You didn’t scream and carry on. No, you where much too angry for that sort of display. Your words instead came out as pure liquid nitrogen, moving slowly, as if trudging through sludge. Still, despite this glacial speed, I duck just in time to avoid the brunt of the F, though its serif does tear a gash in my cheek as it passes, distracting me enough that I catch the full force of the U as it slams into me.
Catching my breath, I ask,
“Was it something I said?”
Category Archives: Al McDermid
I didn’t notice it sitting there, in the middle of the table, when I first walked into the kitchen. I should have, but I didn’t. I poured my coffee as usual and stood in front of the sink drinking it, looking out at the not entirely unremarkable red brick wall of the neighboring building. Flecks of peeling white paint suggested traces of an ad that no one had cared about for fifty years. It obviously predated the construction of my building by a very long time. Were I inclined, I could have reached out and touched it. Instead, I thought about today’s trial, and the almost certainly guilty scumbag I’d be defending, and how, were he a successful criminal, he could have afforded his own attorney.
I finished the coffee, set the mug in the sink, turned to leave, and there it was; fat, pink, and severed. Its eyelids were closed and I wondered if the butcher had done that as some perverse gesture of respect. I didn’t know why he would have but I’m glad he had, though I couldn’t fathom why it was there, this head minus its hog; the roasting pan should have tipped me off.
I glanced at my watch, picked up my case, and left for work. Thinking about dinner would have wait.
Every weekday, a sea of humanity, over 2 million strong, surges through the turnstiles at Shinjuku Eki, the busiest metro station in the world. And every weekday morning, not only do I join this morass; I must also swim against the current, entering the station as most are leaving. Thankfully, this is the worst of it. It takes me nearly two hours to reach the school where I teach, but since it’s a cross-commute, I always get a seat, at least in the morning.
Then one morning endured that crush for the last time, though at the time, I didn’t know it.
It was unseasonable warm that spring day, so the vent windows along the roof were open. My school was rather rural and despite the onslaught of suburbia, a few fields still line the tracks. As the train neared my stop, a wave of nostalgia flooded over me, triggered by the scent of freshly plowed earth. When the train pulled to a stop, I found that I could not move, that I was inexplicably glued to my seat.
When the train arrived at the terminus, I had no choice but to exit, so I walked to the connecting station, figure out which train would take me farther into the country, and boarded.
I’ll decide what to do next when I reach the end of the line.
I put the shell to my ear and I listen, listen to the sound, the sound of my blood, my blood rushing, rushing through my hand.
From my hand, the sound flows, and I listen, caught in the tide, the tide of sound, the sound that takes me, takes me ever closer, ever closer to the source, deeper into the shell, deeper into my blood, deeper into the source.
I stood on the beach, staring out at the flat sea, thinking this was how Magellan first saw it. The movement of the water lapping at my feet was almost imperceptible.
A band of gray clouds hung over the sea, but the horizon was a straight line. As the sun broke through the clouds, angelic shafts of light cast a blinding slick upon the sea. The clouds then thickened, pushing the perfect red yoke of a sun toward the now burning sea.
“Hey,” I heard Josie yell from behind me, “c’mon, or you’ll miss it.” I turned to see her heading up the beach, to the iron stairs bolted to the nearly sheer cliff.
“Miss what?” I yelled back, but she didn’t respond, so I ran to catch up. I reached the top to find her sitting in the grass at the edge of the cliff. I sat next to her and asked again, “What am I missing?”
“Shhh,” she said, smiling, “watch.”
So I watched. The clouds and the sea had turned lavender, separated by a strip of yellow ochre. The ragged clouds higher up were bright splotches of bittersweet lavender and pink—higher still, the slightest sliver of a moon.
Then, as the last light of the drowning sun ranged the spectrum and ducked beyond the waves I saw it, the green flash.
We didn’t speak, and then, as the night and stars enveloped us, I finally took her hand.
52|250 thanks our flash contributor Al McDermid, for the use of his collage “Panel 3.7″ as this week’s art.
This is not solely my art, but is a collaborative collage created in conjunction with 6 other artists (I was #7 on this piece). The others all do amazing work, which you can see at:
At one point I had gotten it my head to move to Los Angeles and so picked up a copy of the LA Weekly, a magazine I had never before read. The cover story of this particular issue was about Henry Miller, in which Miller is quoted as saying, “If the floodgates of the psyche should open and destroy our society, what harm could there be in that?” I then knew I needed to read Miller, and wanted to do so at the moment, but I didn’t have any of his books. I could have gone to the bookstore, but that seemed, at that moment, like too much trouble. Besides, I had plans to meet some friends and was running late. I forget about Miller and head down the hill. Literature matters, but life matters more. Living it matters most of all. I later learned that Henry would have probably agreed.
There were two ways up the hill where I lived at the time, a straight steep shot, or a very long switch back. I seldom took the switch back, but that night I couldn’t face the climb. In front of one house along the way, stacked on top of the waiting garbage can, was a bundle of books, among them a ninety-five cent Black Cat edition of Tropic of Cancer.
It’s a simple process. I decide that I need to read Henry Miller and the universe provides Henry Miller.
The lock clicked and I slipped easily into the office, immediately sensing that something was off. Perfume, the scent too strong to have been left over since quitting time. I remained still, but sensed no one. I crossed the room to the painting that concealed the safe, clicked the hidden button, but then my heart sank. The safe was unlocked. I opened it and shined my light inside to find it was mostly empty.
Before this set back could register, the lights came on. I swung around and was simultaneously relieved and annoyed when I saw who it was.
“Vespa,” I hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you apparently,” she said. “To no avail, I should add.”
“Gone is it? Any ideas?”
“My first guess was you, so now I don’t know.”
“You don’t look dressed for this work,” I said, taking in her gown, a black silk number with a swooping neckline. “Is it new?”
“Like it?” she asked.
“Very becoming, but the perfume is sloppy. I thought I taught you better than that?”
“What you taught me was ‘easy in, easy out’,” she said. “I got myself invited to a party two floors up. I can explain being here. ”
“And I can’t,” I said, heading for the door.
“Let me check.” She looked into the hall, and then said, “Okay, clear.”
“Thanks, Love,” I said, slipping past her.
“Anytime, Dad,” she said. “I’ll stop by tomorrow.”
On the plane in, some guys fingered their crosses, but I didn’t have one, so I fiddled nervously with my signal clicker, breaking it. By then we were on our feet and hooking up.
I had joined the airborne because I wanted to know that the guy fighting next to me was the best, but I’d never liked jumping. Waiting for that green light, though, I’d watched one of the other planes break up after taking a hit, flaming paratroopers, guys I certainly knew, spilling from its door. After that, all I could think of was getting off that plane.
When I finally landed I was so surprised to be alive I momentarily forgot where I was, surrounded by the enemy, my weapon and leg bag torn from me by the plane’s prop wash, with no idea if I was anywhere near my drop zone. I crouched next to a tree, listening to the anti-aircraft guns, which didn’t sound nearly so frightening now that I was on the ground. Compared to inside the plane, where the noise had been deafening even before the shelling started, this grove where I hid was almost peaceful.
I heard movement close, but with no weapon, I feared using the password, feared giving away my position. Then I heard the sweetest word in the English language.
“Flash,” said the darkness.
“Thunder,” I said, emerging from the shadows. “Thunder.”
“One ‘thunder’ is sufficient, Trooper,” came the voice of my lieutenant. I could tell he was smiling.
The city’s last payphone rings as I pass it. I consider walking on but the phone is insistent. I look up and down the darkening street. I see no one so I answer it.
An operator comes on and says, “Long distance for Mr. Smith.” Her voice has a tinny quality, as if coming from out of the past, from before direct dialing.
“John Smith?” I say, confused.
“Yes, sir,” the operator says. “Are you Mr. Smith?”
“Yes,” I say, suddenly unsure if I am or not. “This is John Smith.”
“Please hold. I’ll connect you.”
The line momentarily goes dead, and then another woman comes on. “John?” she says in a voice as sweet as a forgotten dream. I struggle and fail to match a face to her voice.
“Speaking?” I say.
“Don’t bother,” she says. This time I catch a hint of an accent I can’t place.
“Si, don’t bother?” Si? That explains the accent, but it doesn’t help. I want her to say something else, anything. I want to ask her name but don’t. What if she’s someone I should know?
So instead I simply say, “All right.” With that, she hangs up. “Hello?” I repeat uselessly, clicking the switch hook several times, but she’s gone.
I return every night at the same time, hoping the phone will ring. After a week, I pick up the receiver. The line is as silent as a secret taken to a watery grave.
The former U.S. Naval Station at Subic Bay in the Philippines was separated from its port town by a large drainage canal we called Shit River. On the base side, one found hot water, wide streets, cheeseburgers, bowling, all the comforts of home, a piece of ‘the world’. One the other side, Olongapo City; us and them, divided by a river of shit.
Floating in the river was a fleet of small boats, where young girls dressed as prom queens begged for coins with wide wire scoops; their brothers dove for the coins they missed. In those days, crossing that bridge was like crossing into another reality, and all of your senses were assaulted at once. From the stalls that lined the first block came the smell of who knows what kind of skewered meat roasting on small braziers.
And straight ahead was Magsaysay Avenue, an ignominious strip of bars, nightclubs, live rock, massage parlors, hotels, restaurants every night fermenting with corruption, love, militarism, sex, hustling, drunkenness, everyone looking for a good time, or a short time, or a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or a peso, a ticket to America, a blow job, or drugs to banish the clap.
After the base closed, Magsaysay was not even a ghost of its former self. The clubs that weren’t gutted were boarded up. Gone too were the prom queens, along with the slums on the river where they lived.
All gone, banished to the memories of aging sailors.
The first thing to slip through the fog in my head is Sublime screaming, “My god, what is that awful smell?” As if a cue, I whiff. Clove cigarettes, the cloying scent reaching me through the wool covering my face. I try to reach up to move it away only to find that my arms are trussed behind me, tied to my feet; when I try to speak, I then taste the ball gag. What the . . . Okay, try to think. Sublime, clove cigarettes, bondage . . . Marla and Tyler. They must have roofied me.
I’d met Marla and Tyler, a sub/dom switch couple who get their kicks taking turns dominating each other, the week before at ‘Mistress’, an SM show club. I was bored and curious, so I put on a bunch of black and went for a look. Should have known they were wrong when I heard their names. What are the chances of an actual pair, never mind an SM couple, having those names?
I struggle helpless against the restraints, but at least get my face uncovered. Outside the streetlights blink by rhythmically.
“Looks like she’s awake,” Marla says, turning around to look at me. “You wanted to feel something real, this is real.” I make a muffled sound and try uselessly to sit up. “Don’t worry,” she continued, “if you were in actual danger, you’d be in the trunk.”
Perhaps because we were not as deep into the impossible as we had thought, we found no dragons and so slipped back into our own reality. The Police had gone, but the car was still there.
I say, “This is not my beautiful car. You are not my beautiful wife.”
You say, “This car was never that beautiful. It was also never a Chevy, but never mind that. If I’m not your beautiful wife, which wife am I?”
I say, “Don’t know. You could be my beautiful ex-wife but for two points.” But I didn’t go on. I look at the car instead, wonder why it is not a Chevy. Was it ever a Chevy? I couldn’t recall.
You say, “And those are?”
Looking up, I say, “Are what? Please make sense, please?”
You say, “What are the two points that demonstrate that I cannot be your beautiful ex-wife?”
I say, “I give up. What are they?”
You say, “The two reasons I cannot be your beautiful ex-wife is that we’ve never met, and, having never met, we could not have married.”
I say, “Right. Stupid that. We would have made great exes. We could have had an affair or something. Do you know why this car isn’t a Chevy?”
You say, “We’ve driven that car as far as we could, and since we’re now out West, we should abandon it.”
I say, “Since it was never a Chevy, I guess we should.”
Instant, searing pain, then . . . nothing, followed by a vague awareness. He stood gaping, too shocked to speak, watching his body slump to the floor, and finally, surprise at the realization. ‘She shot me! The ungrateful brat actually shot me.’
What had happened? It was after hours, in the kitchen of their restaurant, his vision, his skill, built with her money. They’d been arguing. He’d made his play and she’d found out. She’d threaten to push him out and he’s slapped her. And then . . .
He floated above the scene, near the ceiling, looking down, watching her remove his clothes.
“Who’s in charge now, bitch,” she spit as she knelt and began cutting with one of his best knives. “Take my money, then think you can push me out? Did you really think me that stupid?”
He howled with rage, at being dead, at being killed, at being killed by her, knowing she’d get away with it; a kitchen offered many ways to dispose of meat. His silent screams went unnoticed as she continued to cut.
‘Okay, reality check,’ he thought, ‘I’m a ghost. I can haunt her. I can haunt her into the grave. Then, when she’s dead, I can torment her ghost.’
He looked down with new purpose, but she and his body were indistinct and far away. It was his last thought as his ghostly essence dissipated through the ventilation ducts.
He’s on his third shot, liquid fortification, when she walks up and stands next to him at the bar.
“Buy me a drink,” she says. He looks at the bartender, who looks at her. “Same as him.”
“What are we drinking to?” he asks. She has a few years on her, but she wears them well; her breasts hang loose under her silk blouse.
“How about my tits,” she says, “since you can’t seem to keep your eyes off them.”
“And why is this a bad thing?” he asks. She gives him a look, and then knocks her tequila back in one motion, and not to be outdone, he follows suit.
When she finishes the lime she says, “You know, if you weren’t such an asshole, you would have fucked me by now.”
He puts twenty dollars on the bar and takes her by the wrist, leads her toward the door. She matches his pace and puts her arm around his waist, laughing. Once outside, he pulls her into the alley next to the bar and hikes up her skirt, not surprised to find she’s wearing no panties.
After finishing, they lean panting against the wall. “Give me a cigarette,” she says. He lights two and hands her one. After a long drag, she says, “So, lover, how’d you like your anniversary present?”
“Best ever,” he says. “Don’t know how I’m going to outdo you next year.”
“You’ll think of something,” she says, smiling. “You always do.”
The divine winds were still, so the pitiless roar of enemy bombers was drowned only by the desperate wail of the air raid sirens. From the faintest purr of the first enemy plane until the last bomb fell, the world was noise, nothing but noise; the sirens would scream, the engines would roar, the bombs would fall, but fall somewhere else.
That morning started as all others, but it was not; three planes the radio said, so it could not be a raid. Only one was seen. It sounded almost lonely. Had it gotten lost, separated from the other planes, on their way to deal death to some other city? Would it deliver its death dealers here? At 8 o’clock, the ‘all clear’ sounded.
In a flash, the sun came to earth, followed by darkness. The bomb brought no fire, but small fires, started by stoves and fallen wires, ignited here and there, feed on the rubble of the collapsed, wooden city, swept by the bomb-born wind.
And above the destruction that signature cloud rose, towered miles above, like the shadow of a colossus, or of some monstrous god. In its wake, the menacing echo of silence.
Last Bus to Translation by Al McDermid
From the diner, the report sounded like a gun shot. I turned to see an old greyhound bus rolling into Clyde’s station, one of its back right tires obviously blown. The door opened and some of the passengers filed out, stretching.
“Looks like the town going to grow some,” Rosie said from behind the counter.
“Yep,” I said, “looks that way.”
The driver came in, sat at the counter, and ordered a coffee. “First the detour, then this,” he said. “Guess it’s just going to be one of those days.”
“You have no idea,” I said. Rosie glared at me and silently mouthed ‘stop it’ but she was smiling.
The driver looked about to say something but was interrupted when one of his passengers came in, a young blond girl in a full-on Hippie Chick get-up, who headed immediately for the restroom. Was that look back in style?
“Never mind him,” Rosie said. “He’s just like that. Clyde will have you fixed up in no time.”
The driver finished his coffee and headed out, getting to the bus just as Clyde was finishing up. He herded his passengers aboard, turned the bus around, and was heading down the road when Hippie Girl came running out of the restroom.
“Oh man,” she said, obviously exasperated. “I knew that driver wanted to ditch me.”
“Don’t worry, Hon,” Rosie said. “He’ll be back. Say, you want some pie?”
Street photography is defined by wikipedia as “a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and other settings.” I discovered ‘street’ photography shortly after joining Deviant Art, decided to give it a try, and started shooting people doing what people do. I’m not sure what I was after when I shot ‘The Connection’ since I didn’t at first realize that the two subjects were looking at each other. Street photos are like that; sometimes to get what you’re after, sometimes you get lucky. It’s part of the fun.
– Al McDermid
He sat down with no ‘hello’ or nothing and said, ‘I need to talk.’ Not, ‘we need to talk,’ like when someone wants to lay some serious shit on you, which I guess is fine since I can’t imagine what ‘we’, I mean, he and I, would need to talk about. Sure, I had a thing for him before, didn’t we all? I swear, have you yet seen such a beautiful ass. No, neither have I. So, yeah, I’d drooled over his finely sculpted glutes, but we were never, you know, ‘we’, which doesn’t matter, since he didn’t say ‘we’ need to talk, but ‘I’ need to talk. And that’s exactly what he meant. He must have just snorted a triple doppio. You know how converts can get. I swear, I could have been a cabbage, my head could have turned INTO a cabbage, right there, and it would have made no difference. He didn’t even look at the girls here. And I was where that lavender low cut, the one that really plunges, but, not even a glance. Yeah, he obviously REALLY needed to talk. What about? What else? New York fucking City. Yeah, he said it just like that, every time he said it, on and on, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, the energy, the clubs, the girls, the BOYS! No, I didn’t know that about him either, but yeah, whatever. Finally, I had to ask, “So, why’d you come back?”
I’m sitting in the park, under a big maple, intent on reading some poetry, when a fledgling drops out of the tree and lands next to me. It is so young and ugly that I cannot discern its breed, and it’s squawking like all get out, undoubtedly at the shock of suddenly not being in the nest.
I look at it for awhile, thinking I should perhaps let natural selection take its course, do nothing so this individual can’t pass on the clumsy gene, or the over-anxious gene, or whatever gene caused it to tumble from the nest. It seems of little consequence one way or the other. Thousands of birds fall from nests and that’s that. Had I not been here, this one would be no different.
But this one is different. It’s flailing in the grass next to me, right now. I look up into the tree, dubious of my ability to reach even the lowest branch, let alone find the nest. Then there’s that thing about mother birds rejecting chicks handled by humans, but I don’t know if that is even true, or if it is, that it’s true for all birds.
So I pick it up, see how easy it would be to close my hand and decide the issue, and understand why we imagine that our gods are terrible.
The first postcard was from the Grand Canyon, posted marked the week before. The message read, ‘Dear Penelope, This is where I met your mother. Love, Dad.’ A cruel hoax, being played by I didn’t know who, since my father had been dead for years, so many years that I’d never known him. To me, he was a young guy in a 25-year-old photograph.
The second postcard was from Las Vegas, where my parents had married, the card told me, though I knew the story already. My mom was on her way to LA, had stopped to see the Grand Canyon. My father had spent the summer hiking the canyon. Love at first sight, my mother had told me hundreds of times. When she was drinking, the tale was bitter, accusatory.
I had no idea who’d been sending the cards, but I couldn’t show them to mom since she still blamed herself for his death. They had left Vegas, heading for LA. Mom was driving and there had been an accident. Mom survived, Dad went through the windshield. She didn’t even know she was pregnant.
The third postcard was from Mojave, California. It pictured the desert, but the hoaxer had now gone too far; the card read, ‘Dear Penelope, This is where I died. Love, Dad.’ If I was to figure this out, I’d have to show Mom, but wish I had not. When she recovered, her voice still shaking, she said, “It’s your father’s handwriting.”
I was just beyond the smallest dot on the map, a crossroads with a diner and a gas station, when my water pump went out. I’d seen a tow truck parked next to the gas station, so I pulled off the road before overheating, and walked back up the road, passing the sign naming the town. It was shot up and rusting, but I could still read it:
As I approached the station, the mechanic, a lanky, long-haired kid, was already climbing into the truck.
“Saw you blow through here,” he said. “What happened?” The patch above his left pocket read ‘Clyde’.
“Water pump belt snapped.”
“Go over to the diner,” he said. “I’ll come get you when it’s fixed.”
In the diner, I sat at the counter and ordered coffee. The place was empty but for the waitress, the tag on her too-tight pink uniform read ‘Rosie’. I could hear the cook in the back.
Bad Haircut was having another bad hair day. So bad in fact that Bad vowed to not leave the house. Happy that, thanks to summer, she wouldn’t have to go to school, she sat in the kitchen, moping over her coffee, listening to her mother insist she get out and enjoy the weather. Her older sister, Fabulous, the pretty one, did not help matters by bouncing through the kitchen at that moment, her always fabulous hair bouncing along with her.
“Why can’t you be more like your sister,” her mother intoned as Fabulous bounced out the door, on her way to rescue puppies, or whatever it was she was doing to beef up her college application.
“Because,” Bad said, drawing out the pause, “I’m not. Duh.” With that she left to watch TV.
The previous school year had been tolerable thanks to the goth/emo look she’d cultivated to give reason for her perpetually unruly hair, and while the look still worked for her, the culture that came with it did not. Sure, Bad was occasionally depressed (thanks to the hair), but she saw no reason to make a lifestyle out of it; she wasn’t about to cut herself. Plus, she didn’t like boys who wore black fingernail polish. Something had to give. Next year, she’d be a senior and clearly needed a new plan.
Surfing through the channels, she landed on VH1 in time to see Sinead O’Connor. “Mom,” she called out, smiling, “I need money for a haircut.”
When I inherited the house I grew up in, the house my grandfather built, I knew the upkeep and back taxes would wipe me out. Even the renovations required to make the place truly marketable were out of the question. So, I sold it for what I could get, leaving most of the furniture.
When the pink slip arrived, I knew that I would not be able to keep the very modest place I’d bought with the proceeds from my grandfather’s house. I hung onto it for as long as I could, but months later, I was still unemployed and my money was mostly gone. I sold the house, leaving more stuff behind.
When the store where I finally found work closed, I knew I was cursed. I took what money I had, bought a van, which seemed a better plan than waiting to be evicted from my rented apartment. I donated the last of my furniture to Goodwill, then loaded up my clothes, books, and vinyl collection.
When the van broke down, I managed to get it off the road. At least it was in a good spot. I put out a sign and sold the books and records. Once these were gone, I packed what clothes I could into my old sea bag, walked to the nearest southbound on-ramp, and stuck out my thumbs.
When a blond in a Mercedes stopped to pick me up, I thought my luck had finally changed . . .
I point out an elk standing at the edge of the forest, but we’re traveling at over seventy, so you miss it, and then sulk until we see another. We pull into the next rest stop to check the map—it says, “Beyond here lurk only dragons”. We plan to forge ahead anyway, but are detained by The Police.
“You are accused of making and distributing subversive pornography,” Sting says. We have no idea what he’s talking about since A) we don’t have a camera, and B) we have not had sex since embracing the biological relationship of nothingness to death.
“Subversive pornography?” I say. “Sounds Interesting.” You say, “Can we see it?”
“If I show it to you,” he says, “I’d have to arrest myself and I can’t do the time.”
“What’s the penalty?” I ask.
“Take this red pill,” he says to me; to you he says “Take off that red dress. You don’t have to wear that dress tonight.” “I like this dress,” you say. “It’s my favorite. Besides, I’d rather do the drugs.”
We both take a red pill each and slip sideways from reality to find ourselves face deep in the impossible. The Police don’t follow us, but at some point we’ll have to go back for the car. Then again, maybe this is where the dragons lurk. Accepting no reason to hold back, the realization brings to a greater consciousness of the moons of Jupiter, spinning in their orbit.
I dearly want to reject Darwin
I turn away
*Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural, March 4th, 1861
The tattered dress proved more resilient than flesh, shrouding her bones, lying in a ditch. In the ditch where they’d left her.
Where they’d left her? Who’d left her?
She looked at the bones, at the summer dress. The tree she stood next to was a riot of color, red and gold. She screamed and screamed, blowing the leaves from the tree. When she stopped screaming, it was winter. When she stopped, she remembered.
They had some beers they’d stolen, asked her along. Why not, she knew them from school. She knew them . . .
Moving though the moonlight, though the snow-swept stubble of last summer’s corn, she came to their farm. The animals stirred as she passed, the dogs barked, then whimpered, turning tail. The ghostly light of the television flickered in the window. She hurled herself against it, smearing her image against the frost.
One jumped, but the other just laughed. It’s the wind, you fool, just the wind.
No, it’s her. I know it’s her. Look, in the window. See? It’s her! Why’d you do it? Why?!
Shut up, shut up! It was an accident. You were there. It’s what we agreed. The windows rattled as she howled again.
No. I’m calling. Someone has to know. She’ll never rest, never leave us.
You’ll call no one.
The phone clattered to the floor. She laughed and laughed. Her laughter still echoes through the empty house, tormenting their struggling shades.
“Okay,” Jim said, “I’ll start. Batman.”
Faster than a speeding bullet, Mark responded with, “Superman. There, I win.”
“Hey,” Jim protested, “that’s not how it’s played.” Mark sat in front of the fire, poking at the burning slates they’d torn off the walls. They’d been lucky to find a squat with a fireplace.
“Sure it is,” Mark said. “You pick a super hero, and then I pick one that can kick his ass. So, unless Batbitch has a kryptonite boomerang in his utility belt, Superman wins, every time.”
“The idea is to stretch it out, take different tacks. Kill time. It’s not like we can go anywhere.”
“I’m tired of this game,” Mark said, giving the fire another poke. Sparks shot up the chimney.
“You got a better idea,” Jim said. “Talking keeps us awake and we ran out of actual shit to talk about weeks ago.”
“Alright,” Mark said. Then he smiled. “I know. Blade. Blade could take Batman.”
“Blade,” Jim said, obviously impressed. And so back and forth they went, rifling through the various superhero universes, even pulling names from old TV shows.
“Can I choose the Fantastic Four?” Mark asked. “No, wait. The Hulk.”
“The Hulk? That leaves me no choice,” Jim said, almost gleefully. “Superman.”
“You are such a punk,” Mark said, ‘but you haven’t won. Silver. Surfer.”
“Silver Surfer? Are you high? Silver Surfer couldn’t take Superman.”
“Maybe not,” Mark said smiling, “but where Silver Surfer goes, Colossus can’t be far behind.”
The last time I saw my only brother, he was spitting mad, but refused to discuss it; the ‘slight’ was something not within my control. Our mother tried to reconcile us, to no avail, and so, I went my way and he went his. He died two years later, the bitterness still lingering.
The last time I saw my father, I saw a broken old man and not the terrorist that haunts my youth. I sat on his dusty couch while he talked about people I vaguely remembered or never knew, and his drunken caretaker harangued me about Jesus. A storm was moving in and the forecast was for ice, so I took that as my cue and left a day early. We speak on the phone every few months, whenever his heart acts up, and even though we never have anything to say, we still try to say it.
The last time I saw my grandfather was a perfect summer day. We fished for bluegills in a small lake of black water on land he used to own. I don’t remember what we spoke of and it hardly matters. After, we picked blueberries; I baked two pies and brought most of the fish home on the plane, frozen in a small cooler.
The last time I saw my mother, she was doing well despite her 90 years. We speak often and I’m careful that a cross word never passes between us, in case it is our last.
When he became old enough to know that names were given by parents, in his case, by his mother, and realizing that she could have named him anything, he was not happy knowing that shechose to name him ‘Lucky’. His sister, Fortuna, couldn’t understand why he was so upset. “You don’t have a dog’s name,” he had told her.
His mother, Prima, had said it was because his father, Wrong, had been, well, just wrong. “When I was dating your father,” mother said, “my mama had said ‘that man is wrong for you’. I thought she was making a bad joke, but turned out she was right and he was wrong.”
The Number family lived in Manhattan, near the corner 5th Street and 3rd Avenue, but Wrong was always ending up at the corner of 3rd Street and Thompson (what would have been 5th Avenue had the numbering system stretched into Greenwich Village), wandering around looking for his apartment. Most of the people in that neighborhood came to know him and someone would eventually call Lucky to come and collect him.
Then somehow, while on his way to a cryptology conference in Munich, Wrong managed to get on a plane flying to Manila. A few weeks later, after no word at all, Lucky received a postcard from his father. The front of the card was of the Banaue rice terraces; the back read:
“I’m living in a small village with no addresses. I think I’ll stay awhile.”
The signs were clear, clear as the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico; clear as the sky above of the burning lungs of the earth; clear as the melt water from the last glacier.
The temperatures rose, breaking records, and drying up lakes, leaving fields to die of thirst, breeding famine.
Sea levels rose, swallowing islands and nations, while dead zones flourished and fish populations crashed.
Habitat destruction and the Holocene extinction sped on, 1000 times faster than average evolutionary rates, wiping out plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and arthropods; 875 documented cases, closer to 20,000, perhaps two million.
And still we built because still we bred, like rabbits, or rats; Bred like cancer, killing the host.
Clear signs, yes, but also obscured, obscured by desire, want, ego, rhetoric, politics, greed, myopia, wealth, comfort, hunger, distance, media . . .
Plus, the other signs were assuring and ubiquitous. These signs told us that ‘We Are Not Responsible’.
When the pounding started again on Sunday morning, I decided to look over the high fence to investigate. My neighbor I discovered was building a boat. The keel was down, about 25 to 30 feet long, and most of the ribs were in place. My neighbor pounded away non-stop, one nail after another. I watched awhile, and then spoke when he was between nails.
“Hey Fred,” I called, “building a boat, huh.” I was good at stating the obvious.
“What!?” He looked around, startled. “It’s an ark.”
“Expecting a flood?” I said, stifling a smirk.
“Yep,” was all he said, and returned to his hammering. I looked up—not a cloud anywhere.
On Monday night he strung flood lights and worked until midnight. I let it pass, but when I got home on Tuesday, I could hear that he was still at it so I took another look. Fred had been busy. It looked rough, but nearly finished. And it did look like it would float.
“Kind of small for an ark,” I called over. “Who you taking with you?”
“How many animals are you planning on then?”
“No animals,” he said as if speaking to a dim child, “bugs.”
“Yes, bugs,” he said. “I’ve been collecting them for months. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to hurry.”
I looked up again. Lightning flashed in the distance and I heard the crack of thunder.
Sleep views the world at right angles and has never seen a rainbow. He lives by the river where he was once a ferryman, in shack that he built from railroad ties, orange crates, and old typewriters. The shack is not plumb and groans in the wind. When it rains, he sits under its tin roof and listens to the symphony. Sometimes it plays Chopin, other times, Beethoven. He wishes it would play more Mahler, but the roof never plays the same piece twice. He thinks that were he to get a new roof, maybe he could hear some of his favorites one more time.
Sleep once took passengers across the river for a price. He might ask for food, or a fishing fly, or a fool-me-once, but he’d take almost anything as long as the name of that thing began with ‘f’. He traded these for the other letters that he needed. A German tourist once offered his wife, who in turn offered to set fire to the shack. When Sleep declined her offer, she suggested a fusillade. Sleep took them for free; they fought with each other all the way across.
When anyone took Sleep’s ferry, they’d get to the other side, but it could be anywhere on the other side. That was before the rains stopped and river dried up. Sleep now just sits in his shack, waiting to hear Mozart.
I hold it in my hand, feel its compact, substantial weight, and marvel at the mechanical precision. I insert a single bullet, my only bullet, and spin the cylinder. I listen to it purr, and when it stops, I pull back the hammer; the cylinder locks with a loud click. But I don’t know where the bullet is, so release the hammer and ease it back into place, and set the piece on the table.
I pick up instead the sliver of carbon-tempered menace by its walnut handle, admire its balance, the precision of its edge, so lethal a mere thought could move it through flesh. I sharpen it nonetheless, push it lovingly across the stone, the rhythmic act a meditation.
I stand at the far end of the platform, where the train enters the station, only beginning to slow. I toe the edge, well inside the yellow warning strip, close my eyes and the train rush by as if it’s nothing but hot wind.
I cannot reach the edge at the top of the tower that houses my office, but he wind here is cooler, stronger, and unrelenting. I sense I would fly for a time, fly across the seemingly endless sea of light that must, from space, appear as an incandescent stain.
He found himself standing in their daughter’s room, staring at the dusty mobile of the planets, unsure of how he’s come to be there. He looked at her bed, her desk, the unfinished homework. He considered opening the window, but the thought slipped away before he could act on it.
He wandered into the living room, looked out the window. The grass needed cutting. Did it? He wasn’t sure.
His wife would know, but she’d already left for work. Seems she left earlier every morning and came home later each night. Another thought occurred to him, something about each in their own way, but he couldn’t hold it. Perhaps she was having an affair. He wondered at how he might feel about it if she was, decided he wouldn’t feel anything.
He went into the kitchen, looked at the table, littered with unopened mail. He took a bottle from the cabinet and sat down at the table. Was he starting later than yesterday or earlier? Wasn’t sure it mattered. He opened the bottle, but found he’d forgotten to get a glass. He wasn’t going to drink from the bottle. He hadn’t sunk that far.
He set the bottle aside and looked though the mail, most of it junk, a few bills that might get paid, and one addressed to their daughter, her acceptance to Space Camp. Yeah, he thought, she would have liked that.
“And then Jon shows up, hovering like he wants to sit, and you know how Del feels about Jon…”
The sensation starts at the back of head and I mistaken it for a mosquito, though I know it’s on the inside.
“There’s a free chair, so he sits uninvited, talking nervously like he does…”
It crawls into my lizard brain and I smile at the impulse to kill.
“Well, you know Del, always ranting and carrying on, but he just sits there, stone-silent, so we know he’s pissed and…”
It borrows farther into my brain and I imagine newly transformed bees eating themselves free of the honeycomb.
“So Jon is going on about some inane crap and Del just loses it, laughing madly, and we’re all just gaping at him, and he finally stops and says he’s never heard a bigger pile of…”
It spreads itself across the back of my head. I’m ready to pull off a piece of my skull to get to it.
“Brenda then gets all mad at Del and starts telling him off and so Amy jumps and I’m sure there’s going to be a catfight and…”
It wraps itself around my brain, squeezing it into citrus pulp, chasing reason before it.
“Charlene,” I say, and she finally stops talking. “Could you please just shut up?”
“Jeez, if you don’t what to hear this just say so.”
It was the same dream, the same dream every night for, for how long I couldn’t remember, the same burning, searing flesh, streaming blood, rivers of it, every night without fail. I awoke with a start, disoriented, my mouth dry. I looked over at the clock. At ten-to-six, with no reason to try for more sleep, my feet found the floor and I sat while my head cleared. All that blood.
I trudged into my kitchen to find something to eat, reading the labels of state-provided supplements; oatmeal, scrambled eggs, prune Danish. I decided to splurge and have the apple pie. Hardly mattered. They all tasted pretty much the same and nowhere near what the labels called the stuff, though hardly anyone alive knew the difference. Those few of us that did remember never spoke of these things, even to each other.
I sat nibbling on the biscuit, wrestling with the images from the dream, the bloody charred flesh, so real I hear the hot metal, so immediate I smell it. I shook off the sensation, washed down the last of the pie supplement with what passed for coffee, and dressed for work. Once there, one thought propelled through drudgery, the same thought, day after day, the thought of sleep, of sleep and the dream, the dream of red, succulent, rare, juicy meat.
“What is the world but a pile of contradictions?” he had said, launching once again into one of his favorite themes. “Dark is the absence of light and evil the absence of good, and yet, can one exist without the other? No, it cannot. “
“Hold on. Darkness as the absence of light, I can see,” she said. “It’s self-evident. The sun is in the sky, or it’s not, but there’s a big black hole in your argument.”
“An anomaly,” he said with a derisive wave.
“I don’t mean an actual black hole” she said. “In order for your evil-as-the-absence-good metaphor to work, as a strict parallel to the binary relationship between light and darkness, you have to demonstrate that ‘good’ is substantial.”
“Yes,” he said, “that would be correct. Do you think I cannot?”
“I don’t see how. Despite everything happening in the world, I can see that evil has no substantial existence, but that does not mean that it’s opposite necessarily does.”
“Sure it does,” he said. “Existence may be powered by contradiction, but its essence is attraction. The glue of the world is love. What is love if not good? I’ll prove it to you.” He took her by the waist, pulled her close, and kissed her. When he let up, she held his head and continued with more vigor.
“You and I,” she said upon relenting. “Talk about a pile of contradictions.”
“Indeed,” he said. “Thank you for proving my point.”