The Iron Garden

A Joseph Castagno short story…

The motorbike vibrated beneath them as Tra picked his way around the larger cracks in the asphalt and the occasional decaying remains of a wayward tree limb, Erie clung to him she wasn’t frightened so much as reassured by her brother’s touch. They didn’t speak, the respirators making it impossible to be heard and although nothing was alive the silence felt oppressive. 

The sun glares down with a merciless stare, the heat rippling in waves across the dusty ground baking the remains of the asphalt ribbon stretching to the horizon. The gullies and cricks have long since given up leaving a patchwork of cracked and parched mud. This area once Western Illinois and neighboring Iowa – now part of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Middle States – mostly just referred to as the Middle States – had been at drought status for more than a century. The hulking figures of long dead giant oaks line the road standing as silent sentinels to the surrounding wasteland, their roots searching deep and far straining to extract the long extinct vestiges of life’s elixir. A pointless exercise only death roams amongst them biding its time. 

It wasn’t so much that this area was forbidden, there just wasn’t any reason to come here, most of the remaining population was trying to survive on the receding shores of the great lakes – a daily struggle for food and water consumed most everyone. The series of increasingly deadly viruses and the predicted but still unanticipated rapid acceleration of global warming in the first half of the 21st century had finally allowed the radical progressive youth movement to wrest control of local and state governments. The dismantling of the Federal system had followed shortly after. That triumph – the banners, speeches, celebrations and euphoria of presumed equality was short lived and now a distant memory. That isn’t to say the old guard could have done better, but it hadn’t taken long for Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” syndrome to kick in; but even that lawlessness hadn’t lasted – squalor, disease, and hunger are the true lords of equality. 

Tra pulls the bike into the shadow of a large oak trunk, the top had been sheared off some fifty feet up, standing he pulls a small bottle from the saddle bag handing it to Erie before taking a small sip for himself. Gently replacing it he spreads the weathered parchment on the ground, “we’re close…” he murmurs mostly to himself. 

“How do you know,” she asks with wonder. 

He smiles gently, “just a feeling, just a feeling,” he says standing and looking out at the desolate landscape, “it has to be here… great grandfather said it was.” Turning back to her, “come let’s go it should be a short walk that way,” he says pointing. 

Erie hesitates for a moment before taking his hand, “lead on brother!” she exclaims with more bravado then she feels. 

Time was no longer measured in seconds, minutes, and hours, but by the cycles of the sun and moon, and how many meals in between – but if a timepiece had existed it would have ticked off about twenty minutes. The fine dust eddies like ripples on a pond slowly refilling their footprints; Tra stops and looks back toward the bike and the silent oak hulks now small in the distance, he kicks at the dust, “it should be here…” he says forlornly. 

Erie pulls on his hand, “can we go Tra, I don’t like it out here…” 

Searching the horizon, he kicks the ground again, “Damn!” he exclaims hopping around on one foot. 

He drops to his knees and starts frantically brushing the fine dust aside, “what is it Tra what did you find?” She asks starting to help him. The plaque is bigger than Erie, the raised letters still clearly visible, “what does it say,” she asks – reading wasn’t a survival skill and she had never learned the letters. 

Tra runs his fingers over the letters murmuring to himself, testing the sounds out in is head before softly reading the inscription, “It says Christopher Columbus – Discoverer of America 1,4,9,2…”

Erie peers over his shoulder, “is that it?” 

He reverently touches the letters again and, in a whisper, “a great new miracle occurred upon the earth… a new continent was discovered…” he pauses for a moment looking around carefully, “a new civilization was born…  a new nation was to rise.”

“But what does that mean Tra?”

“Let me read the end,” he says not answering her question, “it was called America… It was to become the birthplace of democracy… it was God’s country…” Tra stands up brushing the fine silt off his knees. “You can never tell anyone about this, understand?” he says grabbing her shoulders. 

“You’re scaring me Tra, why can’t we tell anyone? We found it just like great grandfather said we would.”

“This is from the old times E, back when great grandfather was a boy, these are the ‘Forbidden’.”

She clings to his side; every child knew the story of the ‘Forbidden’ the evil ones that caused the revolution and were responsible for the struggle life was now. “Do you think they are all here Tra?”

He looks around in wonder, “I bet they are… let’s see if we can find another!” 

The sun is low in the sky and glints off the edges of two dozen unearthed plaques and statues – Tra and E are covered in a sheen of fine dust, “I like his hat…” E says looking around, “what was his name?” 

“Robert E. Lee,” Tra smiles, “and the funny looking one over there is “Benjamin Franklin, and this one with the feathers is Geronimo…” Standing up he scans the horizon, “We need to get back E, don’t want to be out after dark.” 

“Tra I don’t think they were evil, do you?”

He hesitates before answering, “no probably not, great grandfather always said they were just people like everyone else…”

“Can we come back?” 

“Sure… but don’t tell anyone… our secret okay?”

The End…

The cryo-pods gave off a barely perceptible hum their soft blue light not bright enough to cast any shadows – “what will it be like,” Maggie whispers a serene smile tugs at the corners of her mouth as the sedative worms its way through her system.


“Paradise honey, it will be paradise…” he replies hoping she doesn’t sense the underlying melancholy he is unable mask as he bends to give her a last kiss, “love you honey bunny…”


He had charmed her with stories of a distant future, a future in which the earth had been healed and swept clean of the pestilence mankind had become. She had believed it of course, she believed everything he told her and he hadn’t been able to come up with a good reason to tell her the truth. There wasn’t going to be any magical renewal, no waking up to huge forests and clear springs untouched by man for hundreds of years – the stories of a fantasy future were just that.


He sits on the edge of his pod, trying to squash a survival instinct he didn’t know existed till this moment, it’s little late he thinks grimly finally settling in shifting to get comfortable, as if that mattered at all, wishing he had taken the sedative. He had decided against it though, wanting to be clearheaded when it was time to activate the master switch that would slide the clear glass covers over them and initiate the cryogenic process, he still hadn’t managed to push the green button though as he studies the ceiling.

Three years earlier the Icarus Initiative had sent thousands of unmanned probes to the sun ostensibly to study the unexplained increase in solar energy and flares that were bombarding the earth accelerating the depletion of the ozone layer and beginning to overwhelm the earth’s protective magnetic fields. It had been a lie of course, another impotent demonstration of man’s inability to solve a problem that had been staring humanity in the face for a hundred years. By the time science had overwhelmed nationalistic greed it was too late and it turned out science didn’t have any answers anyway.


Cryo-pods had been around for almost twenty years, medicine’s answer to “we don’t know how to cure that yet…” They had watched the late-night infomercials together, Maggie asking if he thought maybe they should get one, he had nodded stoically not having the words to explain the pointlessness of cryogenics in the face of melting polar ice caps and the continuous EMP waves that were already starting to take the earth’s power grid offline. At least it would be peaceful he had tried to convince himself, but it had been her childish smile and the warm squeeze of her hand that toppled his indecision. He simply couldn’t bear to watch her suffer as she tried to process the indescribable horror hurtling toward them, so he had smiled and purchased two top-of-the-line pods.


The glass silently glides closed sealing the pod before he realizes he has pressed the green button; there’s a moment of panic and he can feel the acid in his stomach rising. The liquid nitrogen erases any further flicker of consciousness as he and Maggie peacefully await the end…

That One Day…

The babies were finally sleeping having drifted off somewhere near the border, they had all cried together – but the little ones had succumbed to the steady thrum of highway driving and Kate’s tears had finally dried. She could still feel the clench of her heart, the heat behind her eyes and the salty residue on her lips – she tried to stifle the occasional snuffle so as not to wake Jack Jr and his sister Sally. 

She turns the Christian station, she wasn’t feeling very Christian though; she had been trying to be a good wife, following the rules and doing all the things a church wife was expected to do, but at some point, you had to wonder who had really made all these rules? They didn’t seem to serve Jesus’ purposes, but husbands like her Jack sure seemed to be enjoying things. She bites her lip holding her tears at bay – and no doubt a big “I told you so…” was coming from her father; but she didn’t have anywhere else to turn.

The memories cascade and there’s no holding back the tears, everything had seemed so perfect a loving Christian man, the wedding of her dreams, the perfect little home… when she had found out she was pregnant she had cried for three days. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she wasn’t ready; Jack had been so excited about being a dad. Then two years later the little boy he had really wanted. All of a sudden, she was trying to be a good wife, raise two babies on her own and hold down a full-time job; it wasn’t fair and it was too much. She had prayed, cried, called her mother twice a day and even tried talking to Jack; but here she was driving a hastily packed car down the interstate forcing herself to stay strong and not turn around. 

Of course, it hadn’t been just one thing, it never was, she had spent hours Sunday cleaning the house and preparing meals for Jack to take for lunch that week, by evening she had been exhausted hoping for a little attention or at least a hand giving the kids a bath and getting them in the bed. Why that night should be any different than most every other weekend she couldn’t really say, wishful thinking maybe. 

It had been the FaceBook post that had been the last straw, “out to lunch with my homies” had been the caption – why had she bothered? Opening the fridge, she pulls out a yogurt for the kids and sees the carefully prepared lunch – her post it note with “Love you honey” still attached. It had taken forty minutes to pack a suitcase and the kids into the SUV – she had left his lunch on the counter, maybe he would figure it out. 

It was four hours and a little more than two hundred miles before her phone finally rings. She doesn’t want to answer it, doesn’t want to talk to him – what’s left to say after all? On the seventh ring she can’t take it any longer and pushes the button. “Hey honey go ahead and eat dinner I’m working late okay?” She doesn’t know what to say, no how was your day, or how are the kids, or even a simple love you baby. None of that comes out though all she says is OK as she hangs up and the tears start again…

Authors note: 

This isn’t a condemnation of Christianity or Christian men, but it is a commentary on marginalizing people – especially the people that love you and make a real effort every day on your behalf – whether you acknowledge it or not. It is a statement on abuse – you don’t have to hit someone to harm them… and maybe the most important question: when is enough, enough? The preservation of one’s self-worth requires taking action on your own behalf – even if it means packing the babies up and heading down the interstate – physically or metaphorically… 

So, don’t be an asshole and hurt the ones that love you the most… 

Two Cases of Jam

A somewhat true story lightly based on actual events…

The whole thing was fucked up Ashleigh thought to herself, the sulphurous breeze rushing through the Ford’s windows whipped her long brown hair haphazardly across her bronze shoulders, she ignored it lost in the hum of the tires and the static of an AM country station out of Jessup. It had been almost two weeks since she had been headed to the Lil Cricket for a pack of Marlboros – she had gotten sick – twice – in the stained bowl tucked in the back of the store between the stacks of Styrofoam cups and cases of Mountain Dew – a pink plus sign later she had run not knowing where she was headed or even why. Now two hours from the Florida border with less than twelve dollars in her pocket she still wasn’t ready to accept that all of this was real, but home was still home.

They say fate will find you where you are, and you can’t hide from your destiny; but she would be damned if she wasn’t going to try. She hadn’t wanted any of this, hell you couldn’t be more careful than she had been. Two more positives in a CVS bathroom had confirmed that God must have some kinda fucked up sense of humor – it had only been one time and not much at that she thought with a sad smile, hell they weren’t even really together. Should have learned my lesson with the last asshole, she thinks to herself picking up 17 South and heading toward the Georgia border. She didn’t have a destination, but she couldn’t face any of them and the only thing she loved in Florida, her dog Charlie, had died in an accident so she sure as hell wasn’t going home. It just wasn’t fair she had dreams, plans, places she wanted to see this wasn’t supposed to happen, not now… not ever she cries as the hot breeze sweeping off the Carolina low country dries her tears and the miles sweep by.

The roadside sign promised home-made baked goods, local vegetables, and boiled peanuts; it wasn’t much more than a lean-to-shack a few feet off the road – grass growing through the gravel pull off betrayed the lack of traffic. She can hear the tick and ping of the engine cooling as she heads inside in search of something cold to drink. Eyes adjusting to the dim light she can barely make out the ancient black woman in the corner, “Come in child all is well…” She doesn’t say anything else and Ashleigh isn’t sure if she had even heard her right, and she was pretty damn sure all wasn’t well and wasn’t going to be anytime soon. Forty minutes later and a few miles down the road with two bottles of water and three jars of homemade elderberry jam she still wasn’t sure it had been real but the gentle clink of the jars in the seat next to her were reassuring in a strange way.

She ate shrimp in a parking lot in Statesboro wishing the a/c worked her feet folded under her a sweet tea sweating in the cup holder. Taylor county had peach trees ripening in the afternoon sun as far as she could see – pulled off on the shoulder she wandered down the rows picking a few of the low hanging fruit listening to the silence around her. A couple miles further on at the farm stand she added two jars of fresh peach jam to her collection. A day later she had hiked up the base of the Toccoa falls listening to the roar of water drowning out the noise in her head, standing in the mist the drops of water shining like diamonds in her hair as the sun set behind her she had cried again. On her way back to the car she had wandered through the college – a life she had thought about before life had happened.

She spent two days in Helen, a Bavarian style little town nestled in the North Georgia mountains, eating brats and pretzels – dancing with the old men in their lederhosen she was almost able to forget, but she had finally headed West with three jars of apple butter added to her growing collection. She spent a night camped out at one of the big lakes along the North Carolina border listening to the night birds and an orchestra of frogs singing her to sleep, Waffle House for breakfast and she had headed Southwest towards Alabama stopping in Rome debating whether to continue further West. As it happened she had accumulated another two jars each of strawberry and cherry jelly along the way – she was up to eleven jars now.

It was in a small diner outside Bowden Corners when she started to question herself, it had been nine days since she had left and although she hadn’t reconciled this whole having a kid thing yet, she also knew this odyssey wasn’t going to last forever. Climbing behind the wheel she heads East her jars clinking in floorboard next to her, she had moved them into a box two days earlier. The pecan orchards flash by, the long rows of tall stately trees quiet sentinels to her inner struggle. The orchards give way to the open fields of the few remaining cotton fields sprinkled throughout the red dirt, the puffy boles ripening in the late summer sun a testament to simpler yet harsher times. She can smell the lowlands and the paper mills as she approaches the coast and the way home.

She carries life with her and with a wan smile she realizes her life is on a different trajectory, one she couldn’t have imagined and had never wished for but that had found her nonetheless. There were conversations to be had, plans to be made, and a life to figure out. The road stretches out before her leading her home, forward, and into a future unplanned but still hers to define… and she has jelly lots and lots of jelly.

Maxton Mona Lisa

She was from Maxton or thereabouts anyway, not that it much mattered the names were more a dot on the map then a place to be from. It was hot that day, much like every other day once the spring broke and the heat settled in for a long Carolina summer, swarms of gnats, afternoon thunderstorms, and the fine dust that seemed to inhabit every nook and cranny. There would be things to harvest toward the end of it in the coolness of fall, cotton to pick, ‘bacci to lay out in the long drying barns, and the wagons full of deep red melons with their jet-black seeds – perfect for spittin’. But none of that had come to pass yet, it was just another day in an endless parade of days maybe leadin’ to something – maybe not.

He had seemed so handsome and sophisticated, the car was new, didn’t have no dents or nothin’ not like the ones  Pa was always workin’ on in the back, no this was a big city car and he was a big city man with his polished shoes, and his big city hat. He took pictures of Ma and the little ones sittin’ on the porch, Ma didn’t smile of course, wasn’t nothin’ to smile ‘bout anyway.

She had leaned up against the doorway, as much to hide the empty room behind her as to seem disinterested… she would soon be thirteen after all – well past the time of little girl dreams – lookin’ womanhood right in the eye, she already knew things she shouldn’t, but that’s how it was – wasn’t somethin’ to complain ‘bout. She wants to hide the pin holdin’ her dress closed, didn’t make sense Ma not sewin’ a proper button on it, and she’d tried to brush the dust off her shoes rubbin’ em on the back of her calves but wasn’t no polish made was gonna make em shine again. She doesn’t think about the melancholy smile, just is – another part of being here and gettin’ by.

He waves as he’s leavin’ the little ones trail down the drive half hidden by the cloud of dust ‘fore they come back up and sit some again. She turns to go back inside, but Ma stops her, “they’re be compny tonight so don’t be gettin’ no ideas ya hear.” It don’t mean nothin’ Pa always got somebody over drinkin’ and carryin’ on she’ll keep the little uns quiet and hope no one takes a shine to her… that sure was a nice car though…

*Authors Note:

So about this… there is a novel written by Reynolds Price – “A Long and Happy Life” published in 1962 – it was and is celebrated as the novel that launched Price’s career. Price has said that the picture that is now the cover of his book hung above his desk for many years and inspired him… that picture is my dear mother-in-law Ann…

I don’t know the details of that picture or how it came to be, but I do know that Price often said she had a “Mona Lisa” smile… I imagine that hot summer day so long ago may have gone something like this…

In your honor Ann… I humbly submit – “Maxton Mona Lisa”

JC

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Kandi Kane

– A Christmas Story –

The flamingo pink had faded to a shade closer to Pepto and the stucco was cracking and chipping in a dozen places, it didn’t matter though no one frequented the Pink Pony for its curb appeal. Kandi pushes off the wall taking a final drag on the diminishing cigarette she had bummed off Nigel, the stucco leaving a dimple effect on her soft skin. Time to get back inside, Nigel didn’t care if you took a “break” but he would be looking for a cut if you were more than a few minutes. It had been a good month though – December usually was, but any month you didn’t have to spend on your knees to make rent was a good month in her book. The sad string of multi-colored lights tacked around the door and the line-up of Christmas inspired names were the only nods to the holiday. She had chosen first – Kandi Kane – cause her plain jane eastern Iowa looks and “Heidi” didn’t inspire a man to drop twenty on a lap dance.

Like most little girls she had grown up with bigger dreams than her opportunities could fulfill. It had been three years since she had left the little nothing farm town for the big city where those dreams were all going to come true. Why her mother hadn’t stopped her was still a mystery – well maybe not, her mother had a hard-enough time taking care of herself, never-mind a teenage daughter with wants no waitress’ tips were going to quench. Nigel had seen her coming a mile away, fresh off the bus, small town blues, and nothing but a decent set of tits and legs to her name – “Heidi, you know like in The Sound of Music,” she had told him. He had laughed in what had seemed like a cool British accent at the time, that was now just annoying. She had only found out months later that there wasn’t any “Heidi” in The Sound of Music.

She holds the pole and kicks up her heel before losing the red sequined bra – mustering what passes for a smile she struts over to the three drunks sitting stage left, bending over to pick the singles up she gives them a good view of her goods, hoping for another few bucks but not really caring either way. These guys are all regulars and more interested in their beer than her boobs. The place is empty by eleven and Nigel cuts them all loose early with a slap on the ass and a Merry Christmas! Wrapped in a hoodie and carrying her heels in one hand and bag in the other she catches the #3 bus home. She leans her cheek against the cool window and hums along to radio… “jingle bells, jingle bells…” – “Merry Christmas mom,” she whispers to the dark brushing a tear from her cheek.

Are we there yet?

Nancy purses her lips, deep cherry red gloss of course, as she plugs the twins Timmy and Jenny into the screen synchronizer with the new 3D multimedia interface, the new ports had hardly left any scars and the twins had healed almost immediately. The digital entertainment center with the upgraded implant adapters had been a major selling point for her and Dan when looking at a new van. Handing the seven year olds their display projectors she calls for Dan to hurry up. It takes forty-seven minutes to get to her parents and they were already eleven minutes behind schedule. If they didn’t get started she was going to miss another virtual yoga session with Nancy and Katie. She was worried Yogi Alexander was going to unplug her for good this time. She had waited months for an opening and some silly family day outing with her parents wasn’t going to cost her that spot. “Where is Dan,” she grumbles, pinging his number again! Read more ›

“The Sally Anne”

The white paint had faded to a dingy gray and was flaking off in large patches, most of the siding should have been replaced years ago, while silently flickering in the grimy window a faded neon “open” sign sputters and blinks out its forlorn message. A collage of stickers from various fishing reel and boating manufacturers peeling along the edges and washed out from long exposure to the Gulf coast sun are plastered across the front door, affixed to the top is a small brass bell intended to announce the arrival of any timid soul brave enough to venture into the shadowy interior; it hadn’t worked in years not that there had been any traffic to announce. Had you bothered to glance up you would see the slightly askew hand painted sign inviting you to enter “Big Dan’s Charters & Day Tours” the bright red letters having faded in sync with everything else and even the gaily colored baby blue boats with their painted on smiles seem melancholy. Read more ›

TJ Jackson

… The hot white light of the spots illuminates the swirls of smoke as the heat overwhelms the whir and wobble of the small metal fan bolted to the top of the scarred and battered upright piano on the left side of the small stage. Stage is probably too generous, someone long ago had built a small platform out of 4X4s and plywood that the band somehow managed to fit on.  The outside of the piano looks like it has been rescued from some local salvage yard, but inside its polished, tuned and maintained as lovingly as any concert hall Steinway, certainly not what you would expect on the “bar stage” at Danni’s Drop Inn. The name was a holdover from another time, there never had been an Inn and locals had always just called it Danni’s, never had been a Danni either for that matter, but that’s another story. Read more ›

The Diner

The Diner

The clock on the far wall ticked off the minutes slowly approaching the five o’clock hour seeming to take forever to get there, Danny wiped down the last of the stainless prep tables thinking back on the day and flexing his fingers his arthritis had been flaring up lately. This was always his favorite time the cooks had left after cleaning up their stations and mopping down the floors.  Shirley, Janet, Alice had been with him for years but even they and the other waitresses were long gone having counted up their tips and checked the following week’s schedule, not that it ever varied. None of the bustle, noise, and energy of the breakfast and lunch rush remained, just the soft whir from the walk-in coolers and the pie case kept him company. Read more ›