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“The Haunted Shed” by David Aronson

(Read the SubtleTea interview with Aronson here.)

When I was a little kid, I loved ghost stories. Whenever I found myself in a library, ghost stories were the first things I looked for, and I read as many as I could get my hands on. As an adult, I don’t really understand what the appeal was, because nine times out of ten those tales of headless women and sleepers having the blankets pulled off of them by invisible hands in the middle of the night, would scare the living-bejeesus-shit-stuffing out of me. And then, I would obsess over the stories, re-assembling the most terrifying details in my imagination over and over again for days on end.

One would logically assume that this is not the kind of experience that a child would willingly subject themselves to, or repeatedly seek out, yet that’s exactly what I did.

The psychologist in me would like to think that these frightening stories and images were symbols representing traumatic, fear-inducing, real-life events that were floating around in the murky grotto of my subconscious, and that the compulsive reading of ghost stories was an unconscious attempt to stimulate the repressed fears in order to process them. It was a primitive form of cathartic therapy.

Yeah – that works.

One book in particular occupied a large portion of my childhood awareness. It was entitled Fifty Great Ghost Stories and I purchased it at the elementary school bookmobile. It was very thick and every one of its detailed and highly descriptive stories took place in the late 19th century.

The Victorian era was a world I was already familiar with from reading the Sherlock Holmes adventures by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it was very easy for me to get lost in the book’s Gothic landscape of crushed velvet and heavy drapery, shadowy corridors in dark mansions lit by candelabras, domestic servants and horse-drawn carriages, and young squires returning home from tours of the continent.

It must have been the end of the school year when I bought the book – fifth grade I believe – because I spent a large portion of that summer immersed in the gloomy, macabre world that it evoked. I sat in my room with the curtains drawn, reading and wallowing in stagnant pools of both romantically-tinged melancholy and garden-variety depression, alternating with overwhelming and uncontrollable feelings of being really creeped out.


It seems I was a Goth kid before there even was something called Goth; before the Cure purchased their first tubes of black lipstick and nail polish. It was a psychologically unhealthy situation to be sure. A lot of my depression grew out of a difficult and largely unsuccessful transition to a new school and new neighborhood where I felt like a complete outsider, and staying inside reading morbid ghost stories in isolation was not doing anything to improve my emotional state.

Halfway through the summer something shifted, and I was able to pull myself out of the house and into the sunshine. I sought out what few friends I had in the neighborhood and spent my time in communal play, like a healthy, well-adjusted child is supposed to, but my preoccupation with ghost stories still lingered.

There was an empty field near my house that my friends and I spent a lot of time in. It was actually rather small, but to our child’s perspective, it seemed enormous. The field was flanked by trees which blocked the surrounding suburban tract housing from view, and we could imagine that we were exploring in some forgotten wilderness far from civilization.

At the edge of this field stood a large shed. The shed had a small window and a door that resembled the front door of a house, which made it easy to imagine that someone, some hermit-like being, might actually live there, or had once lived there, since the shed seemed as if it hadn’t been used in years.

In a very short time, we had constructed an entire mythology around the shed and its imagined former inhabitant. We tried to satisfy our fevered curiosity by peeking in the window, expecting to see ancient but still intact tables and chairs and a bed, but the view was completely obscured by dust and dirt and cobwebs.

There was something eerie and unsettling about the big, house-like shed, and my friends and I were both fascinated and scared of it at the same time, and the summer passed with the shed’s mystery persistently skulking about the periphery of our young minds.

Then, on a cloudy day late in the summer, when signs of autumn were just beginning to harsh our Tom Sawyer barefoot buzz with the threat of a brand new school year, something happened which amped the shed mythos up to War of the Worlds panic proportions.

My friends and I were farting around in the field, looking at the clouds and chasing butterflies and putting grasshoppers into jars, when a gnarled, rickety and very thin old man suddenly materialized behind us, seemingly out of thin air, startling us and making us jump.

The man had an extremely wrinkled face, like a desiccated prune that had fallen into the back of a cupboard and been left to fossilize, and his beady, yellow eyes exuded an aura of malevolence.

“What are you doing here? You don’t belong here!” he shrieked. His raspy, high-pitched voice was strangely asexual; it could have belonged to either a man or a woman, and the queerness of it sent shivers up my spine.

“You shouldn’t be here! Get out of here!” he screamed, with all the hysteria of someone defending themselves from mortal danger. He moved towards us with a shaky, spastic gait, and swung his cane at us wildly like someone batting at an attacking bee, and we stumbled all over each other like the Three Stooges to get away from him.

Later that day, our imaginations went into overdrive. The old man had been so bizarre and evil and freaky…so inhuman…his voice so otherworldly…like a wailing banshee… And hadn’t he just appeared out of nowhere? There could only be one explanation. It was the ghost of the man who had once lived in the shed. Yep. That’s what it was alright.

So hungry were we for something strange and mysterious to occur in our bland, sanitized, suburban world that we didn’t even entertain the notion that it could have been a real flesh and blood person who we simply failed to notice sneaking up on us; some crotchety old coot that we’d never seen before because he usually stayed inside his house watching game shows on TV and eating soft foods that wouldn’t foul up his dentures and who needed to vent his spleen over being old and weak and impotent. Nope. It was definitely a ghost.

We stopped going to the field after that. We were too spooked, and for a while we re-hashed the story of our encounter with the ghost of the shed, each time embellishing it with more ghostly, supernatural details, giving ourselves an adrenaline rush to equal any preteen sugar high. But like any addictive activity, our tolerance level soon peaked, and the story just wasn’t scary anymore. And besides, school was starting, bringing with it newer and bigger stimulations.

But there was a part of me that didn’t want to give up the ghost, so to speak, and so I started making up stories. I told my friends that I’d been walking past the field and seen the ghost of the old man, illuminated by a supernatural light, inside the shed folding clothes, or something ridiculous like that; that I’d seen him wandering around the field, digging something up with a shovel, or possibly burying something with a shovel. I can’t remember all the silly stories I concocted, but I’m sure that the details came straight out of Fifty Great Ghost Stories.

I don’t think my friends ever really believed me. They were tired of the ghost game. But I got so involved in my own stories that I actually began to believe them. It was a strange kind of self-hypnosis, and for years afterwards, in my mind, I was convinced that I had actually seen a ghost in or around the shed in the field. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that the spell wore off, and I thought back to that summer and said to myself “Oh yeah. I made all that shit up.”

It had been my longest sojourn in the land of the unliving, and although I made a few brief visits as a teenager, like the time I had strep throat and spent a week with a high fever, reading nothing but ghost stories and listening to the Doors’ Strange Days, their darkest album, and putting myself into a very disturbing head-space, my eagerness to go there diminished, and by the time I was a young adult, I had no more need or desire for walking those gloomy corridors.

My inner psychologist feels that in some strange way, I must have identified with the ghostly protagonists of those stories. After all, they were unhappy, earth-bound spirits trapped in some stressful or traumatic situation, and that’s exactly how I felt in the fifth grade: trapped.

Nowadays, when I go to the library, I usually peruse the occult section for books on astrology and my other various esoteric interests, and I often flirt with the idea of cracking open one of the many books of true ghost stories. All those ghostly women in white, wringing their hands and searching for their lost children; the little boys and girls peering forlornly out of the windows of the rooms where they were murdered; the brave young men defending buildings that no longer exist – they’re all whispering to me “Come back, David. We miss you…”

Perhaps I’ll have a chance to visit them on the day that I die, making a brief stop in their tragic shadow-world, before my soul moves on to the next adventure.

– 2006

David Herrle reviews CROSSING PUDDLES by Walter Ruhlmann

As its title suggests, Walter Ruhlmann’s Crossing Puddles is a moist, wet and sometimes drenched book. It’s sticky with fluids, supple with organicity, non-cosmetic – and, above all, funky. I mean “funky” in three senses of the term: the olfactory, the depressive and the existentialist a la philosopher Cornel West, who thinks of “funk” as “wrestling with the wounds, the scars, the bruises, as well as the creative responses to wounds, scars, and bruises.” Really, relatively few writers dare to scrape the underside of things, to plumb the profane as much as the sacred, and to pull back humanity’s foreskin to expose its shmegma.

I’m not saying that readers should keep barf bags handy when reading Ruhlmann’s poetry, but they certainly should check their gag reflexes, because this guy sanitizes nothing when sanitation is too sanitary for authenticity. In other words, be wary of what might be in those puddles you so carelessly cross. What I mean is that Ruhlmann tends to focus on leakage, seepage, fluid emission, what comes out rather than what goes in – and it’s not always clean or pretty. Most times this focus is directed at the human body, unsurprisingly. The body emits non-stop throughout its life, and it emits more wildly in decomposition after death. Ruhlmann can’t help but reiterate the body’s less savory automatic processes, and its constant cycle of dryness and wetness.

This motif kicks off in “Springs from the Flat”: “A little sweat on our foreheads,/under armpits, drenched white shirts,/sore, smelly feet, heavy boots…” And it almost never relents for the rest of the book: “sulfuric semen stains the bedsheets,” “stuck in the mud of memories,” “cold showers,/the drizzle & the rain,” “I wore my pajamas all day,/keeping that sweaty smell on the surface of my skin,” “the skin burned by the sun,/the salty sweat pricks my eyes,” “as jizz/suddenly spurted all over the floor,” “making bubbles in the water,” “We shit in clean water/is all I want to say,” rain “spitting on the windows,/spurting on our coats,” “We slip in spit/those gobs like/patches of come/lay on the ground:/hundreds of mouths spurted out,” “a pool of spew/for them to bathe in,” “a flood of drool,” “Now the juices were spat,” “this thick and greasy slice of pork rib,” “I remember his face all covered in/dark/red/shame/stains./YES!/the semen got lost/between the shirt I wore that day/and the checked shorts he shivered in,” “Frankie’s wet hair will dry in the/marine breath of mine,” and “water dripping from my arms,/my legs, my butt, my sex, but my face/is still dry.”

Lines such as “flesh on flesh, pricks and balls/mingled and intertwined…/in toilets you/toy them” exemplify Ruhlmann’s talent for portraying the (literally and literarily) scatalogical in the sexual. There’s a basic seediness to spilling seed in his images of male ejaculation, perhaps best exemplified in this disturbing excerpt from “Jerking in the Bus”:

The coach driver unbuttons his belt, unbelts his waist, unzips his pants
and sticks his bulging pudding out. Grabs it. Retracts the wet foreskin
until it hurts a bit and groans with high pleasure.

 It is not long before he jerks off, messing the wheel.

Filth and grime inevitably follow ecstatic highs, and the body is fresh only in the brief wake after bathing or showering, but Ruhlmann accepts all this as an acceptable mixture; even filth and grime can glint with a sort of picturesqueness in moon-/starlight:

The bed I wreck in seems comfy,
unless hair, crumbs and dust, smells from a previous sweaty night
still linger on the sheet.
The stains we left when the moon and the stars above,
bright and colorful, shone,
iridescent, irradiating our bodies, spurting all the water, semen and saliva.

Bodies’ frequent repulsiveness is self-evident, since we know our own bodies more than anyone else in the world. Ruhlmann’s narrator is quite critical of his own body, as shown in this line: “The smell of my swelling penis…/the size of my large, lardy ass/in the shade of which one could park one’s Cadillac.”

Not exactly flattering, nor in conformity to Aesthetes’ poetic Photoshop (for which I admit favor). But necessary. These are some of the evidence of hell that hides under flowers, as Issa wrote about. Literally underlying horrors are addressed in “Where Allies Lie,” a poem of D-Day remembrance: “Standing over the tombs, I watch infinite line of corpses,/hidden under six feet of dirt, grass, trees, tourists…” “Crusty Dusk,” speaks of “many worms and so much dust,” while “Meat” evokes “underground animals,/underworldly mammals,/moles,/voles,/some unwanted rodents.” And, on a more personal note, in a poem called “The Visa”:

…for there was nothing I detested more than
stepping in the damp Norman weather
to wander in the alleys around the cold, dark marble stones
marked with the scary faces
and covering the bodies of
dead people I did not even know.

Flesh’s fundamental corruptibility and brevity are captured perfectly in this clip from “I Wish It Would Snow For Christmas”:

Humus will remain after the fall.
Rotten skin,
inane limbs,
stained soil,
torn flesh,
sick and sulfuric ashes blown away by the wind…

Of course, natural environments parallel and mirror degeneration, decay and recycled organic materials (and vice versa). Without rational human intervention there is overgrowth; without constant maintenance there is dross. If Ruhlmann’s sense of (literal and metaphoric) overgrowth and dross could be essentialized, it would be in four key lines in an epic poem called “The Horizon of the Poplar Trees,” which features English text on the left side of the page and French translation on the right: “mauvaise graine,/mauvais garcon” – “weeds, scum.” Those lines are self-referential/meta-wording, because Ruhlmann’s long-lived literary journal, mgversion2>datura, is also called Mauvaise Graine (hence mg). From ashes to ashes, from weeds to scum.

And slime. In “Concrete Stairs” the residual trauma and battery of self-esteem from the narrator’s childhood reduce the narrator to residue and somehow emphasize the lowly reality of his being: ultimately liquid and pulp, and nothing more.

These memories will be the end of me, the final step taken before I fall
into madness,
complete, total, absolute, inevitable.

The first fall occurred some thirty-five years ago:
a toddler was I, just ready to discover the world.
I could have died the day I fell from the top of the bottom of these stairs…

 Prior to that
they had almost blinded me with forceps – malignancy
they had dumped me on the bare bedroom floor – over-tiredness
they had left me in the sharp claws of a drunkard nanny – naivety
they had almost smashed my head against the garage door – absent-
their dog had nearly wolfed me – jealousy.

I have escaped physical harm many times
but do not seem to be able to avoid being slime.

Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer called the poetry of Dylan Thomas as “sensitivity crying out in darkness,” and that is what Ruhlmann’s stuff is. “October child moons over rainy days./Somehow he suffers from the recluse concept he inflicts on himself…” goes the narration in a poem called “November Children.” “[S]omewhere certainly lives someone who would share his suffering…” (I’ve a hunch that Ruhlmann was born an October.) The book expresses a sense of borrowed time, misspent youth, of being overwhelmed and invaded by madness, the mindless, natural forces: “My domain is still at stake:/invaded by weeds and evil sprites, changeling changing into dark corners,/furrowing in the beds, the lawn and the kitchen garden.”

Regardless, the narrator is not mere slime, but worthy sensitivity transcending slime. All in nature is not invasion, detritus, rot and loss, and Crossing Puddles contains much beauty and curiosity. There also is life in life. Hopeful rejoicement is expressed in “The Garden”:

…after watering the garden,
I watch and listen to the green things grow,
they sing a perfect song of joy,
billowing out,
blooming and erasing my mental hay fever.

I love when writers sprinkle their work with clever, humorous and/or profound lines to discover like precious Pokemon, so Ruhlmann usually pleases me sporadically – yet powerfully. Examples of favorite lines follow.

Then/the book opens,/on its own,/like a spying glass/on the universe.

Through the window I spot
two cows
chasing one another
they look like me and my sister.

…pork comes from pig,
beef was an ox
but fish was fish…

…what salvation are you expecting?

The cherry trees have gone berserk…

 I was raped by an orchid
in the middle of an orchard…

I mistakenly detected a lovely reference to the great Nietzsche in “the Canyon,” but it turned out to be for Caspar Friedrich:

…thinking Friedrich could not be wrong,
except that it is even more sublime seen from below:
not an ocean of clouds but a hard rock on a pure azure sky.

As I wrote in my review of his Twelve Times Thirteen book, “though Ruhlmann’s style tends to veer into the esoteric, acclimation comes easily, and Ruhlmann narrates perfectly coherently when the time is right and directness is needed.” This sentiment still stands. In Crossing Puddles his habitual fluctuation between the material (often geographical) and the psychological/spiritual is shown in the titles/locales of the book sections themselves: Nantes, Normandy, Bresse and Remote Places of the Mind.


Walter Ruhlmann works as an English teacher, edits mgversion2>datura and runs mgv2>publishing. His latest collections are Maore (Lapwing Publications, 2013), Carmine Carnival (Lazarus Media, 2013), The Loss and GMO (Flutter Press, 2014) and Crossing Puddles (Robocup Press, 2014). Visit his blog.

“Ten Thousand Lakes” by Kimberly Peterson

Kimberly lives in Ontario, Canada.


An arthritic hip brought me here; water aerobics and swimming laps acting as the panacea to replace the failure of physiotherapy and massage. Self-doubt flutters around in my rib-cage like a trapped moth until I see the braces and surgical scars of the other women waiting for class. I belong in this group.

I read the posted signs, mostly the usual fare: Swim at your own risk; No diving. A few stand out, one which outlines three lanes for swimming laps and one for everything else. Another sign explains proper pool attire. The diagram singles out the modest swimwear that Muslim women wear and lists allowable fabrics: nylon, spandex. Not very welcoming. Do other materials contaminate the pool? I wear a two piece swimsuit somewhere between the skimpy bikinis of youth and Muslim modesty.

I am encouraged by the words of a classmate with hip pain following my path. “Months of physiotherapy with no improvement. After whiplash, I swam every day. The water healed me.”

Alternating between aerobics class and swimming laps, I cherish the clean scent of chlorine. While I lumber along on land, like a seal my body slices through sumptuous ripples slurping against the concrete border. I relish the strength in my arms that thrusts me forward.

I seek the rejuvenation, the harmony of body and surroundings, portrayed in a picture mounted above the pool’s shallow end. A youthful woman arches her back as if to cup the crescent moon while air bubbles surround her. She trusts the air in her lungs to lift her to the surface after her dive.

Today, I occupy this harmonious place until a woman cuts across my lane in clear violation of pool rules. I’m plunged back into my aching hip and the cool water. How selfish. On the shallow end of my next lap, I notice the concentration on her face, her modest swimsuit, that she is buoyed by both a floatation belt and pool noodle while she struggles to dog-paddle along the wall. Another lap and I am forced to stand up as we nearly collide. Although irritated, I smile.

This provides an opening for her. She asks me how I float on my back. I am unable to explain this, I just fall onto my back and the water supports me. She asks how I propel forward in this position. I demonstrate the lemniscate shapes I carve in the water with my hands. She shares her story of emigrating from an arid land of conflict with three young children. Shortly after they arrived in this country, they encountered their first pool with a slide. Her three-year old, believing all slides end in the sand, managed to squirm away to race down that slide. Although she could not swim, she plunged into the deep end and miraculously dragged him to the surface to hand him to safety. She cannot explain how she managed this. When the water began to swallow her, she thought, Allah, I am not afraid to die, but now is not my time. I still need to raise my children.

She woke up in the intensive care unit at the beginning of another journey, this one a month-long path to return home. She tells me, “People see dying as difficult. Death comes easily, the challenge lies in living.”

“So brave of you to return to a pool, but why?” I ask. “Water holds the power to harm or heal. Now that we live in a land of ten thousand lakes, I must learn to swim as an example for my children.” Her accent hints at struggles beyond learning to swim. I recall imagines of cities reduced to rubble, of families fleeing down dusty roads only to find barbed wire borders blocking the path to safety. Why begrudge her a few feet at the end of my borrowed lane?

On the way out of the pool, I stop to read the eight by ten-inch plastic-coated sheet titled “Pool Configuration Lane Options” buried amongst a multitude of other instructions. Difficult to find and confusing to read for anyone new to the language. As I pay more attention to the languages spoken around me, my hip pain diminishes in significance. I watch for opportunities to help newcomers find buoyance in their adopted home. The immigrant women I encounter remind me that to receive the rejuvenation offered in a land surrounded by thousands of lakes, you have to wade into the water.    

poetry by Darren Demaree

Darren’s manuscript, Two Towns Over, has won Trio House Press’ Louise Bogan Award and will be published soon. Visit his site here.


 I wanted to show Emily
(in a way no one else could see)
that I could be disgusting

& cavalier at the same time,
that I could lower us in a way
that rooted our bodies

to the neglected levels
of human experience, to
the retention pond

of our desires.  She followed me
there (in a way no one else
could see) & she waited.

She squirmed.  She smiled.
I offered her the only portrait
I owned of us

& what it showed her
wasn’t pretty, wasn’t safe
& what it was caked in

we couldn’t bring back with us.
I don’t think we did anything
terrible to each other,

but we never went back there.
If you ever find that portrait of us,
know that it was much more

about the exploration than
the confirmation of our love.
I wish for nothing else.

poetry by g emil reutter

g emil reutter lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Visit his site.

In Costume

Millennials are in
overdrive as they
walk this hip
area of Chestnut
street just before
Halloween. There
are pirates, doms
and subs, angels
hot pants hookers
guys in drag
even a homeless
guy. Young and
drunk noise they
make is louder
than the traffic
they stop when
crossing the street.
Round after round
they buy and
all drink up.
As evening turns
to early morn
they make their
way home, stagger
and hold on
to each other
until they ascend
to their converted
factory lofts, the
party continues on
except for one
who staggers and
turns into an
alley, eyes blurry
belly full of
booze, he sits
on a grate
pulls up his
blanket and dreams
of what could
have been.

poetry by Diane Elayne Dees

Diane is a writer and psychotherapist who lives in Louisiana. She publishes Women Who Serve, a blog about women’s professional tennis.


Pulling Brian

He mounts the sled and offers me the cables.
I take the handles, pull the slack, and fall
back while squatting low, then slowly rise.
The muscles in my legs and hips take over,
and suddenly, I’m pulling twice my weight.

My trainer’s a big man, the sled is heavy,
yet each time, it’s a rhythmic, fluid journey.
This comes as no surprise: I pulled a man
through years of broken vows and shattered nerves,
through crazy-making stories, gaslit lies,
sadistic plots, dismissal, and neglect.
I pulled him until part of me was dead.

I cannot see behind me. Now I’m forced
to trust the man I’m pulling to protect
me. I breathe into the pull and pray
that when I’ve gotten past the final line,
he will not let me crash into a wall.


Sled Summary

Hands against metal
Feet against turf
Legs against iron
Heart against weight
Mind against doubt
Breath against time
Woman against self


Learning Form

My trainer has insisted he be able,
at any time, while I propel the sled,
to drink tea off of my back—a sturdy table,
but I don’t think it could handle jam and bread.