Monday, August 20, 2018

The Grass Beneath My Feet, by S.A. Cosby

Anyone who tell you that they don’t mind going to jail is a goddamned liar. Oh, they’ll tell you how much of an OG they are. They’ll try and convince you how real they keep it. But what they won’t tell you is how they lay on their back on top of their cot ever night silently crying in the dark as they stare up at the ceiling. Praying that tonight isn’t the night a 300lb monster decides they have a pretty mouth. No, they won’t tell you that. Jail is Hell on earth. And just like Hell it’s filled with lost souls who have become demons. If you get a chance to find a way out of that Tartarus, you take it. Even if it’s just to go see your mama laid out at the funeral home. You cherish those few hours like you’re Persephone.

The Coldwater Correctional Facility van pulled up to the side door of a brick building that looked less like a mortuary and more like a bank. A short brother who hadn’t missed a meal since 2003 opened the side door and spoke to Officer Hardy. I watched them through the corrugated steel grate that covered my window. The brother was nodding like his head was on a spring. Officer Hardy came back to the van and Officer Martinez turned towards me.

“All right,Turner, you know the drill. You straight with us we gonna be straight with you," he said. As prison guards go Martinez was all right. Hardy was a piece of shit who probably jerked off to torture porn. I nodded. Hardy opened the sliding door then unlocked the inner cage door. Martinez stepped out and helped me navigate my way out the van. I was shackled at my ankles and my wrists. They hadn’t made me wear the waist chain because I hadn’t had any disciplinary issues in the last five years. That’s what passes as an accomplishment inside.

“Don’t freak out when you see your dead mama, Turner.” Hardy said.

All heart that guy is.

We walked into a large chapel that was muted browns and deep greens. Brown paneling on the walls. Green valances that ran along the edge of the ceiling. Dark green carpet. Sixty or seventy brown wooden chairs. There was a small wooden pulpit to the right. A huge picture of a redneck-looking white Jesus was hanging on the wall behind the pulpit.

In front of the pulpit in a gray doeskin casket was my mama.

The brother, who I assumed was the undertaker, closed the door behind us. Hardy turned to him while Martinez held me by the arm.

“Just so we’re clear, there are no other family members here, correct?” Hardy asked.

“No sir. We followed your instructions,” the undertaker said.

“Okay. You got an hour Turner,” Hardy said. Martinez let go of my arm. I took a deep breath. At first, I couldn’t move. My feet didn’t want to work. I looked down at the rug. It’s so dark and green it reminds me of grass. I haven’t walked on grass in fifteen years. Do you know how unnatural that is? I ain’t no granola-eating non-bathing vegan hippie but even I know people are not meant to lose that connection to the earth. I think that’s why some people inside go crazy. They’re untethered from the world. if you were like me you’re never going to feel the grass beneath your feet again. I’m doing an all-day bid. Big time. Life.

“Go ahead, Turner.” Martinez whispered.

I took a few steps forward. My sister Wanda had made all the arrangements. I’m a little surprised she put her in such a cheap casket. Not for nothing, but doeskin is the human equivalent of burying a cat in a shoe box.

There is a sickly-sweet aroma coming from the coffin. Like strawberries that have gone bad. After a little while I recognize it. It’s the cheap perfume my mama used to bathe herself in before heading out to a juke joint called Sharkey’s with my father. When I was a kid it was the only place in our small southern town that catered to black folks. Every weekend they would leave me to watch Wanda while they went down to Sharkey’s. They would come back stinking of liquor and bad decisions. Sometimes they came back kissing and sometimes they came back fighting like a pair of wild dogs.

I don’t want to look at her. But I need to make sure she’s dead.

I peer into the box. She’s lost a lot of weight. The cancer has ravaged her body like a wildfire. It’s devoured the curves she was so proud of. Her breasts are two hard cupcakes under a pink blouse. Her hands are crossed at her waist. Her face is slack like she’s sleeping off a good drunk. I know what I’m supposed to feel. My mama is dead, and I’m supposed to be overcome with grief. But all I feel is a dull sense of relief. You want the long story? You won’t get it from me. I’ll give you the Cliff's Notes version. One night my mama stabbed my daddy and my dumb fifteen-year-old ass took the blame.

She said the police wouldn’t believe it had been self-defense. They had a history of violence. A long history.

“But if you tell them you did it, Javon, they’ll just think you was defending me. They won’t send me to jail and we won’t get split up. We all we got,” she’d said to me as we sat on the floor near my daddy’s still-warm body. A butcher knife stuck out of his chest like a flagpole. When I was fifteen her plan had made perfect sense. What could go wrong?

Everything, that’s what. I got charged as an adult by an overzealous prosecutor who had his eye on the governor’s mansion. It took the jury less than an hour to give me 25-to-life.

I ran my finger along her cheek. Her skin felt like candle wax.

The bible tells you to honor your mama and your father. But that big book of fairy tales doesn’t tell you what to do when your mother gets you locked up on a murder bid. The first two years I was inside I stuck to the story. She assured me I’d get parole. I told myself I had to protect my mama. During my first appeal I kept my mouth shut. It was like I could see a floating neon sign above the judge’s head that said, “PROTECT YOUR MAMA”.

On the anniversary of my third year inside I got a letter from my sister. I hadn’t heard from my mama in months. Wanda told me how CPS had put her in a foster home because our mama’s new boyfriend couldn’t keep his hands to himself. She also told me how my mom had collected on a life insurance policy for my daddy. She and her new boyfriend had moved into a brand new double-wide and were driving around town in a new truck.

I vomited in my cell after I finished reading her letter. I called my lawyer and told her everything. She filed a new appeal and this time I told the truth. And guess what? Nobody gave a fuck. Not the cops. Not the prosecutor who was now the governor. Least of all my mama, who was now married to her touchy-feely boyfriend.

As I stood next to the casket I felt the tears begin to fall. My whole body started to shake. I raised my head and looked at the picture of Gregg Allman Jesus. Where was he when a tiny fifteen-year-old boy was shoved into a cage full of beasts? I looked down at my mama again. She was wearing a pink blazer to go along with her pink blouse. Attached to the lapel of her blazer was a large papier-mache rose. I recognized that rose. It wasn’t a brooch. It was a hat pin that my mother used as a lapel decoration. She never wore hats. She liked showing off her long black hair that she swore came from our indigenous ancestry.

I stared at that pin for a long time.

They are never going to let me go. My appeals ran out a long time ago. I’d given up my freedom for a woman who played me like a fiddle. A woman who had abandoned me in life. Maybe in death she could rescue me. Raise me from the depths of perdition on the petals of a rose.

I collapsed onto my mother’s body. Hardy and Martinez didn’t notice. They were busy debating the questionable outcome of last night’s football game. My fingers danced over her chest. I slipped the pin under the handcuff on my left wrist. My orange jumpsuit two sizes too big for me. The sleeves nearly came down to my fingertips. I straightened up and turned to face Hardy and Martinez.

“Hey yo, I’m ready,” I said.

“You sure, Turner?” Martinez asked me. I heard he was a single dad of two little girls. Hardy is an ass at work, but I know he’s big into the Knights of Columbus because he talks about it all the damn time. I push that shit out of my mind. I make myself go blank.

Hardy went to tell the undertaker we’re leaving. Martinez took a position behind me. Hardy came back and opened the door. He had his back to me. I let the hat pin slip into my hand. Somewhere deep in my heart I hear the boy I used to be whisper “no.”

But I’m doing this for him. For us.

I whirl around and stab Martinez in the eye. Eight inches of cheap steel slides through his eyeball and into his brain. It feels like I’m skewering a gum drop. I hear a soft gelatinous pop as I pull out the pin. Martinez stumbles backwards before crumpling to the floor. Hardy spins around. His eyes are as wide as dinner plates as he reaches for his gun. He’s too slow. I leap forward and shove the pin into his throat just under his double chin. I shove him back against the door and it shuts with a bang. I pull out the pin and blood spews everywhere. Hardy puts both his hands on the wound but the blood seeps between his fingers. He slides down the door still clutching his throat. I grab the keys and unlock my restraints. I take Hardy’s gun out of the holster just as the undertaker is peeping in the chapel.

“Give me your clothes and your car keys,” I say. He nods enthusiastically.

He is one nodding motherfucker.

I lock him in a storage closet in the back of the mortuary. I put on his suit and leave through the front door. I never learned how to tie a necktie, so I leave it behind. I hop in the undertaker’s Caddy. I silently thank my cousin Tay for teaching me to drive the summer before my daddy died.

After some fiddling I lower the window and turn on the radio. I don’t recognize the song but that’s all right. I hit the gas and leave the Coldwater Prison van in my rearview mirror. I know I won’t get far. I know I probably won’t make it out of this alive. But it doesn’t matter right now. All I want to do is find a nice big field. I want to kick off these Sunday shoes and walk across that field barefoot. Feel the cool grass beneath my feet. Feel like I’m home.

At least for a little while.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

News You Can Use

Some minor changes and news at Tough.

  • We now require submissions in rich text format. This preserves formatting across multiple word-processing platforms and makes editing much easier. Thank you in advance.
  • We now require a Google account in order to leave comments. Anonymous comments should no longer be possible, but in any case will no longer be approved.

Our last story of the year will be published on 10/1/18. This preserves October and November for print anthology II out in time for prize anthology nomination season in December. If print anthology I has taught us anything, it's that we need more time for production. During October and November, Tough will run reviews and interviews and probably take a few Mondays off, too. We will resume regular online publication on 1/7/19. We remain open for submissions as normal throughout 2018 in the hopes we can work ahead a little more in 2019. Also on the horizon,Tough readings in Boston and possibly New York. Watch this space, and thank you for supporting us. Print anthology one coming very soon!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Once Upon A Time in Chicago, by Tia Ja'nae

A dead silence serenaded Carla’s nerves, under the streetlights.
That had never happened before during one of their backseat romps.  Arron laughed at her jumpiness, playfully teasing her insecurities to being afraid of the black snake between his legs that couldn’t wait to ravage her.
His mischievous smile gave her little comfort. 

Carla knew the dank Chicago streets well enough to instinctually sense danger lurking in the shadows.  The asphalt and grime were quiet enough to notice; her intuition wouldn’t let go the ominous warnings waiting to make their acquaintance without a proper invitation.  Ignoring her survival instincts, she compromised the gnawing feeling in her stomach to flee; instead she indulged Arron’s insatiable desires.

She knew better than to ignore the voices in her head, but it was a small price to pay for ensuring Arron would spring for the Coach purse she had her eye on at Marshall Fields.  Ordinarily, quick blow-jobs spread over a couple of weeks would be all the inspiration he needed for a shopping trip.  But Carla wanted it tomorrow, before any other boss bitch on the block could get their boosters to lift it for them when it debuted the next day.  

He had to pay to play; she’d have to indulge his fantasies to get him to ante up.

As Carla allowed him to twist her limbs into pretzel positions and hump away, she reveled in the satisfaction of earning the man despite the odds.  They’d grown up together, surviving a gang war that robbed them both of their siblings.  Hustling was second nature where they were from; the boxing career Arron stumbled upon was supposed to be his ticket out but he never made enough to keep him out of the street life.

Juggling the two kept her man in the spotlight, for better or worse.  Carla had no qualms about being his trophy piece, enjoying the spoils of his wars.  They both played their position well; marrying his high school sweetheart on her was a shock but not a big deal in her long-term plans.  His wife could keep the papers on him as long as she got all the extra cash and incentives of having the man.  

Arron aggressively took her, grunting in carnal pleasures as he punished every available hole at his mercy.  Silently, she took the punishment being at his complete disposal, knowing she had to do what the other women in his life would not.  Fabricated lust coming from her lips resided in the comforting thought of enjoying his paycheck while his wife was left behind to cope with their trough of kids.

With each rough stroke she imagined the travels he afforded her.  Arron flew her into every city he fought in, relishing their open secret within the confines of his coach and trainers on the road.  Only girlfriends were allowed in the gym during training, and Carla whispered all the things in his ear he might have wanted to hear as his personal cheerleader.  Their understanding became a thing that went beyond even their comprehension, and she went along eager for the ride.

Thinking about the pill breaking on her last month threw her concentration off.  

Arron was thrilled like a kid in a candy store at the news of having a baby.  Carla didn’t want the crumb-snatcher cramping her style, but Arron could afford to make the experience lucrative.  The thought of permanent paychecks covering child support and living expenses for the next twenty years helped her regain the swing in her hips he barely noticed had left.

Carla took a breath when Arron’s body finally shook on top of hers and collapsed in defeat.  Try as she might to get him up off of her, Arron took his time getting out of her honey-pot.  He wriggled in subjugated bliss against her while she adjusted to the creeping feeling in her gut she had before lust sidetracked her.  She felt vulnerable in the chaos of his playfulness, and her attention focused to the nickel-plated pistol tucked between the seat.

Streets were talking.  Rumor mills gossiped about Arron’s vices.  Everybody on the block knew cats were looking for him over unpaid debts.  Gambling with high rollers in back alley establishments had caught up to him.  The arrogance flaunting his purse money around in the faces of people that could barely hold water to snitch on his good fortune was careless to her.  The stone cold killers around the way were nothing to take lightly.  

Playing the tough guy role, Arron laughed in the face of danger like the king of cool.  Carla fed into his ego, telling him he was invincible even though she could see the hint of worry in his eyes he refused to admit to.  Nor did she want him to; they would both have targets on their backs if he showed any weakness like that in the street.  For both their sakes she fed into the lie to get her through the insecure seconds.

Much to Carla’s relief, Arron got it together before the relaxation he felt from his release left him succumbing to a cat-nap.  She hated being in the open with eyes watching in normal circumstances for this very reason, but Arron didn’t believe in paying for motels.  Backseats or the bathroom at hole-in-the-wall they frequently partied in were their only two options for their encounters, and neither afforded her the privacy she liked.

Her worrying eased as he hurried to get dressed and back to their reality.  They were behind schedule consummating their sin; his wife would be on the prowl for his whereabouts if he ran late far beyond a reasonable hour after the gym closed.  Arron was in good spirits.  He joked about baby names; Carla dropped hints on the colors for the purse.  Like he always did after he got a piece he put some bread in her hand. 

She counted it as he grinned; everything was everything.

Neither of them saw the old school roller with no lights on creeping up the block.  Or the staccato fire bursts coming from its shadowed interior once it symmetrically aligned next to theirs.  Carla heard sporadic shots shattering their windows before the pain registered she’d been hit.  Joints between her shoulder blade ached something terrible within the seconds the roller screeched down the block and out of her focal point.  But she was alive.

It never dawned on her, calling out to Arron, that he wouldn’t be.

She spoke his name softly; he didn’t respond, slumped over the steering wheel.  Panic set in her spirit; ferociously, she shook him thinking he’d fainted.  Sticky, wet liquids gushing from his wounds coated her hands like honey, dripping from her fingertips.  A mass of splintered muscle, bone fragments, and clotting blood bubbled from the remnants of his face and neck.  Carla checked his heartbeat; a shallow thump abruptly ceased.

Just like that, Carla knew Arron was gone.

For a brief moment she was paralyzed in shock at his passing; she’d seen dead bodies before in worse shape than his, just not as intimately.  Deep breaths did little to calm her adrenaline but did control the hyperventilating.  Nervously grabbing her phone, her first mind led her to call for help as if he could be saved.  However, the consequences of being found in his company as a witness to murder in his wife’s car kept her from connecting the call.  

Instead, she called Merc, a trained field medic in Vietnam known for patching up the gunshot victims around the way who didn’t have the luxury of hospital visits.  He was quick and didn’t ask any questions but was expensive and sewed up wounds without the benefit of anesthesia.  Carla knew her pain tolerance was low, but a bottle of vodka and a blunt would be all she needed to cope with the pain when he stitched her up in the kitchen.

And it would cost Arron dearly as a parting gift for leaving her behind.

Carla picked through Arron’s pockets like a common criminal, retrieving whatever remaining cash he had on him.  The two grand she retrieved plus what he had already given her would be enough for her to make major moves later.  Sirens began echoing from a couple blocks away, and Carla ditched her dead lover before she could be identified at the scene of the crime.  Keeping off the sidewalks she detoured down uninviting alleys, forging through what lay ahead.

Calmly, she told herself she’d be cool; the unfortunate hard luck was just a temporary setback.  All she needed to do was fight the feeling of passing out from blood loss and get home.  Everything would be right as rain once she got the bullet out of her shoulder and figured out what her next move should be.  Calls would have to be made to make sure she wasn’t on anyone’s list; once she was in the clear she could resume her hustle anew.  The cash would last long enough to get a come up with heavy pockets.  But first she had to make it to the sunrise.  

And if she hurried in the morning, she could make it to Marshall Fields and get her purse with enough time and cash left over for an abortion.