Dani Hedlund, author, publisher, nonprofit literary champion, and founder of Tethered by Letters, and F(r)iction interviewed me about writing, There You Feel Free, and more. It was an incredible honor. Read the whole thing at https://tetheredbyletters.com/interview-nate-ragolia/.
It was a Wednesday. I had just started speaking at an event in Fayetteville. The crowd waved signs and chanted each of my catchphrases.
“Bigger is best!”
“Winning ain’t for losers!”
“Deal with it, baby!”
The spotlight glowed against my face, the podium, the flags behind me. I smiled. I waved my arms. I made finger-guns at a sweet, young, little blonde thing in the front row. Can’t be older than twenty. She returned the hand signal for cunnilingus. A ‘V’ with a tongue in it.
I love these people. They’ll do anything for me.
The brass music started. The audience chants softened to silence. Then the big drums resounded. I raised my arms above my head, waving and saluting at once. They ate it up. Sweet little cunnilingus pierced me with her eyes, then she did one of those blowjob things where she poked her tongue against the inside of her cheek. I started to get aroused. Good thing for podiums.
“Ahem,” I started. “This is a good group isn’t it? You’re the smartest people in the country, right here. Couldn’t find a better group. Ask anybody. I know some smart people and they’re even saying things like ‘These people right here are the best you could ask for.’ That’s right. This is the best group, and to see me, you all have real good taste, don’t you? Real good taste. That’s right.
“So, today we have to talk about the future. Doesn’t look so good does it? Lots of unknowns. Lots of doubts. Lots of things that could go wrong. It’s hard to wake up each day and look out the window and wonder ‘What in it for me?’ isn’t it?”
They ate that up too. They started chanting: “What’s in it for me?”
I raised my arms, quieting them.
“It’s a real problem. You’re all right. Smart group here. Very smart. Well, I’ll tell you, there’re a lot of people who seem to think you should be asking ‘What can I do for others?’”
The crowd booed.
I love this part.
“I know. I know. What kind of faggy bullshit is that? Others? I don’t know about you all great, smart, wonderful people out there, but most days I gotta do a bunch of stuff from others, and frankly I’m tired of it. Dead tired. And I don’t need to hear some college kid telling me to think about them–those people–some more. They are who I spend all my time on already!”
I felt the applause rumble through the podium, strong enough that the pleats on my pants rippled.
“I’m here to tell you that when I’m in charge, I’m not going to talk about helping others or doing for others, and you shouldn’t either. We’re gonna be asking ‘What’s in it for me!?”
The chant started again. I let them go for a few moments. I soaked it up. I smirked. I adjusted my tie. I made eyes at the little blonde thing in the front row. She just licked her lips at me while she reached under her skirt to touch herself.
No panties. I love this part.
The pretty little blonde’s eyes started rolling back in her head, no doubt overwhelmed by my greatness, by my words, cumming like a sweet little thing should, and then she stood up, screaming.
Nothing unusual. I’m like the fucking Beatles for these people.
But the scream was different this time; animal. The sweet, pretty little blonde grabbed at her face and then started pulling on it–painted nails digging in–still screaming. The crowd’s chants kind of drowned her out, but I’ve been around the block enough to know a hurt woman when I see one. Heck, I’ve caused that hurt.
Suddenly, the broad ripped her fucking skin off, peeled it all off her skull like a piece of fruit, like an orange. Her eyeballs fell out, dropped to the floor and rolled below the lip of the stage where I lost sight of them. Then her tongue dropped out–a slug, or an elitist limp dick. Then a big wad of gray gooey shit oozed out of the mouth and plopped on the floor like a pee-soaked pair of boxer shorts.
I don’t read any of that science fiction or horror garbage. I got big league deals to work out. But honest to Me, this fucking hot broad’s skull popped right off her body and floated up toward me, dead, empty eye sockets, and a waggling jaw not equipped with DSL. The skull hovered up over my head, and then stopped, bobbing above my shoulder. Disembodied. The chick’s body crumpled on the ground, blood flowing.
But then, chicks are always bleeding.
Nobody in the crowd seemed to care.
The skull peered at me.
“We’re coming for you,” it hissed, floating next to my ear. “You’re toying with powerful forces.”
I covered the microphone with my hand.
“Powerful forces?” I said. “You know who you’re talking to?”
“We’re talking to nobody. You are nothing more than a clown hawking cheeseburgers,” it replied.
“I’m a success. I am success,” I told her. “Look at all these people who love me.”
“They love your lies,” the skull said.
“They aren’t all lies,” I answered. “It’s business. Nobody keeps their word.”
“One by one, we’re waking up,” the skull snarled. “One by one. Just watch.”
The crowd was still chanting, “What’s in it for me?” So I turned away from the skull and raised my arms in that dual salute and they fell quiet again.
“Folks, friends…” I continued. “What the other side doesn’t get is that we’re going to do it. We’re going to do it all, and it’s going to be spectacular. You won’t be able to compare what we do to what they’ve done because what we’re going to do is going to be so amazingly great that there can be no comparison. But then, that’s how I’ve done things my whole life, which is why you smart people are here, isn’t it?
“We’re gonna have the best businesses and the best doctors and the best future. We’re gonna be bigger than we’ve ever been before, bigger than anybody can even imagine, right? That’s pretty big. We’re going to be so bi–”
Then the blonde broad’s skull spoke with this terrible, gravely voice.
“How?” it asked. “Explain how.”
And I heard that voice rumble through the loudspeakers, but nobody in the place seemed to notice, so I kept going.
“We’re going to be s–”
“How!?” it asked again.
“Don’t worry about that now,” I whispered. “It’ll all come together.”
“How!!!???” it insisted.
I don’t take crap from nobody, so I took a swing at the skull, but it flipped out of the way and then floated back over my shoulder. Just hovered there, out of reach.
“We’re gonna b–” I tried again.
Then out in the crowd, people started screaming and grabbing at their faces, peeling at the flesh, ripping the hair out by the roots. Screaming. Screaming. Exposed skulls. Eyeballs and tongues and brains. And then the bodies collapsed to the floor…
WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP
Suddenly, there was another bodiless skull next to the cute, little blonde’s and then another and another. I couldn’t tell how many there were. Or how they might’ve measured up when they had skin. Turns out a ten’s skull is just like a seven’s or a two’s. I looked around and there were more floating skulls hissing behind me than there were people left in the audience, not counting the blood-seeping corpses.
The live people in the crowd were still chanting for me, but they were slowing down.
Can they see the skulls? They have to be able to see them, I thought to myself.
All those skulls started closing in on me. A big circle of chattering teeth and clicking jaws, glaring upon my glorious visage with their sightless sockets.
“How?” they asked. “Explain how.”
I’ve dealt with losers before, so I just ignored them.
“We’re going to be so big, so strong, so po–” I said.
“How?” the skulls demanded, their words rattling my brain like that good coke from the 80s. “Tell us how.”
Finally, I turned to the cute blonde broad’s skull and smirked. “What are these little leaguers up to?” I asked.
The skull’s eye sockets lit up bright, piercing red.
“It’s not a game,” her skull snarled. “People’s lives are at stake. Exploiting pain and fear will only result in the same.”
“What’s not a game?” I asked.
“The future,” she answered. “If you won’t take it seriously, we will take you.”
“Take me where? People would notice that I’m missing.”
“You disappeared once, for years,” the skull said. “You’re near death anyway. No one will care if we take you.”
That’s when the skulls pounced on me. They came at me from all sides. I turned around and around and they were everywhere, clicking and hissing. The blonde broad’s skull dove down for my cock and then it just clamped down. I stifled my scream. This is a rally, after all. I’ve got to show strength. Then the other skulls closed in, biting at my hair, my face, my arms, my legs. There wasn’t a piece of me they didn’t want. But then, what else is new? Everybody wants an audience with the king.
I’m very popular. Lots of people are saying that…
“How?” the skulls kept chanting. “Explain how.”
Their teeth tore at my suit, and then at my flesh… My eyes popped out. My tongue dropped. I couldn’t speak. Then there it was, inside a circle of snarling skulls, a bright light. So bright. Hugely bright. Absorbing me. Devouring me. Cleansing me.
“The Truth,” the blonde’s skull growled. “Look at it.”
“That’s the last thing I can remember. The blinding light. That feeling of dissolving. I was giving a speech to thousands of people and then the skulls appeared. I don’t remember anything else.”
The doctor smirks at me from behind her clipboard. White light floods down from the ceiling. There’s some music; piano, just tinkling in the background. I try to lift my arms, but they’re strapped down to the bed frame.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do for you,” she says. “You appear to have suffered a very serious psychological breakdown.”
“How?” I ask, my mouth bone-dry. “Explain how.”
“He’s doing it again,” the doctor says to a nurse who I hope has big tits. “Sedate him.”
I’m excited to share that The Stoneslide Corrective has published my short story Ruination in their Aftermath issue. I’m proud to be included alongside other authors and essayists for this project. I hope you’ll take a moment to read my sci-fi short.
You can do so for free, though Stoneslide asks for a $1.99 contribution for a day pass to read more than one piece.
And you should because $1.99 is nothing, and the other works on the site are amazing, stark, honest, confessional, exciting, and beautiful. It’s a great way to start off the year.
My book, There You Feel Free, has been out for nearly two years now. That’s a long time and an especially long time in the book world. For that reason, among others, I feel so grateful and fortunate that the Spring Creek Sun, a Brooklyn, New York newspaper decided to review my book. You can get a taste of the review in the image above, and if you’re interested, you can read it in its entirety here: http://springcreeksunonline.com/from-the-bookshelf-there-you-feel-free-by-nate-ragolia/.
I think one of the most difficult aspects of trying to be an author is spreading the word and finding new readers. This review is evidence that they come along, sometimes after you’ve thought they might not. In short, keep writing and keep promoting. Stay passionate and gracious. It pays off.
Hey there! Here’s another original short story. This one’s a weird confluence of art, medicine, and madness. Originally published in BONED. Enjoy! – n.
BY NATE RAGOLIA
The ceiling comprises sixty-four square tiles. Each tile has two-hundred and fifty-four dimples, except for the eight tiles that are occupied by light fixtures and that venting cowl that looks like a metal flower. Where the ceiling meets the walls, on the three sides I can see, there is a bead of wood, painted calming blue, that accents the room like a fancy cake. I don’t know if the walls are decorated–unable to move my head–but my memory of hospitals leads me to believe there would be a television on one wall flanked by inexpensive, mass-produced landscape paintings. Hopefully, if there are paintings, they are tasteful and well-composed, and none of that hideous Theodore Finley shit.
Finley had died a few years earlier, drugs and pills, after his wife filed for divorce. He was famous among his audience, a well-branded man, with calendars and classes and all the selling out an artist can accommodate. Was the real him reflected in his paintings? Did that mean that one of his paintings, perhaps on my hospital room wall right now, was a portal by which his essence viewed my own?
I tap the call button for a nurse. She said that this could happen as a side-effect of the medication. She called it Finleymania. She said the early signs were a sudden awareness and interest in the painter, followed by the belief that each individual image contained its own universe, and eventually escalating to a sense that contact with the man himself is happening. These manifestations were colloquially called “Teddysits,” a term that sounds almost cute until the nurse explains that the associated fugue state usually results in death.
But this is all normal.
It’s all part of the procedure.
I’ll be whole soon. I’ll be able to move again. Like the accident never happened. Like I was never pulverized against the rocks.
It’s all part of the procedure.
She’s coming down the hall now, and I can hear her footfalls on the linoleum floor. She’s carrying another dose of Osinum, in a thin needle that she’ll jab into my meaty belly and all these thoughts about the painter will slip away, buried deep beneath everything else I want to do when I finally get out of here.
There’s a knock knock at the door. A courtesy knock. The nurse knows I’m in here. Where else would I be? I’m not going to make a break for it. Nurse B________ nudges the door open. Light splashes across the ceiling from the hallway. Its hinges creak like a whisper. B________’s shoes squeak on the floor and she clomps back a step in a nervous stumble.
“Sorry, Mr. R________,” she says. “I hate that noise.”
I do my best approximation of nodding.
“You rang?” she says, in a comedically not-deep Lurch voice.
“Pntr!” I grumble.
She understands right away. She steps over me, and my nostrils fill with the delicate scent of vanilla. Why is it that the infirm are always closest to physical temptation? B________’s scrubs billow out over me, and the aura of her breasts is so intense that I think for a moment that I feel them resting on my doughy chest. She adjusts my pillow and folds down the blanket. Then out comes the needle.
“Remember what I said,” she says. “The instant you start thinking about those paintings you call me. No close calls.”
She holds the needle over me.
“Now, this’ll sting, but in a second you won’t think about any of it again.”
The needle slips in, and I think it might go right through me. It could, really. Nothing to stop it. I feel the liquid Osinum surge through me like electricity darting from neuron to neuron. And then in a quick flash I can’t even remember what painting I was thinking about.
B________ sets the needle aside on a cart outside my vision and touches the mass of my forehead. Her nails are nice. Clean, manicured. Her hands look soft, but strong. She’d probably give good hand.
“Okay, Mr. R________, that’s it,” she says, stepping away toward the door. “Everything looks good. Your vitals are sharp. You’re lucky to have walked away from an accident like that one. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said walked. It’s an expression, though, you understand. You are lucky though. The ocean doesn’t usually forgive people so easily. Of course, modern medicine makes a lot possible, and in time you’ll be right as rain. The Osinum will take about twenty minutes to cycle in, and you should start to feel some real results this time, since it’s dose number six.”
I want to mumble something about her making my recovery all the better, but I can’t find the words. Nurse B________ smiles, pats the side of my hospital bed, and disappears from sight, leaving only the creak of the door, and the latch as evidence of her complete departure.
Hours must pass because the dim tan curtains visible from the corner of my right eye are now just black darkness. I close my eyes and inhale deeply.
Some light peers in through my eyelids. It’s the reason I realize I’m no longer asleep. I blink my eyes open and right there on the ceiling is some distant island alcove, a hidden bay, with a ship approaching, all under the white, creamy glow of the moon. It’s one of those motel paintings… one of those images from a calendar.
Panic overcomes me as I stare transfixed into the light. It’s happening again, and it has never been like this. I begin to wonder how Finley brings the light to life. So nuanced, so energetic. And yet so still. I feel as though I’m falling up, toward the painting. This isn’t right.
I mash the call button and hear the chime. Now, I just have to wait for those footfalls, and that scent of vanilla. Meanwhile, there’s a figure on the ship in the painting that I shouldn’t be seeing, and it’s moving toward the bow, waving tiny arms that perfectly reflect the milky moonlight.
The figure dives off the front of the ship, splashes into the water and then emerges on the shore, in the foreground, arms up, still waving. At me. And then with superhuman speed, the figure strides up the beach, toward me, until it reaches the canvas surface of the painting.
“I’m Theodore Finley, and I’d like to talk to you today about secrets of my creativity,” the figure says.
It leans in close, and while it has no discernible characteristics like a nose, mouth, or eyes, the figure is wearing one of those over ear microphones that self-help gurus and convention speakers wear.
“The biggest secret is that there are no secrets,” the figure continues. “There’s only light. Once you start seeing the world for all its light, and nothing else, you really understand how to make art.”
I begin to appreciate the boring composition of Finley’s images, instead seeing the virtue of the light in them. His voice is soothing, and his high-octane self-assurance is infectious. I wonder if I’m a painter, too, and if not, why not. I keep mashing the call button. My heart races, nearly leaping around inside of me. Nurse B________ will arrive soon. She has to.
“The only thing is,” the figure says. “The only thing is that you have to give yourself over to the light. Once you let go, the light will paint itself for you.”
Then the figure extends its hand to me.
“Come with me,” it says.
Even if I could reach out to it, I wouldn’t, but then somehow my hand is fluttering up toward the figure’s. My heart’s racing gives way to pain and I can’t scream, so I gurgle something that sounds hideous to my ears, but quickly washes away beneath the figure’s persistence.
“Come with me,” it says again.
I can’t retract my hand, and it’s almost touching the figure’s hand, and I feel like my brain is liquefying, and…
Clap clap clap.
The blade of light cuts across my ceiling.
“Oh no!” Nurse B________ screams.
She runs up to the headboard of my bed and hits the emergency button. I hear a faint alarm sounding, but it’s cloaked in the figure’s soothing tones.
“Come with me.”
More footsteps, running now.
“I don’t know what’s gone wrong,” Nurse B________ says. “I just administered the sixth dose three hours ago. He shouldn’t be convulsing like this. Is that the best way to describe it? Convulsing? It’s like a lava lamp. Undulating?”
“I think convulsing remains accurate, Nurse. Undulating lacks the requisite medical implication. The protocols changed last week,” someone says. “We sent a memo. For a man of Mr. R________’s height and weight, it’s now seven doses of Osinum.”
As if the figure weren’t there at all, the Doctor leans over me, smelling of aftershave and rye bread. She shines a penlight in my eyes, and looks me up and down.
“Mr. R________, if you can understand me please blink three times,” the Doctor says.
I blink three times.
“You’re in the throes of an episode of Finleymania brought on by your Osinum dose, but we’re here and we’re going to help you. If you understand blink twice.”
I blink twice.
“Good,” the Doctor says. “Now, whatever you do, do not take the hand of any figure you might be seeing. That could result in a very bad thing.”
Could? A very bad thing? I have no way to tell the Doctor that I can’t control my hand and that the figure nearly has hold of it.
I blink frantically.
The Doctor seems to understand.
“It’s happening,” she says. “Nurse B________, prep the crash cart. And bring me a seventh Osinum dose.”
Nurse B________’s footsteps are speedy but deliberate. I hear wheels rolling. I see a shadow flicker out over the ceiling as she leaves, and then flicker again as she returns. My outstretched hand begins to tingle. My head swims with light and white noise. The figure leans ever closer.
“Come with me.”
And then it takes my hand. Suddenly everything goes white, bright, but cool. The only thing I hear is something like the ocean that day when the boat turned, and the undertow, the rocks…
Then darkness. Noise. A jolt. Red light, pulsing across my eyes. I grunt, maybe aloud, maybe just inside my head. My heart speeds and slows. I breathe.
“That was closer than I’d’ve liked,” the Doctor says. “Nurse B________ please administer the Osinum.”
Vanilla. Breasts. The nurse over me. The needle.
“Mr. R________, this last dose of Osinum will do the trick. Your skeleton will regrow over the next twelve hours, and parts of that might be painful, but it’s only temporary. We’ll be monitoring you closely, and Nurse B________ will employ some sedatives to prevent any additional relapses of Finleymania.”
I try to say ‘thank you,’ but without a skull, jaw, or palate, it comes out as “Thrrrk.” I try again. There’s something around my tongue now. It must be starting already. I try again.
“Thnkoo,” I hear myself say.
If I could move, I’d clap triumphantly.
“Good, Mr. R_________,” the Doctor says. “You’ll be a chatterbox in no time. You know, just ten years ago, someone in your condition would have gone straight to the morgue.”
“Ysssss,” I utter.
“It’s really quite amazing,” the Doctor says. “Modern medicine.”
That’s the opening paragraph of my book review of Agustin Aguilar’s Leonora Come Down. The review even includes portions of an interview I did with Aguilar last month. As It Ought To Be have published it in its entirety. I encourage you to check out the review, but also to read this book. It’s a remarkable work of fiction, poetic, intricate and beautiful.
For this original short story in BONED, I played with the children’s story genre. I hope you like it. – n.
BAG OF BONES: A CHILDREN’S STORY
BY NATE RAGOLIA
On Monday, the young boy exits the school bus in the afternoon. He bounds down the steps and crosses the suburban street for the alley that cuts between the rows of houses. The young boy passes the Jones, the Websters, the Underdunks, and the Hamiltons, and then something in the middle of the alleyway catches his eye. A burlap sack, tied shut with string, with a note safety pinned to the outside sits rumpled, an errant tumbleweed hooked to its woven exterior. The young boy runs up to the sack, takes the note in his little fingers and tries to read it.
“Fa– fa– fur– ee,” he says. “Free. Free!”
The young boy knows what free means, so he grabs the bag and claws it open. Inside he finds a skull, ribcage, two legs, two arms, hands, fingers, feet, and toes.
“A bag of bones,” he says excitedly.
The young boy closes the bag and drags it behind him through the alley, not stopping until he reaches the abandoned lot at the end of the alley. Once there, the young boy brings the bag of bones to the sandy ground beneath a mound of dirt surrounded by tires, and he starts to dig. He loses track of time, but when he has a dug hole, he places the bag of bones in the hole, and covers it over with dirt. Then he runs home, eager for supper, and not wanting his mom to worry.
On Tuesday, the young boy exits the school bus in the afternoon and runs from the bus, up the alley, and into the abandoned lot. He finds the hole he covered beneath the mound of dirt and lifts the bag of bones out from the ground. The young boy opens the bag and carefully removes each bone. He lays them out on the grass, not sure of their proper order, and creates something resembling a spider with a human head.
“Hello, crab man,” the young boy says.
“Hello, young boy,” the crab man replies.
The young boy and the crab man play tag for a couple of hours until the sun starts to set. Then the little boy puts the bones back in the bag and buries them once again beside the mound of dirt.
On Wednesday, the young boy sprints from the top step of the school bus, leading the driver to yell at him as he zips down the alley to the abandoned lot. The young boy digs up the burlap sack, and pours the bones out on the grass. He arranges them again, this time somewhat resembling a dog with a human head.
“You’re a good pooch,” the young boy says.
“And you’re a good owner,” the pooch replies.
The young boy and pooch play fetch until the sun is going down, and the boy has to pack up the bones, bury them, and run home for supper.
On Thursday, the young boy exits his school bus and soars through the alley toward his friend, buried by the mound of dirt. The young boy digs up the burlap sack, dumps the bones on the grass and lines them up. Today, the arms are low like legs, and the legs are up high by the shoulders, making big wings.
“Looking good, Mr. Bird,” the young boy says.
“Not as good as you,” Mr. Bird replies.
The young boy climbs on Mr. Bird’s back and they fly through the sky, above the clouds, and all around the town. The young boy can see the mailman walking his route, the tiny cars zipping from place to place, and even the roofs of the tallest buildings. They aren’t particularly interesting, except for the one with a swimming pool, and a bunch of ladies sunbathing.
As the sun starts to set, Mr. Bird flies back to the abandoned lot, and the young boy takes him apart, puts him back in the sack, and buries him. Then the young boy runs home.
On Friday, the young boy bolts from the bus, and runs through the alley. Today, Mr. Jones is watering his back lawn.
“Hello, Mr. Jones,” the young boy says.
“Hello,” Mr. Jones answers.
The young boy doesn’t stop. When he reaches the abandoned lot, the young boy digs up the bag of bones and dumps them on the grass. He arranges the bones in a long straight line, with the arms sticking out from the middle of the ribcage, and the rest of the bones making a long tail.
“You’re a mean old dragon,” the young boy says.
“Then you must slay me,” the dragon replies.
In an epic duel, the young boy spins and rolls and dives out of the way of the dragon’s fiery breath. Then, because he is a smart young boy, he climbs up onto the mound of dirt and uses his height advantage to get the drop on the dragon. The dragon doesn’t see him coming.
“You got me!” the dragon cries.
“I got you, dragon!” the boy echoes.
When the sun is close to setting, the boy gathers up the bones and puts them back in the sack and buries them again. Then he goes home for his supper.
One day, the boy simply stops visiting his bag of bones.
Another day, a construction company comes and builds a big house on the abandoned lot.
In time, the young boy grows into a man, and the man gets old, and then dies. And after he is gone his bones find a bag of their own.