The Wanderlust Misfit

Don't Run From Anything, Run Towards Everything

Archive for the category “Short Stories”

Society Devoured

I was dropped off along 275, the main highway circling around Louisville, Kentucky. Just ahead the highway split, three lanes to the left, two to the right, and on the far right, one lane going into an exit ramp. There was an overpass up ahead and a number of large green signs stood above the highway. I stood there before all this, a man in a concrete channel, no-man’s-land with cars and tractor-trailers bowling forth. A deer with a flattened mid-section lay dead next to the guardrail. I waited for a pause in the traffic and ran across the exit lane, stopping when I got to the part of the shoulder that formed a wedge on the asphalt between the exit and the rest of the highway. Directly above me three green signs spanned the highway, the one on the right with an arrow saying 65 South. This was the road would take me into Nashville, Tennessee. Traffic howled past, the eeerrooo eeerrooo eeerrooo of tires streaking down the pavement filling my head with this drone of vibrations. The two lanes in front of me ran beneath the overpass before curving around into 65. Before the overpass and to the right was a long stretch of grass sandwiched between the exit and the highway. The grass looked sickly, I could smell the stale fumes of exhaust pipes, and a man in an orange vest was going around in the grass picking up trash, placing it in his trash bag. Anyway, this is where I stood, in the grass along the highway, walking backwards with my thumb out because I didn’t have a sign. Although there was a shoulder here people would be hard-pressed to stop, given the steady stream of speeding traffic. My arm was sore from being held out.

Eventually (it took about 45 minutes) a tan sedan circa 1990’s pulled over beneath the overpass, its bumper loose and tailpipe coughing. I grabbed my knapsack and ran over, climbed in the front seat without bothering to ask the driver where he was going.

‘Nashville, huh?’ he said. The driver, Drake Muldoon, had a very deep, hollow voice, not loud or booming, but thick and low. The car backfired plumes of smoke as we gained speed and pulled back on.

Drake was a large man in a solid color t-shirt, the neck of which had been cut. He also wore sweat-shorts that rose above his tree-stump knees. His face jiggled when he talked, his jowls loose and hanging above a neck that sloped down from a hidden jaw-line. He was a massive man whose seatbelt didn’t fit and you can guess correctly that he did not fly on planes because of this. His shoulders and arms were massive; elbows, wrists and knuckles hidden under thick, soft pudge. The center console was inaccessible for a reason you’ve probably just assumed. His chest looked like something small children would sleigh-ride down and his stomach, the top half at least, rested on the steering wheel so that one time, when Drake sneezed, the driver next to us held down his horn in return and forcibly extended his middle finger.

‘I get that a lot,’ rumbled Drake.

‘From honking at people?’

‘That’s usually not why.’

This took me a moment to realize and I uttered ‘Oh’ without looking at him. The conversation here stopped in the fashion of someone mentioning a recently dead dog: both people are awkwardly saddened.

‘So what’s in Elizabethtown?’ This was the wrong question for me to restart the conversation with.

‘I do my food shopping there. The Wal-Mart there gives me extra good discounts.’ I noticed then, curiously, that the back seats of the car had been removed, thereby tripling the trunk space.

‘You know, I’ve been hitchhiking once,’ he said. ‘Well, sort of. You see what happened was, a few years back I blew out a tire.’

‘Shit, you didn’t have a spare?’

‘ – Oh, no, I had a spare. I just wasn’t able to fix it though, and I couldn’t find anyone else to fix it on account of my dead cellphone. I was two miles outside of town still and I had to walk the whole way back. I couldn’t catch a single fruggin’ ride.’ He paused and glanced over at the glove compartment. ‘Hey would you open that up and pass me the Fatty Cakes?’ I told myself this wasn’t true. But as I passed the box there was the label. Undeniable. Fatty Cakes, a picture of four pink, hand-sized cakes with glazed icing, one of them cut in half to reveal a cross-section of what appeared to be a pink, meat-like substance, albeit more gelatinous, and a center filled with some sort of flesh-colored icing.

‘I’d offer you some but this is my only lunch till I get there.’

I felt like being sick but I couldn’t stop watching, the way this fleshy cave smacked and smucked up and down, clumps of processed gum and fat globbing up and down saturated with sweet saliva, I could see the pink gooey strands of chemical-laden spit every time the open hole mushed up and down, pink slime on flat wet smucking lips.

Transfixed by disgust.

‘Where was I? Oh, yes. It took me seven hours and not one person would stop. I haven’t a clue why.’ The serving size of Fatty Cakes was one half. There were four cakes in each individual package. A second package of cakes was making its way towards the soggy hole. ‘I thought I was going to drop. I mean, I was really huffin’ n’ puffin’. I stopped for a few breaks, you know, grab a couple sodas and some snacks for energy. But, man, there ain’t nothing harder than walking in the heat. Seven hours, seven hours and I had my thumb out the whole time. Not one person stopped. I don’t know why. Does that ever happen to you?’

‘All the time,’ I lied. Drake Muldoon continued to talk with his mouth open and I watched as bits of chemicalized gelatinous fat sprayed from his mouth. By the time the Fatty Cakes were gone a layer of pink goop like soggy crumbs was slowly slipping down the windshield. Drake, vexed, turned on his windshield wipers, waited twenty seconds and turned them back off. I watched a fly land in the goop, feel around with its proboscis and, uninterested, fly away.

*          *          *

            Drake let me out at the top of the exit before driving on. Here, to the left was an overpass, across the street was the on-ramp and to the right of that was a small shopping center. In front of the shopping center was one large Old Country Buffet and along the street were nine signs standing tall and bright, one for each of the nine fast-food stores that occupied the whole of the shopping center. The parking lots were full. It was very cloudy here and I wanted to get a good hour at the on-ramp before the rain came. First I needed a sign.

I was kneeling in the grass next to the Buffet’s parking lot scrawling NASH in big bold letters on a piece of cardboard. I was taking my time, making sure the letters were even and filled in because I assumed people would be less inclined to pick up a stranger with a sign that looked like the product of a four-year-old. Next to me was a blue dumpster full of cardboard. Fortunately there had been a slot on the side so all I had to do was reach my arm in, instead of climbing in, to retrieve a piece of cardboard.

While I was filling in NASH with the permanent marker, a large chartered bus pulled into the parking lot. The windows were tinted and the exhaust smelled especially foul. The bus doors swung open. Streaming out came a line of large rotund women throwing their chubby arms up singing praises, these women in their Eucharist-receiving bests with their arms raised and faces at the sky shouting allelujahs streaming out of the bus and into the Old Country Buffet. The last chubby church-goer in line stopped at the door and flipped the Open sign over to Closed.

There was a traffic light down the road so that I could see most of the vehicles before they reached the on-ramp. This gave everyone plenty of time to see my friendly smiling face and the cardboard sign I was holding over my head. I would stand along the road and as traffic came I’d backpedal along with it, holding the sign and jutting my thumb. I’d backpedal till I got to the on-ramp then backpedal some more, waving at people who never waved back.

This was taking a while. People were seemingly unaware I was standing on the corner and this all gets discouraging, running around and waving and not so much as a curt wave ‘No!’. But that just adds to the feeling, because when a big sleek white pick-up pulled over after ninety minutes I was thrilled as if my faith in humanity had instantly been restored.

‘I’m going to Bowling Green. You want a ride?’ The driver was an older man with a powerful and rusty voice. When I said Hell Yes he asked if I liked cats because as I climbed in a half-breed pit jumped on my face and slopped up my nose.

‘Down Sarge! I said down, damnit!’ The driver hit the dog on the head and the dog went over to his side. ‘I know he looks big, but he’s still just a pup. He’s friendly as all hell, really, but watch out ‘cus he’ll bite ya’.’ Rex, the driver, was towing a twenty foot fishing boat to a lake outside of Bowling Green. He tried to get down there once week – not that he was any good at fishing but because it helped him clear his head. He was hoping the rain would hold.

Sarge kept jumping on me and Rex told me to hit him over the head. I did, and Sarge took to chewing my hand instead. Rex would then curse at the fifty-pound dog and, grabbing Sarge by the scruff of his neck, pull him over. Rex told me he wouldn’t have picked me up if I wasn’t running backwards with traffic, waving ‘like a lunatic’, because he doesn’t ever stop for hitchhikers who just stand around passively waiting. I told him Thanks. He told me people don’t help those who don’t care enough to help themselves. Then Sarge got a plastic cap stuck in his mouth and Rex asked me to retrieve it, which I did, afterwards wiping my hands on my jeans.

‘Thanks, that damn dog eats anything. Really, even shit that’s clearly inedible and toxic. I don’t know if it’s just the way he is, or maybe something with the way we’re raising him – the other day he was eating a hunk of rubber! But either way, he’s just a dog. They don’t got the intelligence we do, obviously, they lack our freedom of choice. So I can’t get mad. Of course, who the fuck knows! Maybe he does. In which case it’s a good thing he’s a pet ‘cus he wouldn’t survive too long without someone paying his medical bills and telling him what he ain’t allowed to eat. But that’s fine for them, dogs fit fine in a tyrannical social domineering. Fortunately it don’t work for humans ‘cus we have freewill. Dogs do seem to learn though. You don’t see habitually drunk dogs or dogs – besides pups – eating shit they ain’t supposed to. It makes honest sense though, ‘cus what family would empty their fortune on a dog that can’t learn? Or, worse, one that refuses to learn? It ain’t easy, and if pets had freewill there wouldn’t be a way in hell the richest nations could make it work.’ Rex leaned forward, peering up at the sky through the windshield. ‘I sure hope this rain holds out. But, well I suppose it’s got to pour sooner or later.’

Go!

I met them at 6:30 p.m. and by 6:45 we were screaming down the highway. It was dark out, rush hour traffic while weaving through cars. We had agreed Butch would go first, and as par his tradition he insisted on being stoned. The windows were rolled up. Butch held the steering wheel with his knees while he lit a joint. It went around clockwise – Butch, me, Sunshine, Allie-Lee and Sparks.

The cars on the highway, each one was dark, dark and identical to the car before it. The drivers weren’t happy. Identical hundreds of faces, cheap suits and ties and baggy eyes, scowls frozen on their faces. Inside the dark cars dim circles of light illuminated only frustrated frowning faces.

The car was stuffy, hot, filled with drifting wisps of smoke. Butch passed me the joint. ‘You ready?’ I asked him. He exhaled a lingering cloud, wreath of smoke around his head.

‘Wait for the music.’ He said.

Traffic wasn’t heavy, but, at 90 MPH the cars came up quick, most unexpectedly. The tires echoed going through cold overpass. Tension rising in the music. I could see Butch mentally noting pattern of the cars in front of us, how they spaced out. The engine humming faster, deeper, I could see the speedometer, 95…100, and at 110 Butch applied the cruise control, cranked the music blaring simultaneously yelling Go! … as he squeezed his eyes shut and I hit the timer…

Flying blindly down dark highway passing cars on right and left, Butch gently guiding roaring missile round the bend– a car! coming up quick but we don’t tell him, we can’t spoil the fun – quickly coming close to taillights bumper stickers in our sights – and Butch yanked the wheel to the right, changing lanes in just the time. He knew the car was there the whole time. Highway now into a straight-away, Butch blindly feels it out, gets the car straight and keeps it there, a car to the right holds the horn swerving to the other lane, Butch in reaction begins drifting, drifting to the left, eyes shut and drifting into traffic on the left…

‘Open!’ I yelled. Butch opened his eyes, saw where we were too close to the car and brought us back to the lane, away from the cars so close to our left. Butch smiled wide, thrilling me with his bursting eyes.

‘What—a—rush.’ The music was winding down. ‘How long?’

‘Fifteen seconds.’

‘Pah! Who’s next?’

‘I’ll go!’ said Sunshine. She passed Allie-Lee a plastic pint of vodka and positioned herself to climb into the front. I held the wheel while Sunshine and Butch switched. Every 50 feet, on both sides of the highway huge billboards stood. ‘We sell this! So buy it!’ said one. Another, ‘You aren’t happy, without this!’ ‘Be yourself. Be, Glamore!’ proclaimed a still-life, a woman modeling basic red t-shirt and plastic smile.

‘I hate those things,’ said Sunshine. She settled in behind the wheel. ‘Be different! Buy Glimmore!’ proclaimed a still-life, a woman modeling basic off-red t-shirt and unctuous smile. Sunshine complained, yet she knew, she knew there wasn’t a road to take without them looming. The engine hummed to 95 and cruise-control was then applied.

‘Ready?’ I asked. Sunshine grinning flicked the headlights out, drew a deep breath, shutting her eyes and shouting Go! …

Dark missile coming blind round gentle curve, a car in front of us Sunshine swerved, over a lane – wait a moment – and back again, narrowly missing the other car’s front-end. The car she cut off blew a horn. A bullet in the dark, she quickly pulled ahead of them.

‘Oh! She passed!’ went Sparks, sitting forward in his seat. We were all sitting forward in our seats. This was the only reason we ever had.

The highway straightened, Sunshine smoothing out along with it, dark missile hidden in the night, fleeing between unknowing cars. The lane ahead of us empty of taillights, up ahead a car to right – Sunshine jerked the wheel into the lane behind the car going going going closer to the car and was inches from the bumper before jerking to the left again, opening her eyes. Big beaming smile and her excitement-glowing eyes. ‘Did I get close?’

‘Yes!’ chorused the rest of us, laughingly.

‘23 seconds,’ I said.

‘Personal best.’ Sunshine dancing in the driver seat.

‘I’m next,’ I said. Me and Sunshine switched. ‘What if we turn into a burning flaming wreck tonight?’

‘What, is there suddenly some importance to your life you’re worried about?’ Allie-Lee gibed, sounding intentionally pathetic.

‘Good. I’m going one-fifteen, thirty seconds. Ready?’ I flicked the headlights on. Deep breath, shook out my arms. Stomach sick, filled with thick-blood nervousness. Go! …

Roaring blind through midnight void, seeing nothing feeling all, vibrations of an engine churning burning down the highway blind and guessing, barely knowing where the other cars may lie, hoping, not knowing – possibly I’ll steer us by. Gently straighten out the wheel, drift left a lane and keep it straight, hold it straight…

… A pressure behind my eyes wanting to burst, wanting me to open them but the burn, the burn builds with the pressure in my heart and stomach the longer I keep them shut – heart thumping echoes in my chest – rising rising rising in my throat with the tension and numbing fear of not knowing not seeing what is coming and the pure thrill of tempting the unknown for that moment of escape, this moment of escape – barreling into uncertainty because it’s only there where you might chance to free yourself from imposed order and begin anew. To choose your future. Flying madly through the dark because everyone else lives in the daytime. Plunging  forward through lovely chaos hoping to come out alive. For a moment to feel alive – I didn’t know where I was going and it thrilled me filled me with the feeling of living ecstacy barreling madly through the darkness hands gripping sweaty the wheel and tempting lust of keeping my eyes shut longer, knowing I need to look but swept up in the surge and the increasing thrill of keeping my eyes shut longer, just a little bit longer to feel the anxiousness building in my heart my chest shaking not giving a fuck, the rush of not knowing, not caring, the anxiousness, the skin-tingling – I realized I couldn’t remember the pattern of the cars. It’s okay, they’ll let me know if I’m close….

I opened my eyes.

‘It’s beautiful,’ said Butch.

The billboards had disappeared. The road was empty. A one-lane, empty road. On the right side dark and wet woods, crickets and the gentle rustle of leaves as the car rolled slowly along. On the left was a beach, white sand drenched in the silver-bluish light of the full moon. Waves breaking softly at the bottom. The windows were down and we could hear the waves breaking; smell of the cold salt air and the gentle breeze damp on our skin.

‘Where are we?’ asked Sunshine.

‘I don’t know,’ I replied.

‘ – ‘cus I like it.’

‘Let’s stay here awhile,’ said Butch. ‘We’ll be alright. We don’t need to go back.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright, 2012   — had to, don’t like it but had to. it’s business, ya know?

Don’t Drink and Drive, You’ll Spill Your Beer

It was a sunny morning, fresh, cool. I still had the sign with Louisville and South on either side and I kept flipping it over to keep people amused. I wasn’t at the on-ramp for more than an hour before a pick-up truck pulled over on the shoulder, shining white in the early yellow sun. The driver was Mac, a sturdy and amicable graying man in his fifties. It was Saturday. Mac kept answering his phone for work. He was giving orders about fixing a leaky roof, telling Mark and Joe Stalig what job sites they needed to take their crews to. Then something about an ice-cream paddle from ma’s. He needed it to make ice-cream for the party and, yes, the moonwalk would be there by noon.

‘It gets stressful,’ he said to me, putting away the cellphone. The heat was on and it was warm and stuffy.

‘You work and work hoping things get easier as you get older, but,’ he sighed, ‘nope. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the fortunate ones, I do what I love for a living – building people homes. Looking back though I don’t know how we used to do it, without cellphones. I’m on this damn thing day long telling people what to do, but even back in the eighties and nineties we had the same number of jobs. It’s like people had less questions, knew better what to do. Things seemed less complex.’ His phone rang.

‘I need to get to 65 – ’ I said as he took out his phone.

‘Wheel get ya there.’ He took the call and then hung up, continued where he left off. ‘There’s more paperwork, too. A damn lot more. It seems like every time I need to move a piece of equipment or use a certain kind of nail I got a folder of files to fill out. It don’t help no one, let me tell ya. ‘Cept maybe Father Time getting gray.’ He picked up the phone again. It was about his grandson’s fourth birthday party. He put the phone away and continued.

‘I might be one of the fortunate, but I’m not sure I can keep doing this much longer. Nothing about age – I’ll work till I die, son. But the business, it’s changed so damn much and so much harder to conduct. The stress keeps going up while the profits keep going down. I’ll be working at a hardware store soon enough. Maybe even a gardening center. There’s one in town – that’d be nice. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just a bust economy, but they keep compounding it. It’s been coming from both sides for a long time. It were just the economy people would still find work for themselves. My uncle drove a cab during the Depression. Used to be a man could paint his car yellow, slap a taxi sign on it and be in business for himself, be able to feed his wife and kids. But that’s long been regulated out of practice. Now, if you don’t got hundreds of thousands of dollars you ain’t allowed to register a taxi, which means, unless you’re employed by a taxi company, you ain’t driving a cab. And you can bet damn straight it ain’t the taxi driver that that law’s making rich. And it ain’t just taxis either, but construction, farms, manufacturing, grocery stores – everything in this country regulated with laws the businesses themselves wrote, because they don’t want the little guy coming -in -on -their -profits. And if you ain’t got a sterling resume and impeccable background, those companies are never going to hire you. Employers don’t read people anymore they read resumes and Facebook profiles. So make sure you stay off the grass, son; you so much as step the wrong the way and you are fucked for life! This is my exit here. I’ll let you off at the bottom.’ The road was stop and go with traffic. Louisville was just a mile south. Mac made a right and pulled an illegal U-turn when there wasn’t any traffic coming and stopped just before the on-ramp.

‘One more thing. Let me tell you something, son. If a man can’t do what makes him happy, what feels right to him, in here [he jabbed his chest with a finger], that man might be alive, but he’s loong since stopped living.’

*          *          *

            The on-ramp here was without a shoulder and with so much traffic coming in fast it would be hard for anyone to stop. But of course, someone did. After 45 minutes a Lexus hit the brakes on the ramp in front of me.

‘Where are you going?’ called a voice from the car. He seemed about nineteen.

‘I need to get to 65.’

He thought a moment. ‘I don’t know where that is.’

‘It’s the Southwest corner.’

He thought again. Traffic was coming up behind him. ‘Screw it – hop in!’ I heaved my knapsack into the backseat and climbed in the front. I hadn’t closed the door when the driver hit the gas and shot up the on-ramp, neglecting to yield as the car dashed into traffic. He jerked the Lexus to the left, splitting an impossible gap between two cars and he did this twice more till we were in the left lane, the HOV making good speed.

‘I’m Jack-fred.’ We shook hands. ‘And no, it’s not heph,’ he paused, ‘inated.’ He had a bottle of gold Bacardi between his legs and he took a swig.

‘You’re drinking?’ I said, simply.

‘Oh. Sorry.’ Jackfred took another swig and passed me the bottle. I put my seatbelt on, took a large drink, wiped my chin with my sleeve and passed the bottle back.

‘Don’t worry, I’m good at this. I do it all the time. Did you have DARE in school?’

(D.A.R.E. was a program in elementary schools that sent police officers to tell students why they shouldn’t do drugs. The officers would describe the effects hallucinogenics and other sorts of intoxicants. This had the interesting effect of sparking the curiosity of children who realized then that life didn’t have to be so boring and mundane.)

‘They brought in drunk goggles one time to show us what it’d be like, being drunk, and they had us stumble around the room for a while. Well my friend asked if he’d be able to walk normal if he practiced enough with them on. The cop, she said yes. Well, same works for driving. Did you go to college?’ I lied and said no.

‘Me neither. I wasn’t ever any good at school. I’m not dumb, by any means. I read too much. Just I’m unmotivated. But,’ he said as he took another swig. ‘I might not be the sharpest kid but I’ll bet I’m the youngest alcoholic. At least I have something going for me. I mean, look at me. I’m not going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or any of those other suit and tie jobs. And what the hell does it matter, anyway? I got a marijuana charge on my record. I’m lucky to have my $15 an hour job. And if I’m real lucky I’ll be making thirty by the time I’m fifty. Retirement? Hopefully Heaven has those. No, what I am is a face in the crowd, a loser low-life who’s only chance at a clip in the paper is an early death. ‘Ya sift through life and your years flit away in the wind like dust, no one remembering who the fuck you were. Like you never existed. And in 13.66 billion years? You never existed, my friend.’ He took another swig and passed me the bottle. I decided to hold on to it for a few minutes.

‘It’s the only thing lets me feel alive anymore. Not knowing for once where I’m going or what’s coming. That’s the real problem. I know it, and I know you know it – the sound of the water falling keeps growing, louder, and louder, and louder. All I do anymore is drink. I try and get laid, but that never works. I know this isn’t how it works, but I’m when I’m drinking I feel like I’m in control again, as if I really do get to choose where I’ll go. I know when I’m sober it’s not true, but when you drink enough it knocks out your reason and you don’t feel like you’re going along with it because you can’t understand it. When I drink, I call it the temporary lobotomy. They would sever the frontal lobe, you see? the seat of reason, and then they’d be docile and just go along.’ He motioned with his hand for me to pass the rum. I took another swig and handed it to him. He took a long drink and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lighting two and passing me one.

‘You know why we don’t have jobs? They don’t want us to. Dependence makes a wonderful shackle. And what the fuck exactly are you and I supposed to do about it? Vote? Sickens me. Congress yells and ‘argues’ and then nothing happens. They argue about cutting $100 billion. We pay $200 billion on our interest! They argue about nothing! Meanwhile the middle class keeps shrinking and the median household income shrivels away. But you know who’s doing good? Stock prices keep soaring quite nicely. Maybe we should all be investment bankers. Yes, I think that’s it. I’m going to quit my job at the strip mine and move to New York City. I should be able to afford a flat there.’ He reached beside him and pulled out a can of beer. He popped the tab, squeezed his eyes shut and chugged the can empty. While driving eighty miles an hour in the HOV lane.

‘They’ve got us by the balls, man. You think they were ignorant what they were doing to the housing market? Heck no. They knew full well. They had a gynecologist, a fucking vagina doctor telling them they were destroying the market. Bullshit he was the only one who understood it. And then they did the same thing to student finances! The same, exact, thing! They’re not ignoramuses. Just giant, gaping anuses. And would it matter if they destroyed higher ed? Fuck no! You think anybody would do anything about it anyway? Are Phil and Tim and Betty really going to get up off their fat asses and demand change? Fuck no! But if they can stroll into a voting booth and think they’re voting for change, that’ll satisfy them. ‘Cus the easiest people to control are the ones who think they’re free, Allen, remember that. Allen it was, right? I mean, when the fuck are people going to wake up? They’re being screwed like sheep in a barn full of perverts! We’re on the lazy river, Allen, the lazy fucking river when we should be building water slides! And guess what? The people don’t care! They get to be lazy and sit on their asses and cozily float along! Ignorance really is bliss. And the perverts have done a WONderful job keeping them blissfully ignorant. They took out the ladders, Allen! The ladders, in the lazy river – they’re gone! They took them out and we’re stuck here on the lazy fucking river and can’t you hear the water falling louder and louder? I sure can! But is anything going to change? Fuck no! Not as long as Pete and Joe get to sit undisturbed eating Doritos in front of their HDTV! Clearer than life, they say! Sit on your ass and don’t do a thing! Even if they knew the truth do you think they’d do anything about it! Knowing the truth, it demands action! Demands revolution, Allen! And do you really think anyone is ever going to want the inherent chaos and strife when instead they can so easily lose themselves in their indolent excesses!’ Jackfred paused to chug another beer. He tossed the can out the window and it hit the car behind us.

‘Successfully preoccupied! That’s what they’ve done! Because they know people aren’t going to do shit when they’re cozy and safe! Why the fuck would anyone want upheaval? Why would someone want to start a revolution when they’re content, and happy, and safe. And that’s just the fucking point! Why stress yourself and wake yourself to the truth? Why use reason? They know people won’t ever do a fucking thing if they have their cheap Luxury, simple, mindless Entertainment and their indolent fucking Comforts!’

As Jackfred forcefully enunciated these three nouns they came down the highway at us, floating quickly above the road and they went splat, spluck, splick, right on the windshield as if they were insects. Accept these words were much larger than insects. And much more alluring. The large, bright, juicy letters stuck to the windshield and covered the whole of it.

‘Fuck!’ yelled Jackfred. ‘Quick, take the wheel!’ I grabbed the wheel and tried keeping it straight, not knowing what was in front of us but hearing the disturbing sound of water rushing, as if falling. Jackfred opened the bottle of the rum and climbed out his window so that he sat where the window was rolled down and, with the bottle of rum, began pouring it across the windshield.

‘Quick Allen! The book in the back!’ In the back seat was a very large copy of a book titled, ‘The Benefits of Critical Thinking’. With one hand on the wheel I used my other hand to pass Jackfred the book and used the hardcover to scrape the words from the windshield. The words slid down the hood and disappeared beneath the car. Jackfred climbed back in and took the wheel.

‘You heard the waterfall, didn’t you?’ he said. He finished off the rum. ‘So how’s hitchhiking?’

‘As a means to an end? I’d say it’s less unhealthy than alcoholism.’

‘I should try it, sometime.’

‘Yes. I think you should.’

‘I’ll drop you off up here.’

‘Thanks.’

Heavenly Hitchhiking

It was dark when they let me out at an exit about fifteen miles north of Louisville. There was a gas station in sight just up the road. There were many cars going by but the area did not look much populated: the road was long and straight with stretches of bare lots, dilapidated woods and an abandoned auto-garage; an old house here and there with dirt on the faded wood sidings. The gas station was on the left, the same side as the on-ramp, and just before the station was a road that dropped down and wound off into a wooded neighborhood. The moon was out, full and bright so that all was dappled with silver-bluish moonlight and was peaceful. There was a Salvation Army depot on the road to the left and would have been a good place to sleep behind, but as I neared the gas station I could see a cell-tower next to it pushed back a little, and after the cell-tower were fields, soccer fields with low fences and goal nets set out. The fields rolled, running up to the highschool that was behind the gas station and to the right, opposite the cell tower. I stood at the top of the road next to the gas station and looked down it – there was a field to the right behind the cell tower that ran uphill to the soccer fields, and farther down the road was a church, closed and dark save for a light out front. The church was surrounded by tall dark trees. I didn’t feel like sleeping yet and I walked to the gas station.

The station was well-kept, bright and clean. A roof with fluorescent lights above the pumps. Through the front window was the old cashier, packs of cigarettes above his head and the clear cases with the rolls of lottery tickets in them. It was a large store for a gas station and a couple of people were picking items from the low shelves, Pepto Bismol and toilet paper, a person looking for the two-percent milk. I didn’t walk inside, instead dropped my knapsack on the sidewalk on the side of the station and sat down next to it against the wall. I dug from my pack the cigarettes I’d been given and watched the people coming in and out. I watched the cars that drove by and the way the station’s lights gleamed off the roofs and hoods and side panels as the cars past.

I felt easy about the day. I had wanted to get as far as Nashville, if possible, but I was glad how far I’d come. I imagined the very real possibility that I could have spent the entire day at that first on-ramp outside of Columbus, how pathetic and disappointed I would have felt standing there watching night come, having wasted a whole day going nowhere. I would’ve felt helpless and I knew I would’ve turned back. Instead I was pleased in my heart, could feel the gentle pressure of the corners of my lips curving up. I hadn’t come far but I’d made it to Louisville in a day and tomorrow I’d be in Nashville. I put my head back against the wall and exhaled a cloud of blue smoke. The cigarette felt good in my lungs. I hadn’t smoked one since Cincinnati.

I’d yet to come far but I was anxious for the morning knowing this was just the beginning. Tomorrow I’d be in Nashville. I’d get on Route 40 and take that Endless Highway straight west across green plain and barren desert, over mountain and right into beautiful shining Los Angeles. I hoped it wouldn’t take more than two weeks. I hadn’t come far but I felt I could go anywhere. And I had lied this morning – I had been scared. I was throwing myself into the wild without a clue what would happen, if I would get anywhere or if hitchhiking was even still possible. I hadn’t come far but I felt now a reassurance, a reassurance that yes, this would work, I would make it and I saw unrolling before me the long highway and the landscapes I was soon to cross. Tomorrow I’d be in Nashville, onto Memphis and across the Mississippi into Arkansas and Texas and across the desert and the Rockies to the Pacific.

Being out in the world in such a way, when I had nothing to go by but wit and luck and whatever was on my back, this excited my heart and filled me with an eagerness that would not subside. I felt I could go anywhere by the trick of my thumb, could cross states and countries and continents and entire hemispheres without plane or car or even money. Such was the majesty of hitchhiking: the realization that I was not tied down, that I needn’t possessions and bank accounts and financial security. To throw myself to the wild, to the chaos – I forced myself to find and create order in that chaos (this is how one vagabonds) and for that there is no greater analogy than for life, for freedom. This is the only feeling I knew could settle my restless soul, the wanderlust and the vague aching in my chest because I could not find it in me to settle down and submit to the soul-shriveling consistencies of a steady job for forty years living in the same place surrounded by the same people and ideas and conversations.

Finally glad to be alive. But it wasn’t even that, it was more than that, because here I finally understood that all there is is to be alive, that this is life: the myriad of experiences and flavors of emotion all rolled into the very impulse that sent me out there in the first place. Tomorrow I was on to Nashville and I would keep going from there and I wouldn’t stop because I knew now that I could go where ever I pleased and that where ever I went I would be fine and okay because this here is my home, here, at the gas station, and when I got farther down the road that too would be my home, in Bowling Green and Oklahoma City and Albuquerque New Mexico, along the Mississippi and the dried river banks of Texas towns – these too are my home, and the realization burned a blissful excitement in my chest, put freedom and love for the world in my heart because I knew then that all of this is I, is for I and because of I and God would frown if I did not take upon myself the saintly imperative to experience all of it, to take into my heart all that I could with gentle loving hands and declare: This is my home! not an address or a building or a territory or a nation, but this! the Earth! This is where I live and with every ounce of me I am here to enjoy it!

*          *          *

            I got up then and found the cardboard dumpster behind the station. The boxes were already collapsed and I tucked a few beneath my arm. The ground would be cold tonight and it’d be nice having something to separate me from the cold of the earth. I walked down the road and found I could access the fields from behind the church where no one would see me. There was a long hill here and at the top was a warehouse, so that looking from the gas station the warehouse was far behind the highschool. The field was cornered at the bottom along two sides by woods. Here in the corner of the field was a round outcropping of tall shrubs. I knew I’d be fine even in the middle of the field, but I felt safer behind the outcropping; in case someone bothered to look down the field they still wouldn’t see me. I laid out the cardboard and placed my sleeping bag right on top. It was chilly but I had a good sleeping bag and with a hat on my head and my coat as a blanket I’d stay warm. I sat down in the grass and ate a peanutbutter sandwich and a few handfuls of trailmix. When you haven’t much food it’s nice to sleep with a lot of fats in your stomach. It was a clear night and I could see the stars except for around the moon because it was too bright. There was much rustling in the woods and I imagined it to be deer. A train passed in the distance, its whistle announcing its passing. I got in my sleeping bag and pulled it tight around me. My knapsack served as a pillow. I was excited for the morning. I looked up at the endless pricks of diamonds and waited for a shooting star before I fell asleep.

Mainstream Blinded

There were many creatures along the side of the road, among the burst tires and bags of garbage, and as I walked along I watched the bees and the butterflies in the flowers, fat spiders sitting in the middle of their webs and I swatted my way through hovering swarms of gnats.I was walking along the highway in the grass as night came on; the time of evening when the blue sky darkens and all the shadows blend together.  There were no guardrails here and there were fields through the woods on the right. The highway sloped up a slight hill and carved a gap in the woods at the top, and this is where the sun sat, orange and slipping. Traffic was slow here and I wasn’t bothering to hitchhike – there’d been a sign for an exit and I knew I couldn’t have more than two miles to go. I’d get to the exit with some sunlight still remaining, find a place to lay out my sleeping bag for the night, and I would hitch the rest of the way to Louisville in the morning. That was the plan. But, being on the road means living by coincidence and surviving on happenstance… and plans are just peachy ideals that never happen.

Up ahead a long, shiny-red four-door pulled over in the shoulder. I stopped walking and stood still, for a moment eyeing the car. Then I tucked my thumbs under the shoulder straps of my knapsack and ran over.

‘Hey! Where ya headed?’ called a voice as I neared the passenger side. I waited till I stopped running before I answered.

‘Louisville. How far south are you going?’

‘We’ll get you most of the way. Hop in.’ There were two of them in the car. I tossed my knapsack in the backseat and climbed in next to it. As we pulled onto the highway I gave my standard lines of appreciation and we began the standard ‘get to know you’ chit-chat.

Chris was the driver, his friend Bosco in the seat next to him and both were university students, third-year accounting majors driving from Columbus to Louisville to visit Chris’s girlfriend who, per Bosco’s words, was having a party ‘full of bitches and hoes’. The conversation had been plain and sedated, if not awkward, and both of them sat uncomfortably in their seats, not once glancing back. They even came off contemptuous; to add to that their outfits: both wore starched Polo shirts, unbuttoned, Chris in yellow and Bosco in pink, and they both had brown hair spiked up with gel and the spikes bleached blond. Chris wore a visor made of jean material – it was upside-down and backwards, sitting askew on his head. Bosco, he wore a very fine pair of sunglasses, with the sun half under the horizon. The car smelled the way male locker rooms do in highschool, a stuffy concoction of cheap body-sprays. Chris leaned back as he drove, one hand on top of the wheel while Bosco continually adjusted his sunglasses and fixed his hair in the shadowy mirror. They glanced at each other. There had been an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. I was seated in the middle in the back.

‘So you’re a hitchhiker?’ said Bosco, still facing forward.

‘Yup.’

‘Where is it you’re going?’

‘Los Angeles. I’m heading to Nashville first, though.’

‘Why don’t you just drive instead?’

‘Oh, I don’t have a car.’

‘Do you work? or are you in school?’ said Chris, the radio low as he began scanning stations.

‘I studied journalism at WVU, for a while.’

‘That’s a fun school.’

‘You’re into news?’ asked Bosco. ‘What do you watch? I’ll put on Fox or ESPN every so often.’

‘Well, I don’t have a TV, so I go online for news. A lot of independent news sites.’

‘You don’t have a TV?’ said Chris.

‘Nope.’

‘What do you do for fun then?’

‘I’ll read, or walk around. Get drunk at the bar and talk to strangers. I get a lot more done too without a TV. It’s cool.’

‘Are you one of those people who hate the ‘main source media’, or whatever it is you guys call it?’ said Bosco.

‘No, it’s just that they only care about their ratings.’

‘What else are they supposed to care about? If they want to make money they kind of need ratings.’

‘Journalists are all poor. And if you tell the news for money you wind up telling the news people want to hear. Which ends up not being news at all.’

‘That’s dumb. I’d rather watch the news people that’ve been around for decades. At least they’re doing something right.’

‘Hey, am I good to change lanes?’ said Chris. Bosco several times tried tilting his head back and to the side, in a motion that might suggest a person to move their right.

‘I can’t see over there,’ said Bosco.

‘You’re fine,’ I said. There weren’t any cars near us, just red taillights lined up ahead of us.

‘Just keep following this main stream of cars,’ said Bosco. The conversation found a lull then and Chris turned up the radio. The music went… ‘Bump, Bump.. fuck the bitches make mo-nay, Bump, Bump.. make the mo-nay rain awn them, Bump, Bump.. spread the mo-nay like se-men, Bump, Bump.. bring the bitches to the dawg pen, Bump, Bump….’

            ‘Do you work,’ asked Chris.

‘Yeah, I don’t get how this whole hitchhiking thing works,’ added Bosco. ‘I mean, I’ve seen you hitchhikers before but they’re all dirty homeless bums.’ I took this to mean I wasn’t a dirty homeless bum.

‘Yeah, true that. Do you actually get rides? I mean, I probably wouldn’t’ve, I wouldn’t’ve, stopped if I was alone. Just safety, ya know?’

‘Yeah I get rides. Sometimes I have to wait a couple hours, other times not even ten minutes.’

‘That’s ridiculous!’ went Bosco, emphatically leaning forward and throwing himself back in his seat. ‘I can’t believe people actually stop!’

‘What do you for money?’ said Chris. ‘Do you work?’

‘Yeah. I just finished saving up for this trip. I’m going to get a job once I’m in LA so I can pay my way back.’

‘Where do you work at?’

‘Oh, like restaurants, or stores sometimes. Part-time jobs.’

‘I thought you wrote for a newspaper or something? Don’t you work for a newspaper? I thought you said you were in journalism?’

‘I only went for a couple of years.’

‘He dropped out,’ said Bosco to Chris.

‘Why don’t you go back and finish?’ said Chris. ‘Even in journalism you’d make more money than fast-food.’

‘I thought about it, but what I really want to do is to write my own stories.’

‘People don’t read no more,’ muttered Bosco.

‘You should go back to college and finish your major. It’d still help you make more money.’

‘Talk about making money,’ said Bosco, ‘me and Chris here are gonna be owning our own accounting firm in a couple years. Semester and a half till we graduate! Woo!’ they slapped hands. ‘It’s gonna take a few more years, but, we already got a dozen clients hand-picked and a prime location to set up at. All we need is a few more years saving up. We got prime internships –paid internships, which nobody gets– and we’re makin’ bank, brah! Yeah!’ they slapped hands again and butted shoulders. ‘Gon graduate, top class, makin’ shit-tons at Weinstein and Shulberg, know how we do, yeah, yeah. Then full-time makin shit-tons like boss, set up shop and sit back. We gon be loaded, brah! We’re only twenty-one and we got the rest of our lives planned! Get a hello to that! Yeah!’ They slapped hands again, a much more excessive handshake than the last. I was still in the middle seat, my hands folded between my legs. ‘If you ever need a loan let us know, we do that too!’

‘Yeah, I sure will.’

‘People don’t really still hitchhike, do they?’ asked Chris.

‘Oh yeah, they’re still out there.’

‘Why don’t you just get a car and drive to LA? Or better yet, buy a plane ticket?’

‘Too expensive.’

‘It’s not even $600 for a ticket!’

‘Yeah but still, it’s more fun hitchhiking.’

‘Seems like too much work,’ said Bosco. ‘You ever get jumped or raped or anything? I’m pretty sure you would jumped or raped, doing what you’re doing.’

‘Nah, that doesn’t happen.’

‘I’ve heard about it, ya know.’

‘Are you just going to wander around like this for the rest of your life?’ said Chris.

‘I don’t know. There’s still a big world to see – ’

‘What do you do for food?’ Bosco was adjusting his sunglasses.

‘It’s all in here,’ I said, patting the knapsack.

‘Don’t you want nice things?’ said Chris.

‘What if the food runs out?’

‘I’ll get some more.’

‘You obviously must not have savings then, the way you’re living around like this,’ said Chris.

‘I have some. I mean, I saved up to get me there and then I’ll – ’

‘And people really give you rides?’ said Bosco, incredulous, almost annoyed. ‘Aren’t cops supposed to arrest you? Hitchhiking’s against the law, you know. Nobody does it anymore, did you know that?’

‘So I don’t get why you just don’t work instead and buy yourself a car,’ said Chris.

‘Well, I like hitchhiking.’

‘You like sleeping outside and getting rides from strangers?’ said Chris, sarcastically incredulous.

‘Wait,’ paused Bosco. ‘What do you do if you’re left somewhere that doesn’t have a hotel?’

‘That’s what the sleeping-bag’s for – I’ll find a field or some woods.’

‘You can’t do that – you can’t just sleep outside, dude.’

‘Dude, you can’t just get rides with strangers. You can’t. You can’t just blindly trust people and jump in the car with whoever. You better watch out man. I’ve seen shit on the news, movies and stuff. That’s how people get killed, dude. You better wise up.’

‘I don’t get it – why don’t you just stay at nice hotels? They have beds and TV. That’s a ton better than a sleeping bag in the woods, dude. What’s up with that?’

‘It’s expensive.’

‘ – that’s why I’m saying you need money, dude! You can’t just go around all the time being poor like this! Don’t you ever want to have a job and be happy!? Don’t you want to be allowed to retire? If you’re smart you should’ve started your 401k years ago!’

‘Wait wait wait – you can’t just sleep anywhere in fields. There’s laws against that, do you know that? Trespassing laws, soliciting, loitering – there’s laws you’re breaking doing this.’

‘Yeah dude, don’t you get what it means to be a citizen in a free country? It means you have responsibilities, certain things you have to do. You can’t just live outside the system your whole life and expect to survive, or even be happy! You can’t just live on the side of the street, dude. You  just can’t do whatever you want! What kind of country would this be!’

‘Don’t you want nice things? Don’t you want a hot wife and a G7? You should really go back to school, dude. At least then you’ll be allowed have a decent career and maybe even a retirement package. You can’t just do whatever you want – like he said, that’s not what kind of country this is. You need to do like we are, cus we’re doing things the right way, just like everyone else. While you’re out here running around doing whatever it is you do, I’m making something of myself, I’m gonna be different, brah. I’m gonna have nice clothes and a big house and – ’ Chris cut him off.

‘Hey, are there any cars over there?’ Chris had his face real close to his window, peering out of his side-view mirror. Bosco was nodding his head to the right again, the way people with muscular dystrophy do.

‘I don’t know, I can’t tell. Hold on.’ Bosco took off his seatbelt and turned all the way around so that he was on his knees in the seat, facing backwards. ‘I don’t see anything. I can’t tell.’ There weren’t any cars near us, just a line of red taillights straight ahead. Chris was craning his neck, trying to see every which way.

‘Forget about changing lanes dude,’ snapped Bosco. ‘There’s nothing over there. Just follow those cars. Follow the main stream of cars!’ he pointed.

An idea came to me then, an idea whose hypothesis I knew had to be tested.

‘Oh look! There’s an eight-point deer grazing!’

‘Where?’

‘He’s just off the road up ahead!’

‘Don’t be dumb. Nothing’s over there.’

‘Yeah there is, I see him. He’s there grazing.’ The deer truly was there.

‘Nothing lives over there! There’s nothing outside the road, dude.’

‘What are you talking about? There are entire ecosystems over there. The side of the road is teeming with life!’

‘If there was something off of the road, trust me, I’d see it,’ chimed in Chris.

‘Obviously. Just follow the main stream of cars, dude,’ said Bosco.

The Fringes Get Cold

‘I’m glad as hell I got out of there. I loved it, but once I realized we don’t get sent in for the people no more, that’s when I bailed. Had to. You can’t just keep going along knowing you’re a pawn for someone’s private gain. Fuck that. I AWOL’ed. Ain’t no going back. Never is and it ain’t never easy, either. If it were easy we never would’a let it be taken. But I’ll tell you, it’s worth different things to different people. To me, there ain’t a greater feeling that a woman can’t give you.’

I’d been picked up in Kentucky by Mitch who had been seven years in the Marine Corp. He was a tough looking bastard, wide-jawed with big arms spotted with black tattoos. His voice was gritty, hollow and he cursed a lot. Gave me half a pack of Marlboro Reds.

‘What road you need to get on?’

’71 South,’ I said.

‘There’s an exit for it up here somewhere. I don’t think we passed it yet.’ The turn for 71 was, in fact, back north, back past the exit where the priest had dropped me. Mitch turned around and drove all the way back, back an exit north of where he’d picked me up. He pulled over on the side of the highway before the off-ramp to let me out. I told him, Thanks again for the smokes. He wished me luck and pulled out, made an illegal U-turn across the median.

The off-ramp was a wide turn through brown woods and it took my walking to the top of it before I realized it didn’t end, but joined right into 71 South. It kept going and I hadn’t expected this. Stuck on the freeway. But I was positive it’d be worth it.

Traffic here was slow and wasn’t worth trying to hitchhike, and if a passing cop saw me he was sure to stop. That’s how it worked, hitchhiking on highways. I never fret the stopping cop but I knew there was a warrant for me twenty miles north in Ohio, from a couple of tickets I had refused to dip into my hitchhiking funds for. I wasn’t going to risk it, but I needed to get off the highway, and soon, before dark. I could see the ramp curving up and joining with 71. There wasn’t much traffic. I was going to have to walk it. If a cop did stop I could say, ‘Look, I didn’t have a choice, look where I was dropped off. I haven’t been hitchhiking here, just walking to the nearest exit.’ I could lie and say I lacked identification. I wriggled my knapsack around, adjusted it to comfort and buckled the strap that went around my waist, tightening it.

The guardrail didn’t begin immediately and I walked along just in the grass on the side of the highway. A car gave a honk as they passed. Ahead was a bridge, the overpass for the highway I was just on. A two foot shoulder. That would be the margin of error for the seventy mile an hour traffic and me on foot with my cumbersome knapsack. Two feet of cushion between safe passage and my skull in a windshield. I stood before the bridge to let two cars pass. The wind they dragged tugged me forward. I waited a moment to see if any other cars came around the bend, took a breath and turned and ran, feet falling thud thud on the pavement, elbow scraping along the railing. Below the cars and trucks were shooting out from under the bridge, the whir of tires on pavement echoing beneath me. I kept trudging with my heavy knapsack, half-way across with a horn blaring louder behind me, the car swerving to the left almost swiping the car beside it. The car straightened out as the horn faded.

Whew! I stood and caught my breath on the other side. (Later, when I was at an airport, this knapsack, with all the same items in it, weighed in just under fifty pounds. For subsequent travels I’ve decided to rectify this.)

The highway in front of me was long and gently rising, carefully turning into a bend that took it out of sight behind trees in the distance. The sun was still out, hung far down the highway just next to and a little above the trees where the highway disappeared. It was a cold sun, its rays clear and crystal like thin narrowing shards of glass. The whole highway, the vacant woods and even the sky were all in shade so that, walking along in the shoulder, everything was more shadowy, icier and more lonely and the day felt much later than it truly was. I hoped to find an exit soon. I didn’t want to sleep in the woods. The woods along the side were at the bottom of a very steep hill and looked wet, boggy. There weren’t any signs on the highway. Cars passing at lonely intervals. A tractor-trailer came rushing by, the force of its wind tugging at me, tugging me towards the massive crushing thick black tires and the churning axles. I forced a step back. The truck passed and I climbed over the guardrail to get away from traffic.

The pavement of the highway ran beneath the guardrail and wrapped over the top of the hill as a way of preventing erosion, from keeping the top of the hill from washing away and causing the highway to sink. There wasn’t much room for walking here. A few feet to the right was the beginning of the hill, a very steep and rocky forty foot drop to the foot of the gray woods. Through the trees I could see in the distance a road, a few small houses with wide yards. I felt something tug at my knapsack and Snap! I spun around to see my sleeping-bag hit the pavement and slowly roll to the edge of the hill. I lunged and got a foot in front of it. The bag that my sleeping-bag was rolled-up in had caught on the guardrail, tugging it out the bungee cords that secured it to the bottom of my knapsack as I walked. I took a moment to reattach it.

The ground along the side of the highway where I walked began to rise, climbing up a hill, and as the elevation took me higher the distance between the guardrail and the edge of the steep hill began to close, shrinking until it became impossible to walk besides one foot carefully in front of the other. There were crevices here, places where the run-off from heavy rains had eroded the pavement. Some of the crevices even ran beneath the guardrail and I had to step over them as I walked. The highway was soon forty feet below to my left, at the bottom of a cliff, and the steep hill, perilous with acute rocks and loose gravel, had grown in height as well, so that I now found myself walking along the thin edge of a very narrow and sharp berm. When my right foot slipped down on the loose gravel I held a hand on the guardrail for balance. The hill continued its climb. The crevices were numerous and grew in size, deepening, and the thin trail of pavement which I followed became less and less there, crumbling into the crevices, disappearing in the cracks. I stopped. My eye had caught something. It was dark now but the thing, it glinted, stuck against a crag in the crevice. I went to my knees to peer down and saw an orange hard-hat, the paint faded and browned, covered in dust from the road. There were tools down there too, old and discarded, and gloves and a single, mud-covered boot. I stood back up and brushed my jeans off. At the bottom of the hill I noticed a town had appeared, stores and shopping centers, the lights of cars stuck in traffic along perpendicular grid-planned roads. My foot slipped, the pavement giving way into the wide crevice. The gravel clinked past the helmet and tools. The crevice extended to the edge of the hill and went down quite a ways so that, even though it were night, I could see the loose gravel and a broken hammer spilling far down the side of the hill. The minor avalanche was illuminated by the digital glow of a building that stood at the bottom. It was a tall building, steel and gleaming glass, very official and financial in appearance. All of the lights were on in the windows. It was a tall building but it looked small from such a height. I looked over the guardrail to the other side. The vehicles were toy cars along a ribbon of gray. Headlights like dots slowly moving in a distant fog. I kept going. Kept walking and the crevices had grown wider, crevasses a foot wide that expanded like alluvial fans down the side of the steep hill, merging together so that now that the pavement where I stepped was nothing but a thin, fragile ledge, a ledge perforated every foot by foot-wide crevasses that ate the side of the hill. I continued, relentless and resounding in my head the determination to make it. I stepped carefully, testing each step before placing my full weight on my feet.

The hill climbed higher and turned to sand. No longer sharp rocks and gravel but sand, a magnificently tall hill of soft sand with the same crevasses as before. Far below I could see the town, fast-food and fancy restaurants, shopping centers and malls, hotels with pristine sheets and cable. I imagined folks walking together along the sidewalks under nostalgic street-lights, eating ice-cream and stopping in the stores to browse. Friends meeting at the local pub to flirt with the bartenders and order thick ales. At the bottom of each crevasse was a road. And these roads, though dark at the immediate bottom, were lined with streetlights and the red and white lights of cars. The roads were laid out in a web, so that at the bottom of each crevasse the road angled straight to the city-center. Each road was lined with the large and bright signs restaurants and stores have out in front. They were very small from such a height. There was a circular road in the city-center in the distance where all the straight roads eventually ran; a road circling a cluster of tall, gleaming glass structures. All of the lights on in the windows.

I realized how easy it would be, how easy to sit down on the top of the hill, place my knapsack between my legs and scoot myself down the sand to the city. Hell, I could even walk it. I could get myself a hot meal, go have some drinks and laugh with friendly faces, sleep in a clean bed and be safe and warm and comfortable and enjoy luxuries and simplicity. I could go and have that. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back. The wind in the dark tugged at me on the high ledge and bit my face. I staggered, holding onto the guardrail. Imagined a hot burger and thick ale. How would I get back up? I couldn’t walk back up. No way. There wasn’t a highway here, either. Couldn’t be. Once I was there I wouldn’t get back. Wouldn’t leave. Couldn’t. I won’t.

In the cold, desolate wind, stepping gingerly from crumbling ledge to crumbling ledge in the withering heights. My feet felt like bricks, my legs concrete columns soon to dissolve. My back like a hunchback with this ever-heavier knapsack. The hill grew steeper. I could no longer see the highway. Gusts of wind came cold from the sky, blowing hard and down. Gusts of cold air sucking down the crevasses, pulling at me, swirls of dust around my head being sucked into the crevasses begging me to follow. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I won’t have it! I imagined a homestead in the wilderness. A small ranch with a wife and children. I wondered if I would find this. I thought of a comfortable job at a desk, in a warm office. Suit and tie and bank accounts insurance make sure you pay your mortgage for the car you bought without affording credit debt foreclosures bank statements pay them pay them pay them. I won’t! I refuse the submission of my heart! Refuse the enfeebling of that which sustains my heart-beat! I kept trudging heavy footsteps that I could no longer make light, falling thud… thud on the fragile ledges, gravel crumbling down the soft sand. Gusts of cold, sand-filled wind whipping in desolation, pulling me down. The cozy town at the bottom. I kept going. The hill climbing.

And then I saw it. A sign for a weigh station. The sign towered up ahead, lights along the bottom edge pointing up to illuminate the words: WEIGH STATION. The legs of the sign were stuck far below in both sides of the sharp hill. I walked beneath it and the sign seemed hundreds of feet above my head, hundreds of feet wide. The prospect of rest on the side of the road, on the fringes of town, of finding a place to sit and warm-up and eat food – this lightened me, reinvigorated my morale and motivation and once again I marched with steadfast purpose and resolution, anticipation. I would be able to find someone there! An end to the brutality of isolated misery and tribulation! I am not alone! There would be someone, someone to lend me a hand and get me the hell out of here! I kept walking, faster, excited. Camaraderie. Salvation. Vindication.

I smiled knowing all worked out. The highway had risen and I saw ahead the right lane split – the entrance for the weigh station. I could see the building, the rest-stop. Closer and closer I walked and the fence for the entrance was shut. Closed, read the sign.

Holy Water Steaming

I caught a couple of quick rides after Frank dropped me off (just north of Cincinnati) and I was standing on an on-ramp on a busy road of shopping centers and super-markets. Once you are in or near a city it’s very hard to get out because most people are only driving a short distance, going to pick up a gallon of milk or buy a pair of dress shoes for dinner; nobody picks up hitchhikers while running errands. The trick in these situations is to find a ride of considerable distance, to wait until someone offers to drive you out of the city. The morning had brightened considerably and though the sky was still cloudy there were curtains of sunlight that would come down and make me warm. I took off my coat and strapped it to the top of my knapsack. I had a long piece of cardboard that said Louisville on one side and I would flip it over sometimes and it said South on the other side. This way, if no one was stopping for Louisville, I could hope someone would stop for South.

I stood in the mushy grass below an overpass and whenever the traffic light changed a wall of cars and trucks slowly turned onto the on-ramp. There was a wide shoulder here. Mostly I was given apologetic shrugs or a finger pointing off to the side, meaning the driver was quickly turning off . The first car to stop was an economy sedan and the driver said he was only going a couple of exits. I said No, Thank you, I’ll wait for a longer ride. I was still on the north side of the city and I was tired of short rides. I knew I could take short rides all day and not get twenty miles out of Cincinnati. Waiting for the long ride was the right thing to do and I knew that, that’s how I was going to get out of here.

Forty, long minutes later a pick-up truck pulled over. I threw my knapsack over my shoulder and ran up to the passenger side.

‘Hey bud, I’m only going a couple of exits but you can ride in the back if you want.’ The driver was wearing jeans and boots. The bed of the truck was clean, mostly empty and a fine way to travel. The bottom of the on-ramp looked muddy and lonely. I needed to move, something in me too restless for idle waiting. Impatience won out and then I regretted this.

*          *          *

            The pick-up stopped at the bottom of the off-ramp for me to hop out. There was an old gas station across the street, a junk yard at the corner and a few overgrown car lots: I was in the empty-lot side of town where people stare at you like you’re an outsider to be rid of. On top of that there wasn’t any traffic. On top of that, the on-ramp was a very tight, twenty-yard-long curve with nothing of a shoulder to pull over, just curb and concrete walls. A concrete fjord. This was literally the worst place to try and catch a ride.

Somehow, seven minutes later….

An old, maroon Grand Marquis drove down the on-ramp and came to a stop. Red brake lights turned to white and the Grand Marquis began reversing, swerving widely to the left and right as it backed up. The back tires went up over the curb and the car jolted to a stop, the back bumper inches from the wall. I ran over to the passenger side.

‘Hey, where are you going?’ came a high-pitched, excited voice.

‘I’m trying to get to Louisville.’

‘Okay, I can take you a little ways, at least out of the city. Hop in.’ The man collected some papers and a leather book from the passenger seat and placed them in the back. I climbed in and stuffed my knapsack between my knees. The gear-shifter was behind the steering wheel and the man struggled to put the car in drive.

‘I’m Nick by the way.’ Nick smiled and we shook hands. He seemed very kind. Nick was wearing a black suit and he had neatly parted, blond hair that was greasy and the strands stuck together in clumps. He was thin, and he had a youthful, clean face covered in a scruffy three-day beard. Nick had a black collar on, an odd collar with a white tab at the throat.

‘You’re a pastor?’

‘Oh yes. Well, priest, technically. I’m Father Cherobyi from the Church of Ruptured Spirit. But don’t let the title fool you. I’ve been hitchhiking myself, you know. That’s why I stopped. I know how much it stinks to be standing there and nobody is stopping.’

‘Well thank you. It was very kind of you.’

‘I have to make a stop first but I’ll only be a couple of minutes. Then, if you’d like, I know just across the border in Kentucky there’s a few truck stops across the street from each other. I figure you won’t have a problem finding a ride from there. I’ll take ya’ if you like.’

‘Okay, cool,’ I nodded appreciatively. ‘Thanks a lot.’

There was much traffic on the highway and men in hard-hats and orange vests were working on one of the lanes. The traffic was condensed and would stop and go frequently. Nick’s eyes were squinting in the sunlight.

‘So what’s in Louisville?’

‘Well, really I’m going to  Los Angeles. But I’m going south to Nashville first to get out of the cold.’

‘There’s a storm coming up from the south, I hear. It’s supposed to rain all over. Did you bring a raincoat?’

‘I have a couple of ponchos.’ We were both silent for a moment and Nick had a quaint, peaceful smile that rested askew on his face, his head a little back and to the side. ‘How long have you been a priest?’

‘This is my sixteenth year in the ministry. But I’ll tell you, I never in a million years imagined myself as becoming a priest. I adore it very much, having the sort of order that comes with serving the church. I lived a very hard life – ’ The tractor-trailer in front of us came to a stop and Nick waited for the last moment to use the brakes. We both went forward with the momentum and were pushed back into our seats when we stopped.

‘I love God dearly, we have a very close relationship, Him and I, and we talk throughout the day. Right now even, right now I’m getting to better know God. All you have to do is focus your heart. Yes, I love God more than I ever have, but that doesn’t mean I am without pain. Priests are human too. I hope you know that. The first time I saw Heaven, and I remember this as though it were verse, was when I was in a coma for three days. I saw everyone that I ever knew and this tremendously bright, white, gold light was shining through all of us. Then I was in the Garden of Eden and lush fruits and trees and all of the gorgeous green was all around me.’ The priest was beginning to bore me now. His eyes were still squinting though the sun had gone in. A cellphone began to ring and the priest felt his pockets.

‘Hello? Yes. I’m giving a friend of mine a ride, though. I thought you wanted to meet at the CVS? Okay, I’m on my way there. I’m good to go. Should only take me fifteen minutes. Okay, see you there.’ The priest put his phone away. The cars in front of us were stopped and he waited for the last moment again, braking hard.

‘You see, God isn’t just all around us, but he’s within all of us as well. The best way to get to know God and be close with him is by getting to know your fellow man. Honestly, the best way to connect with God is to open yourself and connect with people. Treat everyone like your best friend. Love everyone like a brother. Then you’ll know God. I’m closer than I ever have been to God, that’s true. But it’s not to say I am without needs. God is within all of us but we also have urges, certain urges that are so difficult to ignore because they are so much a part of us as is God: the need to eat outside of hunger; the need to love only physically and not for your heart; the need to find serenity in the openness through things not naturally within us – urges as such.’ The priest curled his forefinger behind his collar and wiggled it.

‘Before I ever joined the ministry, and this was years ago, but I used to hate God. I would stand in my bedroom, my head turned up and I would – take his name in vain!’ He shouted this last part, his hand hitting the steering wheel on each word. He took a deep breath and settled himself, itched at an open pimple on his cheek. There were many of these, large and red beneath his scratchy beard.

‘I was angry then. This was a difficult time for me. I was angry at God because I couldn’t understand the things He did. I would curse at Him and yell at Him for taking my brother at such a young age. My brother, you see, he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd after his marriage. His wife gave him two caps of methadone and it killed him. She even showed up at the funeral, whispered in my ear that she’d done it on purpose. She wanted his house and car. I made her leave but I’m not vengeful. I know God will punish her in ways I never could. We’ll be getting off here in a few minutes. I just have to get something real quick, and then I’ll take you into Kentucky. I used to hate God but I’m at peace now. I know he has plans bigger than I can ever understand. It’s true that I love Him more than ever but I still have a lot of pain. I don’t touch things as much as I used to, because I know it’s not completely right, but, well, when I was in that coma I was there because I’d tried to kill myself. I thought it was possible to take the pain and the urges out of me and I took enough Oxycodones to kill five men. Then, as soon as they released me I went home and crushed up fifteen more so that I had a three foot line of white powder on my coffee table. Did it all at once.’ We turned off the highway here and onto a main drag in downtown Cincinnati. The sidewalks were dirty and lined with shady corner marts, liquor stores and the sorts of places that sell prepaid cellphones and bail-bonds over caged-in counters. The priest made a phone call.

‘Are you on 14th still? 26 and Main? Man, you guys sure move around a lot. Huh? Oh, he’s fine, just passing through on his way down south. Yes, five minutes.’ The priest hung up. He was noticeably excited now, tugging at his collar and picking at the open sores beneath his beard.

‘I try not to touch things, I swear. I won’t even bother with people my age. The young ones, they have the sweeeet stuff.’

I was becoming nervous now and I asked the priest if I could smoke in his car. He said Okay.

‘And I certainly don’t touch things like I used to but I still have a lot of pain in me and I have to be able to take care of my needs or I’ll wind up in the hospital again.’ With a finger he tugged at his collar. He eyes opened like curtains being raised and he looked me straight in the eye while he said this, while drifting through oncoming honking traffic and drifting back to the right side. ‘I still have these urges and it’s fine and normal we all have them. We wouldn’t be human without them. If we could only ever act good and right and moral we would not be free.’ Cars began honking, we had drifted into oncoming traffic and the priest nonchalantly and without looking turned back into the right lane. ‘In the Bible it is stated that He wants us to be free. He gave us these urges for a reason. Do you get it? God put the Devil in us!’ The priest broke eye-contact and made a hard right-turn, came to a hard stop along the curb. Hurriedly he pulled a New Jersey Devils’ jacket from the backseat and put it on, stashed his collar in the center consol. He quickly reversed back down the street, turned left going backwards onto the main road, slammed the brakes and put the car in drive. The priest drove down another two blocks before pulling over in front of a fire-hydrant.

A high-school aged black kid came up to my window. ‘Yo yo you lookin’ fo TJ?’

‘Yes sir – ’

‘Pull in front of these two cars here. This spot’s hot.’ The priest did what he said and the kid came back over to my window. ‘How much’u lookin’ fo?’

‘Just a twenty,’ said the priest. ‘And if it’s good you can tell TJ he’s got a new customer.’ The kid, standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the city in the afternoon pulled out a small cellophane bag and dug around in it with two fingers. The priest extended his palm out across my chest, in the direction of the sidewalk. The kid dropped two, small, tan crumbles into the priest’s palm. ‘That’s not twenty,’ said the priest.

‘Yeah it is. That shit’s fi’a yo.’

‘Nah, don’t do me like that, brother. I know what twenty looks like, I ain’t new.’ Reluctantly, the kid dug around again and placed a few, smaller crumbles in the priest’s palm.

‘That still ain’t twenty!’

‘Man I ain’t given you n’mo. I’m tellin you that shit fi’a yo. You be good straight with that.’

The priest placed the tan crumbs into a receipt, folded it up and tucked it in the sun-visor. The kid began walking away. ‘Hey hey hey!’ called the priest, quickly getting out of the car. He stopped abruptly standing dead-stiff in front of the car.

‘That ain’t the fuck we do things, motha’fucka!’ The kid had turned around when the priest got out of the car and he was standing tall on the sidewalk with his arm straight out, pointing at the priest. There was a small, silver revolver in his hand. ‘Get the fuck back in the car you stupid motha’fucka!’

‘Alright alright, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The priest slipped back into his seat. Hands sweaty and white on the steering wheel. ‘I just wanted another twenty. That’s all.’ Slowly, the priest took a twenty dollar bill from the center consol. The kid was standing next to my window now, the bottom of his hand resting on the window sill, leveling the small revolver at the priest. I was still smoking a cigarette and I wasn’t sure where to ash. The kid took the twenty, stuffed it in his pocket. He gave the priest less than he had the first time.

‘You fucked up motha-fucka. Best try a dif’rent approach next time.’ The kid put the cellophane back in his pocket, the revolver in the back of his jeans, pulling his shirt out over it before walked away.

‘Sorry about all of that. I’ll take you to Kentucky now.’ The priest silently started the car, slowly pulled out into the street. He smiled crookedly at me. ‘It’s all true what I said, and if you listened than personal needs affect no other than the person.’

Storm Dread

‘Aren’t you scared? About what you’re about to do?’

‘I’m nervous as hell, but, I wouldn’t say I’m scared. I’m nervous as hell but I know once I get going I’ll be fine about it.’

The morning was early, cloudy and gray and cold, the kind of cold that can go through your clothes and make your bones stiff. I was sitting in the front seat next to Beverly who I had asked to drive me far enough out of Columbus, Ohio. Beverly was broad shouldered, had a smooth face and blonde hair and I could tell she was very tired, the way her eyes were puffy.

‘I’m trying to think of a good place to drop you off, but.’

‘It doesn’t really matter. I’ll catch a ride where ever. Here, this next exit has a gas station. That’ll work.’

The car slowed down coming around the off-ramp, stopped at the sign, sped back up going across the overpass and pulled into the gas station on the other side. A man was walking out with a coffee, steam rising from the cup in the gray morning.

We were twenty miles south of Columbus, along Route 71.

‘Thanks again for driving me. I really appreciate it.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘Guess this is goodbye then.’ We both leaned in for a hug. ‘Be good, best of luck in school, and I’ll see you again in a couple of months.’

‘Are you coming back to Columbus?’

‘Yeah. February or March, probably.’

‘Alrighty, then. Well, be safe out there Allen.’

‘I shall.’ I lugged my knapsack out of the backseat and put it on my shoulder. ‘Thanks again Beverly!’

‘Bye Allen!’

I shut the door and watched the little red car pull out of the gas station, into the road and back on the highway. People were hurrying in and out of the gas station store, yawning as they filled their gas tanks and no one seemed to notice me. There was a dilapidated motel across the street with an overgrown parking lot, broken windows and a falling roof. The wind picked up and I shivered, walked around to the side of the gas station and found the dumpster. There was a piece of cardboard on top of everything. I dug out my permanent marker and scrawled ‘CINCI’ as neat and as bold as I could. Then I went back across the overpass to the southbound on-ramp.

Traffic was slow but I didn’t worry about it – it was cold and very windy and I looked young, clean shaven with thin glasses and I was not a big person: pity always plays a factor and I’d get picked up in no time, no time at all. I placed my knapsack against the guardrail and stood in the cold, dry dust on the side of the onramp near the top where it met with the road. Behind me was a dry, overgrown field that ran downhill until it met with the woods that followed along the highway. Down the street were a few small warehouses and a junk-yard but that was it, the rest was dry woods and dust. I stood there and sometimes sat on the guardrail when there wasn’t any traffic, standing up to hold up my sign and jut my thumb whenever I saw a car slowing down to turn onto the on-ramp.

Twenty minutes.

I was holding my sign and I thumbed at a car as it rolled into the on-ramp and sped past. The southbound off-ramp was across the street and there was a gleaming white pick-up truck at the stop sign.  The truck across the street beeped once and the driver flicked his hand towards himself. I slung my knapsack over my shoulder and hurried over to the passenger side. The window was down.

‘I gotta drop this trailer off down the street,’ said the driver. ‘Then I’m heading down to Cinci. I have to come back this way though, probably about thirty, forty-five minutes. You can come with me to drop it off if you’d like. Or wait here, whatever you’d like – I’ll be coming back this way, like I said.’

‘Okay, cool,’ I said enthusiastically. ‘Yeah uh, I’ll wait here I guess, see if anyone else stops. You going all the way to Cincinnati?’

‘Yeah – well, like fifteen miles north of it.’ There were cars pulling up behind him.

‘Okay, awesome. Yeah, I’ll wait here. Thanks a lot, man!’ I backed away from the truck and he drove off. He was towing a trailer with a pop-up camper on it. I went back to the on-ramp to wait.

I was wearing a tan Carrhart coat and I waited as long as I could before zipping it up – with such a large coat people like to think you’re hiding something. But the wind was so cold, icy in my chest and I’d begun to shiver. Gray clouds moved swiftly over the sky, looking soon to storm. I’d hug myself to stay warm and when there wasn’t any cars I’d sit down on the guardrail and watch the big farm equipment that bumped slowly down the road.

An hour passed before the man in the pick-up returned. He came to a stop on the side of the on-ramp and I ran over, tossed my knapsack in the bed on top of old tool boxes and spare parts and climbed in the front. The floor was littered with old fast-food bags that my feet made crinkle because there was no place else to put them. The driver, very somberly, glanced over, placed his hands back on top of the steering wheel, and slowly gave the truck gas as he pulled back onto the on-ramp, onto the highway.

‘Thanks again for the ride. I really appreciate it.’

‘Sure thing.’

‘Boy, it sure is cold out there.’ I don’t like silent rides and the driver said nothing. ‘I’m Allen.’

‘Frank.’ He shook my hand with a cold, loose grip – as if his hand were limp.

‘So what did you have to drop the camper off for?’

‘Repairs.’ He glanced over and he had big, heavy eyes like a Basset Hound and a rotten nose. There were a few powdery threads hair beneath a blue hat that said Navy and had military insignia pins on the brim. Reluctantly, as if for my own sake, he added, ‘I usually fix them myself, but, no time.’

‘You have more than one?’

‘Why are you hitchhiking?’

I looked over at Frank and he was staring out the windshield. ‘I have some friends in Los Angeles that I’m going to visit. I figured it was either I go now or wait till Spring.’

‘Is that it?’ I didn’t understand the question.

‘Well, I want to go South to get out of the cold, so I figure I’ll get down to Nashville and take Route 40 all the way west from there.’ It was very gray outside and I could hear the wind as it whipped around outside the window.

‘Trying to get away from this storm?’

‘Yeah – I kept thinking it was going to rain when I was back there waiting.’

Frank swallowed and his knuckles curled back and forth on the steering wheel. ‘See all this corn out here? And the signs posted along the road?’ He paused for a moment. ‘The signs say what kind of corn it is. They’re all different. But none of them will grow in the wild anymore, they can’t, because we’ve modified them so much. Take a handful of their seeds and spread them around and they’re useless. I’ve stocked up on natural seeds. Pounds of them.’

‘You grow corn?’

‘No, I don’t have to yet. I do live on a farm though, two hundred acres in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always been more comfortable in the woods, forests. Safer. Away from everyone.’

‘You live by yourself?’

‘No. No one can make it by themselves.’ It was very gray outside now and very dark, as if near night or in a heavy storm in the late afternoon.

‘It won’t rain just yet,’ said Frank. He clenched his jaw and stared out the windshield as if he were empty inside. ‘You see these tractor-trailers? People are buying them and burying them ten, twenty feet underground. They’ll use commercial air-conditioning vents to get into them and they’ll fill a few feet all around the trailer with concrete. I know a guy who buried several and connected them all.’ Frank leaned forward in his seat until his chest was at the steering wheel and then sat back again, knuckles curling the steering wheel. ‘I have large freezers buried in my yard. Filled them all with canned food and dried goods. I’m very good with electronics and I’ve put together a CB radio and have solar panels on the roof. The farm’s completely self-sustaining and my brother and I are working on a water purification system for the well.’ Frank turned his wide, heavy eyes at me and my chest blackened, I don’t know why.

‘Do you know where you’re going to be?’ he asked.

‘When?’ I saw Frank’s heart beating quick and hollow and I could no longer see where we were going, without headlights driving deep into black swirls.

‘It has to happen soon and thank God I know how to live off the land, what plants are edible and what plants have medicinal uses. We have back-hoes and the right farm equipment and a small oil well way in the back – we’re surrounded by forests, have our own fields and a fleet of pick-up trucks, the old sorts without all the new electronics in case of EMP’s or electrical storms and we have lots of ATV’s. We have a chicken coop we just finished, cows that we breed and pigs and we can make our own bread provide all our own food.’ Frank was speaking swiftly, his head turning and swerving and tilting as he spoke and as he spoke, his wet lips loose smacking up and down, I could see in his mouth a black nothingness and out of this came the word DREAD and it was dripping with his black saliva. This affected me deeply.

‘We’re completely self-sufficient and have several dogs and motion-activated cameras surrounding the property which is on a hill partially surrounded by a ridge and my brother’s wife is a field nurse, I’m trained in electronics, two of my brothers are in construction though really we’re all very handy and my son’s a wonderful mechanic. The bunker is protected against radiation and has enough food for thirty people for three years but there’s only twelve of us so we can wait out the worst and we’re completing irrigation ditches lots of feed for the animals and we know how to hunt and have dogs lots of guns and munitions and we all know how to fight – my brothers and I and our sons all served. No one will be able to fuck with us.’

‘Wow. I don’t know how to do any of that.’

The Summertime Ice-cream Girl

Part I

I had seen her walk up to the ice-cream stand before, the girl who always got the strawberry ice-cream cone. I was seated at a table on the pier, the bar not far behind me, trying to write as I had been for the past few weeks. The ice-cream stand stood on the boardwalk just to the side of the pier, so that it was easy to see this girl looking out at the ocean with her heavy eyes, with a futile hope for things past, slowly licking the dribbles from her strawberry ice-cream cone. She was lightly tanned, this girl, and she usually, though I had seen many of her styles, wore her straw hair pulled back. Whenever she would finish her cone she would look out at the ocean for a moment or two, sigh at the ever-changing face of the surf and float back down the boardwalk. She would walk with her shoulders back and her chin up, not in a haughty way but with a gentle confidence; a person all too comfortable with her surroundings.

I had gone to Seaside that summer to write. I was just finished with college and I had no intentions to immediately begin a career. I wanted to write stories and that was why I was there: the white sand and crowded bungalows where I’d spent my younger years held such potent memories of vibrant emotion, of the vivid clarity of teenage angst and the wild yearning to live free….

The past few weeks I had half written several stories, never finding the heart I needed to finish them. I felt I knew why I was having such an awful time but it remained foggy, vague; as if the reason was buried in my brain at just the place I couldn’t reach it. I had learned in college about the things inside which you can’t control: the need to sleep, eat, love and reproduce; desires if you will. These exist in you but are buried too deep, in some dark corner and you can’t understand them. And as it follows, quite naturally, what you can’t understand you haven’t the power to control; they, in a way, have control and find expression through you. Yet don’t they say that ignorance is bliss? That sometimes, even though you know you can turn it on, it is sometimes better to hold your hand from the switch and walk the corridor dark? I’m sure I’ve heard them say this.

I was having trouble staying focused on my work and I closed my journal, called to the bar for their cheapest beer. It all tasted the same and I sat there at the plastic table baking under the sun, not caring that my drink grew warm. I looked over at the tables in the shade but I didn’t get up, just sat there watching people walk along the boardwalk. I had lately become quite interested in watching people, thinking up stories of what I would say and even how I would act were I in their positions. This is what I did when I couldn’t write, this is the reason I ever noticed this ice-cream girl in the first place. And I know what you’re thinking, but honestly, the fact of the matter stands that I observed this girl with the same detached interest as I did everybody.

I gave up writing for the day. It was still the early afternoon but I knew I would get nothing else done. I gathered my things and didn’t bother to finish the beer. Then I walked over for an ice-cream. I got a small cone and stood against the railing not too far from this girl.

‘Hi. How are you today?’ I said this with polite disinterest as I ate my cone, didn’t even bother to look over.

She shrugged. ‘Not bad I guess, thank you.’ I didn’t say anything back because I wasn’t looking for a conversation, just being polite, but after a moment she said, ‘I’ve seen you over there, you know.’

‘Hm?’

‘Over on the pier. Quite the people watcher, huh?’

‘When I can’t write, I guess I like to unobtrusively watch people.’ I ate my cone and I saw her glance over.

‘So what, you’re not going to say you’ve seen me?’

‘No, I wasn’t going to. But since you mentioned it, why always the strawberry?’

‘It’s my favorite.’ The ice-cream melted onto her hand and she used a napkin to clean it. ‘So what is it you write about?’

‘Life, I suppose. Though it hasn’t been going well lately.’

‘Your writing?’ She finished her cone and looked quietly at the ocean. After a few moments, ‘Well, mister unobtrusive people watcher, I’m sure that I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe from our usual distance, maybe not. I bid you farewell.’

I watched for a moment as she walked down the boardwalk. Odd girl, I thought. I tossed my cone in the garbage and walked back to the house.

 

Part II

It was a small, run-down beach house we were sharing, I and a few college friends for the summer. I lay in bed that next morning, staring for a good while at the dusty sunlight on my ceiling. I felt empty, as if a part of my stomach had been surgically removed and no one told me. Then I got up to eat a bowl of Cheerios at the table in our Formica kitchen. Scott and his girlfriend, at the time, they were sitting next to each other on the couch holding each other in this half-embrace, having a heart to heart. I spooned my cereal and looked over the crossword. I could hear him apologizing to her for the night before, trying to placate this girlfriend of his and he was doing a good job too, she was eating it up real lovey-dovey. They had really been going at it the night before: him drunk and yelling, her drunk and crying. It wasn’t anything really, happens all the time; my roommates and their girlfriends are always arguing, always breaking up, then come the baby scares. But it had taken six of us to calm them down and smooth everything out. Well, I mostly stayed out of it all. Why the drama? I don’t need it. I pulled a warm beer from the fridge and swung the door closed, going back to my Cheerios.

‘That girl Annalise was asking where you were the other night,’ piped up Scott.

‘It’s Annabel-lise.’

‘Yeah whatever. She’s goin’ to the show later though, her and Meghan are trying to hangout.’ I ate my cereal. ‘You gonna’ come?’ he added after a moment.

I shrugged without looking up, ‘I don’t know, maybe. I’ll see what’s going on.’

‘Why not? I thought you loved The Down Beats?’

‘Yeah, they’re alright I guess.’

 

I sat at my usual table that afternoon and ordered a few beers, letting them sit long in the sun before I drank them. It was very humid out and the patio was filled with men and women at little plastic tables, sharing drinks and cute ideas. I watched one couple for a while, both of them leaning forward face to face whispering to one another. He would smile and say something cute and she would smile and touch his hand. The patio was overcrowded and I felt penned-up, full of steam that couldn’t evaporate and the sweat rolled off my arms, puddled on the table. I don’t why I bothered going out that day because I knew I wouldn’t get any writing done. All of this was a giant waste of time and I don’t know why I bothered to get out of bed that day.

I gave up, closed my notebook and went for an ice-cream instead. I stood against the railing looking out at the waves while I ate my cone. I’ve always had this thing where I keep looking around me; maybe it’s nerves, maybe it’s self-consciousness or unconscious, I couldn’t tell the difference. But one of the times when I glanced behind me I saw this girl walking up to the stand, though she didn’t notice me catch sight of her.

‘You again?’ she said.

‘Me again?’

‘What, like you just happened to be here at the same time, again?’

‘Yeah, I always get ice-cream after lunch – So what’s your favorite game on the boardwalk?’

She smiled shy and looked down at her cone. She had a thin face. ‘Win Some, Lose Some – you know, the one where you spin the wheel and throw the darts. That one’s my favorite.’

‘Are you one of those people who play just ‘cus they like spinning wheels, but never actually win anything?’

‘Sometimes, I suppose. Why, did you ever win the game?’

‘Once or twice. But the prizes are so small you lose them after a few days. That’s why I play the games with the appliances.’

‘What, are you Mr. Good House-Keeping?’

‘No, but who ever lost a toaster?’ That one made her laugh. We kept talking after we had finished our cones and I learned her name was Cynthia, and I told her I was Robert. I continued to meet her at the stand over the next week, her always getting strawberry and me trying to keep some variance. We struck up a pleasant acquaintance, me and her, it was an easy, relaxed relationship, a sort of disinterested friendship we both knew would never be anything else. She told me how she and her friends rented a house every summer there, working jobs at someone’s uncle’s bar and grill. She also told me about her ex-boyfriend who lived a few miles inland, always stressing how she was so glad she’d ended it, how she felt it had wasted so much of her time and how he never took her anywhere. I told her how I was trying to write and living in a house with a few friends from school.

 

The next week saw a lot of rain; Cynthia and I a lot of movies. In the dark theaters we would kiss and pretend no one noticed. On the couch she would fall asleep on my shoulder and I would kiss her forehead. I knew I wasn’t emotionally attached to this girl, but rather satisfied with the idea of being with someone – as long as it didn’t become an emotional fiasco: I’ve never, never envied the shouts and tears.

The weather cleared up for the 4th of July and Cynthia took off from work; we were going to the boardwalk to see the annual fireworks display. Everyone was together, Scott and Pete and their girlfriends and Cynthia and I. The boardwalk was packed with people: families with their children, indignant teenagers with too much to drink and too much to spare; the goths and guidos, punks and low-down townies and all the office clerks and accountants; everyone was out and the boardwalk lights twinkled.

That whole evening is etched with unfading clarity upon my mind: the colored lights from all the games, wrapping us in warm excitement, the bells ringing and people cheering, the smell of fried dough and the balloons and giant stuffed animals that people would awkwardly carry around, not sure what to do with. I won Cynthia a stuffed dog by throwing darts a wheel. It was a useless thing, but she said she loved it and I figured she’d misplace it soon enough. We stopped for a while at a bar to have a few drinks. Bruce Springsteen was playing from the speakers, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

‘Didn’t someone use this song in a campaign?’ said Pete. He was ordering drinks at the bar. ‘Anyone else for a shot?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘but I mean yes – Reagan did in the ‘80’s. I think someone lied to him about what the song was about, to use him for publicity.’

‘You mean they turned the tables!’

‘So Robby,’ piped up Scott, ‘You two official yet?’

I wanted to say no, that’s what I wanted my answer to be, but I looked at Cynthia’s wide hazels and I could tell what she wanted me to say: ‘Yeah, definitely,’ I said. It seemed as if she was about to add something, a word poised to burst from her cheeks. Instead, she looked down at her beer, waited a moment, and drank till the can was empty. What an awesome girl, I thought. I still wasn’t into her, honest, we just had a lot in common, and I enjoyed being able to spend time with her; though I dreaded when I would have to break it off, because I could tell she was really beginning to feel for me.

We walked around then, playing all the games, and Cynthia held my hand, smiling all the while. She looked so excited with her beaming eyes, taking in everything and so full of questions. The six of us raced to see who could fill a balloon with a water gun the fastest: that was one of the games. Cynthia won and jumped up and down, clapping as she collected her prize: a small ukulele.

‘This is the most fun I’ve had at the boardwalk, ever.’

‘You sure you get out much?’ remarked Pete’s girlfriend. She wore heavy lipstick.

Cynthia glanced over at her but didn’t say anything back. The look in her eyes I can remember; as if she wanted to scream some truth at her but decided it best not to. Cynthia and I split from the group then, just for a little while and we said we would meet up again for the fireworks.

We stopped at the ice-cream shop and Cynthia tried raspberry coconut for the first time.

There was a moment that night when the two of us stood against the railing, watching the waves break on the beach. We could see spots of light far out on the water, the lighted windows of a cruise ship. I put my arm around her and we talked about the stars in the sky because none were out. Then a long moment was caught, hanging so pleasantly, the perfect moment suspended between her eyes and mine – there was something I wanted, something I craved and needed like a desperate drink of water and a cloud of impulse suffocated my senses. I pulled her tight and felt her hair between my fingers, could taste the fruit on her lips.

‘I really like you,’ she said.

‘I really like you too.’

‘Where should we go to see the fireworks?’

I thought for a moment and looked around. ‘C’mon,’ I said, taking her hand. ‘We need to be quick.’ I hopped over the gate that led to the ramp down to the beach. It was closed, being after 6 p.m., but the gate was only waist-high. I took her hand; she was spry climbing over and down the ramp we hurried.

‘It’s a spot I used to visit in high school.’ We walked along the top of the beach, close to the bottom of the boardwalk so we couldn’t be seen.

‘Is this where you bring all your girlfriends?’

‘No, not at all. I’m not like that,’ I said sincerely. ‘We used to come here at night to drink and watch the fireworks, that’s it.’

The sand at the top of the beach sloped upwards, the boardwalk built on top of the dunes. Certain stretches were fenced off but I knew where the fence ended; several nights and several girlfriends had sort of etched the place into my head somewhere.

‘Have you ever watched fireworks from the beach?’ I asked her.

‘Not once,’ she whispered.

We found a place near the pier and we could hear the roller-coasters, the screams and the clank-clank-clank of the cars on their tracks. We sat in the sand just beneath the boardwalk so we could watch the stretch of sky where the fireworks would appear. Light from the boardwalk flooded the beach and all we could see were the abandoned sandcastles, the empty stands of the lifeguards, the surf where the waves churned white and the cold sand. In a way the beach was the extent of our external perceptions, and beyond that, to us, was nothing: a perimeter of darkness. Even the beach itself sloped down beneath the waves, lost itself in the empty thoughts of a foreign ocean; foreign because we could not see it, but only faintly hear the waves beneath the sounds of vigor from the boardwalk above. And this was where we chose to sit: in the dark beneath the boardwalk, scarcely able to see the expressions on each other’s faces – and this was where we smiled our truest. In the shadows we laid bare our wants and desires, hidden from view where nobody, even ourselves, would ever see them; where deceptive romance would exist forever, unchanged because it was unknown.

The fireworks began to much applause, the fwa-oompsh of the rockets taking off and the red and golds bursting in the night, the sparkles drooping in the sky like branches of a weeping willow. We didn’t see much more than that; we kissed hard and passionate and she pulled me down in the sand – the finale timed perfectly.

‘I’m glad we did this,’ she said after a while.

‘Me too.’

‘Definitely something I’ve never done before.’

I looked at her.

‘Beneath the boardwalk, I mean to say.’

‘Oh. Me too.’

 

Part III

A few weeks later we were sitting on a bench on the boardwalk, eating ice-cream cones. It was damn hot out. Cynthia was enjoying some obscure caramel flavor neither of us had ever heard of, while I ate mint-chocolate. I kept looking over at her, I couldn’t help it: her thin features and supple nose, her wide hazels and even the smudges of sunburn beneath her eyes, the sweaty strands of hair tucked behind her ears. She would look back at me with her eyes bright like the sun, her lashes like rays of sunshine, and smile at me big and full and lovely and I would smile wider still, bigger than ever at the most precious thing to inhabit the Earth. It was a struggle not to constantly plant kisses on her cheek, so fertile as it was, though I knew something had already grown between us, grown and blossomed and that there existed no way in either  Heaven or Hell to trim its wild branches.

She smiled up at me and I smiled back. ‘What happened?’ I said. ‘You don’t enjoy strawberry anymore?’

‘No, strawberry will always be my favorite.’ She had the most unforgiving smile.

Even when I was not with her, all it took was the thought of her smile to burn in my chest a strange unfettered joy. We spent time every day, and in the dark humidity of night we would lie in bed and whisper to each other, our skin still sticky with sweat from love, and she would spill herself to me, and I savored, believed with the fullness of my heart every word she ever spoke. What I loved most was the way we never fought: things existed with perfect balance between us, and I knew they would never change; it was too perfect, and I would never allow them to. I truly cared for this girl, I did, and I would never allow things between us to break apart.

‘Where’d you get that ridiculous hat?’ I said. It was fuzzy and white, with a flower on it.

‘You got it for me.’

‘Liar. I have much better taste than that.’

‘Well you did.’

‘Hm. I must have thought it would look better on you then.’

‘I kind of like it, I think I may start wearing hats.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘If you really don’t want me to, I’m going to anyway.’

We finished our cones and spent a while looking out at the ocean, not saying anything, just enjoying the moment. Then we walked to the Funtown Pier. We’d been going there a lot lately, only paying for the rides that unwound our stomachs. We’d been whirled in circles, spun upside-down, experienced free-fall and been swung on a bungee-chord off the edge of the pier. Our favorite rollercoaster had a dangerously sharp turn right above the ocean, so that every time you’d hope the car wouldn’t make the turn, and instead launch you off the edge of the pier and into the ocean. The rides were half-off during the day, and fortunately Cynthia always had a pocket full of coupons, because despite what she said, I was always the one who would pay in the end.

Cynthia was always excited at the pier, full of buoyancy and life and with a vibrant smile would say to me, ‘These are the amusements I like best!’ And I always agreed, I was the same way, and I couldn’t blame her for it, nor did it bother me because I knew she truly cared.

‘What about her?’ Cynthia pointed.

‘Eh… you’re still prettier.’

‘Really? I think she looks like a supermodel.’ Cynthia wasn’t ever jealous, that was another thing: I could be friendly with other girls and that’s another reason why things between us were so simple and perfect: love without jealousy.

‘Don’t say that, I could be jealous, Robert.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah! These other girls I don’t care about, but, if you were spending time alone with one of them, I’d be jealous. But I know you, Robert. Sometimes I think I know what you’re doing before you do, so I’m not jealous, just in control of things.’ I leaned over and put my lips to the soft color on her cheek. ‘But I have to go babysit now. I’ll stop by your house when I’m done.’ I wasn’t ready to go back to the house yet; I was bored and I didn’t feel like writing. I thought instead to walk around for a while.

Every house in town was pastel colored, with a little porch, A/C units in the windows and pebbles instead of grass in every yard. And they were all shoulder-width apart. I checked each bar and they were all over-crowded, with over-priced drinks and shitty ‘house’ music. And holy Christ! Why did everyone have to get the same haircuts with too much gel? And the girls! All of them with fake tans and giant hair! But when I thought about it, things had been that way for a while, at any rate.

I did though, happen to pass a maintenance crew working on the sidewalk. They had a long iron bar and kept jamming it into the sidewalk, into the little spaces, really wedging it in there because they were trying to lift a portion of the sidewalk up, or else trying to break it up into pieces, prying at the cracks, and they were really making a lot of noise. But I couldn’t really see what they were doing. It made me think though.

I went back to the house and Scott and Pete were in the living room with two of their friends, and Annabel-lise was there too. Apparently she had come over just for the hell of it, because she was bored and all, but when I walked in I noticed her eyes widen and she sat up straight on the couch. I sat down in the old armchair and didn’t pay her any attention.

‘Annabel-lise, what are you doing here?’

‘I came over for the hell of it. I was bored and all.’ She smiled her big white teeth.

The baseball game was on and Pete was explaining how he still truly cared for this girlfriend of his, but that she used and abused him and was more-or-less of the character termed ‘bitch’.

‘I don’t know what to do. She blew me off all night, finally showed up at like, two, drunk as shit, and of course I flipped out at her –’

And of course we had all heard the argument the night before, it was impossible to miss the yelling at two in the morning. And it so happened that the people who were listening to Pete’s story had been at the house the night before, had invariably gotten themselves involved in the yelling. I had stayed in bed, obviously, and I couldn’t understand how they could sit there and listen to the story when they had been there. They were so wrapped up in Pete’s words, involved, almost vicariously it would seem, in what Pete was saying, offering advice and inanities, consolations by the heap; pandering drama like serving cake to distended bellies. I sat quietly and watched the baseball game. The Yankees were up at bat.

Eventually Pete and Scott had to leave for work, and their two friends got up quick to follow. Annabel-lise stayed behind. I thought of telling her she too had to go, but I couldn’t see a good reason why I should. I wasn’t doing anything else and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. She was good company and what would it matter in the end? I got up to sit on the couch, at the opposite end from her, but only so I could see the TV easier.

She was picking at her nails. ‘Is this all you guys do? Just hangout and watch sports all day?’

‘We do other things. Why, is there something else you’d rather watch?’

‘Just about anything. See what’s on MTV.’

‘I’d rather watch baseball. MTV has only those reality shows and then the Jersey Shore.’

‘Same shit as your baseball.’

‘Huh?’

‘Think about it – would you be so damn invested as to whether or not Posada drove this run in if you hadn’t a sturdy roof and more food than you could ever eat? That’s what I figure. There’s no danger or suspense anymore, we’ve lost the excitement.’

‘You’re crazy, you know that?’

‘Am I?’

‘Well, what’s that say about you and Jersey Shore then?’

‘They’re all outlets – I’m saying they’re the same things. They’re entertaining, but still….’

There was a knock at the door and I got up to let Cynthia in. She placed her bag on the table and kissed me hello. She smelled like cigarettes but I knew she didn’t smoke, so I thought nothing of it. I followed Cynthia back into the living room and she sat in the middle of the couch so I could put my arm around her. I introduced her and Annabel-lise and they seemed to hit things off quite well.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ said Cynthia. ‘So what is it you do, Annalise?’

‘It’s Anna-BELL-lise,’ she politely corrected. ‘And I’m a masseuse at The Captain’s Day Spa.’

‘Oh? I know of that place. How is it being paid to touch people?’ Cynthia meant it as a joke and she gave me a funny look, so I laughed. Then Annabel-lise too gave me a funny look and I realized we should all hang out more, we had common humor between us.

‘What I do is a legitimate form of healing. A practice recognized around the world as a respected method for relieving stress and making people feel good about themselves. But I guess you wouldn’t know about that.’

‘I had a step-dad that saw people for stress relief. Funny, I don’t remember him referring to them as masseuses.’

‘That says something about your family, doesn’t it?’

Cynthia gave me another funny look, so I smiled at her. It was quiet for a while, though I noticed Cynthia and Annabel-lise kept looking at each other, probably thinking of gossip to talk about. Oh, and Posada loaded the count.

‘So Annalise –’

‘It’s AnnaBEL-lise.’

‘– you must be dating one of the guys in the house then, since you’re hanging around and all.’

‘No, I’m not dating anybody. I just like to hangout here because all the guys enjoy my… company.’

‘Really?’ Cynthia sounded deeply interested. But then she glared at me, grabbed her bag and the screen door slammed shut. A moment later I realized and got up to chase after her.

‘Where are you going?’ I caught up to her at the end of the driveway.

‘Really Robert? Really? Who the hell is that girl!’

‘Who? Annalise? She’s just a friend.’

‘It’s AnnaBEL-lise. How long have you been seeing her Robert!’ Cynthia’s eyes were already glassy.

‘What? No! She’s just a friend, Cynthia.’

‘Oh, like I would believe that – Screw you Robert!’ She held her purse by the strap and it dangled by her feet. Her hair fell flat around her head and her posture had sunk.

‘Serious Cynthia, you’re the only girl I’m interested in!’ The simple implication of anything to the contrary welled up a heat in my chest, a boiling anger from the disbelief of being accused.

‘You expect me to believe that! After I walk in on you two by yourselves? How long have you been seeing her, Robert!’

‘I’m not Cynthia! She was hanging out with Scott and Pete and they had work! Stop making a big deal out of nothing!’ I could feel the heat pooling around my eyes, my senses lurid as if it were a heightened state of mind.

‘Oh, so you just kept her around when Scott and Pete are done with her, is that it?’ she was yelling now. ‘And that’s not a big deal, Robert! I told you I was jealous, why would do that?!’ Her words became more and more animated, her arms flailing and her facial expressions twisting.

‘You’re being nuts Cynthia! You know I want nothing to do with her, you know you’re the only girl I care about!’ She stared at me with her jaw clenched, and I felt something surge through me, a clarity, maybe. I stepped forward and reached my hand out.

She yanked her arm away. ‘Get away from me, Robert! How the hell could you do that to me in there! You couldn’t even bother to stand up for me –’

‘What do you mean ‘stand up for you’? What was I supposed to say!’

‘I’m leaving, Robert! Perhaps we should stop seeing each other!’ She turned to walk away.

‘Get back here Cynthia! What the hell’s your problem?’ I followed her into the sidewalk and she quickened her step.

‘Stop following me, Robert! I mean it, I’ll scream!’ The neighbors were outside watching. I stood in the sidewalk and the colors of her skirt were so bright, the sun so hot, clear, I could feel the sweat on my brow, and all the colors of the signs on the boardwalk rising up in front of her as she walked away. I could feel the blood rushing, some heated vigor I thought no longer existed. I stomped back to the house and struggled with the screen door, almost ripping it off. Annabel-lise was still on the couch.

‘You should leave,’ I said.

‘But the Yankees are about to take the lead –’

‘I don’t care, please leave.’

 

 

Part IV

It was obvious to me that couples who fought together, stayed together – I know I’ve heard that before. We’d made amends, sewn our holes and were closer than ever. Lying in bed at night I’d tell her I loved her, and she would smile and whisper back. We talked a lot, and we decided this was real, that this was something meant for and wouldn’t ever be a different way. I truly cared for her and never wished bad between us.

‘Why do you always have to touch everything?’ It was impossible to take her anywhere.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well it’s annoying. Kids do that.’

‘Oh, so I’m a kid now?’

‘Yes, that’s exactly it.’

We stopped for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. Cynthia had mentioned her mood for sushi and I, having never tried sushi, could not have agreed more. But as we looked at our plates of raw fish it was apparent neither of us knew what we had gotten into. We ate choosingly, and Cynthia would take a large bite, chew timidly with her face squinced and swallow with a gulp.

‘I enjoyed it,’ she said as we were leaving. ‘It was new and exciting, but I don’t think I’ll ever try it again.’

‘You’re crazy.’

Cynthia gave me a funny look, a very suspicious brow. Then she reminded me she had to babysit, kissed my cheek real quick and told me to call her in the morning.

I walked over to Cynthia’s house around noon the next day. I knocked on her door and she threw her arms around me, gave me a kiss. We went inside and I sat in the kitchen at the table while she made tea.

‘How is it?’

‘It’s alright,’ I said.

‘What would you like to do today?’

‘Meh, I don’t know.’

‘You can take me for ice-cream. I’ve always wanted to try butter pecan.’

‘We’re always trying ice-cream. Let’s do something else.’

‘Like what?’

‘I haven’t had lunch yet, let’s go get some real food.’

‘I can’t, I have to babysit in a little while.’

‘So what? We’ve got plenty of time.’

‘I can’t, Rob. I need to make sure I’m on time.’

‘What, but you have time for ice-cream?’

‘It doesn’t take nearly as long to get a cone. Would you like me to make you something here? I cooked dinner last night, we have plenty of leftovers.’

‘No, it’s alright.’ We sat quietly and slipped our tea. ‘How come you have to babysit so much anyway?’

‘It’s my job. They need me and they pay very well.’

‘Yeah, but everyday? Didn’t you just babysit for these people last night?’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘You’re always running off on me to go babysit. We don’t spend time like we used to.’

‘You’re being ridiculous, Rob.’

‘Oh, I’m being ridiculous?’ These were completely valid points I was bringing up. ‘You’re always bailing on me to go babysit. What do you need two jobs for anyway?’

‘Oh, I have never bailed on you! And sorry that some of us have to work Robert. We’re not all so lucky to get to sit around all day.’

‘You’re bailing on me right now! I thought we were going to have lunch!’

‘Stop being a piece of shit, Rob.’

‘How am I being a piece of shit? Because I want to spend time with you!’

We had gotten to screaming at each other again and I couldn’t understand why it had all started. I was angry because we weren’t spending time like we used to and she called me a needy asshole. She began to cry and I told her she was a stuck-up bitch. She told me to leave after that, and I did, I was livid, and for the life of me I could not understand why we were fighting like that – And the games on the boardwalk, the colors were so bright. And when I walked past the stores I could smell the air conditioning in the stifling heat. And I never ate a cheesesteak that tasted so good. And I made some new friends, waiting in line at Midway for that cheesesteak. We all got drunk afterwards, and I told them I was newly single. Then the prettiest girl in the whole bar kissed me.

I napped and slept off the liquor and went back to Cynthia’s later that night. I felt bad about what had happened, I really truly did, but I wasn’t angry anymore. I’d a good day despite everything, the best in a long time, actually, and everything was so clear and vibrant.

I stopped and bought a gallon of strawberry ice-cream, picked up a book by Cynthia’s favorite author. I was going to make it up to her, because I truly cared for her and felt real bad, just terrible about our arguing. I was whistling as I walked up her driveway, found the spare key and let myself in. The house was dark and Cynthia wasn’t due back from babysitting for another hour. I turned on the kitchen light, looked through the cabinets to see what they had. I thought I would have dinner ready when she got back.

I was about to put the ice-cream in the freezer when I heard a voice in the other room; her roommate was watching TV in the guest room, apparently. The hallway light was off, but the door at the end was slightly open and I could see the light behind it. I knew where the light switch was, but I didn’t bother to turn it on and I left the hallway dark. I could hear soft voices at the end of the hallway, could feel the carpet beneath my feet and I ran my hand along the wall; the paint was smooth, cool. The dark of the hallway seemed so comforting, unbreakable and permanent and for a moment I thought that, perhaps, the light there never worked. I was about to turn around, I’d yet to meet Cynthia’s roommate and I didn’t want to disturb her. But I figured I should let her know I was there. Gently, so as not to startle her, I pushed the door open, slowly letting light into the hallway – and I stood there, the light from the room hitting me, seeing her straw hair splayed out on the pillows, her thin face beneath a pair of broad, bare shoulders. I dropped the gallon of ice-cream. Then I heard Cynthia whisper help.

I ran and tackled the guy off the bed, landing on the other side on the floor. I tried to punch him and I missed and he hit me in the eye real hard so that I fell on my back and didn’t get up.

‘Stop!’ yelled Cynthia. She stood in the doorway and turned the hallway light on. She hadn’t bothered to dress. ‘This isn’t what I wanted. I mean it is, but –’

‘How could you do this to me!’ I yelled.

‘To you! What about all the crap you put me through this last month?’

The naked guy in the room wandered over by Cynthia and picked up the ice-cream. ‘Look, our favorite.’

‘Leave, Mitchell.’

‘Who’s this guy?’ he asked.

‘Leave Mitchell!’

‘Okay, I’ll save our ice-cream for later.’ He kissed Cynthia’s cheek on his way out.

‘What the hell, Cynthia!’ I yelled.

‘What, like this is all my fault?’

‘How this not all your fault! How long have you been seeing him, Cynthia!’

‘I don’t know, three, four years.’

‘What! You’ve been sleeping with your ex this whole time!’

‘Well, technically he’s not my –‘

‘Oh, Jesus. You used me this whole time! You never gave a shit about me, did you?’

‘Don’t you ever say that, Robert! I cared, I really did, but I was confused and I didn’t know what I wanted. And you! You’re impossible to be with, Robert! Always with the drama! How could I ever expect you to be honest with me if you can’t even be honest with yourself!’

‘Honest with myself!?’

 

So I drank a lot over the next week, spent much time thinking and Scott and Pete were very helpful, supportive. So too was Annabel-lise. We spent an entire afternoon getting drunk while they listened to me talk about everything. They listened with intent, giving me advice and consolations and it felt good to share the story, to share all the pain and drama I’d suffered because it was all very new to me. I knew Cynthia had lied to me with the sole intent of using me, and if ignorance be the blighted tool of deceit, well, than she had wielded it with surprising acuity. Well I hope those amusements were fun! Quite cheap and painless, no? But I couldn’t stay angry with Cynthia for long, she was partly correct. She knew whole well what I was doing and I sort of wish she’d told me earlier, I hadn’t realized. All told, I had gotten myself a toaster by making a toaster out of myself. That made me feel sick for a while, more so than Cynthia. But it had worked, very well, and one morning I work up fresh and early with the birds and garbage men, went to the pier with a brand new notebook, and at the top of the first page wrote the title, ‘The Summertime Ice-cream Girl’.

How to Ride the Bus (600)

I reasoned and I decided to take a bus to the library.

I waited next to a very old man who was much shorter than I, stooped in posture and frail in his face. His coat was old, faded and worn-through yet his old eyes wilted with interminable joy.

A woman spilled her purse and before a thought the old man was hands and knees in the sidewalk gathering her things. People kept walking into him knocking him over. ‘Watch out you old fool!’ they said.

I thought I too should help and leaning over I noticed the man to my left place his shoe on top of a twenty dollar bill sliding it beneath him. I handed the woman her belongings and said nothing.

This man was much taller and thicker than myself, barrel chested in a very tight Armani Exchange shirt with two massive limbs of meat burgeoning from his shoulders. He didn’t have a neck, just very big shoulders and a head that looked like a pea on top of a potato. He had a protein shake and a very expensive watch despite the very expensive smart phone he had clipped to his belt.

A homeless man was asking if anyone could spare a dollar.

‘I would love to help,’ said the old man, ‘but I haven’t money either.’

‘You know it costs two dollars to take the bus, right?’ said the woman.

‘Why no, I didn’t. Thank you.’

‘Can you spare a dollar, sir?’ asked the homeless man.

‘Sorry, I don’t have any dollars on me.’ I intentionally don’t carry dollars on me because I can’t stand lying.

‘Can you, sir? Please spare a dollar.’

‘How many times do I have to tell you I want you to stop talking to me!’ His shoulders and arms seemed to rise as he spoke and the homeless man hurried away.

‘Here,’ said the woman. ‘They won’t let you on without it.’

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t take that,’ said the old man.

‘Please? I insist.’

‘No really, I’m not at liberty to.’

The woman relented pocketing the two dollars. ‘Where is it you want to go?’

‘I can’t decide,’ he smiled.

‘No wonder the old man got nowhere with his life – worthless,’ muttered the man wearing cologne to the gym. A bus arrived and we were   surprised to see it, none of us had seen it coming.

‘This is it,’ said the old man.

‘Where’s it going?’ asked the woman.

‘I don’t know yet.’

Perhaps this was my delusions but it seemed the old man pulled his face off and his clothes and skin slid from his body like a cheap costume and from this emerged a small child plush and chubby, innocent and delightful with straw curls and rosy cheeks and this nude babe, who though a small child was every bit controlled and stoic in motion as any man, glided onto the bus, his nimble feet not once touching the ground. The bus pulled out and in every window I saw the man’s face, his big wondrous eyes and gentle, curious smile.

‘He’ll never get where he wants to go,’ said the big man to my left. He boarded the next bus. ‘I wanna to go t’ Graceland,’ he yelled at the driver. ‘Take me to Graceland!’

‘Yeah, sure thing, whatever you want, right. Two dollars.’

The sign on the bus read ‘Main St/ Bexley’ and as it pulled out I looked through all the windows and couldn’t find the big man anywhere, and maybe this was still my delusions but there was a small, feeble jackal sitting in the back.

The next bus arrived. Its sign read ‘Liber’ and it dropped me off right in front of the library.

Citizen Whores: An Accurate Depiction of the American Financial System (3,100)

Part I

A few ceiling lights towards the front were on. The warehouse was one giant room and beneath the lights sat a group of men around a poker table. Nobody was paying attention and they were dressed in pomp – velvet suits, silk shirts, multi-colored, ridiculously frilly cravats and silk hats with feathers in them. They had bejeweled canes and drank voraciously from bejeweled chalices of gold. Stacks of money were spilled on the green felt of the table. Stacks of money were spilled on the concrete floor next to the table, and in the dark expanses of the warehouse rose endless pallets and piles of stacks of money, like huge green mountains to the top of the cavernous warehouse ceiling.

“I see your seven and I raise you nine,” said the one man.

“That’s it?” said another man. His velvet suit was a bright, lime green, six sizes too big.

“What do you mean ‘that’s it’?”

“Aren’t we playing in hundred thousands?”

“No you dumb shit, we’re playing in millions.”

“Oh come off it, nobody’s paying attention. Nobody here ever knows what’s going on.” He looked over at the three men huddled around a laptop looking at porn.

“All in,” said the one man. His eyes were stuck to the screen and he tossed a few stacks on the table.

“You’re a dumb shit,’ the first man said to the one in lime green. “That’s what I’m calling you now. Dumb Shit.”

A man walked in carrying a large metal drum. He dropped it upright on the table and the stacks of money bounced.

“What is it?”

“No clue. But they said I’d make lots of money so I invested half the warehouse in it.”

“Was that smart?”

“Of course. There’s absolutely no risk and it’s perfectly safe and I know exactly what I’m doing with everybody else’s money.” He popped open the valve at the top of the drum and began pouring its contents on the piles of money. The contents were a bright yellow-green.

“Are you sure? Isn’t that a toxic symbol on the side?” It was.

“Hey guys, look what I’m doing!” The first man had made the man in the lime green suit drop his pants and bend over. He kept inserting a thick roll of money into his –

“Ahh Shh–it!” yelled the man with the barrel.

“What is it?”

“It’s melting!”

“What’s melting?”

“The money!”

The guys at the laptop looked over, “What’s happening? We weren’t paying attention. What’s going on?”

“The money’s melting!”

“I told you it was toxic.”

“What’s toxic?!”

“That stuff you bought.”

“What do we do?!”

“Call for help!”

“Hey guys, look what I’m doing!”

 

Part II

Red high-heels and business slacks, red lipstick and a soft face framed by tight blonde curls. She was smoothing out her business jacket, adjusting her well-framed breasts with the red tie dangling loose between them. The light was bright like in an office and she stood in front of a doorway. The door was slightly ajar, read Mr. Burns on the nameplate, and inside could just be seen a wide bed with the blankets pushed to the side. The tellers asked Baby-lon if she needed anything else as she walked out. “No, I’ll be fine,” Baby-lon waved unsurely.

Outside in the dreary lit sidewalks the neon sign for Sparky’s flickered on. The pink light was lost in a large afro. Tigris stood there smoking a cigarette in six inch pumps and a dinner jacket. She had long legs and black shorts with a fancy, and revealing, white blouse. Baby-lon and Tigris began walking down the block.

“Thanks for waiting.”

“Not a mention.” Tigris pulled a cigarette case from her bra, flicked it open and offered to Baby-lon. “You should check out my place. Low rates, free checking.”

“I like this place, great rates for APY CD’s and MM deposits. Plus, they help with my 401(k).”

Most of the stores they passed had been boarded up in the past few months. The store fronts displayed signs of ‘Clearance Sale!’ and ‘Liquidation Sale!’, ‘Everything Must Go Sale!’ They were already covered in spray-paint. There was one diner left in town. It was dark and the streets glowed with neon signs, the bars being the only places people were willing to spend money.

“Watch your step Baby-lon.” There was a puddle of yellow-green sludge on the sidewalk. Baby-lon stepped around it. The sludge was trickling from beneath the door of a boarded-up coffee shop.

“You know what’s weird?” said Baby-lon. “You know how before I mentioned I was horny, like a Latina?”

“Yeah?”

“Well after that small, insignificant deposit it’s all gone.”

“Maybe money just doesn’t get you going.”

“Wish it did. Can barely afford a loaf. I haven’t found a job in months.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“Say,” started Tigris after a few moments, “You got anything going on tonight?”

“Just said, didn’t I. Not a single new client, nothing to do.”

“Then come to this meeting later on.”

 

Part III

The auditorium was dark, dim lit with incandescent chandeliers. It was small, packed 800 girls in suit jackets and brassieres, business skirts and bow-ties, sultry pumps and fish-net stockings. Where the stage would be was another two rows of seats facing in, vixens and damsels with top-hats and monocles and leather boots. They held clipboards and briefcases and filed their nails. A woman stood at the podium, thick blonde hair pulled back beneath a top-hat, long legs and pumps. She adjusted her monocle, took the cigar out her mouth and pounded the gavel.

“We have called together this meeting to discuss an urgent matter whose solution, so steeped in simplicity, we have compounded in confounding complications and complexities. Namely, a poor economy.” She spoke with authoritarian austerity, blatant pomposity mistaken for righteousness. “Nobody has been hiring in recent months, nothing like a few years past. Banks aren’t investing, stores aren’t opening, and we are finding ourselves increasingly strained for cash, time and jobs. The reason for this, we have learned, is due to the policies and practices of a small group of individuals, those few businessmen we call our ‘top clients’.”

A girl in the crowd stood up, cherry blonde curls and a tie between her breasts, “They’ve been screwing with us for too long!”

“They control too much!” shouted another.

“Enough!” sounded the gavel. “We, the people you have elected to make all major decisions concerning your lives, have heard and pretend to acknowledge of all your complaints, worries, ideas, theories and solutions. With that in mind we have arrived at the only solution. Our top clients have the largest networks, the most capabilities and investment power. They will get us out of this mess. But first we must help our top clients so that they may help us. I hereby dictate that this union will provide a timeshare to our top clients of no less than 700,000 hours, atop of all regularly scheduled hours.”

“This is an outrage!” yelled the crowd. “We hardly have any time as it is! You owe more time than you can possibly ever create! They have all the time! Time is money, you idiots!”

“Girls. Girls! Let’s be rational and reasonable and proceed with restraint. Our top clients are close to the edge here. They’re stressed. They’re in serious trouble. If we give them a hand and make sure they don’t feel stressed anymore, they have capabilities, lots of capital. They can invest. They can put us back to work. Our top clients can provide us much needed jobs and clients. But first we must help them. We must take the stress off our big clients. This is how we put this blessed union back to work, how we help ourselves. We cannot allow these clients to fail! They will help us if we help them. This is how we fix this, our blessed economy!”

“You’ve never worked a day in your life!” went the crowd. “You don’t know what it’s like getting screwed over for so long!”

“I’ve worked plenty.” She adjusted her monocle.

“I heard your dates end after they buy you dessert!”

“That’s not true.”

 

 

Part IV

Melting butter and Baby-lon was pouring syrup on her pancakes. The diner was empty. Baby-lon put down the syrup, grabbed a fork and knife in each fist and looked up at Tigris. “$75,000 Tigris. At least. That’s what this timeshare is going to cost each of us.”

“What, like you think there’s a better way? Let them fail? We wouldn’t have a single client then.”

“They wouldn’t fail. And there is a better way. I mean, what would you do with $75,000? If each of us had that kind of money I bet all those stores would still be open. We’d still be spending. The banks would stay open.”

“Yeah but they know how to spend the money better than we do. They’re smarter. I mean, look at us, what are we? Who are we to decide how to spend money?”

Baby-lon looked over at the clock. “Shit. I gotta jip on you Tigris.”

“Where you going?”

“To do my duty to this beloved city.”

Snarls, grunts and squeals. He was thrusting from behind while she sang ‘Oh daddy! Yes daddy!’ – it was his idea, she was just along for the ride. Bent over clutching motel pillows. He smacked her ass. Thrusting from behind.

 

Part V

She brushed the sweaty blonde curls out of her face. ‘OH, Daddy! Yes! Oh!’ Her head was hitting the headboard. He was thrusting, thrusting. Snarls and grunts and greasy eyes. He smacked her ass. He was done.

He stood in front of the mirror fixing his sweaty comb-over. Cheshire smile, greasy eyes. She was lying in bed pulling black lace panties up under her bottom. He was buttoning a silk shirt.

“You still owe me,” said Baby-lon.

He was tying his cravat. The frills kept hitting him in the face. “I don’t owe you shit.”

“I saw you three times last week. Twice so far this morning.”

“Get dressed and scram. I got a meeting to go to. Something about market stability and basic human morality. I never understood –”

“You’re not listening to me. You owe us still.” She was standing in front of him, gold curls dangling at her shoulders. He smacked her open-palmed. She fell back on the bed, sat up holding her cheek. Tears felt cool as they slid down it.

He got in her face. “Get it straight sugar-tits, I don’t owe you shit, ever. I fuck you whenever I feel like it and there’s nothing, not-a-thing you can do about it. That little pussy you’re wearing is mine and you better fall in line start acting appropriate,” he jabbed a finger in her forehead, “because your whoooole sorry way of life depends on me,” he jabbed his chest. He buttoned his velvet suit jacket and adjusted the flag pin on his lapel.

Baby-lon got dressed and left. The tellers asked if she needed anything else on her way out.

Tigris was waiting outside. They stepped around a yellow-green puddle. The hardware store was boarded up.

“I thought that had been the deal,” said Baby-lon. “I thought that was why we were helping them.”

“It is. And it was. Look, things are a lot better right now than if we hadn’t.”

“It’s been three years and we’re still not finding clients. We gave those assholes all of this time and what did we get as a result? We owe more hours than physically exist to some foreign city. We helped them, didn’t we? Where’s the return?”

“Things are looking up, Baby-lon. Don’t be so down. Things are a lot better than you realize.”

“You know what they’re doing with all that time? They’re lending it back to the city and collecting interest. They’re lending us our own time and making us pay for it.” They stepped around a puddle. “And you know what else? There’s a provision in the timeshare deal that lets them deposit time back into the city clock. In three years they’ve literally racked up trillions in interest. Now we owe them, somehow.”

“Hey, you got anything going on tonight?”

“Really?”

“You should come to this meeting.”

 

 

 

Part V

The girls had packed into the auditorium more than could fit. Girls in dinner jackets stood in the aisles. Girls in tuxedos stood by the doors. Girls with red lipstick, brassieres and wide lapels stood on the seats shouting, pumping their fists forward in the air, ‘Where’s my help! Where’s my timeshare!’ they shouted. ‘I gamble too! Abate the Ate! Burn the Plutocracy!’

Overhead lights clacked on and the woman with her blonde hair bunched beneath her top-hat stood at the podium. Her face was pursed and she adjusted her monocle. The two rows of seats behind her were encased in shadows. Only shiny shoes and a few inches of colored velvet could be seen. The gavel pounded.

“This city is a great city, a hard working city full of hard working people, who we are putting back to work! This city was and still is the most free and prosperous city in world history, thanks to the actions taken by us, your democratically selected masters.”

“Bullshit!” yelled the crowd. “Plutocracy!” they cried.

The woman continued. “The timeshares have worked. The banks are investing, people are working, and across this wonderful city new businesses are opening up! But the timeshares haven’t gone far enough. There are still factories threatened by bankruptcy, families threatened with foreclosure. We will save everybody because we are the greatest leaders in city history and you are blessed to have us. We will do more than we have to, more than we should to save every last person, because this is a free city!”

“Trickle down failed for a reason! Weren’t work programs useful once!”

“Enough! You arrogant little proles! Do you know what we do for you? We enable your very existence! We’ve absorbed entire companies on your behalf! Liquidated and made worthless centuries’ worth of hours! We stabilized this economy by crushing it and re-inflating it with artificial minute-rates! We have planned everything for you! You should be grateful!” shouted the woman. The girls in the audience rose from their seats like a swell of water before a breaking wave; began making their way down the aisles, towards the podium, silent, their faces severe. “Who do you think you are!” bellowed the woman, veins at her neck. “You wouldn’t exist without us! You are worthless! You need us! YOU DEPEND ON US!” Someone flipped off her top-hat. She looked startled and there was a greasy comb-over beneath her hat, and close-up in the light, her jaw-line looked so square, stubble seemed to appear on her cheeks. She backed up nervously into the shadows. Chains and metal clanking, gears turning and a partition lowered from the ceiling. It continued till it slammed into the floor and it completely separated the shadows from the auditorium. The wall turned on. It was a television screen. A large gray face with a black moustache began speaking, “Our city is back to work. Your leaders have fixed the economy. They ended the debt like they said they would. War is no more. Wealth is widespread among the masses. Freedom across the city has actually increased….” The girls began throwing chairs, bottles, shoes, everything they had to stop the talking face. They hated it. They didn’t believe a word it said. The face would not stop talking.

“Attention. Hello! Please, everyone, listen to what I must say.” Baby-lon had taken the microphone, stood atop the podium. “For too long we have been run by these fools. For too long we have allowed them to dictate policies, control our economy and run our lives. They cheat us when we’re down and entire centuries pass secretly between closed fists. And they ask for help? In the name of economic recovery they’ve centralized their power. Our Council is nothing but their velvet glove and they’ve clenched their fists! We’ve seen where their ideas and leadership bring us. We know what lies behind those greasy eyes, at the end of those greedy stares. Desire and filth prompt the Cheshire grin and the fattest hands will always fill the velvet glove. But we have a way out! We still have choice! We can fix our own problems, we do not need them. Only we can prevent the very corruption that singes our freedoms. With our money they bought their power, with our money they filled their greedy hands, but no more! It is we who gave them power and it is we who shall take it back! We shall take back our power and give it to the rats no more! No longer must we allow for the concentration of our wealth, we see what it brings! We must dissipate power, spread it as thin as possible and end the corruption, cronyism and plutocracy! It’s time we took back what is ours!”

The auditorium went wild cheering. Girls sat atop one another’s shoulders, shouting slogans, cheering and clapping and the entire auditorium was a roiling mass. Baby-lon hopped down from the podium and a path was cleared for her as she led them into the streets. They carried banners and torches, shouting ‘Take back what’s ours! Burn the Establishment!’ Baby-lon marched down the street and stopped at the ATM. She looked around and the cheering had stopped, the other girls looked blankly at her. ‘Well, go!” she said. Baby-lon withdrew what little money she had and walked into a little store with a chime on the door. The walls were bare bricks, and one little man in a Good Will suit sat behind a desk. Above him read a sign, ‘East Side Building & Loan’. A small safe was in the wall behind him.

“I would like to open an account and make a deposit,” said Baby-lon.

“Thank you! Thank you for banking with us,” he said. He politely kissed her hand. “Now we can help Mr. Houghton finance his new café on 3rd Street, by the old hardware store.”

Baby-lon looked over at Tigris. “The interest rates aren’t nearly as high here. I’m okay with that though. I think it’s better this way.”

In a small shed on the outskirts of town sat a man on a pail. His frown drooped like a miserly clown and his cravat was all undone and messy. “Pull your pants up, Dumb Shit,” he said, flicking through a thin fold of dollars. “I don’t have enough anymore.”

StreetWalks (1,900)

A magician in tall black pants smiled wide, bowed low and dropped a bouncing-ball that burst into hundreds of smaller bouncing-balls when it hit the pavement. The two little feet, bare without socks or shoes, laughed and ran and caught one of the balls, bouncing it as he walked up the street. A portly man with makeup was wearing stockings and a tutu. He leapt into the air and swung around a lamppost with a big smile hugging his tomato cheeks. Three midgets dressed like Santa were laughing and playing leapfrog. The two little feet kept walking up the street, past hundreds of other people who were walking in the opposite direction. They were teachers and doctors, lawyers and business persons, and all of them were smiling, but they weren’t really walking, they were, popping – yes, popping like confetti down the street, teachers running and jumping joys into the air, pretty-faced nurses smiling and bouncing high as if they were on trampolines, stock-brokers jumping into the air with their palms open at the sides of their smiling faces, politicians skipping and flailing their arms, ballerinas leaping and twirling on their toes, acrobats throwing hula-hoops into the air and doing flips through them, and uniformed pilots diving high over everyone and landing in somersaults beneath the giant stilts of juggling clowns and past the tiny jesters marching with silly pomp as giant party banners unfurled from the tops of gleaming skyscrapers. Bright confetti fell from the blue sky, glittered in the sun and landed lovely on the upturned faces as they swirled and danced and leapt down the street. The two little feet kept walking and giggling with wonder, bouncing the ball. White rabbits hopped down the street, past the elephants on their hind legs that sprayed water into the air as lovely people swirled with up-turned faces and out-spread arms in the mist.

Early on and a king came marching with a velvet cloak around his shoulders, pointing his gold scepter at the sky like a band leader. The two little feet stopped for a moment. The boy held the bouncing-ball in his hand and looked up at the king, his little mouth open with awe. The king had a stern face and was looking down his nose at the boy. The king burst into a bright beaming smile, pulled a giant gold key from his cloak and bowed low with all the valor of the Kingdom of Heaven, holding the key above his head and looking at the ground. ‘For you, my dear boy.’ The two blue eyes stared wide with wonder and lifted the key from the king’s thick hands. It was deceptively light. He couldn’t yet read but he saw the engraving in the gold of the key and he knew what it meant. The little, wet lips smiled wide and somehow the giant key fit into his little pocket and he took out the bouncing-ball and kept walking.

A woman with a flowing dress came by. He smiled up at her and she tossed rose petals in the air and they landed in the soft, yellow curls on his head. A man and a woman were holding hands, their arms outstretched between them as they swirled down the street. They passed right over the boy and he looked up, laughing as their arms glided over him. The two little shoes kept bouncing the ball down the street and he noticed a little girl walking in his direction. Her skirt and shoes were pretty and he blushed when he realized she was walking up to him. She stood in front of him, looking down at her feet with a shy smile waiting to blossom. She looked up and the boy smiled and they both had rosy cheeks. She grabbed his hand real quick and they continued on, skipping down the street. Acrobats dressed in pink leotards were throwing each other through the air, walking on their hands and doing back-handsprings.

The boy and girl stopped skipping for a moment. Two children, also a boy and girl, had walked up and stood in front of them. The girl was dressed in a tuxedo with coattails and a bowtie. She also wore a top-hat. The boy wore a wedding dress with a veil and he held a bouquet. They spoke not a word to the other boy and girl, smiling shy as they bowed and passed off the top-hat and bouquet, before they ran off giggling. The boy put the on top-hat, a little askew over his blond curls and the girl held the bouquet. They were still holding hands and smiling as they began walking again.

People of all sorts continued to walk past the boy and girl, smiling but for the most part keeping to themselves. A short Indian man with black hair and a thick moustache walked up to them with a wide, loving smile and shook their hands with congratulations. When the mayor saw them, he too walked over, his belly sloping and his coattails fluttering. He removed his top-hat and bowed low, swinging his arm out to the side. He smiled up at them and continued on. They were still holding hands, and his big white teeth were shining, when a second troupe of acrobats came down the street. They were wearing deep red leotards and jumping through small pink hoops.

On the right was a school. It was long, proportionate and built with tan bricks and there was a belfry on the top in the middle. Children were in the schoolyard laughing and playing round the jungle gym. Then the bell tolled. The children stopped what they were doing, silence had befallen them, and slowly they filed back inside. A flagpole stood in front, the nation’s flag taught, stiff and motionless against the cloudless blue sky. A platoon of soldiers in green fatigues marched by, and the boy and girl kept walking.

People continued to walk past but they were moving faster now, and they would slow down only momentarily to smile at the young man and woman. His left hand could still feel the bouncing-ball in his pocket but his right hand had grown cold, as if it had grown vacant of human touch, and when he looked at his hand he saw it was empty. She had stopped walking though he continued and she was looking at the ground at the wilted bouquet. He glanced back but he kept walking. The two shoes passed a woman pushing a stroller, and he could see two chubby, little hands grabbing at the air. He passed a brown church with tall, stained windows along its sides. The doors were open but it was dark inside. He passed a hospital with an ambulance out front.

The street continued and people were still walking as big, brick factories with rows of tiny windows and looming smokestacks began to appear. The people walking by wore coveralls and gloves, denim jackets and hardhats. A few faces were covered with dirt and as he continued the people would politely nod and continue with their business. They carried toolboxes and wrenches, and the men and women were spotted with grease, their fingers black. Giant buildings began to appear with rows of shining windows rising into the sky. The men and women walked by in suits. They carried briefcases and walked with long, hurried strides. The men had gelled hair and shiny shoes, the women with pressed skirts and pinned-up hair. His blue eyes watched his boots as he walked.

Everyone was walking fast and talking, cellphones pressed to the sides of their faces and they talked away and never noticed anybody else. A house with boarded up windows had lost its roof. A soda bottle was rolling down the street, and empty bags of fast-food were scattered along the sidewalks. A few women stood near a corner and they puckered their dark red lips, stuck their hips out as he walked by. Cigarette butts were stuck in the cracks of the road. The crumbling walls of old factories piled their bricks haphazardly on the sidewalks. His big, beat-up boots continued down the street, and whenever he chanced to pass somebody he would smile and try to make eye-contact, but the people would give him an awkward glance and walk faster. He noticed that a cover of clouds had rolled in, and he vaguely recalled that they had been there for a while. The gray of the clouds seemed to suck the color from the street.

A small child stood on the sidewalk, her eyebrows turned up in the middle. Her clothes were brown and torn, and her outstretched hands formed a cup. People trickled past in expensive suits, and they hurried by with up-turned noses. The big, beat-up boots grumbled as they walked. A cemetery appeared on the right. It was a wide open field, the grass burdened with dew. A fog from the cemetery was drifting into the street. There were only two tombstones in the graveyard, though large and imposing. Roughly chiseled into each stone was an epithet, Your Family and Your Friends, respectively. The two wilted eyes looked away, and the windows of the storefronts were broken, boarded up or covered in spray-paint. Liquor bottles were smashed, piles of shattered glass beneath signs that read ‘clearance sale’. Bags of trash sat on the sides of the street, and garbage clogged the runoff grates.

A man sat on the sidewalk, his back against the lone-standing wall of a collapsed building. His clothes were ragged, the brown blanket around his shoulders caked with filth, and a cane lay by his feet. ‘Hey! Hey, I know you!’ he shouted. The muddy boots looked up, puzzled and afraid. ‘I, I know you,’ his voice had sunk. ‘I know who you used to be!’ he cried out, ‘I know! Sonny!’ he wailed, ‘I know who you used to be!’ The man on the sidewalk sobbed and his face fell into his hands. The muddy boots looked away, kept walking with slow, heavy footsteps.

The corners of his mouth sagged deep, his gums were clenched shut. He looked without emotion at the man who stood before him. The man held a black cane, wore pointy, black shoes, black, well-pressed pants, and a black dinner jacket with long, thin coattails. The jacket was open, so that the deep red of the silk shirt beneath it was visible. His face was narrow and long, with pointed features, and his black hair was greased back. His thin moustache was curled. He said hello and placed his lanky arm around the two sloping shoulders with the muddy boots. The man led the boots to the left, onto the sidewalk where a small flight of steps led down. ‘Come have a drink or twelve, forget about all that crap.’ At the bottom of the steps was a heavy, oak door with a red, misty glow emanating from the thin spaces around it. ‘You’re infected, aren’t you?’ He had a cruel way of accentuating his words as he led the two, spiteful eyes down the steps. ‘Time sure has a way of festering cynicism, don’t it, Scotty?’

Reasons (850 words)

It looked as if the black clouds were on fire, glowing embers and orange flames. It was about two in the afternoon, figured Buddy, though he couldn’t see the sun. No one saw the sun anymore. The earth around him had been stripped, freed of vegetation besides the odd, hollowed husk of an old tree. The ground was hard and bare, all of it brown dust and endless craters. The last walls of a house were crumbling and machine guns cracked in the distance.

Buddy was sitting in a crater with two other men. His leg had been shot. Their names were Mac and Chuck. Mac was a medic without any medicine. Chuck had the only rifle. Their uniforms were a faded, dingy brown covered with mud and sweat. They wore thick, black boots. Buddy’s helmet didn’t fit.

‘Come on you guys, we got to keep moving,’ said Chuck. Chuck and Mac helped Buddy out of the crater and took turns supporting him as they walked. The bandage on his leg was soaked with blood. He worried that the wound would turn black.

‘How far is it to Lyskovo?’ asked Mac. Lyskovo was the next village. Mac was helping Buddy walk.

‘Two miles, I think,’ said Chuck. Jets roared past, unseen above the clouds.

The only thing that Buddy carried was a pistol. It was a flimsy thing, with the reputation of a Luger. ‘If you’re going to use it,’ the captain had said, ‘make sure you can put it to his head.’ That was three years ago. Three years since Buddy had seen the sky. The air was always stuffy hot, a rank humidity and he hated each breath. For three years Buddy had hated each breath, because each breath invariably tasted of sulfur and burned hair. The smell of rotting bodies would sit at the back of his throat. It was always dark, never brighter than the hour before sunset.

Ahead on their left a cliff began. They walked with silent faces. There was nothing to talk about, no thing that deserved the effort of speaking. There had been fifty of them that morning, when the bombs fell. The bombing had been slow, only a few dozen mortars that landed mostly in houses of families. Then the planes came. Those bombs were ubiquitous, endless and thorough. The village did not remain. Four square miles and each inch of dirt belonged to endless craters.

The land around them began to grow brighter, to become tinted with a white light that grew so fast it became all they could see. Mac let go of Buddy and Buddy crouched down and covered his eyes. He could see the blood in his hands like placing them over a flashlight. The white light flashed out as quick as it’d come. Then the earth shuddered. Dirt and rocks fell from the cliff and they knew what it was. Looking out from the cliff they could see barren hills rolling to the horizon, and there on the horizon were the clouds. Four of them, staggered with distance, rising into the sky like orange umbrellas at the tops of thin stems. Each one looked different but each one had that same distinct mushroom shape, the dark orange smoke billowing up in great round domes and the thin stalks that held them above the rolling, tumbling clouds at the bottom.

‘Novgorod?’ asked Mac, sullen and afraid that he knew the answer.

‘Yeah,’ said Chuck.

‘Do you think they got to evacuate?’

‘Couldn’t, too many refugees,’ said Buddy. The clouds above them had turned a pallid orange, streaked with gray, and on the horizon were the four, dark orange mushroom clouds rising ominously, surrounded by black.

They heard voices then, hundreds of them. One hundred feet down at the base of the cliff were hundreds of people and all of them were fucking. Men were on top of women, women on top of men and all of them were screaming in wild orgasm. Women were on all fours, on their knees, men and women lying head to toe. People everywhere were fucking and the orgiastic din swelled over the edge of the cliff. Everyone was positioning themselves to face the horizon with their faces contorted from frantic ecstasy. Everybody was moaning loud, grunting and screaming with wild pleasure and staring at the horizon. They wore the same uniform as Buddy, Mac and Chuck.

Chuck looked over at Buddy, ‘Don’t be worried about it, Buddy. Command wouldn’t waste nukes out here, we’re safe, it’s all farms.’

‘It’s not the nukes that scare me,’ he said plainly.

‘Boy,’ said Mac, ‘won’t they all feel awkward when they realize they won’t be nuked.’

‘That’s not why they’re fucking,’ said Buddy. ‘That’s not why they’re doing it.’ He slid back the chamber of his pistol. The taste of coins was on his tongue.

‘No!’ yelled Mac.

‘Come on,’ said Chuck, helping Mac away, ‘we got to keep going.’

At the bottom of the cliff the hundreds of faces distorted with pleasure, shouting wild, lustful, carnal ecstasy; fucking for pleasure while they watched the horizon.

Petals of Thought (1,000 words)

Triantafyllo was tucked tight in a fetal position. His knees were at his chest, his elbows tight at his sides and his hands covered his face, which was buried in his knees. Around him was a thin shell that provided him enough room to move, though he never had. The shell kept out the dark dirt that was packed loosely around him.

One morning Triantafyllo began to unfurl. He slowly pushed up at the shell and it gave way with little effort, breaking into several large fragments that he thoughtlessly and gently pushed to the side. There was not much dirt above him.

So that now Triantafyllo was crouched on the ground, hugging his shins. He held his butt just above the ground and his face was still buried in his knees. His toes and the soles of his feet were buried in the cool, soft soil. The air was crisp and he could feel the sun on his back. The sun was skimming across the vast, blue dome above him and as the days passed he slowly began to stand.

So that one day his butt was held a bit higher, and a bit higher the next. The sun was leaping across the vast, blue dome and his knees, imperceptibly and with almost fluid motion, began to extend. The sun was skipping across the sky and his back was straightening, his arms slowly releasing their grips and falling straight at his sides, the sun darting across the sky and his legs slowly bending upwards, his back slowly becoming straight until he stood tall and erect. His chin was still tucked to his chest, and after a few more days that too had risen. His arms began to slide up his sides then, until his hands were near his armpits, and after a few more bounds of the sun his arms were extended, his palms turned up so that he held a permanent sort of unsure, shrugging gesture.

The sun slowed its climb up the sky. Triantafyllo had grown as tall as he ever would and now it was time for him to thicken. His body was still thin and hairless and his hands still needed to grow. He could already feel his toes stretching and growing farther into the cool soil. His options for movement were limited. He could only turn his neck and pivot at his hips, which he did so he could look around.

There were other people all around him. Most of his neighbors had also finished standing, though a few were still rising. He turned at his hips and smiled at everyone and everyone smiled back. Covering the ground were gnomes who never grew more than knee-high. It was rumored that for every person there were thousands of gnomes and it certainly seemed so. Everywhere Triantafyllo looked he saw the green, spired hats they wore. He tried to twist as far as he could to his left, to test his boundaries. He saw a leg, a giant, thick and hairy leg rising straight to the sky. He looked up but could only see its bottom-most branches.

The path the sun took meant that it was always at his back. Triantafyllo could feel the sun on the backs of his legs, his buttocks and his back, his arms and the nape of his neck. He could feel his skin tingling from the warmth of the sun, making his goosebumps rise. His palms burned but it was a pleasing sensation. He twisted as far as he could to his right and strained his neck so he could look up at the sun. After a moment he relaxed.

Triantafyllo could hear laughing. He turned to his left and saw a grasshopper, brightly striped with green and turquoise. The grasshopper was standing on his hind-legs and moving his hands as he talked. He was telling jokes. The people were laughing very hard, bending up and down at their waists. They didn’t have to turn or otherwise move to see the grasshopper because he stood right in front of them, and it was easy for them to watch. What they did do though, was to make sure that as much as they laughed they always held their hands up at their sides, so they could catch what sunlight they needed to survive.

Triantafyllo watched the grasshopper for a little while but he remembered the sun and he turned around so he could see it. He could hear the people laughing, and it would have been much easier for him to watch the grasshopper, but he enjoyed the light he received from the sun. The sun would make him grow, he knew, it would make him strong and wise and he enjoyed the understanding that the sun’s rays seemed to convey to him.

The sun leapt across the vast, blue dome and the weeks passed. Triantafyllo could still hear his neighbors laughing at the grasshopper and his neck had grown sore. But, no matter how sore his neck became, no matter how much effort it took him and despite all that he missed that his neighbors enjoyed, Triantafyllo kept his eyes on the sun.

After some weeks passed Triantafyllo had grown strong and sturdy. It was time for him to blossom. A split appeared down the center of his face, down both sides of his head and down the back of his head. The splits grew wider and his face began to come apart until finally his head folded out in four even sections and a beautiful, full, flesh colored rose blossomed outward as a lush beacon of nature’s accomplishments.

Not long after that his neighbors were ready to blossom as well. They stopped laughing for a moment as their heads cracked apart unevenly and when the four sections flopped open the fleshy, rotten contents spilled forth onto the ground in useless, wet, gray heaps.

 

The Girl with the Bike

Her face was boyish, I saw it out of the bus window. Her hair was short in a feminine way and she carried a bike, which she secured to the rack on the front of the bus. The bus was very crowded and she paid the driver, stood next to me at the front. Almost immediately the girl began speaking on her phone. The bus stopped and a large man squeezed in between us, nearly pancaking the girl into the partition behind the driver. I did him a favor and told him someone was standing next to him, beneath his arm as it were. I had to stretch my head around the man to look at all the people on the bus, the nondescript faces.

‘Hi, dad. Listen, I have a weird question for you.’ The girl didn’t look around as she spoke, her eyes stayed at her feet or out the front window and I felt okay stealing glimpses of her. The girl had a soft round face, like a fresh pebble in a cool river, and she asked her father if Ben had killed himself.

‘Did Ben kill himself?’ She had repeated this into the phone, her father must not have heard her. She spoke the words with such ease, as if it were only trivial — a pointless question. Did Ben kill himself? The other conversations on the bus never faltered, nondescript faces yapping away never giving notice. ‘I just wanted to know like, since I was young when it happened, if you had sugarcoated it for me. No, no. I was with Rebecca and she had mentioned it. We were talking about something else, it was a passing comment.’

The bus jolted to a halt, passengers clamored on and off and I stole a few more glances, realizing she didn’t care. ‘Yeah. It was just, my stomach dropped hearing about it. I mean, I hadn’t known.’

‘You know how earlier in the week I said I was feeling really excited? Like on Monday when I was just full of energy, hyperactive and all? Well it’s evening out now. What? I’m on my way home, I was just at the bike shop. No not like that. But Rebecca says I should, too. It’s just, if I started going to a psychiatrist I feel like it would take so much time. I want to and I think I need it, but it takes so long for them to diagnose and finally start seeing results. No dad, I’m not going to kill myself.’

The bus stopped again. It had emptied out some and me and the girl had both been able to take seats. She put the phone away and a block later she got off. I sat and watched her take her bike from the rack. I hadn’t been thinking of anything, my mind was clear and from somewhere outside in the glistening dark emptiness came the scene of me following her onto the sidewalk. I had to get the bus driver to open the door again.

‘Hey!’ I jogged up to her. She was standing next to her bike. ‘What made you think it was okay to talk about that on the bus?’ She didn’t answer and the cold wind whirled around us and not another soul was in sight, the sidewalks and streets empty. ‘I’m just curious why you didn’t care. It was so personal. Why wouldn’t you care if people heard all of that?’

‘What’s it matter to you?’

‘Nothing. Not at all.’

‘They why do want to know?’

‘Because it was so beautiful and open honest and I can’t understand. There isn’t anyone around now so you can tell me.’

‘See that’s just the thing you don’t understand. Why didn’t you ask me while we were on the bus? What were you so afraid of?’

I couldn’t think of what to say. I knew what she meant but I hadn’t the nerve to answer, to let that part be seen. She hopped on her bike and pedaled slowly away, gliding down the sidewalks beneath the yellow lampposts.

The sidewalk and side streets were empty and as the wind howled vacant in walls around me I screamed out the answer.

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