John Strausbaugh, Stories


Illustration by Michael Randall
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Red Zone





 Note: Red Zone was a multimedia performance produced in Baltimore and at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. 1985-7. Dolphin-Moon Records put out the soundtrack LP in 1988. I wrote the words, McGregor Boyle wrote the music, Howard Ehrenfeld did the visuals and sets, and Juliet Forrest did the choreography. The recorded voices are Mandy I. Bynum, David Cwi, and Howard Ehrenfeld as Max. Here's the text, with the soundtrack down below.





Sawtooth Buckwheat to Upswing Lunar, Okay. Update:

After Max felt the skins in the guild hall, a modest but not unfestive motorcade carried him without incident through the old quarter of the city, following the river to the royal helipad, where he missed his connection. Attaching himself to a convoy of knee-walking pilgrims making the triennial Long Genuflection to the ancient and translucent stronghold of their outrageous demiurge, he made his way downwind overland by barge to a great inland reef, where he hoped to rejoin the tour. Missed the tour by less than an hour. Three sherpas and a quantity of cheesemelt disappeared in the night. Got a favorable rate of exchange and a slight roughing up at the coin auction in the former capital. Came among the Mlolo in time to record the Lunchtime Festival of the Rock-Splitting Tree Where The Disgruntled Ancestors Hang Upside Down Breaking Wind Through Their Ears. Meteor showers for twenty minutes at dusk, followed by possible UFO sighting. Proceeded South by East-West through the Lesser Wet Desert. Lost one bearer to the drifting sickness, and two others to a dark Orwellian view of the future. Light dusting of smelt at dawn, quickly evaporated. After an excellent cold supper of flightless bird among the cliffdwellers of the misnomered pampas (note: recommend uprating to three star: end note), Max ran onto the dock just as the tour ship was steaming out of harbor…Current position: Hoping to intersect the tour route where it begins the steep descent into the Inverted Mountains, Max is just now crossing into the Red Zone. Will update soonest.

Twotone Soapdish Pastor Manners I Don't Care, Over.




Dear Mr. H:

My efforts to rejoin the tour continue to be unsuccessful. Being alone like this for so long I am beginning to get the feeling that I'm not really going anywhere. As though I am standing still and it's the scenery that's moving. Perhaps you know this feeling? As a travel agent, I mean.

I don't want to complain, and it's not as though things aren't happening to me, many wonderful adventures which I fully expect to enjoy at my leisure when I am home again. I know that I will treasure these experiences always, even though many of them seem so awful to me now, and my camera was confiscated at the border, along with the small bag in which I carried all of my souvenirs. But I guess what I am writing to ask is this: Having no one to talk to about these experiences, and facing the distinct possibility that I will come home with nothing to show that I was gone, I am beginning to wonder if I am really having these experiences at all. If not, does this qualify me for a partial refund?





Romany Two-door Woof Woof Divine, Okay. Update:

When Max woke up she was gone, along with his last clean pair of elastic-ribbed socks. Precisely at Angelus the leaves fell from all the topiary in the Forbidden Sports Arena, but nobody heard them. Current position: Pursuing a rumor that his tour group has foregone the exquisitely nuanced Finger Dancers of the twice-removed tribes to have more shopping time in the invisible markets of Port Dismal, Max is trekking diagonally through the unforgivably frigid jungles of the landlocked isles, where the natives communicate in American Sign Language taught to their forebears by an ape which escaped from the San Diego Zoo. They revere this ape as their primary god, Wisdom Grinning With Whole Head. Will continue tracking.

Monkey See, Monkey Do The Hand Jive, Over.




The Chant of the Blue Women


The sky opens its eye and stares at us…
our hearts burn and rise like the incense of
dew…our thoughts cloud…


you come as a tear wept upon
our island…
our minds gather like quicksilver in your palm…
we taste your salt…


the beach is restless
it pulls up its sheet
kicks it away…
we toss in our hammocks
we missed you before you came
we will dream of you till you're gone
for the salt of your print our seas
wait in patience…




Dear Mr. H:

I walked on the beach this morning. The tide was out. Or maybe the beach was wider. The water at any rate looked very far away. I thought that if I walked long enough I could reach it. And then, if I kept going, I would be home. But then I thought No, with my luck I'd miss my turn and go clear around and come walking up behind myself standing here looking at the water.

At the hotel they tell me there is a city out there under the waves, a city where all the drowned people from all the seven seas come this time of year to vacation by the beach. They say the drowned fan their eyelashes in lieu of gills, and speak with their hands, all except the ones who were mute in life, who suddenly find themselves struck with eloquence. Couples meet in back alleys and continue shipboard romances with existential ennui and much pouting. Of course there are many sailors, but no bars. However, there are several fine restaurants specializing in hearty, affordable lunches.

This morning I forgot the name of this place. I forgot my own name, too, but only for about ten minutes. I had to buy a newspaper to remember where I was. There was nothing in it about me, or if there was I didn't recognize myself. I scanned the obituaries, thinking I might borrow a name someone had recently discarded. The obituaries were full of the strangest and most horrifying stories. An elderly man who froze to death in a display case at the fish market, and was partially filleted before anyone realized it. A child left unwatched on the beach who was attacked and eaten by limpets, which so completely encrusted her that for several days the archaeologists of the local university mistook her for an artifact washed up from an ancient wreck. Despite the horror of these stories, the tone of the obituaries was very light, almost celebratory. It turns out that the locals consider any death other than by drowning a good death. It seems they have a superstitious dread of that city out there under the waves. Their idea of hell is to drown and come back as tourists in a city where there are many sailors and no bars and the suddenly eloquent mute chatter incessantly.

I think





Today's top story: Satan is behind electronic banking... Cubist oracles probe space with mental death rays... The WC: fact or menace to young minds? ...Vengeful ninja tots paralyze the nation's subdermal preparedness using no special tools and at minimum risk to themselves... Freak rain of copper pennies ionizes sleepy farming community — mice give milk, cows swim upstream to safety... Man hacks baby like watermelon, mutilates young wife, puts four cops in emergency ward before torching condo, pleads environmental condition. Now this.

This is Captain Overshoes with a message for the children of tomorrow. Did you ever watch a kitten chase its tail? And speaking of underpants, when was the last time you asked yourself this question? So remember, kids: if it's not who you know, it's not worth doing at all.

There was fighting again today in the streets of A, the beleaguered capital of B, where supporters of the ruling C party battled again with the followers of opposition leader D. X people are said to have been killed, and as many as Y detained. Questioned about the EFG's support of the ruling party by HIJ News reporter KLM as he took off in his hot air balloon for his nth vacation this month, President O said as long as the PQRs continue to support anti-T activities in the UV region, we will be lending our full weight behind the anti-anti... It's official: Prince of Darkness to wed jillionaire heiress in private ceremony. Now this.

Take care. Take precautions. Take your medicine. Take your time. Take pride. Take it easy. Take it and like it.

More trouble of an undisclosed nature again today in B. Light to moderate casualties, except in low-lying areas. President O's spokesman held a press conference to announce no comment... In sports, wedge-shaped hickies disqualify local high school from intra-regional quarter-finals... Mental health department reminds tri-suburban residents that mobile brainwipe vans will be visiting area parking lots providing free cultural reconditioning and perspective alignment... Spastic surgeons removing vicious rumor from Glorious Leader's speakhole uncover swanky pictographs revealing secret neo-plot to vaticanize the solar ice caps. Now this.

New troubles were reported today in A, the troubled capital of B. No details as yet, and you don't want to know... At least X are dead and as many as Y are in critical condition in the poor and strategically insignificant nation of Z, which you never heard of before and won't remember an hour from now. Experts believe the air, the water or the soil might be the cause... In sports, the nth game of the semi-autonomous skee ball quarter-finals was interrupted by an image of the Blessed Virgin bearing three secret prophecies from the ghost of Elvis... Responding to reports of a massive influx of people who don't look like you, our earless leaders are posting armed guard scouts on all the streets of this area. It's highly recommended that you stay calm. Remember that they are there for your protection, and as long as you look like everyone else you're perfectly safe... Today's weather: This line here will move to here, and this line will go over that way, freeing up this symbol to hover over this part of the map here. There will be record highs in this little town way the hell up here, and record lows down there, and record middles somewhere in this general direction. But first this.

Sale sale sale! Special two-price onefer sale! Buy one half-pair, get the other half-pair at full price. Buy now, slave labor.

Repeating our top story: An unidentified spokesman said today that we've now been told everything we could ever possibly need to know about anything, and everything else is classified. Until further notice, there will be no comment about anything worth knowing we don't already know. Any question in any form about anything will be treated as a serious breach of the security blanket. Now this.





We lay down at the edge of the pit.

We saw the darkness, like when a big fish opens its mouth and shows the emptiness inside. We saw the red glow below the darkness, which was like the hunger always burning in a woman. Higher up, we saw the walls pitted and scored like the chin of an adolescent male.

We threw our voices into the pit. To some of us our voices returned. But some of our voices went down there and stayed, jostling the voices of those who had fallen or flung themselves into the pit in times before ours. And these strange, aged voices, hollow and sad, flew up into some of our faces, and entered the mouths of some, instead of their own voices. In another time there were or will be those among us who would want to tell our futures from these results. We found this unnecessary.

As we rose and walked away from the edge of the pit, there were those among us who lingered, watching into the darkness, listening inside themselves to melancholy voices that were not their own, while their own voices seemed to call from the deep silence below.



Rover Over Ramadan, Bacon On A Stick, Okay. Update:

Lost in the Red Zone. Request immediate reassignment.

Over and Over, Out.




Dear Mr. H:

Last night, a night of rain, the city glistening as though wrapped, I saw

3 patrol cars converge on a corner, and the way their lights pulsed on the slick street reminded me of the flexing abdomens of wasps, purely, malevolently and mindlessly threatening

and I saw

a leper on the roof of a car eating chicken wings, his bald head larger and more massy than his body, which looked like a makeshift frame of chicken bones. A crowd had come out of the bars and surrounded him, threatening or just looking, and he nodded and ate from hands innocent of fingers as the nubbled flippers of a 12 weeks' fetus. And I wondered if this is where I am going, to this smooth, sinless, monkish state of grace before air

and I saw

a young man twitching down the sidewalk in the crudest parody of a walk, flinging his limbs away with a terrifying nonchalant violence, and understood that he was either a victim or a veteran of war. He was smiling a smile of hideous despair

and I saw

3 night workers standing at a bus stop, in a nimbus of streetlamped rain, shoulders and shoes soaked as though they wore clothes of litmus. And they stood apart from one another facing 3 separate directions, as they might have stood blocks or decades from one another

and I saw

a pair of children at the blind end of an alley squatted and eating of a pile of rags, and their eyes when they looked at me had the robotic sheen of cats' eyes, and the rags moaned a little as one dreaming

and I saw

a policeman's horse parked like a car outside an all night coffee shop, its flanks steaming in the rain, and a man wearing several sweaters over several coats over several jackets, with many shopping bags gathered around him, was arguing with this horse

and I saw

3 ravens or maybe crows light on a swaying telephone line, forming a kind of banner across the street as in some form of hieroglyphics, and I went another way

and I saw

a blind girl in the doorway of a soot-blacked shop, and tried to recognize the tune she played on her fiddle, but her hair tangled the strings so that they barely whispered, and the song came only from the bow, a distant and frightening song like angels in torment, like the bow was strung with hairs and each sang with the voice of who had lost it

and I saw

an entire block where the buildings had been uprooted, and the holes in the clay gave me an ache in my jaw, and the houses across the way looked like they had been struck blind

and I saw

elegant couples come out of a warehouse, where there was the whine and pounding of machines, and they were laughing. And one of the gentlemen held the bloody horns of an animal to his head, and stamped and bellowed, and they laughed. And one of the ladies kissed the fingers of a severed hand, and they swooned seductively. And I was afraid they'd know me

and I saw

apes in overalls and rough workmen's clothes in a bucket brigade across an empty street. They passed crates of lettuces and oranges from hand to hand and flung them into a dumpster

and I saw

a darkened train passing over some rooftops, with no sound, where there were no tracks, and inside the slatted boxcars I thought I saw the darkest hints of movement. And when it passed sheets of notebook paper blew down and stuck to the street, but when I picked them up the rain had blotted and starred the diagrams. And though I stuffed my pockets with them, still more ran in gutters and pasted the cars

and I saw

a girl in short pants get out of one of these cars, and before it had gone she was getting into the next one, and the line was a block long, and the rain beaded on the windshields

and I saw

a false dawn over the rooftops at midnight, a brutal carmine glow, and when I walked that way I found the harbor was on fire, and children standing on the docks throwing trash down into the flames, which hissed and crawled low over the water like gas flames, serpentine and shimmering like aurora, and through them glided silent fireboats which miraculously did not burn, and in the glow the children appeared black as charred meat   

and I saw

a public library ringed with soldiers and barbed wire, and the harsh lights trained on the entrance hissed in the rain, and the librarians came down the steps with atlases and encyclopedias open over their heads as umbrellas, and they pleaded with the soldiers, who would not let anyone through

and I saw

when I turned a corner that the 3 ravens or maybe crows had come down off the wire and were standing in the street. And the one on my left spread his wings and hopped toward me. The one in the middle looked at me with one eye and made a sound like pumice rasping brick. The third looked so glutted he could not move. And as I backed away the children swooped on them from behind and carried them into an alley, and not a sound or a feather was raised

and I saw

my reflection in a pool of rain on a dented trash can lid. I thought I saw there the glint in the children's eyes, in the crows' and the leper's and the soldiers' eyes, what I took for a ferocious naivete, a brutal innocence, a dispassion lofty and malevolent as the angels. And I saw that I had been pretending never to have walked this walk before, not to recognize these streets, these scenes — as though I were inventing as I go, looking down at myself in sooty water, as though it were the prime reflection, the mind taking itself out for a stroll, inventor of the rain, of the eyes, of the fire, and the diagrams. And I saw myself writing you about the thrill I would say I experienced when I unbunched the notebook pages, flattened them to dry on the radiators or hung from clothespins in the bathroom before I dried myself; the thrill of discovery I would say I experienced over the next days and weeks tracing the faintest outlines of script, followed by the inevitable frustration of disconnected lines on the desert of blank paper, of a symbol which is almost clear tantalizing my nights, a handful of letters and signs scattered over a half dozen sheets, not even the watermark deciphered; until at times I would forget I had invented these clues in the first place, and at other times forget I had not; until at times I'd forget how pointless it is, which are the times we are most likely to miss the point; until in the end it would only be a loss of interest and an arrogance which allowed me to shuffle the pages into some pretense of order, an order wholly invented, and write these words on them, as though the story I was inventing for these papers superceded those shadows in the boxcars, who may themselves have been mere scribblers over previous scribbles — the papers recycled let's say, maybe traceable back through several incarnations as note paper, wrapping paper, toilet paper, tree — maybe even, if they were very old papers, traceable back to the rags on somebody's back, where all books began — and each successive inventor, or reinventor, like me, pretending to take precedence.

and then I saw

more rain fall, and break up my reflection, making patterns of its own.




— Soundtrack, side one —

— Soundtrack, side two —



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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh