31 May 2012

Casablanca Class

A dark hole appeared in the fabric of the ceiling as I passed. A dark, rectangular hole – more like an aperture that had been crafted by unseen hands than a hole that had appeared as if by force or by accident. The hole seemed to vibrate and call in a silent voice. It did not say “carrera,” as I had expected, but rather called a name I did not recognize, save for it being my own. My own name. A name I had never known. A name I had been given. My name.

The name seemed sweet and holy, yet I listened for only a moment. I paused, stepped forward, and then stopped. The aperture in the fabric of the ceiling led to something, I was sure, and it beckoned. Beckoned. It beckoned, but not forcefully in the least, and as I looked over my shoulder at the dark hole, it seemed to be more sad than ominous. My father had once encouraged me to look with cautious optimism toward such holes in the space-time continuum or in the fabric of reality, as he had once done this very thing while aboard a large naval vessel near a small atoll in the South Pacific. People were trying to kill one another in the distance, and a dark hole appeared above my father, who paused, and then listened to it while looking at it, likewise, over his shoulder.

I looked with cautious optimism at this hole, owing to my father's advice, and I tried to listen all the more closely as I stood motionless in the hallway. My father had heard the voice that day near the atoll, and he eventually took to heart the name spoken by his aperture. I decided that I, too, would stand quietly and listen, but as I did so the silent voice grew even more quiet – beyond silence and beyond longing, for I was beyond longing and the day was growing old. The voice repeated my name; it made a quiet 'pip' as if kissing the air; it was gone.

I turned full around to look at the dark hole, and saw nothing but the chipped-paint ceiling and the cobwebs and the dust mites and the dog hair and the pale, pale rot of time. I took my name in hand and walked beyond a small Pacific atoll – far, far beyond a small Pacific atoll.

And every day, for all eternity, I walk back across the water and strain to hear my father's name.

Don't you?

28 May 2012

"Bile, and more Bile"

(A little nonsense for Penny Watson.  Let the reader understand.)

Missus Penelope, will you please remove that hobo-esque costume? That is, please cease to deport yourself in hobo fashion. Thank you so much.” Master Pumplin was a harsh taskmaster, detested hobos and made it known. With his be-warted, spindly arm he held out an eggplant and BILE-colored dress and shook it at the curly-headed hobo.

I don't look good in eggplant and BILE,” protested Missus Penelope, shaking her frizzy curls like so much synthetic gerbil bedding, purposely crafted to absorb errant streams of rodent BILE, “it would negatively contrast with my aura.”

Master Pumplin shook the dress all the more violently and his voice took on a stern tone. “Aura or no aura, you will not be dressed as a BILE-loving hobo in my sight.”

Master Pumplin,” asked Missus Penelope, “what do you have against hobos? What has a hobo ever done to you?”

Master Pumplin grew all moist-edy eyed and his swollen tongue lolled from his mouth. A great stream of BILE trickled and then ran from the crease in his tongue, pooling on the floor. The BILE gave off the scent of woodsmoke and pudgey-pies.

It was my wiener dog,” said Master Pumplin, “if the truth be known. You perhaps are not aware that hobos harbor a natural, BILE-driven hatred for wiener dogs, are you?”

I am not,” said Missus Penelope, shaking her rambunctious curls.

It was a hobo that was responsible for the downfall and ruin of my beloved wiener dog. He lured my precious wiener dog into his hobo-camp with the promise of bacon-wrapped anchovies. Anchovies smell worse than BILE, in my humble opinion”

And the hobo killed your wiener dog?”

Worse,” said Master Pumplin, “my dear wiener dog is now riding boxcars on the midnight train between Boise and Dubuque, and eats his kibble from an old tin can.”

Awful,” said Missus Penelope.

Yes,” said Master Pumplin, “and night and day my wiener dog sings the blues.  A-how how how how.”

25 May 2012

Laid the Wood on 'Im, Part Two (as told by his old man)

Damn dog kept on barkin'...kept on hangin' on th' steps an' barkin'...sittin' there and jes', shit it ain't got nothin' better a' do than jes' keep on barkin'. Damn kid ain't gonna' shit me no more 'bout the money and th' money he got 'cause he's workin' and he's gonna' not shit me no more 'bout that money, kid's a damn liar an' I know it 'cause I know. How I know? I know. Shit he ain't gonna' talk back an' he ain't gonna' lie 'cause when I's his age my ol' man'd whup my ass'f I talked back an' lied like that and, shit, he'd stick me too 'cause he gots what's comin' an' no one can say he don't. Shit my ol' man would whup my ass an' he'd stick me too if he had a way t' stick me then'e'd stick me sonofabitch'd stick me good. Sonofabitch. 'At kid'd do anything t' get outta' workin' an' he'd soon as run th' hell away then work an' leave me t' th' workin' roun' here. I brought that sonofabitch inna' this world, an' shit, I'll take 'im out.

Kid! Kiiid! Sonofabitch! Cut myfckenself an' that sonofabitch ain't gon' do nothin' he ain't here when you need 'im an' shit if he ever been any good, no good, damn good fer' nothin' kid. My ol' man'd whup my ass'f I ever was like that an' I wasn't 'roun' when I needed him and shit he was never there when I dammit needed 'im an' now he ain't here. Shit. Gotta' get a rag. Ah shit I pissed. No one ain't ever been there fer' me when I needed 'em and I ain't never asked no help fer' nothin' shit I need a fckenrag. Kid! Kiiid!

Shit...I brought that sonofabitch inna' this world, an' shit, I'll take 'im out. Gotta' lay down.

24 May 2012

Laid the Wood on 'Im, Part One (as told by Isaac)

My old man done tried t' kill me, but I got loose and ran. Ran like a mad loose dog runnin' and screamin' like my heart was gonna' bust through my chest and the air and the blood inside me was gonna' boil up and just shoot out in a fearin' and hatin' mad craziness. Shit. I just ran and ran 'til I got to the edge of the Dempsey's farm and I seen that big old containment facility 'cross the road and I got all hot and feelin' dry, even though it was hot and wet out and my hair was plastered to my head from the sweatin'.

He said it was a word from God that my old man done got, he said. Shit. I don't think that his god or my god or anyone's god would go tellin' them to go stickin' a knife through someone in the livin' room right after they done eaten supper, and there ain't no way I'm gonna' believe that my old man hears voices from god or from anyone else, 'cause he sure don't hear my voice when I'm callin' out to him and needin' to talk to him and it been that way since I was a little kid. That fat old sonofabitch would sit there watchin' that shoppin' network on TV and drink malt liquors until he was drunk and pissin' hisself and he never listened to me no how. Shit.

So I stood there across the road from the containment facility listenin' to the pig noise and I thought it sounded like a hollerin' for life 'cause those pigs weren't gonna' get a whole hell of a lot older and soon they'd be sittin' on me or my old man's plate as a pile a' bacon or a slice of pit ham and then the hollerin' wouldn't make a whole hell of a lot of difference and a pig's just a pig like my crazy as shit old man done said.

After about an hour or two a' me sittin' on the roadside one a' them trucks pulled empty into the lot by the facility and I decided to just get walkin' back home. My old man would be dead drunk by now, pissed hisself in his pants and passed out. That truck would pull away full; I just went on home.

21 May 2012

We All Have the Chance

Bareknuckled and swinging, swaying, weaving, and throwing his weight around like a drunken man-child weighted with bag after burlap bag of heavy dead stone; lisping and drifting from one ancient curse to the next. He's positive and don't you forget it – Mackey Damsey holds his head above the cresting tide of fools and smiles a big old toothy grin to the empty theater that is this throne room of the sensuous fast-food purveyor. Mackey Damsey selects a softy-softy bun to place in his precious stomata-hole and in his bull-dwarf graceful kick-stumble he rides to his table. Throne room, precious Mackey Damsey, throne room and don't you forget it.

As soon as his visceral top-noggin is exposed to air and the casing of warm tis-sue is peeked back precious Mackey Damsey fumbles with wrapper after wrapper and places that softy-softy bun in his stomata-hole; wraps his tongue around it as a white ghost-thin connective tis-sue wraps around the segment of meat in ox-tail soup – little cylinder of flesh encased in a white ghost-thin protective wrap.

Mackey Damsey removes his heart and his lungs and his pancreas and his spleen and his liver and perhaps that one other organ that is occupied with the production of yellowish sebaceous oils. I forget what that organ is called. I always forget its name. Mackey Damsey removes his organs like you might remove your coat. Removes the organs and places them in a semi-circle as a means of bartering for the softy-softy bun, trading nutmeg for Manhattan and trinkets for his soul and his liver for a softy-softy bun. Mackey Damsey falls over dead with his innards dripping in the semi-circle but now it is the chance for Mackey Damsey's ghost to rise up; rise up; rise up to its full height and survey the world and the bartered softy-softy bun.

Po-whee twiddle,” cries something near Mackey Damsey- ghost. “Po-whee twiddle, for the time is nigh. Give up your ghost and give up your life, for the time is nigh.”

Mackey Damsey-ghost hovers and does not make it in time. Mackey Damsey-ghost spreads thin and white over all the earth and its nighttime-scented brow. Spread like the cold cream of an era never known. Mackey Damsey-ghost holds the vision close and clear and sweet and lame. The softy-softy bun could never be worth the vision. The vision is greater, the vision is clear. One time that man in the funny dress said the vision was glorious, but Mackey Damsey knew better and Mackey Damsey snickered at him. And so the vision gets lost and the nighttime grows and the stomata-hole gets mad with the hunger. Snicker, Mackey Damsey-ghost, snicker.

Now Mackey Damsey-ghost just floats alone and softy-softy bun goes stale.

18 May 2012

Friday Morning Philosophy

I saw Filthy Milt out last night,” I said to my brother Pat, as we waited for our breakfast to arrive. We were sitting in our usual booth at “The Uptown Upload,” our favorite greasy spoon in the city.

Filthy Milton Gozomski?” he asked, reaching for a little packet of carcinogenic sweetener.

Yeah,” I replied, watching Pat sprinkle the packet's contents along the baseboard near our booth. “I was at 'What's Shakin'', listening to 'Glebeland,' that new band from Poughkeepsie that dresses like eighteenth-century indentured Irish farmhands when they play.”

I hear their crumhorn player has some wickedly awesome tattoos.”

Yeah,” I said, “he has a powdered wig tattooed onto his head. It's really strange, but he didn't have his head too closely shaved last night, so it was hard to tell. It just looked like he was going gray.”

How the heck is Filthy Milt, anyway?” asked Pat.

He seemed OK,” I said, “ but he did the strangest thing with his left leg when he danced.”

Oh,” said Pat, “he's done that for years. Old Milt Gozomski was in a freak accident a while ago.”

Really?” I asked. “I never noticed before.”

Have you ever seen him dance before?” asked Pat.

No,” I conceded, “I guess I never have.”

Well,” said Pat, “old Milton Gozomski used to be a professional curler some years ago.”

He was a hairdresser?” I asked.

No,” said Pat, looking a little perturbed, “he curled. He did curling. He was a curler. You know what I mean. Curling. The sport.”

Oh...the thing with the big shuffleboard things on ice with the broom...things.”

Well, yeah, that's it. Well, Filthy Milt used to be a curler, and he was pretty good at it, too.”

Our breakfast arrived and I began to butter my cheese and bacon bagel. Pat sprinkled a healthy serving of shredded nut-cheese over his bowl of quinoa.

That stuff'll kill you, Pat,” I warned, slathering cream cheese over the butter.

Pat just stared at my bagel and then continued, “well, Filthy Milt's team was playing in the New Hampshire state finals one year, and looking like a shoe-in for first place. The final match was held on a Saturday morning, and the Friday night before old Milt and the boys go out for a few drinks in Concord. They started at one end of town and crawled their way through every curling bar in the entire city. At bar time they all went back to the motel after stopping at a 'package goods' kind of place. I guess they had something like ten bottles of kirsch and a case or six of some local brew.”

Kirsch?” I asked.

It's big on the curling circuit, I guess. Curlers are just mad for kirsch.”

So Milt got drunk and hurt his leg?”

Well, not quite,” said Pat between spoonfulls of nutty quinoa, “as it turned out, Milt and the others were pretty hung over the next morning and they really botched the final match. They lost in a big way. So on the way out of Concord they decide to stop and drown their sorrows with a little hair of the dog.”

Good Lord.”

Yeah. Well, they stop in this little out-of-the-way kind of place that has a midget bartender. Milt and the boys order up a round of drinks, and old Filthy Milt shouts out 'and be quick about it, shorty.' The midget bartender gives Milt a dirty look but brings their drinks. This keeps up, though, with Milt calling the guy 'shorty' and 'short-stuff' and 'tiny' and 'itty-bitty.”

He really called him 'itty-bitty'?” I asked.

I guess so,” said Pat, “that's what I was told, anyway. Anyhow, after an hour or so of this the midget bartender has had about enough and refuses to serve Milt another drink. Milt is furious and gets into a shouting match with the midget.”

I think the current term is 'differently-heighted person,' Pat.”

Whatever. Anyhow, it just starts getting ugly and they start pushing one another, and Milt takes a step forward and hits a loose roller skate with his foot.”

Roller skate?” I asked.

Yeah,” he said, “ the midget's girlfriend was on a roller derby team and had a habit of leaving a pair of her skates sitting just behind the bar. Milt goes flying and his knee takes the craziest twist. Tore his ACL, as it turns out. He came crashing to the ground and hit his head on something. He was out cold. He got a nice ride in an ambulance and spent the rest of the day in the hospital. He never had the thing taken care of properly, as the only doctor on call in Concord that day was a homeopathic druid. Ever since then Milt has walked and danced with a crazy kind of limp.”

Well,” I said, “I just guess that goes to teach a guy a lesson.”

Yep,” said Pat, “like Dad always said, never insult a midget who dates a roller derby queen.”

Truer words were never spoken,” I said, watching a sluggish-looking cockroach crawl along the baseboard.

You can say that again,” said Pat. “and could you hand me another sweetener packet?”

17 May 2012

Stretch Marks in the Cosmic Cocktime

The little, fine voice perked up at 4:30 in the morning of the last day of the world. As we had discussed, there were many days that masqueraded as the “last day of the world,” and there was a particular day in which it looked as though the last day of the world had begun outside of a sandwich shop in Tulsa, but none of these had amounted to much. Not a single one of them managed to make a dent in prime-time viewing.

On the real last day of the world, the little, fine voice perked up very early and made a gentle peeping sound, followed by a grand silence. No one took note aside from Clarence Mirman, an insurance salesman with over-active bowels. Clarence had arisen quite early to visit the washroom when he heard the little, fine voice perk up and make its gentle peeping sound. During the grand silence that followed, Clarence made sure to punctuate the stillness with a heroic flush, and then venture out into the front yard of his palatial Cape Cod. He stood in the wet grass and listened for the voice – the little, fine voice.

Speak to me,” Clarence said up into the heavens, already stained with daybreak and showing some promise. “Speak to me, you grand silence of all ages...speak to me.”

The dew was ready to sparkle, if the dew could sparkle. The birds were ready to sing, if the birds could sing. All mankind was ready for justice, if justice could be had. Clarence stood still and listened to his words echo in the grand silence.

Speak to me,” he called out again. The heavens roared a silent purple and Clarence held his hands in tight fists. His bowels churned and made a familiar sound.

Where love and justice meet peace and power, the horns of life break heaven's promise to a world so bent on its own change and with the anticipation of a day better than the last. Better than the last, better than the last, and better than the last is the dream and the hope and the desire. Anticipation makes a man hungry and it makes a man tired and it makes a man lose sight of the dream that might have already broken right before him.

Speak to me,” he called out again as a cool wind crossed his lawn and dissolved his flesh. His skin melted like cornstarch in water – still there, but unable to do what you expect it to do. His skin melted and his bones turned into air and Clarence stood clear and silent and looked painfully into the roaring purple skies, the silent, roaring purple future – silent with great roars of hope and the anticipation of the last day of the world.

The last day of the world had begun and the little, fine voice spoke volumes in the quiet morning. We all chose to ignore its words, and Clarence escaped as a vapor into the balance of time. Poor Clarence and his over-active bowels. He strained to make a sound, to compete with the little, fine voice and to have his own voice heard. He strained in a silent struggle, shaking and in the same breath knowing release, and his spirit formed three words in concert with the question of the grand silence of all the ages.

Speak to me.” 

14 May 2012

Dirt Harbor

The rickety cane-backed chair creaks against the back of a blue cotton shirt, damp with sweat and dusty with the soil of freshly plowed bean fields. Tears would wet the sleeves if a man would cry, but the man doesn't cry so the sleeves stay dry and the heart stays wounded – wounded and sore, holding on to a whole lot that a man shouldn't have to face – leastaways not during a year where the beetles have done better than the combine. Combines never complain, and neither do the beetles, but the one cuts and the other cuts and the heart stays sore and wounded and the tears don't come so the sleeve stays dry.

The chairback strains against the cotton. “Martin Weller's having a bypass today. They was gonna' put in another stint, but the surgeon said he's getting' pretty bad so they gotta' do a bypass. Mary don't think he's gonna make it through this one, on account of his health not bein' very good and his heart not bein' none too strong to begin with.”

Hot wind and dry wind and a tired wind laced with generations of sweat and soil – 33 degrees and 90 degrees, and those telling, failing six degrees that always always haunt and always fail – never fail to tell, and the cornbread's always warm. Soft and warm like the land's sweet flowing breast, flowing with tears and hollow like that over-farmed heart of Martin Weller as he lies upon that table and the doctor pounds on his chest and sweats and works and curses like Martin Weller sweated and worked and cursed the land that seemed so hollow and damning; damning his sweat and his curses – folded back upon him and poured into a cup of cool, cool water, a cup of his burning hot blood, dusted and refined and filled with the fine, fine soil. Fine dusty soil of a freshly plowed bean field, fine dusty soil that receives that fine, refined body of Martin Weller and those sleeves would stay dry.

11 May 2012

The Hounds of God on Ascension Day (Zombie and Nun Flash Fiction)

Sister Mary Olympia shouldered her CETME and snapped a fast round through the skull of the undead postal carrier that was shuffling toward her. The corpse staggered backwards and then dropped to the ground. The battle-hardened nun strolled up to the body and reached down for the bundle of letters that he still clutched in his fist. She pulled them out and quickly leafed through them. She selected one sealed with the Bishop's signet and slipped it underneath her scapular and into her cincture. The rest she let fall to the ground, where the wind blew and scattered them over the zombie's motionless body. She touched the copy of “Watchtower” to the glowing cherry of the cigarette that she held in her teeth, fanned the air with the magazine until it was in flames, and then touched it to the clothing of the lifeless corpse. She walked away as the body slowly burned. “Bloody heretics,” she said, “all of 'em.”

A small undead child appeared around the corner as Sister Mary neared the entrance to Holy Nativity Convent and Primary School, and again she brought the CETME to bear. The jacketed .308 NATO round tore a gaping hole through the little girl's forehead, and deposited an unhealthy clot of brain matter and bone splinters on the brick wall behind her. The little beast slumped to the wall and then to the ground as Sister Mary stepped around her. She dropped the empty magazine from her rifle and let it slide into her drop pouch for reloading later – after Vespers. She selected another from her belt, kissed it, seated it in the mag well and slammed it home. She slapped the charging handle forward just in time as another small girl, in the familiar pleated plaid skirt appeared, shuffling toward the nun with her arms outstretched. The CETME barked twice and the threat subsided. Sister Mary reverently crossed herself and osculated the upper receiver of her trusty rifle.

Slipping into the convent's main narthex, Sister Mary quickly made her way up a flight of stairs, down a short, dark hallway, and into the first door on the right; the door that led to her chapel-bunker – and relative safety. She threw the bolts on the steel door, flipped on the hallway motion-detectors, and then slid into her chair. She lit a fresh Camel straight, and switched on the reading lamp over her prie-dieu. She pulled the Bishop's letter out of her cincture band, and then deftly unlocked the bayonet from her CETME - this she used to carefully open the letter without disturbing the wax seal. After replacing the bayonet on its lugs she unfolded the letter, and blowing a cloud of pure, unfiltered smoke over the page, began to read. A minute or so passed and Sister Mary Olympia sat upright, dropping the letter to her lap. She picked a bit of tobacco off her tongue and brushed it onto the handkerchief at her waist.

The letter was dated over two months ago – several weeks before the outbreak. Several weeks before young Sister Marguerite fell victim. Several weeks before Sister Mary Olympia had to do the hardest thing she had ever had to do.

Make haste to come to the underground facility beneath the church at Templecombe,” read the Bishop's letter. “And bring your new novice – she has much promise, and her prior training and experience in viral pathology might prove quite useful given the recent developments.”

Chain smoking in a darkened chapel is no way to spend a Holy Day of Obligation, Sister Mary Olympia thought to herself. She stood up, adjusted the Kevlar tunic under her habit, and put the sling of her CETME over her shoulder. She snapped off the reading light and headed out of her bunker. “The schoolyard's dirty,” she said aloud, “and no one can clean house like a frickin' Dominican.”

10 May 2012

A Little Peek at "Wild Torrent" (forthcoming)

Blind Charles sat up and crossed his legs with some difficulty. His thighs were fat. Really fat, in fact, and his coveralls didn't fit too well in the legs – they were a little too short for him, and they were certainly too tight, or at least tighter than I would have wanted them.

“Denny,” he said, “they're awfully blue. You remember the old brick school down near the edge of town?”

“Sure, Charles.”

“Well, Denny, you know I used to live right near there when I was growing up, right?”

“Sure I do, Charles.”

“It was a long time ago, Denny, or at least it seems like a long time ago. We were just kids. I suppose everyone is just a kid at least once in their life and when you are, there just some things you can't help doing. You know, like having zits and popping them in front of a mirror – I think 'most everyone does that at some point. Hell, I think the only girl I ever dated probably decided to never see me again after I kind of absentmindedly picked at a zit when we were out on a date. I squeezed at it without even really thinking and she said 'Charles, please don't do that,' and I never did in her presence again, but not because I kept myself from doing it but because she never went out with me again. Never mind the fact that the zit was on my back and we were in a restaurant.”

I tried to imagine this and stopped. Blind Charles continued.

“But zits are just something you go through when you're a kid, right? So are things like bad breath because you don't know that it's bad and you ain't learned about keeping yourself clean and no one has told you that maybe you need to chew a stick of gum or have a mint after you eat that bag of Funyons at lunch time. Life just ain't fair. So it seemed no worse when I saw Mahler and Pennick and those other kids that used to hang around together, and they were all hanging around on a summer night – all hanging around the playground at that old brick school down near the edge of town. They were lighting off firecrackers – I could hear them going off. I was sitting in my room reading a book, but I had the windows open because it was hot out, and I could hear the firecrackers and the laughing and every now and then someone cussing and then the laughing would get louder.”

“Well,” he continued, “it was sounding so fun decided to put down my book and go see what was going on. It wasn't that late yet, and it was summer, so it was still light out and my mom didn't mind that I was gong out of the house. I told her I was going to the playground and she just told me to be careful and to be back before it got dark. I wandered over to see who was there, even though I already knew.”

Blind Charles paused for a moment, and we both just took in the skies and the fields. A big old bank of clouds moved in front of the sun, making a big shadow. Everything got a little darker, and it even got a little cooler, it seemed. I looked at my forearms and saw that goosebumps were rising up, so I ran my hands across them quickly. It was strange to feel goosebumps on such a warm summer day, but stranger was to look at Charles and his blue cotton shirt – the color of the blue changed as the cloud moved in front of the sun. It started out as bright blue as the skies themselves, but as the cloud moved the shirt looked darker and darker, and with it the blood smears. They looked for a moment almost black, but I think it was just my eyes. The shirt got to look like a dark gray or a blue that had been painted on a building in a place where they burned a lot of coal or some such thing, and it didn't match the skies anymore, even though the skies had been the exact same color just a moment ago. I looked even more intently at Charles and his blue eyes, which also had been the same color as the skies. Now it appeared as though their color didn't matter at all. His eyes just looked sadder, and they almost looked a little older than they had been. By the time Charles began talking again, the clouds had moved along and were going on their merry little way, and the shadows no longer cursed the blue of his shirt and his eyes.

“Pennick had a whole box full of firecrackers that his uncle had brought from somewhere that he was vacationing, and they were all having a great time putting those firecrackers into empty tin cans, blasting apart glass bottles and digging little holes in the lawn of the school yard and seeing how much turf they could blow up in a single blast. I started watching even though they were none too polite to me and called me blind and four-eyes and all the usual shit I used to get called as a kid. Still do, sometimes. Did you know that, Denny?”

“Know what, Charles?”

“That people call me names. They always have. They call me all sorts of things, mostly to do with my eyes.”

“We all get called names, Charles. It ain't nothing, really.” I think I must have turned pretty red as I was saying this, because I had always called him Blind Charles and sometimes even worse. Charles was right, though, that folks had always called him names and it was mostly to do with his eyes.

“Well, after Mahler and Pennick and the others had blown up most of the stuff they could find laying around, one of the other kids goes looking around near the edge of the playground and pretty soon shouts out that he's found something pretty cool. We all ran over and there was a big black crow, all dead and looking kind of nasty. Mahler poked it with a long stick and proclaimed it really dead. We all figured that, anyway, though. Well, Pennick pulls out a big old firecracker and says they should blow its head off and how cool that would be. Everyone laughs and agrees, and then they turn to me. 'Hey four-eyes,' he said, 'you get to set the charge on the prisoner.' He pointed to the crow and then handed me the firecracker. I told him I didn't want to and that somebody else could have the honor. He asked me if I was some kind of a pussy and was there something wrong with me. The others started to laugh and I felt funny inside, so I said I'd do it. He handed me the firecracker and a cigarette lighter and they all ran a little ways away. To take cover.”

Blind Charles looked even puffier around the eyes as he told this tale, and his voice sounded kind of dry and creaky. If I would have had some water I would have offered him a drink, but I didn't and so I just let him continue.

“I was scared, Denny. I never liked touching dead things – still don't. But the last thing I really wanted to look like was a pussy – a scaredy-cat. So I kind of pried open the crow's beak with one hand and then jammed the firecracker in as far as I could with the other. I pushed on it a little more so that just the wick was sticking out. I felt like my fingers that had touched the crow were somehow unclean and that I was going to get a disease, but I didn't want to show I was afraid in front of the others so even though I really wanted to smell my fingers and then wipe them on the cool grass, I just kept at my work. It took me several tries to get the cigarette lighter going, seeing as how I didn't have a lot of experience using one of them. Finally the fuse lit and it sparked and sizzled while I held the crow's head in my other hand. I heard the other kids yelling to drop the crow and run, and I could hear others laughing at me, but I just stood there, transfixed and looking at that crow with the firecracker in its mouth.”

“That's awful, Charles,” I said.

“Yeah, but Denny, when the firecracker went off, it was even worse yet. I thought my fingers had been blown off, and I got crow brains or some shit all on me – on my shirt and even some on my face. Whatever it was smelled just awful, and I remember still standing there and crying – screaming, actually, and I could hear my mom shouting after me from our yard, as she must have heard my scream and knowed it was me. She ran up to me and was shouting at the other kids, and saying how she was going to call their parents and the police and how they should all just go home and stop getting into trouble and disturbing the peace. And she put her arm around me and I remember stopping my crying just long enough to look down at the crow and seeing some sort of hideous, mangled bird head, and a the blown-off, ragged little stump of a beak still in place on what was left of the crow's head, just looking at me like it was accusing me of something worse than killing him.”

After he said that we both just sat there in silence and watched another cloud move in front of the sun.

07 May 2012

Ashley Continues...

“The trouble was, I didn't go on home. I was kneeling there in the cool, wet grass, lookin' at that darkened house, knowin' he was inside, all asleep. I bet he was breathin' real slow and deep, and maybe even dreamin'.

Dreams can almost hurt if you ain't in 'em. You know what I mean?

I started thinking that I was in a dream that Peter Switchback was having...I tried to imagine bein' in his dream, and we were sittin' at a table outside of some cafe or something in the city – a kinda' place I ain't never been, mind you, but I seen it on TV. We were sittin' there and talkin' and laughin' and people knew we were together, 'cause they'd look at us and smile, and when I seen that, my heart just felt so good. Like sometimes how you feel like there ain't no one out there for you and your heart kinda' hurts, but then something happens to make it not hurt so bad, and that was how I felt when I thought of myself laughin' with Peter. And I imagined myself taking the ribbon from my hair and putting it around his wrist, and he laughed and there as I knelt there in the grass, I reached up and took the real ribbon right out of my real hair – this was not in any dream, but I really done it. And I looked at that silky blue ribbon and remembered why I always wore that kind, and it was on account of him. I knew that his favorite color was blue, and he was always in beautiful suits and jackets and even fancy ties most days, and all so often in all different shades of blue – prints and paisleys, solids and whatnot and he just done always looked so good in that so I took to always wearin' a blue ribbon in my hair. The one day he came to the store and as I was helpin' him check out he said he liked my ribbon and I felt my heart race like it was gonna' explode and I think I just stood there with my mouth open and he said “blue stands for fidelity.” I was speechless and I think I said “oh” or somethin' and then he looked right through me and said “and it brings out your eyes.” He walked out of the store and I think I just about died.

So I had my long, silky blue ribbon in my hands and I knew I wanted to give it to him right then, but I was not on your life gonna' do such a thing. But my legs got the best of me and I got up and started walkin' to the house through that cool, wet grass. I didn't know what I was gonna' do when I got there, but I guess my heart didn't care too much. I got to the edge of the driveway and something sharp in the gravel hurt my foot and I almost cried out, but I didn't and in another step I was on the blacktop drive – still almost warm from the day. I got to the front door and walked up on the single concrete step and stood there for the longest time, not knowin' what to do.

Part of me wanted to ring that doorbell and wake Peter up, but I knew I couldn't do that, so I just looked at the door. He had the strangest decoration as a knocker – it gave me the creeps, to tell the truth. It was like a crest or a seal or something and it had a skull and crossbones on it, with a bunch of words in Latin. I reached up to touch the skull's forehead, and I found it smooth and cold and dry, and I saw that the words were all cut out of thin metal and were just attached to the rest of the knocker. I took my long blue ribbon and found a way to drape it over and behind the word “junxit”, and I tied it in a loop. I stepped back and that was when I heard a car comin' down the lane.

I turned to see headlights a few hundred yards off, and I dashed off the porch back to the field where I come from before. I heard the garage door opener start workin' and I knew it was Peter. He hadn't been sleepin' in his bed at all while I was imaginin' us together in a dream – he had been out, and all at once I imagined him out on a date with some girl up in Cotton City or maybe all the way in Birmingham, and I was rushin' through that open field, getting' all out of breath and not seein' right 'cause my eyes were wet and I was shakin' from fear and my hair was blowin' around. I musta' looked half crazy.

I think I ran almost all the way home, and never stopped to go back and look for my shoes, and that was bad, 'cause I had done more than just prick myself on somethin' in the edge of his driveway. And if Peter had been in Cotton City that night, well, I got to go too – my roommate Denise drove me to the emergency room and it took a few stitches to close up my foot. I spent the next few days limpin' around the store with my foot wrapped and I was scared to no end, thinkin' I musta' bled on Peter's step and he would think I was all crazy and he could put two and two together 'cause he ain't dumb. I thought right.

A box showed up on my porch a couple days later, all wrapped in blue paper, and inside there was a beautiful blue silk scarf and a handwritten note on Peter Switchback's personal stationery.

“Virtus junxit. And I hope you heal quickly.”

I had no idea what those two words meant, but I collapsed to the kitchen floor and cried like a baby.

04 May 2012

Whilin' the Time

There was ominous work to be done and that thumb-twiddling madman was not ready for the challenge. Steeped in hatred, steeped in fear, the madman held forth on the matter of relativity as he understood it.

My cousin wouldn't git to that thar work, neither,” shouted the madman, with eyeball-lint hanging from his pale socket and looking for all the world as though it were a tiny, tiny sheep clinging to a hillside and looking for a sweet morsel of clover or whatever it might be that a eyeball-lint socket-sheep might eat. Pale and lonely was the socket and cold and dry was the eye. The madman rubbed both with his chapped-scratchy index finger and flicked the little eye-snot against the table where he was seated. Grabber-man, who was seated across from him and had very clean eyes, looked away when the madman flicked the eye-snot.

Hellish it is, big boy,” said Grabber-man, scratching his one swollen testicle and then straightening up to look directly at the madman. “Hellish, if you ask me. There is no man that should turn down such work.” He took a long drag from his kretek, mounted in a long, slender cigarette holder. The sweet aroma of clove made him giddy and he laughed a little bit and soiled his pantaloons. “Titter, titter, big boy...titter. I have wet myself. Luscious and rancid are my pantaloons.”

The thumb-twiddling madman stood up and walked around to Grabber-man's chair. Lifting the effeminate cheesecake baker by his cravat, he then produced a large, sponge-filled replica of a garden implement from the haversack slung between his legs. The sponge-filled replica had a hairy surface, and he ran the tiny hairs along his lower lip and allowed his tongue to snake its way out of his mouth and lightly touch the briny, bristly surface of the replica implement. “I knows you would git to that thar work if'n I forced you, Grabber-man,” said the madman, breathing heavily. “I knows you would feel how hard anuzzer might works. Cha cha cha?”

Cha cha cha,” said Grabber-man, breathing heavily and with his eyes straining to leap out of their sockets at the sight of the sponge-filled replica garden implement with its briny, bristly surface. “Cha cha...” and this second repetition of the mantra was cut short by unspeakable pain and joy as the madman forced the sponge-filled replica garden implement and his entire fist into Grabber-man's most convenient orifice. Warm, sweet blood softly trickled down the madman's wrist, along with a fluid that might make one think fond and sentimental thoughts of Joey Tuckaway's mother's oyster chowder.

You likes oyster chowder?” asked the madman, laughing just a little. “You likes de way it smells when it pours? When it spoons? When it trickles down youse's wrist?”

Grabber-man was unable to speak, but shook his head and blew some clove-scented smoke out of his suggestively-curved nostrils and into the madman's face. His very clean eyes flickered a few times and then closed in ecstasy and a rubbery, sponge-filled death.

The madman's fist came out of the orifice with a noisy pop. “Bubbly,” said the madman. “Bubbly go wit de oyster chowder. I loves it when it trickles down my wrist. I loves it muchly.” The madman gently replaced the smiling body of Grabber-man in his seat and went back to his own chair and sat down. There was ominous work to be done and that thumb-twiddling madman was not ready for the challenge. He noticed a long, slender cigarette holder that had fallen to the table and rolled off its edge to the ground – the kretek was still smoldering. The madman picked it up and took a long drag.

Cha cha cha,” said the thumb-twiddling madman, looking at the kretek's glowing tip. “Cha cha cha.”

From the death in which he lay, Grabber-man smiled, but his heart broke – over and over and over again. Life had been sparse, but death was as empty as the little wagging stomach of a tiny, tiny sheep clinging to a eye-socket hillside and looking desperately, desperately for a sweet morsel of clover or whatever it might be that a eyeball-lint socket-sheep might eat.  

01 May 2012

Ashley Begins the Tale

“Layin' there and starin' up at the stars, I felt real small. Then I felt kinda' big. But not big in a really big, fat sorta' way. It was just a big feelin' that went away in just a minute when I stared feelin' small again. You feel big when you can't feel where your body ends and the rest of everything begins.

I was layin' there on the great big lawn of the Switchback place, layin' there and just feelin' the cool, damp lawn on my shoulder blades. I'd been out for a walk and I went further than I thought I might have, but I went that far, anyway. Pretty soon I realized I was out near the Switchback place, with its nice white fence and the horses, so I just set myself right down in the grass. I knowed I probably shoulda' got up and get goin', but it felt so good to sit there. I smoothed my dress out around me and laid back on the grass, thinking of Peter Switchback all alone inside that big old house, him just sittin' there and readin' his books or writing a story or lookin' through his telescope like I knew he did. I knew he would stand there for hours and look through that telescope on dark nights, making notes in some notebook of his. I knowed this on account of how I would sometimes watch from down the road across the fence. I would see his little red flashlight come on for a second or two and then he would go back to lookin' up at the stars. The same stars I was lookin' at when I was layin' there, so I felt a little closer to him for just a little bit – like we was lookin' at the same things, and even though we was probably havin' different thoughts, I liked the idea of just lookin' at the same things with him not knowin'.

I'd knowed Peter Switchback from the third grade, I think, and he'd always been the kid in school who done good. Hollerin' I was, that one day, hollerin' at Kevin Maage, that blond-haired kid whose parents were immigrants from some place and they spoke with a funny way about them when you'd see them in the store, when you'd see them at all. Up and down the aisles they'd walk, buyin' the strangest combinations of things. You can sometimes tell a lot about how normal or how weird a person is by the things they buy, you know, and when they buy strange combinations of things, you can tell a whole lot about them. They bought fish – a lot of fish, it was. But Kevin was so blond-haired and had such nice blue eyes that I didn't think about the smell of fish and such on him until that day when Peter Switchback found me hollerin' at him, and me doin' so with good reason. When a boy wants to see what's under a girl's dress it don't matter how blond his hair is or how blue his eyes are when she don't want him to see.

Peter Switchback knew that and I was hollerin'. And he done took care of me and he done took care of Kevin. And that was a long, long time ago when we was little kids. And this I thought about and dreamt back to and held in my heart and my memory as I was layin' there on the great big lawn of that Switchback place, lookin' up at the stars maybe just like the stars that he was maybe lookin' at just that very minute not just a couple hundred yards away. And I wasn't a girl anymore, and had I wanted to go talk to Peter Switchback about what was under my dress, I know he still woulda' been a gentleman and just asked me if I wanted a ride home or was I not feelin' so good. And I woulda' taken a ride home from him, and I woulda' burned like crazy sittin' there in the cab of his pickup right next to him or if I was lucky it'd be in the seat of that fancy little foreign car that he would drive down the lanes and you'd see him on the highway, headin' to the city. Maybe he'd drive me home in that, and I'd be sittin' there and if it were daylight then people would look at us in the pretty little car and my hair would be blowin' as maybe he'd have the top down on it, and people might see us laughin' and they'd think that Peter Switchback was sweet on me and maybe we had something goin'.

But it was night and I just stayed there, layin' in the cool, wet grass, lookin' up at the stars. And later the lights in that Switchback place went out and I knowed that Peter was in bed and I was gonna' walk home. But I knowed his heart was good and so was mine.

Burn, a heart does, sometimes.