Bradleysburg (5)

The second Tuesday of every month, Sammy’s parents went to the Borough Council meeting. He stayed home, because he was 12 and who cared about zoning and stuff like that?

For three years, Ron Jenkins had been the mayor, a position earned by winning a majority of the borough’s 164 eligible voters, of which only 103 came out on Election Day. The position meant nothing to anyone but Ron and his wife, Cindy, who also served as the Council’s Treasurer. It was an unpaid position, and Ron had run unopposed in last year’s election. Even Sammy knew well enough not to brag about it at school.

Very little of Sammy’s life merited bragging. He was terrible at sports and not much better in school. He had failed the fifth grade–held back, his mother said, as if that made a difference. Any friendships he’d made in the previous six years ended when summer vacation did. His new classmates remained distant; they were a little afraid of him, like Stupid was contagious. But yeah, his dad was the mayor. Great.

And he’d screwed Tina Novak. Or so he’d told a few kids. Small town people talk, and no one in Bradleysburg believed Tina was a virgin. Her sexuality became her identity for those who didn’t know her, and the impulse toward moral superiority drove these same ill-informed gossips to relate her supposed misadventures to anyone who hadn’t heard them. It was a good way to get attention, even if your story bordered on ridiculous. And Sammy’s story was ridiculous, but a few of the younger kids bought it.

Sammy’s parents were devout members of the First Church of God. (They would never attend the Church of the Brethren! Can you believe the pastor there lets his son date her?) They did not discuss sex with him, other than to say it belonged to marriage. What he knew of it came from the magazines he’d found buried deep in his father’s large tool cabinet. Pictures of women with breasts the size of their heads, their mouths open and tongues extended, dog-like, to lick the hairless penises of out-of-shape men. There was no context for this imagery; the captions read Hungry Slut or Take That, Bitch! but nothing else.

Sometimes he dreamed about those women–their bleached and permed hair, their tanning bed complexion, the stretched skin of their breasts–and woke up feeling like every bit of blood in his body had flowed to his crotch. All he could do was wait for the sensation to die out, not that he really wanted it to. Council Meeting nights provided his best chance to examine his father’s secret magazines without fear of being caught.

He was in the garage when his mother came home unexpectedly. She called from the front door, interrupting his attempt to decode the gymnastic complexities of a pic labelled Her First Gangbang. Sammy shoved the magazine back into place and made his way towards his mother’s voice, adjusting the bulge in his pants so she wouldn’t notice.

“Where were you, hon?” Cindy Jenkins stood in the front hallway, her right foot still propping open the door. “I’ve been yelling for you.”

“I was looking for a screwdriver,” he lied. “My doorknob is a little loose, and…”

“Dad can fix that later. I thought you might want to see something.” She waved him onto their front porch and pointed across Main Street to the borough building. A group of men stood gathered around the rusted old town flagpole, engrossed in discussion. His father was there, and a few men from the Council.

“They’re going to take the flagpole down,” his mother explained. “It needs to be sanded and painted because we just ordered this huge new flag, and we want io be ready for Veterans’ Day.”

The pole rose thirty feet into the air, screwed into apyramid-like concrete base. It stood ten feet from the borough building, right in the center of town.

“Hey, Ron,” Cindy yelled. “I brought Sammy out so he can see you drop the pole on the borough’s roof!” She laughed.

“Cindy, we don’t need to hire someone. Stop worrying!” Ron smiled and went back to talking with the other men.

“Your father is so hard-headed! I’m the treasurer and I know we have the money to get a professional to do this. But he wants to save the money. I said, ‘What if it falls into Main Street or into those power lines or on top of you, Ron?’ But he just says it won’t. He’s probably right. You know him–always right.”

A few neighbors had come out of their homes to watch the flagpole come down. Ike Randall was on his porch, sipping a beer. Sammy could see Tina Novak standing outside of Mel’s, and his minded flashes a vision of her posed like the magazine women. He felt himself stiffen, and then he remembered his mother standing next to him. He tried desperately–unsuccessfully–to think of something else.

The men began turning the flagpole, which wobbled in the slight September wind. Ron stood, holding the pole at shower height, his thick hands tightly gripping the rusty iron. The metal rose slowly and the men held tighter, careful to keep control. Soon it was out of the base, and for a moment everything looked good.

And then the pole began to tip. Even with five men holding onto it, it was top-heavy. The men strained against it as it slipped, which made it even worse when the iron touched the high voltage power line.

Sammy saw the men thrown to the ground, the pole still touching the wire. The men were fastened to the metal by the strong current, and their bodies quivered, and smoke rose from their backs. Their hair caught fire and a sound came from Cindy’s mouth that Sammy would never forget.

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Bradleysburg (4)

Dwayne Hayes looked at the newspaper through reading glasses that sat at the end of his nose. The white porcelain cup in his hand held lukewarm coffee, but he sipped it anyway, out of habit.

“You want anything else, Dwayne?,” the waitress asked. He didn’t know her name, she was so new here, but obviously she knew him.

“Nah.”

She refilled his coffee just in case and then moved down the counter to talk to other customers. Dwayne stole a sidewise glance at her. Nice figure, busty, but he could tell that working in a restaurant was not going to be good for her–she was just on that line between thin and chubby.

There were two kinds of waitresses at Frank’s Diner. You had young girls like this one who were cute and smiled a lot. And then you had the ones who had stayed too long. Their faces were lined from fake-smiling, their backs were going bad from standing all day on a hard floor, and they looked worn, like a pencil you’ve been grinding away on until it’s nothing but a stub of what it used to be. Wasn’t their fault, usually. A lot of the young, pretty ones got pregnant to useless boys and then ended up supporting themselves, the kids, and the no-good men on this job.

A thin man in a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans slid into the seat next to him. The newcomer noticed the focus of Dwayne’s attention.

“Frank hired a new girl, huh?” The man nodded toward the waitress.

“Yeah.”

“She’s cute.”

“Too cute for you, Ike.”

The man laughed. “That’s true. But she’s younger than your grandkids, too.”

“Some of them.” Dwayne was 74, with thinning hair dyed dark brown and combed over the balding dome of his skull. This he covered in a baseball cap.

“You eat?,” Ike asked.

Dwayne nodded and opened the newspaper, hoping that Ike would take the hint. He was a good kid, Ike, but socially awkward.

“I heard one of your grandsons had a little trouble last week. Went to the hospital.” Ike could hang on you forever, like the smell of rotten potatoes. This was probably why he’d never had a serious girlfriend that Dwayne could remember. You can’t really trust someone who’s forty and unmarried.

“Frank’s boy, Andy. He and his cousin Jared was out climbing on Jim Marker’s hay bales, and I guess they took to horsin’ around and Andy fell off. Broke his damn ankle, beat his face up pretty good.”

“His face and his ankle?”

“I don’t know how they done it, but he must’ve got twisted up somehow.” He wanted to read his paper, but Ike had killed that possibility. he decided to leave, and he began seeking a polite opening to excuse himself.

The waitress came back their way. She put a wrapped set of silverware in front of Ike and smiled. She obviously didn’t know him.

“What can I get you, sweetie?” Oh, Christ, thought Dwayne, she really doesn’t know who she’s talking to.

“Honey,” Ike began, “What’s your name? I bet it’s something real pretty.” The man practically dripped charm like sweat from his overly large pores.

“Elle,” she responded, the joy in her eyes already fermenting into repulsion. “You want some coffee?”

Dwayne knew how this story played out. No need to stick around. He fished a few dollars out of his pocket for a tip and laid the money on the counter.

“He wants to put me on his check,” Ike said, smiling. “Don’t you, Dwayne?”

Elle shook her head, as one might to an obnoxious child. “He doesn’t have a check. He’s Frank’s dad.”

“This is Ike,” Dwayne told her. “I’m sorry to leave you alone with him, but if he gets too fresh I’m sure you can whoop his ass.” He walked out into the cool September air and climbed into his pickup.

Dwayne and his wife Donna lived on Route 20, about five minutes from the center of town. At one time, before the the government built the highway system, 20 had been a major road for east-west travel in this part of the country. Now, it was like any other two-lane Pennsylvania road–pockmarked with potholes as it wound through a hundred small and half-forgotten towns.

During the day, he was supposed to be running an antique store along that road, although he came and went when he felt like it. Sometimes, he forgot to lock the door to the shop, and he’d walk around trying to remember if everything was still where he’d left it. It was hard to tell, there was so much stuff. And his mind wasn’t what it had been.

He specialized in old local memorabilia: faded postcards of regional attractions, yellowed newspaper clippings, self-published amateur history books about Union County. Most of these were acquired at flea markets and estate sales, which accounted for his irregular business hours. Customers were pretty good about waiting if they needed anything like that. They knew Dwayne had done the legwork.

An old black truck waited for him in the driveway when he pulled in. A man in his thirties sat behind the wheel with his window rolled down, smoking a cigarette. Dwayne knew the guy, but he couldn’t remember the name.

“Hey, Dwayne,” the man said, sliding out of the cab. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Hell no. I ain’t the government.” What was this guy’s name?

“I’ve got something pretty specific I’m looking for,” he said. Dwayne turned the key, quietly relieved that the door had been locked this time.

“I might have it, unless you’re getting too specific.” The men entered the shop, which was packed to the rafters with seemingly random items–furniture, cast-iron cookware, knives, wooden toys. Dwayne loved local history, but he couldn’t turn down a deal, either.

Cassidy was his name, he remembered. Max Cassidy. He was in the volunteer fire department with Frank.

“We used to have fur trade in this area, right?”

“Go back far enough, sure. I don’t have any fur, though.”

“I don’t need fur,” Max said.

“That’s good. You’d have some animal rights asshole throwing paint on you.” Dwayne laughed and passed Cassidy a tin cup to use as an ashtray.

“I need some traps, the kind that snap on an animal’s leg. You have any of those?”

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Bradleysburg (3)

She didn’t wait for him. The ATV was right there, keys in the ignition, so she took it and headed down the path toward home. Tina wasn’t stealing. She’d leave the quad behind his house unharmed. She would treat it with more respect than he had treated her.

Ray. Fucking Ray. She could still taste him, his musk now mixed with blood in her mouth. Her cheeks still stinging, her eyes damp. A slight wind soothed her as she wound her way home.

He would be furious, of course. It would take him hours to walk home, and he’d have to carry her helmet, too. She hadn’t taken time to grab it when he’d chased off after those boys. She wanted as much distance between them as possible.

Maybe, she thought, it won’t take him hours. When he gets out of the woods, he could use his cell and have someone come get him. She pushed the throttle a bit harder at the thought.

It was a cool day, strange for late August. The whole summer had been oddly chilly, temperatures in the mid-70s or lower almost every day. They had gone riding today because it didn’t feel warm enough to drive down to the dam and go swimming. She thought about the water, about diving down far enough that the world above was gone, unseen and unheard.

Ray was a nice guy, everyone agreed. Member of the youth group, hard-worker. He had dirty blonde hair that curled just enough, and his cheeks dimpled when he grinned. Her mother liked him a hell of a lot more than Tina’s last couple of boyfriends.

There was Greg, who wore flannel shirts with the sleeves cut off and too-tight jeans that had a noticeable Skoal ring on the back pocket. He had piercing dark eyes and a strong jawline, strikingly handsome. Kissing him tasted like stale snuff, but worse, in the opinion of Tina’s mother, were the mud-caked boots he wore everywhere, even in her living room. He lasted a while, but eventually Tina wanted a date that didn’t involve driving a truck through a mud-bog and then getting freaky behind the volunteer fire hall.

Richie was cute, but he had so much body hair that when he took his shirt off to show her his considerable muscles, the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking he had on a sweater vest. He laughed a lot, always seemed stoned. He wasn’t, not at first. After Tina turned him on to weed, his incessant giggling increased, and so did his paranoia. Before long, he was more interested in discussing black helicopters than anything else.

When Tina started dating Ray Morris, her mother couldn’t have been happier. Finally, a nice boy, clean-shaven, with a dazzling, tobacco-free smile. The first time he came over, Ray brought flowers–including one for Tina’s mom. Tina’s father had looked up from the television, perplexed at the idea that a man might bring something to a woman, and then put it out of his mind.

Ray’s mother had not welcomed her with the same joy. Tina Novak had a reputation. Even if much of the gossip about her was bullshit, a sensible woman like Tammy Morris knew that at least some of it must be true, and none of it was good. Tina turned over a new leaf–she had (mostly) given up pot, had tried to curb her profanity, went to church almost every Sunday, but Mrs. Morris still acted like she’d have to fumigate when Tina left.

Riding Ray’s four-wheeler home, taking deep breaths to stay calm, she could not remember when she’d stopped believing his act.

Not the first time he’d hit her. He’d been so sorry afterwards. He’d asked her to pray with him, and they had gotten on their knees there in her bedroom and he had begged God for the strength to be a better man. He had cried then, praying with the fervor of Jesus in Gethsemane, and those tears convinced her that he meant it.

That original forgiveness made it easier to accept the next time he got rough. For months now, they had re-enacted this moment–anger and violence followed by prayer and tears–half a dozen times.

When Tina considered the guys she’d jettisoned for far lesser transgressions, she felt angry. How weak was she? Why were they still together? But she knew: His father, the Reverend Thomas Moore.

She pulled the ATV into the Morris family’s yard, driving it back to the shed behind the house, where she eased it inside and closed the doors. From behind her, a voice called.

“Hey, Tina! Where’s Ray?” The Reverend Morris was standing at the back door of his brick rancher, wearing a polo shirt and shorts that were a decade out of style. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, with a gently bulging belly that made him seem jolly and unthreatening. His wife had sharp features, eyes like drill bits that searched Tina for weakness and sin.

“He stopped off to visit some friends,” she answered. “He asked me to bring the four-wheeler home for him. Said he’d catch a ride back in a little while.”

Reverend Morris–Tom, which she could never bring herself to call him–stepped forward, letting the wooden screen door bang shut behind him. He was smiling, always smiling, but his eyes seemed to recognize her lie for what it was.

“Something happen to you, honey? You look out of sorts.”

And she lost it, then. She cried and he embraced her, his warm arms holding her, his big palm rubbing her back as she sobbed into his shoulder.

Her own father hasn’t hugged her since she was in elementary school.

She couldn’t tell the Reverend about Ray, about what he’d tried to do to her in the woods. About what she’d actually done to his son.

Tina lost her virginity when she was in eighth grade. A party at her cousin’s house, almost no supervision. They’d all been playing Seven Minutes in Heaven. Tina had drawn an older guy, a bit aggressive, but she didn’t say no.

She’d had sex with all of her boyfriends since, including Ray, but never without a condom. If he had remembered to bring one with him on their ride, they might still be in the woods now. Those two kids might still be watching them.

Oh god, the kids… Had Ray caught them? What had he done? What would they say?. Through the screen door, Tina heard the phone ring. She pulled away from Reverend Morris.

“I can’t–,” she began, and then broke off. She backed away, unsteady.

“I understand,” he said, his lips curling into a puzzled frown. “I’m here to talk if–“

“Tom!,” his wife called from the kitchen. “Phone!” It was Ray. Had to be. Or maybe the parents of those boys.

Tina ran, then, her tears falling in a trail behind her as she moved toward home.

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Bradleysburg (2)

Great round bales of hay rose from the field ahead, yellow-brown in the noontime sun. The boys walked carefree through the fresh-mown grass and up the steep hill. Jared relayed fresh intelligence he’d gathered from an older kid–Sammy Jenkins, the neighbor who’d failed fifth grade–who claimed to have had sex with Tina, the hot teenaged girl who worked the cash register at Mel’s Pizzeria. Pudge trailed behind Jared, swinging a stick he’d found shortly after they’d left their grandfather’s house.

“He got to see her boobs,” Jared informed his cousin. “And he says they’re bigger than they look when she has a shirt on.” He spoke with the solemnity of a network news war correspondent.

“They look big to begin with.” Pudge wasn’t sure if he believed this story. Somehow, a high school junior taking the virginity of a 12 year old with a mullet seemed unlikely.

“He said they’re the size of pumpkins.”

“No way,” Pudge said. “Oranges, maybe.”

Jared laughed. “Man, do you know what a bra even does? It holds the boobs down and makes them look small so guys don’t stare too much.”

“Huh.”

“Look, Pudge, if you don’t wanna hear this stuff, that’s fine by me. But when Tina and I start doing it, don’t get all jealous.”

“I just don’t believe Sammy is all.”

Jared sighed. “I’m trying to cheer you up.” He had reached the first hay bale, a bundle about six feet high.

“You don’t need to. I’m fine.”

“Maybe Hulk’ll come back.” Jared grabbed the two pieces of twine that held the bale in place and leaped, using his upper body strength and his feet to propel himself to the top of the pile. He stood, stretching toward the sky as Pudge climbed up behind him.

You could see downtown Bradleysburg (such as it was) from where they stood. There was the post office and across from that the B. W. Superette. Mel’s Pizzeria sat next to that–was Tina working now?–and then the Church of the Brethren. Around these were a few old houses. From a distance, Pudge could see the flag flying next to the borough building.

“I don’t think he’s coming back,” Pudge said, sitting down. A slight breeze blew from behind them, although the sun was hot and there were no clouds in the sky. Sweat was running down his spine.

“My cat came back once. Gone a whole week. I thought she was dead for sure, but then there she was.” Jared shook his head. “Somehow she ripped the side of her mouth open while she was away. Dad had to shoot her.”

“Thanks,” Pudge said. “That really cheered me up.”

The two boys sat in silence. It was the end of summer. The new school year began the next day. Fourth grade, the hulking and strangely mustachioed Mrs. Meeder. Neither one of them wanted that.

“You wanna walk back to the pavilion, Pudge?”

About fifty yards to their right, the field gave way to woods. A small ATV path led through the trees to a private picnic area someone had built there decades before. More trails led off in other directions from there. The pavilion sat unused, save for the occasional teenagers dipping snuff and drinking beer in secret. Jared and Pudge sometimes walked back to read the swear words carved into the tables and collect cans for recycling.

Pudge shrugged, but soon the boys were sliding down from the hay bales and heading for the dry mud ruts of the four-wheeler path. They were quiet now. Their new excursion felt to Pudge like his cousin trying hard to find some way to lighten the mood, to help him forget that his dog was missing and probably dead. It wasn’t likely to work.

This end of the trail had not been cleared in some time. The boys had to climb over the rotting trunk of one tree, duck under the low-hanging branches of another, and avoid the thorny branches of an overgrown bush the encroached on their path. As they drew closer to the clearing, the old pavilion came into view.

Pudge grabbed Jared then, pulling him down to a crouch. An ATV sat next to the pavilion, with a lanky teen boy perched on its cushioned seat. Kneeling before him was Tina, her head moving slowly up and down on his lap.

“That’s not Sammy Jenkins,” Pudge whispered.

“She’ll screw anyone, I told you,” Jared replied.

The boys crept off the path, and under a large pine tree, where they laid flat and kept watching. Pudge was scared now. While he wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, he knew he wasn’t supposed to see it. At the same time, he felt an inexplicable warmth rising from his waist.

“I hope she takes her shirt off,” Jared said. “Then you’ll see what a bra does.” Pudge put a finger to his lips. Jared fell silent.

The boy on the quad put his hands on Tina’s head and pushed her off of him. She stood up, gripping his penis with her hand, stroking it slowly. He said something to her that the two younger boys could not hear. She shook her head and tried to kneel down again, but he would not let her. He reached between her legs, trying to work the button of her fly.

“No,” she said, her voice firm enough to carry across the clearing. “I don’t want to. You can finish in my mouth, but I don’t want to fuck you.”

The boy kept at it, pulling at her pants. She smacked his hand away. For a brief moment, they glared at each other. And then he slapped her.

To Pudge, it seemed as if they were watching in slow motion. He could see every hair on her head swing around with the force of the blow, and her head twisted until Pudge could view her in profile, her mouth open in pain and surprise.

The boy grabbed her then, by the arms, and he forced her to the ground, climbing on top of her. She struggled against him, and he struck her again, harder.

“Stop it!,” Pudge yelled, scrambling out from under the pine branches.

Tina and the boy looked at him, stunned, he pinning her to the ground, she staring upside down with an arched neck and tears now running toward her hairline. And then the brute was standing, his erection still exposed, and he charged at Pudge, who froze in terror.

Behind him, he could hear Jared yelling, “Run, you dumbass!” in a voice that receded with the sound of his footsteps. Something in Pudge did not register Jared’s words as a helpful suggestion. It is likely that he would have stayed there to meet his fate had the angry teenager’s pants not fallen down, tripping him.

Seeing the rage-filled face fall toward the ground and hearing the confused cursing that coincided with the tumble broke Pudge’s terrified trance. Suddenly, he turned and ran down the path toward the field. He crouched down to get under the low-hanging branches, and he leapt to hurdle the rotten tree, but the toe of his left shoe caught the jagged stump of a long-broken branch on the log, and he fell with a twist and felt his ankle pop. He screamed.

He heard the teenager shoving his way through the branches. Soon, the older boy was leaping the tree himself, landing on top of Pudge and pummeling him with his fists. He was strong, but not brutally so, and Pudge managed to block a fair number of the shots. Even so, when his assailant finally tired and climbed off of him, retreating to the pavilion, to Tina, Pudge’s face was swollen and blood ran freely from his nose, which he thought might be broken. His ankle definitely was.

Pudge tried to stand up, but the pain in his left ankle drive him back down. He began to crawl, inching his way toward the field. Pebbles and twigs that he had not noticed before ground themselves into his palms and kneecaps. He strained forward, really crying now, until Jared emerged from some bushes alongside the trail and helped him up.

“You look like hell,” he told Pudge.

“You could have helped me.”

“You could have run faster.”

Jared hooked Pudge’s left arm over his shoulders. The two boys staggered home slowly as Pudge wondered what, exactly, he would tell his mother had happened to him.

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Cigarette Burns: Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

After a long hiatus, Jesse and I are trying to bring back Cigarette Burns. No word on how frequently these reviews will appear, so enjoy them when they do.

This review has spoilers of a sort, but this is not the kind of film easily ruined by such things.

Most people have never heard of Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Those who have usually know it as the documentary where a man drives a nail through the head of his penis in an unflinching close-up. For a lot of folks, that’s a deal-breaker. The market for real pain is admittedly small.

Incredible as it sounds, this self-mutilation is not the most disturbing thing on display in Sick. We see domestic disputes, the brutality of chronic illness, and Bob’s actual death. Flanagan was surrounded by pain, with only a small portion of it self-inflicted.

Bondage has reached a wider audience recently, riding the bad prose of E.L. James to something approaching mainstream acceptance. This is not a movie about two people playing at darkness, and it’s not something to recommend to the other ladies in the garden club. It is, however, deeply rewarding for those who can hold their squeamishness in check. There’s a genuine sadomasochistic love story here, and a lot of laugh-out-loud humor.

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What you need to know about Bob–what’s more important than a penis pinned to a board–is that he suffers from cystic fibrosis. His lungs are constantly filling with fluid. He carries an oxygen tank everywhere, plastic tubes in his nostrils. His mistress (in the S&M sense) Sheree Rose, has to pound his back to knock the phlegm loose so he can breathe. The supermasochism stems from Bob’s desire to control his body, to make the pain of being alive with CF feel like a relief. Over the course of his life, he’s turned it into art. The film alternates clips from his final years with poems, stories, songs, and performances that mix the grotesque and the comic. We want to turn away, but we’re afraid we might miss something hilarious.

Sick forces us to confront our own hang-ups. Can it be that we really find consensual BDSM more startling than a man’s death? We can use this film to search for psychological explanations for behavior we consider aberrant, but why do we have such a sense of moral superiority? Where is the line between freak-show curiosity and empathy?

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My life is a collection of banal pleasantness and minor irritations. Yes, I have bills, and the kids can piss me off, and it sucks that I’m going blind. Mostly, though, I float through, contented and largely untouched by tragedy.

Not Bob.

In the early1950s, when he was born, the average life expectancy for a person with cystic fibrosis was 17. He lived to be 44. Every day of his life he suffered. As a baby, his parents took him to the hospital for regular fluid draining, which involved doctors inserting needles into his chest. His stool was runny. He coughed constantly. Eventually, he drowned in his own fluids. Amazingly, when you look at Bob’s art–for all the pain involved in its creation–he most often presents a sly fuck-my-luck smirk, not woe-is-me agony.

Flanagan knew he was dying. How could he not? For over 25 years, he was an exception, and he made the most of it. He created multi-media exhibitions of his work, appeared in a Nine Inch Nails music video, and counseled children at a CF summer camp. Finally, two years before he died, Bob began working with director Kirby Dick on this film, with the explicit understanding that it would include his death in the final cut. This is literally his final performance.

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In making his illness an integral part of his work, Bob became something more than a fetishist–he became an inspiration. (In one of the film’s most surprising moments, Bob and Sheree meet Sara, a teenager with cystic fibrosis whose Make-a-Wish dream is to meet him.) It is impossible to watch Sick and not admire his humor, his moxie, his courage. Few of us could take the pain Bob lived through. Even fewer would smile doing it.

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Bradleysburg (1)

I’m looking for feedback, if you’d care to give it.

Max would have to clean up the spilled garbage later. Two cans worth, scattered behind his house, and this fucking dog in the middle of it, gnawing on a pork chop bone. The beast so intent on its snack that it didn’t even notice his approach. He’d grabbed the dog by the collar and pulled him yelping into the cab of his pickup. Yes, he would clean this later, but he needed to take care of the troublemaker first.

It only took a few minutes to put what he needed in the truck’s bed, and then he opened the driver’s side door. The dog–a mutt with obvious collie forebears–was whimpering a bit, cowering on the floor as though it knew what he was up to. Max leaned over and stroked the scruff of dog’s neck with his meaty, rough fingers, relaxing the animal. He turned the key and felt the old truck sputter a bit before the engine caught. That would have to be fixed, too, but not today,

Bradleysburg sat in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, so small that calling it a village was an exaggeration. Less than four hundred people lived along the small Main Street inside the tiny boundaries of the borough. Another thousand or so–including Max Cassidy–resided in Daniel Webster Township, which surrounded the borough proper and still had Bradleyburg mailing addresses. The citizens were descended from farmers–mostly German–but few still tilled the soil for a living. Instead, they worked service jobs, collected government checks, or both. The few homes Max passed were aged double-wide trailers with built-on additions that didn’t match. The road below him was gravel.

He drove until he came to a large field that belonged to a church camp run by the local Church of God district. He pulled into a small gravel berm next to the camp’s mailbox.

It was late August, and there were no campers this time of year, although the property was so large that none of them would have been near this particular spot anyway. Old Man Neville, who had been the camp’s caretaker since well before Max had been a camper two decades ago, wasn’t around. No one was. One of the beauties of rural living, Max decided, was being alone all the time. He couldn’t imagine life in a city, in some townhouse that shared a wall so thin the neighbors could hear you flush the toilet.

He pulled a soft-pack of Marlboro Reds out of the pocket of his flannel shirt and tapped a cigarette into his palm. He rolled his window down and lit the cigarette with a plastic Bic lighter. Dry, lightly brown grass rose waist high in the field. It would be time to make hay soon.

The dog jumped up on the truck’s faux-leather bench seat, tongue hanging out, mouth in that curious canine approximation of a smile. Max scratched the dog behind the ears; the dog licked his palm. Out of curiosity, he checked the animal’s tag.

“Hulk, huh?,” he asked the dog. “That’s a shitty name. You’re anything but incredible, you stupid fucking twat.” As he spoke, his voice softened as if he were addressing a giggling baby. His lips parted in a smile, his teeth a dingier yellow that the mutt’s.

From the glove box, he pulled a pack of beef jerky. It was half-empty, the pieces of dried and salted meat hardened by time. Max dumped the bag’s contents onto the floor of the passenger side and watched as the dog devoured the scraps.

When the food was gone, he took hold of Hulk’s collar and led him gently out of the cab. The dog did not need much convincing, and he sat at Max’s feet, waiting for more food. Max knew the animal’s owners a little, but not enough to have ever seen their pet before. From the way the dog behaved, it seemed reasonable to conclude that they were not feeding him often enough.

“I don’t have anything else for you,” he said. The dog waited anyway, grinning like a fool. Max rubbed under Hulk’s chin and the removed his collar. The dog laid on his back, offering his belly to the man.

The red plastic can in the pickup bed held about two gallons of gas. Enough. He began pouring it onto the dog, who scrambled to his feet and tried to avoid getting wet, first by walking in a small circle, and then by sprinting into the field, leaving a trail of fuel dripping from his coat. He ran about twenty feet and then shook himself and rolled around trying to get dry.

Max put the gas can back in the truck and then dropped the smoldering butt of his cigarette where the dog had just been. He watched the flames run into the field, where they soon engulfed the dog, who began to run wildly through the grass. Soon, several different patches began to burn.

The dog’s collar went into his glove box, another thing to take care of later. Not now. He drove away with the window still down, the better to hear Hulk’s last, pained howls.

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Love Song for Aunt Molly

She sat on the floor
amid Legos and
wooden rails
to listen as he
babbled unintelligibly
about his toys
and she laughed
when he made potty jokes,
held his hand as
he pushed a car around,
and wondered
what the other adults were doing.

Then he smiled,
shyness drawing his eyes down
toward his train set
as his little palm grew clammy
and for the briefest moment
he was reminded of
looking out at the New York lights
from the Empire State Building
and the giddiness of wind in his face
at a thousand feet up,
the joy of flying and fear of falling,
and though he could not explain it
he knew what love was and
his eyes rose to meet hers and
when he and she found themselves
truly connected and present
he whispered poop
to see her smile again.

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