the track. God, he felt good watching them run. As though he were watching himself when he ran in high school, when he was trim and in good shape. He watched the screen and saw Michael Johnson shooting ahead. And Joe Sims was Johnson, running effortlessly, in perfect physical condition, his mind clear, confident in his abilities. And it was he, Joe Sims, running, breathing deeply in and out, sweating a healthy sweat, flying. The crowd was cheering him on. They were proud of him, all America was proud of him as he kept at it, plugging away, passing the others, leaving them in his dust, one foot after the other, left, right, left, right…
He crossed the finish line first, broke his own record and won the Gold Medal. The crowd was on its feet, screaming, delirious with joy. They loved him. He could feel the love enveloping him. All America loved him. The whole world loved him. Because he was strong and courageous and most of all, determined. How good it felt. How good…
Dave Thomas, the CEO of Wendy’s, spoke to him soothingly, homey-like. Like an old friend. Someone you could trust. Good old Dave told him how delicious his product was and how much you got for your money. And Sims could see how great it would taste. It made his mouth water. In his mind’s eye –his mind’s mouth?– he could feel his teeth sinking into it, as Dave’s actually did on screen, the juices soaking into his tongue and bathing his taste buds. He had just finished his Big Mac (Sorry, Dave.) and here he was, hungry again, looking at sly old Dave, that conceited son of a bitch, grinning in that self-satisfied way, chomping away, smacking his lips, telling him to go out and get one of those whatever-you-call-them just so the rich bastard could make even more money. Yeah, well, go screw yourself, Davey boy. Funny thing is: Sims knew he would have gone out and bought one or two of them if he weren’t so damned comfortable in his easy chair watching the Olympics and drinking beer.
If Janey were there she would have gotten him something from the refrigerator. She would’ve had all kinds of good stuff in the fridge. He glanced at the pink teddy bear lying on the tray table. He loved Janey so much, damn her. But she had to go and get mad and run away. He hated her for leaving him, the bitch. Just because I smacked her around a few times. Spoiled brat, it’s her folks’ fault, they babied her too much. …I wish she were here, though.
He tossed bottle number four to the floor and reached for the fifth. The fifth is for… Is for… He unscrewed the cap, not noticing the pain as it cut deeper into his finger. Shit, who cares what it’s for. He giggled and was surprised at the sound. It’s for making me feel good, that’s all I need to know. He took a long drink, then belched with satisfaction.
He frowned. He recognized that sappy music and knew the suckers were going to tell him that you needed to give your lady a goddam diamond if you wanted to show her you loved her. The music sounded kind of classical and inspirational, the bastards, to make you think people who could buy diamonds were more cultured and made love in a more refined way than ordinary folks. Like it was something sacred, for Chrissake. Well, okay, maybe it was sacred, but what the hell has that got to do with diamonds? Huh…! I bet if I gave Janey a diamond she wouldn’t have run off on me. But I just can’t afford a diamond… No, I can’t, damn it! He pounded his fist on the arm of the chair, raising a puff of dust. Well screw you, Mr. wise-ass DeBeers money bags. And you too, Janey, if what you needed was a diamond.
The boxers were banging away at each other. Go on, go on, go on… Keep punching, Antonio, keep punching. I’m blasting away at the Cuban guy. He can’t hurt me. I’m made of iron. His fists feel like friendly pats when he manages to land a punch, which he doesn’t do too often, ’cause I’m fast on my feet, and I duck and weave. Jack be nimble Jack be quick… But I’m punching the hell out of him. I’m creaming the bastard, creaming the Cuban, creaming my old man… –WHAT??!!–… I mean I’m creaming my boss, that son of a bitch Mr. Hanson. Yeah. I’m knocking the shit out of him. I’m banging away, mashing him into a pulp. For an instant he saw Janey at the receiving end of his fists. — AGAIN!–. He pushed the image from his mind. It was Mr. Hanson. It was the Cuban champion. And the crowd was cheering. They were on their feet and screaming. They love me. Yes, they love me. Yes they do. They really do.
Tears streamed from Joe Sims’s eyes. He was disturbed to find he was weeping. What the hell am I crying about? Mohammed Ali, feebly lighting the Olympics torch, flashed through his mind, followed by that scene of the people crowding around him, asking him for autographs… Mohammed Ali was smiling, but he was in bad shape, couldn’t speak, couldn’t answer people’s questions. Could hardly move, it looked like. But he smiled. A dumb-looking smile… What the hell was the poor bastard smiling about? Joe was overcome by a sudden sadness. A guy like that, the way he once was, and look at him now… Joe began to sob. Goddammit, what the hell do I give a damn about Mohammed Ali? He made his millions. He did all right. What the hell do I give a damn! And he sobbed even harder. He raised the fifth bottle to his lips, tossed back his head, closed his moist eyes and drained the bottle. Then he flung it to the floor. He felt a little better, calmer.
The women gymnasts were performing. Women…? They’re tiny little girls is what they are. And that giant of a coach, the Romanian guy, hugging the crap out of them, getting his jollies right in front of the cameras as if it was okay. Who’s he kidding? But those tiny little girls sure have skill. And guts. Not afraid to get hurt. And they’re cute. They have beautiful legs too. Yeah… Really beautiful. And the Ukrainian one, with the name nobody can pronounce, the one that knows how to dance like a ballet dancer, she’s even sprouting real live boobs. You could see them bounce. Boy, when they get a couple of years older…
And perfect control over every damn muscle in their little bodies. They’re so bouncy, so…rubbery, so damned… What’s the word…? Flexible, yeah, that’s it. And supple. That’s what they are. Supple. Good word. And the one from China, what a great smile to go with the legs, what a wonderful, bright smile. It makes you feel all warm inside to see her smile. She’s smiling right at me. I can feel her eyes on me. Janey used to smile like that… Used to… Back then… At me… But not lately… Just because of some lousy bruises once in a while. And a chipped tooth. That’s no reason to run off and leave a guy, when a guy loves her like I do. Damn her to hell! I hate her! I’d like to kill the bitch!
Joe Sims registered what was taking place on the screen. There was that nice family –mother, father and little daughter– visiting Disney World. Probably cost them a mint: the trip, the hotel, everything… And the kid looking so sad, so damned disappointed, after having dragged her mom and dad all through Disney World. What the hell does the little brat want, anyway? Oh, yeah… She looks up and her face brightens like the sun shining through the clouds. What does she see? Her dear old grandpa back in the land of the living? The face of God? Looks like she’s having a religious experience… Oh, no…! Jesus Christ, it’s Mickey-freaking-Mouse!
And then she whines in that sappy way that could make you puke, “I’ve been WAITING –my WHOLE LIFE– to meet YOU!” Then she runs over, the stupid little airhead, and hugs the goddamn asshole in a mouse suit like he was the dearest thing on earth, her eyes closed the way Janey used to close her eyes when we kissed, to feel the kiss better…
Who the hell are they kidding? Mickey Mouse…! She should be hugging her mom and dad, not that stupid son of a bitch in a mouse suit. What kind of values are they teaching kids, damn it! What kind of family values…? A little girl like that, pissed off at her folks after they spend all that money getting to Disney World, just because she hasn’t seen her big-deal hero, Mouse Man. And then she goes all syrupy and weirdo when she sees him. And she forgets about her folks and runs over to big-eared Mickey the Moron, who’s nothing but a $5.25-an-hour jerk in a mouse suit, and then loves the hell out of him. The little bitch.
…Damn, I could’ve had a nice little daughter like her, maybe, if Janey hadn’t gone and made me so mad that time when I punched her in the gut and she couldn’t catch her breath for a while. And then she bled and had to go to the hospital…
The tears streamed down his cheeks once more. His body shook. That’s when she lost the baby, and I know it was my fault. But she shouldn’t have gotten me so pissed off! She shouldn’t have. It was just a little punch, that’s all it was… I didn’t mean it… He sobbed, took a deep breath and held it. Then let it out.
He glanced at the pink teddy bear on the tray table, then reached for the sixth bottle, and cursed when he saw it was the last one. He opened it by reaching across to hit the top against the window sill. Then he brought it to his mouth, head back, eyes closed, and chugged it down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, emitted a long series of belches, and tried to focus on the screen, the screen that was hard to see because it was so misty. Why does it look so misty? Things looked out of focus and bent out of shape as though they were under water.
The red-headed Italian with arms like Hercules was on the stationary rings, muscles bulging, body rigid, face blank, not showing any strain, looking like it was a piece of cake, the conceited bastard. Joe Sims was on the rings, felt his own iron muscles bulging, the deltoids, the biceps, the lats, the pecs, the abs… He felt the power in his trim hard body, every move perfect. The crowd went wild, they felt admiration for him, they felt love. They all loved him. Janey would be sorry now. But wait… He saw Janey among the cheering crowd. She wasn’t cheering; she just stood there quietly. On her face a look of admiration, of pride, of awe, of love. Then she slowly glided down out of the stands, strode across the field, passed in slow motion through the delirious throng and came up to him. She looked adoringly into his eyes. Then she held out her arms…
* * *
Joe Sims awoke at 6:3O A.M. to Ann Curry on NBC News. She was talking about the TWA explosion, showing color footage. Then she reported the latest news on the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. She even managed to look concerned, like it really mattered to her, the phony. …Death and destruction… Every day, every miserable goddamn day. That’s all there is. What the hell’s it all about?
Ann Curry told him it was 6:4O. Christ! Time to get my ass in gear for my shift at the ice cream factory, where it’s a hundred damn degrees all day long, even though I’m grabbing cold ice pops and sticking them into boxes, one after the other, after the other, after the other, hour after hour, day after day…
He was in his tattered and stained easy chair, still wearing yesterday’s clothes, reeking of sweat, sour ice cream and stale beer. And the taste of shit in his cottony mouth (get the blue mouthwash) and a sledge hammer bashing in his skull (grab the Aleve). He looked down and saw the empty bottles littering the floor. Janey would have gotten rid of them, cleaned up. Then he noticed he was clutching the pink teddy bear to his heart, the one he had bought when Janey told him she was pregnant. And he felt, along with his dry mouth and his aching head, the sensation of falling down an elevator shaft straight to hell.
“Oh, momma, momma…!” he whimpered aloud. “What’s happening to me?”
Muscles stiff and cramped, he forced himself to get up out of the chair. With great effort he lurched toward the bathroom. He pushed himself. He would make it to work on time. He could do it. Yes, he could. He would. He’d make the 4OO meters, and come in first, because he was a winner, a champion. He’d be awarded the gold medal. And everybody would cheer for him. And would admire him. And would love him. Yes, love him. Even Janey. He’d just keep running and running and running…
* * *
Joe Sims kept running along the tree-lined sidewalks past the single-family dwellings where he knew happy families lived, couples with children who rode tricycles and boarded the school bus every morning pushing and shoving, making a cheerful racket. He was running against the clock. He had to get to work on time. He hardly noticed the leaves that were starting to turn from green to pale yellow and red. He hadn’t even had time to pack a bologna sandwich for lunch. He’d make do with the ice cream employees were allowed to eat on the job.
He heard the train whistle as he jogged toward the tracks he would have to cross on his way to the Lakeland Ice Cream Factory. The factory, two blocks past the rails, loomed before him in all its dirty grayish-yellow bleakness. Looking at the windowless mass made him queasy. And he was out of shape, he acknowledged. He was no longer running as fast as when he left the house. He was no Michael Johnson. He was panting, sweating, slowing down, staggering. His heart was pounding, his temples throbbing.
He turned his head to the left. The train was in sight, gleaming in the sun. It came from far-off places, was going to far-off places, places he had never seen, never would see. It was shiny, beautiful, as it sped smoothly along the tracks, free as the birds overhead. The birds didn’t have to work. All they did was eat all day long. Their food was everywhere, free for the taking. They didn’t have a boss. Didn’t have a care in the world.
He looked ahead and saw the factory. Felt the factory as a blow to his stomach, as a weight on his chest. He could already feel the hellish heat, see Mr. Hanson’s pink face, hear Mr. Hanson’s grating voice calling him a lazy bastard. Joe Sims felt sick. His stomach was twisting into a ball. His breaths came in gulps. His pace slowed further. He felt as though he were running in a dream, his legs weighing a hundred pounds each, moving in slow motion.
He was almost at the tracks. The silvery locomotive with the red stripe –gleaming brightly, reflecting the morning sunlight– was cheerfully blowing its whistle in greeting. It made Sims feel better, almost happy. He reached the rails and paused to catch his breath. He stood on the crossties panting, and looked at the factory with dread. He shivered from cold sweat as a light autumn breeze stroked his shirt. He felt an invisible wall beyond the rails, a force field emanating from the factory. A presence that would not let him pass. Joe Sims turned to face the beautiful train that merrily whistled as it rushed to meet him. He could see right through the locomotive into the passenger cars, into the car where Janey sat with their daughter, the one who loves Mickey Mouse. They forgave him. They were smiling at him. They would pick him up on the way to Disney World. He opened his arms wide to receive them.
* * *