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March 2023

Image by Max
The eternal
combustion Engine

by Caleb Tankersley

          My go-to is always carburetor. Your average customer has no idea what it does. I’ll say, “You got a bad gasket connected to the heat valve on the carburetor.” They make a face like, “Oh, shit, of course!” and I runup the bill. Sometimes I push it. Cylinders collapsing in the engine from too much pressure. Radiators rupturing along the gas intake belt. One time I really went there, charged a guy $1250 to calibrate his flux capacitor. Risky move, I know. I almost got away with it, but the guy must have gone home and googled it. Timothy chewed me out pretty good after that one. I would have made manager six months earlier without that stunt. Still, worth it.

 

          Darius and I are in a bar in Glasgow, Scotland. I’m here trying to figure things out. It’s for our fifth anniversary, this trip to Scotland. Glasgow is nice. Everything’s cheap. People walk arm-in-arm on cobblestone streets, happy. Musicians are everywhere. The buildings are fancy but dirty, like they’re melting. Nice without being too nice.

 

          Darius has eyelashes for days and this radiant smile. When he’s out and about he’s smiling all the time, constantly, at every person he meets. He has a way of comforting people, touching them on the shoulder, giving away his energy. When we’re at home his whole face droops, rarely anything more than a frown. That really worried me at first, the way he never smiled at home. I thought he was unhappy but too afraid to say it. But then I realized it was the opposite. It’s out there where he smiles that isn’t really him. He’s like a person wearing a smile. Our home is the only place he feels like himself, no pretense. When I figured that out is when we really fell in love.

 

          People ask me sometimes if it’s hard being a gay mechanic. I know what they imagine, the shop full of burly homophobes who grumble and spit tobacco. Sure, I’ve met a few guys like that, but they’re pretty rare. The shop is just like any other place. Everybody knows and nobody much cares. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out, if I shouldn’t have more of a chip on my shoulder, some angst to grind my teeth against while I’m changing a coil. But there’s no problem at the shop. Which makes me wonder what all the gin is about.

 

          I got a little drinking problem, which makes it kind of strange that we’ve come to Glasgow. They say this place itself has a drinking problem. Walking over these hilly streets I believe it. Everybody’s loud but friendly, laughing and stumbling into each other’s arms.

 

          You’d think I’d be happy, being manager now after all those years at the shop. Truth is I hate it. The whole reason I got into this business was because of the cars, feeling them out, getting them to tell me their problems. I remember every car I’ve ever worked on, all their secrets. My first car at Timothy’s shop was a 1986 BMW 635csi. Elegant in a squat kind of way, rusted blue on the outside. I spent most of a day cleaning and working on it. By the end it roared to life with a soft whine, sounded new. “You speak their language,” Timothy said before offering me a job.

 

          Cars are like people. You never know the inside by the outside. You drive around and see people’s fancy paint jobs and spoilers and think you know who these people are. But it’s really all those bits under the hood that tell more about who a person is than you’d ever want to know. Sometimes the body’s all mangled up and full of dents, but the engine block’s shining like a mirror and revving with power. Sometimes the outside is sleek and clean with that expensive wax. But inside, the engine’s choking, about to crack. They haven’t checked the oil in thousands of miles. Everything’s askew.

 

          To get around the neighborhoods in Glasgow we took these big trains, all electric. I was excited at first, but when we got in and they started moving everything felt wrong. There was no purr, no hum. Like the thing was dead, a body with no heartbeat. Suffocating. Even Darius noticed. He hates cars and all things mechanical, but bless him if he doesn’t make a good effort to take an interest.

 

          We’re at the bar of a gin joint, sampling some local stuff. We’re well into the sampling when an old guy sits next to us and starts talking. That happens here, apparently. It’s lovely.

 

          “A fucking miracle, really.” The guy at the gin joint tells us. “The internal combustion engine. Who the fuck figured that out, then?” He pats me on the back, smiles and downs his drink. The bar light ages him, spotty skin and a glassy look in his eye, but dammit if he doesn’t seem fun. Everyone’s fun here.

 

          Darius has had quite a few, but you can’t tell by the way he’s acting. It’s only when he talks that you can hear it. “But, an engine is just a stomach, like a human digestion system. So we’re, like, the real eternal combustion engine, right?”

 

          This guy and I look at each other and laugh. We’re laughing because it’s funny but also because we’re happy to be here, alive to witness this moment. He buys us another round and leaves, never told us his name.

 

          The other day some of my guys are working on a station wagon—the shocks always go out before the rest of the damn thing—when we see this car drive by in front of the shop, sleek like a bullet. It barely made a sound. Jefferson let out a whistle, adjusted his belt. “Tesla Model S. There’s more and more around here. Like seeing the future.” Watching that Tesla felt like a boot slamming into my chest. I told the guys to clean their tools and went into the office, almost had a cry. I know these electric cars are great for the world, but all I see is a dead hunk of metal. A reanimated corpse. Something defiled. I thought that seemed like a cruel way for the universe to be, that to avoid killing our planet we had to start driving these corpse-mobiles. Then again, a normal engine runs on gasoline, dead stuff too, ancient plants and dinosaurs. Even a solar car feeds off the energy the sun gives out as it slowly dies. Is there any way to avoid being surrounded by death?

 

          I hold up my glass of gin, give it a good look. What’s in this stuff? Why am I thinking like this? Everything feels underwater. Darius is at the other end of the bar talking to some locals. Most of their conversation is unclear but it’s something about the statues around here, how they’re all covered in seagull shit and how everyone in Glasgow loves it that way, these pompous Victorian pricks being shown what’s what by the local birds.

 

          My brain starts telling me to be mad, to feel as if Darius is over there flirting up a storm, but I know that’s not true. That’s not even really what it looks like. Why am I inventing a problem in my head? I’ve been downing gin by the bucket lately, making my life out to be some shithole when I’ve got a good steady job that brings me joy and a man so devoted to me we had to fly to another continent to tell people how in love we are. It’s almost too real. Like it’s someone else’s perfect life, everything just so in a wax museum. No one ever taught me what to do with all this happiness.

 

          Jesus, what I wouldn’t do for a good engine to work on right now, something to really sink my knuckles into. When I’m working on a car I’m figuring out this vehicle and all about the person who owns it, but I’m also learning about myself. Taking all the belts and screws out is like picking apart your own brain. Work myself out in grease.

 

          Five years with Darius. Five years seems both long and short. One moment I don’t know how we’ve made it this far, think about walking out the door. The next second I’m all in, whisper I will die for you. I will kill for you. I will burn this Earth to its bloody core if you so much as ask. Why do I go to violence? Darius doesn’t want me to squish spiders, always says a little prayer before scooping them into a cup and running them outside.


          When is Darius going to die? Will we die at the same time? I hope so, though that seems like the most selfish thought in the world. Actually, he can live on if I die first, but if he goes I’d rather go with him. It just doesn’t seem interesting to me, all that work of moving on, getting over him, finding something new. So much work. I’d rather us just meet death at the same time.

 

          Darius is back over next to me giving me a hug and I can tell he wants to kiss me but feels a little self-conscious in this new place. They all seem friendly and like they don’t give a shit, so I lean in and our lips connect. I was so nervous to do it on our first date but now it’s the most natural thing in the world. Every time we pull away it’s like a small surprise. Part of me wants to stay connected forever.

 

          Again, the Scottish gin is so much clearer. I put all this together and know that the eternal combustion engine of death is everywhere—in the Tesla, the electric train, the dinosaur gasoline, in Darius’s future, here between our lips, even in this gin whispering to me now, all that bacteria and plant matter that gave their lives so I could sit here, enjoying their decayed corpses floating down my throat.

 

Who knows why this beautiful man puts up with me.

 

          Somehow we’re back on the train. Darius is curled up on the seat. He’s yawning, leaning his head on my shoulder. Our fingers are interlocked. An old woman sits across from us, watching with a smile. It’s another one of those things that would never happen in America. Old ladies aren’t out this late, and they certainly aren’t smiling at affectionate gay men. There’s something magical about this place, even riding on a dead train. Darius looks up at me, grins. “Where’s our stop?”

 

          Two stations too far, so we’re out on the street, hoofing it. It’s a decent night for a walk, so it’s no big whoop. We’re stumbling along together, so in love we feel like exploding. A man stands outside a pub, cigarette in one hand and a Tennents in the other. He raises the glass. “Evening, lads!”

 

We wave back and shout together, “Evening!”

 

“Up to no good?”

Darius answers, “Always!”

 

          It’s one of those stupidly simple interactions that somehow pulls your whole life together.

 

          There are so many reasons to drink too much. And by so many I mean two. Either your life is too shit to deal with or the universe pours out so much happiness that it spills out into a glass. Besides, drunk is a relative term. We’re all drunk on something sometimes. It’s so nice to be here, with things to figure out in this sparkling city, where everything is dirty and right.

Bio

Caleb Tankersley is the author of Sin Eaters and Jesus Works the Night Shift. He has won the Permafrost Book Prize, the Wabash Prize, and the Big Sky/Small Prose Contest. His writing can be found in Carve, The Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, Sycamore Review, and other magazines. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of St. Thomas and serves as Managing Director for Split/Lip Press.

Image by christian parra
Spiders

by T. Clear

It’s taken me a lifetime to love

certain members of their family.

Taken until now to say I'm sorry

when I invade their universe, my yard.

 

Despite my duck-and-dive footwork

I inevitably sever an invisible silk thread

to unravel the entire lacework.

Don’t get me wrong – I still shudder

 

when I find one on the ceiling above my bed.

Let’s not discuss what happens next; I’m no saint.

I had a cat who left an eight-legged daily gift

eye-to-eye on my pillow, no thank you.

 

What is my fear if not irrational,

a memory of being held down by my older sisters

as they threatened to toss me web-ward,

a threat that disintegrated into tickling.

 

There was the time I was cooking dinner,

stirring a soup, when I heard the tiniest sound,

a sustained micro-eek of alarm.

I found a fly caught up mid-swaddling,

 

singing its death-ditty on a web

I’d not noticed in my Saturday sweep.

The spider, no bigger than my littlest fingernail,

prepping a meal, because we all have to eat.

Bio

T. Clear is a founder of Floating Bridge Press and an EasySpeak Seattle facilitator. She has been writing and publishing since the late 1970’s, and her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Poetry Northwest, The Rise-Up Review, Red Earth Review, Terrain.org, The Moth, Common Ground Review, Crannog, The American Journal of Poetry, Verse Daily and Take a Stand: Art Against Hate. Her book, A House, Undone, is the 2021 winner of the Sally Albiso Award from MoonPath Press. She is an Associate Editor at Bracken Magazine.

Poem
Image by Jon Tyson

On Playing god
by Kalie Johnson 

I remember a rocking chair before bed, my father shushing me on his lap, a smell I would later realize and welcome as marijuana. He slipped away before I was asleep, but I pretended I was out, so I would no longer need him. Memory is painful. I think if I could remember everything, I would sleep to pass it all. Too little to remember; no real pain in sleep, but then I suppose there are dreams. I have been told that dreams do not mean anything, that they only depict what we were thinking of seconds before we fell asleep. I rebelled against the notion that you cannot create, that nothing is new or original, just recycling and mantras of repetition until I decided I could not play God. And then, we always dream; I do not remember most of them.

 

On Giving Up on Others

I dream I live inside my father like Jonah inside of that whale. In his stomach acid, I sit on a slowly-dissolving, sugar-sucked sour gummy worm and try to reach his lungs, unaware or perhaps blissfully ignorant that lungs do not connect to stomachs. I begin to liquify, burn with every stomach convulsion, watch my foot crumble like the macadamia cookie nearby. I grapple-hook with spaghetti up his stomach walls, become the hero from every childhood film. He coughs the unmistakable smoker cough and I fall again and again, but it is not a bad dream, just a tired argument. I converse alone, spew facts on cigarettes and slip angrily into stomach acid. I release from the walls and begin to swim in my father’s meals, dipping beneath broccoli stalks and tater tots. He sings and the sound is muffled, but calming. Familiarity in his raspy voice melts me more.

 

On an Identity Crisis

I dream my grandmother is in pain, a cactus cry in the middle of the night like the one time before. No one hears it, but me. Again, she shakes and grips her blankets to protect herself, but she is angry, absent, weak, not the woman I know. I touch her shoulder like I did the last time and instead of swearing she met an angel, when she wakes, she sees the devil. Instead of crying and holding me in her arms, she screams deeper than when she was asleep, her fingers eating my skin to get away from me. She trembles into a bottle of melatonin, slips too many into her still-screaming throat and pushes herself into the corner of the bed. She speaks in tongues and I understand it now; I go back to bed.

 

On the First Break-Up

I dream I am touching a stingray at the aquarium, but it is only me this time. There is no lingering cocoa butter or summer sweat gluing my hand to yours, there never will be again. Naked now, I ease into the kiddy pool. The stingray scatter and push to the edges of the caged water. I understand the rules, lay down in the middle of their home, my nose right above water, and I spread my arms to be a starfish, fingers webbing to be offered to the un-barbed stingray. They warm up to me and begin to glide over my body, slip over my stomach, over my hips, around my legs, their fluttering edges tingling my forehead, wrapping themselves in my twisting, seaweed hair. I am not afraid now, even alone. They cover me silent and unaffected, a gift I do not deserve. I begin to scream, feel them scatter from my body, and I stand, dripping slimily, determined to save them all. I scoop into the water and grab a shaking, fearful stingray and throw it into the ocean, an ocean that has suddenly appeared, an ocean I have never seen. I am violent, not cautious, lobbing stingray into the ocean and shaking. Some do not make it into the water, but land on the sand and dry up like sugar-sucked lemons on hot summer pavement. I ignore death out of desperation to empty the cage, but as soon as I throw one, more appear. I look down at my feet and there is one small stingray, who is still barbed. I push myself toward the edge of the pool, back to the aquarium, but slip instead. The stingrays are greedy now and begin to cover me.


On Dying in Dreams

I dream the same dream, watch every time, never learn. A series of logs break lose, bowl me down, and I break under the first log. It rolls over my body, thick and fast. It reels over me too determined to live on and then suddenly, as if none of it happened, there is another one. And another one. A cycle. I realize I am drowning under the freshly-milled logs, being crushed like an empty can of soda, shattering against the weight of a dying forest. It smells like pine, but scratches my skin. There is a brief second of that blue sky, of the thought of maybe, but it does not last. Hope is my greatest fear. I fight to get back up, but eventually, my eyes accept the rough bark and I am strobe-lit into passivity as the logs increase in speed, wear me down to the comedic size of a cartoon character. Except here, I am dying. Outside of my dream, I am sweating, wrapped up in a pamphlet of blankets, pressed against the wall, and I begin to cry. It is the only time I cry when I am asleep.

 

On Loss of Willpower

I dreamt last night that I was curled up in the hook of his body under my half-out Christmas lights. He didn’t speak, just held my face and ran his butterscotch fingertips from the broadness of my forehead to the line of my nose and around my lips to stroll beneath my jaw. He tilted my head back down and cupped my cheekbones. He told me he loved me again and when I did not respond, he told me my cheekbones were tree trunks, that they were carvable, scarrable, the perfect place to write his name. Because he was mine and I was his. He never wanted me to forget him he said, so he pulled out a pocket knife and carved his initials into my left cheekbone. It didn’t hurt at all.

Bio

Kalie Johnson is a 25 year-old living near Chicago on her way to get her MSW to work in communities. She's published in BW's "The Mill," California State's "Watershed Review," “Fatal Flaws Literary magazine,” "The Bookends Review," and "Coffin Bell Journal." When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling, hiking, roller skating, and camping.

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