Bud Smith 

I fell into some bad luck, so I went to see the black magic priestess on Jackson street.

 She charges $5 and has a storefront across from the hat shop.

 Her store is packed with faux fog, and an artificial birch tree forest. Just follow the glowing lantern to the back. Ignore the ominous recording of crows cawing. Like all things with being alive, is all a little too much.

Funny though, I remember when the place was the Sunny Cup tire shop. Just one set of defective tires was all it took. After it was a travel agency. Wanna go to monsoon rainforests, or the edge of an endless desert? Speak to the man in the suit and the tie.

Any dummy can be in charge of their own ceaselessly pleasurable destiny, now.

I entered the priestess’ tent. Fragment smoke. She wears low cut blouses, covered in blood-soaked cosmetic jewelry. There’s special light that makes her teeth shine like the moon. Maybe mine do too.  

I was given a baby dragon skull to hold, and I did that, pretending I didn't know it's a German shepherd skull. You know me, I get high with the veterinarian sometimes. I know things about the animal kingdom.

 She asked me what my matter was, and I tucked $7 into her bra and told her, I’ve written some stories but I don’t know if they are any good. Can she consult the runes or the bones or whatever. Could she tell me their quality?

 Well what are the stories? she said in a tired wheeze.

 Well, I said, I wrote one story about a man who finds a severed head in the parking lot of where he works. It's a really good looking head, long-locked and high cheek bones, so attractive in fact that he takes the head home and tries to have a three-way with the severed head and his wife. The wife is really upset. She always hoped her body was enough sexually for her husband, but she always suspected her body wasn't enough. The story ends with the husband having sex alone with the severed head, and the wife answering an ad on a dating site. The twist is the ad has been sent by the undead body of the severed head, which is still sentient and just like the woman, still looking for love.

The priestess’ eyes rolled to the back of her head so only the whites showed.

 I continued with my stories, I said, I wrote another story, similar, about a different woman who finds the same severed head in the cantaloupe pile at the grocery store. The supermarket on Meekin Ave. actually. She too takes the severed home and suggests a three way with the severed head and her own wife, but the woman's wife, midway through the act, realizes that the severed head is not a woman, rather, a man. She'd always suspected her wife was attracted to men. After the intercourse, things change in the relationship, some things for the better, some things for the worse. That's life. That story has no twist, because ya know, that's life. People just grow apart. But instead of letting the head end their relationship, the women bring it back to the supermarket, where it stays for two weeks, slowly rotting until it's thrown out with all the other wasted cantaloupes. In an early draft I made the bold claim that a severed head has no gender, has fluid sexuality, etc. But my writing group kicked me out over that. And they also said it was insensitive of me to insinuate that a polyamorous relationship is not a sustainable one. I said, what the fuck, it’s a severed head.

 I wrote another story told from the point of view of a severed head that won a MacArthur genius award, but you never get to learn why the head won the MacArthur Award because, that's such a stupid award, and I'm not jealous at all about it. The story is told in the second person. You're the narrator. You're the severed head, at the end of the story. But in the beginning you're a regular so-called genius with a full and useful body that's so good, you're often approached on street corners and propositioned lewdly. You're home one day and open the refrigerator and realize the hot dogs you loved more than anything else in this God forsaken world, are gone. So you go to the store and buy other hot dogs but when you eat them they aren't as good. You realize everything gets worse everyday you are alive. You're such a sensitive baby that you cut your head off with a circular saw and then that story ends with a bunch of different couples taking turns having an orgasm with your beautifully dead perfectly androgynous head.

 The black magic priestess shook her head, and her beaded hair sounded like glass rain. She said in a booming voice that shook the tent, these are not good stories! No one would read these stories. Why would you write them?

She was waiting for an answer but I didn’t have one.

She said, you need to write stories with a beginning a middle and an end. A three act arc, where the character learns a valuable lesson and undergoes some change. Why not try your hand at a Cinderella story, where the human spirit overcomes? Instead you're just writing about getting jollies off with corpses, that will get you no where and the reader will be mad at you.

 I'll listen to her, because just over her shoulder is a framed rejection notice from the New Yorker Magazine. The slip is hand written, and is full of praise for her writing.

In another life, but this life too, she was a different person. And then, I started to wonder what had happened to everyone I ever knew.

It seems that sometimes, people are just walking talking lightning bolts that strike the ground around us and make our hair stand up for a little while. But then they are gone, off to nowhere, off to that place just beyond our range of knowledge. I wanted to touch the priestess’ cheek and tell her that she would not survive here in this strip mall, but she must have known that anyway. Those who divine the future for just five bucks, are most doomed of all to eat suffering for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, maybe even a cursed ice cream sundae before bed.  

The buzzer buzzed and that meant my private conference was up and she held her hands out and made me give back the baby dragon skull that I was pretending wasn't a German shepherd skull.

 I gave her the skull and there was an awkward moment where she inferred I could purchase oral sex in the tent for $35. I told her that before I was over the hill,  people used to pay me $50 to put my penis in their mouth. She shook my hand. Said, Congratulations.

 I left the tent. As I made my way through the artificial fog and the artificial forest, I could see cars driving slow down Jackson Street. Our town gets smaller every year and I knew all the cars.

I crouched in the fog and sat there like a frog letting the fog wrap around me. I didn’t want to exist the way I was. Believe me brother, I’d rather be a freelance animal. Wild. There is no animal more freelance than a slick frog. I’d rather have no memory, no art, no doubt.

Instead, I have to do all these stupid human things with all these stupid human beings. Nothing wants to swoop out of the sky and crack my face apart to slurp my brains out, but I think I’d rather have that happen to me. Put it to you this way, if I could find a hawk big enough to eat me, I’d commit suicide by hawk.   

 And there it was. I’d just seen my ex pull into the lot of the hat shop and I didn't want to be seen leaving the black magic priestess' store because my ex would either think I was fucking the priestess or I was cuckoo for going there for advice. I laughed. My ex was still driving around on those Sunny Cup tires. They’d explode sometime on the highway.

 The fog swirled around me. I could hear the priestess practicing some new incantation. Then her cellphone rang, the ringtone was What A Beautiful World. She let it go, when the shop got quiet again she carried on again.

 I waited until my ex walked out of the hat shop, appearing with a new hat sitting right there on that big fat noggin. I watched the car roll away, become invisible again, sucked back into the ugly past where I willingly hid it too.

And then I opened the door so the jangle bell made its cling clang music and I walked down bright and sunny Jackson Street to the gay bar where I had my notebook of stories hidden between the waterlogged weight lifting encyclopedias on the Formica bookcase. I didn't want anyone at the lumberyard to know I was a writer and no one else working at the lumberyard would ever dream dream dream of going into that gay bar.

 As I cut through the cemetery, leaping over a tombstone, I thought about something else the black magic priestess had said. She’d asked me what the moral of my stories were.

 I’d said, actually each story has the same moral. You never have sex with a person youor you have sex with the idea of a person.

 It was then that her eyes rolled back to normal, the pupils there again, focused on foolish ol’ me. One eye was blue, the other gray.

Ahhhh, she’d said, here’s how you fix everything—get rid of your morals.

Bud Smith is the author of Dust Bunny City, Calm Face, and F250 among others. Twitter: @bud_smith

Illustration by Guy Field!