Story #43 – The Ride Of Your Life / Staying in line

The voice is strangely metallic, androgynous. It’s oscillating cadence is almost hypnotic.

“You’re in for the ride of your life! You’ve never seen anything like it. You’ll never be the same!”

When you hear it, you can imagine a young man or woman in a small office somewhere smiling, dressed in a perfect blue suit with perfect skin and perfect hair talking into an old fashioned microphone, maybe waving their fist for emphasis.

The little speakers are on every street corner in this part of the city. They are hung so that no matter where you are in line, you can hear the regular motivational announcements. The little speakers are loud enough, but the voices still feel very far away.

The line ahead and behind me is composed of humans of all sizes and ages and colors. Some look excited. Some look bored. The line snakes around and hugs the walls of every building so there is no telling where it starts or ends. It moves so slowly, maybe a few steps a day. It’s like we are waiting for a parade that doesn’t even come. Of course, we are the parade, watching each other move slowly around the buildings toward the front of the line and its glorious promise.

“Just a little longer! Are you excited? You better be! You’re almost there.” Squawks the speaker.

I recognize many of the people around me. We all have been in this line for a long time. I helped a woman in line give birth several years ago and her child now calls me uncle. Her name is Tina and she is very excited to be in the line. She got in line when she was seven and her enthusiasm has never lagged. I’m not sure how she even got pregnant, there are no boys near her age around us, but I don’t dare ask. She’s always smiling and so nice and I like her boy very much.

Every now and then someone new wanders up and tries to find the end of the line. When they also can’t find it, they try to cut in. Sometimes they are let in easy. Other times there are fights. Everybody gets in line eventually. It’s hard to not let people in when it moves so slowly anyway.

“Don’t even think about stepping out! If you give up now, you’ll never know what you could have missed!”

Did they mean ‘what you could have experienced?’ Maybe I heard it wrong. No one else seems bothered. I look at Tina and she is sitting with her son, putting together a puzzle. They are about halfway done but there aren’t many pieces left. I’m sure it will be frustrating when they run out of pieces and still can’t make out the picture.

I envy her ability to sit down. Most of us never do that. We sleep standing up so that we can readily move when the line starts to go. I am a little sleepy so I lean forward a little against the man in front of me, I think his name is Earl, and fall asleep.

When I wake up, Earl is asleep on the woman in front of him. I lift my head and yawn and see someone get out of line and walk away. I don’t think I have ever seen someone get out of line before. And I can’t imagine where they are going.

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Story #42 – Strays

1

The cats who live in the vacant lot behind the gas station were already trotting out from behind the various scraggly bushes and shrubs.  Angela rolled down the window of her beat-up Chevy as she pulled up and inhaled a deep breath of the humid ocean air.  

“Selena!  Bentley!  Honk!” Angela squealed in a pitch reserved solely for cat-culling.

Selena pranced alongside the car, barely avoiding the tires as Angela pulled into her familiar spot.  Angela loved her especially, for the cute little crook in her tail and because she was always the first out and mewling when she arrived every day at five.  Bentley waddled out and plopped himself on a patch of grass just out of reach and regarded them all with feigned disinterest.  Honk, padded up to him and nuzzled him for a moment before getting swatted away.

Angela pitched her voice to yet a higher octave, “Summer!  Vamp!  Gramps!” 

The other cats also kept their distance.  Angela was used to this.  They never really let her pet them, but their familiarity was enough encouragement.  Poor little guys.  If she didn’t come out and feed them every day, who knows what would happen to them?  She was a sixty-five year old retired school teacher and single, so she welcomed the daily ritual of feeding these neighborhood strays.

Retrieving a plastic food container from her backseat, she sprinkled dry kibbles in several piles.  A few of the cats converged immediately.  The veterans patiently waited; they knew what was coming.  After replacing the dry food container in the car, Angela returned with several cans of wet food which she shook out on top of the dry piles bringing all the cats to the trough.

“Hi guys.  Is that good?  Numnumnum!  Honk, you are hungry today!”

She stood back and hugged herself and looked over her little friends. 

“Where’s Vamp?”

As if acknowledging her concern, First Gramps and then Selena both looked up at her and blinked.

Vamp was another of her favorites, the runt with a beautiful gray coat and sharp yellow eyes.

“Vamp!  Vampy!?”  She called, “Ps-ps-ps-ps-ps!” 

Angela scanned the overgrown lot.  Weeds and grass sprouted from the cracks in the faded concrete.  A line palm trees stood like prison bars against a passing hot breeze.  At the far edge of the lot three raccoons, scratching and crunching, fussed over something.

Oh no, Angela thought taking a breath and stepping around the jumble of feasting felines cautiously making for the raccoons.

2

The low sun glinted off the polished jaguar on Brent’s hood as he waited to turn into the shabby gas station.  The Hindemith Sonata he was listening to reached one of its crescendos and he turned it up to properly feel the pulsation of the harmonics.  He loved the way the music forced him to take slow deep breaths; it was a meditation on sorrow and despair, but also on beauty.

When traffic allowed, he pulled into the gas station and made his way to the back to view the lot he had just purchased.  The gas station was included in the purchase, and the resentful owner inside waved a courteous middle finger at him as he passed by the sooty windows.  So it goes, he thought to himself.  You ran it into the ground, I’m just the guy with the shovel.

He didn’t recognize the rusty old Chevy as he parked beside it.  It certainly wasn’t the owner’s.  On his stereo, the piano was jangling its way up a scale in counterpoint with a lilting viola line and he closed his eyes to savor the tension.  In his mind he pictured the new mini-golf course which would soon be built on his newly acquired land: The pirate ship, the meandering caves, the mini-adventure culminating in the final round over a pond filled with live alligators.  It would be his third, and the grandest of his empire.

Once the sonata had settled itself into the next movement, he opened his eyes and turned down the stereo.  In the softening blue of dusk he could still see the image from his mind and he sighed at its imminent beauty.  He could even see its first customer striding after her first hole-in-one.  Then he realized that he was looking at a real person.  A middle-aged woman with a blaze of orange hair was trespassing on his dream.

He killed the ignition and got out of the car.  Brent was so fixated on Angela in the distance that he didn’t notice four of the five cats streak away into the underbrush.  Gramps, the oldest and most grizzled, trotted away with less fear and stopped just outside a bush to briefly eye the interloper.

“Hey!  Excuse me!”  Brent yelled, waving as he stepped toward the curb.  His fancy leather shoes crunched on an unfamiliar rubble and he leapt back realizing he had stepped one of several piles of stinking cat food.

“What the fuck is this bitch doing?”

Wiping off the scraps as best he could on the grass, he set off after the woman.

3

Angela had deliberately slowed her pace as she neared the trio of raccoons, but when she got within the sweet and sour pungency of what they were eating, she slowed even further.  It smelled of death.  The raccoons had noticed her but were trying to cram the last few bites in before retreating.  She clapped and stomped at them and they reluctantly hurried away, and she braced herself for the inevitable trauma.

But it wasn’t Vamp.  It was a dead cat, but not one she recognized.  The remaining matted and bloody fur was long and white, and the cat had been a lot bigger than little Vamp.

The head was missing.  Instinctively, she scanned the ground around her and found nothing.

“Excuse me!?” a strange voice called from behind her.

She spun around and saw a lanky man in a poorly-tailored gray suit picking his way toward her.

“You can’t be here.  This is private property.”  He said, stopping abruptly.  He must have finally picked up the scent of the dead cat.

“I’m sorry, I was just looking for a missing cat.”  Angela said.

Your missing cat?”  He had pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and was holding it over his mouth.

“Well, not really”

“Are you the one feeding all the strays in the lot?”

She looked him over for a moment before answering. He shifted his weight to an alternate loafer and fixed his hair. “I am.”  She said.

“You can’t do that.  You’re trespassing on private property.”  He turned to walk away expecting her to follow.

“You own this lot?” 

“I do,”  He said half-turned, “So come one, or I’ll be forced to call the police.”

“What about the dead cat?”

“You said it wasn’t yours.  Leave it.  Come on.  Let’s go!”  He clapped his hands.  Angela wasn’t sure if she was surprised by the fact that he did it or that she actually responded.  Forgetting momentarily about the headless carcass, she followed him.

“You shouldn’t feed stray cats on someone else’s property,” He continued, “It encourages them to stay.  And then they breed, and then I have a huge mess on my hands when it’s time to bulldoze.”

They were approaching the center of the lot which hosted a menagerie of assorted detritus: a dismantled baby carriage, some empty milk jugs, a dirty condom like a dried up slug.  Brent gave all these items a wide berth as if they were radioactive.  He stopped so suddenly that she bumped into him.  His cologne smelled worse than the dead cat.

“What do you want?”  He said, still looking forward.  “Shoo!!”

Looking around him, Angela saw Gramps sitting directly in their path.

“Just keep walking toward him and he’ll run away.”  She said.

“I don’t like cats.”  As he said this, he turned to walk around Gramps and tripped.  As Angela reached forward to steady him there was a creak and then a loud CRACK as his foot broke through a rotten sheet of wood.  As he fell forward, he grabbed at her to keep from falling and ended up pulling her on top of him.  There was another crash and then they were both tumbling down a steep embankment into a thick darkness full of rocks and roots.

4

Angela awoke to the sound of Brent’s moaning.  It was pitch black and the air was moist.  She felt pretty bruised up, but seemed to be able to move all her limbs. 

“Are you okay?” She asked in the direction of the moaning.

“No.”  He grunted.  “I’m pretty sure my leg is broken.”

“How long was I out?”

“Shit if I know.  I feel like I’m in a sensory deprivation chamber.  What the fuck happened?”

“You fell,” Angela said.  “And you decided to take me along for the ride.”

He started moaning again and she crawled slowly in his direction, feeling along the walls and ground.  The earth was moist, but not mud, and there was air flow, but she couldn’t tell from where.  She finally felt a scrap of his clothes and sidled up to him.  When she accidentally bumped his leg she could tell by his sharp yelp that it was indeed broken.

She found she could stand up with a little headroom but still couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.  “Sorry.  Can you stand?” she asked.

He tried, and screamed, so she got his arm over her shoulder and helped him up, bumping his head in the process.

“Fuck!  Watch it.”

She swallowed the impulse to curse him out.  “Now what?”

“This way!” A new voice whispered.  It sounded like a child.

“Was that you?”  Angela asked.

“Hell no it wasn’t me.”

“Hello?  Who is that?”  She asked the darkness.

“This way.  Follow my voice.”  The whisper said.

“Where are we?”  Angela asked.

“The passage.”  The whisper responded.

“What passage?  What the fuck?”  Brent said.  He was sweating and dreaded any movement, especially at the urging of some ethereal child.

“Can’t we just go back up the hill?”  Angela asked, starting to feel Brent’s weight on her shoulder.

“It’s completely blocked with debris, and by now the raccoons have started to cover it up.  Please, trust me, we have to hurry.  I know this passage well.  Just follow me and we’ll try to get you out of here safely.”  Try?  Raccoons?!  There was something ominous about the whisper.  There was a faint lisp, like a hair lip, and it was impossible to tell how far away it was coming from.  But there really wasn’t another option.

“Okay,”  Angela said, “You ready?”

“I guess.” Brent replied.

“Come on.”  The whisper insisted.

And so Angela, with one hand on the cool earth of the wall and the other around the waist of the tall suit, started lurching forward into the darkness.

“What’s your name?”  She asked, as much out of curiosity as to distract him from his evident pain.

“Brent.  Witherstein.”  He said between drags.

“I’m Angela.”

“Great.”  He gasped.

“Come on.”  The whisper hissed.

5

For Brent, each step was agony.  Little red-headed Angela seemed to be deliberately jostling him and with every lurch forward a hundred nails were simultaneously hammered into his screaming appendage.  To distract himself from the pain he attempted to hum the theme from the Hindemith sonata.  It took concentration, and that helped.

“Shhh!”  The whisper commanded, cutting Brent off.  “Try to be quiet.  We aren’t safe yet.”

“Where does this passage go?”  Angela asked, “Is it far?”

“There are lots of tunnels down here.  They are meant to be confusing.  He built them to trap outsiders as well as to conceal the inner chamber.”

Angela had too many questions.  “And you are leading us out?”

“Yes.  Unfortunately we will have to pass through the chamber, but I think it will be empty for awhile still.  But we should hurry.  Keep moving this way.  I’ll be right back.”

There wasn’t any sound, but he could feel the whisper’s absence.  They moved along for a few steps and Brent tried to escape to a painless place in his mind. He thought about his Father teaching him to golf when he was young.  It’s all about the short game, son, he always said.  And so Brent became a great putter, but his drive never quite landed where he intended.

“Grab the wall,” Angela said, breaking his meditation.

“What?  Why?”

“Because you’re heavy and I need a break.”

Brent did as he was told and he could sense her bending down to straighten her spine and then twisting her hips.

“He said we should hurry,”  He huffed, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“And then he left us here.  In the dark.  So we’re taking a break.”  Her voice had a soft musical quality to it, like a cello; a little gritty but full and soft.  “Maybe you’re less scrupulous than me, but I’m a little freaked out right now.”  She said softly.

“I’m the one with the broken leg”

“And maybe you’re in shock or something.  That voice could be anyone.  It could be leading us anywhere.  It said that raccoons were preventing our escape.”  It sounded like she was chewing her fingers.  Then she spit.  “Doesn’t any of this bother you?” She asked.

“We don’t have much of a choice right now, do we?”

“Quiet!”  The whisper commanded suddenly.  In the distance there was a clanking sound, like someone opening a door, followed by some soft moaning.  Angela held her breath.  Brent did the same.  Then the jingling and clank came again followed by the thick familiar silence.

The three of them remained there listening for a good fifteen minutes. A cold sweat clung Brent’s clothes to his shivering body.

The whisper again broke the silence, “Okay—“

Angela broke him off, “Now wait.  Before we go any further, you need to tell us who you are and why you’re helping us.”  She paused, feeling out of breath,  “And how you even knew we were down here.”

The question hung in the air for a long moment.  Brent attempted to shift his weight and again felt the electric hammer of pain ricochet up his body.

“I saw you fall.  And I ran down another route to find you.” The whisper said calmly.

“You saw us in the lot?” Angela asked.

“Your friend looked right at me before he broke through the door.”

The answer was staring them in their face, but in the darkness it was impossible to accept the implication.

“All I saw was a stupid cat.”  Brent grunted.

“I’m not the one who fell down the hole.”  The cat whispered.

6

“Gramps?”  Angela asked, “You’re a talking cat?”

“If you don’t mind calling me Griff, I’d be much obliged.  You’ve been so kind to come and feed me and my family every day this past year, I didn’t give a second thought to coming down here to help you.  Lean down and put out your hand”

Angela was at a loss for words, but she did as she was told—for the third time today, she noted silently.  In the complete darkness she suddenly felt the soft fur of a cat brush her hand, it was the same kind of greeting her own cats would give her when she came home and when she fed them.  “Holy shit,” she said.

“Really?  We’re being led through a dark passage by a talking cat?”  Brent was still leaning against the wall attempting to move as little as possible.  “Maybe I am in shock.”

The cat chimed in, still speaking very softly, “This is a very dangerous place.  We’re about to get into some light, so whether you believe me or not will soon be a moot point.”

“And how did you know my name?” Angela asked.

“I’ll get into that later.  Right now, we should move.  Are you ready?”

Angela felt for Brent’s arm and gently shifted his weight onto her shoulder before lunging forward again with heavy steps.

“Be careful,” Griff said, “There’s a sharp turn up ahead.  You’ll see the light to your left.”

And indeed after a few more steps she could see a faint yellow glow on the wall ahead and on the edge of the corner.  The light was gradual so their eyes had time to adjust.  After turning the corner, about twenty feet ahead was a chamber lit with soft yellow light, and trotting ahead of them was Gramps, the talking cat who evidently preferred to be called ‘Griff.”

“No shit,” Brent grunted.

7

I wish there was some way I could have warned them, Griff thought to himself as they moved toward the chamber.  But I couldn’t have anticipated Brent’s trip.

He stopped and looked back at the two clumsy humans.  Brent’s injury was slowing them down significantly, but there were some things in the chamber that might work well for a splint. 

Angela was staring at him as he knew she would.  Human’s didn’t take well to animals adopting there language.  He wasn’t enjoying it so much himself; it made his mouth feel funny.  A necessary sacrifice.

When they got to the chamber, Angela sat Brent down on a wood bench along the nearest wall and they both stared around the subterranean chamber.  The dirt walls and ceiling were supported by a criss-cross of ancient two by fours.  The light was generated by two hanging Edison bulbs connected to a wind-up generator.  Dark tunnels led off in four directions.  In the middle of the room was a steel operating table like what would be seen at a vet’s office. An adjacent rolling table had a set of operating blades, sutures, needles, etc.  In the corner stood a large cabinet with glass panes revealing an assortment of bottles and jars inside.  Lining the opposite wall was an array of six medium-sized cages.  In one of the cages was a very large sleeping raccoon.

“She’s pregnant.”  Griff said noticing Angela’s stare.  “He has her sedated to keep her from trying to escape.  Some instincts are impossible to subdue.”

“Who?” Angela asked.

“William.  The gas station owner.”

This brought Brent back to attention.  “Willy?  What are you talking about?  This hole belongs to him?”

Griff nodded.  “William was a prominent biologist in Nigeria.  But when he moved here with his wife, none of his credentials were accepted.  His uncle passed away and left him this gas station, and he built this lab so he could continue his experiments.”

“Like teaching cats to talk?”  Brent growled.

Griff hopped up on the operating table and looked Brent in the eyes.  “His wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about ten years ago and has slowly developed a form of dementia which convolutes her speech.  Out of desperation William built this lab and began experimenting on our vocal chords and lingual muscles.  He also stimulated an enzyme production in what he identified as the speech centers our brains.  I was the first.  Selena and Vamp can speak as well.”

“Where is Vamp?”  Angela asked, remembering the missing kitten.

“I don’t know,” Griff said.  “She disappeared sometime last night.”

Angela considered this and looked around the makeshift lab.  “What’s with the Raccoons?”

Griff looked towards a pile of rubble in the corner.  “There’s a broken chair over there.  You can use that and some of the medical supplies to make a splint for Brent.  I would like to be able to move faster if we can.”

Brent had his eyes closed, apparently trying to conserve his strength and control the pain.  Angela walked over to the corner and began to sift through the refuse.  “You didn’t answer my question.”  She found an intact chair leg and then walked over to the cabinet and began searching the drawers for a binding material.

Griff was watching one of the tunnels anxiously. “The raccoons were a mistake.  They were the first round of experiments, and William accidentally over-stimulated them and triggered a sort of psychosis.  He has them trained, but they are prone to aggressive fits and lingual tics.  They are very territorial about this lab.  They see themselves as having been reborn here and the doctor is their god.  They’ll be after us soon enough.”

Angela had found some bandages and was fixing the table leg to Brent’s broken fibula.  He whimpered in as manly a way as he could.  Angela stood up and looked at Griff.

“Okay, so we’ve got some rabid raccoons after us.  Is that all?” 

“That’s enough for now.  Are you ready, Brent?  We may need to move faster in this next portion.”

“How do you even know my name?”  Brent asked.  “I never told you.  Angela never said it.”

Griff sighed.  Angela had never seen a cat sigh before and wondered what it meant that this one could sigh.

The cat again looked directly at Brent, “Cats are naturally telepathic.  Some more and some less.  I am quite adept at reading humans’ minds, and combined with my acquired predilection towards your language, it makes me quite special indeed.”

They all looked around at each other for a moment.  Griff admired how well the humans were taking it.

“Just get me out of here.” Brent said, reaching out so Angela could help him up.

Griff looked down the passage that would lead them out and strained to hear the telltale scratching and cursing that would forewarn the raccoons’ approach.  For the time being there was only Brent’s raspy breathing.

8

Brent appropriated a thick wood dowel from the refuse pile as a cane and was hobbling along unaided.  Angela walked closer to Griff whose tail was low and ears back.

“Are the raccoons really dangerous?”  Angela asked.

“It’s amazing what happens to an animal’s brain when it is suddenly thrust into the field of language.  It learns and develops words for things it hasn’t had the proper time to consider and understand.  With this frustrating advancement comes an awareness of inferiority, and, for the feisty brutes Nature engineered raccoons to be, one hell of a Napoleon complex.”

The passage had gone completely dark again and Angela slowed to help Brent avoid knocking into the walls.  She grabbed his free hand to lead him.  It was cold and clammy and, though she felt bad for him, she couldn’t wait to let it go.

“But you and the other cats don’t have that?”  She asked.

“We were spared the psychosis after William adjusted the experiment, and, as I have indicated, we’re quite different from raccoons.”  Griff flicked his ears around and sniffed the air.  “Someone’s coming,” He hissed.  Quick, there are two rooms just ahead.  We’ll duck into the one on the right.”

She pulled Brent along and felt for the handle on the the right.  Up ahead and around a curve a light was approaching.

“Easy!  Easy!”  Brent wheezed.

Finding the handle, she pushed open the door into what seemed to be an even deeper darkness.  For the second time that day the scent of death filled her lungs and she fought the urge to wretch.

“Get in!  Get in and close the door!”  Griff said.  “Softly!”

They rushed into the darkness and Angela closed the door, holding her breath against the effluvium hanging in the air.  Moments later, the light emanated under the crack of the door.  Angela covered her mouth with her shirt and tried to take a few deep breaths to calm down.

Outside the door they heard keys jangle and a door opening and then the light got dimmer.  There was a deep muffled voice mumbling and cooing unintelligibly.  Angela held her breath and tried to make out some words to no avail.  Then for a moment it fell completely silent.  They all watched the light at the bottom of the door for movement but everything was completely still.

Then a loud moan, a clearly feminine howl, broke through the silence.  It was a wretched sound, like a dog with a broken leg being trampled on.  The voice murmured something encouraging, but the howl again overtook it.Goosebumps sprang down Angela’s back. In the darkness, Brent sounded like he was crying softly.  Griff padded over and pushed his body against Brent’s good leg to comfort him. 

The alternating murmurs and howls continued for another ten minutes before silence again took hold.  The light got brighter outside their door and they heard the door across the passage close and lock, and then the light began to fade into the distance.

“What the fuck was that?”  Angela whispered.

“William’s wife.”  Griff replied.

9

They waited for a few minutes in silence before quietly exiting the room they had holed up in.  Both Brent and Angela gasped at the clean air.  Griff sniffed at the darkness.

“Come on.  He’ll be back soon,”  Griff said.

“And just leave her here?  She sounded like she was in pain.”  Angela was already feeling for the knob on the opposite door.

“You can’t help her.  Not here.  Not now,” Griff said attempting to sound like a rational cat.  “Once we get you and Brent to safety you can decide what of this ordeal you wish to share with the authorities.”

“He’s right,”  Brent grunted.  “I can’t help you.  We can’t even see.  We should just get the hell out of this nightmare.”

“No.”  Angela said, trying her shoulder on the door.  Behind it a fait yelp was heard.  “I’m not leaving her down here.  She can follow us out too.”

“It’s not a good idea,” Griff said.

“Everyone said that about feeding you guys, too.”  She shouldered the door again a little harder, “But here you are saving my life.”  Not making much progress with her shoulder she took a step back and felt for the knob with her shoe.  Bracing herself against the other door, she gave a good kick just below the knob and the door swung open.  Inside, there was more soft orange light from a single Edison bulb.  Angela stepped inside.  Brent hobbled in reluctantly behind her.

The room was a paradox:  Bright flowery sheets were rumpled and filthy on the bed.  A beautiful wood dresser had been jostled away from one wall and beautiful dresses were spilled across the dirt floor.  On the ground near it a broken mirror reflected the jaundiced light.  There was an untouched plate of nachos and hot dogs on the floor by the bed.  Facing the far corner, a woman huddled shivering in the shadows.  Her shaved head revealed fresh stitches along the base of her skull.

“Be careful,” Griff said from the door.  “Her treatment is ongoing, and she still suffers psychosis from the first round of experiments.  William is still trying to fix her.”

Fix her?  Angela slowly approached the poor woman.  “Miss?  Are you okay?  We can help you leave here.”  She inched forward until she was in arm’s length of her.  “Miss?”

The woman violently whipped around and grabbed Angela forcing her back a few paces knocking into Brent.  Brent yelped and caught himself on the bed. The woman screamed a garbled incantation and clawed at Angela’s face with black fingernails, her eyes were rolled upward as if she were trying to peer into the garbled mechanics of her brain. Angela put her arms up but ended up falling back with William’s wife on top of her,.

“Help me!” Angela screamed.

Griff maintained his distance, but Brent managed to right himself and hobble over to them.  Bracing himself, he raised his makeshift cane and brought it down hard on William’s wife’s head.  She collapsed immediately and Angela pushed her away and got up shakily.

“Can we go now?” Griff asked from the doorway.

10

The door was broken but Angela closed it as best she could.  Brent admired her courage; he would have left the mystery of the woman behind, partially because he was wounded, but also because he was still crippled by a cowardice that he had only recently begun to grudgingly acknowledge.

“There are stairs up here,” Griff said.  “Be careful.”

Angela and Brent found them and Angela very carefully helped Brent with the painstaking ascent.  They reached a landing and, coming around to the second flight, could make out a crack of bright light at the top.

“Where does this lead?”  Angela asked.

“The back room of the gas station.”  Griff said.  He was sitting at the top step now sniffing at the bottom of the door.  “We’re not safe yet.  He’s fed her, but he could come back any moment.”

When they made it up the second flight, Angela pushed open the door and helped Brent up into the fluorescent light of the gas station’s back room.  The buzzing of refrigerators greeted them as well as the smell of dirty mop water.

There were two doors.  One led to the main room of the station, the other led out back to the dumpsters.  Angela and Brent went for the back door.  Griff snuck to the interior door and peeked inside.  William was at the counter helping a customer.  With a sigh of relief he joined Brent and Angela as they stepped outside.

The short alley was framed by the back wall of the station and the chain-link dumpster enclosure.  A door-size gate hung open at the far end.  It was night now and eerie green gas station light emphasized the grime splattered on every surface.  Brent could see their cars just across the lot and felt a frantic sense of relief fluttering up inside him.  He caught Angela looking at him and they shared a smile.  She looked like hell, but he couldn’t imagine he looked any better.

They had only gone a few steps down the alley when three high-pitched scratchy voices froze them in their tracks.

“Fuckin’!  Kill.  Bitch!”  Master Bastard Faster!  “Shutup.ShutUP.SHUTSHUTup.”

Three raccoons came around the corner and blocked the path to the car.  The smallest one stepped in front of the other two who hissed and started running around in looping circles.

“FUCKin right!  Gotcha knew you’d SHIT be showin’!”

The two behind him tittered like comic book cronies as they continued to lope over and around each other like fuzzy electrons around a cursing nucleus.

Angela stepped forward and stomped and clapped as she had earlier in the day, but they made no move to flee.  Instead, one of the cronies leaped at her and sliced her on the forearm.  She hadn’t noticed they were all carrying razorblades cushioned on one side with duct tape, like prison weapons.  She retreated to her friends and the raccoons took a step further into the alley.

“I probably should have warned you about that,”  Griff muttered as they withdrew slightly.

“They’re just three stupid raccoons.  Take this stick,” Brent said, handing her his cane.

“Big stick JERKoff.” The small one said and the other two instantly stopped their frenetic scampering.  They all stared at the advancing Angela for a second before tittering and retreating outside the gate and disappearing.

Angela lowered the cane she had been brandishing and looked back at her comrades.

“That was easy,” she said.

A loud BANG from behind her caused her to jump and spin.  The leader raccoon had leapt on the gate and swung it closed.  His little hand then clamped shut a padlock that had been hanging loosely on it.

“ShitFuckers!”

Behind the small raccoon, who seemed to be giving them the finger, the other two raccoons had reared up and were flinging sharp rocks over the gate at them.  Suddenly Angela felt like she had been punched with a small hammer.  She reached up to her cheek and her hand came away slick with warm blood.  The leader raccoon leapt down and joined his thrashing brothers.

Angela grabbed Brent and they all hurried back inside and locked the door behind them.  Outside a slew of muffled curses could be heard as well as scratching and scraping on the door.

William just happened to be in the back room when they entered.  He tilted his head slightly, taking in the scene: a dirty man with a broken leg and a dirty bleeding woman.

“What are you doing back here?” He demanded.

11

From behind a shelving unit Gramps watched to see what would happen.  He knew he could sneak out later if they could somehow talk their way out of it.  The raccoons had ceased their noise at the sound of William’s voice and it was unclear if he had heard them.

“Brent?  Are you okay?”  William asked, suddenly recognizing the man who had bought his property.  “What happened to you?  Who is this woman?”

“I’m fine,” Brent said quickly.  “We, uhm, had an accident in the lot out back.”

“In the lot?  Oh My Goodness.  What were you doing out there?”  William asked, pulling out a chair for him.  “Here, sit down.  Miss?  Are you okay?  Your cheek is bleeding!”

“I’m fine,” she said, but William was already grabbing a roll of paper towels for her to press on her wound.

“Please,” he said.  “Do you want a proper bandage?”

“I’m fine,” she repeated, not knowing what else to say, but William darted from the back room to get some bandage for them.  She looked at Brent.  “What should we do?!” she said.

Before Brent could respond, William was back waiving an array of first aid materials from his gas station shelves.

“What happened to you two?” he asked with true concern.  “Have you called the police?”

Brent shot a look at Angela indicating that he would do the talking, but before he could begin, from the hidden door to the passage came a faint moan and a shuffling sound.  William’s eyes got wide as cue balls and he slowly turned his head toward the false cabinet that hid the stairs to his secret chamber.  They all froze.

The door to the cabinet blew open and William’s wife tumbled out emitting a shrieking moan that would haunt Brent and Angela for years to come.  She flailed at William who began pleading her name, “Lucy!  Lucy, no!”

Griff darted to the main store breaking the temporary trance that had frozen Angela and Brent in place and they got up to quickly follow him.

As they exited,William was wrestling for control of his frantic wife, cradling her and cooing her name.  As the door shut, Angela looked back and caught him giving her the most evil look she had received in her life.

12

The main room of the gas station was quiet and empty as they scrambled to the front door.  Griff took the lead as Angela helped Brent along. He zig-zagged through the candy aisle past rows of colorful snacks and was swinging around the counter when he suddenly stopped.

Sitting just inside the door were the three raccoons.  The leader was standing on the two others shoulders and had just hung a “Closed” sign in the window.  He slid the deadbolt in the glass door into place.

“Bitches TRAPped.  Pray to God!  GOD!”  The raccoon screeched.

He leapt down and the two lesser raccoons began their manic scramble around him again.  It was a swirl of gnashing, tittering fur, accented by the intermittent clicking of razor blades on the tile floor.

Angela and Brent stepped out of the aisle and emitted a few curses themselves.  In the back room a loud BANG made their hearts jump and the raccoons titter louder.  Griff darted behind the counter.

William’s voice erupted from behind them.  “Be careful,” he said, stepping into the main room of the store.  “They’ll slice you up good.  They know about the Achille’s tendon.  They also know where your largest arteries run.  They are smarter than they appear, I’m afraid.”

Behind the counter, Griff found Vamp in a cat carrier held closed with a piece of twine.  Vamp blinked his eyes slowly in a greeting thinking, I knew you’d find me.

And just in the nick of time, Griff replied silently before setting to work gnawing through the twine.

13

Brent backed up to the counter and Angela stepped back to join him.  She was scanning every surface for a potential weapon.

“You should let us go,” she said.  “This can only get worse for you.”

“Worse for me?!”  William laughed, flailing his hands in the air above him, one of which gripped a small revolver.  “Everything I have experienced in this country has been worse for me!  You two cannot fathom the horrendous turns my life has taken since I immigrated here.”

He walked toward them slowly through the far aisle.  Behind him hung giant ads for beer and cigarettes.

“In Nigeria I was a doctor!”  He shouted, eyes wide and nostrils flared.  They could make out the glistening lines of tears running down his cheeks.  “But here,” he continued, “I work in a gas station.”

Brent tried to interject, “William—”

“Don’t say my name!”  William screamed as he stepped out of the aisle and pointed the gun at Brent.  “Because of you I don’t even have this shitty store.”  He took a deep breath and wiped his face with the back of his arm.  “Because of you,” his voice broke, “I don’t even have my beautiful Lucy.”

As William advanced on them from one side, so too did the raccoons from the other.  Brent and Angela had nowhere to go.

William shook his head, “When you hit the bottom you think that ‘worse’ becomes an invalid word.  You stare at the mud floor and the dirt walls, you speak to your silent wife and hear only animal noises, you breathe gas fumes every day and sell crap food to ignorant people who treat you like a fool, and you think you have already arrived at ‘worse.’  But it seems the journey never ends.”

Griff jumped up on the counter.  “It wasn’t their fault, William,” he said.  “The fell down a hole in the lot.  I was trying to lead them out when they heard you wife and wanted to help her.”

“No one can help my wife,” he said, lowering his gun.  “I see that now.  But I had to try.  Even with my pathetic third-world degree I could have still done something with my life.”

“You did something for us.”  Griff said with a swish of his tail. 

William stopped walking as if struck by this.  The raccoons also paused, panting.  Suddenly, Vamp lept from behind a snack aisle onto William’s head, clawing at his face and eyes.  William dropped his gun and punched at the cat.  Griff hissed and bounded to help Vamp.

Seizing the opportunity, Angela grabbed Brent’s cane again and swung it at the dumbstruck raccoons knocking the leader across the floor like a furry tumbleweed.  The other two converged on her.  She swung at one of them and missed.  The other one went for her heel with a blade, but Brent pushed a cooler off the counter hitting him and sending him scrambling.  Angela’s second swing at the other raccoon connected and sent him rolling up an adjacent aisle squealing and cursing.

“Come on!” She said, reaching for Brent and hauling him towards the door.  As he unlocked it, she turned to ward off the one remaining raccoon.  In the back, the cats’ tag team assault had left William’s body a web of scratches and tears and his face a bloody mess.  He was fumbling blindly for the gun as the cats together pounced on the remaining raccoon.  They screeched and squealed in a tumble of fur and claws as Brent and Angela finally stumbled out into the front lot.

As they hobbled across the parking lot to hail some help, a second shot rang out behind them.

Angela ducked and sent Brent sprawling.  When his broken leg connected hard with the concrete his wail was as animal as any of the sounds they had heard that day.  Angela looked over her shoulder expecting to see William shooting at them.  Instead saw the Griff and Vamp bounding toward them.

“He’s dead.”  Griff said.

“Are you okay?”  Vamp asked, looking them over.

14

Hours later, when the ambulance and the police arrived, Brent and Angela were told that William had shot his wife and then himself.  Brent and Angela recounted their story of falling down the hole in the lot and the ensuing nightmare.  It wasn’t difficult to leave out the part of the talking cats and their aid.

As Angela was getting checked out in the back of one of the two ambulances, a detective from the police precinct stuck his head in.

“Hey.  Can I ask you one more question?”  He asked, brows raised.

“Go ahead.”

“What’s the deal with the three dead raccoons?”

Angela took a deep breath and shrugged.

“Ask Brent,” she said.

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Story #41 – Woke Pissing Contest /or/ More Woke Than Most

Let me start this off by saying that we were both drunk, but he was waaaaay drunker than me. We were going back and forth, me and Trevon, for over an hour:

“I NEVER let any of my white friends get away with saying the N-Bomb,” he said.

“I’ve read all of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books and essays,” I said.

“I have a hand painted BLM sign in my window!” he said.

“I don’t listen Kanye West anymore!” I said.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

We were at a poetry reading and neither of us were poets. I’m pretty sure the dude didn’t even write poetry, not that I did. But he was definitely there for the chicks. Though how he expected to pick up poetry chicks without being a poet kind of escapes me. I was there because I used to date the bartender and she still gave me free drinks.

Anyway, we were both in the back at the bar, respectfully listening to the poets. It was a rough night. I don’t know if they were all bad or if I just wasn’t connecting with any of them. Blah blah blah my heart hurts blah blah blah she was exquisite as a solar system blah blah blah apples and oranges and penguins. Really some stinkers!

This young woman of color got up on the mic. She was pretty hot and the featured poet of the night and I was confident those two details were not mutually exclusive. The crowd fell quiet and once they settled to a perfect iceberg of silence, she launched into this poem about being black in America and systematic racism and white privilege.

As she continued to deconstruct the state of the Nation, I glanced around at the other white folks in the room. Even though they were all smiling and googly-eyed I knew that each and every one of them was so uncomfortable they couldn’t even appreciate her words for the subtext and symbolism.

For every admonishment she bestowed upon White America, their brains were uttering a silent refrain: But not me, right? The irony of all these privileged white folk dying to be not only accepted by the diaspora, but excused from their role in society as it inarguably exists, sure tickled my ribs.

I was uncomfortable with some of what she said too, but I’m more woke than most. I know how to respond to my discomfort. I know that it is my role in situations like this to allow myself to wallow in it, to accept the sins of my ancestors and acknowledge the extent to which I benefit from a society built upon racial segregation and persecution.

So when the Poet looks into the crowd and sees me not smiling, she knows I’m more down that the rest of the cheesing geeks. She knows I don’t resent her for shoving my face into the jagged facts of my privileged existence. I used to, but I’ve done the work. I accept the fact that I will never fully understand what it is like to live in America as a POC, but it is my duty to continually check myself so that I am at least not contributing to the crisis.

When she was done and the staticky roar of snaps subsided, I turned to the white dude next to me at the bar.

“That was pretty dope,” I said.

He gave me a sickly sardonic smile and took a sip from his beer. “You shouldn’t say ‘dope,’ bro.”

“Oh yeah, brother? Why is that?”

“Blaccents are a form of cultural appropriation. It’s not your culture. Did your parents talk like that?”

“I’ve been a rapper for over ten years. I think that grants me access to some of the linguistic tropes of my peers.”

“You can do what you want, man. I’m just letting you know that your use of it could be construed by some as a form of appropriation and oppression.” He finished off his beer and flagged my ex for another. She caught my eye and I nodded that I’d take another too.

When she came over, I said, “I’ll get his.” This earned me an eye roll from her which I don’t think the dude noticed. “What’s your name, brother?” I asked.

“Trevon,” He said. My eyebrows raised instinctively and he slapped me with that smirk again. “My parents tried to name me Trevor, but the nurse at the hospital read the R as an N. My parents were too lazy to get it changed back, so yeah, I have a ‘black name.'”

“As ridiculous a concept as that is!”

“Yeah. I got teased a lot for it growing up, by both my black friends and my white friends, but I made it through okay.” He smiled more genially.

“I’m Bhakti.” I said. Now it was his turn to raise his eyebrows. “My Jewish parents were part of a hippie commune in Colorado. All the kids had names from Eastern spirituality. ‘Bhakti’ essentially means ‘balance’ with reference to Vishnu.”

“Jewish hippies, huh?”

I nodded and, “Cheers?”

We clinked bottles and stared out at the sea of mostly white college kids. There was a cluster of them around the featured poet, fawning. I realized that to perceive that as a novel situation was a racist thought. I silently congratulated myself on doing the work.

“You ever hear this poet before?” I asked.

“Limón? Yeah, of course. I have her first book of poetry. I bought it last time she came through. She really has a way of reaching into your guts and dragging something out of you that you didn’t know was there before.”

“I feel that! Even tonight, she had that line, ‘When you come, bring your brownness so we can be sure to please the funders.’ She’s really brilliant.”

“Poets have it easy. They’ve been supporting the race conversation for years, carrying it on their shoulders, shoving it in people’s faces from tiny stages in coffee houses. Now that the race conversation has gone mainstream, I wonder if they feel like their work doesn’t have as much bite as it did when it was something no one talked about.”

I nodded in agreement, yet countered, “But it’s still a topic most white people aren’t really comfortable with.”

“Funny, right? Like even now, here we are, two white dudes talking about race, but how much progress can we make without the perspective of a person of color?”

“Yeah. I feel that, but that shouldn’t prohibit us from asking questions. It should just caution us against rushing to any conclusions.”

We kept drinking and talking like this, Trevon and I, for an hour or so. He bought a couple rounds and I got us a couple more. We waxed about the frustrations we had talking about race with our parents; apparently his hippie parents still claimed they “didn’t see color.”

I told him that my father still used words like “scoby” and “poof.” “He’s a little racist,” I said. I thought about it for a minute then added, “Well, we’re all a little racist.”

And we both nodded gravely.

When the poet, Limón, walked by and left, neither of us noticed. We were too busy celebrating how Woke we were.

Funny thing about alcohol is that it’s way easier to forget yourself, to lose your footing on your climb to whatever peak you set your sights on. You think you’re still climbing when really your just sloshing around in a mud puddle.

“I was at a Polish-run grocery store the other day and my cashier was this nice Asian woman. All the other cashiers were actively shunning her. She ran out of paper for her receipt roll and was asking one of the other girls for help and the girl just made generic “Ching Chong” noises at one of her white co-workers. So I chimed in and got them to stop being such jerks to her. She said they do it all the time,” He told me.

“That’s cool, brother. Most people just talk the talk.”

“Armchair activists, man. I can’t stand them!”

“Me neither. It’s like MLK said – if there’s injustice anywhere–”

“There’s injustice everywhere!” He chimed in. We both laughed a little and pulled at our drinks.

“I’m impressed, brother,” I said. “You’re way more Woke than I would have given you credit for.”

Trevon slammed down his bottle, “Bro! I am the wokest person you know!”

This would imply that he was more Woke than me. I wasn’t having it.

“I don’t think so, brother. You’re doin’ pretty good though.”

Trevon turned to me. “Dude! You don’t even know. I go door to door in my neighborhood getting people to support bills fighting gentrification and in favor of public housing!”

I put down my beer and turned to face him as well.

“Every time I see someone in a MAGA Hat, I invite them to dinner to try to remind them that colonialism was actually a violent form of theft.”

“I NEVER let any of my white friends get away with saying the N-Bomb,” said he.

“I’ve read all of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books and essays,” said I.

“I have a hand painted BLM sign in my window!” said he.

“I don’t listen to Kanye West anymore!” said I.

“I host an annual Juneteenth party!”

“I only support Black-owned businesses!”

“I’ve seen every episode of Atlanta and Black-ish.”

“I have Frederick Douglass wrestling a lion tattooed on my chest.”

“I don’t like white people.”

“I fucking hate white people.”

And that was when we stopped talking.

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Story #40 – grace

They jumped the fence and ducked behind the wall, catching their breath. Grace looked at Tim and smiled. Tim looked like he might throw up.

“You okay, tiger?” she asked him, punching him lightly on his arm.

He nodded and swallowed. “Yeah,” he said. “Just…out…of breath.”

They sat there in the cool grass, their backs against the stone wall. The headlights of a few cars swept over the fence vaguely illuminating the army of headstones arrayed before them. It was a moonless night and the way the light played across them made it look like the grave stones were jumping and scrambling, trading places to confuse the ghosts who slept beneath them.

She looked back over at him and he looked slightly less pale, still sweaty though. His dark wavy hair hung in his eyes in a way that always made her go soft. He was wearing all black, like she told him to. He looked like one of those goth boys who read Kafka and drank black coffee while hand rolling their cigarettes. She wanted to jump his bones already.

“How’s the wine?” she asked.

He checked his shoulder bag and nodded. “Still in the bottle!”

“Grand!” She said and, after another set of headlights passed by giving the graves another chance to scrabble about, she peeked over the wall behind them. The coast clear, she hopped into a crouch and set off into the maze of stones.

“Follow me!” She shouted, maybe a little too loud for the dead, knowing he had little other choice anyway but to follow close or else lose her in the shadows. Her voice echoed back to her off the tombstones a second later than it should have. It wasn’t enough to make her stop and turn around, but it sent a chill up her spine.

“Where are we going?” She heard Tim ask. He was a few paces behind her and panting again. Maybe he actually did smoke hand-rolled filterless cigarettes.

“The tree is just over the hill this way,” said Grace as she bobbed and wove her way forward.

She knew the graveyard well. As a kid, she was friends with the caretaker’s daughter. They had a small playground in their back yard which was directly connected to the graveyard. When she and her friend would swing or slide, they would risk tumbling into the graves at any minute. It was weird and scary, but no one else really played with the girl. Grace originally began playing with the girl out of pity, but slowly realized she also had a minor infatuation with Death.

The deal was sealed when the girl collapsed one day when they were playing. Grace thought she was playing and poked at her with her foot laughing for a moment before realizing something was wrong. Her screams brought out the caretaker who rushed her to the hospital, leaving Grace behind standing between a playground and a cemetery.

The girl died of an aneurism. Grace never forgot the word. How could a seven year old forget a word that described an invisible threat that didn’t even spare children? Aneurism! It could come at any time for anyone. It scared her still.

What she couldn’t remember was her friend’s name. She was blonde and had strange eyes. That’s all that remained of her strange friend who died as a very young child.

They came around a large crypt with an angel sitting on top looking bored and a Grace saw what they were looking for.

“There it is! You see?”

“Wow. It is effin’ huge,” he said. “What’s it called again? A y–”

“Yew Tree!” Grace said, reminding him. “It’s a tree that’s native to England. You can find them at most of the old cemeteries over there.”

“What’s so special about it? Aside from it being effin’ humongalous.”

“Kiss me and I might tell ya,” Grace replied, widening her eyes and staring into his.

“Oh yeah? Is that how this works? Some sort of barter system?”

He was a dork, but a cute one. She couldn’t figure half the shit that came out his mouth.

“You’re wasting precious smooching time, buddy,” she said.

She stopped under the branches of the giant tree and waited for him to approach her which he finally was doing. He stepped up and she slowly took his hand and placed it on her cheek. He stared her in her eyes and she inched up a bit on her toes, tilting up her chin.

“Hey! How about we open this wine?” He said, breaking away and reaching into his satchel.

What the eff was his problem?? She had been sending him no shortage of signals for the past week. She kept putting her hand on him and laughing every time he said anything remotely funny. She really hated making the first move. She could lead a horse to water, hell, she could spray water all over the horse’s face, but she would not force the horse to drink. If this stud didn’t warm up tonight, she would probably move on to a different stable.

“Shit!” he said. “I forgot a wine key.”

Of course he did.

“Gimme the bottle, doofus, and take off one of your shoes,” Grace told him.

“One of my–”

“Just do it!”

He did as he was told and she tore off the wrapper at the mouth of the bottle. “I learned this on YouTube!” She said, tossing the wrapper into the darkness that seemed even deeper and thicker under the eaves of the immense Yew tree.

She placed the bottle on the ground and held the tip of his shoe with both hands. She positioned the heel over the top of the wine bottle and took a few slow practice swings before finally bringing down the heel like a hammer on the mouth of the bottle. She banged it a few times and the sound was like gunshots ricocheting around the graveyard. Then she handed him back his shoe and took a swig of the wine.

“You gotta be carful of the cork. It will block the neck if you’re not careful,” Grace told him with a sardonic smile. She took another illustrative swig and then handed him the bottle. He examined it as best he could in the dark before venturing his own first sip.

Then she just looked at him. She stood still and smiled and let the dark gather around her. He finally took the bait. What was it with guys and alcohol? One swig and all of a sudden he’s got balls. Whatevs, she might finally get to taste those lips.

He stepped up to her and wrapped his spare hand in her hair and pulled her face to his. For a second he stopped, their mouths an inch apart, their breath hot on each other’s faces. Then he closed the gap and she let herself get lost in the wonderful feeling of their tongues and lips wrestling.

She pressed her body into his and ran her hands down his chest. They tilted their heads back and forth, switching sides, heaving breath in and out of their flared nostrils unwilling to separate the necessary ritual.

Years may have flashed by, the world spinning around them held under the dark canopy of the Yew Tree. When they came up for air, panting and smiling, nothing much had changed aside from a freshly kindled desire they knew they would continue shortly.

“So why this tree?” He asked, stepping back and leaning against the trunk and sipping from the bottle.

“Well,” said Grace as she stepped over and swiped the bottle from his grip, “In old England, the trees were there first. Old Pagan shaman realized the tree had the power to give them visions. It was decided that the tree was spiritually significant, so people started to bury their dead there.”

“Spiritually significant?” He asked, looking up into the web of branches and leaves above them. “What kind of visions?”

Grace took another sip.

“Well, they saw the spirits of the dead when they were in the presence of the tree.”

“No shit?”

“Can I have another kiss yet?”

He nodded with a smirk and this time she stepped up to him and grabbed his face. Again she let herself plunge into him, her tongue searching his for the secrets of language and sweetness and lust. He disengaged from her mouth and worked his way down her neck and she whispered to him as he did.

“What scientists have discovered is that the Yew tree actually emits a toxin at night that causes hallucinations. So the old Celtic shamans weren’t seeing ghosts so much as they were tripping balls.”

He stopped kissing her and she giggled.

“This is that tree?”

“I thought it might be cool for us to make out here, like it might enhance the experience.”

She looked at him and it looked like the dark of the night was starting to smear his features, as if the night were eating away at any light that might still be lingering to give her eyes any glimpse of detail. He must have been seeing something similar because he stopped talking then and grabbed for the wine bottle.

She handed it to him and he took a heavy chug.

“I can’t see,” he said.

The darkness had swallowed up almost his whole face now. All she could see were his eyes, wide and a little wild. How would she even be able to find his mouth to kiss him again? Then she realized that the eyes she was looking at weren’t his any more. They were too small, and different, a little weird. They were the eyes of the girl she had played with so many years ago who had died of the aneurism.

“You came back to play with me?” came a voice she had not heard for many years.

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Story #39 – Dead Endy

The afternoon was warm and sunny.  The sleek glass skin of the buildings reflected the sparse cumulus clouds grazing like fluffy white buffalo in the azure.  Along the thin seam where one building would meet the sky, clouds pulled apart like a Rorschach cotton kaleidoscope.  It is easy to become lost in the simple elegance of this modern architecture.  You forget where you are, and all the little people buzzing around the corridors of these colossal mirrors become diminished by the sheer weight and power of the sky.

Transfixed by this majestic ballet, Enderton barely noticed the huffs of disgruntled power suits scurrying about their lunch breaks.  The music in his headphones both complemented the power of the scene above and drowned out the rumbling street noise. The buses and limousines, the taxis and motorcycles, powerful men yelling at their cell phones and homeless beggars with outstretched coffee cups; all were defeated by the sonorous swells and triumphant clashes of the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Hector Berlioz was Endy’s favorite Classical composer.  A music appreciation class in college had only glossed over his work, but Endy was drawn to Berlioz.  The unorthodox method of composing which drew criticism from his peers was a unique gift that allowed Berlioz to create music with an unprecedented voice.  A self-taught musician, he drew inspiration for his symphonies and cantatas from life and art, from passion and heartbreak.  His themes and movements were manifestations of raw emotion rather than harmonic solubility.  He was a rebel—the James Dean of nineteenth century Paris.  Endy dug his style.

Listening to music and walking slowly around these midtown blocks was a meditation for Endy.  An hour away from his cubicle and the repetitive number crunching was a necessary respite.  It was the closest ritual he had to Church, and looking up at the sky’s gentle movements was the closest thing to praying he knew.  Endy had given up on organized religions some time ago.  He had seen too many good, hard-working people—people who went to church or synagogue or mosque regularly—struggle and suffer repeatedly in spite of their faith and sacrifice.  He had witnessed his father’s loneliness draw him back to crippling alcoholism.  He had seen his sister, struggling as a single mother, switch religions continuously in a desperate quest for answers and meaning.  And he had heard the doubt manifest in his brother’s voice as he attempted to reinforce his own faith in the tumult of a divorce and bankruptcy.

In effect, Heaven and Hell, reduced to abstract poetics, became words used merely to evoke symbolic images.  A fluffy cloud Paradise, dark caves rimmed with fire, angels and demons, were only personifications to playfully associate with his daily routine and casual encounters.  Right now, eyes angled upward, the idée fixe of the Fantastique pushing into the fourth movement, he was in Heaven, and completely oblivious to the Hell churning around him.

Hands fidgeting in his jacket pockets, he pulled out some small wads of paper: receipts from daily expenses, a small pink bank deposit slip, an obsolete grocery note.  Folding them and tearing them up into small pieces, he released a puff of confetti into the space above an overflowing corner trash can.  It was time to go back to work—a job he despised yet was grateful for.  His debt was no small monster: student loans compounded with an addiction to Nike dunk basketball shoes, plus a habit for dining just slightly out of his price range, had him trapped at the mercy of a fearsome beast.

His temp job as a tax consultant offered him a modest weapon with which to battle this hobgoblin of servitude.  Paycheck by paycheck, the monster was being hacked down, smaller and smaller.  But the process was not a quick one.  Endy would be trapped in this tepid dead-end job for awhile yet; and every morning at 7:15 a.m. the monster, wearing a necklace of fresh kicks and spouting a convolution of sushi-scented Philosophical and Scientific chatter, would bound up from under his bed to taunt him into one of his collection of second-hand suits and ties.

It was the purgatory of his lunch breaks in the canyons between the buildings that kept him sane.

Eyes upward in quixotic repose, ears pricked by the march driving the fourth movement of Fantastique, he turned a corner and crossed the street.  Closing his eyes for a moment, he let himself be taken completely by the thunder of the timpani and the crashing of the cymbals, his favorite part of the symphony.  He lifted his arms and conducted the symphony.  To the outside world he appeared to play puppet master to the whirling crowds.  He opened his eyes just in time to avoid a collision with a smart looking woman in a pant-suit, and skirted around her nonchalantly.

People seemed to be rushing past him with more fervor than usual, but before he could think to turn and see what the fuss was about, his attention was caught by an old mongrel of a woman feeding a flock of puffy pigeons.  She was garbed in black from top hat to bootstrap and wore, over her long dress, a flowing cloak far too thick for this warm time of day.  Her eyes sparkled like emeralds as she glared at him through the rushing crowds.  Absentmindedly, she continued to strew hotdog bun crumbles to the pulsating soup of dirty feathers mooring her in place.  They almost looked like they were flooding out from under her robes; as if, were she to move from her spot, they would surge and slurp along with her.

She started talking as he drew closer to her, but his headphones protected him from whatever scratchy incantation she was attempting to bewitch him with.  She rotated her head to maintain eye contact and raised her arm wearily gesturing back the way he had come.  He neither looked back nor removed his headphones as he passed her.  He distrusted homeless people.  There were too many crooks in the city making more money than him by masquerading as the poor and indigent.  And there was always the possibility of falling under a gypsy curse.

He was two blocks from his office building.  The fifth movement of Symphonie Fantastique was beginning to build in his headphones, sharp horns and skittering strings.  Passing a café where there were always pretty girls sitting outside eating their lunches, he craned his neck to see if a particular brunette was working the counter.  She was not.  But in the reflection of the glass he saw a giant shadow sweep across the far side of the street.  He would have dismissed it for a plane passing overhead except that it jolted to a stop and held its position, dousing the other side of the street in shadow.  Instinctively he looked up to see if something was hovering overhead, but above him was only more blue and white ink blot clouds.

He stopped dead in his tracks and turned to look directly across the street.  The once-broad shadow was drawing into itself and darkening.

Like a giant puddle being sucked down a drain, the edges of the immense shadow quickly congealed into a two-foot wide slop of glistening black.  Endy looked around, but no one seemed to be noticing; The girls sitting at the café were laughing and swallowing bites of panini, a man polishing a chrome railing sneezed, but otherwise continued his tedious polishing.  Endy turned his attention back to the puddle across the street; a delivery boy in a white apron swinging several plastic bags of lunch from each hand was heading straight towards it.

“Hey!!  Don’t yo—” He stopped mid-sentence.  The puddle slid silently out of the delivery boy’s way, and held its new position.  It looked like it was shivering.  A city bus blew by and, after it passed, the puddle moved into the street and was gliding towards Endy.  No one was paying attention.  Unnerved now, he began to walk a little faster down the sidewalk advising an elderly couple of French-speaking tourists he passed, “I wouldn’t go that way!”  They looked excited.  The woman raised her camera and took a picture of an ambulance and a fire truck fording the whitewater scuffle of the interchange.

Running now, he yanked his work ID out of his suit jacket pocket and pushed through the revolving door to the MegaChomp Multinational Building.  The lobby was empty aside from the security guard, not much more than a lump himself, sitting behind a large black-granite-topped desk adjacent to a mechanical turnstile.  He must have been busy with a Sudoku puzzle; he didn’t even look up as Endy lurched into the lobby, shouting.

“Call the cops!  There’s a—” Glancing back at the revolving door, the Slick had maneuvered its way in and was bubbling upwards from the floor taking the form of a slick baby-like creature.  Its sleek skin oozed and dribbled as it rose to the size of a small child.  When it opened three red eyes with pupils the size of pin-pricks, Endy shrieked and leapt over the turnstile heading for an open elevator.  The guard looked up and made a face as if a mouse had farted.  The empty lobby gaped back at him and he returned back to his puzzle; disconnected, unconcerned.

In the elevator, Endy found himself tapping the “46” button with the frantic vigor of a cartoon character; the symphony in his headphones matched his rhythm, pounding brass swells and timpani rumbled toward a crescendo.  The sloppy steps of the gurgling demon were just outside the doors as they slid shut.

Heart pounding, sweat dripping, knees and hands shaking, Endy slid to the floor gasping.

What the fuck is going on?  What was that thing?  Am I dreaming?  Is this some sort of experiment?

His thoughts were as much a muck as the creature had been before it took form.  No one else had taken any notice of it like it was some sort of hallucination.  Had he eaten something rotten?  His streetcart halaal chicken schwarma had never done him wrong before.  His heart hammered nails through his bloodstream.

The floors counted upwards slowly (12), (13), (14), and Endy closed his eyes to try to focus his frantic thoughts.  That thing was disgusting looking.  Short and stocky, slick and shiny, and those eyes.  It seemed like its breath was steaming!  …  But he was safe now.  Wasn’t he?  Safe in the elevator and getting closer to the office he usually hated, but right now was overjoyed to be able to escape into.

Suddenly something didn’t feel right.  The air had gotten moist and thick.  The elevator took on the climate of a tropical rainforest.  As his own breathing calmed down he noticed a secondary panting become audible.

Opening his eyes, first he noticed the numbers still climbing, (38), (39), (40), almost to 42.  But in the elevator, standing catty corner to him, was the heaving, three-foot, oily creature.  Aside from its heavy breathing, it didn’t move, and neither could Endy.  He was frozen in terror.  The thing could easily have jumped onto him at any second.  As far as he could see it didn’t have a mouth though, so there was no threat of being bitten.  But its large flared nostrils were definitely emitting little wisps of steam.

They regarded each other for a frozen second.  Its strange red eyes locked and focused on his baby browns.  The thing’s entire body shifted as it slowly cocked it head.  And, again, it shivered.

At this point Endy stopped breathing entirely.  He might have suffocated himself if the elevator doors didn’t sweep open with a bing!  Trance broken, he leapt from his crouched position and rushed out the elevator door simultaneously taking in a giant gasp of fresh copy-tinged office air, and found himself immediately bounding through empty hallways.  The cubicles of “Schitter and Loufa Tax Consulting” were as silent and still as a graveyard.  Row after row of desks, in various states of disarray, blurred past him as he ran frantically in search of hiding.

He didn’t know where he was going.  He didn’t even have time to wonder why, all of a sudden, no one was here typing, filing, or otherwise attempting to seem proactively occupied.  He ran, for no other reason than a desperate search for authority, to the boss’s office.  Driven faster by the squishy thumps of his pint-sized pursuers trot, he was screaming, “Help!  Anyone!  Debra!  Scotty!  Uva!  Mommmmmmyyyyyy!!” when he entered the tragically vacant sanctum of Franko P. Davenport IV, the C.E.O.

Two giant walls of windows washed the office in warm mid-afternoon light.  The desk, aside from the open laptop angled toward the empty leather chair, was reminiscent of a mighty wooden altar.  Potted trees glowered in the farthest corners of this vast room.  Endy tossed off his headphones and went straight for the phone.  He dialed the front desk and started counting the rings.

One, – He had left the door open.  Too late now.  Please pick up.

Two, – Turning around he looked up at the sky.  The same sky that held him safe and warm only minutes ago was no closer and offered him no comfort.

Three, – Maybe he had time to run and bar the door with something; anything to keep that thing out.

Four, – Now he looked out behind him and down to the street and saw the firetrucks and ambulances.  The same ones that screamed past him on the street, that the French tourists seized as a photo-op.  There was a crowd of people milling around trying to get a better look.

Five, – Someone has been hit by a car while crossing the street.  A stretcher is being carried to the ambulance.

Six, – The pigeon woman was facing his direction and seemed to be looking up at him and pointing to the stretcher.

Seven, – He drops the phone and turns around backing up to the window.

The tar-monster stands in the doorway heaving lightly.

“Oh no!  Please!  What are you?  What do you want!?”  Endy’s legs give out and he slides down, cowering as the demonoid begins advancing on him slow and steady.  A mouth opens up from nowhere splitting the sleek skin under its eyes to reveal several rows of razor-like teeth.

The last thing Endy heard was the faint climax on his discarded headphones across the room, and the goblin’s queer voice, like a rough-edged squeal, repeating what sounded like, “Yum. Yum. Yum. Yum. Yum.”

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Story # 38 – The Weird Thing

Uncle Gene was just coming back from the bar with a fresh round of beers. he was wearing a blue shirt with red flowers on it that I had gotten him when I went to Hawaii to study the medicinal herbs of the island. I had gotten him the gift more as a joke, it was definitely more loud than his usual wardrobe, so I found it very sweet that he wore it out, especially to a college bar in Cleveland.

The bar was crowded, full of my fellow students doing Jager bombs and bouncing their asses to a song I should probably know. To avoid the crowd he took the route by the pool table where some denim-clad bikers appeared to be having a very serious game of billiards.

I didn’t like the bikers. They were prone to picking fights with students for no reason. I had been “accidentally” bumped by them several times, which they then took as an excuse to accost whatever male I was with. The last guy I had come here with had even ended up leaving with a black eye!

Uncle Gene put down the drinks and slid onto the booth bench across from me and I thought I saw a flicker of worry streak across his features. His hands were shaking a little more than usual. Uncle Al, next to me and oblivious as usual, grabbed his beer and slurped sloppily, getting some beer suds in his gray beard.

“You okay, Uncle Gene?” I asked above the din of the bar.

“Uh? Oh! Fine, Anna. Fine. Got you a lager!” He said, pushing a pint glass in my direction.

Uncle Gene and Uncle Al weren’t really my uncles. They were my neighbors growing up. They didn’t have kids, but were always kind to me when I wandered over onto their porch bask in the tobacco smoke billowing from their pipes as the sun went down. My parents divorced when I was nine. Meanwhile Gene and Al were passing through Ithaca on their way to Niagra Falls for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Uncle Al, the more gregarious of the two, launched back into the story he was telling about the time he had to brush the teeth of an entire flock of pigs. Gene and I knew the story well, but we also knew how much Al liked telling it, so we let him ramble on.

“Did any of them bite you?” I asked. I have asked this so many times that it’s pretty much part of the story now.

“Every damn one of them!” He blurted comically.

One question I had never asked was why he had to brush all their teeth anyway. I was pretty sure that porcine dental health wasn’t a priority at many mills. Also, I knew him to be a podiatrist, so there’s that. I didn’t want to ruin his rhythm though, so I tucked that question away for later.

Uncle Gene got up and seemed to wander toward the bathroom. This was weird because I thought he had gone to the bathroom on the way to get our beers.

“I had one arm wrapped around the bugger’s head and was reaching around with the other, but the damn toothpaste kept slipping off the brush. Did I mention it was a hair brush?”

“Yes you did, Uncle Al.”

“It was a small hair brush! Anyway, this sheep in particular was known to be grumpy.”

The bar churned around us. High pitched giggles erupted from across the room. Shot glasses were emptied and slammed down on the bar. Heavy bass thumped beneath the clamor carrying it on its shoulders like a train of squealing children.

“And the teeth came out in my hand!” Al exclaimed. “Did you know sheep could have dentures?? I was damn flabbergasted!”

He guzzled some more of his beer and leaned back beaming, his mind still relishing the memory. I stared off in the direction of the bathrooms, hoping to see Gene emerge plodding toward us. He did not. Then I noticed that the bikers had abandoned the pool table area.

“Hey! Where did Genie go?” Al said.

I was already getting up from the booth. “I’ll go check,” I said.

The bathroom was empty. And very smelly. It’s like boys just pee everywhere.

Instinctively I followed the dark hallway into the bar’s secret areas. My heart was clawing it’s way up my throat as I moved farther from the circus of the bar. The water-stained drywall and peeling-paint guts closed in on me.

I had my hand on the back door when a sound from somewhere below froze me. To my right I made out the shape of a door hidden in a small alcove and stepped softly toward it. The deepwater rumblings intensified somewhat. I placed my hand on the nob and turned it carefully. I pulled the door open a crack and the voices came into focus.

“I have to get back to my table!” Uncle Gene warbled.

“Not until you pay,” came another voice, deeper and hoarse, a little scuffle and a soft bang of what sounded like utensils being rattled from a shelf.

My stomach felt like it was being squeezed by a bag of hair ties. I could feel my hands shaking with my thudding heart. I took a deep breath and clomped down the stairs with as heavy steps as I could muster with my tiny frame.

“HEY!” I shouted even before I could see what was going on.

The basement looked like what you would expect for a shitty college bar. There were kegs stacked to one side and some old neon signs crusted with years of dust. There were some shelves stacked with cardboard boxes and office supplies, papers and random bric a brac. A lone 60-watt bulb hung from the ceiling.

The three bikers had Gene pushed up on a desk. His eyes were large and glassy and his skin was as pale as his gray hair. They all turned to me as I stomped down the stairs.

“What the fuck is going on down here?” I yelled in my bassiest butchest voice.

“Anna,” Gene said. My name sounding as foreign in this subterranean world as I felt.

The biggest biker dude, the one with the shaved head and the tattoo of a roach on his neck, let go of Gene and turned to me slowly.

“Go back upstairs, little girl,” he said, “before these big bad wolves add you to the menu.”

One of his goons snickered. The other one spat. It was quite a routine.

“I’m not going anywhere without my uncle,” I said. Somehow my voice remained strong despite the imminent feeling that I might piss myself.

“Your uncle?” Snickered the snickerer.

Cockroach beamed a sick smile. “Your uncle here owes me money. He’s racked up quite a tab.”

The basement was getting smaller, the walls pressing in on me. I was also getting smaller, shrinking before these strange wolves and their koans. The riddle just presented to me could have been scrawled in the clouds in hieroglyphics.

“It’s okay,” Gene stammered, still jammed against the desk. “Go back upstairs. I’ll be along shortly.”

I didn’t break eye contact with cockroach. “How much does he owe you?”

“Three fif–” the spitter tried to say but Cockroach slapped him in the chest.

“Four hundo” said Cockroach.

I looked at Gene. Four hundred dollars was a lot of money to me. Apparently it was a lot of money for him and Al too. His bloody nose dripped on the shirt I bought him forming a flower of a different shade red.

“I’ll get it for you, but you can’t hit him again.”

“Don’t you want to know what it’s for?”

I looked at Gene and suddenly my friend who I had known most of my life wouldn’t meet my eyes. Gene was always the loud laugher in the room, but just as quick to zero in on whoever might be feeling uncomfortable and offer a comforting word or smile. On any given day I could have picked him out of a crowd of any size anywhere on the planet, but at this moment I could barely recognize him. His body was contorted in a strange way, like a doll that had been stepped on too many times to regain its proper shape. His hands were shaking and he was exhaling a little too heavily as if he were deflating.

“There’s an ATM upstairs. I’ll be right back,” I said turning from the whole unpleasant spectacle. The bikers had a good laugh as I climbed the stairs. Behind me, back in that strange dimension, I heard one of them say, “G! Does your niecey know you shoot H?”

It was difficult not to lose my shit, to break down and weep on the way to the ATM. When I got there I couldn’t remember my pin. When I did finally remember my pin, I could only pull out $200. I couldn’t call the cops. I looked across the room at Al who appeared to be sleeping in our booth. Did he know? Was he a junky too?

I did the only thing I could do. I took my $200 back down into that fucked up basement to see if I could haggle my poor battered old friend out of any more punishment. After all, When the wolves huff and puff and try to blow down my house, I’m the type of little pig who bites back.

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Story #37 – Mean Time

Andy has memorized twenty-seven knots.

He can easily show you the difference between a davy knot and a double turtle. He knows ten different hitch knots as well as various bends, slings, and splices. He started learning them when he got his first sail boat. He has since sold that boat and upgraded to a rare old schooner with a diesel motor that he is relishing the process of refinishing. He does this when he is not working on one of his several properties in a town that America forgot, but is now beginning to remember.

He was lucky to be there during the forgetting with a little money because he was able to snatch up a few lovely old houses on the cheap. He grew up in the town and he has no plans to ever leave. It suits him just fine. If America wanted to forget it, that was America’s problem.

The forgetting was more of an economic downturn, and like all downturns in American markets, an upturn was imminent. Economic upswings have a way of jogging the country’s memory.

The problem that occurs when America remembers a town that was once forgotten is that the shift in tides can drown the little life that barely managed to hold on there in the mean time. Economic downturns are the definition of “mean time” in case you were wondering.

Suddenly the abandoned waterfront and its lovely dilapidated piers and faded marina is prime development material and the people who had been left behind to bear witness to the deterioration are now in the way. The ones left behind to live out their lives on social security, barely scraping by in the simplest manner possible, can no longer afford their property taxes.

Injury is added to insult. And when these brave stragglers lose their homes they have nowhere to go. But they go anyway. And the condos that rise and shine from out of their tattered lives never look back.

Andy and his wife Sara are doing their part to ameliorate this process, to keep the tides of progress at bay, simply because the tides of progress are destructively precocious. Progress is defined by the ones with the fattest wallets, and the dissenters little voices disappear into mean time.

Sara and Andy bought their house at the height of the forgetting. They got it for a song and now they are raising their two kids and two cats in the old house. They host couch surfers for indefinite periods of time. They also host monthly potlucks for their friends and neighbors.

At least some of their neighbors.

Directly next to them is a house in serious disrepair. It is a slum and a stark reminder of the forgotten who remain like jagged shrapnel in a freshly blooming flower bed. The windows of the house that aren’t boarded up have wisps of plastic that flutter in the breeze like ghastly curtains. These neighbors aren’t pleasant, but that may be because of the sex dungeon they operate as a side business. It’s not particularly savory, but who can judge them in the face of mean time?

The house on the other side of them is in a similar state of disrepair but is mercifully abandoned. A mattress molders in a bag on the lawn like a giant rotten pop tart.

Across the street a woman is breeding dogs for the local dog-fighting rings. She also doesn’t attend the potlucks. She also was in the neighborhood before they moved in and decided they had a role to play. She sets her life according to the ticking of mean time.

They know all their neighbors because they pilot frequent neighborhood and community campaigns where they go knocking door-to-door. They are fighting to maintain the diversity of their neighborhood in the face of gentrification. They would rather uplift the downtrodden than allow them to be erased and replaced. They know what the ticking of mean time sounds like.

The neighborhood is developing so quickly that Sara and Andy have bought several of the houses in the block. They want to thwart the developers who have begun to sweep up all the real estate within walking distance of Lake Eerie. They want to keep their neighborhood from being forgotten again. It is one thing to be forgotten in the mean time and another to be forgotten as you are rushed out the back door just as the show is starting.

One of their houses is section eight and their tenants are doing their part by leaving trash in the street and parking on their lawn.

The Mean Time ticks on.

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Story #36 – she disappeared into herself

The building was an old dentist or funeral home. We figured this out because as we were loading in our amps and guitars and drums from the van we passed through an area with tiled floors and an adjacent room with tiled walls which was not nor ever was a bathroom.

This tiled room now had a little couch and some tables with snacks and water for donation and some indie zines that were no doubt rife with anti-establishment propaganda and bad poetry. The cover art was cool though.

The proprietor of tonight’s DIY venue, Ed, was holding the door for us. Ed could easily have been either 20 or 70. He was pale with blonde gray hair parted down the middle that hung well past his shoulders. His vaguely feminine features were augmented by his skeletal frame and long slender fingers flecked with black nail polish.

“Thanks for coming, guys,” he said. “I’m really excited for tonight’s show.” He said this with the amount of excitement in his voice one usually displays when they get the yolk just right in their fried egg.

Just inside the door a young woman was thoroughly engaged in playing a solo piano concerto. She did not stir as we lugged in our gear. Amplifiers and drum guts floated past her like tanker ships in a crowded harbor at night. I thought maybe she had been hired specifically to play music for us as we loaded our gear in–kind of how luminaries are greeted when they visit foreign countries for political purposes. However, small DIY venues in Cincinnati generally lack that sort of pomp even for scrappy indie rock outfits such as ourselves. It turned out she was actually one of the local acts brought on to generate some sort of crowd for us out-of-towners. She also just likes playing piano.

When she was finished with her plangent noodling she joined us in the back room where the performances were to take place and introduced herself as Nancy. She was a mousey girl with eyes like spotlights playing across the room in search of lost souls. Her beanie and large cardigan gave her what seemed an intentional aspect of androgyny. We discussed who was playing when and how to orchestrate a smooth transition between acts. Such are the obligations traveling musicians must concern night after night.

Once our gear was set up we ran a quick sound check. Ed helmed the board and quickly dialed in our levels so that everything would sound right later. It was a good mix, if not a little soft, but we could always turn up later when the room filled up with bouncing bodies.

After the sound check, the band headed out to smoke and I hung back to talk with Nancy.

“We were listening to your records in the car on the way here. I’m excited to see you play tonight.”

“We haven’t played in years,” she said.

“I heard that. Why not?”

Again her eyes drifted across the room.

“I’m really not much of a musician,” she shrugged. “I never really knew what I was doing.”

“I doubt that,” I said with an encouraging smile. I had heard her sing and I knew she was being modest.

She shrugged and said, “I guess I just got tired of forcing it.”

In my mind I puzzled over this. Did she mean forcing the creativity?

“You know?” she continued. “I was just pushing so hard to make everything work. It got exhausting. It started to feel like a chore to keep creating.”

I nodded. I had waged my own battles with the drudgery of creating within the cage of others’ expectations. As if our own weren’t enough.

Still I was somehow welling with idealism. I said, “Yeah, but what else can we do? I mean, just because people develop certain expectations with regard to our work, it doesn’t mean we have to adhere to them. Sometimes the greatest breakthroughs come when we deftly defy the constraints our audience attempts to throw on us.”

“It’s true,” she nodded, swigging from a bottle of Old Crow Whiskey which may have been in her hand since she rolled out of bed that morning. I imagined her briefly struggling to pull her cardigan over the bottle, her sleeve taking the shape as it slithered toward the sleeve opening. “But I never had as much trouble with their expectations so much as my own aspirations…I wanted so badly to make it work that I started to lose sight of the work I needed to do.”

I took a sip of my beer.

“So that’s why you stopped playing?” I asked.

“That was just part of it,” she shrugged. “I’m also not really into crowds.”

This is a funny thing with musicians that I had encountered fairly often. I nodded.

“I’m the same way. It’s a personality type thing. There are some folks who only have so much energy to spend on other people. We can be on stage and have this amazing experience with our bandmates, this conversation that the crowd gets to be in the room to listen to. And when that conversation is over, there are a bunch of people in the room who desperately want you to know that they understood exactly what you were talking about, that they felt what you felt. They experienced the intimacy and vulnerability we share with our bandmates, and they feel a certain entitlement.”

She nodded slowly, acknowledgingly.

“Right?” I continued, hoping I wasn’t waxing myself into a philosophical mud pit. “And because they saw us onstage, they think we felt that same connection to them as well, and they need us to affirm that moment.”

“I can’t talk to people after a show,” she said, again swigging her whiskey. “I leave that to my drummer, Carl. He’s much better with people than I am. Especially after a show, I just don’t have anything else to give.”

“Yeah!” I agreed. “No one gets that.”

“I just have to go somewhere quiet and pick apart everything that just happened, accept all my mistakes, pick up all the pieces of myself I just threw up into the air and, I guess, just pull myself back together.” She sighed. “That’s kind of why I had to stop. I got tired of ripping myself open and then finding so much fault in my performance every time I started reassembling the pieces.”

“We’re always our own harshest critics.”

“I don’t know. I never understood how we got as far as we did. I often felt like a fraud.”

I smiled reassuringly and said, “but you kept going!”

“Until I stopped!”

“But here you are tonight! You’re still doing it!”

“Well,” she sighed again, “for tonight at least.”

I stared at her in that dim and empty room, in a building that may have been a mortuary once, surrounded by instruments that defied their own purpose in their quietude. I thought about all the brilliant artists I had met in my life and travels who had succumbed to their own self-doubt, who had ducked out of the spotlight because they felt like they could never live up to their own expectations, much less the responsibility of creating anything worth of their audiences’ attention and time. The greatest artists I had ever met were all crippled by their own humility.

“You know,” I ventured. “You’re very humble. I’ve heard your music and you have not only a talent for melody and lyrics, but also an engaging and haunting voice that conveys even more than you can probably imagine.”

She blushed and I continued, “I think that humility is a huge asset to creating honest art. There are so many artists who come off so confident and self-assured, but I think that their art suffers for it. Confidence leads to solipsism which leads to elitism. If an artist thinks they know something that their audience doesn’t then they aren’t having a conversation anymore–they’re giving a lecture. As musicians, we know that any person in a band who stops listening to the other members immediately weakens the art as a whole. Good art is always a dialogue!”

“That’s right!” She said, smiling.

“I think as long as we can embrace our imperfections and continue to keep putting ourselves out there, then we are doing our jobs as artists. We can strive to be better, but we should never let our vanity overcome our curiosity.”

She nodded and spoke slowly, as if unwrapping a delicate artifact, “It is our ability to reach into our fears and poke and prod around in the darkness that gives us strength.”

“Yeah!” I concurred.

“And it’s fucking exhausting!” She laughed, raising her bottle in a toast which I readily indulged.

It was exhausting. There was no doubt.

Creating honest art is an incredibly self-conscious process. It takes a level of honesty that is almost inhuman. That’s what distinguishes the greatest artists. Their honesty humanizes all of us. We watch them and listen to them and absorb what they give to us and it is that honesty which makes us feel so connected to them, like they’re family or lovers.

Later that night, Nancy started her set with an excited smile. The room was half full, but the crowd was taut with anticipation for her performance. She strummed her guitar and turned from us and leaned in to her drummer as their voices wove into beautiful harmonies. She must have drank a little too much Old Crow, however. She made a few little mistakes, missed notes on her guitar, melodies that wavered a little too far from the chord progression, and rather than letting them go, she let them crawl under her skin. She started making excuses and apologizing to a crowd that was more than happy to just let her keep playing, reaching into her darkness before our eyes and showing us her courage.

But she stopped. We cheered her on and encouraged her to keep going, but she shut us out.

Her apologies were aimed at herself for not living up to her own expectations of her performance that night. I tried to catch her eye, to show her that I knew what she was feeling, that it was okay, and that we were with her, that we would love her imperfections if only she would love them too, but she wouldn’t meet my gaze.

They attempted one more song, slow and beautiful and sad. It drifted over us and through us in waves and as she sang, she got smaller and farther away.

The next thing we knew her drummer was singing a song by himself as she slunk off into a dark corner and the arms of a close friend, a safe place where she could try to sift through the shards of herself that no longer made sense.

And as the drummer sang a song that no one wanted to hear, in that dark corner Nancy slowly disappeared into herself.

She left shortly thereafter and the room cleared out again and I stared at the empty whiskey bottle still glistening in the spotlight.

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Story #35 never happened

There were a couple false starts, my eyes bleary near midnight, my girlfriend and dog competing in the snoralympics and taking up most of the bed. I dug into my past and present and the memories sifted through my fingers like tired sand. I spat in my palms and rubbed them together and my thoughts could still hold no shape.

I wrote about electric bikes in Myanmar, temples constructed from ash and dreams, but the little goblin who trotted up the temple my girlfriend and I sat upon had nothing to say. The sun rose over the thousand temples and bathed our dusty faces is orange light. An immense silence filled us up with something beyond our feeble grasp of time and love and happinesssorrowangerfutilitypride and most importantly permanence.

The Goblin had nothing to say to us and so I had no story to tell.

The other version of story 35 was a measure of my own arrogance. I took a deep breath and jumped into a malformed world. I swam as deep as I could, grasping into the darkness for some thread that would reveal the sunken beast, the sleeping mountain of wet fur and furtive grumbling. I caught nothing. The pieces were well-intentioned and grandiose in ambition but they were too far apart with edges to serrated to weave together.

In the space between sleep and wake, when dreams blink their way into smudges of reality, I often hover my fingers over the keyboard. My hands hang there like spiders that have forgotten how to dance. My head turns into a watermelon and rolls down my chest and onto the floor into a patch of other watermelons tangled in vines and grass. My skin turns translucent and crinkles away and my organs fly off into the night like butterflies.

And in some alternate dimension my own snores join the chorus filling the darkened bedroom.

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Story #34 – The Huff and Shuff

I could have died just then.

I was walking down the stairs to the subway, the poltergeist wisps of my work day still clinging to shoulders, and I might have tripped.  In front of me, an overweight child was being guided down the stairs by his overweight mother at an intolerably oafish pace.  He hung lazily from her arm like a plump little marionette and might as well have been deaf to her restrained goading.  Commuters wearing designer scowls were negligently careening around this descending puppet show the way a river pushes around large obstinate boulders.  There was no train in the station and no distant rumble to indicate any imminent arrival, and yet people were hurrying to the platform as if their arrival there would induce a train to share their enthusiasm.  I suppose I am also guilty of this.

It was only Thursday and I was already thoroughly exhausted.  The bull pen that I work in is shared with several drones who function on a lower level of consciousness.  Content to pass the day loudly jabbering and recounting the same lowbrow stories and arguments over and again, their raucous patter comprises the majority of my daily atmosphere.  Even with my headphones on I cannot escape them.  The loudest, dumbest, and, unfortunately, most attention-starved of them, their witless leader, Mack, regularly paws at me to confirm that I had heard his latest inane observations, his charcoal laugh cuts through my Spotify playlist and prevents me from ever zoning out enough to sufficiently forget my work day.  It’s like when you try to take a nap and your wife decides to clatter the dishes into the cupboard or your neighbor decides to start shooting hoops under your window.

But the job pays very well, and my workload is fairly manageable, so I cannot bring myself to quit until I have paid off a sufficient enough chunk of my student loan debt.  So I work in a monkey house.  Soon enough I will be flinging my own excrement about, but for now I am merely tortured by the overwhelming aroma of theirs.

It was this dismal existence which I was attempting to shuff off as I scuttled down the stairs, around the huffing mother and her bloated toddler, and into the thick mass of zombie tourists and somber yuppies.

It is a habit of mine to scan their faces as I brush past them.  I examine the sharp pinches of their cheek bones, the curvature of their jawlines, the symmetry of their eyes, and I imagine what their skulls would look like underneath their skin.  All the worry lines, crows feet, dimples, scars, dark circles under their eyes, chapped lips, and furrowed brows removed, stripped down to the delicate gray bone.  There is something to be said for the simple elegance of the human skull.

Ironically, this morbid practice, I believe, plays an integral part in maintaining my sanity.  One of my quirks, I guess.

However, on this day in particular, I hadn’t even made it to this part or the routine.  I was lingering behind that hulk of a mother and I was thinking about what a chore it must be to navigate one’s child through the rush-hour swarm, what a chore it must be to raise the little fuckers in general, and the countless sacrifices that must inevitably be made, and the potential repercussions of maintaining any shred of selfishness when it comes to their upbringing… Essentially, I was pondering potential safeguards against having a fat kid.

When I finally reached the subway platform, I had one of those moments where you realize that for the last five minutes of so you’ve been so absorbed in your reveries, that you’ve also been completely oblivious to the real living breathing rushing pushing huffing world around you.  My physical body was operating on auto-pilot while my brain overtook and precluded all conscious thought and perception.  I descended most of a staircase in rush hour traffic and was not even really been in my body.

I realized that I could easily have fallen down the stairs.  I wasn’t paying attention.  There was a constant jostling of impatient and rude people pushing past me as well as kicking at my heels.  I could have mis-stepped and tumbled forward onto the diabetic duo sweeping them up with me into a fatal avalanche of flesh and flailing limbs.  I could have died and accidentally taken them with me.

I’m not even so sure it didn’t happen.

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I wonder how long it will take my soul to realize that it is living out a fading dream.

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