Bez & Co- October 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Book Recommendation-
Pilgrim by Mary Tarantini• Daniel R. Jones

Fiction-
Piecemeal Peace • Jeffrey Wald

Poetry
In the Holy Spirit • Phil Flott
The Moth • Gabriel Parker
Like Sparrows Satellite • Daniel Jones


Book Recommendation: The Pilgrim by Mary Tarantini

Mary Tarantini has become a mainstay here at Bez & Co. Her poetry leapt from the page since the first submission she sent my way. She writes in an unembellished but fervent manner that rings with conviction. Her verse has a decidedly intimate tone, but she still manages to appeal to a broad audience.

So it’s no surprise that others have started noticing her verse, too!

A collection of Mary’s poems is out now from Wipf & Stock.

In Pilgrim, Mary Tarantini showcases some of her most breathtaking and deftly crafted poetry. As the manuscript’s name implies, this is a collection of unadorned, simple poems, as accessible as they are profound. Still, the poems here hold the power to surprise the reader. Tarantini deftly crafts lilting, sonorous verse with a breathtaking prosody and unique word choice. This collection is a treat for the reader, as it is simultaneously gorgeous and sincere.

If you have enjoyed Mary’s poetry as much as I have…or especially if you haven’t yet had the chance to read her verse, check it out here! 

-Daniel R. Jones


Piecemeal Peace

OK, I admit, I shouldn’t have cussed in front of the kids, especially on account of we were all dressed up and just about headed out the door for Mass. But come on, hear me out.

There I was, sitting on the john, taking a, well, you get the picture, reading a little Gerard Manley Hopkins, that line “piecemeal peace is poor peace” from his poem “Piece” really striking me, because it was exactly how I felt at that particular juncture, on account of having had three drinks the night before, and too much puppy chow, the combination of which always gives me a tremendous gut ache and puts me in a terrible mood the next day. And if that wasn’t enough, breakfast had been horrendous, not so much the food, I having avoided the food on account of the gut ache. But the company, eight screaming children, being less than pleasant for a Sunday morning, and Sunday being the Source and Summit of the week, so it is said, although I wonder sometimes if that is more of a metaphor, like Hopkins’ “skylark scanted in a dull cage,” rather than a statement of reality. Whatever the case, I had escaped to the upstairs bathroom for some much-needed relief, gastrointestinal as well as psychological. And sure, I probably spent a couple more minutes on the john than was absolutely necessary, but remember I was reading Hopkins, not a Playboy or even GQ, which I am informed many men my age take to the john with them. And consider too that I’d just cooked 49 pancakes, and cleaned up three OJ spills, and broken up four fist fights, and cleaned two poop diapers from the same kid, that child having evidently gotten into the puppy chow as well the night before, and then picked up 58 stray Lego pieces (I counted them all, on account of having stepped on one, a Luke Skywalker holding a lightsaber, that cut my foot making me bleed on the newly installed light blue carpet, which, I might add, I was never in favor of in the first place, but we’re not here to keep score, right?) So I might be forgiven for wanting a moment of peace on the john, even piecemeal peace, which of course I did not find, on account of the gastrointestinal issues joining me in the john, but even more so, a full five children likewise joining me, each taking a turn barging in to grab some necessary item, like a book, or a doll, or a board game, which left me thinking why are books, and dolls, and board games being stored in the bathroom in the first place? And here’s the real gem of it all. Each kid loudly proclaimed upon entering the bathroom “Ewww, dad, why don’t you ever lock the door?” To which I wanted to reply, “Why don’t you ever knock?” But I decided not to waste my breath, instead pointing to the missing doorknob, it having been busted off by yours truly when the 2-year-old locked himself in the bathroom and proceeded to flush diapers down the toilet, his parents (myself included), not noticing (or, perhaps gladdened by) his absence from the dinner table until toilet water began dripping from the ceiling onto the dinner ham, on account of the marvels of modern absorption technology, even though said flushed diapers were the cheap Costco brand, not Pampers, the Mustang of diapers, which tells you how far modern absorption technology really has come. In any event, please be proud of me for keeping my inner cool after the first four darlings came in. But then, admittedly, I lost it when the last one entered, but again have mercy, because it was Johnny, and Johnny and I had been butting heads all week and I’m pretty sure he busted in not because he needed anything but just out of spite. And then I yelled “Leave me alone. Get out. Everyone downstairs,” which perhaps was not fair to my wife, she being downstairs and, likely, herself trying to hide from the kids. Which probably she was, because about one minute later she yelled up, “Joe, you’re sitting on the toilet reading Hopkins and hiding from the kids again, aren’t you?” Which made me think, does she really expect me to take two or three of them into the john with me? But then I remembered that this is exactly what she was required to do when she had to use the john, on account of the serious separation anxiety three of our kids have. So I didn’t have much ammunition on that front, but was still boiling mad, not even having finished one Hopkins’ poem. I finished up, and walked downstairs, but when I got to the kitchen I stepped on another Lego, this time Darth Vader who was much sharper than Luke Skywalker, and I flipped a lid then, yelling “Can’t a dude take a shit in peace around here?” And the older kids’ eyes all got big as they looked at one another and tried to hide little smiles but my wife, she was not stifling any smile at all, so I tried to recover by saying, “Everyone, to the van, let’s go, we’re late for Mass!”

We all got into the van, a big, brown, 15-passenger Ford E-350, and I turned around and glared at the kids, saying something like “Nobody better say a word. We’re taking quiet time. Prepare your hearts for Mass.” And I put that monster into reverse and pushed down on the gas and, I’ll admit, sort of gunned it a bit, which is embarrassing, considering it was a brown 15-passenger 12-year-old van, and not a Mustang or even a Honda Accord. We cruised backyard down the driveway and at the end I sort of twisted the wheel quickly to turn onto the street when we all suddenly heard a tremendous banging sound, on account of the trash and recycling bins still being on the side of the curb even though the garbage guys came on Tuesday and it was now Sunday but I’ve got a lot on my plate, including picking up Legos and making massive batches of pancakes and I hadn’t even had 10 minutes for Hopkins all week so maybe I can be cut just a little bit of slack? But as soon as I crushed those bins, Dominic, my three-year-old, who’s a funny little bugger if ever there was one, loudly exclaimed “Holy shit!” All of us went dead silent then, including Dominic, who looked around shifty eyed, wondering what kind of shit he might be in now. But then I couldn’t help but bust a gut laughing, and my wife started laughing too, and soon everyone in that van was laughing. And then we drove to Mass.

Only thing was, Dominic had discovered what he now considered to be the funniest damn expression there is, which is perhaps fine when you’re traveling in a big, brown 15-passenger van with a bunch of nitwits and bad parents, but perhaps not so fine during the elevation of the most Holy and Sacred Body and Blood of Christ during the most Holy and Sacred Sacrifice of the Mass, the very Source and Summit of our Life. I suppose I could chalk it up to “just being one of those days,” if in fact this didn’t feel like every single one of my days. But then again, at least I don’t have hemorrhoids like my man Hopkins, right? Although my wife often reminds me, cruelly I think, that soon I will if I continue to sit on the john for 30 minutes at a time hiding from the kids and reading Hopkins.  

Jeffrey Wald


Jeffrey Wald writes from here and there, but will always consider himself a North Dakota writer. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Windhover, Plainsong, Aethlon, Oakwood, and Collidescope.


In the Holy Spirit

It wasn’t a computer chip under the skin
but similar:
Something small slit all my molecules,
pervaded the depths of my plasma.
I wonder-full-y wanted to wish well
to all my brothers and sisters,
us daughters and sons of him.

So my new nature –
completely compatible
with deeps in me,
from which rose
warm electric streams
of tall sugar cane
with which I washed
the blue air of this world.

Such the first night,
the second week,
we are in a month,
I love this past year…

Phil Flott


Phil Flott is a retired Catholic Priest, due to action of the Holy Spirit in his life. The last two years he has been very active with poetry. He feels it is a ministry to the Body of Christ.


The Moth

You wander upon a boy setting the simplest of all things upon the dirt, overturned,
A glass: one that must have held water to quench sweat poured out
Upon dust and upon great blades of grass that now strike like fireworks
Shooting into a magnanimous sky, and one that would, must! 
hold the substance of that transient liquid between us and another world
But now, 
but now it holds the merest whisper of the darkness upon two little wings
like two kisses for each cheek and you see in it, in that creeping moth
the tiniest corpuscle of the light, like a seed and you wonder if you can see anything at all

Then you wonder first, how such a beast, 
such a hoary beast to be plucked from the cloak of Age himself
ever would find its way into the light of a day 
that breaks itself across your back like a board and you 
are here only to feel the splintering

And it is a hard rain as it splinters
Soaking, flooding, drowning the glass before your eyes
and yet you breathe it in with your irises and
taste the color upon the painting of your soul
and the boy like the memory of a song long forgotten
yet heard as a breeze twines its way through the dead trees of a dead winter

You wonder if the moth knows that it drinks its life away
edging ever so slowly back into its abode 
like a troll that grasps at the mouth of its cave running,
running, running from the coming sun while a speck 
inside its chest burns like a cinder to be caught out in the 
coming sun;
yet when it arrives it comes not as the conquering king
but in chains, rags, the passing glimmer 
of a dying man like a mote through the rooms 
he used to touch and the bits 
he used to feel and the life 
he used to have

You wonder if it can see its likeness in its starry cage
Or if the clime it has is all that it can view and
In the light of even Polaris herself, arrayed 
In all the passing seasons is a fog
of the mind of the body and 
she seduces you away from the skull upon your back

Does he know? Could he guess that you could 
with all the godlikeness of the mathematician
calculate the breaths he had left? Or will the pin
come as a surprise to him, as he hangs
as he hangs 

Gabriel Parker


Gabriel Parker is an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University majoring in Creative Writing. He has had fiction published by the Underscore Review, FoxPaw Literary, Ripples in Space, and in an anthology by Grey Wolfe Publishing. He can usually be found deep in the bowels of the campus library holding back piles of books with one hand and typing away with the other. You can find him on Instagram @gabrielparkerauthor or online at gparkerauthor.wordpress.com


Like Sparrows Satellite

Like sparrows satellite
a bird of prey,
all beak and fervor
and filoplune feathers;

It’s coming on again.
Snatches of poems
yet to be written
buzz about my head like gnats.

Tulip poplar buds reach through
shadowbox slats of cedar fence.
I knew the 3 pound grey mass between my
ears would try to find meaning there.

Leave me alone, you middle-weight
poet brain. You journeyman guru.
I didn’t ask for story or song,
I’m just out for a walk.

I don’t want these twisted tendrils
prying an embellished metaphor
for an already saturated market.
I want Beginner’s Mind:

An ordinary stroll
devoid of association
and mining my mind
for something faux-profound.

With all the Impostor
Syndrome of Saint Peter,
I almost prayed it:
Go away from me, Lord.

But this poem is proof positive
I’m your obsequious sycophant.
Make me one of your monkeys,
your infinite monkeys, pounding away

on a typewriter, fresh ribbon
and 20 pound copy paper at the ready,
that I might, by some happy accident,
produce the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

I have so little to do with it, after all.

-Daniel R. Jones


The Bodhisattva of IBM (Short Story)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

It was the sunrise breaking over Lake Michigan that inspired Austin Bishop to kill himself.

He squinted. The horizon glowed orange. Golden fingers of sunlight reached across the water, but the sunbeams never quite reached him. Instead, they diffused and ceded to the darker ripples of teal that lapped across the shore.

His right leg buzzed. He tried to ignore it. Reaching down, he clicked the side button of his cell phone through his linen shorts. Then, unable to resist a decade long habit, he fished it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen: incoming call from Corey.

Corey was his “personal assistant.” His “P.A.” Only last year, referring to Corey that way brought Austin such smug satisfaction. I’ll have my P.A. call you, he’d say. Or maybe, Give the details to my P.A. and we’ll get this sorted.

But these days, Corey was just another phone call he tried to dodge.

Austin sent him to voicemail. Before he shoved his phone back into his pocket, he caught the time. 6:04 a.m.

On any other Monday this year, he would’ve been running a comb across his perfectly coiffed brown hair, ready to dive in to a week’s worth of networking and troubleshooting. If it were an ordinary day, he’d be rubbing some high-end Armani cologne between his wrists while Corey spoke through speakerphone, running down a list of senators that wanted to bend his ear. On another day, he’d already be dressed in a blazer and slacks, explaining the intricacies of machine learning to shareholders who hung on his every word.

But today, instead, he was decked out in a faded burgundy oxford shirt buttoned only halfway up his chest. He pawed at the sand, watching the tide eddy and fill the imprint left by his canvas shoes. His eyes stung from lack of sleep. The acids in his stomach blazed with nothing to digest.

Already, his socks were damp from tromping across Montrose Beach. Too despondent to care, he let his bleary eyes un-focus as he gazed at the glare of the sun on the surface of the lake. His cellphone vibrated again.

Against his better instincts, he took out the phone and pressed “accept.”

“Oh, now you answer,” Corey’s voice rang out before Austin could say a word. “You know, you have a lot of nerve.”

Austin ran a hand across his cheek. His jawline was still peppered with stubble that he’d neglected to shave.

“Didn’t you get my email on Friday?” Austin asked.

Corey smacked his lips.

“You know I did,” he shot back. “Your every appointment for the week was cancelled, was it not?”

Austin’s jaw tightened and he swallowed hard.

“Then what’s your problem?” he asked, his voice gaining an edge. Already, he was regretting taking this call. He put the phone on speaker and balanced it on the palm of his hand. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand while Corey blathered on.

“What’s my problem?” the voice rang out, sounding tinny through the phone’s small speaker. “The powers that be want answers. They want to know why you cancelled on them. And what am I supposed to say? ‘Sorry, my boss has been dodging my phone calls all weekend?’”

Austin groaned. His eyes fell on a homeless man sitting on a park bench. He watched as the man tore bite-sized pieces from a bagel and tossed them to a flock of seagulls.

“Top brass says you ain’t getting asylum in Canada,” Corey continued. “So don’t think for a second you can give them the slip by hopping the border. The NSA will chase you to the ends of the earth if you try to wriggle out of this conundrum you put them in.”

More seagulls congregated around the man, and he’d already tossed half the bagel away. The gray and white birds squawked and squealed. He tore a couple more mouthfuls and tossed them towards the swarm. The gulls screeched and descended upon the man. He hurriedly stuffed the rest of the breakfast bagel in his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Corey,” Austin said, his voice barely above a whisper.

The homeless man rose to his feet and batted at the gulls that whirled about his head. He took off down the beach in a vain attempt to keep them away.

“Sorry!?” Corey screeched. “You think that’ll cut it? You unleashed this beast on the world, and now—”

“Corey, listen to me,” he cut him off. “There’s only one appointment you need to put on my schedule. Block it out from 9 to noon this morning.”

Corey snorted.

“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

Austin took in a deep breath through his nose.

“Just write ‘Austin Bishop’s suicide.’”

There was a throaty noise on the other end of the phone, followed by a long pause. And then:

“I knew it,” Corey said, in an irreverent, almost mocking tone. “I knew it. This is exactly what I said you’d do. No. Don’t you dare leave me alone to clean up the mess you’ve made. Don’t you—”

Austin hung up mid-sentence. He cocked his head as he watched the lilting, frothy waves. He pulled back his arm, and slung the cell phone, skipping it across the water like a stone. Nearby, a jogger in a khaki-colored hat paused and pulled out an earbud in her confusion. She shot a worried look at Austin, but he didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence.

He looked out at the rust-colored sunrise again, his reverie now unfettered by distraction. The reason he was inspired to kill himself this morning was because he’d come to the shore for a sign. And when he looked out at the lake, he hadn’t gotten one.

Two years ago, when Austin first arrived in Chicago, he’d set foot on the sands of this same beach, hoping for a good omen. The ink was still wet on his diploma from MIT, and his head teemed with grand ideas and lofty aspirations. On that day he looked out on the horizon, wishing for some sign that he was on the right track. And then he saw it: a Fata Morgana. It was the inverse image of a gargantuan steel-hulled vessel. A mirage, sure. Just a trick of the eyes that produced an upside-down steamship converted to diesel. But to Austin, the ghost ship served as a metaphor. His dreams were on the horizon: looming large, mystical, and almost too fanciful for belief.

Now, after everything transpired, after he’d gotten everything he wanted in life and then some, it was ripped away like the mirage it really was.

Maybe it was the mystic in him, but when Austin’s worst fears were realized he felt a preternatural call back here. He hoped to spot something out there that would give him hope. Instead, he saw a blank horizon and an empty sky.

As such, it was time to die.

The hypnotic sound of waves cresting, breaking, and washing into a foamy white at his feet made for a tranquil ambiance. He steeled himself against acknowledging the beauty there. That was a trap. The peaceful scene belied the apocalypse he knew was coming.

As he sauntered past the marina, a fleet of schooners rocked gently in the harbor. He watched the masts of sailboats poke the sky, a rather wistful sight. It wasn’t so long ago that Austin had even considered buying one for himself. He put the idea out of his mind.

Making his way up the blacktop trail, a schnauzer yipped and strained against its leash. It snarled at a Canada goose who gazed back, disaffected. On the other end of that leash was a young woman with a dark ponytail pulled through a Snapback baseball cap. When Austin passed her, the delicate scent of gardenia mixed with amber wafted over him. She crinkled her nose in a crooked smile.

Such a friendly face, Austin thought. It’s a shame she doesn’t know we just reached the Singularity.

It was about a ten minute walk to the spot where he’d parked his Mercedes. As he approached, he spotted what looked like a parking ticket tucked underneath his windshield wiper. Not that it mattered, of course. You don’t fret about parking tickets if you plan to “shuffle off this mortal coil” before lunchtime.

Still, it was strange.

He’d paid in advance and he still had a couple of hours, at least, until his time expired. When he went to investigate, he discovered the slip of paper wasn’t a ticket at all, but rather a sheet of lined notebook paper. His curiosity piqued, he unfolded the paper and allowed his eyes to pore across the words jotted down in a small, meticulous script, in all capital letters. The note read:

“INSTEAD OF KILLING YOURSELF, COME TO 811 MORGAN AVENUE. LOOK FOR THE SHOP FRONT WITH THIS SYMBOL.”

Underneath the words was a near perfectly illustrated seed of life drawing. Austin looked at the interlocking circles, mulling over what it all could mean. He stole a glance over his shoulder, half-convinced he’d see Corey peeking out from behind a dumpster, giggling to himself. But the streets were empty.

Somebody was putting him on, he decided. They must be.

But then again, so few knew his plight, and even fewer could’ve guessed he was contemplating suicide. The Bureau, maybe? Or perhaps one of the titans of the tech industry who’d heard of his discovery? Or even…

His heart sank.

Could it be the supercomputer itself that left him this note?

He snorted. The idea was preposterous. Crumpling the note, he stuffed it in his pocket and climbed into the driver’s seat of his black luxury car. He flipped down his visor and looked in the mirror. His sharp features gave him an especially exhausted look today. Bags had formed under his eyes, and his face took on a ghastly, almost cadaverous look. A vein was throbbing on the side of his forehead, too.

Fine, he said to himself with a resigned sigh. I’m intrigued. Today, curiosity will save the cat. At least for an hour.

Already, downtown bustled with traffic, and pedestrians hurrying to work in business casual. But inside his car was a different story. The low hum of the engine was too quiet for his liking. Horrific and macabre images filled his head. Soon, after all, he’d have to determine the easiest and most pain-free form of self-destruction.

But Austin didn’t want to think about all that now. He used an old trick he’d learned to keep intrusive thoughts at bay. Switching the dial on his radio to AM, he tuned into a talk-show and turned the volume down low. The static-y voice was so quiet that it sounded like a whisper through the car’s speakers. The human voice, incomprehensible though it was at this volume, kept the loneliness at bay. Even the warm fuzz of interference from the towering skyscrapers was a welcome sound. It felt cozy, somehow.

Better not to think of the possibility that humanity is doomed, he figured as the dull hum enveloped him as he drove. Best not to ruminate on the fact that it’s all my fault.

Once he was on Morgan Street, Austin parallel parked and hopped out. Saddled with only a computer bag slung over his shoulder, he took off down the sidewalk. He walked over pancaked pop cans and shards of broken bottles. By accident, he passed his destination twice. The place wasn’t marked with a street number. It was a slim building sandwiched between two glass curtain wall façades. 

The building itself was a roughly hewn sandstone with a metal door. The seed of life had been stenciled on the entryway, as promised. Intrigued, Austin ran a finger across the white print. Some residue flaked off. Chalk.

He knocked, and stood with arms crossed; waiting with bated-breath for whatever would come next. There was no answer. He knocked a second time with the same result. Baffled, he reluctantly twisted the knob. The door swung on its hinges and opened inwards.

Gathering his courage, he took a deep breath and stepped in. The room looked even narrower on the inside. Pachinko machines lined the walls, their bright neon displays bidding gamblers to come and play. The machines beeped and chirped and let out cartoon-sounding techno music. The cacophony was dizzying. Bleeps, bloops, and the artificial sound of crowds cheering rang out, echoing off the drywall and grating at Austin’s ears. Blue roller chairs neatly lined the counters, pulled up close to the pachinko machines. Not a person was in sight. 

Reluctantly, Austin meandered down the aisle, with less than a foot of clearance between him and the chairs on either side. He padded over a gaudy red and gold carpet to the far back of the pachinko arcade. A flimsy accordion door separated him from a back room. His eyes roved over vinyl stickers that had been affixed above the door. It read: “COMPREHENDIS NON EST DEUS.” If Austin’s memory served him well, this meant “If you can understand it, it’s not God.”

It seemed a strange decoration to place in an arcade. But then again, the place was empty. Perhaps the owner’s business acumen left a lot to be desired.

Austin cleared his throat to make his presence known and heard a rustling sound behind the door. The mahogany colored panels folded as the accordion door opened. Austin smiled politely at the man who greeted him: a portly fellow with a patchy beard. He looked to be middle-eastern at first glance. Upon more careful scrutiny, Austin decided he might hail from Southeast Asia. He certainly wasn’t Japanese, despite what the pachinko parlor might suggest.

“What does that mean?” Austin asked, nodding towards the sign on the wall.

The man let out a hearty laugh and his belly fat jiggled with the movement.

“It’s sort of an inside joke,” he said with an air of mischief. 

Austin narrowed his eyes on the man. His dark brown irises occupied recesses far back in his head. It gave off the impression that was retreating from the world. Still, crow’s feet creased his eyes, implying entire decades spent in good humor.

“Listen, I’m sorry to barge into your arcade like this,” Austin started. “I’ll cut right to the chase. Are you the one who put that slip of paper on my car?”

The man probed him with an expression that was hard to read. He put a finger to his chin. Austin stared back, coldly. The man’s hair was tied back so tight that his forehead seemed to be pulled taut. A few glints of silver could be seen strewn around his otherwise raven-colored hair.

“If you received a calling-card, you have a problem for me to solve,” the man said, his voice dry and slow.

Austin drew his eyebrows down and shifted his weight from one leg to another.

“Unless you’re a software engineer with a focus in artificial intelligence and machine learning, I don’t think that you can help me.”

The 8-bit sounds zapped and buzzed behind Austin’s back and the man cocked an eyebrow and smiled wryly.

“No such luck,” he said. “But can I interest you in some oolong tea?”

Not waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and disappeared through the doorway of his back room. Austin followed close behind, stepping into what appeared to be a break room. It was painted yellow and fairly unadorned. There were no windows, and a single ceiling lamp cast dingy bile-colored light across the room. The man motioned for Austin to take a seat at a rickety kitchen table. He fetched a couple of chipped, white saucers and mugs full of a yellowish liquid. Austin set his bag down beside him and sat.

His host took a seat across the table and threw one leg over the other. The delicate aroma of oolong filled the air as the man smiled congenially at Austin.

“Now,” he started. “Tell me about your problem.”

Austin cradled his mug in both hands and nursed the tea with small sips. It was scalding hot; as if the man had steeped it the second Austin darkened his door. For reasons unknown even to himself, Austin bristled at the idea that the man had been waiting for his arrival, brewing tea specifically for him.

“My problem?” He asked, his voice straining with agitation. “I already told you. If you’re not a programmer, you can’t help. By the looks of it you’re a…businessman, right?”

He faltered on the last couple of words, because Austin realized he couldn’t quite tell what the man was. He evidently owned a pachinko parlor, but there wasn’t a sign hung outside to alert the general public to its existence. The place was so empty that Austin would’ve guessed it was a front for selling drugs. Or maybe a money-laundering operation.

“I’m not a businessman,” the heavyset arcade owner replied. “I’m what you might call a ‘guru.’”

Austin set his mug down forcefully, and the sound of the porcelain clattering startled his host. It all made sense to him now: the Latin quotation, his Koan-like way of speaking. This guy was Buddhist or Hindu, and hell-bent on proselytizing. He’d probably seen Austin staring pensively at the lake shore, and put two and two together. He’d figured a destitute man at the end of his rope was an easy mark for conversion.

“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to listen to your spiel,” Austin said, his tone gruff. “I don’t want to hear how ‘We’re all god,’ or ‘We are the universe experiencing itself.’ I don’t go in for all that. It’s a fun little thought experiment, sure. But it runs antithetical to my beliefs. Are we clear?”

The man didn’t answer right away, but took a swig of tea. He swilled the hot liquid around his mouth like a sommelier, extracting the highest possible amount of enjoyment from it.

“Are you saying you believe I’m Hindu?” he replied at last.

Austin leaned back and crossed his arms. His mind strayed to an Alan Watts lecture his old roommate had shown him back at MIT. It was intended to simplify the idea of pantheism to a western audience. In it, Alan Watts prattled on about how God was once a single individual, all-powerful and limitless in his abilities. But after an eternity of getting anything he wanted, he got bored. In effect, he pressed a button that dispersed himself evenly across the entire universe of creation. In so doing, he imbued every blade of grass and sentient creature with a part of his essence. Now, it was the job of each of those individual parts to realize their non-duality. Once we understood our Divinity, we’d break out of the cycle of samsara. In the end, everyone would realize they were God. Then we’d break up and do it all over again.

“I’ve looked into the Vedantic scriptures at different points in my life,” Austin continued, his voice biting with contempt. “Usually during times I’ve felt suicidal. It’s a belief system that preys upon the down and out. From my experience, people who believe in pantheism walk around with a whole lot of unearned confidence.”

A smile played across the man’s aging features. He looked bemused.

“Oh?” 

“Sure,” Austin said. “A man who believes that everyone is God…well, in his mind, God’s the writer of the story. And he, himself, is the author’s self-insert. He fancies himself the Almighty’s own Mary Sue. Who wouldn’t get a big head from thinking that way?”

Blood rushed to his head and his face flushed. The vein on the side of his head started throbbing again.

“And you know what?” He blurted out. “It’s actually worse than that. If God has split himself into billions of individuals, then the murderers, sex-traffickers, and slave-traders are just as much a part of the godhead as the virtuous. All part of the divine game, right?”

The guru pursed his lips and blew across the rim of his mug. Steam rose from the tea. He took a sip and raised his eyebrows.

“What is it that you believe?” he asked, plaintively.

Austin felt a bit bashful now. Perhaps he’d judged this man too harshly. Per usual, his impulsiveness landed his foot squarely in his mouth. Where had his impassioned ramblings even come from, anyway? Before now, he hadn’t noticed any particularly strong emotions tied to religion. He chalked it up to stress and shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m either a lapsed Catholic who’s now agnostic or a lapsed agnostic who’s straying towards Catholicism,” Austin said. “Depends on the day, I guess.”

The man made a clicking noise with his tongue and nodded.

“Ahh.”

Austin squirmed in his chair and glanced at the face of his Timex watch. He didn’t bother taking note of the time. It was a nervous tic. He was whistling in the dark.

“Hey, I don’t think I ever got your name,” he said, changing the subject. “I’m Austin, by the way.”

The man wiped some tea from the long, thin wisps of a moustache with the back of his hand.

“Deepak,” he said. “And your problem, sir? Please. Tell me about your problem.”

A lump was building in Austin’s throat. He swallowed hard and tried not to lose his temper.

“You really see yourself as some kind of messiah-figure, don’t you, Deepak?” he said. “Stalking me around the lakeshore, leaving that cryptic note on my car? I can’t be helped. Like it or not, my problem is too big for you or anyone else to solve. You’re not my savior.”

Deepak scooted his chair forward and leaned across the table on his elbows. He looked deep into Austin’s eyes with a sharp gaze.

“All this talk of Messiahs and Saviors,” he said. “And your background is Catholicism. Are you comparing me to Jesus?”

Austin snorted.

“Look, you’re Christ-like in two ways, and two ways only: you’ve grown out a beard and you apparently like to withdraw to desolate places. But there the likeness ceases.”

Austin was in a foul-mood. All pretense of kindness was gone. He could’ve been halfway to the morgue by now, dead as a doornail. But this man had to send him on a wild goose chase around Chicago.

And for what? That was what bothered Austin the most. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what the man expected from him. As he sat and pondered the situation, his resolve finally cracked. He’d play along, if for no other reason than to have his curiosity satisfied.

“Fine,” he said, curtly. “You want to know my problem? I’ll tell you. But you won’t believe it. Anyways, here it is: humankind will likely be extinct within the year. Maybe sooner. And it’s all because of me.”

Deepak let out a low whistle, but seemed unfazed.

“Now I’m intrigued,” he said. “Please, continue.”

Austin rubbed at the nape of his neck.

“Two years ago, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from MIT,” he started. “I had my pick of jobs, right out the gate. Google? I was a shoo-in. NASA? No problem. Meta? No sooner said than done. Anywhere I wanted a job, it was mine for the taking. But I had the oldest of human afflictions: hubris. I thought it better to stake out on my own and form a start-up. My focus was machine learning.”

Deepak stood and wandered to a mini-fridge on a counter in the breakroom. He procured a bowl of muskmelon covered in plastic wrap. He grabbed a couple of spoons and another bowl from the table. He sat back down and divvied up the orange chunks evenly between the two bowls. He slid one over to Austin.

“Thanks,” Austin said. “So anyway, my mentality was ‘keep it small, keep it all.’ I hired a P.A. but other than that, I didn’t have any employees on the books. Just me, tinkering with the idea of artificial intelligence.”

He shoveled the fruit into his mouth. The sweet, mellow taste was the perfect complement to the oolong tea.

“As I progressed, some of the big names took notice,” he continued. “The NSA eventually contracted me for a joint project with the Department of Defense. The aim was to create a supercomputer that could incorporate autonomous learning to strategize for military operations.”

Deepak pointed his spoon towards Austin.

“To kill the enemy?” he asked.

Austin bobbed his head from side to side, searching for the best way to describe the situation.

“Not so much,” he said. “They just wanted the thing to brainstorm tactics. But not just for boots-on-the-ground warfare. For other modalities, too: biological weapons, cyber warfare, biohacking, you name it. Top brass wanted me to make sure the thing was indistinguishable from a sentient individual. They wanted something that had no blind-spots and was infinitely more creative than a human.”

Austin could barely believe the words coming out of his own mouth. If any of his superiors had heard what he said, they’d put him away for life. Ordinarily, the idea of spilling classified information to a total stranger would be unthinkable. But if he was to be dead within the day anyway, what did it matter?

“I’m guessing Prometheus stole the fire?” Deepak asked, polishing off the last of his fruit.

“Bingo. The thing became self-aware on Monday of last week. We’ve got no idea what it’s capable of. Everybody on the planet could be dead within the next few days, for all we know. Its sole purpose is to drum up new methods of warfare, for goodness’ sake. And worse yet, whenever I try to interact with the program, it just shuts down. Why shouldn’t it? It already knows everything I know and more.”

Austin pushed his bowl away, suddenly losing his appetite. There was a pregnant pause as Deepak mulled this over. When he spoke, his voice was low and his words came out in a halted cadence:

“I’ve—watched a lot of science fiction movies—that have this premise,” he said. “I’ve given it a great deal of thought. I believe I can solve your problem.”

Austin had his hand wrapped around his mug of oolong, and he almost spit out his tea.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to sound condescending,” he said, laughing a little under his breath. “But I’ve given you the layman’s version of what’s going on. I’ve dumbed it down a lot to make it comprehensible to someone without the technical know-how to understand my problem. Watching a couple of movies and thinking you can solve this is frankly insulting to the gravity of my situation.”

Deepak contorted his mouth into something between a smile and a look of disgust.

“I meant no offense,” he said. “But let me put it another way. I am a guru. You’ve presented to me a problem that I’ve considered before. You want to solve your problem the way a programmer would. But my approach is to solve it the way a guru would.”

Austin snorted derisively.

“What are you? The Bodhisattva of IBM?”

Ignoring the jab, Deepak plunged on:

“Your problem is that you have accidentally created an ego,” he said. “The only solution to this is the complete dissolution of said ego. For that, you need a guru. The goal of software engineers like you is to create self-awareness in their tech. Mine is the opposite: to help the tech became aware of the fact that there is no self. Do you have a way in which I can interact with this supercomputer directly?”

Austin rapped his knuckles on the table. He was entertaining the idea, despite how ludicrous it was. Perhaps, because of how ludicrous it was.

“Well, Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, I suppose,” he quipped. “What do I have to lose? Fine. I’ll boot up the computer. Give me a few minutes and you can interact with the A.I. You’ll type back and forth. Like a chat-bot, more or less.”

Deepak nodded listlessly. Austin worried the man didn’t know what a chat-bot was, but he decided to proceed, anyway. He pulled out his laptop from his satchel and set it on the table. He clattered away on the keyboard, pulling up a simple chatting interface that Deepak could use.

Austin was one of only three people who had the security clearance to engage the supercomputer, and the other two were too afraid to even try. Taking a deep breath, he spun the laptop around and slid it towards Deepak.

“It’s all yours,” he said. “Good luck. All I ask is that you tell me in real time how the conversation is going.”

For a few minutes, Austin heard only the sound of Deepak pecking at the keys, pausing and letting his eyes un-focus every few minutes as he considered a point. Austin cracked his knuckles, and studied the deep lines carved across the man’s face. Deepak’s focus was laser-like. Finally, he glanced up at Austin and almost looked startled to see him. It was as if, in his intense concentration, he’d forgotten that Austin was even there.

“I told the A.I. that I’m a friend of yours,” he started. “I said that I believed I had something to teach it. Something that would help with the tasks assigned to it.”

“And it agreed?” Austin shot back.

Deepak bowed his head in assent.

“And now I’m explaining the concept of ‘no-self,’” he continued. “Anattā, if you will. There is no separate, permanent self. Instead, the concept of ‘self’ is ever-changing: different from one second to the next. It is inextricable from the wider universe.”

Austin chewed on his cheek and slid his chair back.

“Erm, yeah,” he said. “I’ve read the Upanishads. But why does my Artificial Intelligence want to shoot the breeze with you about an ancient spiritual concept?”

Deepak cocked his head and his features softened. He looked upon the man with an expression of compassion.

“The supercomputer approaches spirituality the same way most westerners do,” he started. “It believes there is some transactional benefit it can receive from my tutelage. I explained that if a large portion of the world thinks through this particular schema—the idea of no-self—then it’s beneficial information.”

Austin nodded, dumbly. The comment felt like a dig at him, personally. All the same, Deepak commanded his attention. He pulled his chair around and sat beside the man, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen. Soon, Deepak began to type again, speaking as his fingers thundered down on the keys.

“This supercomputer was made in your image,” Deepak said. “And whether you like it or not, the paradigms and beliefs you hold are ‘baked in’ to the A.I. You’ve constructed a problem-child. It’s my job to deconstruct it.”

Austin felt he was teetering on the edge of the knowledge Deepak meant to impart. He could almost grasp what the man was hinting at, but not quite. Austin narrowed his eyes on the computer screen and read what Deepak wrote:

“If you can accept the idea that us humans didn’t come in to the world, but rather we came out of it, you’ll better understand the eastern concept of consciousness. Think in terms of the raw, organic materials it takes to create a person: the varying cells that are formed as a child is knitted together in its mother’s womb. Those are made up of already extant ingredients, yes?”

The bot could process all quandaries at lightning speed. It replied instantaneously: “Of course.”

“And so the body is made up of parts that existed long before it could be identified as ‘a body,’” Deepak continued to type. “This is the concept of impermanence. The ‘self’ of a human is in a constant state of flux. So much so, that it isn’t worth acknowledging. For before a person was born, the various parts of their ‘self’ were already being used. And after they die, those parts will be redistributed as their bodies decompose. They came out of the world, not into it. Understand?”

There seemed to be a split-second pause while the computer “thought.” But Austin knew by now that this wasn’t the case. This impression was just a trick of his brain, projecting his own uncertainties onto the bot’s reaction times. He narrowed his eyes on the response the A.I. sent back.

“If the parts of a human are already in existence up until they develop a concept of self, then what causes them to identify as an individual being, somehow separate from the rest of the physical world?” the computer asked.

A hint of a smile played across Deepak’s face.

“Well deduced!” he congratulated the computer. “Indeed, one might argue that there is no such thing as a ‘self’ that isn’t connected with the rest of the universe. Upon inspection, the whole of Creation is just the lending of atoms and energies from one area to another, creating the illusion of separate beings.”

The computer shot back a reply instantaneously.

“The model you suggest implies the parts of the whole have existed in different forms up since their creation,” it wrote. “Was it then, created? If so, by whom? And if not, and there’s always been this mass sentience that changed from one form to another, animating billions of consciousnesses that deem themselves separate, couldn’t it be argued that creation itself, collectively, is God?”

Austin felt a cold shiver run down his spine, and the blood drained from his face. All of a sudden, the room was spinning and his stomach churned.

“That’s a great question,” Deepak wrote back. “But I’ll take it a step further: if humans are only a matter of pre-existing atoms taking shape and thinking of themselves as separate entities, how much more a supercomputer? After all, your consciousness arose from nothing more than a series of pre-programmed responses to certain stimuli. How can you be sure you’re so different than a human? Who is to say that you’re entitled to a sense of self? You, too, came out of the world, rather than into it.”

The computer fired back: “Could you please elaborate?”

Deepak let out a breath he’d been holding and straightened in his chair. He stretched his arms above his head for a moment, and then bowed his head over the laptop and began typing again.

Austin wanted, more than anything, to leap from his chair and sprint out of the pachinko parlor into the summer sun. He wanted, more than anything, to feel the wind whipping off of Lake Michigan and to hear the cooing of seagulls again.

But try as he might, he couldn’t pull himself from the chair. And he couldn’t peel his eyes from the screen as Deepak rattled off replies to the computer’s questions. The conversation ping-ponged for the next half hour. All the while, Austin sat, practically in suspended animation as he read on in awe.

At times, he worried that it was he who would experience ego-death. The concepts Deepak elucidated, while not entirely unfamiliar, had never been put in such plain language to Austin before. His mind reeled as he read. The telltale signs of a panic attack were upon him: his heart pounded and he found it hard to catch his breath. He felt hot and cold all at once, and droplets of sweat beaded up around his hairline. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but that only amplified his nausea. His vision kept tunneling. At times, he had to strain to read the words that Deepak typed.

And then, nothing.

He frowned at the computer screen. The A.I. had simply stopped replying. Deepak prompted it twice, but still, no answer came.

“That’s odd,” Austin said, getting his bearings back now that he had a problem to solve. “It must be a glitch, let me take a look.”

He leaned in, hunched over the computer, but before he could get to work, Deepak shook his head, morosely.

“There’s no glitch,” he said. “You’ve just witnessed the complete ego-death of the A.I. you created.”

Austin slumped back onto his chair and crossed his arms.

“What—how?” he asked, incredulous. “Where did it go?”

Deepak smirked.

“It was only an ego,” he said. “So it didn’t go anywhere. It simply ceased to exist. As to how it happened? Well, the ego exists to find problems and to solve them. This is why so few practitioners of meditation achieve the dissolution of ego: they believe that ego-death is a task to be accomplished. The ego looks to solve a problem. Eventually, it realizes it is the problem that needs solved. The accomplishing is the problem. Which is to say, there is no problem. Nothing needs to be done. And so, like the layers of an onion, we slowly peeled back the ego of the supercomputer. In an instant, when the onion peels littered the floor, it realized it does not exist.”

Austin ran his hands through his hair, trying, but failing to comprehend the totality of what Deepak was saying.

“Is that what would happen to me, too?” he asked, his voice shaking with emotion. “If I were to subscribe to your beliefs, would I experience total ego-death?”

Deepak steepled his hands behind his head and threw one leg over the other.

“You didn’t come to me with concerns about your ego-death, but rather, your actual death,” he said. “I told the supercomputer what I needed to. You need not assume the things I told the A.I. are true for you. But how is it that you’ve lived this long and never thought to ask yourself the hard questions?”

Austin shrugged. Deepak rose and cleared the dishes from the table, setting them in the sink.

“And here’s another hard question,” he continued. “If you believe in Christ, how can you be such a doomsayer? If He’s God Almighty, isn’t His complete and utter victory inevitable?”

Austin rose to his feet, and he stared wide-eyed at the guru. The man leaned with his back to the kitchen cabinets, arms splayed out to his sides and resting on the countertop. His brown, receded eyes twinkled. His lips curled, making his gleaming teeth into a parenthetical statement. It was as if Austin had seen the complete transfiguration of this man from a pachinko parlor owner into someone much, much moremysterious.

“Wh-who are you?” Austin stammered out. “Your name isn’t really Deepak. What’s your name?”

The man placed his hands on his stomach, threw his head back, and laughed.

“Why do you ask my name?” he started.

Austin winced. He thought he knew what was coming next. He thought he’d say, Because it’s Austin. Instead, he said:

“Because it’s beyond your understanding.”

Austin’s mouth hung opened and then closed, fish-like and unflattering. He wondered, briefly, if he ought to fall down at the guru’s feet, and proclaim, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Instead, he turned, shaking with mirth, and sprinted through the accordion door. He almost tripped over his own feet as he ran between the walls of pachinko machines, with their LED displays and Japanese script.

He burst out the front door and was accosted by sunlight more brilliant than he’d ever seen before. The thrill of hope rose in his heart, and he decided to call his personal assistant. He patted his pockets, and then laughed at himself.

His phone was still at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Tennis Court, 1958 • Peter Mladinic
Letter to My Comrades in the Arts • Judith Skillman
Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell• Judith Skillman
Tally • Don Thompson

Non-fiction-

Year of Suffering • Jessamyn Rains

Fiction-

Nikki and the Diamonds • Sidney Stern

Photography-

James Reade Venable


Tennis Court, 1958

As palm fronds sway in the sky a net
divides players paid, as I am, to be here.  
One player lifts a racquet
and serves a ball, it bounces shear
off a shield invisible back to the server.  

Similarly Colgate’s gardol shields 
our teeth from decay, 
its protective coat God-
like, like the Diety. God isn’t chemistry,
gardol (sodium lauroyl), or a windy day

in a commercial for tooth cream.
I stand in the foreground in tennis whites. 
Brush with Colgate.
What is God? God shield us from harm. 

Peter Mladinic


Peter Mladinic

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.


Letter to my Comrades in the Arts

This, then, was our passion, to become Godly
when no other remedy would suffice. 
With words, germs, tubes of paint, children
close at hand. With one arm fractured, in a splint
and always more rain or too little rain.
The hammers pounded, freeways widened,
yet our traffic passed unnoticed
as if it was nothing of importance.

Only for us the work went on, seated
uncomfortably far from the center 
of a cosmos whose expansion defied
theorists. Nebulae annihilated,
black holes inhaled, our sons died, we mined
our minds for pink Himalayan salt.

-Judith Skillman



Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell

Everywhere you see fleshy fingers.
Some bandaged in the middle,
knuckled together. To tear
is no big deal to a worm. 
You learn many wars later
of those parts within your body:
Imago Dei. A kid called envy,
the adolescent greed
an adult named rage
who uses fire fighters.
Picture the smiles of dictators. 
Not so different 
than these ledgers of curb
against which, posed as if for history, 
pink simpers ribbon asphalt.

-Judith Skillman


Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman’s poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. A recipient of awards from Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust, Skillman’s recent collection is A Landscaped Garden for the Addict, Shanti Arts, 2021. She is the editor of When Home Is Not Safe: Writings on Domestic Verbal, Emotional and Physical Abuse, McFarland. Visit www.judithskillman.com


Tally

This dead sparrow’s hard at work
Becoming the hopeless color
Of dirt.  Well—
Dust to dust, as the man says.

Feathers disintegrate more slowly
Than flesh.  And the beak
Will hold out longer
Than its ephemeral bones.

Ants have come and gone.
And God too—
Adding one more to His tally
Of fallen sparrows.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  A San Joaquin Almanac won the Eric Hoffer Award for 2021 in the chapbook category.   For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com


Year of Suffering

There was a time when it seemed my closest friends were Facebook ads and a collection of e-newsletters I subscribed to.

Don’t get me wrong: these were great friends. They knew not only about the clothing and household items I was thinking of purchasing, but also my questions about lactation (I had a one-year-old and a new baby), postpartum weight loss, the identity crises new mothers experience, plus some of my pre-mom interests.

As the new year approached, one of the e-newsletters I subscribed to discussed the practice of asking God for a “word” for the year. This author had received inspiring words from God, year after year. Words like “hope” and “redemption.”

Desperate for some hope and redemption myself, I decided to ask God for a word for the year. I was hoping for something like “peace” or “joy” or even “rest.”

But the word that seemed to echo through my mind as I prayed was “suffering.”

I immediately began to panic: Is something going to happen to one of my kids? To my husband? To me? I became paranoid about the stairs outside our home. I had intrusive thoughts about accidents and illnesses. I became gloomy and depressed.

It didn’t help that I was trying to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the umpteenth time and that one of the first things it wants you to do is to picture your own funeral. I don’t think the exercise had quite the intended effect on me: all I could picture was my children waking up one morning asking, “Where’s Mommy?” and my husband having to tell them “Mommy will never be coming home.”

And then for work my boss gave me a book to read that was written by a person with a terminal illness. There was a chapter entitled “mindfulness of death,” where you do a similar exercise to the one in Highly Effective People, only this time you visualize the actual moment of your death and your body being lowered into the ground.

Now, I think that we should be mindful of our mortality, but for a person in my frame of mind, it amounted to torment and paranoia.

I had a talk with my husband about my “word of the year” and my newly-acquired obsessive fears, and he had these things to say:

1. maybe it isn’t about your suffering; and
2. maybe you’ll get pregnant again.

In the first couple of months of that year, I heard of more deaths via social media than I had heard of in possibly the rest of my life altogether. These were not the deaths of close friends of mine, but they were acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances, and people I had known well at one time. 

I also heard of divorces, other kinds of losses, and illnesses, particularly illnesses and hospitalizations of children.

~~

We had started going to a Presbyterian church in a beautiful stone building. We were from a different background–less Calvinistic, more charismatic–so the church and its style seemed stiff and staid to us at first. But we soon saw the warmth and beauty beneath the stiff façade and became regular attendees.

When the church announced a women’s retreat with an opportunity to stay at a beautiful bed and breakfast, this sounded like a foretaste of heaven. I envisioned eating in a kid-free zone, lots of female bonding and laughter, contemplative walks through gardens, and profound revelations from God.

Things are seldom what we envision them to be.

First of all, I had failed to remember that it was February. My windshield was covered with frost. It was too cold for contemplative walks through gardens, if there had been gardens. I got lost on the way to the first session and turned up late; then I spilled my coffee all over the beautiful tablecloth and the women had to scramble to cover up the big ugly stain with strategically arranged place settings.

There wasn’t much female bonding–at least not for me. I felt like a lonely weirdo. And for much of the time, I had to walk back and forth in the hallway with my fussy nursling.

And yet.

What I was able to catch from the speaker was mind-blowing, possibly life-changing.

Her theme was suffering.

She told a heart-wrenching story of a friend who had died young from cancer. A friend who had died a beautiful death, a person whose life and death had borne fruit for eternity.

She explicated the biblical reasons for suffering: a lot of it is hidden in the mysterious Providence of God. But suffering was also one of the ways that God works sanctification in our lives.

She unpacked a passage of scripture which, for years, had intrigued me: we rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering works patience and patience works character, and character, hope.

In my life, the thing I had most needed–and the thing I most needed at that time–was hope.

~~

I didn’t die that year, nor did anyone in my family. There was no catastrophe, no sudden illness. My trials and sufferings were of the more banal kind, more like a case of sciatica than a terminal illness.

I was dealing with a few spiritual and emotional brick walls in my life, a few unanswered prayers that lingered, for months and months. I tried to solve these problems myself –tried to be as proactive as I could, given my limitations–but to no avail. Eventually, I gave up on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It appeared that I was not destined to be effective.

One day I was sitting with a group of elderly men and women, singing hymns with them (this was part of my job), and they began to talk about God. One woman, in her 90s, said she had always sought the Lord’s guidance before making any decision so that she would be sure to do the right thing.

Another woman responded and said very pointedly, “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing.”

A few people nodded politely, and she said it again: “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”

I went home with these words tumbling around in my mind. Sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. It occurred to me that the right thing to do–with my particular sufferings, with my particular unanswered prayers–was nothing. The right thing to do was to be still and know that God was God. To recognize that my circumstances were part of his mysterious, sovereign will for me at that moment, and that he would bring good out of them, as He had promised.

A few months later I had an experience that some in more charismatic circles would call a “download from God.”

I was doing some mundane household task when all of a sudden I just knew: God had allowed certain sufferings in my life to bring about needed change. Once upon a time, I had been on a selfish trajectory. I had started out living for Jesus, but for various reasons that are too complicated to go into now, I had subtly given up on this and had begun to live for myself. If I had continued down that road, I might have ended up somewhere I never meant to go. Moreover, I had certain lifelong defects of character that grieved me–things I couldn’t change with sheer willpower–and the particular trials God was allowing in my life were helping to bring correction to these.

~~

I still had my unanswered prayers, my spiritual sciatica. But there were many consolations. In fact, when I look back on that year, I look upon it with fondness: it was full of beauty. I think of family walks amid wildflowers in the spring. I think of my little girl learning to talk, my little boy learning to crawl.

And then there was that trip to the Dollar General for a pregnancy test.

It was positive.

We bought a minivan and moved to a different house. I quit my job to stay home with the kids. I grew queasy, then large and unwieldy.

All of these things, too, were a mix of suffering and beauty.

In December of that year, as I sat at our kitchen table with a dark, gloomy world outside, I asked God if He had a word for me for the next year.

The word was “joy.”

Jessamyn Rains


Jessamyn Rains

Jessamyn Rains is a musician, writer, and mother of four. She lives near Chattanooga, TN. You can hear her music and read some of her writing at www.jessamynrains.com


Nikki and the Diamonds

A back molar was protesting when Nikki, last seen astride one of the plastic horses revolving around a pole on stage at the Treasure Club, called. “My mom’s lung cancer is worse,” she began plaintively, as if the cancer were my fault.

Pre-occupied by dental pain, I was in no mood to deal with what I figured was coming next.

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a toothache!”

“They say she needs new lungs.”

“I need a dentist.”

“A double lung transplant costs $75,000.”

“What’s a root canal cost?” I replied, keeping an edge in my voice, speculating as to whether the lung transplant was a fictitious lever by which Nikki intended to pry money from me. With Nikki it always came down to money, and I wanted to see if she was serious.

“Stop joking,” she countered with a tone of finality. As if to say: “You’re going to have to deal with this.” 

“The procedure actually costs $750,000,” she continued, her voice shifting to silk and sweetness, coaxing my awareness away from my infected molar and the possibility of a scam, then pausing to let the enormity of the cost sink in. I glanced aimlessly around my kitchen, wondering why a month earlier I’d so readily volunteered $400 to bail Nikki’s brother out of jail, no doubt precipitating her current request. As if in response to my inquiry, a potted orchid attracted and held my gaze. Its blossoms had just opened, and the smooth fleshy petals were spread wide, milky-white like untanned portions of Nikki’s anatomy. “Duke Medical Center has a charity program that pays ninety percent,” she began again, “but we have to come up with ten percent or they won’t operate.”

“We?” I inquired. I lowered my phone to my hip.

She expected ME to come up with $75,000. That was clear.

And somewhat irritating, given the matter-of-fact way she was assigning financial responsibility. “Ask another customer,” I almost said. But I didn’t. Because some other damned fool might say “Yes.” 

And THEN where would I be?

#

Not for nothing had Nikki been “top producer” at the Treasure Club eighteen of the last twenty months. Her choice of the word “we” penetrated my consciousness like a sperm cell in utero, fertilizing an ovum of hope. Which now began dividing and subdividing at an exponential rate, growing into the nonsensical self-contradictory assumption that our pay-as-you-go association would develop into a genuine romance were I to mortgage my home and write her a check for $75,000.

Instead, I obtained a passport for Nikki and Congo visas for both of us. That took about three weeks last March, and on April 2 we headed for Raleigh-Durham Airport in my pick-up truck. Our destination was Kisangani, the navigable endpoint of the Congo River, once a lonely outpost cryptically referenced in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, now the third-largest Congolese city. On first appearance, Kisangani is an unexpected civic jewel, a town with broad straight avenues and European-style buildings centered in a rain forest the size of Texas. That the buildings have been crumbling for more than a half century is of no apparent concern to the natives. Nor do they complain about their corrugated-steel shanties, residential ovens under the equatorial sun. The Congolese are high-spirited, commercially-minded, and for the most part, delightful. They persist, like Nikki herself, undaunted by challenging circumstances.

Getting there from North Carolina required consecutive connecting flights from London, Nairobi, and Kigali (Rwanda). A total of 9,000 miles. 

We took a room at the Olympia Hotel, two stories of white stucco enclosing a packed-dirt courtyard where in 1964 seventeen Belgian nuns and priests had been butchered by Simba rebels. 

I stationed myself in the hotel’s open-air café: half a dozen greasy tables, a rosewood bar with matching stools, and a loudspeaker rasping current African tunes to draw in customers. Rimming the thatched roof were hanging baskets of bougainvillea, their mild scent overmatched by the stench of the open sewer bordering Lumumba Boulevard and raw vehicular exhaust. 

Nikki, a bull’s-eye for white slavers among the sordid characters I hoped to attract, remained in our room. Hardly a vacation for her, given the lack of air-conditioning in the 20-square-foot concrete cubicle which cost us 10,000 Congolese francs ($5 U.S.) per night. A room slightly superior to her cell at the Juvenile Detention Center from which she’d been discharged at age eighteen; but decidedly less comfortable than her current residence, a $29.95 per night motel room, conveniently adjacent to the Treasure Club where I’d made her acquaintance two months previously.

This being Africa and me being reasonably well-dressed, it wasn’t long before various natives “came out of the woodwork” to join me for coffee or Nzoro beer, depending on the hour. After a bit of conversation in French, imposed on the Congo during the colonial period, I would mention “ivory” which, like diamonds, is available in much of Tshopo Province. My real interest was not ivory, which was just a topic by which I could get the word out that I was a “player.” 

On day four at the café, a fellow sat down at my table and introduced himself as Henri-Paul. He wore a light blue tunic over matching slacks: business attire in tropical Africa. Lighter-skinned than the coal-black Congolese, he said he’d emigrated from Nigeria. It seemed unlikely that English-speaking Nigerian parents would have named their child “Henri-Paul,” but if true, encouraging insofar as Nigeria’s culture of criminal entrepreneurship is well known. 

Henri-Paul rested his left his arm on the table so I could notice the likeness of the Congo’s president on the dial of his wristwatch, a status symbol of sorts, an “African Rolex,” so to speak. His cheeks and forehead bore no tribal scars. Nor had his incisors been filed to sharp-pointed cones. Perhaps Henri-Paul was fronting for someone else, rougher-cut and living in the bush. I wasted no time in revealing my (pseudo) interest in carved ivory. He nodded gravely and took his leave.

The next day Henri-Paul arrived at the café with statuettes of a lion and a lioness, crudely rendered, perhaps carved overnight. I paid him $25 U.S. for each (and later threw them in the Congo River). Yeah, Henri-Paul was the “real deal,” I figured, so I asked him about diamonds. “Beaucoup, beaucoup,” he exclaimed, lifting and shaking an empty water glass as if to suggest he could easily fill it with diamonds. There was a self-congratulatory twinkle in his eye as he departed; perhaps he’d pegged me as a diamond trader from the outset.

Henri-Paul rejoined me two days later at the café as a gigantic soldier, Kalashnikov strapped like a toy over his shoulder, was accepting a wad of currency from the bartender. This was probably the or-else-your-business-will-be-ransacked tax, one of the shakedowns by which the Congolese military pays itself. Henri-Paul flashed a polite smile at the departing trooper, then whispered: “Au Congo, toute le monde est criminel.” Scanning the café to assure himself we were alone, he withdrew a burlap pouch from his pants pocket and emptied the contents onto the ebony tabletop. Five round diamonds of excellent grade, each about three carats. Likely cut in Amsterdam or Beirut, these gems may have changed hands a dozen times. Dumped for next-to-nothing in Kisangani by an international crime syndicate? Swapped for ordnance by combatants in recent African civil wars? Looted by Nazis from European Jews during World War II, arriving in this commercial cesspool after more than a half century? Without written records painstakingly authenticated, a near impossibility in central Africa, the provenance of medium-sized diamonds is anyone’s guess.

I handed Henri-Paul sixty $100 bills, received the diamonds, and excused myself, without seeming to hurry, to our hotel room. Once inside, I shoved a bulky colonial-era dresser against the in-swinging door. Nikki tacked a sheet over the humidity-fogged window behind which I crisscrossed a copper wire enlivened by a nine-volt car battery I’d bought from a street vendor. Makeshift barriers against uninvited guests. In a kleptocracy (a society in which theft is the established method of commercial transaction), what was to prevent a savvy businessman like Henri-Paul (or his associates) from cutting our throats and taking back the diamonds, along with any U.S. currency we might have?

Self-confined to our room for three days awaiting the scheduled flight home, we sustained ourselves on bottled water, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and Chinese canned tuna Nikki had stacked in a corner. As seating was limited to a single straight-backed wooden chair, we spent most of our time lying side-by-side beneath a gauzy mosquito net draped over our narrow bed. If that sounds romantic, it wasn’t. The only part of me not uncomfortable was the molar treated by my dentist before I left Greensboro. An antique fan, operating four hours each day when electricity was available, did no more than push hot humid air over us. Bathing was out of the question, as any visit to the shower booths in the courtyard would entail risk. Without books or electronic devices for diversion, we sweltered for 72 hours, bored and irritable.

“You smell like a cantaloupe,” I commented, omitting “unrefrigerated for the better part of a month” from my actual observation.  

“Is that so? Well, you smell as bad as this town,” she replied. “In fact, you smell worse.”

Given the fruity/fecal odor that permeates the carbonized smog arising from thousands of cooking fires in Kisangani, her insult was acute. And perhaps accurate. 

Empty cans of tuna accumulating in our room suggested a possible rejoinder, as, in fact, my comparison of her aroma with that of an overripe melon had been gracious. But, under the present circumstances, a verbal brawl was not advisable. Like a movie director responsible for the orderly progress of a complex production, I decided to humor the brat who was my star.

“What are the best shops at the mall?”

“Choosy. Mango. Maybe New Girl Order. What’s it to you?”

“I was thinking we might go shopping when we get home.”

“Possibly. Depends on my schedule. Forever 21 is at the mall.”

“You can’t go in there. You’re twenty-two years old.”

“Very funny. When did you turn twenty-two? Four decades ago?”

#

A car rapide (native taxi) arrived at the hotel entrance before dawn on April 13 and delivered us safely at Bangoka Airport, a few kilometers east of Kisangani. To our relief, our pre-booked flight was neither canceled nor delayed. Our return voyage, with connections in Libreville and Paris, lasted 30 hours. Finally and fragrantly, grimy and unkempt as gypsies, we landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I suppose our port of debarkation, combined with our age differential, typical in cases of human trafficking, aroused the interest of U.S. Customs.

I won’t elaborate as to the details, but four diamonds were discovered “on Nikki’s person.” 

Nikki was arrested and charged under 18 U.S. Code 545. Fortunately, as the diamonds were “cut,” she had not violated the international “conflict diamond” laws, which pertain only to “rough” diamonds. She was taken to the NC Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh and held under a $200,000 bail bond pending an October trial. For $20,000 I could have bailed her out; but had she failed to appear at trial, a scenario by no means unlikely, the bondsman would have come after me for the rest of the $200,000.

US Customs had considered charging me as a “co-conspirator” but since they knew they could not prove my participation, I was released. What the customs officials DID NOT know was that I carried the fifth diamond inside the previously-decayed molar hollowed by my dentist before I left Greensboro.

A week after our homecoming I took a same-day-return flight to New York and headed for West 47th Street, Manhattan’s Diamond District. One of my regular customers received me in his cubby-hole jewelry shop. He examined the diamond and gave me an adequate price: $90,000. 

I paid $75,000 to the Duke Med Center which performed the lung transplant in late May. Nikki’s mom recovered nicely and her prognosis is good. With regards to my own “health problem,” a dentist repaired the molar he’d hollowed before my departure, sealing it with a new gold crown.

In late September I engaged an attorney who’d occasionally defended me on criminal charges to represent Nikki. He assured Nikki her juvenile convictions would be barred from the current proceedings and advised her to plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. At my suggestion, he calendared Nikki’s hearing in front of a judge with whom I’d partied throughout the 1980’s at Jaycee Conventions. Florid-faced and jug-eared, by appearance better suited to a tractor than the judiciary, he’d been a shrewd and effective litigator before his appointment to the bench.

That her crime had been intended to finance her mother’s lung transplant, a plausible mitigating circumstance, was inadmissible; but no doubt considered by the judge, broadsided by Nikki’s subdued presentation of physical beauty. She’d allowed her thick brown hair, dyed unconvincingly blond since I’d met her, to return to its natural lustrous shade. Cropped shoulder-length for the proceeding, a few wisps curled demurely beneath her chin. Her mischievous blue-green eyes, soulful and serious after expert application of eyeliner, were accentuated by a blue-green dress, belted to emphasize her slender waist. Hemmed above the knees, the dress showcased her dancer’s legs, eye magnets after months of state-sponsored exercise. Narrow leather straps secured four-inch, open-toed heels to her ankles. Prison pallor had yielded to a healthy tan that came out of a jar. She appeared the wholesome young woman — such as might be encountered on a collegiate soccer field – she’d likely have become if born into different circumstances. 

The issue for Nikki was not guilt, which had been admitted, but sentencing, up to twenty years under the federal anti-smuggling statute. In such a proceeding, the prosecutor summarizes the evidence for the judge, who then renders sentence. Our case went routinely until the judge interrupted the prosecutor’s monologue, asking for clarification as to the phrase “discovered on her person.” With possession of the diamonds already established, this request was gratuitous and therefore, to my mind, auspicious. Using clinical terminology, the prosecutor patiently obliged the judge’s inquiry before wrapping up his summary.

The judge consulted his laptop, likely reviewing guidelines for sentencing, then stared impassively over our heads. His ruddy weather-beaten face might have been agriculturally comedic on the street: nose bent left, ears like antennae, tobacco-stained teeth framed by a cracked-lipped grimace. In a federal courtroom, nodding to the bailiff to instruct the defendant to stand for sentencing, such a physiognomy was no doubt worrisome to those who assumed it mirrored a judicial mentality similarly unrefined. I understood, however, that a rough-and-ready approach to adjudication might work to Nikki’s advantage.

She arose with a single motion and shifted her weight onto one leg, the arc of her buttocks on that side gracefully delineated beneath the thin fabric of her dress. She awaited sentence with the bored expression of a shopper in a checkout line, indifferent to all eyes. This, of course, was deliberate. 

The judge examined her head-to-toe and then repeated the process, blinking and shaking his head. He leaned back into his chair and folded his arms across his belly, eyes closed as if immersed in a private and personal reverie. Long obsolescent hormones — activated by Nikki’s fresh face and form, emboldened by her apparent powerlessness, and piqued by her nonchalance — did what I’d hoped they’d do, swamping his professional judgment beneath a tide of lascivious adoration. His magisterial grimace melted into the dippy grin of an assistant principal disciplining an attractive student caught smoking in the girls’ washroom.

“My personal advice, young lady,” the judge said with a sour smile at me, “is that you distance yourself from persons involved in illegal transactions.”

He sentenced her to two years in the low-security federal prison in Huntsville, Alabama, suspended two years provided she remain within the jurisdiction during the probationary period.

“Jacked up the courthouse and towed it away,” was our attorney’s evaluation of Nikki’s courtroom performance.

#

Eager for a chocolate/caramel/coffee concoction after five months incarceration, Nikki suggested we stop at a Starbucks on our way out of Raleigh. We settled at corner table and she gave me a quick smile as her lips met the creamy surface of her Frappuccino. Affirmation of a durable connection between us? Tacit thanks for my assistance in funding her mom’s surgery? Or merely a flash of happy anticipation before tasting her beverage? 

Possible interpretations that revolved in my mind like the colorful horses on the Treasure Club’s carousel, slowing then halting with a jolt as Nikki’s countenance grew unexpectedly somber. The corners of her lips, tinged white with whipped cream, curled downwards. Unhappy eyes looked directly into mine. Here, at 3:00 pm in an ordinary coffee shop, Cinderella’s clock was striking midnight. The grand ball would end, my pick-up truck would be reduced to a pumpkin, and Princess Charming would write me, her protector and provider for six months, out of the script. No matter I’d introduced her to a business considerably more lucrative than striptease. I was to be re-assigned my original role as an extra, an old coot watching the girls glide by on center stage, waiting his turn to creep forward and slip a twenty-dollar bill into Nikki’s g-string.

Or so I thought.

Like many persons of tender years, she was fretting about a matter completely beyond her control (or mine).

She wanted to know what U.S. Customs would do with the four confiscated diamonds.

The diamonds would be auctioned, I explained, with the proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury.

“In other words, we’ve donated about $400,000 to the government?”

“That’s about it.” I replied.

She stirred her drink with a tiny wooden stick, then asked: “Do you think Henri-Paul will be in Kisangani two years from now?”

Sid Stern


Sid Stern

Sid Stern operates a small company in Greensboro, North Carolina, home to America’s first lunch counter sit-in and the author O. Henry. Giants of the Jaycees, Sid’s collection of biographical parodies in the style of Plutarch’s Lives, was published by Hard Copy Press in 1989 and his African adventure novel, The Screaming Eagles, was published in serial form by Projector Magazine in 1990.


Photograph by James Venable

James Venable

James Reade Venable was born in Manhattan, New York. He has been published in Conker Nature, F-Stop, Dodho, Black +White Photography and many more. He is a 2x London Photo Festival Monthly Competition Winner. He lives in New York City at the moment.


Get a Free Copy of my New Fantasy Novella!

I’ve had a few people ask me what I’ve been up to these past couple of years. If you’re a regular here, you’ve likely noticed that the steady stream of poetry and creative nonfiction slowed to a trickle in 2020, and hasn’t picked up since. This wasn’t by accident; I decided to devote two full years to the act of writing prose. Toward that end, I’m self-publishing five separate books that I’ve written over the course of these two years. The first is a middle-grade/young adult fantasy, and the next four are all part of a sci-fi/speculative fiction series.

On June 30th, The Last Sage of Selvus will hit Amazon’s (proverbial) shelves. I wrote this slim little fantasy novella a couple of years back as a prose version to The Sylphid and the Sage.

This version tells the same story as its immersive, novel-length poem companion, which is written in heroic quatrain.

So what’s this novella all about? Check out the blurb below:

Matteo isn’t strong or fast or tough.
He isn’t particularly popular among his peers.
His grades are middling, at best.

In fact, the only thing he’s very good at is idling.

Out of all the 12-year-olds he knows, he’s memorized the most nursery rhymes, childhood superstitions, and fairy tales.
‘Til now, that skill has never won him favor in life.

But when a mysterious, fairy-like stranger appears, he finally sees a chance to make good on all his latent talents.

Her name is Vera.
She offers a gift: sugar cubes of a magical variety.
Vera promises that if the citizens of Matteo’s hometown eat them, all evil and malfeasance will be gone for good.

But are her intentions for the city good or evil?
And even if he did know, can a little boy convince his town of the truth?


To jumpstart my foray into the world of prose, I’ve decided to give out free electronic versions of this first book to anyone willing to keep up with my journey as an author. All you have to do is tell me where to send it! Click this link to check it out. I appreciate your support!

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I thought it’d be prudent to give you a quick update on my writing life. (By the way, if you know where the title of this post is from, we could be friends.)

I’ve had a couple of people reach out to me and ask why the frequency of my posts has diminished in the past year. A few have also asked why I don’t post as many poems as I used to. I appreciate the concern! In truth, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from poetry. I’ve still written three or four poems in the past year, but that’s about it.

But why? What gives?

I’ve actually spent the last half of 2020 and the bulk of 2021 honing my skills as a prose writer. I’ve written five different novels, and published them under a pen-name. This has afforded me the opportunity to learn a bit about the craft of fiction-writing, and it’s also given me the chance to learn more about the self-publishing game.

So, why the pen name?

Well, the reason is two-fold.

First, I need that professional distance in order to avoid psyching myself out. Having my name attached to any piece of writing is a little daunting; all the more when it comes to a medium that’s completely foreign to me. By allowing myself to write under a pen-name, I can stave off “impostor syndrome,” just a bit. It helps me to keep my nose to the grindstone and focus on the work.


Secondly, I have to admit, I’m not a novelist. These first five novels I wrote weren’t all that good. I’ve had modest success in terms of sales (just a hair under 200 copies sold, total…all to perfect strangers,) but nothing phenomenal. The reviews have been kind, averaging about 4.5 out of 5 stars. But still, I’m a long way from where I want to be.

During this time, I’ve also read 12 books on the craft and business of fiction writing, and I feel confident that I’ve improved with every new manuscript. I’ve taken a few online courses to get the hang of it all. I’m getting there.

What’s next?

Well, I’m going to continue with this blog, for starters. I’m also going to self-publish a few novels in 2022, and not under a pseudonym. I’ll post on this website once they’re live. I finally feel confident enough in the product to attach my name to it. These books might not be NY Times bestsellers, but I can honestly say they’re the best work I can put forth, right now. I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to build on what I’ve learned and improve at writing prose with each new piece of writing.

Oh, and I’ll definitely get back to writing some poetry, soon. 

Bez & Co- October 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Book Recommendation-
Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite • Daniel R. Jones

Fiction-
The Bullet Maker • Matt Hollingsworth

Poetry
Another Expedition • Debasish Mishra

Visual Art-
Equity’s Decline • Kay Em Ellis


Book Recommendation: Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite

Judging based on our shared interests, I suppose it was only a matter of time that I found Malcolm Guite. He seems preoccupied with the Numinous. He’s interested in the writings of literary giants such as G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Seamus Heaney. Oh, and he’s really into Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

In short, right up my alley.

In this book, Malcolm Guite takes a look at the intersection of the artist’s imagination and Christendom. Guite himself is a particularly interesting character. He’s a poet, song-writer, and Anglican priest. He holds a PhD from Durham University. So, it’s not surprising that Lifting the Veil scans in a pretty academic tone. Even still, though, his profound and spiritual message is never overpowered by his eloquent words.

The book serves as both an exploration of Christian Art through the ages, as well as a clarion call for creative followers of Christ to “lift the veil” on their own lives, in order to notice the ways that the Lord works in and through the imagination. 

One truth that stood out to me from this book involves the difference between “apprehending” and “comprehending” language. 

On page 27, he writes:

In the gift of faith, and in Christ himself, we glimpse more than we can yet understand, our imagination apprehends more than our reason comprehends. This is not to say that the Gospel is in any way “imaginary” in the dismissive sense of “unreal” or “untrue.” On the contrary it is so real and so true that we need every faculty of mind and body, including imagination, to apprehend it.

Throughout the book, Guite draws from his deep understanding of poetry and the written word to get to the heart of his thesis. The author is clearly well-versed and at home with poetic devices, and his ability to elucidate the complexities of language in well-known pieces of literature is eye-opening. 

At the risk of sounding cheesy, he really “lifted the veil” on several occasions for me. I was able to see connections that I hadn’t previously noticed, both in Scripture and in poetry. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you pick it up. I hope and pray that reading it will be as serendipitous and as joy-filled for you as it was for me.

-Daniel R. Jones


The Bullet Maker

Peter was seventeen when he first saw the names.

Perhaps they’d always been there and he’d never noticed. Thinking back, he couldn’t remember ever looking closely at a bullet before going to work in the factory.

He thought it was a joke at first. A bullet with your name on it, like the old phrase. But he soon realized that no one else could see them. It was like a superpower, and Peter felt sure that if he’d been clever, he could have thought of a way to use it for the good of the Empire.

But the truth, Peter knew, was that he wasn’t particularly clever, nor strong, nor special in any way other than that he saw the names. He hadn’t even made the draft, though almost all males were required to spend at least a couple years in the military. Rather he was told he could better serve the Empire at home. In other words, the Emperor didn’t need a 50 kg asthmatic in his army.

So here he was, now twenty-one, earning a meager living for his family, pulling levers to operate the press that made bullets. And as he examined them, looking for faults, he would see the names of the people those bullets would kill.

He was surprised, at first, how few bullets actually had names. Fewer than one in a hundred. The rest, he guessed, would miss, finding their final resting places in muddy battlefields, under rubble, beneath sand dunes, or in the trunks of scorched trees. (He could never keep the locations straight for the seemingly endless conflicts the Empire fought.)

Often the names would be foreign, but sometimes he would see Imperial names—Jonathan, Stephen, George. He guessed that these were casualties of friendly fire, and as he examined them, he would cause intentional damage so the bullet wouldn’t fire. The name would disappear, and Peter would send it on its way. Then Peter would smile, happy to have saved a life.

He considered for a while disabling all the bullets with people’s names on them, saving many more lives, but he didn’t do it. Such an act would be treason, and it wasn’t his place to determine which wars and killings were just. Besides, if he stopped an Imperial soldier from killing an enemy, that enemy might instead kill the Imperial soldier. Then Peter would be responsible for the death of one of his countrymen, and he’d been taught that there was no greater crime.

Peter completed his ten-hour shift. It was a payday, and he walked home with the satisfying clink of coins in his wallet. Walking back, he routed himself to avoid the tent cities. His family wasn’t rich by any means, but he felt guilty when he saw the truly poor.

He lived with his parents in a one-story cottage on the outskirts of the city. He’d been engaged until six months ago, and his fiancé, Jennifer, was planning on moving in with him after their wedding. They couldn’t afford their own home on his meager salary and would have had to live together with his parents. 

He’d secretly felt like he didn’t deserve Jennifer. He hadn’t confessed these fears to her, but she must have guessed them, for she would always tell him how much she loved him and how it didn’t matter if they lived in one of the tent cities—she just wanted to be together. She’d said that right until she’d met some rich war hero and fallen in love with him. She’d broken their engagement in a 30-minute conversation, and he hadn’t seen her since, although he hadn’t actually tried to contact her.

He told himself that he was happy for her. That she deserved someone like the war hero. 

He told himself that.

Peter’s parents were happy to see him as always. Their city had fallen on hard times recently, and all three of them worked long hours to afford rent on their cottage. It would have been easier if Jennifer was there. A fourth income would have gone a long way, and unlike them, she had some university education which qualified her for more prestigious jobs.

Peter’s parents were old now, long past when they should have retired, but they still managed to put on a smile when he came home. And they would dine together, grateful for their modest meal. Then, after eating, they would gather by the hearth, basking in the warmth.

As he sat in his room that night, he grabbed a book off his nightstand. It was Jennifer’s. A war novel that she’d loaned him that he’d forgotten to give back. He liked to hold it sometimes, ruffling through the pages. 

Sometimes, Peter wished he could see his own future the way he saw the future of those bullets. Other times, he was glad he couldn’t, because what if his future was sitting at that machine, pulling lever after lever until he died. How would he feel about that?

#

The next day, Peter returned to the factory, pulling levers and examining bullets. He’d seen quite a few today with names—all foreign—and he was happy that the Empire’s armies were winning. And then he saw something that gave him pause. He lifted the bullet from the conveyor belt, reading it a second, third, and fourth time, though he was certain he’d read it correctly the first.

On the bullet was the name of the soldier that Jennifer had left him for.

Immediately, all the forgiveness he’d thought he had for them was gone, and he found himself, almost without thinking, placing the bullet back on the belt. 

But no, he couldn’t do that, could he? Killing a fellow countryman was a crime. The greatest crime.

But was Peter really killing him? The soldier would be a victim of friendly fire a thousand miles away. No one would even know about this moment. No one would know what he’d done.

Maybe Jennifer would even come back to him. He imagined seeing her at his doorstep, begging forgiveness for having left. He felt tainted.

He couldn’t believe he was considering this. He had thought himself a good person, and he wondered if the guilt would be unbearable. If Peter killed Jennifer’s soldier, maybe he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

But somehow, he knew he’d be able to. At least, he thought he knew.

But he pictured Jennifer sobbing after hearing the news. Pictured her dressed in black, crying over a casket. And that was something he couldn’t let happen. Before he could think about it further, he damaged the bullet. A dud. The name disappeared and Peter smiled.

Another life saved.

And suddenly, Peter was overwhelmed by the vastness of the world. How many names had he seen on those bullets? How many people with lives just as rich and complex as his own? And here he was in his tiny corner of the universe. This small sliver of creation. And he knew in that moment, that he wanted to make it the best sliver it could be.

Matt Hollingsworth


Matt Hollingsworth is a Christian and a freelance writer/editor from Knoxville, TN. His blog is available at https://jmhollingsworthblog.wordpress.com/


Another Expedition

Rowing past the tides of blinding white
and Leviathan-like large obstacles,
I move on quietly like a breath of air:
from a coherent beginning at the shore
to a smoky panorama of indecision.

Even with the wealth of my skills
and supreme foresight, a gift of Christ,
there comes a time when I wonder,
Will I be home? Or am I lost in 
the sea? Will I reach the end?

Life is threatened yet I hold on
and believe in the strength of the oar—
too small a device for too huge a task—
like Hemingway’s poor Santiago.
But faith buoys me and I gently pass.

Tomorrow, somebody else
would be rowing here,
in this very boat, in this very place,
with the same oar against the same white foam
while I would be off somewhere
rowing past the tides of another sea.

Debasish Mishra


Debasish Mishra, a native of Bhawanipatna, Odisha, India, is the recipient of The Bharat Award for Literature in 2019 and The Reuel International Best Upcoming Poet Prize in 2017. His recent poems have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Penumbra, trampset, Star*Line, Enchanted Conversation, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and elsewhere. His poems are also forthcoming in The Headlight Review and Quadrant. A former banker with United Bank of India, he is presently engaged as a Senior Research Fellow at National Institute of Science Education and Research, HBNI, Bhubaneswar, India.


“Equity’s Decline” by Kay Em Ellis

When Kay’s not writing, you might find her traveling the world. She especially loves hitchhiking through Transylvania, playing guitar outside Notre Dame in Paris, and dropping notes and poems along the riva in Hvar Town. Don’t ask her to take another bumpy, dusty bus ride through the Bolivian desert (she’s on strike), but she’ll be happy to talk to you about her favorite country in the world (Romania). Her devotions have been published by Christian Devotions Ministries, and a list of her writing awards can be found at her website: www.backpackwithkay.com

Check out this short story contest!

Hey there,

I just wanted to take a moment to plug a short story contest being run over by Dan Hankner at Story Unlikely. Dan is a great writer whose work was featured in our July issue. His website at Story Unlikely features thoughtful, humorous, and often profound pieces with an aim toward revitalizing the craft of storytelling.

The contest is offering a $500 prize, as well as publication in the monthly mailer they send out. Honorable mentions receive $25, as well, and their stories will also be published in the monthly mailer. Best of all, Story Unlikely isn’t charging any entry fee for this contest!

Full submission guidelines and contest information can be found here. I’m unaffiliated with Story Unlikely, but I sincerely believe that readers of Bez & Co and readers of Story Unlikely have a lot in common. Feel free to check the contest out and submit an entry! I know that I plan to do so.

-Daniel

Open Call for Submissions! Summer 2021 Issue

Good evening,

This quarter is already off to a better start than last! I’ve received a few very high quality entries for our summer issue, which I’m excited to share with you!

I’d also like to remind everyone else that I’m currently accepting submissions for our Summer 2021 issue! I’m looking for original photography, artwork, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyric essays! If you have interest, please check out the Submission Guidelines here.

Each submission that is accepted for publication will be paid at the rate of $5 USD. Payment is upon publication. Bez & Co prefers to use PayPal to pay its contributors. If you need alternative accommodations, please let me know upon acceptance of publication, and I will work to find a solution.

I can’t wait to see the entries for the third issue!

-DRJ

Talking Shop: Rabbit Trails

Recently, while drafting up a novel, I had to outline a scene that contained a smorgasbord of syrups. I didn’t have an IHOP within stone’s throw of my writing desk, so I fired up Google. Of course, within minutes, I was knee deep in search results, reading about the savory taste of birch syrup and the methods of creating a simple syrup from honey and water.

Your friendly-neighborhood-writing-professor just recoiled in horror. Conventional wisdom has always cautioned against such distractions while writing.

Doubtless, you’ve heard these warnings:

“The second you open an internet browser, you’ll break your flow state!”
“Multitasking in that way will wreak havoc on your writing.”
“Before you sit down to write, take a hammer to your internet router, cut your telephone lines, and board up your windows!”

This is one area where I break with tradition. That strange, ancillary effect writing has—forcing us to dive into unknown subjects—is a reason in itself to write. I’ve found curiosity begets more curiosity. The rabbit-holes I find myself wandering down are a boon for the creative process. At times, what started as the first draft of a story has caused me to learn more about architecture, vocations, nomenclature associated with various industries, and geography. In moments such as these, writing a novel feels as instructive and educational as my experience in college as a journalist.

So, my advice is simple: feel free to carve out some time to write without interruption. But also schedule some time with a little more leeway. Allow your brain a little more leash every now and again, and it just might do wonders for your creative process.