I am my father’s hardest bullet. Buckshot sperm bored out from the barrel that birthed me. I was born Valentine’s Day, 1989, and every three hundred and sixty-fifth day I have been gifted a bullet of different caliber. They sit arranged on shelves the way a hunter might hang heads, displayed for prize and for valor. But I don’t own a gun. There’s no opposition to this purchase, no great moral dilemma keeping me from exercising what my father calls a Constitutional Right slowly eroding away. There have been mornings where I’ve pondered a purchase, thought “today I’ll buy my first firearm.” I research what I might want, market prices, shooting ranges near me, but I never carry the idea past my front porch. Instead, I often sit and watch my father polish his arsenal, meticulous with each wire-brush thrust, each slow turn of some impossibly small screw. I know the green gun case sitting in our basement is a legacy, one that will be passed down to my brother and I. I ask my father to mark the monetary value of each weapon. My intention is to split our inheritance up by worth, making sure each son receives equal distribution of our father’s collection. This request was met with stern words: they are not, nor will they ever be, for sale.
Ashton Kamburoff’s poetry, essays, and flash nonfiction have appeared with Black Lawrence Press, Rust + Moth, Vinyl, and other literary venues. He served as the 2017-2018 L.D. & LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer in Residence and has received fellowships through The Vermont Studio Center & The Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He currently works as a freight train conductor on the eastern seaboard.
You kiss Ryan Gosling at El Cid on one of those smoking terraces that overlook the canyon below Sunset Boulevard. You have both been catcalling the flamenco dancers and sharing cigarettes like you and your best friend used to on the patio of the coffee shop in Los Gatos, a life so distant from where you have come that you wonder whether you have made it up so that your character has backstory.
Contrary to what you will tell others later, the kiss is closed-mouthed and lopsided. You are so drunk it is not possible to know who leaned in towards whom, but it is likely that you perpetrated. You, desperate, starved for love, so deprived of the validation that you exist in this fetishized dystopia of self-willed kamikazes. There is some theatrical fondling of the shirt collar and its forced awkwardness. Still. In a small, lopsided way, you are confirmed.
The next morning, ebbing your way out of gin-induced oblivion, you manage to stumble into him. You are perusing the ’zines in Skylight Books, dressed in the same lace jumper you wore the night before, and he is handling a book on California poetry near the greeting card carousel. You should be wearing sunglasses. Or a mask. He is wearing a fedora; you, the glass beret you bought while backpacking through Brittany. Both of you are escaping the Los Feliz heat and its baking sheet sidewalks.
There is a blip. Unrecognition. A hiccup in reality—which is really a trademark experience since your unbecoming into one of many, many free radicals. Your grip on the black and white vanity print tightens. Your damp fingers smudge the script. But that’s okay. You will buy it anyway. As a memento of reformation. The smile is microscopic and barely hurdles the rampart of books and greeting cards, but by god, it is a smile. It is a laser to the brain. To his left, a wispy brunette spins the card carousel, unaware that you have conquered fantasy.
Ryan holds your gaze just long enough.
He licks his lips.
He sets the book down on an untouched stack of LA Weeklys.
Exits frame left. Fades to white.
Holy shit, you think. I’m finally real.
Tara Stillions Whitehead
Tara Stillions Whitehead’s writing has appeared in Fiction International, Red Rock Review, Chicago Review, Sleipnir, New Orleans Review, Texas Review, and elsewhere. She has received a Glimmer Train Award for New Writers and Pushcart Prize and AWP Intro Journal Awards nominations. A former assistant director for television and film, she now teaches film and writing in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Pops, Dis Playa Need Ta Roll
They leave home singing, return home singing,
iPhones providing a soundtrack to their days
as they overdub the lyrics with an aggressive,
more frenzied version of their own.
But singing is not right, not in the technical
sense of the word, an unqualified misnomer
that would have traditionalists seething
in their graves— sonorous crooners who
devoted their lives to perfecting the range
of their sound; signature vocalists like Holiday,
Pavarotti or even good olé Blue Eyes;
their throats emotive as any instrument.
How modulation of timbre transports
feeling into worlds unknown, even a single
note rolled in glissandro can transfix.
But my boys could care less about that—
music as a vehicle, spiritual medium with
transformative properties. My desire to be
moved lame as the word gobbledygook.
Their base requirement visceral: rap the body
can feel, words that rise defiant, defendant;
brash sentiment carried mostly on the wing
of bass and rhyme. After dinner my son
pimps in his self-affected gangsta: Pops,
dis playa need to roll… I got beats to make
this nigga feel like drippin. Then he thumps
his chest with an inverted peace-sign.
Smiles thinly. Scrolls through graphic
soundbites on iTunes rapping over the top
of his favorites: Tupac, 2 Chainz, Biggie
and Wiz; ownership meant to impress.
He tells me Rock is dead. I think to
counter, wish to tell him he’s got it
wrong, there’s much more to music
than this. But thinking is where
it starts and ends.
This reliance on spiritual balance
A far remove from its initial days
When I practiced The Upanishads in one
Hand and held the braided hose
Of a hookah in the other like an umbilical
Connecting me to the rich omphalos of God.
Meditation a zeitgist in the 80’s.
As the Beatles and Maharishi disappeared
In the rear-view, Wall Street’s
Three-piece-suits loomed king.
But at college I was smitten with Birkenstocks
And the regurgitated vibe of Woodstock,
the lanky TA’s chakra—hipster minyan
To professor So&So of Far Eastern Religion—
That accompanied me across The Quad
After lecture. He made pursuit of transcendentalism
Seem as cool as dropping the needle
On the Talking Heads, a tab of windowpane
On the eve of a Dead show.
But Enlightenment’s novelty wore off
Like a monk’s interest in the secular.
And then the world does what it does
And life did what it did and like
Finding a rhythmic breath
Or frying an egg sunny-side-up,
I finally got the center to hold.
To know then what we know now…
Well, we’ve all heard that one before.
Tony Tracy is the author of two poetry collections: The Christening and Without Notice. He is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer whose poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, Flint Hills Review, Poetry East, Tar River Poetry, Rattle, Hotel Amerika, Painted Bride Quarterly, Potomac Review and various other magazines and journals.