Zack Stein lives and writes in NYC (USA). His work can be seen in the latest issues
of Fjords Review and Dunes Review, and was most recently featured in the Matador
Review, Riggwelter Press, San Pedro River Review, and others.
James Bunker measured himself
by how little his river bent, though he
always allowed himself the freedoms
of an inebriated birthday-boy, which
gave me permissions I would've
never exercised otherwise. His father,
a mustached foreman who nipped on
vodka-punch from his thermos, who circled
the bible around his heart like a magnet, who
pinky fed ice-cream to his new teething
cherubs, had just dropped his neck into
the hands of a banyan tree. James disassociated
name from object, us from him—granulated
universal coding of zeros and ones
into SpaghettiOs and straws—drank
gin from a watering can that fed
a dark flower blooming inside him, his
mind now timbered with his father's final breath.
He realized no one that ever held his hand
remained in this world. What a face he had:
a crumbled idea that fell from the heavens,
shaped like a closed fist, constellated
with freckles and burst capillaries, that
stole colors from God.
His eyes filled with tears and
dusk light, listless rivulets through
thirsty mountains. The yellow Volvo slowed
when the streets were felled by darkness, James'
crimping head trailing sleep, awakening
in an accelerating fever when a street lamp
splashed a cup of light on his face.
I was born on this street, in these stalks of flax,
and before I could find the image of my mother,
we stopped short along the edge of a farm—
with great pauses he asked,
"what is that?"
"It's a horse..."
"No, that's not a fucking horse."
His tongue was out, as if accepting rain,
skulking towards the horse, cutting in and out
of the length of my shadow—awing
the beast, its pulsating knots of stone, bronzed-still
by a strawberry moon. I realize now, with some guilt,
when you're cracked, it's a reprieve to be with someone
who is shattered, who needs to be swallowed
by an institution and be born again.
The stars buzzed like jeweled insects
lighting the crowns of trees, silvering dark
undulating grass which gave the perception
of a man entering water.
James screamed at the end of the beast,
"I can see you not seeing me."
"...shaking off my prayers like flies,"
I whispered to myself.
I remembered right then so clearly
us as nine year old boys—I was over
for dinner and walked into his bedroom
where I found him wrapping
his head in cellophane, turning him blue
and foreign to me. I had lost the feeling
in my fingertips, but how quickly
he got me to laugh, to forget
his suffering, constantly misdirecting
us from his life, until he finally gave it away.
The horse faultlined his skull into
A waiter with a perfectly bald head, like something
you'd draw with a pencil compass, slides me
Tabasco for my grits. I mix blood into bone into brain,
cup James' warm, ceramic head, as I debate
his annihilation (I am now his proxy).
On the side of 'reasons to do it' reads:
I saw his soul spring from six feet of dead skin.
The horse is all the time now, it runs through me,
through the café's window onto the interstate
before it is panned by a Volvo, splitting
images of syncopated traffic horns and heart
monitors, two creatures puffing and puffing
through oozing tissue and the clamping
of death—boiled down to a series of
twitches and one long dream, waiting,
when you don't know you're waiting,
to be pulled out. Do this now, slowly:
check your orifices,
each side of your hands,
look to see if the people around you
are unconnected or a story born from you.
But, I'm truly stupefied by this waiter's skull,
its perfect flexure from ear to ear.
As he refilled my coffee, he pointed
to a coworker walking by with stacked toast,
and told me just last week he fucked her
right where I was sitting. I was sure
he was an angel telling me in so few words,
everything that could've been done—was.
I thought of James burning, and knowing,
but never quite knowing, how before
my own hand turned to ash on his shoulder
he was a little thing that offered me Rice Krispies
Treats in metallic blue wrapping to initiate a
friendship, and I think of that prayerful face and
it seems inconceivable. But, stepping away from it,
say you were writing his story, a piece of fiction,
you'd probably kill him in the end too, and I'd
read it, and wonder why he even stayed so long.
I signal the waiter to repeat it, to lean in further,
much closer, directing his eyes to my spoon
incessantly stirring these grits.
"Come closer," I tell him
...and lead me into oblivion.
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