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thisisbillgorton has 15 articles published.

Abundance by John Weir

in Issue Two/Nonfiction

The first time I went to a Debtors Anonymous meeting, they passed a bag for dues. Dues!  At Debtors Anonymous.  A bagful of loose bills in my grasp.  Did they send around a fifth of scotch at AA?  It was all I could do not to reach in and fish out my rent.  I was two months behind.  Was I really expected to put my stash of quarters and dimes, culled from a jar of loose change – my only active bank account – into a stranger’s purse?

I passed the bag along.

This act of refusal seemed especially furtive and small, given the place. We were in a church basement.  All around me, the indebted were perched in folding metal chairs, defeated but eager to “share.”  They were aggressively bereft.  Their pious abjection!  Their terrible lives, doled out in three-minute bursts.  What if I were not the most desperate guy in the room?  Could I stand that?  I saw at once that I had based my self-esteem on the faith that I had lost more than anyone else.  That was my secret pride.

And now, for my sin, I was in church.  The room was heavy with the atmosphere of grim confession paired with pleading self-affirmation, interrupted by appeals to the Higher Power. It was part love-in, part revival meeting.

Yet the faithful seemed to know something I did not.  They were talking in code, and I was trying hard to get what they meant.

“This is a disease of vagueness and denial,” somebody said.

“I’ve been in chaos all week,” said another.

There followed a chorus of assenting grunts, like Satan’s host of rebel angels coming clean about themselves, cast down not to a dark opprobrious den of shame but to a church basement hung with last month’s Christmas decorations – paper snowflakes, trumpeting shepherds, tinfoil stars.  They went on naming their transgressions, in the language of the place:

“I’m an anorexic spender.”

“I’ve been isolating.”

“I’m a deprivation addict,” a woman said.  Then she started to cry.  “Does anyone have a tissue?  I just need a corner.”

Then suddenly a guy was “qualifying” – giving a careful recounting of his path to solvency.  Sitting in the lotus position, with his palms open on his bent knees, he had fifteen minutes to speak, but he took thirty.  Clearly not a deprivation addict.

“I’m a debtor and a gambler with a history of substance abuse and a sex addiction and a difficult relationship to food,” he said.  “Sex is a substance.  So are the Mets.  The fuckingMets.”

Then he said the words “my abundance” and cried without speaking for three minutes and twenty-seven seconds.  I clocked it.  I hate to watch men cry.  They always expect a reward.  But we were in the West Village, and the room was packed with straight women and gay guys with important haircuts.  Everyone was profoundly moved.  There was a “spiritual timekeeper,” a woman who was supposed to signal when the man’s share was through, but I could tell from the expression on her face that she was going to let him go on and on.

I wanted a cigarette.  I had started smoking again, and I was spending whatever money I begged, borrowed, or rescued from the depths of my couch on a pack-and-a-half a day, bought a pack at a time.  Sure, I could smoke more cheaply, take a day trip to Long Island and pay forty-eight bucks for a carton.  Even figuring round trip train fare to Oyster Bay, that was still better than shelling out thirteen bucks a pack to the guys at my corner deli.  But I wasn’t smoking, I was stopping after this one.  Every cigarette was my last.  In any case, I never had forty-eight dollars all at once. So I was smoking provisionally, taking it one day at a time.

Finally, the guy stopped crying and started to talk.  He had a dreadful life.  Poverty, abuse, alcoholic parents, homelessness, drugs, demeaning sex, lousy jobs. Yet by the time he finished his story, he was solvent and ready for love, like the end of a Jane Austen novel. I didn’t join in the supportive applause.  His resurrection felt staged.

He dried his eyes, and we were asked to write.  No wonder we were treating debt as a narrative device: I had stumbled into a twelve-step Writers Group.  The place was jammed with novelists, their unsold manuscripts swelling their hard drives. Sheets of paper were handed around, printed with writing prompts.  We had twenty minutes to answer the following questions:

“Are you ready to let God remove your defects?”

God?  Is extracting my defects?  Will there be Novocain?

The next question said:

“What does it mean to be ready?

I didn’t have a pen.  Could I ask to borrow somebody’s pen at Debtors Anonymous?

Then:

“Why aren’t you ready?”

Why were these questions so hostile?  I thought about asking the crying guy to hold me.  Ready?  I don’t think I’ve ever been ready.  I wasn’t ready to earn money, and I wasn’t ready to spend it.  I certainly wasn’t ready to keep it.  I wasn’t ready to get things, and I wasn’t ready to have them taken away.  Who decided I was ready for the credit card sent to me by American Express in 1988? It came unbidden, pre-approved, with a $1,000 line of credit.  I had just finished grad school.  Credit card companies like nothing more than MFAs and PhDs in English Literature. They love the Humanities.  If you were inclined to spend wisely and plan for the future, you would not be getting a degree in Creative Writing.  American Express meets an English major, they see two words: penaltiesand interest.

Yet when their card came in the mail, I thought I had gotten a man from the Lord.  I was twenty-eight, an out of work white guy with two useless degrees, a BA in English and an MFA in Fiction.  My credit card was Prospero’s wand.  Americans don’t get rich or feel free unless they have slaves, but I found another way: American Express.

Then the bills came.  Who had money for that?  I paid them on time for a while, and then increasingly late.  Soon I was getting dunning notices, and final warnings, and pink slips with black block letters.  And because I was sending all my money to American Express, I couldn’t pay the IRS, and the difference between the government and a collection agency is minor but distinct: The government can freeze your bank account. Which is why I don’t have one.  So what?  You can’t lose what’s already gone.  Am I a deprivation addict?  When I’m left with nothing, I recognize myself.  Abundance would crush me.

I was $50,000 in debt, and that was my life.  It’s what I did.  I owed things.  I tried to file bankruptcy, but there was a fee.  A fee for a bankrupt!  “If I could pay for this, I wouldn’t be here,” I told the man behind the Lucite window. We were in one of those big 19thcentury buildings where they keep the terrible agencies that audit your taxes and revoke your driver’s license and refuse to lend you money on your retirement fund.  I knew he wouldn’t help me.  Still, you get two choices in life, suicide and hope, and I was sure I would kill myself wrong and end up not dead but maimed, with bad insurance.  So I picked hope, and watched the man through the window.

At last he spoke.  “I can’t do nothing for you,” he said, a smile of bureaucratic glee spreading across his face.  Then he pushed two forms through the slot at the base of his window.  I have measured out my life in government forms.  Forms to declare and forms to refute, forms to document and forms to deny, forms to justify and stipulate and itemize and plead. “I already got plenty of forms,” I told him, and he snuffled and wiped his nose and said, “Well, now you got two more.”

I took his forms home and threw them in a drawer stuffed with bills.  Not exactly bills.  They were beyond bills.  They were not even any longer patient reminders to pay bills.  Warnings and disconnect notices, they were orders to put up and to appear, to represent myself in Small Claims Court, to respond to final statements.  Everything was past due, it was always already too late.

Why aren’t I ready?  I’m just a debtor, that’s all.  I don’t have a reason.  In any case, reasons don’t help. Neither does blame, which is too bad, because I’m half Catholic.  The other half is Episcopalian, and I learned two things, growing up: Everything is your fault, and no one can help you.

What I had instead of reasons were boldfaced warnings from the IRS, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and the Parking Violations Bureau. Con Edison took away my light on a regular basis.  How many nights have I spent alone in the dark, which is not a metaphor, without a phone because I also owed money to Verizon?  In the black of night I couldn’t read the books I bought compulsively at Barnes and Noble with lousy checks.  The books I didn’t read for which I hadn’t paid covered the walls of my apartment like the lining of a uterus.

I slept in a dark womb hiding from a law firm in Bayside, Queens.  It was the local strong-arm of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, to whom I had been reported by Columbia University, from which I hadn’t officially graduated years before because I still owed them $3,000.

Why didn’t I pay Con Ed on time?  I had the money.  For a minute. I promised myself not to spend it. I lied.  I spent everything.  I wasted it all, not even on a weekend drunk like Ray Milland pawning his typewriter for a Gin Rickey in crisp black-white-white New York under the Third Avenue el.  I didn’t have a typewriter to sell, or an el to stumble under, but I had the Strand Bookstore, where I sold my books.  I bought them full price in August and sold them for one quarter their cost in November.

No one is meaner than the guys who buy your books back at the Strand.  They know exactly what filthy habits you have welcomed into your life, what acts in cubbyholes and dark corners you cannot even afford except by selling on Friday morning the volumes of existential philosophy you purchased Monday afternoon.

I owed money to co-workers and ex-boyfriends and dead friends and my shrink. My shrink!  I went to his office every week for ten years and for five of them I didn’t pay.  We sat together in his sunny room in his beautiful leather chairs discussing why I couldn’t afford to be there, and then I left without paying.

I fled therapy and moved to Texas, which is what twelve-step programs call “doing a geographic.”  That’s how America was settled: Thousands of white people in pointy hats got in big boats in order to run out on the Parking Violations Bureau, and their reward was Connecticut.

I had a teaching job in Texas that lasted five months, but I agreed to continue therapy on the phone, because: I can’t let go!  I don’t break up with people, I just turn out one day to be living in Houston, and then my phone gets disconnected.  Who can reach me?  Not my fault!  It’s possible my therapist was my oldest living friend, excluding my brother and my parents who I hope aren’t reading this, and one ex-boyfriend whom I dumped twice in ten years and whom I still owe $1200.  I owe my shrink $5000.  I stopped calling both of them.  I stopped calling everyone.

They were all creditors.  I owed something to everybody, money or love or an explanation or an email message. My family, my friends, my longtime service providers, the IRS, Mr. Locke from American Express who called me every day, twice a day, more faithfully than any lover.  “This is Mr. Locke,” he said, my morning wake-up call.  His voice was thunderously low.  “Hi, Mr. Locke,” I said.  “Mr. Locke,” I said, “do you realize you’re my most successful long-term relationship?”

The group leader at Debtors Anonymous told us to put down our pens.  I wasn’t done.  I needed more paper.  Nonetheless, it was time to read, out loud, what we wrote.

The woman beside me volunteered to speak.  She set aside the page of questions on which she had written nothing at all.  “I won’t read what I didn’t write,” she said.  Her hands were folded in her lap, and her voice was clear and low.  She was in her forties, wearing a blouse and skirt, and her hair was pulled back off her face and held in place by a clip.  She paused a long time, but without tears.

I knew what I wanted her to say.  I wanted her to say, “I hate the world.”  “Some are gonna rob you with a six gun, some do it with a fountain pen,” she would say. “America, I have given you my all and now I’m nothing.  Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”  She didn’t say that.  She didn’t say, “I’ll pay my back taxes when abortion is free on demand in Texas, why are one million young black men in prison, when will George Bush finally admit there were no weapons of mass destruction?”

She said nothing like that.

Instead, she talked simply and plainly for exactly three minutes and her story was so stark, so uninflected by program lingo, that I was ashamed of myself.  She was in worse shape than I had ever been. Yet she spoke without a trace of self-pity.  She stated facts, and didn’t stop for applause.

I would not have survived her life.  Yet she said, “Every morning, I get on my knees.  First thing.  And I thank God for another day.”

Well.  I was furious.  Thank God?  For another day?  Every morning, I wake up angry that I’m not Brad Pitt.  How dare she?  The meeting lasted twenty minutes longer.  I said the stupid serenity prayer, and then I ran outside and smoked three cigarettes – two of which I bummed from passersby – before I calmed down.

 


John Weir is the author of two novels, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and What I Did Wrong.

in Fiction/Issue Two

There are no rooms, no houses, no neighborhoods or cities to which you can escape. The lack is in the mind and it can’t be filled. The third-floor apartment underneath the 4th Avenue flyover overlooking the man asleep in the alley, is the same as the Upper West Side apartment, is the same as the four-bedroom ranch-style in Houston. It is an ugly world, and the only love to be found comes from stumbling backward into some.

This is a story about hope.

Bathrobes are for widows and sexual predators. This bathrobe is standing in my doorway, shuffling worn slippers on the third-floor carpet. She gives me a red velvet cupcake baked by her granddaughter whom she raises when her daughter cannot. She is not beautiful, in age or in defeat. She is not worried or broken. She is a woman who has lived a life and found herself in a Bridgeland apartment underneath the flyover to downtown.

“My granddaughter loves to bake. I told her we were baking for you today. It’s red velvet.”

The absence of her top two teeth is marked by a few vertical creases from her upper lip to her nostrils. We are friends because I hold the door for her when she comes back from the gas station with milk.

She leans to the left, looks into my apartment, down the hallway. “My friend lived in there for 15 years, you know. She got too sick to take care of herself. She’s in a home in Bowness now.”

“Thank you,” I say. I can’t remember her name so I ask what red velvet is.

“I don’t really know,” she says. “My granddaughter is in grade four.”

“That’s great.”

“I take care of her now and then.”

“I hope she likes it.” I mean both grade four and being cared for.

The conversation evaporates, turns into the dust, becomes grime in the grout between the cinderblocks.

“Well, thank you again,” I say and slowly close the door on her. She leans her head in pace with my slow closing, chasing the longest possible look down my hall.

I have moved in defeat and fear so often and so quickly there is nothing left. The apartment is empty. There is a twin bed and a desk in a bedroom. Though I am capable of great affectation, this is just an empty life. I don’t have it in me to hold onto objects. My head though–I count the bumps in the textured bedroom ceiling to fall asleep. It is the least harmful way to collapse.

There are two girls, my daughters, in a condo up by Nosehill, an ugly park with an ugly name – a blank mound of prairie above the important parts of Calgary. It is nature’s ugly, but the subdivisions crushed up to and surrounding it are the city’s brand of one-upmanship, a competition between Calgary and God for oblivion.

In Houston, in a bed, I woke in the night, dog, cat, first baby, wife in a king-size bed I could never to seem to afford new sheets for, afraid that I could not save anything wrapped in those sheets.

What needed saving? Another daughter born, a relationship that wasn’t even comfort, just a destructive distraction from the general terror. So many years later, I am thankful to her for leaving because I did not have the guts to do it myself. What’s worse, learning the evil you’re capable of or learning the misery you’re willing to receive?

But there are two girls. What to say, that I love them, that I seek to protect? That they bring joy, make me smile, that I like to watch them watch the world? That I can imagine future heartbreaks and disappointment and that it hurts me? There are no new ways to say I am thankful for their living in this world and also fear the possibilities of those lives.

Red velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. The forks and spoons are in the drawer with the checkbook and the junk mail. The man asleep in the alley hasn’t moved since my first cigarette. Red Velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Take a shower, get ready.

In time, my girls will ask me questions about what I did and didn’t do and why: life, divorce, moves and money. I make most choices today based on those coming questions. But the money is gone, the career is gone – too many moves. Can I say it? Would they believe me? Is it true? I followed them as far as I could: to Calgary, and when they moved to Edmonton, I simply could not go. To live for anyone else is bankruptcy – moral, emotional, financial. So the girls are in Edmonton and I am in Bridgeland.

They have visited. Spent the night on the floor between comforters left over from previous moves. Hearts and circles on one, birds on the other. We woke and walked to Luke’s Drugmart. They found a $35 candle. I told them to put it back. They have been to dozens of Broadway shows; their playground was all of Central Park. In Bridgeland, the candles cost too much.

The apartment is empty, but the mirrored medicine cabinet is newly full. Toothbrushes, Scope, Crest 3D Whitening, baking soda. The fight against coffee, nicotine, age, and poverty rages. What does my mouth smell like? What does it taste like? I’m too old to taste like candy, and did I ever? After the first tooth brushing, floss, then mouthwash, then the electric toothbrush. It is an extravagance, scrub the tongue, reveal the flesh under the cigarette film. Rooftop Reds are really American Marlboroughs, they tell me. If it is a lie, it is one I am still willing to believe. Mouthwash again. Exeunt.

I walk to the living room window naked, but the nearest neighbor’s window is across an alley and a parking lot. A bottle picker pushes his cart down the alley, past the sleeping man. I think to bag the empties and toss them to him from the balcony, but I am naked and so instead take a few steps back from the window. Your innocence is intact! Bottle picker! You have been saved! At what cost?! Cans!

I contemplate the phone, study the man asleep under the power pole. I mark the location of his socked foot, stripes, against a stain on the fence. He may not have moved in four hours. If you aren’t moving by 6 PM, I will save or bury you. There was a time when I didn’t understand people who drank alone, and then suddenly there was a time when I did.

The Starbucks down the alley across Edmonton Trail is filled with the men that eventually turn into bottle pickers and alley sleepers. They come from the Drop-In and Rehab Centre across the river, across Langevin Bridge, but they still own something that connects to free wifi.

If you tell a lover you cannot offer anything other than what is already known, they won’t believe you. That’s just how love works, it is the lie of possibilities.

The shopping cart rests in front of the dumpster in the alley. The bottle picker has strung a blanket between the dumpster and the fence leaning around it. He stands behind the blanket. His naked arms stretch above to the sky, not a sun or a moon, just all of it. The arms descend below the blanket. The hands return, one splays and stretches, feeling its limit, and the hand holding the shirt flicks the cloth carelessly over the fence into the alley. This scene is not possible without a Chinook coming warm off the Rockies. A car will pass soon to press the shirt into the dirty pavement, and Edmonton Trail does not end in Edmonton, but only a few more miles down the road in an industrial park on McKnight Boulevard.

I have seen that free form of undressing before. A younger body in a northern California mountain stream. Skinny-dipping! Goddamned skinny-dipping. There are free moments in life – but night kept coming and it gets cold in the mountains. It’s 5 PM, the bottle picker and I making moves. But I am the only one with a cupcake.

Oh, but it wasn’t a promise to the girls, just a hint of one. Does that make breaking it the larger sin?

Attack the hair – a hair attack! Run clippers with a #1 comb across the scalp, #2 for the mustache, a smaller machine for the ears, nose, and the wisps that big brother didn’t remove on the shiny runway down the middle of my skull. Not a lot of gray here, but not a lot of hair either. It is possible that I have more hair on my ass than on my head.

 

I take off my glasses to shave my head, am blind and so just close my eyes and run the machine erratically. Like life, the only method is the sheer amount of time spent on the endeavor. If you run a machine across your scalp for ten minutes, what could possibly remain? If you live too long, what is there left to believe in? Black hairs collect on the vanity and in the basin, they stick to toothpaste stuck beside the faucet.

I believe that I have unnaturally dirty ears.

Zits and fingers. The hunt for blackheads, white heads. Running a finger over little hills not yet discolored topography. Fewer now at 43 than 16. Though, not quite as loud as then, they still sing to me. You’re a little bit ugly. In the mirror, I hum back. Keep on the sunny side always on the sunny side. Fuck you, zits.

“You have questions. I have answers. You may not like them, and they may not be right. But I want to try and answer them,” I’d proclaim in the car just after pickup on visitation Saturdays. In those first Saturday morning minutes, I am false confidence, a lecturing adult cloaked in certainty because to show them what I don’t know is also a form of abuse, perhaps. Do I drive them to an empty apartment and point out the living room window? See that man asleep in the alley? I don’t know how not to become him. My father died a homeless alcoholic at 53. There is no strong reason to believe that I will become homeless. But if I can make it to 53 indoors and sober, that may be a simple, beautiful win. I can’t imagine they need to hear that.

So many face-to-face fights, so many phone fights, so many fights in front of the girls. So many accusations – all sprouted from fact. But they grew into a rain forest I couldn’t navigate. Why do I refuse to get a good job, they ask. It’s because I don’t want one, I know they’ve been told. Do I explain the price of a barrel of oil and its impact on a vulnerable economy to a 10 and an 8 year old?

One kind of question at one time so close to being able to be asserted: will you date – will you marry? “Marry” held so long and lifted so high in unison it sounded like “merry.” Little girls and their obsession with pairing off! I gave an honest answer: I couldn’t think of anything more frightening. I still can’t.

And finally, “why won’t you move with us to Edmonton?” But the answer isn’t because I don’t love you, and any conversation that starts from there is as incomprehensible as the world.

Trim the pubic hair? Groom the netherworld? For what? A few gray sons of bitches! Fuck you pubes! I can be cruel to myself, but not that cruel. This may be a cemetery, but I am no groundskeeper. Unruly bush, you remain!

A shower to stop the neck from itching and to soften the fingernails. They grow in spurts, I am certain. I will throw them on a spreadsheet and measure, but how? Day One: Cut. Day Two: Long. Day Three: Longer. Day Four: A little longer. Day ?: Too fucking long. And I disappear in showers. The heat, the water raining down and then steaming up, I am gone for twenty minutes. Not happy, absent. Dry off standing in the tub and then sit on the toilet seat to cut fingernails. In grade ten, a cheerleader told me while I was getting my ankles taped for basketball that I had ugly feet. I have not owned them since.

Sometimes, you don’t get to choose what you’re going to carry. So when you do get to, and if you can, put that shit down. Is that advice or child abuse? And, Jesus Christ, what’s safe to pick up? This life cannot be about avoidance, and it is 6 PM.

Dress. Keys. Finally, a spin around the apartment checking the emptiness for what might be forgotten. Window. The sleeping man is gone. He lives. Good luck, brother. The changing man, the dumpster man, the bottle picker is gone. His cart remains. He has hung a painting on the fence. I threw it in the dumpster yesterday. Left over from the last tenant, it had leaned against my small fridge for four months. Nothing special about it. It was a painting an old woman would have and couldn’t give away or keep when she went to the home in Bowness. The skinny dipper didn’t want it but has found a place for it.

Lock the door, down the steps, into November. Into the Tucson, bought for transporting girls on Saturdays. Down the alley, across Edmonton Trail North to Edmonton Trail South. It is just dark enough that the street lights are on. Right on Memorial, keep it slow under the bluff, no time for the radio. There is no courage there. Red light under the Centre Street Bridge, guarded by lions. There are lions in stories that I have read in pleasure and terror. Sunnyside Bank Park, the war Memorial. Crosses and stars in rows by the road. They are lit by portable flood lights hooked to generators, fenced temporarily in orange plastic netting. A passing wall of ugly, and behind: Cops, soldiers, Girl Guides, families milling.

Right on 5A street. To the end past the rink. Then left on 3rd, row houses, hundred-year old temporary worker’s houses. A bike on the roof of one. Bought cheap in the 70s and 80s, occupied by those who loved the neighbourhood enough not to sell in rising markets. The next block, the south side, an entire block filled with apartment buildings. Someone died, someone sold and the wood-framed houses toppled into brick apartments. But the neighborhood is not yet lost. Past 7th to the even numbered side of the street. Park in a spot for what, the seventh time? Turn off the car, close the door, up the steps. The light is on in the kitchen, candles in the living room. Take the steps quiet enough to prevent the dog from barking. Knock because there isn’t a bell. The dog barks. Waiting for the opening door. Waiting, waiting and then I say, “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”


Mike Jones is a short story writer living in Calgary. He’s working on a new collection of stories, wondering what he learned from trying to write the last collection.

UPON READING FUKUYAMA’S LINE //THE END OF HISTORY WILL BE A VERY SAD TIME// by Michael Sheehan

in Fiction/Issue Two

My house, this place and body,

I’ve come in mourning to be born in.

– Wm. H. Gass

//CONSEQUENTLY EVERY HUMAN ACTION//

The last attack was a mall; now this nail parlor they were talking about in those studio-hushed tones on the commute news. Pixelated images of lines of ducked heads crossing a strip mall parking lot appeared and then dissolved on the windshield’s lower right frame[1]. Police were saying the shooter was no threat to the public, that the shooter was dead, that the shooter had shot himself and three others, not in that order, killing two and seriously injuring a third.

The commute was slowed because of lane closures, which MTRAK[2] called “routine maintenance” on the windshield’s lower left. Canton’s car jerked, stuttered, like a hitch in the invisible chain pulling him to work. He looked up from his synthetic cappuccino. SAMi said, “I’m sorry. It is a bit bumpy.” The words “Poor Connection” flashed briefly onscreen.

“It’s fine,” Canton said.

“I’m sorry. I could not understand what you said.”

“Nothing.”

“I’m sorry. I could not understand what you said.”

He knew better than to repeat it. There was another jerk in the car’s forward motion, and he could see looking out that the cars around him were, in uneven rhythm, stuttering forward as well. The images on the screen briefly froze and the music slipped into a pulse’s repeated beat, a stuck note. The revolution of a white rectangle—followed by the ring of fading remnants—around a circle indicated the system’s brief buffer, then his personalized playlist resumed.

Canton tapped on the screen, swiped left, left, right, brought up the picture of his wife, Antietam, and their son Raleigh, the two of them beneath cherry blossoms, Antietam holding him up, his pudgy wristrolls, his hand reaching up to touch and crush and tear away the synthetic sakura petals, the Obama Monument out of focus in the background.

It was easy to love a picture, to tap the throbbing heart icon along the picture’s frame, to proclaim his feelings on social media, but it was harder to love the reality behind or outside this image. Things between he and Antietam had been strained since Raleigh’s birth, the easy independence they’d had before had become a tense need for each other, a sometimes bitter resentment of the other’s even momentary freedom. They were tired all the time, and Raleigh was nearly 18 months old now. After Antietam started sending him links to listicles with titles like “Ten Things You Need to do to Save Your Marriage After Children,” and “The Five Things Divorced Couples Say They Wish They’d Done,” and “The 52 Most Important Steps to Being Happy Parents,” they had agreed six weeks ago to take a test online that would tell them how in sync they were across various datapoints: wants, needs, goals, values, triggers, regrets, hopes, dreams, wishes, emotions, and love language. The test was multiple choice, with questions either vague or narrowly specific and boxes you could tap and fill with a glowing checkmark.

They had scored terribly.

Their wants and needs were unfit and unmet; their hopes, goals, dreams, and wishes were aimed in opposite directions; their triggers overlapped slightly, but were linked to different particular parts of their daily lives and routine; their regrets and emotions had the most overlap, but still their score was only in the 80th percentile for compatibility; they spoke different love languages. They had no recent intimacy, no shared affection, no postparenthood sex. Their financial statuses were similar but how they felt about their statuses differed.

For almost a week after they’d sat side by side tapping checkmarks and discovering they were far apart in all the ways that counted, they didn’t speak or communicate other than terse texts and sporadic snaps about renewing the ecodiaper subscription and downloading an app that could quantize Raleigh’s growth rate. But then Antietam started sending him links to articles with titles like “Recovering Romance,” and “Ten Tips to Improve Your Love Life After Children,” and “What Couples Who’ve Stayed Together for 30 Years Say is the Key to Their Happiness (Hint: Sex),” and “Positions for Parents NSFW,” and “Sex After Children, A Primer.”

So without needing or wanting to say more or discuss it too directly (for fear of thereby ruining the emergent intimacy in its infancy), Canton sent her a calendar invite to “watch Solaris,” which had once long ago been their secret code for sex when within earshot of roommates. She accepted the request, he ordered an ubersitter, opentabled an 8pm at LeuvenSpoonful, her favorite Belgian bistro, and after sharing two 75cl bottles of Brasserie de Rochefort (a red-capped 6 they were not that into and a green-capped 8 they both enjoyed), they slipped out of their street clothes and into their oculi rifts and had intercourse for several minutes before falling asleep.

Her watch alerted her the next morning that she was pregnant, but she didn’t say anything. Though she didn’t know it, Canton had linked their healthstats (a privacy setting of their healthbook profiles), and so, sitting in his car his watch notified him of her labwork’s results, congratulated him on the happy news. Forget that it was illegal to have two children without a religious exemption, this was a Trojan horse they’d unknowingly downloaded in their attempt to troubleshoot their marriage’s post-progeny bugs.[3] They were trying to alter the algorithm that found Canton was not the answer to Antietam’s search, and vice versa. They wanted to get out ahead of the autocomplete that negged their unasked question, “what happens after?”[4]

And so how would they face the fact of this future?

Despite the abnormal system glitches and turbulence, he arrived and SAMi slotted the smartcar into his assigned space and he stepped onto the peoplemover and then elevated to his office.

 

//FROM SOME ACT OF THE IMAGINATION//

Canton’s building, albeit unfinished, was the third living building to be installed in the National Harbor. Tiktaalik rose out of the harbor’s water—which it fed off for energy and which it also dynamically responded to as sea levels rose over time, its supports a sort of proto-leg that could extend, raising or lowering the building’s harbor-edge—several stories into the sky where its feathers and fins circulated to capture wind and condensation, its solar scales sucking up what sun there was when there was sun. Though the building boasted an alien vision of the city’s space, his company’s offices within it were obscenely atavistic, structured and run like 19th century clerk’s offices, where the fe/male and agender employees were stationed at smartdesks not near windows—the building’s solar efficiency meant no natural light made it in during daylight hours; the sui generis power lit phosphorescent wall panels instead all along the terra nullius out beyond the company’s quadrangle footage—and expected to arrive and work an eight-hour shift despite years of research and studies and advocacy that the 21st century economy made most sense when based on digital workspaces, flexible time, a multi-device driven interface across employees without corporate overhead or polluting commute mileage, etc. Nonetheless, the baseline expectation was a minimum of 24 and an average of 32 hours a week in the office at the desk, though Canton would’ve preferred not to.

There was a persistent piss-inducing burble from the aquaponic and the hydroponic elements of the building, which were integrated into the open spaces of the building and so were pretty much all throughout the areas Canton passed to get to his desk. There were, as yet, no fish or plants being farmed here, since the design was still not fully constructed; it was just water circulating in tanks within the walls. The building’s feathers and fins were static and harvested nothing thus far. It was a big, expensive, strange structure that mostly sat functionless and awaited funding.

 

#thesiege had reached Canton’s office sometime during the night. Their servers had been surrounded by ransomware, all their information held hostage, and so there was no work to be done all morning as Canton sat near the streaming screens[5] that paralleled the ribbons of bioluminescent flora as a transhuman team of network security was google-eyed with diligent coding, trying to break through, to reach the imperiled information, their magnetic-implanted fingers spasming slightly over screens like they were tapping invisible strings, vibrating messages through air and space. Most of the time these magnetic fingers were only useful for collecting paperclips and sensing the grid yawing through the walls, or so they’d tell you, the ecolectricity and the quantalytics humming in the air above. As for the origins of #thesiege, pretty much it was anyone’s guess. Divine dispensation was almost as likely as the Chinese government or like some zombified noname working for hourly wages in a squat Russian office park someplace.

Because the bioluminescent lighting took time to glow and gradually increased in intensity during the day, the first notice was what seemed to be slight blurring or marking, spotting, blemishes on the walls’ bioglow. This made the process of revelation that much more mysterious, as it seemed almost as if the figures and the text were emerging, the words being written, the images being drawn. The walls themselves were alive and so it should not have been possible to write on them, to change the uniformity of their luminescent emissions, but there it was: scribbled, repetitive drawings of horses, of hyena, aurochs, of even a megaloceros, lines and lines to convey motion, strings of dots or maybe a primitive star chart, an exacting simulacra of Lascaux or so it seemed, and then one floor up and on the other side of Tiktaalik’s living lobby the blemishes resolved into trim lines then into letters in a fine, digital font, words sprawling across and down and all over the wall’s evolving light:

//All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?//

Elsewhere arose:

//Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict and cross between plant and ghost.//

And then the third emergent bit of bioluminescent blemish read:

//What does your body proclaim of your soul? Is not your soul poverty and filth and wretched contentment?//

Finally, the dying light spelled out:

//The last man lives longest.//

It was viral, whatever it was. Language as infestation, some sort of deep hack, a malware, an expedited process of evolution, history rearising. But how did they hack the organisms living in the walls? How did they infect this pure and simple ecology with the memory of human progress?

It had to be part of #thesiege[6], though nothing like it had ever been described in other attacks. Any answer other than that was, well, what could it be?

 

//LANGUAGE IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE//

Though at first it was open to everyone, the Deep Space Initiative had had to put a filter in place after the crash. Like any AI or bot or open comment stream[7], trolls had porned it up, clogged the intended message with hatespeech and rape threats, violent historical references reduced to abstractions—Hitler, Nazi, ISIS, KKK—that for whatever reason still held power. So they threw all of those messages out and invited the public to create an account and apply to have his/her message included, and then only after a multi-step user identification process and a couple layers of content screening could any hoi polloi project his/her voice out on the unmanned probe in the hope that someone would find the simple mechanism that would contain the millions of messages from Earth and be able to access its information. The idea was an update or a reboot of the Voyager Golden Record, but democratized and crowd-sourced and crowd-funded, since there was no longer any federal support for space missions, especially those that merely acted as a time capsule. The messages would be transmittable in Morse, in all the world’s active languages (and two or three dead ones), and in binary[8]. It was maybe a ploy, since all visitors to DSI’s site were repeatedly offered the chance to donate to the mission and help DSI launch the Salviati probe and there was no guarantee—in any meaningful sense—that any message would ever actually be included, or even really that there was any rocket with the technological capability to make the trip. Sitting at work, holding a multiverse inside, chaos, a dancing star, unable to express it or ever explain it to any other person, Antietam got a link in a msg from her coworker, and shortly thereafter donated to the mission, sending first the equivalent of $3, or 3USDE, via Ethereum and then 5USDE and then 3USDE again. What she found was it wasn’t about the message being delivered, ever being received—because there was that issue, too, the overwhelmingly remote possibility that the universe contained any thing at all that was capable of hearing her voice in any language many years from now across a great distance—but really just the expression, the telling. The compressed recording of her voice, along with who knows how many others, would be adrift for tens of thousands of years before it passed by the nearest star. By the time any being could be believed to find it, the recordings would be from long-dead persons of a probably long-dead civilization, but still it was an attractive idea. She couldn’t help herself. It was, for one thing, a deeply hopeful act, a statement of her belief in the existence of a future, even if one she wasn’t in and would never know. But she wanted to believe. She wanted to believe. She wanted to believe.

 

 

//STANDING APART FROM THE GENUS OF MORAL ACTIONS //

By the afternoon of #thesiege, even the streaming screens were glitching. They could do no work. Then, right before rush hour, three suicide bombers hit DCA, which meant no street traffic within a two-mile radius of the Capitol and the White House, no Metro, flights redirected to Dulles and BWI and beyond. Canton was stuck on the George W Bush Parkway, with glitchy service compounding the traffic overloading the MTRAK and causing large-scale system crashes. His car had not moved more than a few feet at a time in the last half an hour.

He tried to send a message to Antietam, telling her how he was stuck and would be late because: bombing. The progress bar stayed stuck at around 80% along the bottom of the windshield; finally the words “Message send failure” flashed across his screen.

The luminous golden dome of a Scientology Temple hung like a gibbous moon above the tops of trees. It was easy to mistake its shape for a mosque, though there were no more mosques other than in ruins in images out of the caliphate or on the Arabian peninsula.

You couldn’t help but think sometimes that these transit bombings and attacks were less about the immediate impact and more about shutting down the whole system for a day or more. It’d be curfews and no public gatherings, business closures all over town, etc. The transit hits seemed more systemic than personal, despite the high tally of in-situ casualties.

His only choice other than a night in the narrow swivel seat at the center of the smartcar was to take the car offline and try to selfdrive it via surfaceroutes. He restarted the car and began navigating it along the wide rim of the MTRAK and finally down the steep ramp. Now that he was down on the ground below the compression on the MTRAK, he slowly piloted the smartcar across the rutted debris and through empty streets. He had selfdriven before, but never in this area, never so close to his office. He continued on along the broken roads until he saw rising before him the grim skeleton of Bezos Stadium, the coliseum shape of it, grayblack against the dull sky. Matte striations of filtered light slipped through the spiral parking structure that had been built beside it in an age of optimism and dumb profiteering. Concrete columns intersected the rays of grainy light beneath a low, flat ceiling that pressed down, seeming to occlude the sky, the horizon available as a dissipating edge, where the light blurred into nothing.

He was headed home to Antietam, to Raleigh, and to the potentiality inside her. But there was more than system glitches acting as impediment: the data had said they were not a match. When they looked at the hard, quantified, measurable reality, they were not supposed to be sharing any life together, and there was no future for them to grow into. They could do a deeper dive into the data but it didn’t seem like that would matter. He knew this was irrefutable, was solid as anything around him right then, that when they stacked their individual data side by side the answer was plain: there should be no them, they should not be together (married or as parents), someone had to act responsibly in the light of the data they’d already received and so it should be him and so he should leave—but he didn’t want to. The truth of their incompatibility was as evident as the massive concrete shape he’d pulled up alongside, and maybe all the Message Send Failures were fate signaling to him, but for no reason he knew he felt a push against it inside, a welling up of something that seemed only capable of saying no.

No.

It was an impossible position, to know what was right and yet to not will it.

He was only able to get the smartcar up the first two floors of the garage before its heat sensor showed red and he had to stop. He walked the third and fourth spirals, walked out finally onto the roof and into the olivaceous sunshine. From here, Canton could see the ruin of the east, the renatured north, the turbulent sea to the south. A flock of birds was disturbed out of the wilds where the National Arboretum once was, the collapsed capitol columns somewhere in that overwhelming green, that vast reclaimed landscape bracketing the busted beltway, the neighborhoods fallen into the void, somewhere sunk in the understory.

This was the province of the poor in all its reality. He had many times heard what the lives of those in the ex-exurbs were like, left out in the storms that passed and ravaged, but here he could see the tops of the trees that shaded them, if anyone really lived out there at all.

It was strange. There was no noise. There were sounds, but there was no noise.

The river people on the Anacostia, if there were really any left there after the floods, were nowhere to be seen. The only sign of them was a desolate kibasha that floated gracefully in a calm pocket of the water’s whitecaps near the wooded shore of Kingman Island. The wilds continued as far as he could see, encircling the enclave that is DC, demarcating it from the corrupted places far to the east occupied by those pushed past Fairlawn and Woodland and Skyland and out toward Lincoln Cemetery and beyond[9], along the edge of the District’s diamond shape, past the irregularly tall boundary stone, one of the final markers of the map which was completed in 1791 and whose history, albeit overgrown and forgotten, was still signified by these hidden, dirty pillars.

He could see, too, to the south, the collapsed v of the Whitney Houston Memorial Bridge, the litter of shattered stone that was the congressional cemetery, and he could see the smoke still rising over DCA.

And there was Tiktaalik, an enclosed and isolate ecosystem, an anthroposystem, a holon. Since construction on it first began, where Buzzard Point Park had been, the shore had receded far enough that now it looked as if its body were poised out over the water, it looked as if it were walking into the waves, returning to the water, abandoning life on land.

 

ENDOSYMBIOSIS

“You can’t have two at a time,” the waitress, Daytona, said. “You need to either finish that one or I can take the bottle.”

“I can’t just order another now?”

“It’s the law.”

“Here,” he finished his draft Moon Shot hefeweizen obscenely in front of her. “Sorry about that.” He offered her the glass.

“So you do want another one then?”

The models advertising Vitalis are arranged around the Oscar-winning actor who played Batman in one of the many bad versions, though he won the Oscar for his role as the shipcaptain taken hostage by Libyan pirates in the Mediterranean, who on screen was cold and steely-eyed and outlasted their graphically-depicted torture until a Special Ops team in Mesa Verde and a quartet of synced drones over open ocean had executed the pirates with simultaneous headshots, only wounding the captain in his chest, neck, arm, and leg (though in reality the captain reported his captors had treated him with almost deference, that he had seen in them a crushed humanity, the result of the world’s depraved indifference toward their extreme poverty and the violence that had ravaged them and their families and communities in the years since the Arab Spring, that he had felt the dramatic dronestrike that had saved him was an illustration of the problem, the distance that allowed us to be so uncaring and detached from the real lives of these very desperate men), but the models are laughing and drinking (one a highball, one a snifter, one a beer, one a bourbon, one a champagne flute, one a German stein, one a weighty wine goblet, one a fusion cocktail) as the Oscar-winning actor described the benefits of Vitalis, ending on the dubious but repeated tagline, //Live. Forever.//

“Yeah, that’s why I,” but she cut him off and turned back toward the circular bar with its faux-wood trim and the stadium-style three-sided chandelier of curved screens, each showing a different sport’s game. Canton’s line of sight was almost directly centered on the asymptotic edge where two screens never quite converged; he could see a flattened basketball game’s flurried progress into the fourth quarter and a Holbein’s skull of a classic tennis match, the 2008 Wimbledon final. Drafts were 1.99USDE and the frozen breaded cheddar-stuffed jalapenos were half a dozen for 3USDE. A newsfeed crawled across the two screens describing another passenger flight hacked by cyberterrorists and crashed into the Indian Ocean.

After standing on the stadium and surveying the lost landscape of the north and the east, Canton selfdrove in no particular direction, trying to let the surfaceroutes lead him. They led him to It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere and its Happy 24Hour drink and app specials.

And what would he tell Antietam? Should he go home, face her, or should be begin to be gone? He didn’t have any sense any more what would happen when he left this bar. He was suppurating in a feeling he couldn’t quite pin down, that what he wanted was subsumed by the data, that his life from here out would only be ever more determined, his role in it ever more reactive, passive, a smartcar merely sensing objects and knowing when to stop or go, with no sense of itself outside of the system.

He was a body made of many moving parts, a complex system of chemical and biological interactions, all quantified and trackable, all datacaptured and uploaded to apps and enmeshed in the paradisal cloud, the #neverforgetting info atman; from the moment of birth onward he’d been an ecological site for whole eons of bacterial development; his CNS and skeletal architecture did the acting, the motion, the movement, kept his body motile in space. And here in the franchise bar in the strip mall just off the exit ramp from the MTRAK, this was his environment, his own ecological site, that on which he fed and drank, the light that helped him navigate, hid his shame, the circulated and temperature-controlled air he breathed and that allowed his business causal to be a comfortable second-skin. But where, exactly, was he? If his body could be quantified, both internally and externally, as integrally connected to a vast and depersonalized system, where exactly was what made him him? It was a stupid question, and he understood why they didn’t allow two beers at a time, for fear of soul-seeking, maybe, the tennis match long since ended with a collapse to court and a handshake, autographed balls being lobbed up into the stands, their luminous color tracing the arc of their disappearance.

And so then who was he? What did he want?

He did not want these discount beers, was only ordering to make himself feel like he was here at Happy 24Hour for a reason, making the best of bad traffic service and another system-failure-inducing strike but really each beer was a twofold way of not facing forward, not looking at himself in the Check-Ur-Self-B4-U-Wreck-Ur-Selfie™ mirror and not considering what was the future he wanted[10], what was the world he wanted to step out and into? And would he be able to shape that world or only ever be shaped by it?

 

//NOT A BODY, BUT THE ACT OF A BODY//

Thank you for creating a Deep Space Initiative account. You can record your audio message by clicking below. You can listen to your message and re-record it as many times as you like. Click save when you are done. Click submit to upload your message to the Salviati Message Bank for release. We appreciate your support for our mission and we thank you for including your message.

//My unhappiness is like a lead apron laid upon my chest. The x-ray sees right through me, my alien bones, my glowing architecture, the self beneath my self, these lines of light, but no light gets through my unhappiness, no radiation, no feeling but the weight of it pressing down, a dark imprint against the light within me.//

//So much about my life feels already past, so little about the future feels like it is my own, like my will can do anything now but want.//

//And now: new life. I know it should be happy, but I can’t help feeling or fearing a displacement of my self. After Raleigh, I felt changed, like I subtended his self. I occupy the place between these two, one son born and another to come.//

//Law of identity: I can’t be two people in the same body. I can’t be different from myself and the same with another. Law of non-contradiction: I can’t be me and not me.//

//I am become nothing, nothing, nothing.//

//A whole soul growing inside me, my womb an ecosystem unto itself, sustaining life, but the dual nature of my soul’s self takes away from or dilutes me, I. My identity is twinned, is reliant, is aligned—a moon orbiting another life, governing its tides, and watching over it as it sleeps.//

//And why send these words to you at all? To have an impact on existence, project my words and my will outward, shape or at least smudge the future? Maybe a little. Even if far away, even if not for me. I wanted to think about a future, send a message out, not to my unborn son but a message of my own, private but preserved, a truth that may maybe never ever be heard, but one which would outlive me.//

//I can’t communicate it to Canton, can’t say how I feel, because how do you name this feeling? How do you reject the binary—mother/not mother, self/other—and occupy the space between? How can I quantify this love and this desire to assert my soul’s self against the pull of the waves washing over?//

//I heard an astronaut describe being in space, in total darkness, the complete lightlessness that must surround my voice now. These words, wherever and whenever they are, can become a part of everything. Forever free.//

//I can only imagine you,

can only believe

despite knowing better that

my words

can reach you, that

across time and

across distance

you and I

are

here

together,

connected,

these words are your words,

in your head,

whoever you are,

wherever you are,

whenever you are.

And maybe that is enough.//

 

 


 

Michael Sheehan has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.

 


  1. In the screen’s lower left, the models are playing football, and as the speaker describes the side effects of Vitalis the one-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback zings a tight spiral up and out of frame before it descends neatly back into the hands of a body that crosses close in the forefront. The models rejoice in unconvincing bro dances. This is happiness? Adult men, men in their 30s at a minimum, the MVP himself probably 60 by now, these men gather in an urban park and zip passes at each other and grapple like linemen in their cotton shorts and unmarked sneakers? Huzzah, the models toss up their hands. Great catch the models might cry; great pass. It is a luxuriated image—this historyless propaganda, selling a nostalgia for a past and a present, neither of which exist—these models, this urbane setting, the idyll fantasy that a Super Bowl MVP quarterback would have a group of beautiful bros in workout clothes gather on Sundays to play touch football.
  2. “Invariable and uninterrupted service.”™
  3. if [every human action is an event]
    if [every event has a cause]
    }[every human action has a cause]
    if [every event with a cause = ¬free]
    }[human action = ¬free]
  4. what happens after death
    what happens after we die
    what happens after divorce
    what happens after love actually
    what happens after love never dies
  5. In a streaming window at the screen’s lower right, The Xtreme Rescue Team had roped up to climb the chiseled face of exposed granite that had once been deep under the glacier. The actual foot of the ice was someplace in a high fold between the choppy Himalayas, even smaller this year than last, which was maybe why the two tourists got trapped out there. They’d been on a Vanishing Ice day trip, which was only supposed to be a three hour tour, but somehow out on the ice things had gotten complicated and two days later, out of water and food, they were huddled together above the moulin the tour leader had disappeared down. It may have been an obvious mistake (made from too much comfort with the shifting landscape of ice, causing the Norwegian national to forget the ice did not consider itself a tourist destination) or something else; though the science wasn’t there to back it up, there were suggestions that the glacier had opened up beneath them or that it had widened rapidly, that the flow of the water through the picturesque Grand Canyon they’d hiked up to to take selfies by and which terminated in the abrupt descent at the mouth of the moulin had increased so much that the ice was melting off by the minute and the geography slipping and deflating and changing even as the tour guide had set his first cramponed foot down on the ledge above the water disappearing into the disappearing ice, to offer his guests a human-sized comparison for scale. When the XRT found them and interviewed them—on the ice for the effect of it, rather than just getting them down (because that was how the show imposed drama—and ad breaks) low enough to be loaded onto the Spinning Spool, which was a poorly-designed drone and no improvement on the helicopters it had replaced up at high altitude, since the spinning spools of its name and their flight’s reliance on the Magnus effect meant a pretty turbulent descent down and more often than not a crash landing—they described the accident as:
    TOURIST #1
    I didn’t see him fall.
    XRT [LAZER]
    Did he slip? He didn’t call out?
    XRT [TANK]
    Probably couldn’t hear him from this heighth. Height. Is it height or heighth?
    TOURIST #2
    It was like, he just blinked out. He was there and then he wasn’t there. Nothing else happened. He didn’t fall, he just, it was, he blinked out.
  6. By May of 1863, the citizens of Vicksburg, dug into their clay caves, were down to eating mules, horses, and dogs. Ulysses S. Grant, who successfully oversaw the siege, would later write “I now determined…to incur no more losses.”
  7. Decorated dickpicks and face swaps, twitter rants and twitter feuds and twitter storms and hacktivisim. Social media psychology experiments and hashtag activism, the balance between oligarchy and consumer culture, the myth of agency. Technology as inhibitor, technology as mass convenience, technology as infantilization, technology as facilitating passive response. Uploaded consciousness and the quantified self, the digital soul disembodied.
  8. After Antietam, a Proclamation:
    //  Whereas, на twentysecond день सितंबर के, in anno Domini un sol mil de vuit centenar de seixanta per i la de dos,
    מנשר הוצא
    من قبل الرئيس
    de los estados unidos, enthaltend, 다른 것들 사이, zifwatazo, 以机智:
    01010100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01101111 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01100110 01101001 01110010 01110011 01110100 00100000 01100100 01100001 01111001 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01001010 01100001 01101110 01110101 01100001 01110010 01111001 00101100 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01111001 01100101 01100001 01110010 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01001100 01101111 01110010 01100100 00100000 01101111 01101110 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101111 01110101 01110011 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01100101 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100 00100000 01101000 01110101 01101110 01100100 01110010 01100101 01100100 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110011 01101001 01111000 01110100 01111001 00101101 01110100 01101000 01110010 01100101 01100101 00101100 00100000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110000 01100101 01110010 01110011 01101111 01101110 01110011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01100100 00100000 01100001 01110011 00100000 01110011 01101100 01100001 01110110 01100101 01110011 00100000 01110111 01101001 01110100 01101000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01111001 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 00100000 01101111 01110010 00100000 01100100 01100101 01110011 01101001 01100111 01101110 01100001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01110000 01100001 01110010 01110100 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01100001 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 00101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110000 01100101 01101111 01110000 01101100 01100101 00100000 01110111 01101000 01100101 01110010 01100101 01101111 01100110 00100000 01110011 01101000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 01101110 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110010 01100101 01100010 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101001 01101111 01101110 00100000 01100001 01100111 01100001 01101001 01101110 01110011 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01010101 01101110 01101001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 01110011 00101100 shall be then thenceforward and forever free//
  9. Lincoln’s body, when last it was seen, after several exhumations, was still recognizable thirtysome years later; his gloves had rotted, his suit had mouldered down in the grave, but his beard and hair were intact, his mole was there, too, his face badly bruised even then from the way the bullet had broken his bones. It was like he was a mummy, it was like he was a ghost, it was like he would remain, forever, some semblance of himself just out of sight, just underground, his existence not ended, his soul and body still one yet, somewhere.

10. Merleau-Ponty:

  1. History flows neither from the past nor to the future alone: it reverses its course and, when you get right down to it, flows from all the presents.
     2. The flesh is at the heart of the world.
     3. True reflection presents me to myself not as idle and inaccessible subjectivity, but as identical with my presence in the world and to others, as I am now realizing it: I am all that I see, I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation, but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation, and through them, all the rest.
   4.  If this world is a poem, it is not because we see the meaning of it at first but on the strength of its chance occurrences and paradoxes.

A Week in the Life of a Slug

in Issue Two/Nonfiction

 

Monday

I came into work this morning on 95, taking 395 via the Capital Beltway, before exiting South Washington. This takes you on the southwest side of the Pentagon, directly under the flight path of American Flight 77. On your right you can see where the limestone exterior walls are a shade lighter. Arlington Cemetery is on the left.  As we turn onto the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac, JFK’s tomb is directly behind us, and the Lincoln Memorial—framed by an unusually late-season full bloom of cherry blossoms—lies directly in front of us. The driver knows Henry Bacon lets us cut over to Constitution quicker than 23rd(still don’t know who Henry Bacon is), so he’s not new to this. And look! There’s a trucker convention next to the Vietnam Memorial. Then it’s past the Daughters of the American Revolution, all the way up 18th, which is where I tell the driver to let me out, just before we get to Pennsylvania Avenue.

No money is shared. Nothing is exchanged. No feedback or stars or tips. No conversation this morning, or really most mornings. I have no idea who my driver is, or what he is doing in our nation’s capital, and this unknowing seems a crucial part of the reason this whole thing even works. This enterprise is known as slugging. And I am a slug.

Slugging is legalized, recognized, ad hoc hitchhiking. Unionized bus drivers coined the terms ‘slug’ in the 1970’s. A slug is a rider. The riders waiting at bus stops would happily get in the car—any car—that would take them up to the Pentagon. The fact that the ride was free was of less import than the fact that the ride was here, now, ready to go. Of course, the bus drivers didn’t like this, because it meant less bus fares from paying passengers. This was especially grating for the bus drivers because the slug drivers were effectively taking advantage of the centralized nature of the bus stop pick up routes—slug drivers knew where the people would be located, and that they would be in need of a ride. Hence, the derogatory ‘slug’. Back in the early days, slugging was basically Springfield to the Pentagon; your options were limited. But getting to the Pentagon gave you access to the Metro, which could deliver you to various points in and around D.C. That was enough.

Today, there are multiple points of egress throughout Northern Virginia (even as what constitutes ‘Northern Virginia’ expands ever southward and westward), just as there are various points of ingress in Arlington and the District of Columbia. This is mostly cribbed from articles cited on Wikipedia, which also erroneously states that hybrid vehicles are currently allowed to drive the HOV lanes without additional passengers (this regulation changed in 2014), so reader beware, and take this history of slugs with a measure of salt.

 

Tuesday

It was a bus this morning, mainly because the unpublished etiquette of slugging frowns upon the use of personal electronic devices larger than a phone, and I had work to do on my laptop on the way into the office. I’ll confess to enjoying the looks of pity and expressions of empathy I receive when I divulge that my daily roundtrip commute totals just under two hours on good days, and frequently approaches the three-hour mark on the regularly-occurring bad days. But secretly, and perhaps shamefully, I mostly enjoy my commute. I usually work in the morning, sending out emails to clients and colleagues well before I know they’ll be in the office. And contrary to LinkedIn’s assertion that such a practice is merely virtue signaling for the striver demographic, I have actually found that my early-morning emails receive a much better response rate, especially when I need a quick turnaround or a timely response. To be sure, buses are slower, and this morning is no exception. What would normally take me 40 minutes in a slug takes over an hour. However, the fact that I’ve already sent out a half dozen emails, edited a weekly newsletter, and RSVP’d for an industry roundtable tomorrow evening lessens the impact of a 75 minute trip into the District.

Thanks to the decentralized nature of slug routes and the fact that the pick-up points overlap with the bus routes, I don’t have to rely on a bus to take me home in the afternoon. The existing public commuter bus system, which is slow but relatively reliable, supports and enables a transit ecosystem in which slugging is possible. Without the knowledge that at some point, all else failing, a bus will eventually come along and take you to where you need to go, it is unlikely that slug riders would be willing to take a chance and hope that a slug driver will pick them up on a given morning. And absent the existence of slug riders in a central location, it is unlikely that a slug driver would be willing to go out of his way to organize a carpool with the same flexibility inherent in slugging. The sometimes-plodding, ever-unionized, and seemingly inefficient public option enables the existence of a much more efficient, cost-effective, and faster private option. Much as it ever was.

The Swamp

 

Wednesday

The primary decision I face each morning is which commuter lot to drive to. The 234 lot is nearest to me, about 12 minutes away depending on whether I leave early enough to avoid the school zones on my way. It is the preferred lot for riders living near Quantico Marine Corps base and has a steady flow of both riders and drivers heading north to the Pentagon. The other option is the Telegraph Road/Horner Road lot, which is about 20 minutes away but has more bus lines in the morning and more slug drivers in the afternoon. Making the wrong choice can cost you upwards of 40 minutes, and despite what I just said about not hating my commute, I’d rather not be commuting, all else being equal. If I need to get into the office as quickly as possible, I’ll do 234, and take my chances on catching a bus in the afternoon. If I know that I need to be home as soon as possible after work, I’ll likely go to Telegraph/Horner.

This morning, I decide on Telegraph/Horner. Once there, I see that the slug line to the Pentagon is moving quickly, so I make my way to that line. I stand just behind a man in fatigues who, if my limited knowledge of military insignia doesn’t fail me, is a corporal in the United States Army. In many senses, the military is the lifeblood of slugging, with the Pentagon being both its birthplace as well as its most frequent destination. Riding with a fellow slug or a driver in full fatigues is common. I’d thank him for his service, but the restriction on speaking outside of a driver-initiated conversation outweighs even the debt of gratitude we owe our nation’s service men and women.

Tonight I am attending an industry roundtable for which I have previously RSVP’d. I was, that is, until a minor medical emergency arose at home that required my attention and presence. After clearing my calendar and making sure that I’d be available for a conference call, I contacted the multi-state inter-regional transit authority, which has a program called “Guaranteed Ride Home”. This program, which is funded by states, municipalities in the region, and the Federal government allows registrants to make use of a taxi cab four times per year, or once per quarter, at no cost to the rider (other than a tip, which is both expected and appreciated). After calling the transit authority, I receive a message from a taxi cab company who informs me that my driver will be outside my office in three minutes. I take the elevator down, get into the wrong cab, get out, and then get into the right cab, which takes me back to Telegraph/Horner. I arrive home in time to avert any scheduling crisis owing to the medical mishap. All is well, all is well.

 

Thursday

Despite slugging’s self-police prohibition against slug riders speaking unless spoken to by the driver, the astute rider can pick up on some clues that may serve as an indicator of the driver’s willingness to engage in a conversation, as well as the topics a rider might broach. Of all such signals, I’d estimate that the radio station is the most reliable indicator of a political affiliation, as well as the driver’s willingness to engage in conversation. Spotify playlists or albums, audiobooks, or silence do little to betray the driver’s sensibilities; the only meaning that can be derived from such is the fact that that’s what the drivers wants to listen to. But if they listen to a radio station, they may be telling you something. A guide, of sorts:

WTOP 103.5: D.C. area news, from Richmond to Baltimore, from the Chesapeake to the Shenandoah. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s and when it breaks.This driver is actually making a statement that they don’t want to make a statement. It’s the radio station equivalent of a damp beige blanket being dropped over the warm embers of political fire; vanilla extract used to drown out all other ideological flavors that may manifest; a panacea of anodynity so overpowering in its blandness that everyone knows not to say a thing.
WAMU 88.5:Probably left leaning, and would entertain conversation about the topic being discussed, especially if the topic is of particular local concern and has limited relation to politics or international affairs. Note that this only applies to the NPR station that simulcasts during the morning commute; if they are listening to an NPR podcast, they are practically begging you to ask them about the topic of the podcast.
Bloomberg 99.1: All business, all the time.Allows the mid-level executive to entertain the illusion that he is receiving a personal, private daily briefing in the style of daily briefings that C-suite executives might have received as recently as 15 years ago.  This driver is perfectly pleased to make your acquaintance and may later attempt to add you to his personal LinkedIn Network. So that you, reader, may know more about me, this is the station that I would tune into most mornings, were ever I to become a driver.
WGTS 91.9 Christian Music Radio:I’ll admit to some surprise at the ethnic and racial diversity of the drivers who tune in to radio with an explicitly Christian worldview and purpose, a surprise which is likely the result of my own experience growing up in the suburbs of D___, where Christian radio was synonymous with white Evangelical Christianity. But based on the placards of saints and bumper stickers adorning their cards, drivers tuning in to this station include Egyptian Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, Ghanaian Pentecostals, Latin American Roman Catholics, and the occasional white Evangelical with whom I’m more familiar. I don’t speak to these drivers both out of respect for the rules of slug etiquette, along with a desire not be on the receiving end of proselytization.
WFJK-FM 106.7 The Fan:G-d—-t Redskins. Seriously, just g-d—-t all to h–l. The f—–g Eagles (THE EAGLES!) are now god’s gift to this midnight green and charcoal silver earth and what the h–l is Snyder doing about it? Not a d–n thing, that’s what. RIP, burgundy and gold.

Friday

I’m nearly certain that the impetus for the no-speaking-unless-spoken-to rule for slugs has its origins in the ubiquity of politics in the D.C. scene. And not just because tastemakers and connoisseurs of etiquette have declared politics and religion to be the archetypal taboos of polite conversation. Rather, it has to do with the proximity of politics. Two persons sharing a ride in nearly any other city could disagree on politics, and their disagreement would likely extend no further than a matter of who they voted for. But when you catch a ride into D.C., there is a decent chance that the person giving you a ride filed an FEC disclosure for a PAC affiliated with the candidate you oppose, that one of your riders’ first jobs out of college was stuffing envelopes for a ballot initiative which you worked to defeat, or that she is a political appointee at a regulatory agency that increased your company’s compliance costs. It’s the specificity of political operations, combined with the intimacy of a ride shared with strangers, which makes an enforced hiatus a necessity.

But today is an exception. This morning, I ride with Keith, a retired Navy man who volunteers his time twice a week at the White House Office of Correspondence, which is exactly what it sounds like. He sits in a room with other volunteers and sorts the hundreds of thousands of letters that the President receives each week. Having worked at an agency where such letters sometimes get forwarded, I appreciate the difficulty in the task, with letter openers being required to correctly distinguish such bureaucratic turf battles and acronymic puzzles such as the FHA from the FHFA, ONDCP from DOJ/ATF, and EX/IM from OPIC.  But outside of that, I don’t know much about what the day-to-day operations entail; you’d have to ask Keith.

Keith loves the President, which is why he spends Tuesdays and Fridays driving his late-model Mercedes into the District from his suburban Virginia home to sort through his mail. It’s his way of giving back, he tells me. There’s an earnestness that I find confounding and appealing and naïve. He tells me about his Navy career, and how he enlisted at eighteen and wishes that his son, who lives at home and who’s not really the college-type, would enlist. It wouldn’t even have to be the Navy; Keith doesn’t hold grudges. But he’s glad to know that there’s a President who has America’s back. So glad, that he’ll drive two hours twice a week and pay $18 dollars a day just for the privilege of opening his mail. Then Keith asks me about the proper way to drop off slugs, since this is his first time after a buddy told him about slugging, and I explain: just drop them off on the side of the road nearest to the intersection where they’ll be getting off. For me, this is 18thand Pennsylvania. He thanks me and obliges, and as I get out of the car, he shouts at me his cell phone number and simultaneously requests mine and says, “I’ll call you when I’m leaving so that I can pick you up this afternoon.”

I don’t know if it is the breach of etiquette or the atypical gregariousness or the niceness of his car or the fact that he sees opening letters as a means of giving back that makes me remember Keith. Maybe it’s the feeling that by accepting a ride from him, I’m somehow complicit in the various aspects of the current Administration that I cannot abide. Or, on the other hand, it’s the semi-uncomfortable realization that in both the quotidian task of arriving at work, as well as the larger scale of living in this democracy of America, that I am–in a real and figurative sense–dependent upon Keith. And so I accept his offer, give him my cell phone number, and I get a ride home with Keith that afternoon.

 

 

 

 

The Closest Exit by Laurie Ann Cedilnik

in Uncategorized

The plane was empty, squeezed of all its passengers, ravaged like a juiced fruit. Only Jill and Denny remained. Jill folded the coarse flannel blanket her husband had dropped when he fled to the jet’s restroom. The blanket lay limp in his wake, a skin quickly shed. She shaped the flannel into a neat square, admiring her diamond. It had been recently joined by a modest gold band, but she still hadn’t tired of the stone. It had belonged to Denny’s dead mother, and it was huge. The diamond’s weight on her finger made Jill giddy and high—how could a person own a precious thing that big? The jewel was a fat, sparkling grape; once, Jill had licked it. She kept her tongue to herself as she waited for her husband.  So Denny had a little motion sickness—not a problem. They were out of the air now.

By the time Denny emerged, Jill had gotten the lowdown on every beach in St. Maarten. “Good-bye, Bonnie,” she called to a flight attendant. “Good luck in Barbados!”

Bonnie winked. “Easy on the Daiquiris.”

Jill handed Denny his duffle. He swayed on his feet. Denny had a generous frame but still carried himself like a former fat kid. When he let his posture go, his paunch grew. He was not quite as tall as his wife. There was a piece of toilet paper stuck to the arm of his glasses where he’d apparently tried to blot sweat. The paper was curled into a moist twist, like a tiny tapeworm. Jill flicked it away with her fingernail. “Ready for the honeymoon?” She hoisted her beach bag onto her shoulder and turned to disembark.

 

*

Sitting on the balcony of the Honeymoon Suite, Jill watched the seagulls fish for food as she listened to her husband retch. The gulls circled above and swooped at intervals, dipping the tips of their beaks into the waves. Jill heard another retch, and then a flush. “Come out and look at the ocean.”

Denny’s voice came from the other side of the open glass door. “Gotta lie down.”

“The air will make you feel better.”

“No.” Denny groaned. “Maybe it was those shrimp puffs.”

Denny spent the last half of the wedding reception, after the dance and the toasts and the champagne, popping pastry-encrusted shrimp dipped in a peppery cream sauce. He tried to feed Jill one, but she was resolute. “No carbs,” she said, patting her lace-encased tummy. “I bought a bikini.” Denny indulged in carbs enough for the both of them.

The brand-new bikini was trapped in her beach bag, tags attached, while the cotton sundress Jill wore was almost translucent with sweat. “I’m changing,” she said.

The new bikini was ivy-green, with bright flowers embroidered on the cups. Modeling in the mirror at JC Penny, Jill thought the darker green looked good against her pale skin. She’d had to try on an XL top to accommodate her rebellious breasts, but the suit was supportive and sexy. She was tall, and with her dark brown hair escaping the messy bun atop her head and the ivy fabric hugging her thighs, Jill thought she resembled a tree in reverse, a charming freak of nature.

She had spotted the beach bags on her way to the register. They hung heavy like fat, colorful fruit from the branches of the metal stand. For the one or two trips to the beach Jill took each year, a beach bag had never seemed necessary. But if she was going to spend a full week smack on the beach in her first week of being Mrs. Dennis Symanski, she wanted to look ready. There were several orange-patterned bags left, a couple of pink ones, and one in bright blue. Jill figured that ocean blue was most popular and grabbed the last one before someone else could snag it.

The carb embargo had worked nicely, Jill noted as she posed at the foot of the bed on which Denny lay. A plastic amaryllis on the bedside table loomed over his head in protective watch. Jill gave her overflowing cups a healthy shake. “Ready for the beach?”

Denny lay blinking, a man unfairly inflicted with a harsh punishment. “Don’t do that to me.”

“Bonnie said there’s a ‘clothing optional’ beach on the French side of the island, if that’s more your thing.”

Denny managed to laugh while looking miserable. “Tease. You go ahead. I’ll take some Pepto and see how I feel in a little.” He tried his best to leer, but he looked like he might hurl. “We’ll save the nudie beach for later.”

Back in the city, Denny spent twelve-hour days at work and sometimes more at home castigating and negotiating and belittling. He gave a derisive laugh whenever Jill ordered her steak medium well. It was a little bit fun to see him helpless. Jill crawled across the bed and gave Denny a long kiss, even though he did not smell delicious.

“I’ll be down at the hotel pool.” She hoisted her beach bag onto her shoulder and it felt weighty, crucial, like strapping on the parachute pack before heading towards the jump.

 

*

The hotel pool was a huge strange shape, a giant punctuation mark in the ground. A sign explained that the water was always heated to a comfortable 80 degrees, and the chlorine scent was so sharp that it stung to inhale. Jill scoped the chaise lounges, looking for one with a view of the ocean, but the slope leading down to the beach made it hard to see the water. Most of the chaises were occupied in pairs—moony couples holding hands, applying lotion to each other’s hard-to-reach places, or sipping twin drinks.

“Miss?” A hotel worker approached her from behind. “You come from the beach?”

Obviously not, Jill thought. Can’t he see how pale I am? “No,” she answered. “I come from New York.”

“No, miss, the beach. If you come in from the beach, you must use the showers.” He indicated a couple of tall spouts positioned over slatted wooden planks to the side of the chaises. “Wash off the sand and salt.”

“Oh.” Jill felt a little embarrassed. “No, I didn’t come from the beach. Thank you.” The man nodded and returned to his post outside the bin of fresh towels. Despite the heat, he wore a dress shirt and a dark vest. He stood vigilant beside the towel bin, eyes scanning the pool area for any potential sand-bearers. Jill wondered if that was his sole duty.

A long outdoor bar snaked around the back of the hotel. Its bamboo stools were mostly vacant, and the bar staff stood in snappy red-and-white suit jackets, their posture unnaturally straight and still. Jill slid onto a stool, surprised to find that the seat was actually hard plastic, shaped and painted to look like stalks of bamboo; from a few yards away, she couldn’t tell. Jill ordered a Daiquiri and watched her bartender shoo a seagull away from the remnants of a dish of what looked like fried worms.

“You should try a Shark Bite.” Some guy settled onto the stool next to Jill’s. He wore the kind of billowing white shirt that she had seen on every other guy since they’d gotten to the hotel, the kind of shirt that she couldn’t imagine anyone wearing if he were anywhere else besides an island in the Caribbean or the cover of a Harlequin novel. Somewhere on the island, all these guys must have agreed to wear their white shirts, unbuttoned halfway, to appropriately display their tanned, crispy chests as they waited around for a bodice to rip.

“Shark Bite?” Jill made a face.

“Captain Morgan’s, curaçao, sour mix. You’d like it.”

Jill rolled her eyes and took her Daiquiri from the bartender. You’d like it. This guy didn’t know two things about her and he was telling her what drinks she’d like. She held her drink in mid-air for a mock toast. “I like Daiquiris,” she told him, and took a long sip. This guy clearly thought of himself as a prize, and Jill as a worthy recipient. She thought of Denny upstairs, pale and sweating, who probably made in a day what this guy made in a week. Denny thought of her as his prize—that’s romance. That, Jill thought, tapping her rings against the stem of her glass, is why you marry guys like Denny, and not guys like—

“Mitch.” Mr. Cocky Whiteshirt held his hand out. She looked him full in the face for the first time. Who did Mitch imagine she was? Probably a single girl, here with a group of friends or her family, hanging out at the bar, hoping to meet a suntanned, tropical drink-savvy guy just like Mitch. Was it a bigger joke, Jill wondered, that she wasn’t that girl at all today, or that she very firmly used to be? Jill felt sorry for nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-six-year-old Jill, who would have felt like she played all her cards right if she got a guy like Mitch to buy her a Shark Bite. Mrs. Dennis Symanski didn’t have to give a rat’s ass about Shark Bites or tropical tans or guys named Mitch.

Jill took his hand. “Jill.” She met his eyes. “I’m here on my honeymoon.”

Mitch looked as surprised as Jill hoped he would. “Congratulations. Where’s the lucky guy?”

Jill rolled the tiny paper umbrella from her drink between her fingers. Having a food-poisoned husband on her honeymoon didn’t fit in with the matrimonial fairytale she wanted Mitch to associate with her. “He’s playing golf,” she answered. Denny played golf poorly, occasionally, and she knew from the brochure that the hotel had its own course. Mitch nodded. “I like to sail, myself.” The bartender came to take his empty glass, and he ordered two Shark Bites. “Trust me,” he said, “you’ll like it.”

 

*

Two drinks later, Jill decided that Shark Bites weren’t so bad. Her tongue felt fuzzy, all sour and sweet. Jill had learned that Mitch worked in Communications, whatever that meant. A couple of times a year, he picked an island and spent a week there to check out the sailing. This was his second time on St. Maarten. Rented boats here, had two of his own outside L.A. Married just once. No kids.

“You’ve got to see Orient Beach,” Mitch said.

“The naked one?”

“‘Clothing optional,’ yes.”

The rum was taking an edge off of Jill’s decorum. She snorted, sucking the sweet rum concoction out of her pineapple garnish. “Typical.”

“You’d think a nude beach would be sexy, right? But the people there who exercise the option are never the ones you’d want to see naked. In fact, they’re mostly the ones you’d pay not to see naked.”

Jill imagined walking hand-in-hand with Denny, nude, along some shoreline. Jill had hips, wide but not fat, but her breasts were just huge. Gigantic. Porn star tits. Guys she’d been with often seemed surprised to discover they weren’t fake. They’d grab a handful and look startled, as if waking from an intense dream to find themselves in a strange bed. It wasn’t rare for the Mitches in the room to choose a seat on the stool next to hers. And then there was Denny. Denny, with his compact penis and cherry tomato balls. “I’m a grower, not a show-er,” he’d joked, and while it was true, anyone that got a look at Denny’s grower would have a pretty solid idea of the limitations of that growth. He wasn’t miniscule, but he definitely ranked in the lower quadrant of shafts she’d seen. Jill and her huge boobs, Denny and his humble cock. They would look so unbalanced. People would wonder how they fit together.

“What do you think? Another Shark Bite?” Mitch asked.

Humble or not, Denny’s cock could still get the job done, and Jill had just pledged herself to Denny and his anatomy ‘til death do them part. This is our honeymoon, Jill thought. I should be screwing in my ocean view suite, not knocking back Tiki drinks with a composite of every lame one-night stand I’ve ever had. The sun was lowering itself into the sea. Jill moved her wrist as if to look at a watch, even though she wasn’t wearing one.

“Denny’s probably done with his game now. I’m going back upstairs.”

If Mitch was disappointed, he wasn’t showing it. He raised one hand in a wave while motioning to the bartender with the other.

As the elevator rose, Jill realized she didn’t know when Mitch was leaving. He said he was staying a week, but she didn’t know when he had arrived. Not like it mattered. Today was the first day of never having to care about the Mitches of the world ever again.

 

*

Their suite was sealed in darkness. The blackout curtains were pulled tight over the glass doors, and Jill could barely see to turn on the bedside lamp. She groped the plastic petals of the amaryllis before she found the switch and illuminated Denny’s sleeping hulk.

Jill scooted onto the vacant side of the king bed, bouncing Denny out of sleep. He groaned and blinked rapidly. “What time is it?”

“Time for you to get out of bed and start honeymooning.”

Denny lifted himself into a sitting position. His labored breathing and startled eyes made him seem like a frightened raccoon. “I feel bad, Jills. Maybe I should see a doctor.”

“What’s a doctor going to give you that’s better than Pepto?”

Denny sank back down into the bed. “I need to rest.” He closed his eyes. “How was the pool? Nice?”

Jill hadn’t even dipped her toe in. “Yeah, nice. It’s a pretty pool.” She wondered if she should tell Denny about meeting Mitch, but what guy would want to hear about his wife hanging out with some other dude on their honeymoon? He probably felt lousy as it was that he couldn’t have any fun. Jill lifted the side of the bedspread and tried to tug the sheets free. They were tucked tight and she couldn’t get a grip on them, not with Denny weighing them down. She slid between the starched comforter and the silky sheets, still in her bikini, and tried to lie in a way that the rough bedspread hardly touched her. But sleep wasn’t happening for either of them, and after Jill shifted in bed for the umpteenth time, Denny suggested she go get herself some dinner.

“I can get room service,” Jill suggested. “Order up some Saltines and ginger ale.”

“Go to the restaurant. Enjoy. Just because I’m stuck in here doesn’t mean you have to be.”

Jill wished for a second that Denny would ask her, no, demand that she stay in the room with him. Say something like, “This is our honeymoon, and even if we spend every minute in this goddamned suite, we’re spending it together.” She wished that she could eat outside on the balcony, feeling resentful, rather than eat downstairs in the restaurant, feeling something like relief.

 

*

The hotel’s restaurant was outdoors, beyond the pool, with a view spanning the length of the beach. The waiter seemed confused by Jill, the lone diner, as he unfolded her napkin, poured her wine, and delivered her chicken piccata. The pink sun loomed like a grapefruit slice dipping into the water. It was postcard-perfect. Jill fished her camera out of her beach bag and peered through the viewfinder, but the sun glinted against the lens and distorted the landscape. The sun looked like a raw wound, and the water appeared gray and dull. What was so hard about capturing a single image? She tossed the camera back in the bag and kicked off her sandals, resting her feet on the seat of the empty chair across the table. A fat flower stood in a vase on the table, and Jill tugged at a petal, expecting to feel its familiar plastic resistance. The petal was fine and silky, and came off in her hand.

When the waiter refilled her wine glass, Jill saw the host seating Mitch. He was not alone—a redhead in a peach-colored halter dress trailed him. Jill peered at the couple over the edge of her wine goblet. Liar, she thought, disgusted. His wife or girlfriend or whoever she was barely looked old enough to drink, and Mitch still couldn’t keep himself from hitting on married women pushing thirty at a fake-bamboo beach bar. Mitch and the redhead hovered between two tables; Mitch gestured to one of the tables and she nodded vigorously. As they settled into their chairs, Mitch leaned across the table to say something to her, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. She held her glass higher, so that Mitch and the woman became blurred and yellow, distorted by the wine, like sea cows underwater.

Now that she knew he was attached too, Jill allowed herself to admit that she had found Mitch just the slightest bit attractive. He was handsome, with an involved head of hair and the fearless look of an eighties action hero. Physically, he reminded her of Jared, who she slept with on and off for a year and a half but who never wanted to “get serious,” yet who had called her, dependable as the rain, every few weeks after she told him she was ready to move on (“from us,” she’d said, although she really meant “from our four-minute déjà-vu sex routine”). In terms of confidence, Mitch reminded Jill of Anthony, one of the least intelligent men she’d ever met, and also, of course, the best in bed. Why did it always work that way? The intellectuals were fun to talk to but were too methodical about sex; the dunces couldn’t hold a conversation, but could hold a girl in positions that seemed impossible when simulated in magazines by eunuch stick figures.

She left her last bits of chicken and wine on the table with a tip and walked out of the restaurant at the far end, so that Mitch wouldn’t get to see her leave alone.

 

*

Denny was asleep when Jill crawled into bed next to him, naked. She pressed the length of her body against his back, but he didn’t wake up. He must be half-dead. Even at his most exhausted, or on the days when someone at work had rubbed him the wrong way and he couldn’t get hard, he would always at least attempt to keep her amused using a finger or two. When Jill woke the next morning she found Denny lying next to her, his head propped up by three pillows, watching 60 Minutes.

“Called the doctor back home, described my symptoms. He says it’s traveler’s diarrhea.”

Traveler’s? We arrived yesterday.” Then: “There’s a TV in here?” It had been hiding, apparently, behind the oak doors of what Jill had thought to be an armoire.

“Supposedly very common. Two to three days.” Jill popped upright in bed. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. I should be fine soon, and then we can really celebrate. Enjoy this place together.” He reached out and grabbed Jill’s ankle. “Maybe we could sit out on the balcony later, hmm?”

She patted the hand on her ankle. “That would be nice,” she said, ducking down to give Denny the quickest little kiss.

 

*

On the beach, Jill picked out the least crowded spot and settled herself in a vacant chaise. Crowds swarmed along the shoreline, and she thought she could pick out the same couples—were they the same? There was really no way to tell the difference—that she had seen yesterday, lazing around the pool. At the beach, though, there were children, and plenty of children. Children stuffed plastic pails full of sand, splashed water at each other, dripped syrup from sundaes into the sand and squawked to rival the gulls. During their engagement, she had sat on Denny’s sofa, cocooned in his arms, and talked about the two kids she wanted to have. “Patrick,” she said, “after my grandfather, and Annie,” just because she liked the name. Now, watching the loose clumps of kids fly around like confetti tossed to the breeze, she thought she might need to choose between Patrick and Annie. Either one was bound to be a handful. Denny wanted two kids, but he could be talked down. She thought of her friend from work, Nina, who couldn’t conceive, and for a moment before guilt found her, she felt jealousy. The women who couldn’t conceive were, hopelessly and inexplicably, always the women who wanted most to have children. “You could adopt,” Jill had once suggested, and Nina had drawn up as if slapped.

A familiar voice shook her from remorse. “The Honeymooner,” Mitch declared, and Jill recoiled. The Honeymooners—her mother had loved that show, had pointed out the block where Jackie Gleason grew up every time they drove past it in Brooklyn. The show had scared Jill as a child: Gleason, fat and wild-eyed, would scream at his TV wife and she would simply shake her head in resigned pity as the audience howled. A city bus depot in Brooklyn was named after Jackie Gleason, bore a life-sized statue of his character even though the actor had not been a bus driver himself; apparently being a guy who played a bus driver on television was enough to earn him that sculpted honor.

Mitch dragged a chaise over to Jill and sat down. “Another day on the links for your husband?”

“Nope.” Jill watched a young boy dump a pail of wet sand on a little girl’s head; the girl wailed. “He’s got—” there was no way Jill was going to say the words traveler’s diarrhea to Mitch, so Jill thought of an ailment that might befall Denny the Gifted Golfer—“a migraine.” Mitch looked at Jill like he sensed her lie and wasn’t sure how to take it. “I’m serious. He hasn’t been able to leave the suite since we got here.”

“Jesus, that’s awful.”

“Yep.” Jill smiled warmly at Mitch. “Is your lady friend big on golf? Or does she prefer to go sailing without you?” Mitch froze. Jackpot. Jill congratulated herself.

“You mean…”

“Red, curly hair? Peach halter dress? Spaghetti-strand legs?”

“…Erica.” Mitch nodded, swallowed. “We met at the Tiki bar.”

Jill sat up. “Here?”

“Yep. Yesterday.”

Erica must have popped onto her plastic stool as soon as Jill popped off of it. Either that or Mitch had sidled up to Erica, introductory Shark Bite in hand. Jill suppressed her huge grin for a second, then thought, what the hell? She laughed out loud. “And now, Erica is…?”

Mitch seemed to be measuring Jill. “Back at the bar? On another beach? Meeting the cruise ships? Who knows. We didn’t exactly make long-term plans.” Jill’s laughter punctuated his speech. “I’m out of here tomorrow morning, anyway. So, now that you know as much as I do about Erica, tell me about your guy.”

Yesterday, Jill had been eager to flaunt her matrimony to Mitch, but today she didn’t feel like talking about Denny. Mitch was just asking to be polite. He didn’t really want to know that Denny was a manager at one of the bigger banks, that he cheered for the Red Sox, or that in a few more years he would probably be as bald as his father. His father who had, Jill remembered, teetered up to her at the wedding reception, tipsy on hundred-dollar-a-bottle Scotch, and said to her with red-rimmed eyes, “We never thought Denny would find himself such a beauty.”

“Denny is a lawyer.” What did it matter? Mitch wasn’t anyone she planned to be exchanging Christmas cards with in the future. “Entertainment law. Negotiates for the Hollywood actors who come out to do Broadway shows.” Jill had no idea if what she was saying made sense, but it was so easy to just invent a life for the two of them. Mitch nodded, looking a little bored. Jill considered throwing in a fib or two about herself, but she knew the things she could tell Mitch about her own life that would excite him the most were likely things that were true.

A waiter had shown up to take their drink orders. “Two Shark Bites,” Mitch offered.

One Shark Bite. I’ll have a Tequila Sunrise.”

Mitch shrugged at the waiter. “Why not? Two Tequila Sunrises.”

Jill composed her face in mock seriousness. “Trust me. You’ll like it.”

It was Mitch’s turn to laugh. “So Jill,” he asked, “have you ever been sailing?”

 

 

Mitch couldn’t get a boat to himself on such short notice, so he and Jill hitched along with a group of tourists taking a ride on a catamaran to a cay called Prickly Pear. The cay was uninhabited, Mitch told Jill. Jill couldn’t fathom a place that was uninhabited. Though their apartment was in a luxe hi-rise on a good block, she and Denny could hear her neighbor’s nightly sneezing fit through their bedroom wall.

The catamaran’s operators provided free rum punch to the tourists on the ride. The punch tasted more of spices than rum, but the relentless sun assured that all the passengers drank their fill. Jill and Mitch kept themselves separate from the group of excited tourists who traded stories about where they were from, what brought them to St. Maarten, how long they were staying and how they were already planning their next return. Who do they all imagine we are, Jill wondered? We probably look like a couple, on their first big vacation or… Jill let herself finish the thought: on their honeymoon. There was no reason why people shouldn’t think she and Mitch were newlyweds. She wore her rings. They were on a catamaran, sharing rum punch in the sunshine—this was what people did on a honeymoon.

A guide read an over-enthusiastic monologue into a bullhorn, explaining how St. Maarten was the smallest inhabited island divided between two nations: the island was basically bisected, the Dutch controlling one side, the French the other. Each side even used different currency. The guide went on about how the division was a peaceful concordance, but it sounded like a confusing mess.  Was there an invisible border? Where did you exchange your money? Still, she was curious about the French side of the island; before she left, she’d like to see it.

Comment dirais-je,” Jill said to no one. It was the thing she remembered best from high school French.

“Say what, Shark Bite?”

Jill shrugged. “It means How should I say. It’s useful for stalling during oral exams.”

The catamaran passed a few party boats blaring island music and bearing sunburned college kids, drunk and gyrating in pairs and groups. Jill squinted at the boats as they drifted farther away, trying to catch a glimpse of the past Jill among the swarm, and neither pleased nor dismayed when she could not find her. She saw a lone fisherman out in a rowboat, jerking his line and drawing a fish from the foam. The man looked delighted as the fish thrashed, its lip speared by his hook.

The water as they approached Prickly Pear was so blue, and the sands on the shore so white that it all looked fake to Jill, like a prom photo backdrop. The salt from the sea stung her eyes and she felt dizzy and light from the rum and the waves and she thought, this is water. This is why we say water is blue.

When the catamaran docked, there was to be a complementary barbecue on the beach, but Jill and Mitch walked away from the group, wordless in their pursuit to leave the others behind. Jill wanted to ask where they were going, but realized she would be fine with any answer.

Mitch kept his eyes trained on a distant shoreline. “This place has some great snorkeling.”

Jill stopped walking. When Mitch turned to face her, she caught his eyes and didn’t look away. “I would love to snorkel. Some day. But not today.”

A nice thing about uninhabited islands is that the parts inhabited by day are always buzzing, while the crooks and coves on the quieter parts of the island are empty, serene and untouched. Mitch led Jill to a rocky enclave where the gravel in the water pinched her soles, but it turned out they didn’t need snorkels after all—small bright fish circled all around their feet, scattering as they splashed past. Deeper in the enclave, around a bend, they found a sandy cay, a perfect, king-sized cay, from which they could hear and see nothing but the lapping of waves against the reef.

Mitch and Jill might not have been a soul match, or even intellectual pairs, but in sex they were part of the same school. No one needed to ask questions, to check or confirm or assess that the act was satisfactory; what one body demanded, the other answered. Jill hadn’t found her single self among the women on that passing party boat, but she found her easy enough with Mitch. She had thought, or hoped, it would be difficult to return to that Jill, but apparently that Jill hadn’t gone far. She welcomed her back as one welcomes the old friend that knows exactly what you like: how you fix your coffee, how you like your crusts cut, things that you would think but never say sober. The smutty things uttered, as if they were programmed, and the instant way Mitch responded in turn made Jill understand that she was not special. Nor was he; but they were likes, if only in the basest, briefest sense. Likes always found one another, no matter who or what stood in between. Trust me, Mitch had told her, you’ll like it. He wasn’t wrong.

 

*

On the ride back the tourists, full of rum and barbecue, dozed or watched the waves through heavy-lidded eyes. Mitch and Jill weren’t talking much, either. The sea, reflecting the sun, seemed a bright blood orange, a blend of shades too beautiful to try to talk around.

When everyone disembarked and walked with lazy strides back to the hotel, Mitch told Jill he’d better go and pack. “I should be down later, though. For a late dinner.” It wasn’t a question, or a test—it was simply a statement, one she didn’t have to answer. When she made no offer to join him, Mitch lifted a hand to Jill and he headed toward the lobby.

It was dinnertime, and the pool was practically empty. Jill dropped onto a chaise and closed her eyes. Her chest and shoulders stung from the sun, or from the salt water, or where Mitch’s tongue had licked the salt from her skin. She took a deep breath, the smells of the ocean mixing with the smells of smoke from the kitchen grill.

“Miss? You come from the beach?” Jill kept her eyes closed and nodded. “Please use the showers before you use the pool. Wash off so you don’t get sand and salt in the pool.”

Jill looked up at the man in charge of the towels. He held a neat stack, folded fresh, and he offered one to her. “Yes,” she said, taking the towel, “thank you. That’s a good idea.” In full sight of the staff, Jill stood under the spray, her skin pricking at the water’s unexpected chill.

 

*

The door of the suite was chained from the inside. Jill rattled it. “Denny? You okay?”

“Just a sec,” Denny called, barely audible. After a few seconds of shuffling he came to the door in a terrycloth bathrobe and unhooked the chain.  On the balcony, a small table had been set for two. There was an elaborate chicken dish on one plate, a hill of white rice on the other.

“If I’m feeling better tomorrow,” Denny said between bites of rice, “we can check out Maho Beach.”

“That one by the airport?”

“The planes fly right above your head! You can lie on your back and take pictures.”

“That sounds terrifying.”

“Nah, it’ll be great. Can you imagine?” Denny chewed his rice with a smile. “Right over your head.”

“I thought we could go see the French Side of the island.”

“What, French side? It’s the same island.”

Jill pinched the petal of the rose in the vase on their table and was not surprised when it remained fixed to the stem, immune to her insistent tug. She summoned a smile, rubbed Denny’s shin with her toe under the table. “There’s a nude beach on the French side.”

Denny smiled, able once again to leer. “There’s only one woman on this island I need to see naked.”

It was what every wife would want to hear, whether or not it was true. Jill knew it was true. She knew that they would, in the years to come, go to countless dinners and parties and functions and Denny would present her to his companions, grinning, This is my wife.

 

*

An expanding crowd of twenty or thirty tourists were gathered at the edge of the road that separated Princess Juliana International Airport from Maho Beach. It was no cay, but still, the beach was gorgeous, in spite of the smell of jet fuel that blew in with the ocean air.

“Air Jamaica.” Denny, like everyone at the beach, had to yell to be heard over the jet engines. “See, over there? She’s getting ready.” A plane striped in yellow, orange, pink and blue wound a slow path along the airport’s single runway. “Get your camera!”

Jill unzipped her beach bag and dug out the camera from its depths. Maybe now she could finally get a decent photo of the beach. She took out her wrap and draped it across her shoulders, shivering in her bikini. The wind picked up as the jet picked up speed.

The tourists’ chatter grew louder and more excited. A few began to lie down, side-by-side like fish in a can on the sand, while some stood at the edge of the road watching the jet prepare for liftoff.  The plane blazed along the runway.

“Fasten your seatbelts, here she comes!” Denny picked up Jill’s camera from the sand as she struggled to keep her wrap from flapping about her shoulders. The fabric slapped against her skin like unhinged wings.

When the plane’s long shadow began to cover the beach, Denny shouted something Jill couldn’t hear, eye pressed to the viewfinder. Jill’s sunglasses blew off of her head. Her wrap caught the breeze and quickly disappeared. The blue beach bag somersaulted towards the shoreline in a race with towels, sunhats and bamboo mats, purging her belongings along the way. Jill cried out as sand flew at her eyes and spit against the gale as grains found their way into her mouth. She covered her face with her hands, dumbed by the roar of the engine, and waited for the wind to die down.

And it did: for all the excitement and gales and lost sundries, in a few seconds, it was done. The plane’s impact could only be seen in evidence of the sunbathers’ ruffled coifs. The extreme serene after the noisy takeoff was disappointing, more disappointing than if Jill had never seen the plane at all. Denny, at the moment, was thrilled. He bragged about the amazing shots he’d gotten. When they would get the prints back—and see the jet as no more than a smudge on the lens—he would pan the experience as “overrated,” while Jill would wish, again, that they had stayed longer, searching for her empty beach bag. Even if it had been blown into the water, she was confident that if she’d looked a little longer, she could have found it.

 

*

The crowd on the flight back was sparse—Jill and Denny could have each had their own row of seats to stretch out in, but neither of them mentioned it, or tried to move. Denny dozed in his reclined seat. Jill never reclined her seat before takeoff, in apprehension of the moment when a steward would tap her shoulder and ask her to return to her seat to the upright position. It was much better to stay tense and uncomfortable until the little seatbelt sign went off and you could tip back those three inches, at last. And no matter how often she’d flown, Jill couldn’t manage to sleep through the preflight briefing. It seemed important to listen wholly to the instructions, eyes on the instructor like a prized pupil—if there was to be a test later, Jill certainly wanted to pass. She’d lain under the belly of an aircraft; that was enough aviatic risk for one trip.

Jill read along with the worn pamphlet: Your seat belt has been designed for easy fastening and release. To fasten, insert the metal fitting into the buckle, and adjust to fit snugly. Your seat belt should be worn low and tight across your lap. Obedient, she adjusted the belt.

You are on board a 757. There are ten emergency exits, five doors on the left and five doors on right, each marked with a red EXIT sign overhead. The overwing doors are equipped with a ramp and off-wing slide. Denny loved to sit in an emergency exit row—all that extra legroom. Jill hated it; too much pressure, swearing up and down that she could lift forty pounds and would assist her fellow passengers in the event of a crisis. If there was an emergency, she couldn’t say that she wouldn’t try to be the first person down the slide. Of course, the airline assumed the opposite: if there was a loss of cabin pressure, you’d be trying to put the mask onto your child or elderly seatmate before you’d give yourself the oxygen. Jill imagined the masks ejected from above, dangling before her and Denny. It seemed a perfect snapshot of where they were headed: Jill aiding her husband while she held her breath.

Sure enough, a steward came along to tap Denny’s shoulder, asking him to raise his seat back. He awoke grumpy, like he’d been asleep for hours. “How long’s the flight?” he asked Jill.

“Four and a half hours.”

“Where’s the camera? Want to see if we can get another shot of the beach?”

“Go ahead.”

“You’re closest to the window.”

Jill felt rude, talking openly while the attendant continued her speech, so she brought the camera from her new tote, a cheap straw thing.

“You have to lean in farther. Left—to the left. You see it?” Denny asked. “The beach? Right there.”

Jill shushed Denny. Passengers rows away turned to stare. The in-flight announcement was already over, but she knew the ending. It was the same on every flight, no matter the origin or the destination:

Thank you for your attention. We will be airborne shortly.

 


Laurie Ann Cedilnik‘s fiction has appeared in Epoch and Black Warrior Review, among others. She holds a bunch of degrees from the University of Houston and Wellesley, among others. She has taught creative writing at Loyola University and Grand Valley State, among others. A former editor of Gulf Coast, she finally lives back in Queens.

Lost at Sea by Sarah Ann Strickley

in Fiction/Issue One

IF YOU WERE TO COME UPON OLLIE BARON in his habitual throne at Catbird’s and ask him how he found himself shacked up with that waif prostitute and lingering on the brink of sure eviction, he’d likely blame the woman’s talent for thrift. Though she came to him with only a bag of skimpy clothes and a box of knick-knacks salvaged from the shipwreck of her life, Sky was a dollar stretcher of the highest order. She took what little cash Ollie could spare out of his monthly VA checks and spread it as far as it would go, haunting the manager’s markdown rack at the neighborhood Fiesta, clipping coupons out of the weeklies that landed in their box, scoring packaged castoffs in the dumpsters ringing their complex. She spread a red-checked tablecloth over the old trunk that served as his coffee table and laid out scavenged feasts for him in little plastic dishes meant for candies. The woman earned her keep, he often said.

Of course, she was also a helpless drunk. All that scrimping and saving and savvy homemaking was in service of the drink. At the end of the week, they took what was left of the cash and they partied. She matched him shot for shot, blow for blow, and then they held each other in their hangovers, the din of Houston highways lulling them into a kind of fractured bliss. One day, he kept telling himself, he’d slow things down and get a handle on his finances, his life. Until then, they were having fun together, weren’t they? Sky, a boomer hippie who’d named herself after a New Age radio station—SKY.FM—cast the arrangement in spiritual terms. “We’re going with the universal flow,” she said. “It would be unnatural to question it.” She also said it would kill her if she had to go back on the streets.

As Ollie’s barroom audience was never surprised to learn, it wasn’t possible to support two heavy drinkers on a paltry government check in the Montrose, a neighborhood in the midst of a cultural renaissance, as the real estate assholes phrased it—at least not for long. After eight months of scrimping and blowing, the rocks began to show in the universal flow. The weekend party money came out of the bank and then it came out of the rent and then they were flat broke. Ollie reached a bitter stalemate with the landlord. The problem, from Ollie’s perspective, was the young professionals moving into the complex. They were willing to pay more, and Ollie couldn’t compete. New, useless-to-him amenities kept appearing—wireless, covered parking, workout room—and then a letter about a hike in rent. The problem, from the landlord’s perspective, was Ollie’s tendency to pay rent on his own timeline, if at all. Pay up or get out. It wasn’t a humane position, Ollie thought. Without the cash for a deposit on another place, where were they supposed to go?

 

 

After a protracted voicemail battle, he decided to change the game and make a hand-written appeal to the landlord. He wanted to hit him on a human level. Veteran to veteran, do you really need to do this? The swift response was an eviction notice with a yellow, Post-It addendum: Veteran to veteran, pay up or get out. Sky let the paper drift to the carpet and said, “Game over, Ollie bear. What now?” Within a week, maybe less, some goons would show up to remove them and their possessions. By force, if necessary. They’d seen it happen to others like them and knew it as inevitable. With nowhere to go and no money in the bank, there was nothing to be done but wait. The thing between them would end. She’d go back to hooking, and he’d go wherever washed-up drunks went (he did not yet know where that was but he had a pretty good idea) and that would be it. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t say it. He couldn’t tell her it was over. And that was his burden, his guilt. He was the grand equivocator. The man who refused to make up his damn mind. He would pay for it, of course, but not nearly as much as she would.

“If they want a showdown, we’ll give them a showdown,” he said.

He resolved to sit on the porch overlooking the courtyard they shared with the other tenants, passing a bottle with Sky, watching grackles pick at the St. Augustine ringing the base of a fountain. He could call it making a stand, but it was more like awaiting a sentence. Soon, they’d be on the streets. Until then, why not sit back and enjoy the scenery? 

Two days in, no goons had materialized and they were hesitating on the edge of an epic bender. It was hot on the porch, the first flare of summer burnishing the backs of their necks, and out of nowhere Sky decided she wanted to put her feet in the ocean. “I’m boiling out here,” she said. With only a half-tank of gas to last them through Ollie’s next check and eviction bearing down, it wasn’t a good idea. He knew they’d never make it to the coast and back if they hit any traffic. 

She said, “If I could get my feet in the water, I know my hands would stop shaking. I’m so nervous sitting here.” 

He didn’t know what to say to that, grand equivocator that he was, and so he loaded a few things into the truck and told her to get up, he was driving her skinny ass to Galveston. The tangle on the feeder route had him sweating, but about ten miles outside Houston, the highway loosened its snarl and he made good time. 

“Look at this,” said Sky as they parked at the seawall. She held her hand level. “Already better.” 

It was overcast on the beach, furnace of the sun obscured by thick, lilac gauze, which meant at least they wouldn’t have to lacquer themselves as often with their cheap sunscreen, which was as thick as clay, more poultice than lotion, and impossible to rub in completely. Ollie was conscious of the unnatural whiteness on his chest and arms. He saw it on Sky’s face and knew his must look the same. Clownlike. Fortunately, they had no one to impress. They were middle-aged and broke. Invisible to the naked eye.

“I’m going to perfect my backstroke,” he said. 

He ran and made a show of diving into the waves for Sky, who sat on a tattered bath towel and clapped for him. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, her words lost to the bash of surf. Be careful! or Have fun! It was one of those, he was reasonably sure. He let the current ferry him diagonally to the buoys just to see how deep the water was out there—he wasn’t a risk taker in the water, but he liked to know his limits—and was surprised to find a humped sandbar beneath his feet at the outermost edge of the swimming area. When he stood at the top the water was only waist high, which made him feel gigantic; he felt tiny when he turned to face the limitless sea. 

The water was so calm out there. Like a bath. He had the fleeting thought that they could live on the beach for a while. If they caught any hassle from police or locals, they could get a little boat and drift in the water by night, sleep on the beach by day, as though sunning. Then he remembered the hurricane and what it did to his old apartment. His preparations were few: He stood the couch against the window in the living room, and he made duct-tape X’s over the others. It wasn’t enough to keep the glass from crashing through. In the end, he bunkered in the plastic bathtub. When he looked up to see the room filled with the green light of exploding transformers, the ceiling tiles fluttering like nervous mouths, he knew he’d made a mistake. He should have run when he had the chance.

He breathed salt and spit. Took in the bigness of the water, cruise ships idling, distant barges shimmering in the heat, and admitted to himself that the best place for Sky now was in the women’s shelter. He knew she’d resent him for leaving her there, but it was the best he could do. Their problems had outgrown his capacity to manage them. He was like a child trying to fly a jet. Who could expect him to keep the thing in air? When he returned his focus to the beach, he found Sky sitting right where he’d left her at a distance of about fifty yards. A pack of young men had materialized nearby. He knew they were loud by the way their arms moved. Big, sweeping gestures. They shoved and punched each other. Goofed. The way Sky hunched and angled her body away from them told Ollie she was scared. She folded herself up like a box, attempting to disappear inside.

It was a familiar scenario. Sky was a magnet for bad luck, and there was no shortage of disrespecting men in the world, some of whom recognized her from the streets. Usually it was a loudmouth in a bar, but recently they’d been overrun in the park by a pack of skater kids who’d mistaken Sky for a girl their own age and tried to chat her up. She was thin, with hips like an adolescent boy’s, and she wore low-slung jean shorts that showed the jut of her bones. With her big sunglasses and flirty pink headscarf, she could pass as a coed, but she was only a few years younger than Ollie’s fifty-five. What are you doing with that old guy? they asked, which elicited her trademark raucous laugh. It was her teeth that gave her away. Broken and stained. No high-school kid has teeth like that. The boys responded to her wide-mouthed guffaw with horror. Watch out, man, it’s got an old bitch face! Get a fucking dentist, why don’t you? 

Ollie charged, but Sky grabbed his shirttail. 

“They’re kids,” she said. 

The skaters pushed away, and that was the end of it, but Ollie knew the incident had rattled Sky. She wondered what they would have done if she’d been alone. How would they have punished her for their mistake? This time there were five boys, and even from a distance Ollie could see that he’d have a tough time managing them if it came to that. They were fit. Athletes. Their arms and necks were ropy, their waistlines lean. Ollie was a solid man who knew his way around a fight, but his heart was a fatty bulb that had failed him once already. He knew the boys were talking to Sky because they were all facing her, lined up like soldiers before a supplicant captee. For her part, Sky looked back at Ollie across the water, her gaze fixed to his position on the sandbar, and waved him in with both hands. Come on, come on, she seemed to be saying. He had to get to her quickly if he was going to save her.

Diving, he forced his body under the water with heavy strokes of his thighs and came to the surface with sea foam wrinkling in his ears. For all that strain, he’d only managed to make it a few yards closer to shore. The rip current was like a treadmill set on mad dash; he could run it all day and get nowhere. He shook the water from his head and dogpaddled as he watched one of the boys reach down to Sky and grab her by the wrist. A second dive he understood instinctually as ill-advised was even less productive. Sky was standing now, and one of the boys had her by the elbow. Her legs looked like a bird’s, unsteady and knobbed. Ollie didn’t know if he could make it to her before they had her in the water. Once they were out there, who knew what could happen? The waves were rough, the undertow strong. She weighed ninety pounds and didn’t know how to swim. She’d be halfway around the island before anyone knew she was gone. And then what would he do? Drive home alone? 

He took a chance and dove parallel to shore, hoping to sidestep the treadmilling churn. The move put him downshore, but at least he was closer to land. A fourth and final thrust left him panting and exhausted on his hands and knees in the shallows. He had at least thirty yards to run up the beach to reach her and then who knows what kind of fight ahead of him. 

*

THE FIRST TIME OLLIE TOOK SKY TO THE BEACH,  they had the money for a decent liter of Polish vodka, and halfway through it she confessed she had two kids out there somewhere. That was the way she phrased it, and she ran her hand up and down along the horizon line over the water. He didn’t know whether that meant the kids were living somewhere out there in the world or that they’d passed on and become part of the great unknown. Both possibilities seemed equally plausible. Sky was a hippie and liked to make metaphors about the earth. She was also viciously secretive about her life before her fall from grace. 

“Do you think about them?” he asked.

“Of course I do. They’re my kids.” She glared at him. “Jesus. What kind of monster do you think I am?” 

The bottom of that particular bottle wasn’t far off. Then she dragged him to a cheesy beach bar where her chin met with the corner of a wooden deck. He thought she was gone when he picked her up limp from the floor. Since then he’d seen her come close to death twice—one other accident with alcohol and a month where she was off food—and he’d wondered about those kids. If they were alive, was there a way to contact them and should that be done? Would they want to know about their mother? Would she want them to know about her? As for his own kids, they were married with children of their own now and preferred not to know the details of his decline. If he wanted to see how they’d react to the news of his death he could probably deliver it himself. I’m a friend of your father’s, here to inform you of his tragic death. So extreme was his dissolution that they’d be unlikely to recognize him. 

Ollie had never been a saint, but he’d always more or less aimed at decency until an embarrassing series of work-related disappointments had soured him on the 9 to 5. He was a shift leader at an auto parts enterprise, then he was a cashier, then he was a stock boy, and then he was cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming between aisles. All because the new manager had caught him with a flask a few times. The pissant couldn’t fire him (Ollie’s allegiance with the owner went back to their Navy days) but he sure as hell could make him want to quit. Ollie took to dressing in his uniform and reporting to the bar instead of the shop. He told himself he had his pride—or something like it. 

He sold his house and everything in it and resolved to ride his savings and monthly checks as far as they would carry him from that measly existence. Within five years, he’d become a stranger himself—the kind of man who drinks a Mickey’s on the way to and from the liquor store. When Sky came into the picture, he regarded his transformation as fundamentally complete. He was off the rails. You can’t call yourself a decent person when you invite a prostitute to live with you out of convenience. No matter how nice she is, no matter how resourceful, if her willingness to sleep with you is at all tied to your willingness to compensate her, you cannot claim to live a decent life together.

If he could imagine his death, he reasoned, he was ready to face it. Going out defending a woman would be a noble way, perhaps the best exit he was likely to muster. Even if she was a hooker. Despite his internal moral preparation, the gang of boys were white noise and hairy ankles in the water around him before Ollie knew what was happening. Why had they come to him? Disoriented, he managed to throw himself into standing position. “Stay away from her!” he said. 

One of them grabbed him by the arm. “Whoa, man. Take it easy.” 

“You keep your hands off!” Ollie crouched, bottom submerged, and prepared to strike anyone who came near. 

The boys backed away, hands up. “Whoa there. We’re trying to help you.” 

“I know how to fight! I’m not afraid of dying, are you?”

“We’re a soccer team,” one of them said, flabbergasted. 

The absurdity of the exchange knocked Ollie out of his fugue. It was then that he registered Sky standing ankle-deep down the way. She was perfectly fine, intact, her hands extended, mouth agape, whole body saying, What in the hell are you doing? 

“You’re not here to fight me?” he said. 

The boys shook their heads, bewildered. At that point, Ollie realized he had some work to do to avoid creating a bigger scene or drawing unwanted attention. He thanked the boys for trying to help him, offered them hurried wet handshakes, and asked if they planned to go out in the water. “Take it from a crazy old man,” he said. “That undertow is stronger than you think.”

“OK, man. Got it. We’ll be careful.”

Released, they seemed to leap fifty yards in one bound. They had a raft with them, a little red beer cooler. He watched these items get smaller and smaller until they were colored shapes in the gray water. When they reached the sandbar he’d just left, they waved back at him. It was much farther out there than he’d realized, spearing diagonally away from the buoys. He could see what it must have looked like to Sky, him standing way out there, lost in his thoughts. She probably thought he was afraid to move, stranded. It was very brave of her to ask the boys for help. He was surprised she’d risked the interaction. When he reached her on the beach, he didn’t know how to explain himself. For some reason, I thought I was in a fight for my life. 

“What happened to you out there?” she said. “We thought you were paralyzed.”

He was still a little drunk; that was half of it. The other half was his ballooning sense of doom. How long could they keep living like this? How long could they hang on to each other? “I was thinking about the ocean,” he said. He could see she was unsatisfied with that response. He added, “I was thinking about how big it is. How dangerous.”

She sighed and touched his shoulder, still white with lotion. “It is very big,” she said. “There’s no denying that.”

“Those boys are a soccer team,” he said. “Did you know that?”

She snorted. “Their t-shirts had the name of it. The Scooters or something.”

“They thought I was nuts.”

“Are they wrong?” she said. She handed him a towel. “Here,” she said. “Let’s get situated and try to enjoy the rest of the day.”

He spread his towel next to hers on the sand and leaned into it. “It’s rough out there,” he said. “I hope those boys are careful.”

“Sometimes I think you need a drink and you’ll worry less.”

He wasn’t sure if booze was the problem or the solution, but he didn’t resist when she lifted a flask to his lips. “It’s the bad stuff,” she said. 

He let the sting linger in the back of his throat. “I know a good place to get shrimp,” he said. “We should stay sober enough to bargain on the way home.”

“Shrimp sounds good,” she said.

“We could both do with some protein,” he said. 

Ollie closed his eyes and listened to the ocean’s percussive prattle, disrupted only by Sky’s hand on his thigh, which meant she was ready to pass him the flask. Soon he was imagining himself as a piece of driftwood and Sky as a bit of seaweed flung on the beach. No one would notice them. They’d blend into the scenery. There would be no trouble, and the afternoon would pass into evening and they’d gradually transform back into themselves and make the drive in good time—no traffic—and then they’d sit down at the coffee table and make a plan for themselves, no joke. He’d propose marriage if that’s what it took to pin things down. Even if she didn’t say yes, it would bring them closer, introduce some clarity. They’d both know this wasn’t one of those things you find in a bar and maintain until the bender is over. 

*

HE KNEW ONE OF THE BOYS WAS LOST IN THE UNDERTOW as soon as he heard the helicopter. It pulled him out of his stupor as though lifting him with a tow wire. He saw the whole scene—the mortified teammates, the red cooler bobbing in the sea, the lifeguards coming to shore empty-handed again and again—before he opened his eyes. He didn’t expect to find Sky in the water. She was up to her waist, leaning into the waves and yelling a name—Brandon, Brandon—as though the kid were lost in a grocery store and not the wild, raucous expanse of the sea. He heard the bad whisky in her rasp and saw it in the shifting, uneven panels of her face. He saw the horror contained in her open mouth: the boy was out there somewhere. 

There were others gathered nearby on the beach, and Sky’s behavior was upsetting them. Two women in floral swimsuits held their hands over their mouths, and an older man, his wet trunks clinging to his legs, seemed to have just given up chase. “She won’t listen to me,” he said. “I honestly think she’s drunk, if you want to know the truth.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Ollie. 

He was slow to find his footing in the water. The low position of the sun told him he’d been out for hours. The air had cooled, and the wind had a new violence to it. For a small woman, Sky could be strong and ruthless when agitated. In his present condition—hammered and reeling—he knew better than to try to touch her. He settled for standing nearby in the water.

“We need to keep a lower profile, babe,” he said. He tried to shake salt out of his head, get his bearings.

“They want to give up,” she said. She pulled a skein of stringy wet hair out of her face. “They say they don’t have the resources to keep the chopper and the boats out there past dusk. Can you believe that?”

It was sad, a sign of the times, the deflating pocketbook of a self-defeating nation. He’d seen a thing about it on the news, the infographic of empty coffers, the strained emphasis on personal responsibility. How can you do your part? If the water’s knee-high, it’s time to get dry. Don’t take unreasonable risks in the water. A travesty, to be sure. But yelling into the waves wasn’t going to bring the boy to the surface. “It’s messed up,” he conceded, “but what are you going to do?”

“It’s a person’s life!”

He held his arms out to her. “Come on,” he said. “Please. I’m in no state to deal with this.”

She dismissed him with a flap of the hand and went back to her work, tossing out her tattered flag of a voice and bracing herself for each wave. Meanwhile, he tried to do damage control on the beach, bumbling and burping through successive rationalizations. “The kid’s a relative,” he said, swell of whisky bile rising in his throat. “A nephew. You can see why she’d be so upset. Besides, she’s off her medication. It was making her jittery.” Lies weren’t getting any traction, so he made oddly truthful confessions. “She’s staring down the barrel at homelessness,” he said. “You might think you can protect her from herself, but you can’t.” 

It wasn’t five minutes before a white Coast Guard truck rolled up and the tanned hulk inside leaned out the window to ask if there was a problem. The older man who’d spoken up before stepped between Ollie and the truck and said, “That woman out there is drunk. I think you’d better get to her before you’ve got another drowning on your hands today.” Just like that, Ollie found himself on the outside of a situation he knew himself incapable of handling. 

And so it was that he simply stood and watched as two lifeguards moved toward Sky in the water. He watched her understand their purpose and try to outrun them, try to fight. He saw her call out to him, even heard a scrap of his name in the wind. But this wasn’t a gang of kids he could pretend himself capable of fighting off; it wasn’t a bill he could skirt or a notice he could ignore. Sky was in the process of casting herself out to sea and he was simply watching the long arch of a fishing line in the air. Like a spectator or a witness. Like a stranger to her. And so he observed as they pulled her by her armpits through the waves, her sunglasses tilted windows in the fading light of the sun. He stood by as they finally thought better of their strategy and each picked an end. As she passed, writhing and kicking in the air, she pleaded with him. 

“Ollie, tell them you know me. Ollie, tell them you’ll drive me home. Ollie, baby, help me out here.”

He said nothing; worse, he turned his head. When a cruiser pulled up, cops grinning at the spectacle of this tiny woman, lifted high like a prize catch, he walked away.

*

HE HAD BEEN RIGHT TO WORRY about the gas in the tank: there wasn’t enough to get him home, which put him walking along I-45, a dangerous prospect even in the full light of day. It was after midnight when he finally reached the apartment and he’d never been more sober in his life. The strewn clothing that slowed his pace as he walked through the courtyard was his own; he noted Sky’s wardrobe brimming in the communal trash as he ascended the stair. He was not surprised to discover the locks had been changed, but the miracle of an open kitchen window startled him. Even more shocking was the good fortune of the tallboy sitting upright in the crisper drawer of the fridge. The decision to cash the whole can right there didn’t come hard. The beer was revelatory in its coolness. It was saving his life.

*

IN THE TWO MONTHS Ollie spent on the street, dragging a black plastic bag of scavenged belongings behind him, Sky flitted across his mind whenever he chanced to sight a skinny figure loitering in an alleyway or standing in line at one of the downtown shelters. Word on the street was that she’d spent more than a month in lock down for drunk and disorderly and walked out to nothing and no one waiting for her and nowhere to go. How a body recovers from that kind of treatment, Ollie didn’t know. In his darker moments, he pictured a bitter end for Sky—a drainage ditch somewhere near Galveston, one of the more ramshackle XXX establishments on the feeder routes. In lighter moods, he figured she’d go bad penny on him, and he’d be forced to explain himself and answer for his sins. In either case, he felt suitably mortified by his culpability, but could not for the life of him imagine a better path for himself. What was he supposed to do? Go down with her?

 

In a couple of weeks, he’d have enough savings to get himself back into an apartment of some kind, to re-orient his navigational system toward decency again, perhaps even crawl back to beg for permission from the pissant to scrub Auto Barn toilets. But until that happened he was busy with the daily pressures of maintaining his drift. Homelessness was hard work in Houston. You had to wake before dawn and remove yourself from sight, and then you had to keep moving from one place to the next. The fast-food joint, the bus station, the park. 

Out of respect for the institution and a fear of becoming yet another cliché, he resisted holing up in the library until the winter rains ruined the good thing he had going at the little dog park downtown. Then he settled into a carrel and passed the time reading newspaper archives. He planned to start with the first day of his dissolution and work up to the present. He was only a few days into this job when he spotted Sky at a water fountain. His arms rose involuntarily to embrace her. It felt good to see someone he knew, even if it was someone who might want to roast his balls. A subtle shake of her head told him to check himself. Of course, of course, he mouthed and settled for a double-handed wave, which she returned. 

He couldn’t say she looked good. She was as scrawny as ever, and there was a dullness to her clothes that told him they’d been washed again and again. But her manner was light and easy, and a spark lit her eye. 

“I wondered when you’d finally roll in,” she said, outguessing him. 

He sat with her in a carrel for the better part of an hour, small talking around the issue, and then finally told her he was sorry he’d failed her on the beach. “It’s no excuse, but it was all a little too much for me to handle,” he said. 

She grimaced, but the sourness around her mouth was quick to fade. “I don’t hold it against you,” she said. 

She was lying, he knew, and it was the reason they’d never share more than this moment together. “That’s nice of you to say even if it isn’t true,” he said.

The thin line of her lips crinkled and she squeezed his hand. “Anyway, it was story with a happy ending.”

Ollie was capable of imaginative thinking, but he failed to see how this particular ending could be construed that way. “Whatever you say,” he said. “I guess I’m glad you can see it that way.”

“Wait a minute, you really don’t know, do you?” she said, her knee thrumming beneath the desk. “About the boy?”

He’d bite. He owed her at least that. “The boy?” 

She smiled. “Wait until you hear this.”

The story she unfurled for him then was the one he’d tell and retell in the future bars of his life, knowing full well that no one would believe him. Like all the best bar stories, the improbability of the thing was its most crucial component. The point was that it couldn’t happen. That’s what made it so compelling. 

According to Sky, the cops had her in the back of the cruiser for an hour while they wrapped up the search efforts. She was silent the whole time. Cooperative. Docile. They decided she wasn’t a problem or a threat to the peace they were trying to keep, so they let her go. They looked at each other, shrugged, and flung open the door. She couldn’t believe her luck—she had a warrant for failure to appear on a prostitution charge, which they would have known if they’d run her name—and scurried over the dunes before they could change their minds and throw her in jail. 

Once she got to the seawall, where she expected to find Ollie waiting for her in his truck, her luck seemed to change. She sat there a long while—longer than was sane—before she realized he wasn’t coming back. He was gone, probably forever. The thing between them was over. But before she could morn her shambling love life, she had life-and-limb issues to consider. First, she was stranded forty-plus miles from home. Second, she was broke. Not a dime on her. And finally, she was sand-blown and dressed for a heat wave. It was going to get cold near the water, where, in all likelihood, she’d be sleeping for at least one night. Her body fat percentage was in the single digits and she hadn’t eaten all day. 

She decided to try to steal something that might improve the odds of her survival. So despite the fact that she had only just emerged from the rear of a Galveston PD cruiser, she scoped a lonely Jeep with its top down and reached inside for a blanket. Underneath was a full bag of soccer balls, and she realized it might be the drowned kid’s ride. Sure enough, his name, Brandon, was embroidered on the bag beneath a big red seven. There was a certain symmetry to this turn of events. Sky was the last one on the beach to hold out faith that the boy might still be alive, so maybe in a convoluted way he owed her a safe place to sleep in return. At least that’s how her reasoning went. She certainly wasn’t doing him any harm by tossing the bag of balls into the passenger seat, slipping beneath the blanket, and falling asleep in the back.

Then a dream came over Sky like a coma, the deepest and most restorative sleep of her life. She dreamed a dream so rich and complex that she could barely contain the intricacies of its flowering upon her subconscious. She saw a figure hovering over the water and it told her, lift your head and see the truth. Sky emerged from her magical sleep and raised her head like an obedient visionary, only to spot Brandon as he walked—

careening and drunk in his swim trunks—along the seawall. He was alive. Undrowned. He was carrying a tattered case of Coors at his side like a suitcase and listing in circles. He’d been off drinking all along, Sky gathered, and his friends had only misremembered him in the water. Now he was too drunk to make sense of the vanished sun, the strange absence of the scene he’d left hours before. How had the day passed without his awareness of it? This was an experience Sky understood. This kind of situation was well within her purview. She went to him, arms open.

“I’m looking for my friends,” he said. “I think they may have left me.” He began to weep, his shoulders bowing. “I lost my phone and my wallet and I think there’s something kind of wrong with me.” He opened his mouth and let vomit fall into the sand, dropped his prize suitcase of beer.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” she told him. “We’re going to get you fixed up.”

The next thing was to get the boy into the Jeep and then get the Jeep to the hospital. These were tasks she accomplished with supernatural ease, for the boy was pliable in his weakened state and the keys were (miracle of miracles) still zippered into his side pocket. She had no compunction about going into his trunks to find them there. 

“You had everybody looking for you,” she told him. “Your poor momma’s going to want to give me a medal.” 

He let his head fall back on the black vinyl headrest and wept. “Does she know I was drinking? I’m supposed to be at my cousin’s while she’s in Ft. Worth.” He vomited again. “But I lied.”

Sky had to drive quickly, though the speed sent her hair flapping wild in her eyes and numbed her hands on the wheel. She blazed straight up to the emergency-room doors and leaned heavy on the horn. “I have the boy! I have the boy!” she shouted. 

Nobody responded until she calmed down, walked inside, and told the admittance nurse she had singlehandedly saved the drowned one, the one from the soccer team. 

The nurse eyeballed her. “You say what now?”

“He’s in the Jeep, right goddamned there. Go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me. Brandon.”

And there he was, head lolling to one side, but alive, a beautiful cherubic symbol of resilient boyhood. To Sky’s thinking, she’d raised Brandon from the water with the pure power of her magical dreaming. As they wheeled him belching away, she blew him a jubilant kiss. 

“When you wake up, I’ll be right here,” she said. “I’ll be waiting for you, honey.” 

She spent hours in a state of awe, pacing the waiting room. He was fine, they said. Slated for a good stomach pumping, but fine. They’d want to talk to her about what happened, they said. How did he get the booze, who was with him in the hotel room? The police were on their way, the news crews already circling the corridors, they said. She thought of the boy’s mother, en route from Ft. Worth and thanking her lucky stars her son was alive. Maybe the mother would give Sky a place to stay while she got back on her feet, a room in a suburban basement or a small apartment over a garage. She’d settle for a warm cup of coffee, a pair of socks or shoes. But the police, the news crews. They’d dig up her warrant, and her whole history would come like rotten seawater from a bilge. Nobody wants a whore lingering around thwarted tragedies. They’d blame her for the boy’s delinquency, slap her with fines she couldn’t pay, lock her up. 

“Who are you, now?” said the admittance nurse. “Some kind of friend or something?”

“Nobody,” said Sky. “I’m nobody.”

In a panic, she made an excuse about needing to use the bathroom and fled to an unlocked employee lounge where the coffee was warm, the creamer plentiful and easy to pocket, and bunkered for the night. When the sun came up through the dusty aluminum venetians, it didn’t take long for the local news to break into the morning show on the television: Lucky Number Seven, Alive and Well. The nurses in the room with her tsked and clucked when they saw Brandon’s beat-red, beatific face on screen. 

“Can you imagine? He’s off chasing tail and his mother thinks he’s dead,” said one.

“I’d murder him,” said another.

“He should at least pay the bill for those helicopters.” 

The boy looked green on the wide screen. “I don’t remember how I got here,” he said into a bulbous microphone, “I think an angel must have driven me.”

His words pinioned Sky. Every molecule in her body pulled her toward the boy, but she saw with startling clarity how she’d kill the image of the angel if she came forward and revealed herself. “Can you imagine?” she said to Ollie, pointing to her mouth. “This maw on the local news?” 

He could not. In fact, there with her in the library, he could not imagine her anywhere but where he’d first found her: in a leaning highway icehouse with no running water and a rooster roped to guard the latrine where she sometimes turned tricks—the furthest place from heaven one woman could get and still be in Texas. And yet, hadn’t she always been sweet to him? Hadn’t she feathered his nest like a preening mother bird? 

“It doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “You should get what you deserve. Try to find that boy and tell him what you did for him. If you called him over the phone, he wouldn’t ever have to see you.”

She released her throaty laugh on him one last time and then folded like a sheet of paper. “What’s fair?”

Sometimes, in his beery telling of this part of the story, Ollie has Sky flash him a wry smile, a gotcha grin that implies she has taken him for a ride. The unbelievable truth, the God’s-honest if you really want to know Ollie’s version of it, is that she never told a lie. That kid really did survive. Ollie found him on five separate front pages of Galveston County Daily in the library archives. And the boy, Brandon, did talk about a guardian angel coming to save him—in his dreams, a shimmering mermaid with a pink kerchief in her hair. 

“I mean, how else do you explain a boy with twenty beers in his system getting to the hospital in one piece?” Ollie would say. 

If the rhetorical question set off a round of speculative guessing—his was an audience that regularly consumed massive quantities of cheap beer, drove home, and lived to tell—he often put that all to bed by asking a series of related questions: “OK, but if you’re that kid, why don’t you get into your Jeep and sleep it off? Better yet, why don’t you climb back into bed with the Budweiser bikini who got you into all this trouble in the first place? Her hotel room was fifty yards away. Last place you’d want to be is in the hospital answering questions. Am I right?”

He was always right. And once he’d silenced the twittering of the disbelievers, he’d turn contemplative and sigh. “You know, if I hadn’t walked away from Sky when I did, she wouldn’t have been on that beach to find that boy, and we wouldn’t be sitting here having this debate. Mark my words, that kid would have turned up dead, drowned in an inch of water under the pier, and his mother would have had to deal with the tox report.” There was a certain way of telling the story that made Ollie seem like the hero, the unknowing trigger of a dozen benevolent turns of fate, but he didn’t like to put on airs. He was, at heart, a humble man—the kind who had learned to accept his own insignificance in the larger scheme of things. “It’s sad it had to end that way between me and Sky, but it was for the best. I hear that Brandon kid really turned himself around. Graduated summa cum of his class or some shit.” His eyebrows high, he’d sometimes offer a little flourish of the hand or time his final pronouncement with the downing of his last inch of beer. “And that,” he would say, “is the legend of the angel of Stewart Beach.” 

*

OLLIE NEVER SAW SKY AGAIN. Instead, he re-animated her in the bar whenever he felt lonely for the past. Like any committed drunk, he had his pet recursive loops and Sky was almost always in heavy rotation—especially when there was new blood in Catbird’s. As time wore on and the terms of the storytelling inflated and contracted, he had to wonder if the Sky he imagined when he told the story still matched the Sky who’d held his shaking hands that first night at the icehouse and told him she had a cure for that. “It’s called love,” she said, “and it works real wonders.” In the end, though, maybe what mattered was that someone remembered her at all.


Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and other honors. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, the Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville.

There Is No Danger Here by Katrina Denza

in Fiction/Issue One

WE WERE EXHAUSTED FROM THE TRIP. I tried to nap but couldn’t still my mind. Serenity had immediately closed herself in her room and I wondered if that meant something. When I knocked, no answer. I nudged the door open, expecting to find her earbuds in but she was sleeping. Her brown hair fanned out on the pillow, cheeks flushed with fatigue or dreams, lips parted. She could almost be my daughter, but she belonged to Richard, not me. Never me. My own daughter had wide-set gray eyes, sun-freckled skin and a mess of brown curls that used to frustrate me if we were in a hurry, always twisted into stubborn little nests. I stood in Serenity’s doorway and considered lying next to her on the bed to listen to her breath move through her body, to take in that sleeping girl smell to which I was no longer privy. Instead, I backed out of the room. 

 

*

RICHARD WAITED FOR ME ON OUR BED.

“Join me,” he said. 

Ignoring him, I walked over to the window and opened it wide to the smells of Rome: bread dough; diesel, sewer. I undressed in front of the open window, my nipples stiffening in the cool air. Bells resounded from the cathedral near the river. When I turned around, Richard was staring at me, his desire apparent. I lay next to him. He touched my body as if it were his, as if its very existence was for his pleasure. His arrogance excited me. I knew this made me a bad feminist.

“What do you think of her so far?” he asked me, his fingers writing unknown words on my back. The words stopped as he waited for my answer. 

“I’ve haven’t known her long. One flight over the ocean.”

“Bright girl. The best of me.”

“Children usually are.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“I’ve dealt with that kind of thing before.”

I was jealous, but not in the way he probably meant. I was jealous his daughter still inhabited his world.

“She has a sharp sense of humor,” he continued.

I hadn’t seen it. In fact, she appeared to be entirely humorless. 

 

*

THE FIRST TIME WE MET was in the airport the day before. She looked like a model; thin, dark-eyed, with long brown hair dyed blonde at the tips. She smiled without her eyes and when Richard introduced us, she barely took me in, irrelevant as I was. 

We stood near our gate; our flight wouldn’t board for twenty minutes. 

“Daddy, did you bring the Xanax?” Serenity’s voice was sandpapery.

Richard dug through his briefcase and tapped two pills from a bottle into her palm.  He looked at me. “You want one?”

There was a time I would’ve had my own bottle of those little white miracles, but no more. I told him I was going for coffee. When I returned, I bumped into Serenity and coffee leapt out of my cup and onto her jeans. 

“Oh my god!” Serenity stared at the stain as if doing so would make it disappear.

I apologized and handed her my napkin. “I didn’t burn you, did I?”

She lifted her eyes to me. Disdain, thick as butter. 

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, though of course it was.

I watched her toe off her knee high boots and step out of her jeans. Underneath: silky black boxers. People around us snuck glances.

“What? I’m not wearing wet jeans for eight hours on a plane,” she snapped at her father.

“Get something from your suitcase.”

“This is the empty one. So I can shop, remember?”

Serenity slipped her boots on, adjusted her black sweater so it nearly covered her boxers, and wheeled her empty suitcase toward the crowd now gathered to board.

“Fucking shorts are so high you can almost see her butt,” he muttered to me.

I shrugged. “It’s what they all wear.”

“You being an expert and all.” He gestured for me to precede him toward Serenity.

Don’t think him an asshole. I hadn’t told him about my losses.

 

*

RICHARD HAD BEEN MY NEUROLOGIST.  A couple of years ago, long past losing my husband and daughter, I’d have these episodes as I was falling asleep in which I was fully awake and cognizant yet unable to move. Sometimes I’d hear a susurrus in the air above my head; could have been my own pulse but it sounded like ghosts conversing. He explained the mechanics of sleep paralysis without patronizing. The episodes went away as he said they would and the next time I saw him was at a fundraiser. Three of my paintings were being auctioned off for a non-profit started by a friend. Richard took the seat next to me and under his breath delivered inappropriate comments that should have made me blush, but instead, made me laugh. That was one of things that excited me about him: his ability to say whatever he thought without self consciousness or embarrassment, his ability to reach out and grab what he wanted with only his words.

 

*

LATER THAT EVENING, after the three of us strolled the streets around the Trastaverre, we were back in the flat, Serenity, watching Italian TV in the living room, and Richard and I in our room, freshly warm from the shower. I stood in front of an ornate mirror smoothing lotion over my body. Richard came up behind me and circled my clit with his fingers before slipping them inside. Sex with him was nearly always wordless and I discovered I liked it that way. It was like stepping in and out of another dimension. We talked before, after, but not during. Sometimes he whispered commands, do this, do that, but that wasn’t conversation. Sometimes I noticed him circling me like a predator does with prey. My husband had been so polite. Polite only got me so far. Richard pushed me onto the bed, face down. He was rough and quick before starting on me with his hands again. Polite never felt transcending.

 

*

OUR SIGHTSEEING AMBITIONS BEGAN WITH BONES. A set of cement steps led to the door of the Capuchin Monk Crypt. No tickets were required; a wooden box near the entry held donations of pastel Euros and metal coins. Richard and Serenity read the museum board while I made my way through the crypt. Four rooms; in each, dun-colored bones decorated every surface. Bones formed flowers around chandeliers and lacy designs on walls and ceilings. In one room, whole skeletons lay on stone beds as if merely asleep. Remnants of people, castoff shells. Bones were the positive space left after the negative lifted away. My husband and daughter were cremated. It might have been a comfort to have evidence of the people I lost. Some tangible proof that I had loved and been loved. 

 

*

ONE AFTERNOON, near the end of our stay, Serenity and I took a table outside a café. It was a gorgeous, blue-sky day, warm enough to not need a sweater. Richard’s daughter had finally begun to open to me, to see me as a person with potential value and our conversations were no longer as awkward. From where we sat we could see the Capitol; the word ROMA in red and yellow roses on the front lawn.

When the waiter came, I ordered a red and two glasses. Serenity lifted her brows. 

“It’s legal here,” I said.

“I’m not arguing.” 

After the wine appeared, her face relaxed, brightened, as she poured a glass for me then herself. That afternoon I learned of her friends, what music she liked, heard about the boy who told her she wasn’t much to look at and then a couple of weeks later grabbed her ass at a party. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and some of the pieces around her face had come loose. I wanted to touch her hair, tuck the pieces behind her ear. If she were mine, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The waiter delivered our meals and when he left, Serenity said, “My father really loved my mother. She broke his heart.”

“He doesn’t share things like that with me,” I said. “It’s not that kind of a relationship.”

“No past? More in the now?” She smirked, but in a good natured way. “My mother fell for a younger guy who ended up dumping her.”

“It’s not my business.”

She shrugged, took a sip of wine. “Just trying to tell you why he can be sort of a dick.”

“I don’t have any problems with him,” I said. What I didn’t say: I didn’t mind that he was sort of a dick. It’s what I wanted at the time.

 

*

OUR LAST FULL DAY we took a train to Florence to see art. It should have inspired me, all that art, but my desire to create more of it remained underground.

It was late when we boarded the train back to Rome. Serenity and I grew ever closer and Richard didn’t seem to like it; perhaps didn’t like that his compartments were so easily bleeding into one another. He fought for my attention, texting me things like:

I want to make you wet.

His sexting used to have an effect, used to heat my body into some kind of life. On the train though, it was a distraction from what really lit me up: Serenity. Serenity’s chatter about what she wanted to do after high school, her opinions about the sculpture and the art she’d seen, her movie recommendations. I drank her in, parched. 

The train lurched to a stop.

Two men in uniform ran through our car, Italian voices crackling on radios. 

Serenity looked to her father, then me. “What’s going on?” Her voice high with stress. 

A conductor entered our car and ordered us to leave the train immediately. In Italian, French and English: “Leave your bags, leave everything and depart the train.”

We disembarked and made our way with the crowd to a large field. The silhouettes of industrial buildings stood tall and dark against the purpling sky. People talked rapidly in languages I couldn’t understand. 

Serenity shivered, her teeth clicking together. 

After a while, a couple from Canada shared what they knew: a man from Tunisia claimed to have a bomb on the train, but neither the police nor the dogs found anything. 

I could see Serenity allow relief to fold into her body; then, quiet sobs. Richard was still scanning the situation, trying to figure out what next. 

I gathered his daughter into my arms. Her hair smelled of rose shampoo. Her heart beat hard and fast in the side of her neck. I rubbed circles on her back and said, “It’s going to be all right. Everything’s fine. There’s no danger.” I told her over and over she was safe, rocking my words into her body, though I understood how wrong it was to think any of us is ever safe. Still, it was a necessary lie. A lie a mother might have told. 

There’s no danger here.

 


Katrina Denza’s stories can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, New Delta Review; The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. In 2011, Katrina was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, she’s working on a collection of stories: Desire is a Willful Beast.

Burial by Joy Clark

in Fiction/Issue One

THEY SAID IT WAS A SIGN OF GOD—all those dead folk coming up from their final rests, coming instead to rest in the branches of sugar maples, caught between QwikStop pumps, stranded lonely in fields of washed-away cornstalks. Birdy believed that recognizing signs of God was one of her gifts—the Spirit’s fruit—born alongside humility, patience, and a need to serve. She’d seen signs from God in all manner of strange places—bulbous clouds, a child’s finger-scrawl on a dirty car—knowing just when to raise a hand and say, The Lord is trying to tell us something here.

In her church’s parking lot, folks gathered under FEMA’s white tents for a few gallons of water, a box of MREs, some pull-tab cans of beans. Birdy didn’t need the extra help—she was a full twenty-five miles from Hardin, and her home—despite loss of power—slipped through the floodwaters fingers. Instead she showed up as a volunteer, walking around the clustered groups to offer a word of prayer and a cup of hot coffee from the carafe she brought with her.

She happened upon a group saying just what she had been thinking: that the flood waters washing up all these graves meant something. A kind of message, characteristic of the cavern-forming, chariot-sending, dead-raising Big Miracles God that so many people had lost sight of lately.

“Can I pour you some coffee?” she asked, stepping inside their circle. “You know, I had just been thinking the same thing. We know the Lord is with us in Missouri, but could be there’s a lesson to learn…”

“Are you with FEMA?” asked a woman who looked old, much older than Birdy, who noted her stoop and her wheezy breathing. 

“I’m just hear to serve,” said Birdy. “Offer prayers, blessings, you know.”

One of the younger men in the group took her proffered coffee, dumped the coffee out onto the asphalt, and sunk his teeth into the Styrofoam so that it left marks. He walked off like that, chewing the foam.

“He’s pissed. His daddy was in that cemetery,” someone said, as an explanation.

Birdy felt an inner light, a peace and clarity which she knew was given to her for a purpose. “The Lord has always had hard messages for his people.” She looked into their eyes, hoping to watch the light come into their faces. “He sends us loss so we may understand His loss, His son who died, to bring us closer to Him. The dead around us is a sign that we will rise again—a message of hope and restoration. We make think Hardin is dead and buried right now, but it will be pulled up from its grave!”

From the looks of them, she knew they were religious folks—they had been talking about God just as she stepped in, and two were wearing cross necklaces, gold catching the light. But the way they looked at her now, or rather, they looked at one another instead of her, made her wonder if she missed something.

Then, one of them—the older one—made eye contact.

“You have anyone buried there?”

“No,” admitted Birdy. She felt strange about the turn this conversation was taking, strange that they might ask about her own dry bed, stashes of flashlights, generator running when she needed a hot shower.

“Just think, you idiot,” said the woman, “Think if it was you!”

Birdy didn’t know what she was supposed to think. The group dispersed without saying anything more to her, some with their arms around waists, some walking so close that their shoulders bumped. Two-by-two, thought Birdy, just like the Ark. The summer floods had turned them into animals, little mysteries with their own secret grieving. 

Birdy set the carafe on the ground. If they wanted nothing of her gifts, she would bring them elsewhere. The Bible said so—depart from that place, shake the sand from your feet. Sometimes grief just did that, she thought, it hardened hearts and closed minds.

Still, while she was driving home, she couldn’t help wondering: if what was me? what would be me? Would Birdy have buried someone or been buried herself? Would she have been swept away? Would she have been the flood, running rampant, desperate to get to the ocean?

Foolish, she thought.

But she didn’t go her usual way home. She told herself it was because half the roads were closed anyway, or because it was the aftermath—a rare day of sun—and she might as well drive a little further, enjoy the temperature, listen to the gospel radio still crackling.

That’s how she found herself at the floodwater’s edge. She knew she was trespassing, even though no one was out to stop her. She walked. It was dark water, contaminated with the neighborhood it had swallowed. Each rooftop she passed, barely poking through the surface—mangled and leaning, she felt curious about. What would happen to them? Trees had been stripped of their lower branches. Little human artifacts floated everywhere: rags of clothing, cassette tapes, hamster homes, pop bottles, purses. What would the contents of her own house look like, floating around amongst the trees and rooftops? 

She waded out a little bit, just up to her knees. She told herself she felt that there might be something important for her to find, some reason God had brought her to this place. But something drew her farther into the water. It was sunlight-warm around her thighs. It didn’t smell rotten, like she thought it would, but strange—smelling of everything at once. There was so much water in the world. It hurt her mind trying to think of it—the way the oceans connected continents, connected bodies, sustained life.

She tried to redirect her thoughts to God, to the Bible, but her reflection was there in the water, right in the midst of all the destructed and dead. Murky, of course, because water hid entire alien worlds, birthed alien worlds. It stole corpses with one hand and homes with the other. It wasn’t right to think about things God had hidden, so she tried to think instead on Christ’s Baptism. The water rested at the bottom of her ribcage, her feet brushing against strange objects in the dark as she moved carefully forward, thinking of the dove, the light from heaven. During her own baptism, at eleven, she had prayed to begin again. It had been crucial then, going into junior high lonely. A person like a blank space, praying to be colored in, finally. That’s what baptism was for, what water did—no! she reminded herself, that’s what Christ’s blood did. Blood, not water, gave second chances. 

It moved around her, disturbed by her body. There was a bit of a current that she hadn’t noticed before. Strange, she thought, to be tugged by the water’s arm, extended all the way from the Missouri River. Now covering her breasts, now rushing at her legs, now lapping like a pet at her chin. She moved into it, surprised at how close it felt to dancing, pulling her one way, and another. How intimate. How like being completely held, sustained by the holding, the way you could only be before you were born.

 


Joy Clark is a MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR, and she graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2015 with a B.F.A. in Creative Writing. Her work can be read in places such as Juked and Oblong. In 2017-2018 she was awarded the Walton Family Fellowship for Fiction.

Grand Opening by Billy Longino

in Excerpts/Fiction/Issue One

“No funny stuff,” I tell the bird.

Across from me on the train, catching a ride into Bela Lugosi Station from Monroe along the southbound rail of the Γ Line, one of those blind and featherless Metro pigeons is nesting its ample dark meat into the reupholstered LuvFoam®-cushioned seating. Fowlspreading, the bird has claimed the entire doorside seat as its own territory. The LuvFoam® kneads and massages its rump while a sassy voice from the seat compliments the firmness and curvature, arousing a few soft murmurs from the bird. 

“Oh, do I have a fantastic feeling about today!” the seat says, hitting deep tissue now. “You are going to own it, girl. Really going to make an impression at the office!”

The train hits a dogleg in the tunnel and sends me swaying on the strap. I say, “You listening to me, pal?”

The bird wiggles its tail stump and settles in for the long haul.

Nearby, a human passenger shoots me a sidelong look of civic concern and moves further down the aisle. 

“Don’t fool with me. I know what you’ve got up your…” I eye the animal top to bottom—a short trip. I really need a new job. “…sleeve.”

The bird doesn’t give a single coo. It doesn’t even acknowledge my existence. No respect for the badge. I’ve been on the force fourteen years and I can see this pigeon is a vandal, a lowlife veteran of the transit system. No passengers have bothered to shoo it off the seat. It’s too risky. The MTA advises its ridership to maintain distance since the pigeons are classified as biohazards. It’s better for everyone involved. As a species, these subterranean vagrants seem to live in a state of permanent diarrheic panic. Even if this one pigeon has found peace in the validating undulations of the LuvFoam®, any sudden movement and its startle reflex will throw open the gastrointestinal floodgates. But this bird is holding back, biding its time. I can read the premeditated malintent for MTA property in its eyespots. Either that or constipation.

In the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department, one of the realities of the job rookies pick up on early is the fact that ninety to ninety-five percent of all criminal activity you’re likely to step into in the Metro—incivilities, violent incidents, quality of life violations—can be traced back to something or someone being backed up. 

Police brutality is no exception.

And it so happens, the train my partner and I find ourselves riding on the Γ Line this morning, a century-old Chrysler express called the Ameristream, is running twenty-nine minutes behind schedule.

In a situation like this, as a transit cop you must be at the top of your game. You shut off your prefrontal cortex, which no good cop needs anyway. You let your suspicions roam. Your glands and training will handle all the heavy lifting. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by specious profiling. 

I give the pigeon one last, professionally honed I’ve-got-my-eye-on-you-pal sort of look, let go the strap, and head off down the car to find the Lud. 

The a.m. crowd is packed into the Ameristream, providing for a generous 0.4 of the 0.7 square meters of Urban Isolation Space recommended by the Fair & Pleasant Commute Act of 2277. We’re so scrunched it’s like being swallowed whole by a hairy protoplasm. The commuter mass jitters and sways under the bank and sway of the train. Pores reek with the eggy musk of high blood pressure. The tap-squeak-tap of my cop boots on the nonslip flooring parts the spazzy, overly caffeinated amoeba so I can wind between the straphanging deltoids, carryon luggage, and protruding pseudopods of posteriors and foopas to reach the back of the car. 

A pinnacle of patriotic wartime train design, the Ameristream is a masterfully economical deathtrap constructed of outdated Chinese plasteel, painted the color of freedom, and going senile.

In lieu of customary route info or freshly brewed morning block talk shows, the window displays inside the Ameristream are cycling through a mishmash of recordings from the train’s external sensors of previous trips it has taken through the Metro, hours, days, years, or decades before, while the train’s AI narrates.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll be so kind as to lend your gaze to the right side of the car,” the train asks its captive audience, calling up a blank expanse of lightless, vacuous tunnel on the displays, “you’ll be seeing the Gamma Line only days after it was first bored! Can you guess how many tons of bedrock were removed in its construction? Kiddos?”

The train bearhugs a hard curve not shown on its displays and swings the straphangers outward like pendulums. I grab a pole with one hand and something fleshy with the other that squeals until I let go. On the left side of the car, just above the snoozing, aseptically hairless head of a guy in a slick, stainproof medical professional’s onesie, several displays are linked together and running in reverse. Their timestamps tick down. Otherwise it’s impossible to tell the difference between them and those running forward. Destination/point of departure—everything is terminal in the Metro. Alpha or Omega.

“Wait, wait, wait. Or is that the Xi?” the train says. Its tinny, busted out voice hovers over the cramped headspace. The right-side displays go static. “That Gamma footage is here somewhere. Ha, ha. Just one second, folks…”

A springy flute-fraught muzak picks up on a few of the speakers. The train doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. Passengers sigh and leer at their phones and watches or stare into the dead space of augspecs. But no one panics. No one so much as maintains eye contact for more than the socially allotted two seconds. Dementia in our modes of conveyance is one accepted reality of underfunded public transportation. Nothing’s out of the ordinary.

Today is Monday.

 

I find the Lud planted at the rear door of the car leaning against a sadistically placed stanchion and muttering over the morning’s Delinquistat® report on his phablet. He’s been at it since before we left the stationhouse. He broods the way only a sergeant with a looming pension is allowed to brood. A few million generations of runaway primate brow evolution worked overtime, pegging away weekends and holidays, to produce a glare of this magnitude. 

“What’s eating you?” I ask him. 

The Lud grumbles unintelligibly under his mustache and keeps staring at the alphanumeric jibber-jabber of the report.

The neon smear of a station flashes by on the left-side displays. It isn’t Lugosi but there’s no other stations between it and Monroe. The train offers no comment. The muzak toots on.

“Okay, Lud, look if this is about the uniform… I didn’t have any choice.” I unzip my jacket and pluck the collar. “See, it’s still got all the starch in it. If you want, I’ll hand-scrub every sweat stain and trace of my DNA out of it before I hand it back over. So long as I don’t have to hear you…”

He glances up and scans the crisp, pristine crease of the collar. His lip curls.

“Or not hear you complain about it, as it goes.”

He grunts and turns his beady eyes back to the phablet.

Without warning, the train jerks. A noise like the end of the fucking world cranks through the passenger car. The whole carload—except for the Lud, who simply steps one foot into it and braces himself—is flung forward. Passengers toss themselves into a leggy scramble to stay standing and/or seated. I save a napping skell from skittering across the floor out from under a seat with my boot and cling to the stanchion for dear life.

The Lud never looks up.

About half a second later, the Ameristream skids to a stop. Every display shows an arrival in perfect unison, even those running in reverse—departures coming in like mirror images, commuters out in the stations years ago embarking and disembarking backwards as if the universe has somehow come back around. But not a single station onscreen is Lugosi. The train has no idea where it is.

The loudspeakers cut off the muzak and crackle. The Ameristream announces, “Here we are! Safe and sound. The time is now uhhh… Thank you for riding the Metro! And remember, when you ride with Chrysler, you ride the future!” 

The doors slide open and the Ameristream’s passengers erupt outward like a clotted mass from a slit jugular, a manic coagulate of bodies pumped along the Metro’s darkened arteries and through its congested heart. The onboarding and offloading passengers flow past one another like a transfusion.

The pigeon lobs itself from its seat, strolls calmly ahead of the crowd, blind and entitled to its right-of-way, narrowly avoiding footfall after footfall, and leaves behind a happy little splatter of guano across the LuvFoam®.

“Mother…” Life is beautiful. “…fucker.”

Without a word, the Lud holsters his phablet, rolls up his sleeves over his Neaderthal forearms, and hauls himself bodily into the crowd.

I step in behind him, resigned to my fate. It’s another day on the beat.

In the MTAPD, beats are freeform. No rhyme or reason in methodology dictates a patrolperson’s path through the Metro. While Lugosi is a common stop on our beat, the Lud and I can conceivably, if never in practice, take our patrol anywhere underground. Most days, each cop will have his or her own primary assignment—a fixer, a train patrol, or a special assignment—but we’re free to improvise. The idea is so officers can, according to the MTAPD Patrolperson’s Essential Handbook & Guide to Subterranean Law Enforcement, 15th ed., Vol. 2, “respond dynamically to the economic, cultural, and criminal ecosystems for which the Metro’s nonlinear transit architecture provides niches.” But it also offers plenty of opportunity to Fuck Around.

Which is a big plus since Fucking Around is the unofficial modus operandi by which we beat cops familiarize ourselves with the ever-rotating cast of users on our patrols. 

And nobody is better at Fucking Around than the Lud and me. When we Fuck Around, it’s professional.

The second the hardworn soles of my boots strike the platform I catch a squirmy knot in my stomach of that fishy sort of insidiousness for which a transit cop develops a special gland after about a decade on the beat, after any hope for promotion and better pay have soured and fermented into what’s called—for lack of a better term—damn fine police work.

Call it a hunch. Call it instinct. Call it experience.

Call it a feeling in the gut.

Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just something I ate. Maybe it’s that stinging nettle, pineapple, and Chickenoma® chimichanga I had for dinner last night at Tía Bruja’s Hex-Mex Cantina and Grill casting a blight on my middle-aged kishkes.

Whatever it is, it’s been building all morning.

I’d arrived at the stationhouse around 6:45 and immediately pigeonholed myself into a stall in the Locker Room. I breathed deep intestinal breaths, my stomach inflating and deflating like a baby’s, and attempted to separate my atman from my bowels. This is a little trick Colleen from our district’s psych squad has been pushing on me during lunch hour meditation sessions, which Captain Loomis ordered me to attend Tuesdays and Thursdays so as to maintain and regulate my duties. Meanwhile, of course, while I’m refining my downward-facing dog and arriving at whole new strata of enlightenment with my corpse pose, the Lud’ll be in the Squad Lounge porking down whole bentofuls of whatever slopping, calorie-rich rations his wife Maria packed him for lunch. Nothing fazes the Lud. You could punch a clock by the son of a bitch’s bowel movements. I had it on good authority—namely his wife—that the Lud drags himself home every evening on the Λ Line, steps through his apartment door, kisses Maria, pats his daughters’ heads, one by one, tallest to shortest, all six of them, and drops a prepackaged, heftily masculine load before sitting down to dinner.

The thought of it only made me all the more constipated.

At half past seven I’d given up. While everyone else on the morning tour was in Roll Call, I slapped together a uniform from fragments piled at the bottom of my locker. White socks, off-white tighty-whities, black pants, black boots, black hat, narrow black tie (permanently noosed for emergency exits), black carbon fiber cuffs, black whomper, an MTAPD Service Issue MetroCard, phablet, and badge. I couldn’t find a shirt so I took one out of the Lud’s locker and threw a windbreaker over it to hide the sergeants’ stripes. 

Whompers are these spherical nonlethal parametric sonic emission and oscillation resonators which the MTAPD provides its transit cops as opposed to authentic, death-dealing phalloid ballistic armaments the likes of which the surface police pack. The idea is to limit potential harm to bystanders, but we make do, nonetheless.

I flipped over the badge and it snapped an up-to-date animated holopic, measuring my facial expression for heart rate, surface skin temperature, and estimated colonic pressure, all to calculate a general aura of intent to commit brutality—part of the department’s Measure Your Transit Officer’s Psychological & Emotional State 24/7 PR initiative. It caught me mid-swallow. I don’t know how long I stared at the pic, trying to determine if I represented a fascist threat to civil society. But there I was, distilled and codified into a three-by-five pattern of municipally owned pixels: Officer Ariel Josef Eichel, MTAPD, District 19, badge no. 188K7. I appeared lanky, shoulderless, and goat-necked. According to the date on the badge, yesterday had been my birthday. I’d turned thirty-eight. In the pic, my throat bobbed and bobbed like I was choking on something I could never bring myself to say.

But what’s worse, what really sets my innards into self-destruct mode, is that it’s clear to me the Lud feels something too.

Coming off the train, my partner drops a hand on his whomper and casts his beady, browbeaten eyes at the other users. He cases them for the slightest probable cause for suspicion. The lip hairs of his broomy, well-groomed copstache ruffle like the feelers of a deputized sea creature brainlessly sifting particles of criminality out of the Metro’s tepid waters.

The Lud hmmphs.

“Hmmph?” I say.

“Hmmph…” says the Lud.

It’s the closest thing to a word I’ve heard him utter since we left the One-Nine. It comes from deep in the throat. Prehistoric. Pre-language. A clacking of small rocks in a cave. It is the hmmph of humanity burning itself for the first time on fire of its own design.

His phablet piiings. He draws it, reads over the message, taps a response, and holsters it again without telling me what it says. He eyeballs the crowd like an old west sheriff scanning the bleak horizon. I stand blinking at him, waiting. He claps me on the shoulder once and beelines for the escalators.

Users take one look at the Lud barreling down on them and frantically mine their purses and pockets for their MetroCards—verification of legitimate usage of the Metro, legitimate behavior, legitimate existence. 

Whereas I’m about as hardboiled as a plastic Easter egg stuffed with Laffy Taffy and rub-off tattoos, Sgt. Jeffrey Ludinski is a real cop’s cop. He operates on a subconscious casserole of beat cop machismo, an invertebrate’s lack of self-awareness, and a brand of mustache shampoo (for body and shine) which I swear is mutagenic, long ago wiring his copstache to his brain. He stands a head shorter than me, but he’s bulky, big-wristed, and built custom for the job. His father was a cop, his mother a dispatcher. It is a union so cliché that in a billion-billion parallel universes it would still only ever produce the Lud.

Before we’re even halfway across the platform, he’s has slapped a dozen or so hasty summonses on the all-too-suspecting ridership. The summonses are for offenses ranging from Criminally Misjudged Attempt at Ranged Disposal of Litter to Improper Engagement with Third Party-Sponsored Transit Artwork, when a guy wiped his frittata-sopped hand on a bucolic mural of aboveground parklife.

But the Lud’s not smiling. There’s no pep in his patrol, no pizzazz in the way he pecks out infractions on his phablet. A pitiful lack of cruelty underlies the tenor of his lectures on civic responsibility. His mustache is lusterless.

Along the northbound rail of the platform, a Ford economy class pulls into station. Over the station intercom, the bloodthick, disembodied voice of Bela Lugosi announces, “Ze time isz nyow eight forty-five. Sank you for riding ze Metro!”

Around the platform the user lifeform frizzes and frays, splitting, budding, and reproducing exact copies that board trains or hop onto the escalators. Under the brutal regime of numbers, all are swept along. Occasionally, individuals will take form, coalescing into shape, and wander off, confused and becoming somehow alone in the swarm. They gaze like stroke victims into the tangle of colored lines on Metro maps, drooling paralytic wonderment. The trains are antlike blips traversing the corridors of a hive. A few users locate something there, possibly themselves, possibly some likewise nameless thing they’ve lost, but others only blink and mutter, finding themselves nowhere and everywhere all at once. Each and every individual eventually dissolves, anonymously, back into the crowd. All the city’s collateral lives, with their ten thousand destinations and ten thousand points of departure, thread and overlap in the Metro. And the Lud and I weave among them. The Lud zigs while I zag. We slip like a loose strand in the users’ knotted itineraries, threatening to either unravel it or hold it all together. After fourteen years on the job, I’m still not sure which.

As far as I can tell I witness no felonies, no pickpocketing, no opportunistic stabbing or groping. Flow and setting inertia are optimal. Zero turbulence, acceptable levels of idleness. The stampede is casual. Users remain as calm as barbiturated MooCows® rolling eagerly to slaughter and inevitable burgerdom. By the MTA Hub’s standards, the traffic in Lugosi this morning doesn’t measure Heavy or even Mildly Burdensome, but it isn’t exactly Light or Stressfully Brisk, either. The station appears firmly planted in the goldilocks zone of public transportation. On a morning like this, an explorer from another planet might mistake the Metro as being inhabited by intelligent lifeforms.

I follow the Lud around a pillar obscured in the advertisement glow of a holographic bottle of Johnson & Johnson anti-itch powder being sprinkled liberally on the upturned pink rump of a giggling newborn. On the other side, a cadre of enviroflagellants are placing pamphlets full of bullet-pointed warnings against pscyhometeorology and the city above’s Climate Control Apparatus on a fold-out table. After they flash us their MTA-issued License to Proselytize, the Lud gives them the nod and they carry on. They strip off their matching sky-blue t-shirts—ones with puffy raincloud logos—and set about to whipping themselves with cats o’ nine tails lashed together out of hyperactived thermoelectric fibers while chanting demands for a 70% chance of scattered and thunderstorms and a corrective citywide dose of inhibited self-worth on Thursday afternoon.

There is such an edge to the normality in Lugosi this morning I could cut myself. So, of course, the Lud is having none of it.

He hits the escalator two steps at a time, bounding, heaving with flatfoot conviction, and strong-arms his way over anyone riding peacefully toward the concourse. Something’s up. An undercurrent of nervousness guides our beat. Something in the Delinquistat® report, something I missed during Roll Call. And it’s waiting for us on the concourse. 

I step one foot onto the escalator, then the other, and ride dutifully in the Lud’s wake. The well-way is brimming with holograms of company mascots. Lombardi the Ludicrust Pizza LampreyTM showers me with buy-one-get-one-half-off coupons on feta- and calamari-stuffed crust mediums. The Nudelreich NudelfürherTM hails me with glorious free samples of Überspätzle®. Wally the WalrusTM, wearing his fur-lined arctic explorer’s getup, offers both of us a chance to win a personal concert from urban baroque sensation Charelz the First on the luxury-class Aston Martin DB9000 Des Moines, courtesy of Wally’s Winter Wonderplace, an arcology up in Sector 58 shaped like an iceberg. The Lud hikes right through the hologram, not giving it a second thought, while I wave Wally aside, saying, “Yeah, yeah, sure. Sign me up for two, whatever,” without considering the consequences. 

The escalator dumps us right into the thick of the Lugosi Station concourse and my blood and bowels both run cold.

Gaping before us, the scene foretells unfathomable doom. Fog seeps over the concourse from a median of wintered, artificial plantlife. Stone and half-timbered franchise storefronts line both its sides and the broad, gothic mezzanine overhanging it, all to compliment the motif of ruined opulence in the Transylvania Trails super-tenement above Lugosi Station. The Lud staggers out into the rubber, cobbled thoroughfare, hand on his whomper. Strobing like a beacon in the fog along the molded arc of a Craft-A-Crotchling custom fertilization clinic’s signboard is a hologram reading GRAND OPENING TODAY! 

The clinic’s pink doors have been folded apart to warmly welcome the squirmy queue of customers besieging the pale, mucoidal film of a force field that blocks the narrow slit of the vestibule. In half an hour, they will be loosed inside to be fertilized and/or implanted with Craft-A-Crotchling’s latest line of designer spunk and ova. The storefront emerges out of the faux medieval stonework like a portal to another plain of existence. 

I hang back in the midst of the user flow and take it all in. I draw my phablet, hand trembling, and open up the morning’s Duty Roster. The Lud mutters to himself and paces in a tight, mean circle, his mustache aflutter, before working his way along the non-compliant ruin of tents and sleeping bags the customers have abandoned in the middle of the thoroughfare. The pressure is building. He can’t hold it in much longer. Giving the Craft-A-Crotchling, and with it the Metro, the city above, and the entire felonious universe, a single all-encompassing grunt like, You don’t think I know what’s going on here, bub? the Lud plants himself in front of the clinic’s vaginal entranceway with all the conviction of a judiciary tampon and says, “Mary, mother of God.”

“Certainly looks that way,” I tell him.

  He glares back in my direction, beads of sweat huddling between his hat band and brow, but he’s looking past me. “Whaddya make of that?”

Across from the clinic, a chipper gathering of skinny youths, bedecked in loincloths, are holding hands and forming what looks like a prayer circle under the polystyrene boughs of a bare black oak in the concourse’s median. They close their eyes and sway and hum. Nearby they’ve strung handmade crucifixes depicting a profoundly browed Jesus nailed to a megalith along the lower branches of the fake oak. A sign offers the crucifixes for sale at $29.99 a messiah—a real steal, I guess.

“Paleochristians?” I say. “A Craft-A-Crotchling might fit on their protest agenda. Probably have to keep an outrage quota to maintain tax exempt status.”

“We should let them burn this place to the ground.”

“I have serious doubts, Lud, on whether they get enough sugars in their diet for any severe rabble-rousing.”

“It’s unnatural,” says the Lud.

“Not eating grains?”

“No, I mean…” He waves a hand back at the clinic and its customers. “Whatsamatta with making babies the old-fashioned way, you know? It’s tried and true, to say the least.”

“Like rutting in caves?”

“If you ask me,” he says, but I knew better, “what these people really need isn’t no baby.”

I wait. A beat passes, and I give in. “Okay, Lud, so what do they need instead?”

“Huh?” He looks at me, genuinely confused. “Search me, Ari. I’m not their fucking marriage counselor or their priest. All’s I’m saying is the last thing they need is any ill begotten Franken-spawn.”

“Ill begotten…? Lud, all right, forget it. Just tell me what the fuck we’re doing here.” I flick through the Duty Roster, searching for our assignments. “This says we’re supposed to be on train duty today—on the Ford K9000.”

“It’s not due in Lugosi for another hour. Gandy and his rookie, whatshisname…Benezi, were assigned fixers for the grand opening,” he says. “But they called in. Psych leave. Both of ‘em,” he says and shrugs. “So I reassigned us and put Dougal on the train.”

“You reassigned us.”

“I reassigned us.”

“To a fucking grand opening.”

“Uh huh.”

“Psych leave?”

“Gandy’s mother passed away.”

“Again?”

“Last time was a false alarm, Ari.”

“But he held a funeral… I sent flowers!”

“He says he got her mixed up with somebody else,” the Lud says. “Says he didn’t even know his mother was still alive until she died. You know how those retirement arcologies can be. The one my old man lives in has got so many geezers roaming around…”

“Are you saying they’d lost Gandy’s mom?”

“Half the time you can’t tell who’s who in the place and neither can they, not even themselves.”

“That’s because you never visit. No one does. Gandy probably forgot what his mother even looked like.”

“Ari, I’m not one to bemoan the state of elder care in this fine city, you know. Nor the depths of sleaze Tom Gandy is willing to dig himself through to get outta work. But I do know we got a job to do. So,” he says, drawing his phablet and stylus, “plan’s the same as always. We protect,” he says, pointing his stylus at the customers and protestors in turn, “and we serve, whether they like it or not.”

So as the Lud brings down his size twelve-and-a-half boot of justice onto the line of expectant mothers- and fathers-to-be, I zero in on the Paleochristians’ refreshment cart.

Pipe music swells over an exo-temporal radio pulling a tachyon feed straight out of the Late Pleistocene, adding a Lost World ambiance to the gathering at the edge of the median’s woodland. A campfire crackles and extinct animals caterwaul in the prehistoric wilderness. When I approach, a Caucasian twenty-something male wearing a headdress of papier-mâché bird feathers and a Hugo Boss loincloth cut to minimum legal coverage offers me a cup of cocoa.

Before I even have the opportunity to ask, he assures me the cocoa belongs to a genetic lineage untampered with by human cultivation. Non-allergenic. The cup itself is a cacao shell hollowed out by hand and by stone, he says, so it’s clearly legit as fuck. 

“Sir,” I say, “are you attempting to bribe me with a hot, unsweetened beverage?”

He jerks the cup back, scalding himself. “Whoa, no way man, I… I mean, please officer,” he says and holds the cup out ceremoniously, “accept this offering of my tribe’s goodwill toward the MTAPD.”

I can smell the man’s unbrushed teeth when he smiles.

“For all the sacrifices its warriors, such as yourself, are asked to make whilst defending our Metro’s uhh…trailheads.”

“Trailheads,” I say. I take the cup and sip it. “I like that. Trailheads. Not so much the part about sacrifice.” The drink is sugarless and so hot it tastes like liquid brimstone.  “Mmmmmm…” I smack my tongue in an attempt to defibrillate my taste buds.

“Pretty tasty, huh?”

“Very primordial.”

“You do my tribe a great honor. It was my ex-wife’s recipe.”

“She must be proud.”

He weaves his fingers together solemnly and rests his elbows on the refreshment cart between us. “Please, tell me what it is this humble servant of the Chieftain of Man can do for the transit police this blessed morning.”

He identifies himself as Chief Len of the Tribe of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid but I run his MetroCard for good measure. The MTA database has the chief’s real name as Lenny Russel, 34, “self-employed” but previously a “gastroneer” for Hoobajoob Wholesome Foods at their arcology upsector. Currently, he is receiving his Basic Municipal Income at an address in the Sweltering Brooks tenement complex in Sector 66 just above Danny De Vito Station. A parent’s place or an ex-lover’s, I imagine. Probably not his real address but being a transit cop, it’s none of my business where a man hangs his loincloth at the end of the day so long as he’s not letting anything untoward slip out of it on his daily commute.

While I’m running the chief’s info, I give other tribespeople a once over. The female members are industriously crushing flowers picked from the parklands into a colorful goop and painting their pulpboard protest signage with pithy sayings. Huddled together underneath a NO URINATING ideogram among a copse of evergreens, the men converse gravely, passing a single cup of cocoa among themselves. Every few seconds, the top half of one of their painted faces pops up from the huddle and gazes across the thoroughfare at the line of Craft-A-Crotchling customers like they’re a herd of plump gazelle. Either they’re planning an act of terrorism or what they’re going to hunt and gather for lunch later. Both seem like probable violations of the transit code.

“All right, Chief,” I say. “Can I call you Chief?”

“Yes…”

“Tell me if I’m not mistaken here, but…” I almost take another sip of cocoa, out of a cop’s habit to imbibe whatever hot beverage happens to be at hand, but think twice. “Chief, I’ll get to the point.”

“Please, officer.”

I narrow my gaze to measure his level of snark and unconsciously drink the cocoa. “Chief, I feel like it would be a violation of the rights ensured the citizenry of this city by such-and-such article of MTA policy for me to cite you and your fellow tribesmembers for this demonstration of your beliefs.”

“An honorable decision, worthy of your station.”

“So I’ll assume,” I tell him, “by the fact that you’re a man of the cloth, however scanty said cloth may be, that all the appropriate forms and permissions and sacrifices have been filled, filed, and offered unto the MTA to make this all legal.”

“Ehh…”

“Good, good.” I drink the cocoa. “I want you to do just one thing for me, then, okay chief?”

“For you…” He gazes at the nametag poking from underneath the jacket. “Sergeant Ludinski.”

“Eichel,” I tell him, zipping the jacket, and tap my badge, which projects my holopic. “Just Officer Eichel.”

“Officer Eichel,” the chief says, opening his palms to me, “for this honor you do us, I would offer my only daughter to you in marriage upon the day of her first blood.”

A swig of cocoa U-turns up and out of my nostril and I nearly double over. “A simple ‘thank you’…” I cough. “…will be just fine, chief.”

I take another sip to drown the cough. Above us, the fiberglass needles of a spooky pine beat softly in the busy air. Pigeons coo in the Styrofoam undergrowth. 

I nod over at the Craft-A-Crotcling. “So just one more thing,” I say and swallow. “You see my partner over there, Lenny?”

Only the Lud’s ass end is currently visible to us, poking between the flaps of some customers’ tent.

“Yes?” Chief Lenny says.

“Then let us simply behold…”

The Lud’s tossing belongings haphazardly out into the concourse. Blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, toilet paper, sacks of waste, carryout and delivery canisters, nanofridges, natural sunrise alarm clocks. He flings out a couple toddler-shaped bipedal Your Motherhood Starts Today!TM soligrams. They wail and babble on the floor in tantrums. The constructs have been preloaded with Craft-A-Crotchling’s fall catalogue so parents-to-be can test drive phenotypes—like blue eyes, red hair, or a grandfather’s nasal structure coupled with his mood disorder—before committing to an embryo. The soligrams would be easily mistakable for real human offspring if it weren’t for the hammer and screwdriver-crossed vulva logo of Craft-A-Crotchling stamped onto their foreheads.

 

Lying face down on the floor tiles behind the Lud is an elderly woman in handcuffs. She calls the Lud a cave pig. An older gent, who I guess is her husband, paces around her, his hands worming in his pockets. A young woman shouts at the Lud from her firmly held spot in line—daughter maybe—and demands to know if the elderly lady is being detained. She threatens to have the Lud’s badge if he doesn’t answer.

Briefly, my partner backs out of the tent, sees me looking his way, yells, “Got myself a three-three-eight-seven over here, Ari!” and dives back into the tent.

Where patrolleth the Lud so goeth the law.

“Now,” I say to Chief Lenny, sipping hard on the cocoa, “I want you to keep everything nice and lacking in holy war over here. Because trust me when I tell you, chief, that you do not want that cave pig will piss on your powwow so fast you’ll wonder who danced the rain dance.”

Chief Lenny pokes a finger in his ear and digs around. He flicks out something organic. “So whassa three-three-eight-seven?” he says.

Needless to say, I don’t have a clue. 

Having the Lud around these fourteen years, I’ve never really bothered memorizing transit or police codes. Sure, the ones we get on a regular basis I’ve picked up involuntarily. They’re burned in, crystalized, got their own synaptic routes, almost spinal. I respond to them on reflex. Things like an eight-seven-eight (Disorderly and/or Raucous Commuters), a twelve-oh-twelve (Unauthorized Lifeform in Right-of-Way of Train), an oh-nine-thirty (Body of Unknown Character Found, Unclear Cause of Death), a five-two-five (Biochemical Spill of Anonymous Origin), a ten-eight-forty (Unsavory Homo sapiens troglodytes Transient Activity), or a two-two-two (Large Bothersome Flock of Pigeons), plus a handful of others—robberies, muggings, pickpockets, unsanctioned graffiti, etc. But no human brain should be able to call up every code in the MTA database willy-nilly. That’s the jurisdiction of panhuman intelligences like the Metro’s disembodied ego Central or the MTAPD’s dispatcher. Either that, or you could be a cop who, all through his childhood, listened to his dead mother’s voice call out codes over his father’s police comm. That’d work, as well. Then again, I’m not entirely convinced that the Lud has a human brain, per se. 

I find myself sipping cocoa, again, as I check the MTAPD Infraction Index on my phablet. The three-three-eight-seven is listed under a section heading with the lively title of Transgression against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, which spans a range of criminal endeavors including, but not limited to, cannibalism, the use of weaponry banned by the 2197 Reunification Treaty of Topeka, and the offering of a payday loan service. In what way the Lud is interpreting this is beyond my capacity for judiciary sadism.

“You know what, don’t get your loincloth in a tizzy over it,” I tell Chief Lenny. “It’s police business. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

I cradle the cacao shell and sidle my way through passersby across the thoroughfare. The second I leave, the tribesmen swarm their chief. It’d take one underachieving rookie—or an MTAPD veteran the likes of Tom Gandy—not to smell something other than cocoa brewing, but between the Paleochristians, the Craft-A-Crotchling customers, and the Lud, the bits of pineapplely Chickenoma® and stomach acid rising in my throat tell me to worry the most over whatever it is the Lud’s plotting. Call it experience.

“So what’s the deal?”

The Lud’s elderly detainee blinks up at me. She looks like a geriatric turtle with her neck craned up under her osteoporosis hump. Her freshly permed hair is full of pluck. She and her husband have to be pushing hard on a century—clearly not wealthy enough to afford complete age reversal therapy but they’re on a telomerase regimen, at the least.

“You cave pigs make me want to vomit in my mouth!” she yells.

“That makes the two of us,” I tell her as I watch the Lud scavenge the tent for probable cause.

One of the soligrams toddles into my leg and calls me ‘Dada.’ I kick it hard and it slides off into the thoroughfare. The elderly detainee’s husband hounds in right behind the Lud, nodding to everything my partner is saying. The younger woman calls this “a miscarriage of the law.”

The perps’ names are Martin and Loma Lopez. According to the database, they live in a well-to-do tenement in Sector 12 called Sarasota Coves. It’s a swank place, a cluster of geodesics enclosing sweeping artificial beachfront. Clothing optional. Healthy pensions, not.

“This was supposed to be a beautiful day!” Loma squirms on the floor. “We were going to design our grandbaby this morning!” Her mouth puckers, jowls quiver, and her eyes well up, all on cue. “My dead son’s son! We never have this trouble with the surface police—the real police!”

Martin coughs hard and glares at his wife.

“Lady, you climbed down into this hole yourself,” I say.

“Please, please, please just leave us alone,” the younger woman begs from her firmly held spot in line. “My dead husband was a cop!”

The words DEAD and COP hang in the air like they’ve been printed there. The Lud crabcrawls out of the tent, looks up at the words, and snaps his head in her direction. “Who’s a dead cop?”

“My husband.”

“Your husband.”

The tears tremble in her ducts. “And so was my father-in-law,” she says and points at the old man, who is suddenly seized by an acute coughing spell. “But he’s retired now. My husband, he… he… he died in the line of duty.”

“In the line of duty, even,” says the Lud, standing and needlessly brushing himself off.

“We had his sperm frozen when he graduated from the academy,” she says, “just in case.”

The Lud eyes the old man. “A cop, huh?”

He hacks up a lung, or three.

The Lud struts past the old man up to the widowed daughter-in-law. There’s a wiggle in his index finger, like he’s twirling a vestigial billy club. He lifts his head a bit and tightens his mouth, as if he’s about to let the mustache do the talking. 

He says, “Where was he assigned?”

“Thirty-seventh…” she says.

“Thirty-seventh,” says the Lud. He glances at me. “And you’re telling me he died on the job?”

She sniffles in affirmation.

The old man staggers toward the woman, wheezing.

The Lud cocks his mustache, ready to fire. “See that’s funny,” he says.

“It’s,” she says, eyes brimming, “funny?”

The Lud scratches the back of his head, letting his hat fall a bit forward, and glances down the line of customers like he’s embarrassed. A couple behind the widow look excited, thinking they’re about to move up in the queue.

“Funny,” the Lud says, “‘cause the Dirty-Sevent, as we call it down here, hasn’t lost a man in forty-eight years. I should know,” says the Lud, “the last man killed in the line of duty was my own father.”

I check the time. We haven’t even been on the beat for an hour and the Lud is already going full Lud. It is going to be a long fucking day.

Hands in prayer mode, the widow brings her bare arms to rest on her childless bosom. “He…” she says, her voice catching in the pit of her throat. “My husband and father-in-law weren’t cave— weren’t, I mean, transit cops,” she says. “They were surface police.”

The old man stops coughing. For a second I think he’s died. He swallows hard, looking a bit woozy.

“Martin,” the old lady says, “are you feeling okay?”

The Lud turns on the elderly couple and draws his phablet and stylus so fast they seem to pop into existence. “Well, well,” he says, “this changes everything of course…”

“It does?” the widow says.

“For fuck’s sake, Lud!” I throw myself between my partner and his perps. “Your father didn’t die in the line of duty. Retired, fat, and miserable as he is, he’s still kicking. What’d these people do in the first place anyway?”

He nods at the daughter-in-law. “She didn’t do a thing, but those two…” He points the long accusatory stylus of the law at the husband and wife. “Their Sojourning Seniors Season Couples MetroCards are three days expired.”

“Three days expired?”

“Three days, Ari.”

“That’s your three-three-eight-seven?” I look deep into the beady hollows of his eyes. Soulless, pitiless. “How exactly, Lud, is an expired MetroCard a Transgression against the Moral Fiber of the Universe?”

“Against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, Ari.”

“Oh, I am sorry.”

He shrugs. “I was gonna just slap ‘em with a Notice to Renew on Punishment of Nine Months Pedestrianism, but accounting for their age, I thought it’d be cruel and unusual. Then the old bag,” he says, “starts to giving me lip,” he says, “so I’m thinking Conspiracy to Exploit the Fair & Pleasant Commute Act of 2277 for the Purpose of Unfair Ridership Advantages. But, you know, the three-three-eight-seven seems like a happy middle-ground.”

“Cannibalism. That’s your idea of a ‘happy middle-ground’?”

“It carries a more lenient minimum fine than Conspiracy to Exploit.”

Before I spit out cocoa and whatever reflexive obscenities are appropriate to the situation, a deep dull bell tolls nine times over the station intercom, like one in a Transylvanian castle belfry, and Bela Lugosi announces, “Ze time isz nyow nine uh’clock!”

The line of prospective parents outside the Craft-A-Crotchling issue forth a collective, pent-up animal squee. They hop and bunch like an epileptic millipede. Before either the Lud or I can register what’s happening, the force field barring the clinic’s entranceway powers down with a low wooooooooooommm—a sound like I imagine a life-altering epiphany would make—and droves of women, and some men, rush forward to be inseminated like it’s going out of style.

Speaker drones hover over the entrance and swell and thump with Charelz the First’s revamp of The Blue Danube as a hired performer in a powered exosuit shaped like a giant newborn, with blond hair twisted up in a unisex swirl, does a running knee-slide out of the clinic’s birth canal and initiates a breakdance. The performer’s face pants and reddens and heaves between the suit’s puckered, nipple-ready lips. The head on this thing is massive. An encephalitic subspecies of human. The neck is weak. The head bobbles with the rhythm. I wonder if this being is representative of one the designer phenotypes Craft-A-Crotchling is rolling out this morning. The end result of selection by parental one-upmanship in the baby genius department. The oncoming ruling caste of toddling super-geniuses able to jab color-coded 4-dimensional stars, hearts, fishes, and tesseracts through corresponding 3-dimensinal holes in a Fisher-Price Baby’s First Topology Sorter®.

Behind this nightmare a platoon of eager family planning clinicians stand along the clinic’s opening, attempting to control the flow of customers inside. The widowed daughter-in-law is in near panic, turning between her former in-laws and the Craft-A-Crotchling, but in the end, she opts for the next generation and powerwalks straight for the vulvar entranceway.

Maybe the Lud is right. Maybe we should let the Paleochristians burn the clinic to the ground.

Oh shit. The Paleos…

“Ari! Ari!”

“What?”

“Snap out of it. Time to drift off later,” says the Lud. He drags his elderly perp to her feet. “Protect! Serve something!”

From the opposite side of the thoroughfare comes a hornblast.

I turn and see Chief Lenny climbing one of the plastic oaks, an animal horn pressed to his lips. He puts all his non-fatty cardiological might into blowing. The trumpeting reverberates down the concourse as the tribeswomen line up along the median and shake their flowery protest signage: THE WOMB IS NATURE’S SACRED TEST TUBE and IF JESUS HAD INTENDED US TO DESIGN BABIES HE WOULD’VE MADE REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS WITH DROP-DOWN MENUS!

The tribesmen, on the other hand, are nowhere in sight.

I cover the cacao cup with one hand to keep from spilling and ford the stream of Metro users moving down the thoroughfare. For their credit they just go about their business, ignoring or simply not noticing the Paleochristians or the Craft-A-Crotchling customers. I scan the median for movement. Nothing but a lifeless wall of plastic plants all similar shades of gothic. 

“Tribal warriors,” I say to myself in hopes that naming my prey will actualize the hunt. Maybe they’ll come to me. “Tribal warriors. Batshit zealots with a primitivist fetish. Batshit zealots with a…”

And that’s when it hits.

A crawly ichthyoid thing flops over in my stomach and dies. My colon lurches. My diaphragm heaves. Neither end knows whether to open up or pucker shut. My gut and my head churn. My intestines knot. My brain uncoils and loosens. It squirms along my esophagus. Vomit slides up the back of my throat while the velvet autumnal leaves in the median surf along the currents of conditioned air blowing from vents hidden in the undergrowth. This plastic forest writhes. Layer upon layer of careful hues reveal themselves like the slow, complex rainbow of a blackened room. Depthless, entangled, evolving. The plastic displays all the symptoms of authentic plantlife. They breathe and bask. The untapped soulstuff of polystyrene. Synthetic beings conjured from the selfsame polymeric soup as all other creatures but eons dead and process manufactured. Chief Lenny toots his maddening horn from the treetop while the tribeswomen hold hands and throat sing guttural hymnals in sync with the open-handed drumming on the exo-temporal. The melodies ripple over me. Scenes of quaint Ice Age cave life play in my brain. Lazy Saturdays spent mowing or watering the front grassland. Children chasing the megafauna down by the glacier. The good ole days when men were barely taxonomically men and women were wild animals to be dragged by bone-knotted ponytails and over whose affections a guy might club out the brains of his best friend since third hunt with his brand-new Black & Decker Rock-Tied-to-a-Stick-with-Catgut®.

My eyeballs trace the ageless kilometers of what could only be my arm, to where the cocoa inhabits my hand. The chocolate liquid steams in its organic cup like a Precambrian ocean pregnant with lungless ecosystems.  The cacao shell the vessel of the world. 

I attempt breathing. Fishlike. Newly amphibious.

I take a breath through my skin. I take a breath parsecs deep and it becomes abundantly clear to me, in a true volume of clarity inflating my chest cavity, that the fucking paleos have spiked their cocoa with a hallucinogen. 

“Oh,” I say, dragging out the sound, “fuuuuuuuuck me.”

And in this moment, at the intake, the warriors of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid break from the treeline.

They charge past in slowmo, whooping and frothing, infused with cocoa. Avatars of a prehistoric manger-born god of battle. Each of them wields a noodly weapon—probably a leftover of the Perpetual War scavenged from some forgotten underground cache—with a mouthlike killing end that squirts forth warmly glowing splooge whenever one squeezes its ammunition bladder. Globs of this discharge strike the customers and clinicians and splatter, plastering them to the walls of the clinic’s storefront.

One hits near the Lud and glues his boots fast to the floor. He’s yelling curses at me and pointing down the thoroughfare.

I turn, following his indicating finger, and the concourse expands endlessly away from me—so far that the distance is darkened like I am peering into the span of a reflection’s reflection. I blink and stretch my eyelids, attempting to shutter out the limitless geometries. Then I see them… The elderly perps are hightailing it in the direction of the Φ Line platform, the old lady still in her handcuffs.

Somehow the Lud slips out of his boots and foots it after them down the thoroughfare in his socks, his whomper drawn. He spins back and looks me dead in the eyes. His mustache evolves and crawls over his face. He—not the mustache—says, “Ari! You hold down things here until I get back. I’m gonna nab these two collars.”

“Lud! Lud, they’ve poisoned me!” I tell him. “I’m tripping my fucking beytsim off over here!”

“Just call for backup if you can’t handle it,” he says. “Once I catch these bastards I gotta take one mean piss. Be back in two shakes of a jiffy.”

“Can’t you hold— Two shakes of a what?”

The Lugosi concourse bristles with war whoops and screams. A crowd of gawkers have gathered along the concourse, sipping coffee and snapping pictures. 

Working their way along the corridor into the clinic’s uterine customer service lobby, Chief Lenny and his tribespeople have left a wake of quivering limbs and heads and torsos stuck-fast in the jellied emissions of the weapons dripping from the walls and pooling across the floor. The men fire indiscriminately while the women sing.

I am soaked in sweat and itching. I drop the rest of the half-empty cacao shell into a trash receptacle, out of habit, and something squawks bloody murder. A pigeon leaps out, flapping its useless wings, its featherless skin smoking with hot chocolate. It skitters across the thoroughfare, cooing angrily, threatening lawsuits. I strip off the windbreaker and draw my whomper from its holster. Protect and serve, I tell myself, possibly out loud—it’s hard to tell at this point. “Protect and serve…” 

The whomper hums in my head, ready to scream.

On the intercom, the station AI says, “Ve are uhxperiencing non-standard foot traffic near ze Gahmma Line escalator. Be uhdvized, evuhryzing will be okay. Do not wuhrry. Zank you for riding…”

The motherly reassurance of the Metro’s announcement drapes over me like a calming blanket. I let myself feel the groundswell of trains beating paths along the darkened Γ and Φ Line tunnels beneath my feet and I breathe. 

“Pleeze be uhdvized,” Bela Lugosi repeats, “evuhryzing isz fine.”

I follow the Tribe of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid down the Craft-A-Crotchling’s birth canal.

On either side of me and above, the pink walls and ceiling throb and glisten with a mucosal sheen—a fussy veneer of sexual tissue dribbling with viscous weaponized mucilage. Out of the cooling discharge the outstretched limbs of victims flail and grasp at me, exposed heads heaving for air and pleading for release. I flatten myself against the spongy wall, sucking in, and slide along just out of their reach, saying, “Don’t touch me. Shh, be quiet. Nothing to see here. Shh.” Even the giant baby has been ensnared. The exosuit’s pistons whine as the occupant fights to break free. Its beheaded helmet piece looms like a prehistoric egg from the goop nearby. Out from the concourse, animals wail lasciviously over the Paleochristians’ exo-temporal. The canal is swamped with body heat. I am shedding sweat. Animal fear. Primal bafflement. Spinal contingencies. Hives break out along my throat and shoulders, pricking down my belly, firing off nerve endings at random. Invisible protohuman hairs prickle all over. It’s just a histamine response, I tell myself. It’s just the drug. Deadened action potential. I grip the whomper tighter and it vibrates. The weapon sings. I slog down the corridor, following the ragged and ulcerous throat-sung hymnals of the tribeswomen. Every step forward my feet pool, spreading like gelatin, elephant-like, tremendously heavy. I begin to stumble, feeling the urge to crawl. The Oedipal squirm back into oblivion. The womb that waits on the other side of dying. The Metro grows darker behind me the deeper I plunge. I remind myself I was born of a C-section—there is no metaphor here.

This is the inside of a store. Suspects ahead of me. No backup. 

I proceed with caution.

 

 

 

From the concourse, a news drown sweeps down the corridor at breakneck speed, panning over the scene, beaming distress citywide. It corkscrews and flies around me, turning its all-exploiting eye on my willowish, drug-flustered being.

“The name’s TED-X33L, reporting for The Morning Commute. What’s the lowdown? Any comment on the situation…” Its lens focuses on the nametag of the uniform shirt I’m wearing. “…Sgt. Ludinski?”

“Ludinski?” Right then, training kicks in like excrement of a gland. It’s an old feeling, a cop feeling. It sputters to life out of a decade long coma. The pulsing organic architecture, its psychic overflow, becomes a terrain to be crossed. Reality’s crude and viscid dullness darkens the surreal pastels. Simple and manageable, entirely external. Third person. Zero conscience except for what the media provides. “Right. The name’s Ludinski. Listen, pal, you’ll wanna stay back. Police business.”

“Righty-o, sergeant!” the drone says.

It drops to a low-angle shot behind me, allowing the clinic’s birth canal to be framed between my knees. I see it as if I’m looking through the drone’s lens myself. 

I glance back at the drone and yell down the corridor, “Stop! Police!” to solidify any Resisting Arrest charges with media evidence and trudge ahead, whomper primed.

The lobby is lined with an abundance of intersecting fallopian hallways. More victims are glued to the floor and walls. 

After a few minutes, I stumble upon a lone paleo warrior squatting on his sculpted glutes at the entrance to a showroom filled with demo fetuses suspended in vats, knees splayed and warcrying, as he fires his noodle-gun at the people hiding inside. Thinly decayed teeth line the tribesman’s gums. He laughs so wide I’m afraid I might fall in.

He doesn’t notice me. I tiptoe up to the archway and brace myself against the wall. I turn my head sideways to keep reality from sliding back off. I hold my breath and level my whomper at him. Sweat runs down my face. The angles curl and wave under the tide of cocoa washing back over my brain. I measure the space between us. It’s either a few footsteps or a lightyear. I squint one eye to aim and wait for the dead, careful space between heartbeats and squeeze the whomper’s rubber ball-grip…

And a deafening pulse of non-lethal soundwaves fires right back in my face.

The single flat whomp of the shot plasters me against the wall and reverberates through the clinic and back out into the concourse. A green flash strikes like a light bulb burning out inside my skull. I fold up on the floor and stutter and spit and slap at my bleeding ears.  No ringing. My ears are fried. My head swells, the skull bone becoming the rind of a melon. Gelatin grey matter sloshes in my brainpan. Bile roils up my throat, between my teeth, and I retch. Blood and stinging nettle and chunks of pineapple and Chickenoma® blow out all over the Lud’s uniform shirt.

At some point, between the wall and the floor, it occurs to me, the thought wiggling into shape, that I was holding the whomper backwards. 

Whose fucking idea was it to make the goddamn things spherical in the first place?

The Paleochristian tribesman stares down and levels his weapon at me sprawled on the ground. 

I say, “You’re underrrrrrr arrest, fuckface. Drop the…thing!”

He lowers the weapon, blinks at me, and hops over my body, scampering off deeper into the clinic to join the others.

I try to roll up and position my body to a pursuit vector but end up grawling toward a glowing red EXIT hologram. The news drone hovers around me, its lens focusing acutely on the blood, snot, stomach acid, and cocoa draining from my mouth, nostrils, ear holes, and tear ducts, while I pull myself across the lobby one arm at a time outstretched like an elastic, corn syrup-filled latex tube. 

A heaviness seems to infuse the air as I cross the uterus. My lungs weigh me to the floor. It’s like breathing vaporized lead. The Metro. My brain. The gross weight of the entire city above arches over me, all threatening to cave in. Everything recedes. The birth canal extends darkly toward the concourse like a Metro tunnel. I attempt to pull myself upright, finding feet at the end of my legs. 

And I laugh. All that’s left is laughter. It wells up and takes over. 

Each guffaw a yawning gulf punctuated by heaves and stutters. The news drone encapsulates everything in its massive and singular eye. I stand giggling in the black pit of its gaze, my enlarged gourd tottering on my fragile neck, held upright on useless noodles of limbs. I chuckle and slide down the slick vaginal lining of the wall to the floor but never seem to reach it…

I lose all context. I am set adrift in amniotic nonsense

Everything fractures, expands, and differentiates. 

I am bundling, compartment by compartment, into unconsciousness—the infused cocoa lets me feel every cerebral region fold up and close down. My tongue lolls like a dead cat, slaked with fur. 

When my eyes open again, without my telling them to or even suggesting it, I find myself staring up at the Jovian bulge of a low-hanging crotch on a pair of crisply starched transit cop uniform pants.

“Lud,” I say, a headache blooming in my skull. “Lud, I think they got away. We should… What are you doing?”

He pulls a Rezzipen® out of my neck. A cool liquid crawls through my veins as a stream of medical nanites hulk out my liver and kidneys and run my body through a hyperdrive detox to cancel out the cocoa’s mystic poison. I vomit again, all over the Lud’s uniform—not the one I’m wearing.

He stares down at the puke covering him. “Maybe I should be asking you that,” he says and lifts me to my feet. 

He half-carries/half-drags me out of the Craft-A-Crotchling’s entranceway, slipping every few steps in his socks, and sets me down on a foam chunk of gothic ruin in the median. Beside me, cuffed to one another around the trunk of a plastic palm, is the elderly couple. Blood seeps from the man’s ears and nose. A paramedic is stuffing living MediSponges® up his nostrils but they’re soaking up fast. The thoroughfare and Craft-A-Crotchling are crawling with Spillage & Sanitation crewmen in orange, form-fitting Tyvek® coveralls. They’re spraying down the noddle-gun ammunition with solvent. It fizzes and dissolves, the sharp vapor escaping through the station’s ventilation ducts.

“Your friends are holed up inside still,” the Lud says. I have to keep my eyes level with the steady plane of his mustache to keep from falling over. He jabs a thumb back at the clinic. “Some negotiators from the Terror Management Squad are inside cleaning up.”

“Hostages?” I ask him.

“If only it were something as fun,” he says. “They’re just trying to get them down off of whatever it is they doped you with. The TM sergeant said something about upgrading the situation to a five-nine-seven.” H watches me blink at him. “Mass Existential Trauma of Terroristic Origin brought on by Biochemical Weaponry,” he says. “Self-induced in this case. Probably end up flushing them out with nanites before it’s all said and done.”

“I’d hate to be the poor fuck who has to write this up.”

 

“Oh?” he says and smiles. I hate it when he smiles. It’s unnatural, like he’s just showing you his teeth. “All of those,” he says, drawing his phablet and tapping open a viewscreen, “are your collars.” He hands me the phablet and thumps the nametag on my shirt. “Congratulations, Sgt. Ludinski.”

On the phablet is what might be the thirtieth straight replay on The Morning Commute of me marching into the Craft-A-Crotchling with my weapon drawn and whomping myself in the face while the words SGT. LUDINSKI OF THE MTAPD ON THE SCENE OF THE GRAND OPENING OF THE CRAFT-A-CROTCHLING IN LUGOSI STATION THIS MORNING WHICH HAS PROLAPSED INTO CHAOS rolling across the screen underneath.

“Prolapsed…” I say. “Fuck me.”

“I gotta say,” the Lud says, “this Ludinski is a helluva cop. Despite having whomped himself on a live newsfeed, he somehow managed to make sixteen arrests. It’s fucking commendation worthy if I say so myself.”

“Well,” I say, tossing him the phablet, “it’s an honor just to serve.”

He slaps me on the knee. “Just hold tight. I gotta run these measly three-three-eight-sevens, sergeant.”

At this point, news drones have swooped in from all directions, picking at the crime scene’s carcass and taking testimonials from the cast of witnesses and victims still loitering about. The victims snuggle under trauma blankets and drink nostalgic comfort beverages. I must’ve been out for a while. The elderly perps’ ex-daughter-in-law is telling TED-X33L and The Morning Commute’s thirty million viewers about her “late husband’s wish” for a blond, curly haired, mathematically gifted, athletic, aesthetically dimpled, kind-hearted, broad-chested and broad-shouldered, never depressed or disagreeable, strongly chinned, resilient, well-adjusted, deeply voiced, blue-eyed, and entrepreneurial son, who would never, ever abandon his mother in times of need, had been stolen from her by the Paleochristian maniacs and incompetent MTAPD patrolmen. Tears trickle over her ample, newsworthy widow’s cheeks. 

A Spillage & Sanitation crewman walks over to me, drops my whomper into my lap, and says, “Here you go, pal. Think this might belong to you. It was in a pile of crap we found.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks a ton.”

I pull whole strands of gunk from the weapon’s resonator. The discharge has lost its warmth and glow but not its potency for stickiness. It stretches between my fingers like doughy snot. Yesterday had been my fucking birthday. I like telling myself I forgot. I didn’t forget. All day yesterday I paced in my apartment wearing nothing but the ceremonial garb of a pair of day old briefs, pretending to have forgotten and hoping someone, the Lud or even Tom Gandy, would call so I could demonstrate my forgetfulness, my lack of sentimentality, but no one did. Self-pity is best left a hermit’s hobby. Thirty-eight years old. Fourteen of them spent on the fucking job. Half of my life. As a kid, I would dream of being a transit cop. I would ride the trains alone or stand on platforms for hours after school and peer into the tunnels, into those new winding caverns and the prewar fathoms of the Old Metro so stuffed with mystery, with its abandoned stations decaying in the depths like ghost towns and its unknowable mutant lifeforms prowling its spans of endless night. It was a borderland full of promise. It was like looking at manhood through the eyes of a pubescent boy. And here I am looking back and wondering if I ever arrived. Nowadays, being a transit cop is all I dream about. Paperwork, procedure, protocol. The flame of adventure has guttered. Transit infraction after transit infraction, day in and day out. A lifetime of predictable outcomes is the outcome of a predictable lifetime. Black hair has become salted with gray. All our promised tomorrows lie at the head of a long ruin of other tomorrows. The end of the line. Frontierless middle-age. My great-uncle’s receding hairline in the mirror. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. At the end of the day, the Lud has six daughters and a wife waiting for him at home. I have tonight’s rerun of The Continuing Adventures of Captain Guy Nebulon! and a delivery canister of leftover Chickenoma® chimichangas. The Metro taketh. It doesn’t give anything. I screw open my whomper’s casing. There’s noodle-gun goop in the circuitry and gumming up the woofers. I hop off the foam block of castle wall and walk across the thoroughfare. Some truants are watching the scene from the mezzanine and trying to spit on a couple of Spillage & Sanitation guys hand-scrubbing the gunk from under the Craft-A-Crotchling’s clitoral awning. I toss the whole whomper into a waste receptacle, through a hole labeled HERE.

The trash can thanks me for my civic virtue.

After finding his ruined boots in the solvent the Lud continues throwing the book at the elderly. He stands in his socks and quotes violations and ordinances while the old man nods gravely and his wife prods and pokes at potential loopholes in the seamless fabric of transit law. I consider walking away. I consider handing my badge and my cap device to the Lud, telling him, “So long, partner. I quit. I’m done,” and letting him settle this three-three-eight-seven, and all Metro’s million Crimes against the Grain of the Moral Fabric of the Universe on his own. 

But right then, just as I’m about to take what might as well be my first step off the beat in fourteen years, the Lud’s dead mother calls our names over the police comm.


Billy Longino lives in Texas with his wife and two children.

The Death of Woundworth by Avee Chaudhuri

in Fiction/Issue One

Not being a scientist or a reader of National Geographic, I don’t really know what constitutes a “minor ecological catastrophe.”  But yes, I am responsible. I gave the order: burn everything, and I did so to protect my intellectual property as well as that of the Palestinian Film Board, which generously agreed to finance my live action adaptation of Watership Down. They wanted a parable about liberty and statehood, and I have always been a fan of the novel. Despite the ideological overtones of the project, I am generally indifferent toward the conflict between Arab and Jew. I took the helm solely because of the technical challenge. The Palestinians do not have much money and could not produce a film with expansive computer animation, hence the need to use real wildlife and to shoot on location.

What has also been referred to as a “modest genocide” in the newspapers hinges entirely on my choice of assistant director. The film itself was viable and remains viable, and would have been brought to utter, timely fruition had it not been for Professor Gregor Ritzenthaler, PhD, former chair of the North Carolina Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. To be brief, the man is a disgraced and drunken zoologist, although the region’s foremost expert on the Leporidae family. I see in him now something of a tortured genius and an unpleasant, reluctant saint. But when I first met him at a TGI Fridays in Durham, he was friendly and outgoing. It was a Wednesday morning, about half past eleven, and he was on his eighth or ninth boilermaker. I should have been alarmed by this fact, but instead I was charmed by his knowledge of rabbit society, the inner workings and brutal politics of warrens and harems, breeding grounds, places of exile, defeat. It was operatic.

But Ritzenthaler showed up to the first day of filming drunk on Knob Creek and released all of the rabbits. Once he sobered up on a loaf of sourdough bread and a thermos of blackcoffee, it took him a full day to traipse through the marshes and recapture most of the principal cast. We had dinner that night in my trailer, and he apologized in full and promised to switch to a lower proof bourbon. At the time I believed this to be a fair and reasonable compromise. 

The role of General Woundworth went to our largest rabbit, but he was docile and diffident on camera, not at all keeping with his characterization in the novel. In order to induce the appearance of despotism and rage, we fed General Woundworth four ounces of espresso and his heart promptly exploded. The look in his eyes was terrible. Dr. Ritzenthaler did not forewarn me of this possible outcome. The animal rights activists learned of Woundworth’s demise and began to picket the set and commit small acts of sabotage. More rabbits freed and anamorphic lenses smashed to bits. It may be unpopular to claim outright, but a single, German-engineered anamorphic lens is worth a thousand Woundworths. 

There is no justice in this world. My tormentors were somewhat organized and adequately funded. They were occasionally ruthless, and one night they kidnapped Ritzenthaler as he was exiting a local tavern in the company of a known prostitute. Did she lure him into their hands? Was she a part of it? They wanted me to stop filming in exchange for the professor’s safe return. I refused to negotiate, certain they couldn’t harm a fellow mammal. But dear God, what they did to him was much worse. It was perverted and sanctimonious. A letter dated four months ago from those bastards records their attempts to sober up Dr. Ritzenthaler, much to his horror, by feeding him a diet of milk thistle and organic honey. Of course I contacted the police, but the detectives I spoke to were entirely apathetic. Ritzenthaler was a known drunk and a lecherous troublemaker, and they were glad to have him off the streets and away from their genteel country brothels. Fate had thrust into my unassuming orbit a manic scientist, a listless constabulary, and a cadre of mediocre terrorists.

Without Dr. Ritzenthaler around to advise me on the flurry of lovemaking scenes in the film’s third act, they turned out clinical and frank. Absolutely joyless. I had hoped that the musical score could add a subtext of romance and power to these empty trysts, but I ran out of money to hire a proper composer. My nephew, who is my ward, began writing and recording music on a keyboard synthesizer as per my instructions, but it was not very good. The horror of General Woundworth’s death, those grimacing eyes, that death rattle, the sight of his body being caressed by the expiable Dr. Ritzenthaler, who wept like a lunatic, all of these horrors in rapid succession must have destroyed my nephew’s artistic sensibilities. His atonal concertos did not suffice.

Ritzenthaler’s eyes were once roguish and delightful, but that all changed. Halfway through the scheduled shoot, on a large hill overlooking the set, under the aegis of the setting and torpid Carolina sun, he appeared at dusk with an army of militant vegetarians behind him, forty pounds lighter from the denial of Knob Creek and fried haddock and broiled liverwurst. Our eyes met from across the field and his were dull and humorless. He’d been converted or lobotomized. Sobriety made Professor Ritzenthaler sinewy and agile, with a chest like repaired and burnished Alexandrian marble.

Still, I will always try

to remember him as a tender, supportive and much flabbier man. Whenever I expressed self-doubt in the privacy of my trailer, he’d calm me down with a glass of whiskey and a rendition of “Nessun Dorma.” He had a lovely singing voice. When I was deeply, profoundly troubled and couldn’t sleep he’d make a soothing balm out of crushed methadone, fiber glass and Vicks VapoRub and apply it to my lower back. It left quite a bit of scarring but it worked and I had pleasant dreams of a finished film and a lavish, fully catered premiere in the West Bank.

But that’s when I gave the order, when I saw him standing astride that hill. With Ritzenthaler leading the charge, they attacked us with paintball guns and attempted to seize our equipment. I escaped narrowly with some of the film and my nephew, but we didn’t have time to go back for his keyboard synthesizer. He was devastated. As a way to assuage his tears, I told him he wasn’t a very good musician and therefore retrieving the instrument was not a matter of urgency. He has responded to my logic with a ruthless and indefinite period of silence.

What little I salvaged of the film is rough, extremely rough, without color correction or computer effects. Many shots still include myself and Dr. Ritzenthaler shepherding the tranquilized and chemically aroused rabbits on our hands and knees, placing them into phalanxes, arranging them beside conspiratorial camp fires, forcing them to confront or make love to one another or to assume the stance of a tyrant, trickster or messiah. In spite of our bellies and hangovers, there is a natural harmony and litheness to our movements as quadrupeds, and the rabbits are so drugged and insentient that they seem to harbor some love or at least Darwinian deference for us, like newborns for their mothers. We look like a family in the dirt and mud, among grass and longleaf pine, immortalized in 70 mm film while under the distant lights of Ursa Major. I note this wearily and wistfully with each, obsessive viewing. But Ritzenthaler and I will be erased in the post-production process, and the rabbits will effectively be orphaned.

 


Avee Chaudhuri is from Wichita, Kansas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fluland, Gemini Magazine, FLAPPERHOUSE, Dead Mule and Prairie Schooner. 

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